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The Soldier's Wife 1
THIS old house here on the heights of Fort Hill overlooking Vicksburg and the river and all the surrounding country was where my father and husband lived at the time they went away to join the Southern army. The hill was fortified by the Confederates, and you might think that fact accounts for its name, but really the name is inherited from an old Spanish fort that was here long, long before on the topmost height — a ridge known as the Devil's Backbone.
After the war had dragged on for about two years the Yankees began to close in around the town. They had a fleet of war vessels up beyond the turn of the Mississippi, and one day a curious thing happened. A Northern gunboat came down the river with a white flag a-flying, I watched her. Presently she approached the shore, and down went the flag. The commander stood with one foot raised ready to spring off, and right behind him were his men all armed and prepared to follow him. Evidently the plan was to come so close with the boat that the water-batteries couldn’t depress their guns enough to hit her. A few moments more and the troops would have landed, but just then a ball was sent through the boat's hull, and she backed out and started up the river. They hoisted their white flag again, but our batteries kept firing till she went in among the willows across the river and sank. It was an unfair deception to use a white flag that way.
Our people were always on the lookout for attempts to run boats down past the batteries, and of course we wanted to thwart any such undertaking and destroy the boats. We had what was called the "Mosquito Fleet" which consisted of several skiffs rowed by men belonging to the river batteries. As soon as the enemy's boats were detected coming the Mosquito Fleet was to row to the opposite shore and set fire to some houses there. That would light up the whole river like day, and then our guns could be aimed at the Yankee vessels. I recall the first alarm. We were in bed and asleep way in the night, and the signal cannon boomed. It had hardly fired when the Mosquito Fleet men had the houses across the river blazing. We jumped up and ran out on the gallery. First the Yankees sent down some scows filled with hay and that sort of thing. They waited to see how those dummies would fare, and afterward, on two different nights, started out with gunboats and transports. We looked on while some of the vessels burned or sank and the cannon balls flew back and forth.
When the enemy began to bombard the town we fixed up a shelter over in a gully hardly a stone's throw from the house. Mother didn’t want to have a cave. She was afraid the roof would come down on her, and she said she'd rather be killed and buried than be buried alive. So we shoveled away enough dirt to make a level place like a shelf on the side of one of the steep slopes there in the hollow. Then we laid a floor and leaned some good long plank against the hill and drove stubs into the ground at the lower ends of the plank to hold 'em in place. We put mattresses inside, and we generally slept in the shelter at night and were often there in the daytime.
One morning I was going along a cattle path on my way to the hollow when the Yankees commenced shooting, I stopped and said, "Never mind, I'm going to stay here and see what you are doing."
About a minute later a shell dropped so close that the dirt it threw up buried me nearly to my knees.
We had so many hairbreadth escapes! Our house was in an exposed position, and by the end of the siege the north side was like a pepper box with holes made by the Minie balls that had passed through it. When those balls were flying thick it just sounded like the biggest hail I ever heard. But I wasn’t frightened. I never thought a bullet was made for me.
I remember the soldiers told us, "Ladies, this is no place for you," but we wouldn’t desert our home.
Late one day as I was in the front part of the house getting ready to go over to our night rendezvous, a shell came down in our kitchen. I thought from the sound that it had smashed the stove all to pieces. So out I rushed to the kitchen to investigate, and I fell through a gaping hole in the floor. I didn’t get out of there till they chopped me out with an axe. I bear the scars yet.
Another time two of us girls were at the table eating, The Yankees were firing, and Mother had sent the younger children over to the hollow. Suddenly she said, "Get right up and come out because I know something is going to happen."
She was so earnest about it that we thought we would humor her, and we stepped out to the gallery. Almost instantly a shell passed right through the room. It would have taken our heads off where we had been sitting. It's very strange — those warnings to get out of danger. I s'pose we have to thank the good angel that is always with us.
I used to have a little fun with two of the guns that were firing from the other side of the point. They were what were called Columbiads. I don't think they ever did any damage. They had a certain range and I soon learned just where the balls from each would fall. I 'd get on my horse to ride, and the Yankee gunners would see me and imagine I was a courier. Bang! would go the first gun and the ball would fall in a near gully. At once I would gallop on till I approached the range of the second gun. Then I'd stop till the gun fired, and afterward I'd canter along about my business,
Blackberries were plentiful all around us, and one afternoon I went out back of the house to pick some. I wanted them to take to the sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals. As I was stooping down reaching for some a Minie ball passed in front of my face and took off a piece of the bush I was picking from. Oh! I've felt the wind of many a Minie ball. I had about a quart of berries, but that wasn’t enough, and I didn’t go to the house till I had filled my pail and eaten all I wanted besides.
