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The Canal Boatman1

I FOLLOWED boating on the canal, but at the time of the battle I was here at Sharpsburg where I had a home on the outskirts of the town. I was a young fellow then, twenty-eight years old. In the early part of the war, when I didn’t think it was goin' to be much of anything, I felt toward the South because I had a brother in the Confederate army. He liked soldierin' as well as eatin', but he got knocked to pieces pretty well before the war was over. His side was mashed in, and he lost an arm. The doctors never could get his broken ribs into shape so but that he was one-sided, and yet he got through the war sound enough to travel for a firm sellin' goods. Things was very much unsettled in the South where he made his trips, and one time he left us and started on a trip as usual, and we've never heard anything of him since. He had to wear good clothes, and he looked like a prosperous man with money. Maybe he was killed and robbed, or maybe he died of yellow fever in New Orleans.

As I said, I favored the South early in the war, but later I didn’t care which side won if only they put a stop to the fightin', though it did seem to me it would be better to have one country.

The Southern troops began to come in here on the Monday before the battle, and on Tuesday the wagons and artillery and men were goin' back and forth, and there was continual noise all the time. We was havin' a drouth, and the weather was very hot. They didn’t pay any attention to the regular highways, but went across the fields the nearest way to where they wanted to go, and the dust on those roads they made was ankle deep.

There was cannonading all day, and the people was hidin' and gettin' away as fast as they could. But we'd had word that any one who owned a good house had better stay and take care of it because in an army there's always fellows who Will plunder houses left unprotected. So I stayed at home.

On Wednesday morning the artillery opened up before day, and it made such a racket you'd think the earth was opening up. I went out to feed my horse, and on the way back a shell come mighty near gettin' me. It bursted over my head and stunned me right smart. My brother-in-law was in the house, and when I got in there he said, "What's the matter, Jake, that you look so pale?"

I took him out and showed him the pieces of shell scattered all around, and he said, "There's goin' to be a fight, and a big one."

The sound of the shells was like wind blowing over the telephone wires. When the cannonade ceased, then I could hear the bullets buzz like bees. Pretty soon the balls commenced comin' in the house, and I thought it was time to get somewhere else. The hotel here belonged to my brother, and I thought I'd go down there. So I run from behind one big house to another till I got to the hotel. I could look right around the corner of it and see the Confederate artillery on the hill. I see one of the gunners drug away from the cannon down in a hollow where the reserves were, but I don't know whether he was crippled or killed. Two other men was with me, and we was the only citizens in sight around the town.

We hadn’t been there but a very short time when half a dozen Confederates come down a cross street with eleven prisoners. One of the prisoners had his jaw shot off. I shall never forget how he looked.

A shell went into a hogpen near us and killed two hogs. Another shell struck the heel of a soldier in the street and turned him over and over like a wagon wheel.

About one o'clock I started to go back to my own place to look at my horse. But after I'd dodged along a ways the cannonading got so heavy I thought I'd go into a cellar till it ceased a little. I was behind an old log house, and I took hold of the basement door. At the first pull it didn’t come open, and the second pull yanked the door off its hinges. Then I saw that the basement was full of Confederate soldiers. I went down in there, and about that time a shell struck the end of the house and knocked out some logs and bricks. I heard a scuffling in the room above. Another lot of Confederate soldiers was up there, and they came down to the basement for better protection.

One of 'em had a splinter — a piece of a log, you know — in his arm. He asked some of his comrades to pull it out, and they wouldn’t. Then he asked me, and I didn’t dare refuse. I pulled him off his feet before I got it out. The explosion had skun his back from his neck down and tore his clothes pretty near off of him. He must have been lying down on his stomach. He fared worse than some who fought in the battle. There was skulkers on both sides, but I saw only Confederate skulkers in that old house.

I had just one lot to cross to get to my stable, and when the firing slacked up and I went, I didn’t go very slow, I tell you. But I found my horse was gone, and the stable was full of cavalry horses. A fellow was there lookin' after 'em, and I said, "Where's mine?"

"He's out there hitched to the fence," the fellow answered.

I looked, and I didn’t know the horse at first because he had on a cavalry saddle and bridle. "I've been riding him," the fellow said, "and he's a good horse. Sell him to me,"

He seemed to be a gentleman — that fellow, and he offered me three or four times what the horse was worth, but it was Confederate money. The horse was a fine one for any purpose, and only six years old, and I didn’t want to part with him for Confederate money. I told the fellow I'd be back in an hour or so, and then I'd sell the horse to him. That was the only way I could save my horse. I took the rig off, put on a bridle of my own, and rode up an alley to the hotel. The stable there was full of straw, but I pulled out some and got the horse in. Then I tucked the straw around so he couldn’t be seen, and there he stayed till the battle ended. A month afterward, when the straw was being used, a shell was found in it that had come in through the log walls. If that shell had exploded, the straw would have been set on fire, and my horse would have been killed.

Stragglers were running around robbing the houses of people who'd gone away, and they got in my house and just took everything. Besides, they took five mules of mine out of a field where I kept 'em. Them were mules that did my towing on the canal.

Some of the houses in the town were used for hospitals. The doctors would huddle the family all into one little room, or turn 'em out. The house across the way from mine was a hospital, and the family there got what the doctors called camp fever, and some of 'em died.

For three or four days the soldiers was busy out on the battlefield burying the dead. Lots of dead men got pretty strong before they was buried, the weather was so hot; and the stench was terrible — terrible!

On Friday I was engaged in helping drag the dead horses out of town. A farmer with four horses and a black man and myself did that work. We'd hitch a log-chain around a dead horse's neck, and it was all that the four horses could do to drag the carcass over the hills. We burnt what we could on the edge of the town, but fence rails was the only fuel and most of those had been used for campfires. I s'pose we burnt ten or twelve, and we drug nearly as many more out on the farms so as to get the stench away from the town.

One trouble, after the battle, was to get feed for our stock. I had to ride a whole day to buy some hay, and there'd been a lot made, too, but it had been taken for the army horses.

I don't care about ever seein' a war again, but of co'se I wouldn’t stand havin' another country pitch onto us. Why, in that case, if I was a young man, I'd fight as sure as you're born.


1 I spent part of a rainy day with him in a Sharpsburg home. He was a large-featured, full-whiskered man, still in vigorous health in spite of his age.

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