Here to return to
BESIDE THE RAPPAHANNOCK
I WENT into northern Virginia with the especial purpose of visiting the Wilderness of Civil War fame, but on the way thither spent considerable time at the old town of Fredericksburg where another of the great battles of the war was fought. One of the first things to which my attention was called was a scar on a building near the railroad station “made by a Southern bombshell,” and the town looked as if it had never wholly recovered from that battering of a half century before. It is high on the west bank of the muddy Rappahannock, and is a trading center for the farm country around. The long Main Street is lined by two and three story brick buildings with roofs that pitch toward the street and massive chimneys. In the residence districts are beautiful homes environed by a wealth of trees and vines, and many quaint or shabbily picturesque dwellings of both white and colored folk of the humbler classes. On the June day that my acquaintance with the place began a light breeze fluttered the leafage, and now and then a puff of wind stirred the dust in the streets, but the heat was nevertheless oppressive, and everyone who could do so kept to the shade.
Old homes in Fredericksburg
In my leisurely rambling I came across an old colored woman sitting in a broken-backed chair in front of a low-eaved brick house where poverty and squalor were very evident. Some of her one-garmented little grandchildren were playing contentedly in the dirt before the door. I spoke with her and learned that she had lived in the vicinity all her life, and that at the time of the battle she had occupied a house five miles from the town “right up the plank road.”
“Me ‘n’ my children and husband lived there,” she continued. “The house was a log cabin with one room downstairs and one upstairs. We wa’n’t slaves. My foreparents was Injun people, and we was jus’ as free as you are. I hearn my of gran’mother tell where they come from, but I done forgot.
“T’other day they were blastin’ up rock back of the town, and I says, ‘My gracious alive! puts me in mind of war time.’ That was a great old time, I tell yer. The shells was flyin’ over the top of my house — zee! zee! My Lord! I had a narrer escape, yes, sir. I would n’t like to see that time no mo’ if I could possibly help. I disremember what season of the year it was. It’s been a right smart while since then, and I’ve been through so many hard, rough roads and seen so much trouble some things have gone off my mind. But I think it was cold weather and that there was snow on the ground. My husband was scareder’n I was. He run, but I hid. I went down to a neighbor’s house where they had a cellar all bricked up, and I stayed underneath there.
“After they got done fighting I saw the wounded soldiers layin’ up in the bushes moanin’ and groanin’, some with their legs shot off, and some with their arms gone. The next day I was out in the woods on one of the little bypaths, and I heard groans and saw a man lyin’ in a holler with his feet right in the branch. I was scared nearly to death, and I took off and run as hard as I could go and hollered and told some soldiers. Yes, war time is an awful thing.
“We had the armies here a long while, marching and camping. Some of the troops was colored, and when they got here I thought the world was comin’ to an end they were so hard and so fiery. Perhaps a rush of soldiers would come at night and surround your house and order you to give ‘em what you had or they’d take your life, and you’d give ‘em the las’ crumb to save yo’self. But gin’rally the soldiers was mighty good to me. If I was short of food they’d give me hardtacks and beef, special when they saw I had a parcel of little children. They all treated me very polite, both sides. Some low character might go off and get liquor and then be dangerous, but if a man was steady and had any principle he’d not trouble you, unless you was kind o’ for’ard and frisky and encouraged ‘em. That wa’n’t my way. I never had anything mo’ to say to ‘em than I could help.
“They hired me to wash, and I did washing for one soldier who was a big rascal. He paid me off with a ten dollar note that was the prettiest thing I ever laid my eyes on, but ‘twa n’t any account. I was ve’y glad when they all went away, and I got shut of ‘em. Some went on such sudden notice that they had to take their clothes wet right out of the wash. Often they could n’t carry all that belonged to ‘em. They’d have the greatest quantity of things — pants and shirts and such like sent from home — and they’d leave ‘em behind. There was a big waste that time, but I saved right smart.
“It look like war was comin’ ag’in times are so rough. A dollar’s worth of groceries used to last half a week, but now won’t last a day. Why, jus’ the common white meat — I mean hog — what we call fat back, that you never see no lean in — costs fifteen cents a pound; and the idee of people havin’ to pay a dollar a bushel for corn meal! My goodness, if they don’t poke it onto you here!”
