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The Widow's Son 1
THEY fought the battle of Shiloh hyar early in the month of April back in 1862, when I was seventeen years old. My father was dead, and I helped Mother run our farm. This was a very rough, thinly-settled region then. Oh! there wasn’t near the people livin' hyar that there are now. Five miles north was Shiloh Church, the little log building which gave the battle its name, and two miles farther on was Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River where the Union troops got off the steamboats. The nearest town was Corinth, and so it is still. That's fifteen miles to the south.
We had a rather rude, old-fashioned, hewed-log house, but it was a great big one, about twenty by twenty-two feet, and two stories high. Near by was an outdoor kitchen with a hearth in it that went from one side to the other. If it hadn’t been for that wide hearth the little colored fellers would have got the building afire when they were left in there. The slaves liked to congregate in the outdoor kitchen after supper and sit around a big log fire and talk and laugh till bedtime. They lived in four or five one-room log cabins about sixteen feet square. The cracks between the logs was daubed with mud, and the cabins was right comfortable.
The slaves wasn’t mistreated hyar, and they seemed contented. Farther south, where there were big quantities of 'em, they were bossed by overseers who were often pretty rough. But I don't think it was the general custom to abuse 'em anywhere. They were property, and it was for the owner's interest to keep 'em in good condition, and to send for the doctor if they were sick so they'd be cured and get back to work quicker.
The crops on our farm were principally corn, oats, and wheat; and we raised some horses and cows. There was a good range hyar, and we let the farm animals all run out. We fed our cows some so they'd give more milk and we'd have better butter, but the balance of the stock never got any home feeding unless in a real cold time in winter,
The hogs picked up their own living, too. They found plenty of mast, such as beech and hickory nuts and acorns, and in the fall there were muscadines all over the bottoms. The hogs loved those grapes, and they had no trouble getting 'em, for after the grapes got ripe the wind would shake 'em down. We called the hogs up often enough to keep 'em gentle. They'd have gone plumb wild if we hadn’t tended to 'em. Pork time come along about November, and then we'd get the hogs together by carrying corn to drop along and toll 'em all up into a fenced lot. We'd mark the ears of the young ones so they wouldn’t be taken by other people, and we'd pick out the ones we wanted to butcher and put 'em in a pen and feed 'em. When the weather got good and cold, and the hogs were fat enough we butchered 'em. Then we'd have bacon and sausage, and we'd have souse made out of the feet and head. That souse was a kind of jelly. Hit was seasoned all up with different ingrediences and pressed, and the women Would slice it out about like tobacco plugs and put it on the table cold.
The folks hyar went a hundred miles to Memphis or Nashville to market. Hit took two weeks to go and come. They'd carry cotton and a heap of eggs, poultry, and things like that, and bring provisions back. The produce was loaded into a covered wagon with a bottom that bowed down low in the middle. Four yoke of oxen were hitched to it, and the farmer and a nigger man would set back under the cover and guide the steers by hollerin', "Gee," and, "Whoa, come," to 'em.
Not much land had been cleared, and we had as fine timber in the bottoms as ever you see anywhere in the world. Some of the oak trees would make a thousand rails. A heap of good oak timber grew on the uplands, too, but it was more knotty and not so large. The uplands have been powerfully butchered. We'd deaden the trees—girdle 'em, you know — and when they fell we'd roll 'em up in a heap and burn 'em to get 'em out of the way. There was lots of squirrels jumpin' about in the woods, and game of all kinds was plenty.
Before the battle our Confederate army was stationed at Corinth, and our cavalry would come out hyar tryin' to notice if the Federals had made any inroads. There were boys from this region in both armies. We used to call those that were fighting on the Northern side "homemade Yankees." One of the officers in Grant's army was a man who had been quite prominent in our local politics, and his troops captured a young cavalryman whose home was in this neighborhood. So the prisoner's father went to that officer and said: "I'd love to have you let my boy off. I've always voted for you"; and the officer allowed the boy to go.
The first little bad time we had was one day about a fortnight before the battle. I was down hyar at the creek with a nigger or two. We were clearing new land, and the niggers was girdling trees and cuttin' bushes, and I was bossin' 'em. We was close to the road, and by and by I heard some one call out, "Halt!"
Hit was the first time I'd heard that word. I looked and saw a Confederate soldier and two citizens sitting on their horses out on the road. They'd been after the mail. A little farther off were some Yankees who called out, "Advance!"
