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The Trucker's Lad 1
I WAS eight years old when Lee and Grant fought at Cold Harbor. We're right on the battlefield now, and hyar on this little rising ground is whar Lee's army was posted. The woods all around was full of rifle-pits. My boys found one of those rifle-pits this morning when they were digging up a stump. If the bullets were flying, a soldier wouldn’t stop more 'n five minutes before he'd start scraping a hole to get into.
Dad was a trucker, and we lived two mile from hyar in an old-fashioned farmhouse. In those days folks raised more variety than they do now, and we got about everything we needed to eat and wear right off our own land. But late years we haul our produce to market and spend nearly all the money that is paid for it before we come back.
We had four hundred acres of cleared land and grew corn and potatoes, and wheat, oats, and grass, and all kinds of truck stuff such as watermelons, cabbage, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. We carried the truck stuff to Richmond, which is about a dozen mile away, in two-wheeled carts drawn by one horse. In summer time we kept from three to five carts going constantly, and even on Sundays we didn’t stop work entirely. For instance, if the cantelopes were ripe, they had to be picked every day, and we'd gather and pack 'em up on Sunday morning. Such work was considered a necessity. Besides, it was a case of "Everybody's doing it," as the song says. I know that my mother didn’t find fault, and she was a regular fightin' Methodist. Nor did the preachers themselves complain. But we didn’t work all day. We had to go to church.
McClellan was through hyar in 1862 and fought in this neighborhood for nearly a week night and day right along. Thar was a complete roar all the time. But we didn’t see much of the Yankees then at Cold Harbor. No sooner did they get hyar than they was gone. It look like they didn’t pause a minute, but was swept right off just as you might blow out a candle.
Grant moved more gradual. He and Lee had been fight-in' pretty steady for a month, beginnin' with the Battle of the Wilderness, before they fought hyar on June 3d, 1864.
We'd got along very well with McClellan's men. They paid for every drop of milk and anything else they got, but Grant's troops simply took all that they could lay their hands on. Sheridan arrived several days ahead of the main army, and, as a general thing, what he couldn’t carry along he destroyed. He picked up all the horses that were any good. We had four or five beauties on our place and he got them. But he didn’t find the things we had in our cellar, and he didn’t usually take quite all of a man's corn.
Out our way the Cold Harbor fight began on a Friday at Old Church, five mile northeast of hyar. They had a right smart skirmish over thar. It was about mid-day that the Confederates went past our house goin' in that direction. Thar was fifteen hundred cavalry ridin' four abreast. They run right into the Yankees and come mighty near not gettin' out. You see we had only a little handful of men down thar, and they had to fall back. Some of 'em come back fast enough to be fallin', too. They reached our place at three o'clock to the best of my memory. The officers tried to form a line right south of the house, but when the Yankees got within quarter of a mile the line broke.
I can't say that I was scared. I was runnin' around to see what was goin' on, and Dad was after me with a big stick tryin' to drive me into the basement. He wanted me to go into the ground whar I'd be safe from the flyin' bullets.
The Confederates had hardly gone when the Yankees swarmed around the house, and General Merritt rode up to the door. He'd lost his hat and was wearing one he'd picked up. It was an old yellow hat that had gone to seed and had a hole in it. When McClellan was hyar General Merritt had camped in our yard, and now he spoke to Dad and said, "Well, old man, I'm glad to see you"; and he asked for some whiskey.
Dad owned about fifty hogs and twelve or fifteen head of cattle. We got most of the cattle up that evening from whar they were grazing and penned 'em close to the house. General Merritt put on a guard and wouldn’t let the soldiers trouble 'em, but we lost one yearling. The hogs ran wild, and they were scared by the noise and commotion and got off in the creeks and swamps whar they were safe.
Thar was shelling Friday night, and we had to go in our cellar, but the gunners didn’t get any range on our house, and late in the night we went upstairs. The soldiers were all over our place, and Dad used to say after the war that every man in Grant's army had camped on his farm one time or other. Near our house was an old field, and I'll bet two or three thousand soldiers was layin' around thar that Friday night.
In the morning the whole country as far as I could see, everywhar, was covered with tents and men. The big battle was soon being fought and the noise of the firearms was p-r-r-r-r-r — just like that all the time. It sounded more like a corn-sheller rattlin' than anything else. Besides thar was the boom, boom! of the cannon.
