Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Hanging of Amy Spain

While reading the history of my home town, Darlington, South Carolina, I came upon a section of letters regarding the hanging of Amy Spain, a 17 year old slave, in March of 1865. It is a truely remarkable story about which I want to compile as much documentation as possible, perhaps for a small volume along the lines of Herculine Barbin. Of course, the difference being that Amy Spain never got to speak or write her side of the story. All that remains are the accounts of others. The hanging was important enough to appear in Harpers Weekly of Sept.30, 1865, parts of the account then being disputed in the pages of Darlington's New Era newspaper. Amy Spain was owned by a prominent local lawyer and hero of the invasion of Mexico, Major A.C. Spain, who acted as her counsel at her trial before a rebel military commission. Amy Spain was entrusted with the care of the Major's two daughters, and he wrote that: "Amy's temper was hot, hasty, and ungovernable, yet to me, as her master, she was always dutiful up to the unfortunate time when she exhibited traits of character, adopted a line of conduct, used expressions, and committed acts which contributed to the violent termination of her existence at the early age of seventeen."
A.C. Spain had been called up in the final days of the war and, he said, left the care of his plantation in the hands of his "aged" father. Upon the appearance in town of a scouting party of Sherman's forces (I have almost narrowed down and after a bit more research think that I can identify which Union and Rebel units were in the area at the time), Amy Spain and many others thought that liberation had come. Unfortunately, from what I have read in the Union records, the main body of Federal troops remained outside the town because of flooded river crossings and so only dispatched a small detail to scout and retrieve supplies. The troops then returned and continued on into Florence (the site of a large prisoner of war camp which they were no doubt anxious to liberate) and to pursue retreating forces. Amy Spain had in the mean time declare that she was free and promptly took possession of many of the household goods of the Major, taking them to her own home and declaring that the fruits of slavery now belonged to the freed slaves. Unknown to her, Confederate troops had returned to the town and to help establish "order," arrested her for her "crime." The Harper's writer describes what happened next, though this is disputed by some.
Hanging of Amy Spain
Harper's Weekly
September 30, 1865, page 613

One of the martyrs of the cause which gave freedom to her race was that of a colored woman named Amy Spain, who was a resident of the town of Darlington, situated in a rich cotton-growing district of South Carolina. At the time a portion of the Union army occupied the town of Darlington she expressed her satisfaction by clasping her hands and exclaiming, "Bless the Lord the Yankees have come!" She could not restrain her emotions. The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom. Amy Spain died in the cause of freedom. A section of Sherman's cavalry occupied the town, and without doing any damage passed through. Not an insult nor an unkind word was said to any of the women of that town. The men had, with guilty consciences, fled; but on their return, with their traditional chivalry, they seized upon poor Army, and ignominiously hung her to a sycamore-tree standing in front of the court-house, underneath which stood the block from which was monthly exhibited the slave chattels that were struck down by the auctioneer's hammer to the highest bidder.

Amy Spain heroically heard her sentence, and from her prison bars declared she was prepared to die. She defied her persecutors; and as she ascended the scaffold declared she was going to a place where she would receive a crown of glory. She was rudely interrupted by an oath from one of her executioners. To the eternal disgrace of Darlington her execution was acquiesced in and witnessed by most of the citizens of the town. Amy was launched into eternity, and the "chivalric Southern gentlemen" of Darlington had fully established their bravery by making war upon a defenseless African woman. She sleeps quietly, with others of her race, near the beautiful village. No memorial marks her grave, but after-ages will remember this martyr of liberty. Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain's name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.

The historical truth is, of course, impossible to establish, but I think the story should be better preserved.
According to all accounts, Amy Spain was executed and then buried wearing the clothes of Spain's daughters.