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The Cave Dweller 1
AT the time Vicksburg was besieged I was a little girl only seven or eight years old. My father was in the ice and coal business here, and he had a cotton plantation up on the Yazoo River. He owned four hundred slaves, but lost them all as a result of the war. That was as unfortunate for them as it was for us. Abolishing slavery was a great mistake. The negroes are not a race that can stand being free. They're lazy, and you have to drive 'em if you want to accomplish anything. They have no capacity for system and order or thrift, and they are born gamblers. They will gamble the clothes off their backs. Oh! I know them just like a book. They have no cleanliness and no morals — none at all. They never learn anything, and education ruins 'em. One of their weaknesses is a great fancy for fine raiment, and they dress better than the whites. If you have a colored housemaid you're obliged to look out or she will go down street wearing one of your best dresses. When I think of what the negroes are and the way they act it makes me so mad I can't see.
Paw was with us all through the war. He was a perfect martyr to asthma or he'd have been in the army. We had a nice large house on a hill in the residence section of the city, and right across the street was a claybank that rose from the wayside in a perpendicular wall. We dug out a room in the clay and used lumber off an old coal barge to make inside walls, ceiling, and floor. Tremendous posts held up the ceiling and made us safe from any loosening of the earth above. On the outside of our cave were plank slanted down from the face of the clay cliff, and one end of this plank leanto was closed in, and at the other end was a door. It is very dry here in summer, and we had no trouble from water leaking down through. In fact, I don't remember any special discomfort connected with the caves.
Six of us occupied our cave — all women and children. We had a pail of drinking water in there that we brought from the house. For light we had candles that we'd made. Our beds consisted of wooden horses with planks on 'em, and mattresses on the planks.
Vicksburg was a place of six or seven thousand people, but a good many of them refugeed. A portion of those who remained moved into their basements during the bombardment. Cave digging, however, was very general, and some of the caves remained for a long time. One child only ten days old was carried with its mother into a cave, and I recall that a child two years old died in one of the caves. Some people stayed in the caves continually, and had their meals brought there from their houses.
The bank where we dug our cave had several other caves in it. There were two Presbyterian ministers in town, and one of them came into the cave next to ours late one afternoon and lay down and went to sleep. By and by the lady who owned the cave came and found him. It was night then, and she told him she needed the cave for her own use, but the shells were flying and he was so scared he wouldn’t leave. She went out and sent word to the other Presbyterian minister, who was one of the best men on earth. He came and tried to get his fellow-preacher out. But that man was just a born coward, and urging had no effect. It took four or five men to eject him. We children stood around outside laughing. His congregation couldn’t forget that incident, and he had to leave after the war.
So far as damage to life and limb were concerned the Yankee guns that were shelling us from beyond the bend of the river were almost negligible, but they wanted to make a noise to let us know they were there, I reckon. Nevertheless, there was danger enough to keep us always anxious. Once Paw was lying on the sofa in the hall. It was the middle of the day, and he'd come home hot and tired and was trying to get some sleep while he waited till dinner was ready. There he lay, and a shell went through the parlor and exploded in the cellar and never woke him.
Early in the morning and toward night were favorite times for shelling. The ringing of the Catholic church bell for mass at six o'clock in the morning seemed to be a signal for the guns to begin firing. One morning an elderly Irishman was coming out of the church, and a shell took off his arm. The news of the casualty soon reached us at our cave, which was right back of the church, and, out of curiosity, we children ran up and looked at the man where he lay in the vestibule on the floor.
Another day the druggist's wife was standing at the back door of their house in her stocking feet, and a piece of a shell cut her big toe off. The doctor said the toe was taken off exactly like it had been amputated.
Sometimes the Yankee gunboats fired hot shot, and one night those shot started a fire just below us. A whole block of buildings was burned, and the gunboats kept on firing shells into town while the buildings were burning. Well, it was dreadful. We all got out of the caves to look at the fire. The rest of the town was very much in danger, for the only means of fighting the fire was a hand-bucket brigade. Our house would have been burnt if Paw and the negroes hadn’t gone up on top of it with wet blankets. I have been very fearful of fires ever since. A fire is the only thing that unstrings me entirely, I feel so helpless to combat it. I'm afraid of snakes, but I can kill them.
Paw was a good furnisher, and we didn’t suffer the way some did for food and other things. But I know we had to economize in shoes. It was so difficult to get them that when they were outgrown or worn out we Vicksburg children went barefoot. That was a real hardship to me, for I always cut my feet.
There was very little ice in the city. My father war an ice dealer, but he was shut off from his customary source of supply up the river in Illinois. So ice was just like gold in value, and he kept it for the sick and wounded. He wouldn’t let a well person have a bit of it.