"I'll be blessed if I'll advance," the Confederate soldier said, and he and the citizens started to ride away.
Then I heard a shot singing, and it went through and through one of the citizens. He tumbled to the ground and the other two galloped off. The man who was shot called me, but I was afraid to go to him, and the Yankees come and took him to the nearest house. They had one of their doctors tend to his wound, and after that the neighbors carried him on a litter about four miles to his home.
When I come on up from the creek to the house hyar it looked to me like the whole face of the earth was covered with Yankee cavalry and soldiers. As soon as I could I went to where the man who'd been shot was, and he whispered to me that he'd been bringin' a bunch of letters that our soldiers at Cumberland Gap had written to their home folks around hyar. After he fell off his horse he'd crawled to the fence and poked those letters through a crack, and he wanted me to get 'em. So I went right straight there and took 'em away.
The Union troops camped that night near our house, but evacuated back to Pittsburg Landing the next day. More and more of 'em kept congregating there, and some of 'em were out hyar every day or two. By the 6th of April they'd increased to forty thousand. They didn’t throw up any earthworks or take any special precautions because General Grant was expectin' the Confederates would stay at Corinth till he got ready to attack 'em. But General Johnston, the Confederate commander, brought his army out hyar. They had an awful time comin' with their wagons and cannon. Hit had been rainy, and the roads was so bad the cannon kept miring down, and the men had to be prizing 'em out with poles all the way. On some of these old bare knobs, where the ground is full of lime and nothing ever grows, the mud rolls up as a wagon goes over it and makes solid wheels and has to be cut out from between the spokes. The mud delayed the army so much it staved the battle off one day.
We knew there was goin' to be a hard fight, and I went to bed Saturday night expectin' it would come in at any minute. I didn’t sleep a wink. I heard the first guns at four-fifty-five the next morning, and the sound was like the popping of corn. The firin' got heavier and heavier, and soon the roaring of cannon was jarring the window sashes, and the musketry became a constant sound like a storm. But later the firin' would once in a while sort of cease, and we'd think maybe they was done. Pretty soon, though, They'd break out again.
The fightin' hadn’t been goin' on long when the wounded began to come back. Some walked, and some was hauled in ambulances. As many as could be accommodated come to our house. We moved the beds from the lower rooms upstairs, and the wounded were laid in there on pallets. They were arranged in rows with aisles for the doctors to go along and see what they needed, and they Were groanin' and takin' on, and it was mighty bad. Some had to have limbs taken off, and the doctors did the amputating on a table in the hall. The veranda was crowded With wounded, too, and so was the yard. They lay on the ground with just their blankets under 'em, though it was chilly weather and the ground was wet.
Quite a lot of soldiers come to the house askin' for food, and our old cook went to cookin' for 'em. She was a mighty good cook, old Nancy was. She'd pass out the food and the soldiers would eat it in their hands. Some had little pans in their haversacks to put food in. Nancy kept cookin' the biscuit and ham-meat and bacon, and things like that, till she cooked all that we had.
I was just a-standin' around there skeered right smart. Mother and I and my two little brothers went to a neighbor's house to stay that night.
The Yankees had been driven way back to the banks of the river, and most likely they'd all been captured if twenty-five thousand fresh troops hadn’t arrived. Hit looked to me next day as if our soldiers was runnin' away. They come scattering along two or three in a bunch at first, but by and by so many were retreatin' back that they were everywhere. All the time the ambulances was goin' through the mud to Corinth with the wounded, and the blood was shakin' out like the drivers was haulin' hogs just butchered. About two thousand men had been killed and eight thousand wounded on each side. I recollect it was several days before all the wounded were taken away from our house. I come up there every day to help wait on 'em, carryin' water or any little nourishment.
There was a right smart fight near by on Tuesday. A few of the Union troops come out hyar, and our men tackled 'em, and they went back faster 'n they'd come. After that the Union army moved very cautiously, but before long they established a camp about half a mile from us, and they were there as late as June. Some of 'em come into our house and looked around, but they spoke noways harsh to nobody.
Our hogs used to go to the camp right in among the tents, and they got very fat feeding on the litter, wastage, and slop, and the soldiers would knock 'em in the head on the sly and clean 'em and eat 'em. The soldiers killed a good many cattle that they picked up around the country. They got all of ourn. I don't think we had ary head left. But you couldn’t hardly blame 'em for takin' things to eat. I heard one soldier say his colonel would steal right in the middle of a battle if he had a chance. The soldier said he 'd seen the colonel ridin' around with his troops in action and a side of bacon under his arm.
