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The Colored Farm Hand 1
AT the time of the battle I was workin' for a farmer down in the country about four mile from the town. But I heard the firin' — oh my, yes indeed! just like continuous thunder; and the whole country was full of black smoke. I could smell that smoke way down where I was. It certainly was a hard fight, and there was no eatin' or sleepin' hardly for the people around here durin' the three days it lasted. We didn’t have no feelin' for shuttin' our eyes.
A great many people had skedaddled, but the man I worked for stayed. We'd run off before when there'd been false alarms, and had our trouble for nothin'. So the man I lived with said to me, "Isaac, we won't run no more."
We were right there when the battle begun, and then we loaded up a wagon with provisions and grain, and got away with seven or eight of our horses down an old road into the woods. After we'd gone far enough to be well out of sight and hearing we unhitched the horses that drew the wagon, and tied them and some of the others to wheels, and the rest we tied to the trees.
There I stayed fearin' and tremblin', and looked after the horses. If the Rebels had happened to come through they'd have took 'em and me, too, but they didn’t git there. Feeding and watering the horses didn’t take long, and most of the time I just loafed around. At night I lay in the wagon. The man's son come back'ards and for'ards to bring me something to eat and make sure everything was all right. Once he took my place, and I went toward Gettysburg to get a sight of the battle. But I hadn’t gone more 'n half way when I found wagon trains stickin' in the woods with guards to protect 'em, and there were men movin' every which-a-way. It wa'n't safe to travel, and I turned back.
The armies just about ruined the country here. Harvest time had come, but we hadn’t cut our wheat, and a lot of troops marched through it and laid it flat as a board. They chopped down trees to make breastworks, and they dug deep trenches and made walls of earth to git behind and shoot. The soldiers was bound to take the nearest way to where they wanted to go, and they hacked the fence posts off and tilted the fences over so they could git into the fields quick. Most of the fences were burned in the campfires to make coffee and roast meat, but they burned some fences just for fun. They were wasteful in a good many ways. When a beef had been killed, a man would start in and skin back a little so he could git a piece of meat, and then he'd quit and put the meat on the point of a bayonet gun and hold it over the fire. If he had enough for himself that's all he cared about, and the other men got their meat just as he did.
Lots of farmers who were well-to-do befo' the battle were poor afterward. Their hay and feed was gone, their growing crops ruined, their cattle stolen, and on some places all the boards had been ripped off the barns for firewood. A good many who had lost their horses went to the condemned sales of army horses and mules and stocked up with those old cripples, all lame, or collar sore, or used up in some way.
I visited the battlefield three days after the fight, and it made me sick the bodies were so numerous and so swelled up, and some so shot to pieces — a foot here, an arm there, and a head in another place. They lay so thick in the Valley of Death that you couldn't walk on the ground. Their flesh was black as your hat — yes, black as the blackest colored person. I been told that come from drinkin' whiskey with gunpowder in it to make 'em brave. A man would face anything then.
There were thousands of the very prettiest kinds of muskets layin' around, and any amount of blankets, and lots of other stuff. Clearin' up was a hard job, and any one who wanted to work could make big money. A man wouldn’t turn around less'n you gave him half a dollar. As quick as they could they throwed a little dirt over the horses, and they dug long, shallow trenches, and buried the men in 'em. The work was done in a hurry, and in some places you'd see feet or arms stickin' out. But within another week men and horses were all buried down decent.
For years afterward farmers ploughing would once in a while find a skull, and they'd take those skulls home and have 'em settin' up on the mantelpiece for relics. But I didn’t want no such relics as that.
With all those dead men and horses buried close around the town, and the awful smell that was in the air for quite a time after the battle, it's a wonder we didn’t die like flies. I guess we must have been saved from a pestilence by the buzzards. There were multitudes of 'em — and oh, my! they were the biggest ever seen. At night they'd go to the woods to roost and you couldn’t walk through under the trees they was so thick. It wouldn’t have been pleasant, for they was throwin' up and everything else.
Soon after the battle ended we had a rain. It just poured down; and all the streams were floatin', and the roads were nothin' but mud. The Rebel cavalry went through Emmetsburg with the Union cavalry pell-mell after 'em, and the horses' hoofs spattered the buildings up to the second story so you couldn’t tell what color they were. Deep ruts were cut in the roads by the heavy wagons and cannon, and for some time after the troops left we had to drive carefully in order not to have trouble. One day I was hauling a big load of hay to town. Probably there was much as three ton, and I had six horses to draw it. By and by the wheels on one side went into a cannon rut, and the wagon upset and turned over on top of the hay. The feller's livin' yet that helped me right my wagon and get the hay back on again.
The worst feature of the battle was the way the Rebels was allowed to escape. The water was so high in the Potomac that they lay on the north bank thirteen days waiting for it to go down so they could cross, and yet we let 'em git away. I think there was trickery. You see General Lee was a high Mason, and lots of our men was Masons, too, and they was bound to show him all the favors they could. If we'd been fighting with a foreign nation I don't believe the war would have lasted a year.
1 He showed a courtesy and an intelligence that were quite attractive. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of his personal appearance was the large-checked pattern of his trousers. The house in which he dwelt in the negro quarter of the town was fairly large and substantial, though not without touches of shabbiness. The door knob, for instance, was so loose and wobbly I wondered that it could be used at all. But I fancy that such flaws did not disturb the occupants of the house much, and that on the whole they were serenely content with the free and easy comfort of their way of living.