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Sarah Reeve Gibbes

 

No better picture of the distress and, indeed, the cataclysm that the later campaigns of the Revolution brought into southern life can be offered than the story of the experiences of Sarah Reeve Gibbes. She was married when about eighteen to Robert Gibbes, a man considerably older than herself, but who possessed wealth and was in every case one of those gentlemen of the old school of whom South Carolina has justly made her boast He had a house in Charleston, which had been the girlhood home of Miss Sarah Reeve, but they both preferred to spend most of the year at his country seat and plantation on John's Island, about two hours sail from the city. This was a splendid place, the various clusters of buildings resembling a settlement rather than one estate, while the beautifully laid-out grounds and shaded walks gave a most inviting aspect, and earned for its large, square, ancient-looking stone mansion the name of "Peaceful Retreat." Here the young wife devoted herself with earnestness to the duties before her. The children that came to them were many and strong, but before they were fully grown she assumed the care of seven orphan children of the sister of Mr. Gibbes, who at her death had left them and their estate to his guardianship. Two other children were before long added to her charge. Then she saw her husband gradually become a chair-ridden invalid with gout, and the management of the estate, with the writing on business it required, devolved absolutely upon Mrs. Gibbes. The multiplied cares involved in meeting all these responsibilities, together with the superintendence of household concerns, required a rare degree of energy and activity, yet the mistress of this well-ordered establishment dispensed the hospitality of "Peaceful Retreat" with such grace that it became famous. Unable by reason of his affliction to take active part in the war, the feelings of Robert Gibbes were nevertheless warmly enlisted on the Republican side and their house was ever open for the reception and entertainment of the friends of liberty. It was doubt-less the fame of the luxurious living at this delightful country-scat which attracted the attention of the British during the invasion of Prevost, while the Royal army kept possession of the seaboard about Charleston. A battalion of British and Hessians determining to quarter themselves in so desirable a spot,' arrived at the landing at the dead of night, and marching up in silence, surrounded the house.

The day had not begun to dawn when an aged and faithful servant tapped softly at the door of "Miss Gibbes' " apartment The whisper "Mistress" the redcoats are all around the house' was the first intimation of their danger. "Tell no one, Caesar, but keep all quiet' she replied promptly, and her preparations for receiving the intruders were instantly begun. Having dressed herself quickly she went upstairs, waked several women guests and requested them to dress with all haste. In the meantime the domestics had waked the children, of whom with her own and those under her care, there were sixteen, the eldest being only fifteen years old. Mrs. Gibbes then assisted her husband as was her custom, to rise and dress and had him placed in his rolling chair. All these arrangements were made without the least confusion and so silently that the British had no idea any one was yet awake within the house. The object of all this preparation, by the clever woman, was to prevent violence on the enemy's part, by showing them at once that the mansion was inhabited only by those who were unable to defend themselves. The impressive manner in which Mrs. Gibbes drew the curtain on her pathetic drama produced its effect even on the hardened soldiers. The invaders had no knowledge that the inmates were aware of their presence till daylight, when the heavy rolling of Mr. Gibbes' invalid chair across the great hall toward the front door was heard. Supposing the sound to be the rolling of a cannon, the soldiers advanced and stood prepared, with pointed bayonets to rush in when the signal for assault should be given.

As the door was thrown open and the stately, though helpless form of the invalid was presented, surrounded by women and children, they drew back and, startled into an involuntary expression of respect, presented arms. Mr. Gibbes addressed them, and for a moment the pathos of his words seemed to halt the intended invasion. The British officers, however, soon took possession of the house, leaving the premises to their men, and making no proviso against pillage; so the soldiers roved over the place at their pleasure, helping themselves to what-ever they chose, breaking into the wine room, drinking to intoxication and seizing upon and carrying off the Negroes.