That was a lawless time, and the army swept the country just like a cyclone. Hit took everything there was. Some of the soldiers was honest and would pay for what they got, but most would take things and go on. Often they would walk into a house and order the women to cook 'em a meal of victuals, but they never done us that-a-way.
We couldn’t make no crops that year. The troops went all through the fields, and where they marched they tore the fences down, and lots of the rails was burnt up in their campfires. An old rail burnt pretty good in a wet time. We took the rails that were left and condensed our fences. There was only enough to go around a couple of acres, and by the time we'd got the land ploughed and our corn planted it was the last of June, I reckon. We raised some roas'in' years, but the frost come before the corn was ripe.
The wagoners was drawing from Pittsburg Landing past our place to the camp, and they'd get off and help themselves to our roas'in' years. I'd holler at 'em, and they'd run like lightning, but that was all a pretence. Mother knew they wouldn’t listen at me much, and she complained to the wagon-master that they was takin' what little we had to live on. Then he give the teamsters an awful cussin' and scoldin', but I reckon that was pretence, too.
All our hogs had been taken, so I went off and bought two shoats and brought 'em hyar. The army wagons was haulin' corn, and so much fell out of the sacks and dribbled along the ground that our shoats would foller the wagons and get all they wanted to eat. We missed 'em one day and my brothers and I went to look to see where they was. We didn’t know what in the world had become of 'em. Pretty soon we found their hides and entrails by the wayside. The teamsters had skinned 'em and thrown 'em on their wagons.
Two of our horses was took and we'd have lost the other two if we hadn’t kept 'em locked up. By spring we had nothing to feed 'em on, and we would let 'em graze down in the creek bottom where we was commencin' to try to make a crop. They shrunk up and got pretty thin, but they picked up enough to keep alive.
One noon, after we'd been to the house and eaten dinner, we come back and the best horse was gone. I follered around the fence till I come to a place where it was let down, and there was the horse's tracks. He was tolerably fresh shod, and I knew those tracks was his, and I didn’t have no doubt that the soldiers had got him.
I was afraid to go over to the camp because I might he shot for a spy before I got there. But I kept a-studyin' about it, and I decided I must go. Hit was a dangerous errand, and I thought I ought to avoid suspicion by lookin' as much like a citizen as I could. So I got my little brother and put him up on the horse behind me. I had a saddle and he had a blanket to sit on. As we went on through the camp we met a feller comin' out ridin' the stolen horse. The horse had a cavalry rig on, but the little horse I was on and the stolen horse knew each other and tried to smell noses. I just jerked my horse away and proceeded on to headquarters.
The general was sitting out on the veranda of the house with officers all around, and I was too green and skeered to say anything. Pretty soon the general noticed that I was hangin' around anxious for something, and he asked what I wanted. I told him one of his men had taken a horse out of my field, and I couldn’t make a crop with the one little horse I had left.
"You come back to-morrer," the general says.
On the way home I passed the place where the army horses was grazin', and one of the men asked me if I'd got what I went after. He'd sort o' smelt a mouse, and he swore I'd better keep out of the camp. But the next day I put my little brother behind me and went to the general. He turned to one of his officers directly, and said "Lieutenant, you go with this boy and look over the camp, and if you find a horse he says is his bring the feller who has it hyar."
We found the horse tied to a stake among the tents, and the officer said to the man who had stolen it, "You go with me."
We went to the general leadin' the horse, and the man said, "I found him out hyar on the commons."
"Well, old man," I says, "I don't know as I know what commons are, but you got him in the field where I was ploughin'." He wasn’t an old man, but that was what I called him.
Then the general said, "Lieutenant, you take this man away and we'll punish him."
I went back home with the horse, but he was so goodlookin' I was afraid he'd be stole again, and I sold him after I'd made a crop. You had to have some old shag with his back skinned, and pore and boney, if you wanted to keep him.
1 The narrator was a large-framed, stoop-shouldered man with a long white beard. I met him in his home yard and observed that his failing eyesight compelled him to feel his way about with a cane. While he told his story we sat on the porch of his large, plain farmhouse. Roundabout were irregular fields in thin oak woods.