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The Farmer's Son
THE very month that the battle was fought I was nineteen years old. My people lived in a small stone house, just across Rock Creek from Culp's Hill.
On Monday night, June 29th, a neighbor called on us, and said: "The Rebel army is close by. Why, there's miles of campfires along the mountains back here."
He went away with his horses that night, and my brother and I went off with ours. We rode about five miles down on the Baltimore Pike and stayed there till morning. Then a lot of Union cavalry passed along the pike in the direction of Gettysburg. We hadn’t a doubt but that they would stop the Rebels, and we returned home and put our horses in the stable.
Wednesday morning came, and everything was apparently quiet. So we went to ploughing and grubbing just as if there wasn’t a Rebel this side of the Potomac River.
One of the Gettysburg warehouse men at that time was a Mr. Spangler, and this man Spangler came out to our place that morning to buy some flour. We had fourteen barrels of it on a wagon just as they had come from the mill, and Father agreed to hitch his horses to the wagon and take the flour right up to Spangler's warehouse. Spangler went off, and Father was soon ready to start with the load of flour. He was driving out of the yard when the first two shells of the Battle of Gettysburg were fired. But that didn’t prevent him from going on with his load. When he said he'd do a thing he'd just go and do it, no matter what the difficulties or the dangers. He got to the town square and met Spangler. The battle had broken loose and everything was in a tumult. "Suppose you take your load back home," Spangler said, and that was what Father did.
The noise of the battle excited me greatly, and I went up on Culp's Hill and climbed a tree and watched. The weather had been quite dry, but the firing of the guns stirred up a rain, and it rained like sixty for a little spell. I was in my shirtsleeves, and of course the rain chilled me. So I come back to the house. There I found two or three town families had taken refuge with us. They'd been scared out of their own homes, and you bet they didn’t go back till the battle was over. Later in the day, when the Rebels drove our men through the town, there was a great rush of citizens out in our direction to get away. Some went empty-handed, and some carried clothes and stuff of that kind, and they were going like anything. They cut right across our farm and through our wheat that was just ready to harvest.
We made those who stopped with us as comfortable as we could that night. The next morning we got up as usual about daylight, and there was nothing in sight to indicate the likelihood of anything but an ordinary, uneventful summer day. We were all at sea and didn’t know what was goin' to happen. On Culp's Hill we could hear a sound of chopping and guessed that the soldiers were building breastworks.
Some of the farm fencing had been pulled down the day before, and a neighbor's cows had got into our wheat. Father thought he would drive them out. The wheat was on a hillside, and he walked up the slope to get a good look over the field. On its upper side was a fringe of brush and trees and a stone wall with a couple of rails on top. He was within twenty or thirty feet of this fence when he discovered some men standing behind it. Father would have liked to get away, but he concluded he would be safer to go forward. One of the men was a Rebel general. He had glasses that he was looking through, and he asked Father about the Federals. Father told him he didn’t know anything about them, and then he started for home, but the general said: "Oh, no! you can't go back. You'll have to stay inside of our lines."
So they sent him to the nearest house, which happened to belong to Father's brother Dan. We didn’t know what had become of him, and we didn’t dare risk going to look for him.
Shortly after mid-day I was standing in our lane with Mr. Martin, one of the townsmen who was stopping at our house, when here comes a Union soldier. He held his gun all ready to fire, and he was a savage-lookin' chap, too. "I had a notion to pull on you fellers," he said. "You wear gray clothes, and I didn’t know but you were Rebels. My colonel wants to talk with you."
We went with him down the lane to where the colonel was sitting on a rock beside the creek. He questioned us as to the location of the Rebels, but we were just as ignorant about that as a newborn babe. We were n't accustomed to armies, and we didn’t understand their movements and hadn’t attempted to find out where they were or what they were doing. The soldier went back up the lane with us, and we'd gone about half way when Martin's little boy came running toward us waving his hands as if he wanted us to stop. He didn’t say anything until he got to where we were. Then he told us some Rebels were at our house. At that our soldier dropped back, but we went on and found two Southern soldiers in our kitchen. They were after food, and we let 'em have some.