Within the mansion, the energy and self-possession of Mrs. Gibbes still protected her family. The appearance of fear or confusion might have tempted the invaders to incivility; but it was impossible for them to treat otherwise than with deference a lady whose calm, quiet deportment commanded their highest respect Maintaining her place as mistress of the household and presiding at her table, she treated her uninvited guests with a dignified courtesy that insured civility while it prevented presumptuous familiarity. The boldest and rudest among them bowed willingly to an influence which fear or force could neither have secured.

When the news of the occupation of the Gibbes Plantation, no longer, alas! in reality "Peaceful Retreat" by the British reached Charleston, the authorities dispatched two galleys to dislodge them. The men were given strict instructions not to fire on the house for fear of injury to any of the helpless family, but it could not be known to Mrs. Gibbes that such a caution was to be taken, and as soon as the Americans began to fire, she decided that she must seek a place of safety for her family. The horses being in the enemy's hands, they had no means of conveyance, but Mrs. Gibbes, undaunted and desperate, to secure shelter for her helpless charges, set off to walk with the children and her husband, the latter pushed in his chair by a faithful servant, to an adjoining plantation. A drizzling rain was falling, and the weather was extremely chilly; moreover the firing from the boats was incessant and in a direction which was in range with the course of the fugitives. The shot falling around them cut the bushes and struck trees on every side. Exposed each moment to this imminent danger, they continued their flight with as much haste as possible for about a mile when they were at least beyond reach of the shot

Having reached the house occupied by the Negro laborers on the plantation, they stopped for a few moments to rest, and Mrs. Gibbes, wet, chilled, and exhausted by fatigue and mental anxiety, felt her strength utterly fail and she was obliged to wrap herself in a blanket and lie down upon one of the beds. Then, just when the fleeing party first drew breathe freely, thankful that the fears of death were over, it was discovered, on reviewing the trembling group that a little boy, John Fenwick, was missing. In the hurry and the terror of the flight, the child had been forgotten and left behind. Mrs. Gibbes not being equal to further effort she was obliged to see her little daughter, only thirteen years of age, set out upon the fearful peril of a return journey to the house. The girl reached the house still in possession of the enemy and persuaded the sentinel to allow her to enter. She found the child in a room in the third story, and lifting him joyfully in her arms, carried him down and fled with him to the spot where her anxious parents were awaiting her return. The shot flew thickly around her, frequently throwing of the earth in her way, but with something of her mother's intrepidity, she had pushed through in safety.

Sometime after these occurrences, when the family were again inmates of their own home, a battle was fought in a neighboring field. When the struggle was over, Mrs. Gibbes sent her servants to search among the slain for her nephew who had not returned. They identified him by his clothes, his face being so covered with wounds that he could never have been recognized. Life was, however, not extinct, and under the unremitting care of his aunt, he eventually recovered.

In after years, Mrs. Gibbes was accustomed to point out the spot where her eldest son when only sixteen years old had been placed as a sentinel, while British ships were in the river and their fire was poured on him. She would relate how, with a mother's agony of solicitude, she watched the balls as they struck the earth around him, while the youthful soldier maintained his dangerous post not-with-standing the entreaties of an old Negro servant who hid behind a tree.

So, we, who enjoy the liberty and peace purchased at such fearful cost, can-not fully estimate the sacrifice of the heroines of the Revolutionary War. Sarah Reeve Gibbs exhibited always the same composure and the readiness to meet every emergency with the same benevolent sympathy for all unfortunates.

Mrs. Gibbes had a cultivated mind, and in spite of her many cares, still found leisure for literary occupation. Volumes of her writings remain, filled with well-selected extracts from the many books she read and accompanied by her own comments; also essays on various subjects, poetry, and copies of letters to her friends. Most of her letters were written after the war, and beside expressing the tenderest sensibility and refinement, throw interesting light on the pitiable condition of the southern sections at that time.

During the latter part of her life she resided at "Wilton," the country seat of a friend, "Peaceful Retreat" having become uninhabitable. At "Wilton" she died in 1825, at the age of seventy-nine. Her remains, however, were laid to rest in the family burial ground upon John's Island, the scene of her trials during the days of bloodshed and ruthlessness in the Revolutionary War.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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