One day I went to call on a woman who lived over on the Jackson Road, a mile and a half away. I walked, and Mother told me just how long I could stay. We never thought of disobeying our mother. It so happened that I had a curiosity to go to some other place, and in order not to overrun my allotted time I cut short my call. Hardly five minutes after I left the woman a shell came into her house and struck her and scattered her brains about, People who were there said I hadn’t got out of sight. Mother heard that shell explode and knew pretty near where it fell, and she never had a moment's peace till I came home. I got there on time.
My husband was in a detachment at the extreme right of the Confederate lines. I used to ride over there on my horse three times a week. He was sort of a dudish fellow, and I liked to see him look nice. So I always carried him some clean clothes, and I'd cook up biscuit and meat to take. I had an old-fashioned carpetbag that would hold a bushel, and I put the things into that and hung it to the pommel of my side-saddle. There were five men in my husband's mess. He divided the food I brought with his comrades, and they watched for my approach as much as he did. "Your wife's coming," I'd hear them holler to him.
Firing from both sides was common, and their situation was not very safe, though it was protected by entrenchments. Sometimes the lieutenant would tell me to go way back behind a large tree. Then I'd go and sit down in the rear of their tent for a few minutes, but as soon as the lieutenant's attention was engaged I'd return.
We saw hard times during the war. We didn’t have very much to begin with, and a good deal of that was stolen. But let me tell you — I've seen the armies of both sides, and there's a class that follows the troops and steals things even if they don't want 'em, and the blame is put on the soldiers. of course, though, the soldiers took a good deal, too.
Once we filled some candle molds full of tallow that had a little beeswax in it to make it harder, and we set 'em out to cool. We left 'em there till after dark. Then I went to get one of the candles to light, and the molds and all were gone. I suppose some of our soldiers had candles up at camp that night.
Sometimes they would be shooting and hit a cow or a calf, and then they'd have fresh meat. They were quite apt to accidently kill a beef creature when they got very hungry. We managed to keep our cow. But chickens! oh my heavens! they disappeared long before the surrender. The last survivor was a pet hen. My little girl, only two years old, just loved that chicken. One day a soldier came along and saw the hen, and he stopped and wanted to buy it for a sick comrade who couldn’t eat anything but chicken soup. I called the little girl and said: "Gerty, a poor sick man wants your chicken. He's mighty hungry, and this friend of his will pay you two dollars for it. That's enough money to buy you a pretty dress."
She consented to part with the hen, but she didn’t want to see the man ketch it, and she run out of sight.
Once we'd just finished churning and had taken the butter out and put it away when the shells came so thick that we went over to the hollow. We left the churn with the buttermilk in it on the table in the dining-room. While we were gone it was taken. No doubt the buttermilk was what was wanted, and we'd have been glad to spare that if we could have retained the churn.
That made us more careful than ever. We had a barrel and a half of flour, and I said, "It would be a good plan to put our flour in two different places,"
So we set the half barrel in the back hall where it would be most convenient, and we put the full barrel in one of the bedrooms and threw some soiled clothes over it. The next morning we came over from the hollow to cook breakfast, and there was only enough flour left of the half barrel for one meal. We tracked the thieves to camp, and then I said: "Oh Ma! it's the soldiers. Let's go back."
By the end of the siege not a fence was left in the suburbs. They'd been taken for kindlings. The soldiers began destroying them, and then the people saw that the fences were doomed and concluded they might as well use them for firewood themselves. We couldn’t get wood hauled in from the farm districts. When the war began the town was surrounded with great forest trees — wa'nut trees, oaks, and sycamores. But the soldiers cut them down because they were in the way, or because they needed them for firewood or breastworks. The camps were everywhere, and the stumps were to some degree a convenience, A soldier could build a fire against one and it served for a backlog as long as it lasted.
We had a garden plot, but we couldn’t raise anything in it. Somebody was sure to pull every sprig that came up, However, there was a kind of wild onion that grew over back of the garden near the stable where the soldiers didn’t get hold of it. We secured enough of those wild onions to flavor hash and things like that.
At last our flour got reduced to three pounds and our cornmeal to a single half bushel. Until nearly that time we had rice, and we could always buy brown sugar and molasses and cowpeas. We ground up the cowpeas and made mush and baked bread out of it. But the bread didn't taste done. It tasted like it was raw. For variety we boiled up the cowpeas with water till they fell to pieces. We had no meat or salt to put in, but we called it soup, I don't eat many beans now like I used to in my young days because they remind me of the war and cowpeas.
Toward the end of the siege the soldiers, sick and well, didn’t have much else. Just think of a man lying there with chronic dysentery and fed with cowpeas! No wonder the soldiers died. I heard of an instance where three of them who were brothers starved to death in a tent out in a field here.
One evening a soldier came along the road to our house, and spoke to me. "Madam," he said, "could you give me a piece of bread?"
He was actually staggering for want of food. I got a plate of bread, and the children came out with me to see him. There were five of them. "Do all these children belong here?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"I have a houseful of children myself at home," he said, "and I'd want to murder any man who'd go there and eat their bread. Save every crumb you have. You don't know how long this siege will last."
He turned and walked off as fast as he could go, apparently in haste to get away from the food which he might be tempted to accept. Two of the little girls ran after him, each with a slice of the bread, and urged him to take it. But he refused to do so in spite of his sore need. I consider him one of the bravest men among the defenders of Vicksburg.
His was not an isolated case either. When the Federals got into the city they broke open the warehouses and were dumbfounded to find in them great quantities of provisions. Our starving troops had never touched them because they were private property.
After a siege of about seven weeks poor Vicksburg was humiliated into a surrender, and we sat in sackcloth and ashes. The surrender occurred on the Fourth of July, a day that belonged to North and South alike. It could just as well have taken place on the third, but Grant wanted the big thing of capturing the stronghold on the Fourth, even though men were suffering here for lack of food. Many a good fellow starved to death because of that delay, It was a mean thing in Grant to demand such an arrangement and a mean thing in Pemberton to agree to it. I've never forgiven them. They both got their reward. Grant himself starved to death — not because he didn’t have food but because he couldn’t eat; and Pemberton died in obscurity and no one had any respect for him.
The Federal troops marched into town right past our place. Among the rest were some colored troops, and every last one of those negro men had on a big blue army overcoat. It was a hot midsummer day and they were sweating to beat the band, but no doubt they were happy in their gay military attire and proud of their release from slavery. They were Uncle Sam's children now, and every man was going to get forty acres and a mule — at least that was what they were told as an inducement to enlist.
One of the niggers was carrying an American flag. He had it over his shoulder and it was trailing along in the dirt. The road was very dusty. I don't believe it had rained but once during the entire siege. That sight took away all the respect I had for the flag and I said, "They've turned their flag over to the niggers — let the niggers have it."
Ever since the Union forces closed in about the city there had been one of their flags over on their breastworks that we could see from our house. I used to point to it and say to our soldiers: "If you capture that flag treat it with respect. Roll it up and bring it to me. I'll take care of it."
But after what I saw of the way its defenders allowed it be mistreated when they were marching into Vicksburg I can't think of it with affection any more. I've made up my mind, too, that it is not nearly so beautiful as our original Confederate flag — the one that had three broad stripes and a blue field of stars. Really, the American flag looks like an old bedquilt.
The Confederates had a cannon on this hill that they called "Whistling Dick," because its discharge was always accompanied by a peculiar whistle. No matter how many other guns were firing you could distinguish that sound; and, besides, the gun had individuality in its appearance, for it was very, very long. We could depend on its accuracy, and it was a pet with the soldiery, and the citizens thought a whole pile of it, too. The troops hated to have Whistling Dick fall into the hands of the Federals, and on the night of July 3d they disposed of it. The story is that it was taken out in the Mississippi and sunk.
Another thing the soldiers did was to roll some of the cassions down into the gullies along here. There was a good deal of powder on the cassions, put up in red flannel sacks, and the boys got hold of it. They'd learned from the soldiers how to lay a string of powder and touch it off so as to make a kind of fireworks. The boys stored the powder around here and there where they would have it handy. One day, by some mischance, a lot of it went off. It tore a great hole in the ground and blackened a near house and injured some of the boys.
My little brother Lem, six years old, was one of the boys who was there. Mother had started out to find him and call him to dinner when she heard the explosion. Some colored people got to the spot first. Lem and a colored boy of about the same age had been blowed up. The powder was damp or it would have killed them. One of those who hurried to the spot, alarmed by the explosion and the screams, was the mother of the colored boy. His clothes were on fire, and she stripped him. Next she stripped Lem, for his clothes were smoldering, too. Then one of the colored people brought some molasses and put it on the boys' burns, and another put on some flour.
They had started to carry Lem home when Mother and I met them, and I couldn’t help but laugh to save my life, Lem was such a sight. His face was scorched and his eyebrows burnt off. Usually he wore a palmetto hat that we'd woven ourselves, but some soldier had given him an army cap, and all his hair was singed off right up to the edge of that cap. His fingernails were blowed off, and we thought he'd lost his sight. "Are your eyes burnt out?" Mother asked.
"No," he said, "I can see," and he opened his eyes, "but you better go and find my shoes. I left 'em down there where the powder blew up."
Lem's fingers had to be tied up separately, and he couldn’t feed himself for six weeks. We had to pick the powder out of his face or he 'd have been marked for life, The colored boy was permanently disfigured because he took a knife and scraped his scabs off.
Unexploded shells were numerous all around here, and a free darky named David Foot gathered 'em up out on the line, took the powder out, and sold 'em for old iron. But one day, as he was digging up a shell, he struck it in such a way that it exploded and blew his legs off. He died shortly afterward.
I had one serious war-time adventure a year after the surrender. I was out with my horse riding on the battlefield. It was all grown up with tall weeds, and I was pushing along through 'em when I heard a negro's voice call, "Halt!"
I didn’t want to be stopped by a negro, even if he was a government guard, and I pulled my horse aside down into a trench out of sight. I knew some of those ditches ran a mile. That was farther than I cared to ride through a jungle of weeds. So after I had gone a short distance I urged the horse till he jumped with me up on the bank. Again I heard the negro shout, "Halt!"
I rode up to him and said: "Uncle, I'm lost. My patience alive! how these weeds do hide everything! Won't you please show me the way to the road?"
"Lady," he said, "if it hadn’t been for the wind blowing your veil just as you came up out of the gully so I knew you was a woman I should have shot you."
I suppose it was his duty to take me to headquarters, but I persuaded him to show me the road, and then I galloped back home as fast as I could.
Father had left the army and returned to us. He owned a wagon and two horses and for a while he drove regularly out into the country making trips that were ostensibly for the Yankees. But his main purpose was to smuggle medicine and things to the Confederates. The Union authorities caught onto his game presently, and confiscated his team.
Mrs. Vinton, a friend of ours, was another blockade runner, She was such a sweet-toned person you wouldn’t think sugar would melt in her mouth. Oh! she'd be so sweet to those Federal officers up at the courthouse that they'd do anything on earth for her; and yet she'd have helped the Confederacy to the last drop of blood in her body. She lived two or three miles out and drove back and forth in a little spring wagon. Apparently she was making her living by carrying the mail and bringing in vegetables, but all the time she was smuggling supplies to the Confederates and getting information for them.
My mother was born in Ohio, and that was one thing she was ashamed of and wouldn’t tell unless she had to. She came South when she was twelve, and she and all the rest of us were thorough-going Rebels.
Half a dozen Federal officers boarded with us for a time, and I was quite spiteful to them, and they were spiteful to me. We were always saying cutting things back and forth. But our family didn’t have better friends in the world than some of those Northern men. Once Mother was very ill and my sister went for help to a neighbor's and found a Federal doctor there seeing a sick child. She got him to come to our house, and as soon as they arrived she took me aside and told me who he was.
"H'm!" I said, "you call that man a doctor — that rough-looking feller! He can't come in to see my mother."
The man needed shaving very badly, and his hat was crushed in, and he was in his shirt sleeves. But my sister urged, and I yielded; and he certainly did bring Mother through her illness without any serious consequences.
We've kept up a correspondence with him ever since, and he always calls us "Dear Girls" in starting his letters. Not long ago he was here to a reunion and called on us. I saw him at the gate, and, thinks I, "In the name of sense, who is that great tall feller comin' in our yard?"
"You don't know me, do you?" he said when he got to the door.
"Hold on," I responded, "I'll place you in a minute. Yes, you're our Yankee doctor."
In one of the later battles of the war my husband was shot in the neck. When the men who were picking up the wounded found him they looked at his wound and said: "It's no use carrying him off. He can't live."
He held a cloth to the wound and lay there with the battle still going on. By and by a cavalryman took pity on him and got him onto his horse. The cavalryman sat in front and my husband behind. They hadn’t gone far when the cavalryman was shot and fell off dead. My husband fell off, too, and then he crawled and crawled until he got to a hospital. The doctors thought his was a hopeless case, and he lay there two days before he got any attention. They never probed for the bullet. He couldn’t talk above a whisper for a year afterward, and he always had to speak very slowly.
Do you know, that ball was the cause of his death? It shifted and pressed on a nerve going to the brain and gradually paralyzed him, but that was after he'd got to be a rather old man. We had to lead him around, and he didn’t recognize any one but me. He coughed right hard and choked, and he'd perhaps get only one meal a day. The rest of what he ate all came up. Besides, he had the rheumatism caused by walking in the army on ice and things without shoes.
Suddenly, one Friday afternoon, his paralysis left him, and he asked me how I was getting along and if I had kept up his life insurance. I knew he was failing and I talked with him about the things he might like to have done. One question I asked him was whether he wanted the minister to come to see him. "I can get the Episcopal minister," I said, "but there isn't a Presbyterian minister in the town just now."
"The Episcopal minister needn't call," he said. "I was born a Presbyterian and I'll die a Presbyterian."
The next morning, while I was getting breakfast, he wandered outdoors, and we found him in the yard dazed and helpless. He lived for three months, but he never knew anything again.
1 She said she was seventy, yet was so youthful in appearance and so sprightly in manner that I would more readily have assented to thinking her fifty. I called on her in a pleasant farmhouse on the suburbs of the city. We sat and talked in the parlor one warm afternoon while a grateful breeze blew in at the open windows.