The Yankees had to charge across swampy low ground and up a slope where the Confederates had fixed up some rough breastworks to protect 'em. Lee's position was a strong one that could only be attacked in front, and Grant's troops saw that they were goin' to be slaughtered. Many of 'em attached labels to their clothes givin' their names and addresses so that when their bodies were picked up friends at home could be informed of their death. The bullets just mowed 'em down, and history records that Grant lost five thousand men in eight minutes.
Thar was an officer who had some soldiers camped just back of our house. He was settin' in the shed with my father when an officer higher up rode into the yard and said to him: "Your men haven't had any fun yet. Take 'em along and put 'em to the front."
One hundred and twenty men marched off in accord with that order. Late in the day twenty-one returned to their camping-place. The bullets had got the rest.
The really hard fightin' was all done inside of half an hour, and it was the bloodiest half hour ever known in America. Twelve thousand Union men had been killed or wounded, and Grant said, in later life, that the assault hyar at Cold Harbor was his greatest military mistake.
The armies had a heap of ambulances, but thar wasn’t enough of 'em, and every kind of wagon you could think of was used also. Plenty of those wagons had no springs. They were on the road in one continual line with the men inside layin' flat on their backs any way the wagon men could fix 'em. Most of the wagons carried the wounded fifteen mile to the railway.
Thar was a hospital tent put up on a level piece of land on our place. Seem to me it was as much as forty feet wide and two hundred feet long. At its far end were some doctors while the wounded were arriving. The doctors had their sleeves rolled up like butchers, and they'd whack a leg off, bind up the stump, and send the poor fellow along; then do the same for the next one.
Just after the battle a wounded man came to the house. A bullet had passed straight through the middle of his wrist. Mother bandaged the wound. All those old-fashioned women knew how to doctor. While she dressed it up for him the man stood and cried like a baby. He told her he'd been to our place when McClellan was down hyar and at that time had stole a hive of bees from us. He put the hive on his shoulder and ran like the dickens so that the bees flew back and didn’t sting him much.
"You called me a nasty, stinkin' bloodhoun'," he said to Mother, "and I thought if I'd got so low as that it was time for me to mend my ways. I've never stole from anybody since, but have made out on my rashions."
The troops left the vicinity of the battlefield within twenty-four hours, and on Sunday morning Dad sent me and my brother, who was three years older than I was to a day, to see how my sister had got along. She was married, and her house was about half way to Richmond. We had to go on foot because our horses were all stolen, and we left the road and cut right through the country hyar. It was probably ten o'clock when we started. We soon struck the battlefield, and we could judge something of how hot the fight had been by the looks of the trees. They had no more bark on 'em than the side of a house.
Plenty of guns and knapsacks were scattered about thar, and the dead men were layin' on the ground putrifyin'. The battlefield was as blue as could be with dead Union soldiers. They lay just as thick as watermelons ripening in a patch. I never seen anything like that battlefield in my life. People said you could walk on the bodies from hyar to Gaines's Mills, two mile, without touchin' your foot to the ground. I know you couldn’t get through whar the bodies lay thickest without steppin' sideways between 'em. In one place the troops had to clear the bodies out of the road so they could get up and down it, and they made great piles — thirty, forty, and fifty in a pile.
Two local men was thar on the battlefield that Sunday morning searchin' dead men's pockets. One of 'em was white and the other black. I began to feel sick. Lookin' at the dead men didn’t agree with me, but my brother didn’t mind anything, and he was interested to watch those two fellers robbin' the bodies. It was a gruesome business that they were at. The bodies had fallen on top of each other in the ditches whar thar were breastworks, and the men had to pull the top ones off to get at the pockets of those that lay underneath. Often they found a half dollar or so, or a medal, or something else of value. I expect they got right smart in all, and I reckon the sight of that plunder kept their stomachs all right.
We was thar maybe an hour. By that time I was gettin' pretty weak and my brother led me off. Oh! it was a horrid sight. I wouldn’t want to look at it again. A good many bodies lay on the field for quite a while, but I suppose they were all buried and covered up in the course of a week.
We found things was all right at my sister's, and we come home that same day and walked across the battlefield again. I got away from it that time as quick as I could without any stoppin'.
1 He was a typical Southern countryman with a long moustache and a black slouch hat. We visited together while he stood leaning against a porch post of a rude, shanty-like rural store. His gray, saddled mule was hitched near by waiting patiently till its owner was ready to start for home.