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A Maryland Maiden1
WE were all up in the Lutheran Church at Sunday-school on the Sunday before the battle when the Rebel cavalry came dashing through the town. The whole assembly flocked out, and there was nothing but excitement from that on. We just imagined something was going to happen, and the children ran home from church in terror. There was no dinner eaten that day. The people were too frightened. We'd go out the front door and stand waiting to see what would be next to come.
I was twenty years old then. My father was a blacksmith, and we lived in this same big stone house on the main street of the town. I suppose the house was built a hundred and fifty or more years ago.
Most of us in this region favored the Union, and the ladies had made a big flag out of material that the townspeople bought. For a while we had it on a pole in the square, but some of the Democratic boys cut the flag rope every night. So we took the flag down and hung it on a rope stretched across from our garret window to that of the house opposite. In pleasant weather it was out all the time. But when we heard that Lee had crossed the Potomac Pa began to be uneasy, and he says, "Girls, what you goin' to do with that flag? If the Rebels come into town they'll take it sure as the world."
He thought we'd better hide it in the ground somewhere. So a lady friend of mine and I put it in a strong wooden box, and buried it in the ash pile behind the smokehouse in the garden.
When the Rebel cavalry went through that Sunday we had no idea what they were up to, and we couldn’t help being fearful that we were in danger. We expected trouble that night, but all was quiet until the next day. Then more Rebels came, and they nearly worried us to death asking for something to eat. They were half famished and they looked like tramps — filthy and ragged.
By Tuesday there was enough going on to let us know we were likely to have a battle near by. Early in the day two or three Rebels, who'd been informed by some one that a Union flag was concealed at my father's place, came right to the house, and I met 'em at the door. Their leader said: "We've come to demand that flag you've got here. Give it up at once or we'll search the house."
"I'll not give it up, and I guess you'll not come any farther than you are, sir," I said.
They were impudent fellows, and he responded, "If you don't tell me where that flag is I'll draw my revolver on you."
"It's of no use for you to threaten," I said. "Rather than have you touch a fold of that starry flag I laid it in ashes."
They seemed to be satisfied then and went away without suspecting just how I'd laid it in ashes.
Tuesday afternoon the neighbors began to come in here. Our basement was very large with thick stone walls, and they wanted to take refuge in it if there was danger. There were women and children of all ages and some very old men. Mostly they stood roundabout in the yard listening and looking. The cannonading started late in the day, and when there was a very loud report they scampered to the cellar.
A lot of townspeople run out of the village to a cave about three miles from here near the Potomac. The cave was just an overhanging ledge of rocks, but shells and cannon balls would fly over it and couldn’t hurt the people under the cliff. I reckon seventy-five went to that cave.
Before day, on Wednesday, a cannon ball tore up the pavement out in front of our house. Oh my soul! we thought we were gone. There was no more sleep, but most of us were awake anyhow. After that, you know, we all flew to the cellar. Very little was stored in there at that time of year. We carried down some seats, and we made board benches around, and quite a number of us got up on the potato bunks and the apple scaffolds. We were as comfortable as we could possibly be in a cellar, but it's a wonder we didn’t all take our deaths of colds in that damp place.
We didn’t have any breakfast — you bet we didn’t — and no dinner was got that day, or supper — no, indeed! We had to live on fear. But a few of the women thought enough to bring some food in their baskets for the children. The battle didn’t prevent the children from eating. They didn’t understand the danger.
A number of babies were there, and several dogs, and every time the firing began extra hard the babies would cry and the dogs would bark. Often the reports were so loud they shook the walls. Occasionally a woman was quite unnerved and hysterical, and some of those old aged men would break out in prayer.
In the height of the fighting six Rebel soldiers opened the basement door and said, "We're comin' in, but we're not a-goin' to hurt you."
We had a spring in the cellar. The water filled a shallow tank, and that was where our family got what water was used in the house. Those refugee soldiers went back in a little nook right next to the spring. There they stood like sardines in a box, and every once in a while one would slip down into the water.
We had two cows and a horse in our stable, and at dinner time Mother and I went to feed 'em. We climbed up to pull down some hay and found the haymow just full of Rebels a-layin' there hiding.
"Madam, don't be frightened," one of 'em said to Mother. "We're hidin' till the battle is over. We're tired of fightin'. We were pressed into service, and we're goin' to give ourselves up as soon as the Yankees get here."