We made coffee by toasting brown sugar till it was right hard and mixing it with toasted cowpeas and a little real coffee and grinding them all up together. We children were not supposed to have coffee, but the things children are not allowed to have they want to get. I've always been crazy about coffee, and I used to steal it.
One day Paw brought home some meat. He said it was jerked beef. We had it for dinner and thought it was very good, but we noticed, after we were through, that Paw hadn’t eaten his, and then he told us it was mule meat. He had brought it home just as a joke.
On the 6th of July, two days after the surrender, we had quite a number of paroled Confederate officers to dinner. For dessert we were to have peach cobbler, which is made like a pie only it is cooked in a deep dish, and real coffee was to be served. While the company was at table, between two and three o'clock, a demand came from Colonel Bingham, Grant's adjutant, that we should move out of our house at once. He wanted it for his headquarters. There were plenty of vacant houses, but he chose ours because he thought it was a fine residence.
Our guests left immediately, and the negroes got the peach cobbler and coffee. Father, after a good deal of effort, obtained permission to stay in the house over night. Even so we had to go to the basement.
During the siege we had taken some sick soldiers into the house, as was commonly done out of kindness right through the town, and they stayed in the servants' room. They were from Louisiana, and several were Creoles who couldn’t talk English at all. The sickness from which they were suffering was measles. One of them died in the house and we buried him in the yard. Soon my youngest brother and sister sickened with the same disease, and they were still sick when we had to spend that night in the basement. The basement had a brick floor and was damp and they caught cold. The result was that my sister became totally blind. She only lived a short time, and we buried her near the Confederate soldier. My brother never got his strength back, and a few months later he died, too.
The day after Colonel Bingham ordered us out we moved to another part of the town. He wouldn’t allow us to take a piece of furniture along with us, and there was no furniture in the vacant house we moved into. We had to sleep on rough mattresses on the floor. That was all we could get. The house was an old, dilapidated building that had been a good deal damaged by the shells the Yankees had shot through it. The roof leaked like a sifter and we had an awful time when it rained. If the storm was in the night we'd have to get up and move our beds.
There was a goldfish pond at our old home. It was right on the lawn. One day I went to feed the fish. When I returned the family was at dinner. I told them that I had seen some of the soldiers digging up our garden. It tickled me to death to think that those men were doing some useful work for us. I expected Paw would be tickled, too, but he wasn’t. He got right up from table and had a talk with Maw in the hall. It seemed that he and she and a negro man had buried our silver in the garden one night. The soldiers must have got an inkling of the fact from the servants. Paw went straight to General Grant and got a permit to get the silver, if it was still in the garden. The silver was there, but the soldiers had dug within six inches of it.
Besides the silver we buried all our marble slabs that were then the fashion for the tops of tables, bureaus, and mantles. Only one came out whole. The rest had been broken by the jarring of the shells that exploded in the ground.
Colonel Bingham had his carouses in the house so that the things in it suffered considerable. I believe in the end he went to the dogs from liquor. When he prepared to leave Vicksburg he packed up all our best furniture to send north, but Grant stopped him. Grant was a very just man. In November we got back our house.
We owned a number of cows and horses and mules. There was no stock law then, and in time of peace every one turned their cows loose and let them wander and graze. But we kept them up during the siege and tied 'em out on the street to eat grass. We had a very large lot adjoining the house, and when the town surrendered we put the stock in there, but the Yankees took cows, horses, mules, and all out of the lot just as if they belonged to 'em. The big frame stable that sheltered the stock was so battered by the shells it had to be taken down.
The children of the neighborhood liked to play Yankees and Confederates in our yard. We'd have mimic battles which always ended in the capture of the Yankees. One day we were at this game around the goldfish pond. The pond was right deep, but it was so small that we could jump across to an island in the middle. We fought with canes for guns, but this time we used the canes to splash water on each other. The Yankees were on the island, and we splashed until they cried, "Quit!"
As those of us who were Confederates were jumping across to capture them I fell in. The children could have saved me if they hadn’t lost their nerve. But they simply hollered. Luckily Maw heard them and came and pulled me out. I was nearly drowned, but as soon as I could speak I asked for the net that had been on my hair — and her shaking me to get the water out of me! I never got the net. It stayed at the bottom of the pond.
I remember one other curious incident. There were a good many stragglers about after the fighting in this vicinity was over, and one night some of them came onto our place, evidently looking for buried silver. They dug where they saw that the ground had been disturbed and found two rough wooden boxes. These they got up to the surface and pried open. The boxes were coffins. In one was the Confederate soldier who died of measles at our house, and in the other was my little sister.
1 She was an energetic, elderly woman whom her sons addressed as "Madam." My call was in the evening, and we sat on the gallery of her substantial, tree-embowered town residence with the full moon sending its flickering beams down through the leafage.