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The Slave Blacksmith 1
I BEEN in this region all my life — eighty years. In my young days I belonged to Mr. Lewis, and I had a little blacksmith's shop right hyar at Groveton where I live now at the cross-roads. There was only two or three houses hyar then just as there are to-day.
The Confederates had been kickin' up around hyar for some time befo' the battle. Oh land, yes! and they had fo'ts six miles from hyar at Manassa' and had held fo'th there a good while.
We colored people knew that the war was on foot, and we thought slavery wouldn’t be allowed any mo' if the North won. Very few of us could read at all or even knew the alphabet, and our masters would have kept us ignorant about the meaning of the war, but the news leaked out so we got hold of it slightly. As the war went on the North had enough well-wishers among the colored people for them to be twenty-five thousand strong in its armies on the field. I heard one colored man say that he'd rather lose his wife from his family than have the North beaten.
We wanted liberty — we wanted to be free men and women, and not like the Children of Israel in bondage in Egypt. We wanted to inherit the promised land. In the old slave times I've known men to freeze to death they were so thinly clad. They'd have ragged jackets and no undershirt, and old patched trousers with no drawers underneath. Exposure and poor living made the slaves get pleurisy — what we call pneumonia now — and they'd have rheumatic pains. Planters from farther South would come hyar to market and buy up laborers for their tobacco and cotton plantations, and I've seen those slaves goin' along handcuffed, and they'd be put in jail at night to keep 'em from tryin' to escape, We wasn’t allowed to go visitin' from house to house. They had paterollers who went about on horseback at night and patrolled all the roads. Those paterollers would come to your house to see who you'd got there, and who was out of place. If they found you on the highway without a pass from your boss, and you couldn’t give a satisfactory account of yourself, they'd lay on so many lashes.
Well, as I was sayin', we had Confederate soldiers all around this north coast befo' the battle of Bull Run, and we were a-lookin' for a battle but didn’t know which way it would be comin' in. Things kept kind o' quiet till the middle of July. Then, on a Thursday, mind you, the Union troops come down through a little village called Centerville, six miles east of hyar, and a long-range cannonade was begun. There was no musketry. It was just a little artillery skirmish with guns stationed on both sides of the Run firing back and fo'th.
Our employers took a big lot of us slaves down in the Bull Run bottom to blockade the road by chopping down trees. The trees were great big oaks, and four men would chop at a single one at the same time. After we'd cut a tree till it wouldn’t take much to throw it we'd let it stand, but of co'se some few trees fell without our intending to have 'em. When we'd got enough fixed we sat down right there waiting for orders. If the enemy got too strong we was expected to bounce up, throw the trees, and escape. We stayed on the field Thursday night just as the soldiers did. Friday the Union troops fell back to their camp, and we slaves went home.
Sunday morning come around. Everything was calm, and the sun was shining bright and hot. I'd had my breakfast and was standing in the yard befo' my shop door lookin' to see what I could see when I heard the boom of a cannon. I looked down the Fairfax Road and seen a smoke raisin' above the trees. Then I heard the pop of a return shot from the Southern side. The cannon kept on firin', and the people around hyar were all lookin' on from their houses. This is high ground and we had a beautiful view.
About ten o'clock the Union infantry crossed Bull Run, and then I could see 'em goin' helter-skelter crossways and every way hardly a mile distant. Yes, I could see both gangs and the whole maneuvering. My Lord! I was lookin' right at the smoke blazin' out of the guns. There was a constant flicker of firin', and the noise was mo' like a hailstorm on a roof than anything else I can compare it to. I didn’t go home to get any dinner that day. I had something else to think about. It was a very exciting time, I tell you. It was, indeed!
The fighting that I could see was over in an hour or so, but the bombooing and bumming continued until about two. Then the whole Northern army retreated. We couldn’t see the men, but we could see a mountainous cloud of dust rising up through the tops of the trees from the roads they were on. The Southern troops followed 'em across the Run and kept up their cannonading until about four o'clock.
When we colored people knew the Northern army had been beaten we felt just like we were worse off than we ever was, and we thought we'd be barbarously treated. The South knew in its soul that our sympathy was on the other side. I've heard our masters talkin' that way, and they used to tell us so. Whatever they said we had to keep silent and take the wink as good as a nod. We couldn’t argue. We just let a still tongue carry a wise head — that's all.
On Monday lots of people come from all directions and went perusin' on the battlefield, and I went over that way myself, but I soon turned back after I began to come across dead men. I'd seen enough. I heard the Southern soldiers say that some of their men were killed with poisoned bullets. The poison was in a thin piece of some different metal at the big end. I reckon I've seen a thousand of those bullets that have been picked up around hyar. When the ball went into a plank or a sapling or a man's body that poisonous plate stayed there and let loose the poison, even if the lead part went on and out. But Northern soldiers have told me that such bullets were just an invention for cleaning out the gun barrel as they were fired.
