About the Author

Kirt von Daacke is Associate Professor and Department Chair of History at Lynchburg College.

Denmark Vesey

Letter to Charleston Courier (1822)


Not all Charlestonians succumbed to the panic ensuing from the court-driven slave insurrection scare there in 1822. This article caused quite a controversy in the white community.

The following anecdote may be relied on as a simple narrative of facts, which actually occurred within the recollection of thousands. In the year 1810-1811, Mr. Blount being Governor of North Carolina, Mr. Milledge of Georgia, and Mr. Drayton of South Carolina, the two latter states were thrown into great alarm by a letter transmitted from Gov. Blount to Gov. Milledge, and by the latter despatched by express to Gov. Drayton. The militia of the two states, in the counties adjacent to Augusta, were ordered to be held in readiness for action, en masse, and Guards and Patrols to scour the country. The sufferings of the inhabitants, particularly the females, from apprehensions painfully excited, induced a gentleman of this city, then a resident near Augusta, to call on the Governor, then residing near that place, and request a sight of the letter. At the first glance of the eye he pronounced it a hoax: for it bore date on the 1st April. And he had been picked up in one of the country towns in North Carolina, where it had in fact been dropped by some thoughtless schoolboys. On the face of it also it bore such evidence of its origin, as must have stuck any observer whose vision was not distorted by alarm. For it was dated Augusta, signed "Your loving brother Captain Jack," and purported to be directed to an associate in Lewisville, North Carolina. But it was in vain that these suggestions were made. The Governor of Georgia could not brook the mortifying discovery of his having been duped, and the whole country, on the designated night was kept in agitated motion.

Happy had it terminated in nothing more than the suffering and disturbance communicated to the people of both states, and the useless expenditure of some thousands of public money. But another hoax gave it a most tragical termination.

The trumpeter of the Augusta Cavalry resided in the opposite district of Edgefield, and orders had been issued to him to attend the company that night. By some accident those orders did not reach him in time to make Augusta that evening, and he halted at Moore's mills, on Chever's creek, in South Carolina. Here he and a companion were shown into a garret, where they were amusing themselves over their pint of whiskey, when the continual passing and repassing of the mounted militia drew their attention; and the half intoxicated bugle-man resolved to try the effect of a blast of his music upon the fears of a party just gone by. The effect was electrical; it was deemed the expected signal; the detachments gallopped off in all directions in quest of the offender, and towards morning returned with a single poor half-witted negro, who had been taken crossing a field on his way home, without instrument of war or of music. But none else could be found, and he alone could have given the significant blast, which so many had heard. It was in vain that he denied it: he was first whipped severely to extort a confession, and then, with his eyes bound, commanded to prepare for instant death from a sabre, which a horseman was in the act of sharpening beside him.

He now recollected that a man named Billy, belonging to Capt. Key, had one of those long tubes which boatmen use on our rivers, and declared that had sounded the horn, and done it at the command of Capt. Key's men; but still denied all sort of combination, and affirmed the innocence of the act.

An armed force was immediately detached to the house of Billy, and there found him quietly sleeping in the midst of a large family, in a degree of comfort very unusual for a slave—for Billy was a blacksmith, a fellow of uncommon worth, and indulged in such privileges by his master as his fidelity justly merited.

But in one corner of his house, exposed to the view of every one, was found the terrific horn, and he was hurried away to be tried for his life. The Court of Magistrates and Freeholders was selected from men of the first respectability in the neighborhood; and yet it is a fact, although no evidence was given whatever as to a motive for sounding the horn, and the horn was actually found covered and even filled with cobwebs, they condemned that man to die the next day!—and, what will scarcely be believed, they actually received evidence of his having been once charged with stealing a pig, to substantiate the charge upon which he then stood on trial. Respectable bystanders have declared, that his guilt or innocence as to the pig soon took the lead of every other question on the trial.—The owner, one of the worthiest men in the country, thunderstruck at the sentence, entreated a more deliberated hearing; but not being listened to, hastened away to his friends, and among them a judicial character in the neighborhood, to unite their entreaties with his. They promptly attended to his solicitations, procured a meeting of the court, and earnestly pressed the injustice and precipitation of the sentence, and their right to time to solicit a pardon, but in vain. The presiding magistrate actually conceived his dignity attacked, and threatened impeachment against the judge who, as an individual, had interfered only to prevent a legal murder; and interferred upon the witness, retracting all he had testified to.

Billy was hung amongst crowds of execrating spectators;—and such appeared to be the popular demand for a victim, that it is not certain a pardon could have saved him.


Anonymous communication to the Charleston Courier, June 21, 1822 (written by Charlestonian William Johnson, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, published under header, "Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement."