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A Man from the Ranks 1
I WAS a young fellow of twenty-three, but I'd been in the army a good long time. We'd come all the way down from the Wilderness skirmishing and fighting battles to keep Grant from getting at Richmond.
My father's home was near Cold Harbor, and when we got here General Lee made his headquarters there. While we were in the vicinity I had a chance to visit the house a number of times. I reckon I hadn’t been home befo' for twelve months. Soldiers were camped all over the whole country roundabout, but there was no fighting on our place, for it was right smart in the rear.
At daybreak of June 3d we went into battle, but I haven't much to say about that. It's mighty little information a soldier can give concerning a big fight. All a man in the ranks done was to foller the man in front of him. He had hardly any chance to look around and seldom knew where he was goin' when he started somewhere. The feller at home near where a battle was being fought saw more than the soldiers did.
My regiment stayed two days on the fighting line here sharpshooting in the bushes. One Yankee got up within twenty paces of me. I was behind a tree, and he shot at me. The bullet took a piece of bark off. I reckon the tree was about eighteen inches in diameter, and as many as a thousand bullets must have gone in it. I saw afterward that it was killed. It was shot from bottom to top, and the bark was tore all to pieces. Trees bigger than a stovepipe were cut down by nothing in the world but Minie balls and lay all tangled up. Last fall they were sawing a big white oak log at a sawmill here and struck a grapeshot. That grapeshot broke every tooth out of the saw.
It was a red-hot fight we had at Cold Harbor. After the bloody struggle was over Grant's army lay near by for several days. One of the days was Sunday, but when these battles was goin' on we soldiers couldn’t tell when Sunday was, and that's the truth. One day was just like another.
My brother had married an Allison. He was in the army, and she had been stayin' at the Allison house, which stood right on the fighting ground. She had to get out before the battle began. The night after the battle my brother and his wife and some others of us got a permit to go to the Allison house to see what we could save. The Confederates had been in and around the house, and They'd thrown up breastworks right through the yard. Besides, They'd dug a ditch so they could go to the spring without exposing themselves. When my brother's wife saw that ditch she was very much distressed. "Oh! my money's gone!" she cried.
She had put some money in a cigar box. There was gold and silver. I don't know how much. Now she was sure it had been taken, but she scratched under a bush and found it. The ditch was within two feet of the spot. She didn’t cry no more.
The house had been riddled. You could see right through the roof and anywhere. The family couldn’t come back to it till it was made over. We went in and discovered that the cannon-balls had struck the feather beds, and the feathers were strewed all over the rooms. It looked like a goose nest in there. We couldn’t have any light for fear of drawing the fire of the enemy, but we could see those feathers without any light.
Everything was shot to pieces. There was nothing left hardly that was worth a cent. We gathered up some of the feathers into old bags and ticks, and we got quite a lot of clothing and a number of cups and saucers and more or less other tableware. The bullets were shooting in our direction all the time, but there was considerable talking and giggling among us as we felt around for things to carry off and tried to bundle 'em up. Several times the Confederate sharpshooters came to the house to beg us not to make so much noise. They were afraid the Federals would think something unusual was goin' on and we'd get a volley instead of scattering bullets.
There were seven of us, and we brought away a ton from the house that night. After we'd gone about half a mile we reached our command. We put the things in an ambulance there and sent 'em to my father's house.
My brother's wife never saw her husband any more after that night. He got killed in a battle a little later.
One of my uncles was in Lee's army when it fought here, and his house was not far from where the fightin' was fiercest. He had a log house, but the logs was hewn down flat, and it was plastered inside. You could make a fine house by fixin' it that way, but of course, if it was set on log pillars, as most of our houses were, it would be let down when the pillars rotted and would be one-sided.
At the time Grant's troops got here only my aunt and her two little girls were at home. There was some fightin' the day before the battle, and they could hear the firin' of the guns, and the roads was just crammin' full of Union soldiers. The soldiers scattered out all around my uncle's place, and they was in the woods killin' his hogs, shoats, and things. My aunt was mighty grieved at that. But they was very good to the family and posted a guard at the house.
Just befo' night a negro who was passin' spoke to my aunt sayin': "Oh, Miss Sarah! don't stay here. You'll be killed. Go on away."
She turned to her oldest girl, who was about thirteen, and asked, "Who is that?"
The negro saw that she didn’t know him, and he said, "I'm Mr. Vicker's colored man."
He was an old darky who belonged to a neighbor, but had gone away and deserted to the Yankees. Probably he cooked for 'em.
My aunt didn’t think she could leave the house and her things, and she went about gettin' supper, but they were all frightened most to death. The firin' seemed to be very near, and the artillery had begun throwin' bumbshells. Those shells made a great fuss a-whistlin' like as they came over. That was what scared my aunt and her girls so much.
By and by two shells fell right in front of the house. One of 'em burst and tore a great hole in the dirt only about two rods from the chimney. The children were cryin': "Let's go! We'll be killed!"
"Well, I'll go," my aunt said; "only wait till I get a few things."
So she picked up her money and jewelry and some other valuables and made a bundle that she could carry in her arms. The soldiers were comin' through the fields everywhere by that time gettin' out of the way of the Southerners. My aunt and the girls started and the guard went with them. They could all make their steps, and they hurried along as fast as they was able. It was getting sort of dusky. They went through the woods and by the big millpond about a mile to a house and stopped. But the artillery was bumbshellin' so hard that in a little while they went to the next house. There they stayed over night.
In the morning they came back home. When they got in sight of the house their guard said: "I'll leave you now. You're all safe."
They thanked him, and he went off as fast as he could run, for he knew that our men were not far off. After they reached the house my aunt noticed that some one had slept in her bed. "I don't know who it could be," she said.
Just then my uncle walked into the room. He'd spent the night in the house. He thought they would come back, and he'd been watching for 'em. As soon as he saw them coming he cut across, and he was settin' behind a worm fence close to 'em where they parted from the Yankee guard. "I had my gun," he said, "but I wouldn’t have killed him for the world after he 'd been so kind to you."
My uncle had been down in camp in the Chickahominy Swamp, and he told how he was cookin' bread there when a great big shell come in the fire and threw the bread way up yonder. He didn’t know where it went. The men that was there got their drinkin' water from a crick near by.
A dead horse was layin' in the crick, but my uncle said the water tasted mighty sweet to 'em.
He had to join his regiment, and his family refugeed again. When they got back the best part of the house had been pulled down and used for breastworks.
A good many families had been run out of their houses the same as my uncle's family. There were six ladies with their children who had refugeed at my father's house. They'd fallen back and left everything and didn’t even have food to eat. Our company drew three days' rashions, and all of us agreed to give the rashions to those suffering women. We left the food at my father's and went without food ourselves. I've gone hungry for three days many a time in the army.
We were particularly badly off after Richmond was evacuated. The commissary issued nothing but raw corn, three ears for a day, a ear for each meal. You'd see men goin' along the road eatin' the raw corn. If we were in camp of a night we might make a fire and parch the corn. But Sheridan's men were around and they'd shoot if they saw a light. So if any of us started a fire the others would shout, "Put that out"; and we'd have to eat our corn raw again.
1 At the time I met him he was living with a local farmer for whom he worked. No doubt he was an excellent helper, for though somewhat stiff with age he was big and strong and intelligent, I made his acquaintance in the evening when he was sitting with his hat on in the kitchen of his employer. The housewife was busy there about her work, and just as I entered had picked up the oil can to encourage a refractory fire in the stove. The oil was administered with a resultant flash and bang and smudge that were more startling than agreeable.