We saw a good deal of the soldiers all through the war — coming and going and camping and fighting. Once a Federal officer stopped at my shop, and his men stood lined up out in the road. While he was talking with me one of the men fell dead as a beef, shot by a bullet from the Confederates who were a full quarter of a mile away.
If the soldiers were camped anywhere near they'd be comin' to our houses to buy milk, butter, pies, or anything. I've had 'em in my house many a time, both Northern and Southern soldiers. Some were just as genteel as if they'd been born in a church. But you'd find scalawags, too —men who were filthy and with no behavior about 'em. They wasn’t accustomed to behaving, and no doubt they was rough in their own homes. Some of 'em was convicts cut loose from the Richmond Penitentiary. They were sent out hyar with the stripes on 'em to throw up breastworks, and they were just as mean and dirty people as the sun ever shone on.
We lost considerable in the line of things to eat. The soldiers would milk our cows out in the field and take the milk away, and they'd steal our chickens, geese, and turkeys. The Northern and Southern men was alike about takin' those things — one side stole just as much as the other. But I don't blame 'em for stealin' chickens — why certainly not. I'd do the same thing myself in their place. Yes, if I'd been for weeks and months out on the field eating only beef and hardtack, and I found a good fat hen I'd take that hen sure.
But of co'se we didn’t like to have our things carried off, and if we could ketch a man stealin', and could overpower him, we saved our property; and if we were not able to do that the things had to go 'long. There was no civil law then, and you couldn’t do anything more about it. When people refugeed and left their houses vacant the soldiers would go in and take the wearin' clothes and whatever else they pleased. Often though it was the neighbors instead of the soldiers that did such pilfering. Clothing was very skurce among the Rebels in the last part of the war, and they wore anything they could get on except United States blue. That wasn’t allowed. They had on a general mixture of clothing of all sorts, and they were ragged and dirty.
Sometimes we'd go to an officer at the army headquarters and say, "Sir, I wish to have a guard on my place."
The officer would say, "All right, but you'll have to be responsible for him and see that he's not jerked up by the enemy."
So a soldier would be detailed to go and protect your place, and he'd stay right there till he was ordered in, even if the balance of his troop went away.
After the Emancipation Proclamation I set up my own blacksmith shop and went to work. I felt like a man then, and as if I had something to work for. But some, as soon as they were free, quit work, and away they went, which was a great mistake. I have to acknowledge there's mo' loafing now than befo' the war. The slave had a man behind him with a bull whip, and was made to work whether he wanted to or not. But you go to the towns and villages now, and you'll find big, able-bodied men standing around doing nothing. A man I knew was offered a dollar and a quarter a day. He said he couldn’t board himself for that, and because the money wasn’t comin' fast enough he kep' on loafin'. But no man is wise to walk around a small job when he's out of work. Freedom ain't made us all thrifty, and though some colored men are worth thirty-five or forty thousand dollars others ain't worth a decent suit of clothes.
Perhaps you'd be interested to know that I seen a ghost on the battlefield once. There was a woman in the neighborhood whose company I was very fond of, and I often went to call on her. It was a lonesome road to where she lived and it went across the battlefield. One night I was startin' out to call on her, and I picked up my doublebar'led gun to carry along. I thought some dog might bother me, or I might see a wild turkey up a tree. I'd been out in the evenin' a while befo' and seen a turkey, and I came cl'ar home, got my gun, and crep' back and killed him.
Anyway, the gun was company, and I took it on my shoulder and started. The night was pleasant and the stars was shining, but the air was cool and the wind was blowin' pretty high. I walked along until I saw somethin' like a big black dog comin' across the battlefield. "If that dog attacks me I'll give him both bar'ls" I thought.
I felt pretty safe with that gun in my hands, for I'd never known it to miss fire. After cocking it ready for business I checked up to let the animal go by if it wanted to; but as soon as I stopped that stopped, too. Then, in a minute or so, it started on again. The country was all ripped up and the fences gone, and the dog came straight along from the field down in the hollow of the road. So I walked out on the edge of the road with my gun pointed right at where the animal was. I'd got within ten feet of it when, Blessed Lord! I saw it was nothing but a cedar bush. It was kind of a goose-egg shape and had been cut off, and the breeze of the air had made it roll. There's many a man would have run and always thought afterward he'd seen a mystery.
When I found out what it was I let the hammers down, throwed my gun up on my shoulder, and went on. Anyhow I had a good story to tell when I made my call.
1 He was a courteous, intelligent man, white-haired and spectacled, I visited him at his house, which, though weather-worn, was clean and comfortable.