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The Miner's Son 1
THEY used to work a gold mine here in the Wilderness, a little south of the Rapidan, and my father was the manager. The mine employed over a hundred men, and I reckon there was all of twenty-five houses clustered around it. My father had cleared a few acres and built a frame house, and we tended the land almost like a garden spot. Most of the farm work was done by us boys, but Father helped after his working hours at the mine, and we hired some. We raised corn and potatoes, and we had a few cattle that run on the commons in summer and that we kept in stables during the winter and fed from our hay and fodder stacks, It was pretty well a thicket all around outside of the village.
About the first year of the war the mine broke up. A good many of the men went into the army, and the families scattered till I s'pose half the houses was empty.
The battle was fought here early in May, 1864. It was nothing new for us to see soldiers. We were on a main highway, and thar 'd often been a dash through of cavalry or infantry. In fact, we were on the lookout for 'em all the time. If we heard 'em a-comin' my father always went into the house. The Confederates was getting as many men as they could for their army, and an officer had told him that if he was caught out they might conscript him. He was sixty years old, but the officer said they'd very likely take him whether he was an old man or not.
We fared pretty hard the year befo' the Battle of the Wilderness, when General Meade was through here. It was in November, and I was twelve years old. Meade had been down farther south, but he had to fall back, and a drove of his men come to the mine village. I think they was some that just followed the main army butchering hogs and cattle and gathering up food for the troops. We heard, befo' they got here, how they was robbing people and burning every vacant house, and we knew they'd get our chickens sure if they saw 'em runnin' around. So we killed all our fowls up and dressed 'em, and put 'em in tubs and salted 'em down. Thar was some thirty or forty. We set the tubs in a closet, and thought we'd made certain of havin' those chickens for our own use. But we was just fixin' 'em in shape for the raiders. The soldiers come in and searched the house, and they was very rough about it. "Get out of the way," they'd say, and they was tickled enough to find those fowls all ready to cook.
They swarmed over the whole place, and we couldn’t do anything at all to save our property. The house was full, and the yard was full. I s'pose thar was five hundred inside of the inclosure. Most of 'em had come to drink from our spring that was close to the house.
It was a clear, sunshiny day, but very cold, and the ground was frozen. Our cattle was in the stables. We had about twelve head, and the soldiers got 'em out and shot 'em down and skinned 'em. They throwed the four quarters in their wagons to carry along and left the balance. Our hogs was served the same way. We had about fifty barrels of corn in the crib; and we say five bushels to a barrel down here. They took that, and they took about 'leven hundred pounds of pork; and all the time the officers just stood back and looked like they'd turned their men loose to do as they pleased.
Those soldiers stole all our clothes. They'd even bust the trunks open and take the girls' clothes and their little jewelry and things. If they needed a sack they'd get a woman's skirt and tie a string around the top and put a piece of meat in it, or whatever they'd picked up. Then they could fasten it to the saddle and so carry it. Yes, they'd use a skirt just that-a-way. That was the way they done it.
When they had cleared up everything they pulled off and left us destitute. They was all gone across the Rapidan befo' night. We didn’t have no supper. Thar wasn’t a piece of meat of any kind on the premises, but we had perhaps a bushel of flour, and we baked loaf-bread, and every night and morning we'd take our pone and a glass of water. I went to bed crying many a night I was so hungry. We just had to truck around the best we could to get food. Some of the neighbors who lived out of sight more away from the main road didn’t lose as we did, and they'd perhaps have a little to spare that we could buy.
We had a very different experience when General Grant come, He was ready for business and thar was no raidin'. But he didn’t have no idea thar'd be a battle here in this Wilderness when he crossed the Rapidan on May 4th. Early the next morning the Rebels attacked him over on the plain about a mile from whar we lived. The skirmish line went right through our yard, and they told us we'd better go away. So we went off a half mile toward the Rapidan to a house that had a cellar in it. We left the dogs at home and the door unlocked, but the soldiers never come in the house, and nothing was touched or harmed at all.
We carried some chairs and benches down in the cellar and stayed the night out. Thar must have been twenty or thirty of us. The Confederates was shelling Northern reinforcements that was crossing the Rapidan, and when we looked out in the evening we could see the Rebel shells flying over our heads. Each shell showed like a swift-moving blaze of fire with a short streak behind it. That shelling was pretty scarey. I don't s'pose the older people done any sleeping that night. They just set thar and listened to the shells goin' over. We never had any supper nor breakfast neither.