The latter part of the afternoon we had just sat down to supper when the battle opened out right close by. We didn’t finish eating. I went upstairs and looked out of a gable window. Some of our men were in the orchard deployed behind the trees. They'd take and load their guns and fire and then fall back. They were only a skirmish line, and didn’t pretend to fight the Rebels, who had cut loose on them at a terrific rate.
Presently, by George! zip went a bullet right past my nose. I thought it was just a chance shot until later I was down in the kitchen, and a big Rebel came walking in. "Who was firin' out of the gable window at our soldiers when they were passin' here?" he asked.
Mr. Martin spoke up and said: "Nobody thought of such a thing. It's doubtful if there's a gun in the house."
"Well, I saw somebody up there," the man said, "and I took a shot at him."
I knew then how that bullet happened to come so close to me.
We saw the Rebels driving our men across the open fields to the woods. Every time they got within a couple of rods of a rail fence they'd lie flat on the ground, except a few who would run forward and jerk the fence down. Then the rest would jump up, and on they'd go. The sound of the volleys they fired was just like you'd take a handful of gravel and throw it on a roof. They yelled like the mischief when they charged. I couldn’t distinguish any words, but it was kind of an ugly yell.
Soon the wounded began to be brought back. They laid 'em on the floor of our kitchen, and up in the barn, and out in the yard. Some were groaning and others would swear. The sight of the first wounded man was dreadful, but it is remarkable how quickly one gets hardened to such things. In a little while I could see a man's leg sawed off, or his head sawed off, for that matter, without being disturbed.
I talked with a wounded North Carolina man. He spoke sort of regretfully of the war. "We got nothing against you people," he said, "but the war came on and we were forced to go."
Beside our kitchen wall was a big half hogshead that water flowed into from a spring, and the Rebels were all the time coming to fill their canteens there. They were seen by the Yankees, who began shelling 'em. The shells would strike in the meadow and throw up the dirt, and one went through the seat of a horserake in the orchard. Another came into the kitchen. A Rebel was leaning against the doorframe, and the shell cut off the jamb opposite and keeled him over into the yard. But he picked himself up and walked in brushing the dust off his trousers, no more concerned than if the accident was a mere trifle. The shell went into the chimney and exploded and scattered some pretty big stones among the wounded men lying on the floor. But that didn’t seem to alarm them. They made no ado whatever.
After a while the firing ceased and three ambulances came to get the wounded at our place. They drove in around our hogpen, and the drivers had got out when the shells began to fly again. Immediately the drivers jumped back in and went off in a great hurry. A little major came into the house and asked for some red cloth to make a hospital flag, and Mother got him a piece. He tied the cloth to a stick and had a soldier climb up a ladder and nail it on the roof so our men would stop their firing in that direction. "Those Yankees are a lot of brutes or they wouldn’t shell ambulances," he said to me.
"Well," I said, "that's no worse than what your fellers did at Chancellorsville when they set the woods on fire and burnt our wounded."
It was kind of risky for me to talk so, for he could have put me out of the way, and that's all there would have been of it.
After dark that evening they put blankets up to the windows so the lights wouldn’t be seen and perhaps be fired at by the Federals. Nine o'clock came, and then, to our surprise, in walked Father escorted by a Rebel soldier.
Friday morning the wounded were still on the place, and across the lane was a bunch of six or eight Union prisoners lying asleep. By and by a Rebel came into the room where our folks were and asked, "Who's the man of the house?"
"I am," Father says.
"I'm goin' to take the first horse inside of your stable," the feller said, "and here's one hundred and twenty-five dollars to pay for him."
"Well, all right," Father says, "I can't help myself. You'll take the horse anyway. I guess it don't matter whether you pay or not. Confederate money ain't very valuable,"
"That money'll be just as good as yours after this battle," the feller said.
Father took it, and we've had it ever since. The bills were new and nice, and they're nice yet.
Later that day the Rebels told us they were goin' to place a battery on the knoll back of our buildings, and we had better move out. So we gathered up a few of our things and went to Uncle Dan's. We were at his house when the two armies cannonaded each other in the afternoon over beyond the town. That was something terrific. I declare! I just thought the earth would go down. It didn’t sound good to the soldiers either. Lots of 'em sneaked away from the ranks, and I'll tell you this much — there are skedaddlers out of every fight. Oh, by gosh! yes! I found that out, and there wa'n't no distinction in that respect between the two armies. Some of the Rebel officers came and hunted the men up. "Why ain't you with your regiment?" they said.
