Written by Thomas Nelson Page in 1906, following is the story of Mrs. Susan Roy Carter:
Old Mathews and Gloucester, Virginia, as they are affectionately termed by those who knew them in the old times, were filled with colonial families and were the home of a peculiarly refined and aristocratic society. Miss Roy was the daughter of William H. Roy, esq., of “Green Plains,” Mathews county, and of Anne Seddon, a sister of Hon. James A. Seddon, Secretary of War of the Confederate States. She was a noted beauty and belle, even in a society that was known throughout Virginia for its charming and beautiful women. Her loveliness, radiant girlhood, and early womanhood is still talked of among the survivors of that time. Old men, who have seen the whole order of society in which they spent their youths pass from the scene, still refresh themselves with the memory of her brilliant beauty and of her gracious charms. She was the centre and idol of that circle.
In 1855, on November 7th, she gave her hand and heart to Dr. Thomas H. Carter, esq., of Shirley, and from that time to the day of her death their life was one of the ideal unions which justify the saying that “marriages are made in heaven.” “It was always been a honeymoon with us,” he used to say. The young couple almost immediately settled at “Pampatike,” on the Pamunkey, an old colonial estate. Here Mrs. Carter lived for thirty-four years, occupied in the duties of mistress of a great plantation, dispensing that gracious hospitality which made it noted even in Old Virginia; shedding the light of a beautiful life on all about her, and exemplifying in herself the character to which the South points with pride and affection as a refutation of every adverse criticism.
Such a plantation was a world in itself, and the life upon it was such as to entail on the master and mistress labors and responsibilities such as are not often produced under any other conditions. In addition to the demands of hospitality, which were exacting and constant, the conduct of such a large establishment, with the care of over one hundred and fifty servants, whose eyes were ever turned to their mistress, called forth the exercise of the highest powers from those who felt themselves answerable to the Great Master of All for the full performance of their duty. No one ever performed this duty with more divine devotion than did this young mistress. She was at once the friend and the servant of every soul on the place. Mrs. Carter was a fine illustration of the rare quality of the character formed by such conditions. In sickness and in health she watched over, looked after, and cared for all within her province.
It is the boast of the South, and one founded on truth, that when during the war the men withdrawn from the plantations to do their duty on the field, the women rose to the full measure of every demand, filling often under new conditions that would have tried the utmost powers of the men themselves, a place to which only men had be supposed equal.
When, on the outbreak of the war, her husband was among the first who took the field as a captain of artillery, Mrs. Carter took charge of the plantation and during all the stress of that trying period she conducted it with an ability that would have done honor to a man of the greatest experience. The Pampatike plantation, lying not far from West Point, the scene of so many operations during the war, was within the “debatable land” that lay between the lines and was alternately swept by both armies. The Position was peculiarly delicate, and often called for the exercise of of rare tact and courage on the part of the mistress. It was known to the enemy that her husband was a gallant and rising officer and a near relative of General Lee, and the plantation was a marked one.
On one occasion a small party of mounted federal troops one a foraging expedition visited the place and were engaged in a looting, when a party of Confederate cavalry suddenly appeared on the scene, and a brisk little skirmish took place in the garden and yard. The Federals were caught by surprise, and getting the worst of it, broke and retreated across the lawn, with the enemy close to their heels in hot chase. A Union trooper was shot from his horse and fell just in front of the house, but rising tried to run on. Mrs. Carter, seeing his danger, rushed out, calling to him to come to her and she would protect him. Turning, he stagged to her, but though she sheltered him, his wound was mortal, and he died at her feet. The surprise and defeat of this party having been reported at West Point, a stronger force was sent up to wreak vengeance on the place. But on learning of Mrs. Carter’s act in rushing out amid the flying bullets to save this man at the risk of her life, the officer in command posted a guard, and orders were given that the place should be henceforth respected.
The hospital service on the Confederate side during the war, as wretched as it was, without medicines or surgical appliances, would have been far more dreadful but for the devotion with which the Southern women consecrated themselves to it. Every woman was a nurse, if she were within reach of wounds or sickness. Every house was a hospital if it was needed; and to their honor be it said that the principle enunciated by Dr. Dunant, and finally established in the creation of the Red Cross Society, found it exemplification here some time before the Geneva Congress. To them a wounded man of whatever side was a sacred, and to his service they consecrated themselves. Unhappily, devotion, even as divine as theirs, could not make up for all.
At the battle of Seven Pines – “Fair Oaks”- Captain Carter’s battery rendered such efficient service that the commanding general declared he would rather have commanded that battery that day than to have been President of the Confederate States. But the fame of the battery was won at the expense of about sixty per cent of its officers and men killed and wounded. The Carter plantation was with sound of the guns, and Mrs. Carter immediately constituted herself the nurse of the wounded men of her husband’s battery. And from this time she was regarded as their guardian angel – an affection that was extended to her by all of the men of her husband’s command, as he rose from rank to rank, until be became a colonel and acting chief of the artillery in the last Valley compaign.
When the war closed nothing remained except the lands and a few buildings, but the energy of the mast and mistress began from the first to build up the plantation again. The servants were free; the working force was broken up and scattered, yet large numbers of them, including all who were old and infirm, remained on the place and had to be cared for and fed. To this master and mistress alike applied all their abilities, with the result that defeat was turned in to success and the place became known as one of the estates that had survived the destruction of war.
Having a family of young children, the best tutors were secured, and owing largely to the knowledge of the good influence to which the boys would be subjected under Mrs. Carter’s roof, many applied to send their boys to them, and “Pampatike School” soon became known far beyond the limits of Virginia. Among those who have testified to the influence upon them of their life at Pampatike are men now nearing the top of every profession in many States.
It was at this period that the writer came to know her. And he can never forget the impression made on him by her – an impression that time and fuller knowledge of her only served to deepen. Of commanding and gracious presence, with a face of rare beauty and loveliness, and manners, whose charm can never be described, she might have been noble Brunhilda, softened and made sweet by the chastening influence of Christianity and unselfish love. No one that ever saw her could forget her. It was, indeed, the beautifying influence of a simple piety and devoted love that guided her life, which stamped their impress on that noble face. In every relation of life she was perfect. And the influence of such a life never cause. Many besides her children rise up and call her blessed.
In closing this incomplete sketch of one whose life illustrated all that was best in life, and admits of justice in no sketch whatsoever, the writer feels that he cannot do better than to use the words of him who know and loved her best:
Everyday an anthem of love and praise swells up from all over the land to do her honor. Old boys of Pampatike schooling, new boys of the University, girls and old people, recall her delight to make them happy and to give them pleasure. It was her greatest happiness to make others happy; for she was absolutely the most unselfish and generous being on earth. Her generosity was not always of abundance, for abundance was not always hers; but a generosity out of everything that she had.
Her beautiful life has passed away, and its now only a memory, but a memory fraught and fragrant with all that is sweetest and loveliest and purest and best in noblest womanhood. Who that ever saw her can forget her noble and beautiful face, resplendent with all that was exalted and high-souled, gracious, and kindest to others – the Master’s index to the heart within!