A young negro who had his chair tilted back against the housewall a few paces away made the comment that, “There’s nothing cheap now but soap and coal oil; and you can’t eat the soap, and you can’t drink the coal oil.”
“The worst of it is that they’re knockin’ down wages instead of raisin’ ‘em,” the old woman resumed. “You hear the men grumblin’, and sayin’ they don’t see how they can live. If a man with a family gets a dollar and a half a day, that’ll only pay for their grub, and all the time he jus’ gets right where he started at. On the farms the day wages are only sixty and seventy‑five cents, or if it’s a dollar you got to do two men’s work.”
“They have to work from six to six,” the young negro said, “and that’s a long day — you bet it is!”
“I went to Washington once,” the old woman said, “and I stayed three weeks. But I was raised here, and it seem I would n’t like no other place. My daughter was in Washington, and she was sick. She did n’t ‘cease while I was there, but got better and so I came home, and the next day she died.
“The only other time I been off was one day when I went across the river ‘bout ten miles. I visited relatives who live over that-a-way, and they were mighty frien’ly and kind, but it wa’n’t natural to me there. I won’t go out of Fredericksburg again. Let me stay here and die. It won’t be long, now. I suffer with a misery in my head. Some nights I have to get up and bind my head with a cloth dipped in vinegar, or else I could n’t stand it till next day. That’s made me lose my hair. It used to be real long, but now there’s not much left. Yes, it’s the same with me as with other people — we have so bad feelin’s in this world sometimes it look like we can’t live, but we get along tolerable well — things could be worse.”
About this time two of the younger members of the household returned from an excursion in the fields. One carried a pail of cherries, and the other a handful of daisies.
“That’s the way I used to do,” the old woman said.
“I’d climb the trees to pick cherries; and I’d pull the flowers and have ‘em on the mantelpiece or bureau, and they looked mighty nice.”
One of the youngsters made some remark to her that she thought was not properly considerate, and she said: “Old people ain’t much in the children’s eyes now. Things are turned around altogether late years from what they used to be. When I was comin’ along up, if a grown person spoke to me I’d mind without no jawin’, and I never had to be told to do a thing but once. I see little small boys goin’ along these days with a pocketful of cigarets and a box of matches. Smokin’ has got common among the women, too. They use pipes. Befo’ the war ve’y few women smoked, but they used snuff. They put it inside their under lip, and I thought that was the dirtiest-lookin’ trick I ever saw.
“We all worked hard then that was able, and if yo’ was to go to our homes durin’ the day yo’d find no one there but the old ones takin’ care of the little children. I worked in the corn and wheat fields, and I grubbed, and I split rails. I’d help saw trees down, and bark ‘em, and split ‘em to make bar’l timbers. I did n’t use to turn my back to anything. But now I can only jus’ sit around. It’s hard scuff, certainly.”
A spectacled, middle-aged colored man from across the street had joined us. He came ostensibly to ask the people of the house if “you-all were going to Sunday-school tomorrow,” but he soon observed the trend of my conversation with the old woman toward events in the past, and remarked: “I think you’d like to strike up with of man Grierson. The old-timey people have mostly died, but he was here when Noah built the ark; and he ain’t dumb either. He’ll tell you all that ever happened in these parts. I was born just before the war began, myself. My home was at Chancellorsville, and the soldiers came there and fought one day and then went away. What a change that one day did make in the look of the country! You would n’t know it, everything was so torn to pieces. It was the awful-est sight I ever saw in my life. We could hardly realize what had happened. I went out into the woods with my mother, holdin’ on to her dress, and we saw the limbs and trees and bushes all cut down by the chain shot that had gone slingin’ around through ‘em; and there were great piles of crackers, knee-high; and there were guns and harness and clothes strewed about; and there were breastworks that I’d climb up on and jump down from. I told my mother I wanted some of them guns, but she did n’t know whether they were loaded or not, and when I picked up one she’d say: ‘Put that down. It’ll kill you.’ But I took some of the bridles home and made a swing.
“I was still only a little boy when several of the neighbors come hurryin’ into our house in great excitement and said that Richmon’ had gone up. So I ran out and looked up hopin’ to see it. I thought it was some cur’us sort of buzzard or alligator — I did n’t know what it was. Well, I never saw nothin’, and I went back and spoke to ‘em about it; but they told me I did n’t have no sense and to go and set down.
“That was a great war. There was no jokin’ or foolin’ about it, and, by comparison, our war with Spain was nothin’ at all — or only a sporting thing that did n’t amount to the crack of your finger.
“The war made a great change in the condition of the colored people. Way back yonder, in the of time, when we had slavery, if a white man found a nigger had any learnin’ he did n’t have any use for him at all. If he caught you with a book in your hand he’d give you a thrashin’. But now you can’t go and get any good job unless you have some learnin’. You take forty years ago, and we all had to dig in the ground, and work was done with only the roughest sort of tools. You did n’t need any education to handle them. But that ain’t so with all the sulky ploughs and machines they use now; and yet there are still men who don’t know enough to be dissatisfied with their ignorance. I could show you a man in this town who works with a shovel digging sewers. He can’t read or write, and shovelling is about all he’s good for, but you ask him what he does for a living, and he’ll tell you he’s working in the sewer business, and he’s as proud of it as the man that’s bossing him.
“We all send our children to school, but I don’t think they have much liking for it. When the school year is about to start they’ll bust their brains out gettin’ ready to go, but they soon get tired of attending day after day. It’s the nature of some of ‘em that you can’t learn ‘em nothin’ nohow, and they can’t get to recognize A from a cornhouse top. They’ve just got the Old Harry in ‘em and go off fishin’ or something of that sort when they ought to be in school. Very likely others in the same family will be perfectly steady and grow up smart as a steel trap. I’ve got six children, and I understand ‘em. When they make believe they’re sick and want to do this, that, and the other thing instead of goin’ to school I have to foller ‘em up pretty close. I say to ‘em, ‘You’ve got to go to school and behave yourselves, or I’ll whip you and write the teacher word to whip you again when you get there.’”
Another negro with whom I talked was a dilapidated individual who was loitering at the back door of his home in a different section of the town. His trousers were patched and ragged, his suspenders were broken and pieced out with string, and his shoes were so worn and tattered it was a wonder that he could keep them on his feet. His house was as shabby as the man himself, but it was rather pleasantly situated, facing a park where the trees stood as thick as in a wood. “This is the tightest time I ever knew,” he said in a discouraged tone. “It makes a man feel bad when he can’t get money to pay his debts, and people are after him all the time. I used to raise most of the meat we needed, but they’ve kind o’ cut out hog-raisin’ in the center of the town. They told me to quit on account of this hyar little park, because people settin’ down thar would n’t like the smell.
A farm gate
“Whether I’m earnin’ anything or not the man that owns this house wants the rent every month, and I have to give him half of what I raise in the garden. I been renting this house for four years now, and in all that time I don’t believe the owner has spent five cents on it. I’ve had to do all the repairing myself. I wish you could see this back room when it rains. The water po’s in hyar so you could jus’ as well be out doors. The worst of it is that I’ve lost a child every year since I’ve lived hyar. They’ve put a sewer in this street, and I believe that creates disease. If it was forty or fifty feet underground like it is in the big cities it might be all right, but hyar it’s only five feet. Still, you’ve got to go when your time comes. We all live as long as we was intended to live.
“Do you see those big sheds beyond the park? That’s where the people from the country put their wagons and horses. They get hyar one day and go back the next. Among the sheds is one building where they eat and sleep. They take in a blanket and lie on the floor. There’s a cookstove in it they can use. They bring their own eatin’, but buy feed for their teams. Some come forty or fifty miles from way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ve seen as many as twenty-five wagons in the sheds. There’s always lots of ‘em Chuesday nights, but by Friday morning all the fur people have done wound up their business and started for home.”
While I was in Fredericksburg I attended a Sunday morning service in a negro church, and though there were certain crudities and peculiarities it was in most ways a credit to the intelligence of the people and their preacher. In the afternoon I mentioned this service to an elderly white man with whom I chatted as he sat on the sidewalk in front of his house. When our conversation first began his wife had opened the blinds of a window and looked out to see who was talking to him, and presently a youthful daughter came out and sat down at the foot of an adjacent tree.
“The nigger meetin’s ain’t what they used to be,” the man commented. “I’ve seen ‘em jumpin’ up and knockin’ over the benches when they were gettin’ religion. You don’t find much of that now except out in the country. They’ve got a little mo’ sense. But time was when we’d pass by a white pra’r meetin’ to go to the colored church and see the darkies carry on. Yo’d kill yo’self laughin’ at ‘em. I’ve got so blamed weak laughin’ I could hardly stand up. I lived for a while down in Caroline, and one night I and a feller named Gid Ashley went to a darky meetin’. The preacher, he got preachin’, and the people begun hollerin’, and some of ‘em would drop down, and yo’d think they was dead. Gid was scared, and he said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ but I made him stay. The friends of those that had fainted would rub ‘em and pat ‘em and shake ‘em, and as soon as they forgot their religion they’d come to.
“In a business way yo’ll find that as a rule the colored people are prosperin’. A country darky who has a little farm is apt to buy more land, a small amount at a time, until he gets a good big farm; or at least he’ll stir around and take care of what he’s got. Here in town most of the darkies own the houses where they live. The men work, and the women work, too. Supposing a woman cooks at some white man’s house — she’ll get pretty good wages, and they’ll give her the leavin’s from the table. Bigbugs don’t want food brought on a second time. So the cook gets it, if she has a family, instead of its bein’ dumped out into the slop barrel for the hogs, or taken down to the river. She’ll carry it home in a basket every night, and the family’ll never have to buy a mouthful to eat. That’s how a good many darkies get up in the world; and I’ll say this for ‘em — that some of their women here dress better’n the whites and are a good sight prettier. But I don’t like their mixin’ in with us, and wish they was somewhere by themselves.
“I was raised out in the country, and my great ambition, when I was a chunk of a boy, was to become an expert horseback rider. But our place was small, and we only kept one little mar’. Father hired the ploughing done in the spring, and kept the mar’ to look at. You never saw no one so choice of a horse as he was. Wunst in a while he and mother drove up to visit her folks, or they might drive to church, but he was so careful of the mar’ she never had to raise a trot — that would be too fast — and if she was goin’ down a slant he held her in as tight as yo’ please. He never took her out for fun, and in cold weather, if there was ice or crusted snow that might cut her ankles, he would n’t even drive her to mill, but would put the bag up on his own back and carry it. We had to have the corn ground to make our corn bread. We would n’t eat wheat bread more than once a day in old times, and we’d never think of havin’ any when we had b’iled victuals. We used to have ash pones common befo’ the war, and if they are baked right there ain’t no better bread made. Mother would get the corn pone ready, scratch a hole in the fireplace ashes, and brush that part of the h’ath clean. Then she put the pone down there on two or three big cabbage leaves, covered it with other cabbage leaves, and drew the ashes and coals out over it. The pone would bake as brown as if it had been in a stove, and if yo’ ate it in milk it was first-rate. I’d like it yet if we had a fireplace to bake it in.
“But I was speakin’ about father’s mar’. He kep’ the stable door locked. Bless your soul! he thought she was too good for me or anybody else to ride horseback. But after a while I made up my mind I’d ride whether or no. So one day when father was away I drew out the staple and got the door open. I wa’n’t big enough to reach up to the mar’s head, and I had to get into the trough to put on the bridle. Then I climbed up on the side of the stall and got on her back, and, unbeknownst to mother, went out and rode up and down the pike. But father came home sooner than I expected and caught me at it and thrashed me. That did n’t do no good. I kep’ on takin’ rides, and so finally he sold the mar’.”
Making a hoe handle
“He was mean to you,” the man’s daughter commented. “I don’t believe he went to heaven.”
“After I married,” the man resumed, “I come to live here in Fredericksburg, and pretty soon the war begun. In the battle that was fought here there was lots o’ destruction — Lord-a-massy! chimbleys knocked off, roofs broken in, and some houses so smashed up that afterward they tore ‘em to pieces and used ‘em for firewood. At first the troops fit across the town for a while. Then our force fell back on the heights and the Yankees follered us. But there we had the advantage of ‘em pretty smartly and soon run ‘em back into the town. They were often rather rough to the people who lived here, but perhaps that was partly because the Secesh wa’n’t very polite to ‘em. They’d come right into the kitchen huntin’ for somethin’ to eat, and they’d take the corn bread off the griddle with only one side done and eat it just as it was. My shack wa’n’t bothered much by ‘em. Four or five did start for to go down cellar where I had a good bit of harness and grub and tools packed away, but a feller in the Northern army who knew me come along just as they was pryin’ open the cellar door to begin their ransacking. He reported to an officer and got a guard appointed to see that no harm was done on my place. A good many of my neighbors had run off and left their houses, and they lost most all they had, but I reckon the citizens got as much as the soldiers did.”