"We don't know where our regiment is," the men replied.
"Well, you go find it," the officers told 'em. But the fellers would contrive not to get back till the danger was over.
The Rebels left after the third day's fight, and I heard their wagons going all night. Next morning we went back home and found two Rebels in our shed eating chicken. They seemed to think it was time for them to get out of there, and they slipped away down the lane.
Pretty soon our soldiers began to arrive on the farm, and Mother went to bakin' pancakes to give 'em. She made the pancakes out of flour and salt. The Rebels had taken everything else in the food line. Oh, bless you, yes! they just took all that they could make use of. The whole house was mussed up and turned upside down. It looked like they'd gone to the bureau drawers and pulled 'em out and dumped what was in 'em on the floor. They took only a part of our flour, but they got all our meat and all our chickens, and our five horses. Our field of wheat was trodden down, and so was our grass and oats. The soldiers had dropped their guns here and there, and we often mowed into those guns with our scythes afterward, At first we thought we'd lost our cattle. They strayed away during the battle, and there seemed small chance of our seeing them again, but we got them together in a few days. The thing that troubled us most was the being left without horses. They were a dead loss to us, and besides it was a great handicap not to have 'em for working the farm. Father was a man who didn’t often say anything, but when we came home after the battle and looked around he said, "I feel just like starting off and never looking back."
My mother was subject to severe attacks of headache, and she had one on that Saturday. In the evening she said to me, "I guess you'll have to go to the doctor's and get me some medicine."
So I went to town, and I found the streets barricaded and our fellers uncertain whether the Rebels had gone for good or whether another attack would be made. By the time I got home it was dark, and the soldiers on picket duty around our buildings called out, "Who's coming?" But they let me pass when I told 'em I belonged there.
We had found two dead Rebels lying back of our barn, and no one came to bury 'em till late the next day. They'd been left with a blanket spread over 'em, One had his thumb and every finger on his right hand shot off.
At the house next to ours on the road to town a Rebel sharpshooter had climbed up in a tree in the yard and buckled himself fast to a limb with his belt. He was picking off our men, and of course it wasn’t easy for them to make out where he was because the thick leaves hid him, But at last they noticed a puff of smoke, when he'd sent a bullet in among 'em, and don't you forget it — that was the last shot he fired. They aimed at the place the smoke came from and killed him, and after the battle, I'll be dog-goned if he wasn’t still in the tree hanging by his belt.
I went over to Culp's Hill Sunday. They were burying the dead there in long narrow ditches about two feet deep, They'd lay in a man at the end of the trench and put in the next man with the upper half of his body on the first man's legs, and so on. They got 'em in as thick as they could and only covered 'em enough to prevent their breeding disease. All the pockets of the dead men were turned out. Probably that was done by the soldiers who did the burying. They thought they might find a ring, or money, or something else of value.
A neighbor of ours — old Mr. Tawney — came to get some flour on Tuesday, and he said, "Over here in the woods I found a dead man."
So Father and I took a mattock and a shovel and went along with Mr. Tawney to the spot where he'd come across the body. There it was, all bloated up, seated leaning against a tree. We had to make the grave a rod or so away on account of the tree roots. It was impossible to handle the man to get him there, he was so decayed like, and we hitched his belt to his legs and dragged him along, and no sooner did we start with him than his scalp slipped right off. We just turned him in on his side and covered him with earth.
That was awful, wasn’t it? Well, the whole fighting business is awful; and I 'm a-goin' to tell you this — war is a reflection on Christianity and civilization. It seems to me, in the case of nearly every war, after each side has done its worst and perhaps fought to the point of exhaustion and bankruptcy, they go back to the original question and begin to settle it by reason, good sense, and so on. Really, they might as well have done that in the first place without the terrible slaughter.
1 His age was close to the fourscore mark, but he was hearty and vigorous, and he spoke with ardor as he related those far-gone incidents of the battle. We had walked out to the borders of the town, and while we visited we sat on the parapet of a convenient stone bridge. off across the fields was the place where he had dwelt as a boy, and he used his cane to point out various features of the vicinity that came into his story.