While the war wreaks havoc on occupied coastal towns, and western settlements engage in their own brutal war between neighbors, a few places remain virtually untouched by the cataclysm. One island of peace and plenty in the storm is Poplar Grove, in Scotts Hill, 15 miles northeast of Wilmington on the coastal plank road linking the city to Topsail Sound.
There, on a small rise shaded by towering white poplars and live oaks, Joseph Mumford Foy builds a manor house on 2,025 acres of land. He inherited the land — lush with longleaf pine woods, pocosins, and salt marsh — from his father. Originally it had been owned by the widow of Cornelius Harnett, the revolutionary firebrand called the “Sam Adams of the South,” who conferred the name “Poplar Grove” on the plantation.
When the original house burns, Foy designs a new one, grander, almost 4,300 square feet. He personally supervises construction between 1849 and 1853. The house remains a consistent sanctuary through the war, even as its residents perish.
Foy is a sturdy, thick-browed, handsome man with a prominent widow’s peak. He is ambitious and energetic, a hard worker who doesn’t shy from physical labor. He is also a staunch Unionist, outspoken against the talk of secession.
In October 1860, he writes to his eldest son, David Hiram: “… should political demagogues succeed in severing the bonds of this glorious union it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to prevent such an event and restore peace and harmony once more.”
He sees a grave crisis coming — fomented by avowed Secessionists such as John D. Bellamy and other planters in the Cape Fear region — and fears the consequences. He continues, “. . . The question is should Lincoln be elected, (which I fear will be the case) will the South secede, and how shall it be prevented? My motto is Union Forever.”
On his views about slavery, the very issue dividing the Union, he keeps his own counsel. He is reputed to be liberal in his treatment of his slaves, by the standards of the region, allowing them to hire out for wages which they themselves keep. The slaves are known by first names only, including Winslow, Izaz, Bill, Sam, Isaac, Peter, Bob, and Abel. During one rough patch, when his hold on Poplar Grove is threatened by falling markets, Foy borrows money from his slaves to remain solvent. He later pays it back.
He buys many slaves but never sells a single person.
Widowed, and a landowner
The Foy manor house contains 12 rooms, each with its own brick fireplace and painted mantel of pine and poplar woods. Because he is an amateur, he builds his mistakes into the house. Chandeliers are off-center with fireplaces, the brick columns supporting the rear porches look strangely delicate for such a robust Greek Revival-style facade, and the place exudes a slightly unbalanced, asymmetrical, yet charming feel.
The artisans who work on the place include his own slaves and those from some of the 11 other family plantations in Scotts Hill, hired out for their expertise as stone-cutters, brickmasons, plasterers, and finish carpenters. His neighbors include Shepherds, Kings, and Sidburys.
The main staircase is constructed of black walnut, which also panels some of the walls. The floors are heart pine, dense with resin that repels insects. A full raised basement features eight-foot ceilings, and on the first and second floors, the rooms are 12 and 10 feet high, respectively, with numerous high sash windows. Broad, airy balconies on the rear look out over the three-chimney detached kitchen and cook’s house; the woodshed; the mule barn and horse stables; the wash house; the “necessary”; the sawmill and gristmill; the turpentine distillery and blacksmith shop; the wine press; the sheep and hog pens and chicken coops; and rolling acres of corn, sweet potatoes, grapes, and melons.
And most of all, “ground peas” — peanuts — the golden cash crop of Poplar Grove.
Far enough from the manor house for mutual privacy, out beyond all the outbuildings, stands a row of 12 rude board-and-batten cabins that house the slaves.
In 1850, the U.S. Census enumerates the 32 Foy slaves: half of them under the age of 16, 10 men of working age, the other six either female or too old to work. By 1860, 59 slaves work the plantation. Many toil in the fields, tend and slaughter the hogs, work as blacksmiths to make tools and iron fittings, drive teams of mules hauling the produce to town in heavy slab-sided wagons. Before the plank road was built, they hauled peanuts, sweet potatoes, and melons to the sound and stowed them aboard barges and small schooners for the trip to the market in Wilmington, where the fruits of their fields would be shipped far and wide. Some live in the manor house and attend to Foy’s wife, Mary Ann Simmons Foy, and their six children: David Hiram, Henrietta, Joseph T., James William, Henry Simmons, and Francis Marion.
After her last childbirth, Mary Ann is paralyzed, likely by polio, for which there is no treatment. Then in April 1861, her husband dies suddenly, leaving her a widowed invalid with only one grown son to help her run the plantation.
Bound to land, for life
In his will, Foy declares his intention that his wife should not sell any slave unless he or she becomes “unmanageable.” He offers no more direction than that, no hint of why he desires that they should all be kept together at Poplar Grove. But he is an avowed Unionist, and for years to come, some will speculate that what he really desired in death was to free them all.
But even had he wanted to free his slaves through his last will and testament, his decision likely would have been invalidated by a probate court.
In many Southern states, after the American Revolution, legislators eased their restrictions on manumission — the legal term for the process of freeing a slave — by the deceased owner’s will. Not so in North Carolina. A succession of North Carolina laws have made it nearly impossible for an owner to free slaves under almost any circumstances.
The state’s position is that free blacks are a menace to a community.