And that was what they did, When the Yankees rushed into town these Rebels came through the garden and gave themselves up as prisoners.
There were deserters hid in every conceivable place in the town. We had a lot of sacks of seed wheat on our back porch, and some of the skulkers piled the sacks up on the outside of the porch three or four feet high, as a sort of bulwark, which they lay down behind to shelter themselves. How they did curse their leaders for bringing them into this slaughter pen. They said they hoped the hottest place in hell would be their leaders' portion.
Some of the townsmen in the cellar would come up and venture out under the porch, but they were afraid to stay out; and the danger wasn’t just fancied either. A shell exploded right out here at our front gate and killed or wounded seven men.
And yet, mind you, on Wednesday afternoon, another girl and myself went up to the attic, and though the bullets were raining on the roof, we threw open the shutter and looked out toward the battleground. We were curious to know what was going on. The bullets could have struck us just as easy, but we didn’t seem to fear them. On all the distant hills around were the blue uniforms and shining bayonets of our men, and I thought it was the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life. Yes, there were our men, advancing cautiously, driven back again and again, but persistently returning and pushing nearer. My! it was lovely, and I felt so glad to think that we were going to get them into town shortly. We stayed up there I suppose a couple of hours at that little window, and then old Dr. Kelsey came hunting for us and made us come down. I shall always remember what we saw from that window, and many times I go up to the attic and look out, and the view brings it all back.
In the evening mother and I slipped down to the stable and did the milking. But afterward we went back to the cellar, for the firing kept up till ten o'clock. Then we came up and snatched what little bit we could to eat. We didn’t cook anything but took what was prepared, like bread and butter and milk. Our neighbors who had been in the cellar didn’t attempt to go home. Some of the older ones we accommodated in beds, others lay on the floors, but the best part of the people sat up all night and watched, for we didn’t know what was going to come on us.
About midnight we heard the Rebels retreating. Oh! the cannon just came down the hill bouncing. And the cavalry — my! if they didn’t dash through here! The infantry, too, were going on a dead run, and some of the poor, hungry fellows were so weak they were saying to their stronger comrades, "Take hold of my hand, and help me along." A lot of 'em were drownded in going across the Potomac.
We were overjoyed to know that our men had won — yes, we certainly were happy. Well, the next morning everything was quiet. It was an unearthly quiet after all the uproar of the battle. The people who had taken refuge with us saw that the danger was over, and they scattered away to their homes. Father and I went out on the front pavement. We could see only a few citizens moving about, but pretty soon a Federal officer came cautiously around the corner by the church. He asked Father if any one was hurt in the town and said they had tried to avoid shelling it, and he was awful sorry they couldn’t help dropping an occasional shell among the houses.
I lost no time now in getting our flag from the ash heap so I could have it where it would be seen when our men marched into the town. I draped it on the front of the house, but I declare to goodness! I had to take that flag down. It made the officers think our house was a hotel, and they'd ride up, throw their reins to their orderlies, and come clanking up the steps with their swords and want something to eat. So I hurried to get it swung across the street, and after that, as the officers and men passed under it they all took off their hats. Their reverence for the flag was beautiful, and so was the flag.
I had a little flag in my hand, and while I was waving and waving it and cheering our victorious troops some prisoners marched by, and, bless your soul! among them I saw the very men who had demanded the big flag that was now suspended across the street. They looked at the flag and at me and shouted, "You said it was burned!" and they cursed me till some of our men drew their swords and quieted 'em down. "We'll settle with you when we come through here again," they called back, but they never came.
Our men were much cleaner and better fed than the Rebels, and their clothing was whole. The trains soon arrived with the hardtack, and there were baggage wagons and ambulances and everything. We had our men here with us quite a while camped in the town woods, and so constant was the coming and going of troops and army conveyances on the highways that we didn’t get to speak to our neighbors across the street for weeks. Those were exciting times, but we felt safe. of course there were some common, rough fellows among the soldiers, but as a general thing we found them very nice and we became much attached to them. When they went away it left us decidedly lonely here.
As for the day of the battle, it was tragic, but after the fighting was all over and I just sat and studied everything that had transpired a good deal was really laughable.
Well, the region was dreadfully torn to pieces by the conflict, but now you see no trace of it only the cemeteries.
1 We chatted in one of the old-fashioned, wood-panelled rooms of her ancestral village home. She was a slender, elderly gentlewoman, but though the years had left their mark they had in nowise subdued her natural alertness and enthusiasm.