- Rose’s War and the Gendered Politics of a Slave Insurgency in the Civil War
One window … was opened Heavenwards … for three million slaves, across the blackness of a civil war.—Eliza Woolsey
The conduct of our scouts should be no child’s play.—Henry William Ravenel
We have two kinds of enemies to contend with our negro outlaws & the Yankees.—Georgianna DeVeaux Porcher
“I suppose before this you have heard that the scouts had been to P.V. [Pineville] killed 27 of the armed negroes and shot Rose so I need say nothing more about that.”1 Indeed, Anne Gaillard said nothing more about Rose in this letter to her daughter. She wrote at length, however, as she had in a previous letter, about the lingering effects of the slave insurgency that had precipitated the battle between the scouts and the “armed negroes” on March 26, 1865. Rose, she dismissed summarily. She was “shot.” Enough said. References to Rose in the historical record tend, like Gaillard’s, to be brief, matter-of-fact. From the distance of a historian’s sight, it might simply appear that the very idea of a slave-woman rebel was simply too much to bear for the white people who wrote about Rose. But the crisp, economical language slaveholders used to talk about her measured something different entirely. If the rebel Rose was too much to bear, it was not because she was black, female, and enslaved. To lowcountry South Carolina slaveholders, the idea that Rose was connected to and, some thought, the leader of the “armed negroes” appeared neither surprising nor unexpected. To slaveholders and the scouts who executed her, Rose was a rebel, an outlaw who had no more rights than black Union soldiers.2
This article explores these apparent paradoxes and their import for understanding the process of emancipation as it unfolded unevenly on the ground in a particular place, at a particular moment. The slave insurgency centered in Pineville articulated familiar and unfamiliar connections. It illuminated the ways gendered practices and customs informed a wartime slave insurgency. Rose’s story is both extraordinary and unexceptional as it relates to gender, relevant and irrelevant to it.
To the struggle for freedom, enslaved women brought knowledge and organizational skills and strengths informed by gender and their unique [End Page 501] access to the planters’ world. From slaveholders’ perspective, these traits made them ideal candidates to lead a rebellion. If it was ironic that a slave uprising would emerge in a place like Pineville, a citadel of the power and wealth of South Carolina’s slaveholding aristocracy, this village was also among the likeliest of places for an insurgency to take hold. Located in a belt of land planter Samuel DuBose called “the garden spot of South Carolina” and boasting sixty homes, it was conceived as a resort for the planter class elite of St. Stephen’s and Upper St. John’s parishes. The Sinkler, Palmer, Gaillard, Cordes, Porcher, Dubose, Cain, Bonneau, and Ravenel families, among others, built summer homes here close by their rice and sugar plantations.3 The lives of the enslaved were no less harsh here than elsewhere, but the closely meshed social and economic lives of planters in St. Stephen’s Parish opened up spaces for the enslaved—women no less than men—to accumulate valuable knowledge of their owners and the wider world of lowcountry slave society. The Pineville uprising, Rose’s War, put that knowledge on vivid display. The response of slaveholders who had no trouble believing Rose was an insurgent, a partisan, and an outlaw confirmed its significance. Rose and the “armed negroes” were by definition insurgents in rebellion against the Confederacy but unrecognized by the government on whose side they fought as belligerents. Yet, Rose’s War was part of the larger war that destroyed slavery and preserved the Union. The battle at Pineville was more than a minor incident in the waning days of the Civil War. Rather, it captured some fundamental truths about the Union war against slavery, the slaves’ war, and the process of emancipation and the spaces in which it unfolded. It spoke to the long history of...