On the opposite side of the street was a small, low building a few paces from the rear of a house. It had a great outside chimney at one end, and its mossy shingles and weatherworn walls proclaimed its age. “That’s an outdoor kitchen,” said my companion in response to a question of mine, “and it’s been standin’ there at least a hundred years. In the old ancient days all the well-to-do families had ‘em. The poor could n’t afford such a luxury. Everything for the family table was cooked in it both winter and summer. Perhaps you don’t think a kitchen outside of the house is convenient, but the goin’ back and forth was just as handy to the older heads as takin’ a drink of coffee. Yo’d find the most comfortable little room you ever see in there, with brick laid up between the studding to make it cool in summer and warm in winter. They use a stove now, but the joists and floor of the little loft above are all blackened with smoke from the old fireplace.”
The man’s wife had come to the door. “ It looks like we was goin’ to have a storm,” she said. “Well, that’s what we expect when the weather is as hot as it is now. Late in the summer we have a storm mighty near every evening, and if the whole heft of it don’t hit us we at least get the tail-end of it. We have lots of hailstorms, too, that tear up trees and everything.”
As I strolled back to my hotel the clouds gradually covered the sky with a threatening gloom. Presently night came, and I could see the lightning blinking in the distance and hear the grumbling of thunder. Then, after a prelude of gusty wind, the rain came driving down, and the people who were walking on the streets, or sitting on porches and sidewalks to enjoy the cool air, scudded to shelter.
The next day I went ten miles west on a narrow gauge road — “a little old one-horse affair” — to Alrich’s Crossing. Here was a board shed that served as a station shelter, and some straggling piles of sawed lumber. Not far away was a poor little house with a small clearing about it, and the rest was ragged forest from which all the large timber had been removed. But I did not have far to go to strike a main highway that was bordered by occasional farms where the land had been long cultivated and chastened into productive smoothness. In one of the yards was a colored woman washing clothes in some tubs set in the shade of a tree, and I inquired of her the way to the Wilderness Battlefield.
“This hyar is whar the battle of Chancellorsville was fought,” she said, “but yo’ keep right on up this pike road till yo’ come to a li’l’ of log cabin. Then yo’ll be up in the big woods, and thar was fightin’ all aroun’ thar.”
I tramped on into the big woods. The day was warm, but a light breeze was stirring and served to temper the heat somewhat. Cloudships were sailing across the blue sky, and up there where the misty fleet drifted so serenely I now and then saw a buzzard soaring on tireless wings. Birds were warbling in the trees, and grasshoppers thrilled the air with their strident notes. The road was one of those semi-barbaric thoroughfares of red clay which get deeply rutted while watersoaked in winter and spring, and later dry to adamant. Where the mud had been of the bottomless variety a rude sort of corduroy had been put in. The bordering woodland had been devastated by the lumbermen, and in places fire had nearly completed the wreck. Evidently the cattle were allowed to browse in its unfenced tangles at will, and I often saw some of them among the trees or nibbling along the shaded borders of the roadway.
Within a mile of Chancellorsville is a monument in the woodland beside the pike marking the spot where Stonewall Jackson was fatally wounded by his own men. The woods were not continuous, for every little while I would come to a scattered group of houses, mostly of logs, and these simple, unpretentious old log dwellings made the finicky new frame houses seem ugly by contrast. At one place was the little, barnlike Wilderness Church, and in an adjoining field a man and a barefooted boy were planting corn. The man said some sharp fighting had occurred in the vicinity, and that they often found bullets. “I’ve seen some this mornin’,” he added, “but I just let ‘em lie where they was.”
The Wilderness Church
Bullets were less commonplace to the boy, and he fumbled in his pocket and showed me several that he had found within the last hour or two.