By 1826, free blacks are forbidden entry into North Carolina under penalty of a $500 fine or worse. In the decades following, the North Carolina Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin and others, invalidates many cases of manumission by last will and testament. They even make it legally difficult for Quakers and others to buy slaves with the intention of freeing them, though some find clever ways around the laws.
In 1829, David Walker, a free black native of Wilmington who fled north to Massachusetts, issues his notorious “Appeal,” urging blacks to rise up against slavery because “America is more our country than it is the whites — we have enriched it with our blood and tears.”
Within months, the North Carolina General Assembly passes the most draconian anti-manumission law to date. It stipulates that a slave can be freed only for documented “meritorious service,” which is deemed to be so unusual that it can never apply to more than one slave at a time. Furthermore, the applicant must apply for a license at a State Superior Court, then advertise — for a minimum of six weeks in the State Gazette — his or her intention to free the slave.
For each slave freed, the owner must submit a bond of $1,000.
Finally, the slave must be at least 50 years old and must leave the state within 90 days of manumission, never to return — or be auctioned by the state to the highest bidder, back into slavery.
This last provision makes freedom a bittersweet achievement, for the slave must leave his or her home, friends, and any family still enslaved, then start over in a new place — without money or means — at an age when many are all but broken by a lifetime of hard labor.
So upon his death, Joseph M. Foy’s slaves remain slaves.
Safe at home
Mary Ann, unable to run Poplar Grove alone, takes her young children to live with relatives in Sampson, leaving her eldest son, David Hiram, in charge. In a photograph taken around this time, David Hiram wears a mournful expression, his eyes downcast, his face sagging with apparent grief. Almost as soon as secession is declared, David Hiram hires an overseer and leaves Poplar Grove. He enlists in Company A, 41st North Carolina Troops. But he does not survive long enough to see combat — he succumbs to typhus in 1862 at the age of 21.
So, at just 17 years old, Joseph T. Foy takes over management of Poplar Grove.
Across the plank road, Confederate infantry encamp to guard the saltworks along the sound. Only a few miles north, the Topsail Battery remains vigilant against attempts by the blockading U.S. Navy to raid the saltworks, so crucial to the preservation of pork and beef for the troops. It even repulses a foray by Lt. William B. Cushing, the storied daredevil of the fleet, who will later sink the ironclad CSS Albemarle in a suicidal nighttime raid at Plymouth on the Roanoke River. Just offshore, two blockade runners are sunk by Yankee gunboats.
But except for the death of the eldest Foy brother far from home, the war does not touch Poplar Grove. The place remains charmed. It is as if all the grief came at the beginning of the storm, with the death first of 44-year-old Foy and then of his eldest son. For the duration of the war, the plantation remains self-sufficient, able to feed and clothe its own, able to build what it needs, isolated from the violence of cannons and muskets.
While the rest of the state suffers worsening food shortages, even starvation, food remains plentiful on the plantation. Indeed, Poplar Grove becomes a strategic asset to the war efforts, supplying thousands of pounds of pork to Confederate troops in the field by way of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.
Mary Ann’s one anxiety is that the war will claim her next-eldest son, Joseph T., who has proven so adept at managing the large livestock-and-farming operation.
In a canny, politically astute letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on October 13, 1864, she urges him to exempt Joseph T. from conscription into the Army by reason of his value in managing Poplar Grove — and in so doing, feeding the beleaguered Confederate troops: “In the kindness of your heart to widow and orphan Please send me an exemption for Joseph T. Foy. . . . There is no way for me to carry on a farm without him . . . I will work hard (or have it done) to help support the Government if you will share this son to my help. . . . Please don’t overlook my place for it is my love for my Country and the support of myself and little children that I presume to write to you.”
Davis, who this late in the war is no longer exempting even university students, is persuaded by her cool logic and charm, and grants her wish. Joseph T. remains safe at Poplar Grove for the duration of the war.
At war’s end, Sherman’s final march misses Scotts Hill by many miles. Only a few mules and horses are commandeered by the occupying United States Army in Wilmington. In a miracle of luck and location, Poplar Grove has come through the cataclysm of war unscathed. Mary Ann signs a loyalty oath in June 1865, and the land and manor house remain solidly in the possession of her family.
Only the slaves no longer belong to them — if they ever really did. All but one remain at Poplar Grove, now free by law to work the land that has become their home.
The author is grateful to Caroline Lewis, Executive Director of Polar Grove Plantation, and Kimberly Sherman, Consulting Historian at the site, for interviews, a site tour, photographs, and original documents relating to the plantation, the Foy family, their slaves, and the Civil War — including Joseph Mumford Foy’s diary for 1857 and letters written by him and his wife, Mary Ann Simmons Foy. Additional sources include Mattie Bloodworth, History of Pender County, North Carolina (The Dietz Printing Company, 1947); John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860 (University of North Carolina, 1943) and “Slaves Virtually Free in Ante-Bellum North Carolina” (The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 28, No. 3, July 1943); Columbia University American History Online.
10200 U.S. Highway 17 North
Wilmington, N.C. 28411
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Learn about Civil War-era burial and mourning practices at Poplar Grove during the Halloween Festival’s Haunted Manor, October 11-13 and 18-20.
This story originally appeared under the headline, “A Merciful Reprieve.”
Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series