About sunrise we went home. The armies had moved on, and the firing line was getting mo' distant from us, but all day we could hear the musketry. It was a continual roll like distant thunder, for the battle was too far away to distinguish one gun from another. The troops were charging each other right in the thickets. Often forest fires would break out from the shootin', and that would be awful for the wounded. Sometimes the Yankees would be pushed back, and sometimes the Rebels, but at last the Rebels withdrew, and only four days later they fought Grant again down at Spotsylvania.
It was a great relief when the fighting here was over. We were just simply glad it had passed off — like a storm, you know. The armies had lost nearly thirty thousand men in all, and that battlefield was a dreadful thing after they'd gone. Besides the dead men and dead horses thar was anything you could think of that an army would carry strewed around in the woods. The men had thrown the things away as they left, and not much of it was Southern property, for the South had mighty little to throw away,
Every day we'd go out through the woods to pick up things, and so did all the neighbors. The armies had no time to come back for what they had left, and we took what we could use. We could find anything we wanted. Thar was army clothing of all kinds, and saddles and bridles and tents, and thar was any number of guns. We find some of them guns now. We could have got wagon loads of blankets, and whar the soldiers cooked their rashions we'd find plenty of knives, spoons, and coffee boilers. The coffee boilers was tin pots with a handle on one side and a spout on the other, Sometimes we'd come across a whole bar'l of hardtacks. Co'se thar was a good deal of meat left, but we didn’t care for that in among the dead men.
The battle day was very warm for the time of year, and men who were killed when the weather was hot like that would swell as much as their clothes would let 'em and turn just as black in the face as your coat. I never want to butt up against nothing else like that. The whole air was tainted. It was a horrid smell, and it was made worse by the refuse left whar the cattle was butchered. I was glad we didn’t live right on the battlefield in among all that the way some people did.
Just as soon as the fighting was over the wounded were picked up, but thar was quite a number that the searchers never got, We found one right on the side of the turnpike three or four days after the battle, His brains were running out from a hole in the back of his head, He couldn’t talk, but he made a sign for water, and my father told me to take one of those coffee boilers and get some.
I went a quarter of a mile to a branch and filled the coffee boiler and brought it back. We held his head up, but he couldn’t drink. It seem like the water strangled him. But we got him some hardtack, and he dipped that in the water and let it saturate, and then he could suck it. The flies bothered him, and Father broke a bush and gave it to him. He had the strength to use his hands and scare the flies off. He was three mile from our house, and we left him thar layin' on the pine needles.
THE WOUNDED MAN AND HIS HARDTACK
We come back to him every day for eight or ten days as long as he lived. It was awful to see the poor fellow. He had a pretty hard time after he got so he couldn’t fight the flies. Finally we come thar one morning and found him dead, and we left his body whar it was.
While we was lookin' around on the battlefield we noticed one of the men who'd been killed layin' with his coat thrown back, and we could see the edge of a Testament in an inside pocket. Father said to me, "Boy, get that."
But I didn’t have the courage, and he took it and give it to me. The name of the soldier's mother, and her address — Beaver, Maine — was written on the flyleaf. I kept that Testament for fifteen years afterward. Then I wrote to the flyleaf address, and I got a reply and sent the book to the dead soldier's folks. In return they sent me a nice Bible. I s'pose they was mighty glad to get that little Testament.
Hundreds of those who perished in the battle here were not buried, but laid scattered around on the ground. The men who did the burying missed 'em in the thick brush, and their bones was thar till after the war. We can find bones on the battlefield sometimes now, but the government sent a burial corps here soon after the war ended, and they gathered up most of the bones and carried 'em to the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg. About the same time a lot of the bones of the horses that was killed during the battle was carted off to be ground up for fertilizer.
1 He was getting along in years, but he was still stout-framed and vigorous. His home was in the Wilderness, but it was one of several in a cleared tract of considerable extent where there was grassland and cornfields. I visited with him in a rather barren apartment whose chief article of furniture was a bed, and whose most cheerful feature was a fireplace in which a few sticks of wood were burning with a pleasant crackle and leaping of ruddy flames.