“This fight was only a small affair,” the man said. “The Yankees were down along a little branch near the church. It was in the evening, and they’d butchered quite a lot of beef there and was cookin’ it. Jackson come in behind and surprised ‘em. I guess old Jackson was pretty slick. They did n’t know he was anywhere around, and they’d stacked their arms. When the Rebs come whoopin’ and yellin’ the Yankees left everything and run. But the Rebs did n’t pursue ‘em. They were so near starved that they stopped right there and e’t up the meat in a hurry. An old lady lives in the next house up the road. She can tell you all about it, for she was here at the time.”
I went on, and at the next house, inquired for the old lady of a little girl who was sitting in the yard under a big cherry tree. To my surprise a voice responded from the tree, and up there among the branches I saw a sunbonneted woman picking cherries. “You’re askin’ for that little girl’s grandmaw,” she said, and directed me to the house.
The walls of the house were of logs which had been hidden from view by weatherboards. When I went in I found the floors very uneven and sagging, and there seemed to be a bed or two in nearly every room, but all the appointments of the dwelling were very clean and tidy. In one room was a fireplace, still used in cold weather. As I saw it, however, it had been put in order for the summer. The andirons had been carried out to the shed and the stones of which it was made had been given a coat of whitewash. Apparently there had been a sort of whitewash carnival recently on the place. They had gone over the room-walls with it, and the outside walls, and the barns, the sheds, the fences, and even a row of stones beside the path that led from the house to the highway.
The old lady and I were soon discussing the war. “From the time it began,” she said, “there were soldiers goin’ up and down the road all the time, and by and by a Union army come here, and General Devens made this house his headquarters. Well, one afternoon, a deer ran out of the forest and jumped right over a soldier and ran on across the field. Then there was a great commotion and yellin’, and the soldiers tried to kill the deer, but I don’t think they got it. ‘Twould n’t have been much good if they had for ‘twas May, and the animal would have been right lean, I reckon. Deers were plenty then, but it seemed strange this one should come runnin’ out of the forest the way it did. I was always anxious for fear something would happen to my husban’, who was a guide for Jackson, and when I heard the shouting and firing I did n’t know but they’d caught him. It scared me most to death, and I hurried to the do’ and just then a spent ball struck the facin’ of the do’ and fell at my feet. I’ve thought since that ought to entitle me to a pension.
“Some of the Yankees got up in the tall locust trees that grew in the yard spyin’ the country over in the direction the deer had come from, and General Devens said there was goin’ to be fightin’. He was very kind and had one of his men take me and the children to a neighbor’s house where there was a cellar we could go into. We stayed there over night and till near the end of the next day without anything happenin’, and I begun to think of goin’ home. ‘Bout six o’clock in the evenin’ we was havin’ supper, and everythin’ was so peaceful, when they commenced firin’ up in the woods. A little Northern boy — a drummer — was in the kitchen, and he jumped up trembling. He knew there was goin’ to be trouble, and he said, ‘What would I give to be at home!’
“I could n’t help but wish he was there with his mother, he was so small. He grabbed up his drum and ran out. But he had n’t got across the yard before I thought he was killed. A piece of shell broke his drum all to pieces and stunned him. By then thousands of bullets were flyin’, and we all went to the cellar. When the fight was over, and we come out, the drummer boy was gone. He wasn’t killed, and after the war he got home and married and had a large family, so I was told.
“It was lucky that I was at a neighbor’s where there was a cellar, for the house here was right in the midst of the fight and was hit by a good many bullets. You can see the holes in the clapboards yet. The war ended finally, but the place was stripped of nearly everythin’, and I hope and pray there’ll never be another raiding through here.”
NOTES. — Fredericksburg is 54 miles, from Washington, half way to Richmond. It is interesting to the visitor as a quaint old Southern city, and still more so as the scene of a fiercely-fought battle in December, 1862. Back of the town is a huge national cemetery in which are 15,000 graves, and near by is a large Confederate cemetery.
Washington spent his boyhood near Fredericksburg, where his father was agent for some iron works. The family dwelling was a four-room house with outside chimneys, just below the town on the other side of the river. It is said that Washington distinguished himself as a boy by throwing a piece of slate across to the opposite bank. Here his mother died in 1789.
The battle of Chancellorsville was fought in May, 1863, 11 miles to the west, and a few miles farther away in that direction occurred the Battle of the Wilderness just a year later. The Wilderness battlefield can only be reached with some difficulty.