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The Sutler's Lass 1
MY father was a machinist in Richmond when the war began. But everything in a business way came to a standstill and he moved a few miles out of the city to a farm. He thought he could make a living there and that he wouldn’t be so likely to be forced into the army. Father didn’t want to be a soldier. He had never shot a gun in his life that I know of. He stayed right on the farm and kept out of sight, for the recruiting officers were likely to pick up any one they found away from home. A good many men were so afraid of being conscripted that they spent their time loafing and bumming in the woods.
I had a brother that we thought would have to be a soldier. But he was delicate, and Mother said he couldn’t stand army life. Lyin' on the damp ground would kill him. So in order to keep him out of the war we made plans for his running the blockade and escaping North. He was to go to a relative of ours who lived in Jersey City.
For a while he hid in an old barn six or seven miles from our farm waiting for an opportunity to slip through the lines. Once I took some food to him there. I had a little mule that I rode, and I carried the food tied up in a small bundle in front of me. Mother sent some money, too. I was allowed to pass the pickets because I had a passport. Some of 'em were too ignorant to read, but They'd take the paper and pretend to read it and wouldn’t let on that it meant nothing to them. I had no trouble in getting to the house on the place where my brother was hid, and I left the things I had brought and returned home.
Three or four other men ran the blockade at the same time my brother did. The party paid a man so much to take them, and I suppose they had to bribe the pickets besides.
After my brother had gone I was the oldest of the children at home, and I was my mother's girl and my daddy's boy. They both depended on me a good deal to help with the work and go on errands.
Our house was in the midst of a recruiting camp. But we never was molested. The soldiers were as kind as they could be. I think the camp was established there because a branch was near at hand where the horses could be watered. If ever the troops wanted to prepare for a battle down this way they came around in that neighborhood. We had the Black Horse Cavalry there and the Hampton Legion, and I don't know how many more at one time or another. Broke-down horses were sent there, too, and taken care of to see if they could be made fit for use again.
Conscripts were constantly arriving in the camp to drill, and they appeared very 'umble and crestfallen and looked very funny in citizens' clothes going through the tactics of an afternoon. officers were always scouring the country to get men for the army, and they could take any one not under eighteen or over sixty-five. Toward the end of the war it was made lawful to conscript boys of sixteen. They were wanted for soldiers as soon as they could handle a gun. No one was safe from those conscripters. Perhaps you would be sitting at the supper table with your family, and in would come an officer and take you and one or two of your sons if they were old enough; or the officer might find you on the road driving your wagon and would make you go right along with him.
We kept a sutler's store in the camp. Our house was large, and the store occupied two rooms. So many soldiers came to trade that we locked the doors and served them out of the windows. They were camped all around right up to the yard. In places where the turf has n't been disturbed you can still find the little trenches they dug for the water to drip down into from their tent canvas.
One of my brothers went in a spring wagon regularly to Richmond to bring the groceries for the store. We sold rice and flour, cakes, fruits, peanuts, and such things as that. We wasn’t allowed to keep liquors. The peanuts we sold unroasted. Some people likes 'em that way, but I don't care for 'em in the raw state myself. The South Car'linians called 'em "goober peas." They bought 'em just as fast as we could pass 'em out.
The officers had their headquarters in the farmhouse next to ours, and the troops used to have their dress parades in a fine open field on that place. All the neighbors' ladies used to come to see the soldiers on dress parade. 'T was a lovely sight to watch them march and to see the officers on horseback. Then, too, there was a band that played beautiful music.
The troops were always coming and going. Sometimes, when we went to bed, there 'd be thousands of men in tents right around us, and in the night the bugle would call and off they'd go. The next morning we'd get up and not see a tent.
One night they got news of a Yankee raid. Some of the officers came to our house. I was asleep, but I woke up and went to the window and looked out. I reckon it was ten or eleven o'clock. There were three officers at the door with Father, and they were whispering because they were 'fraid the Yankee scouts might be lurking around. The officers wanted Father to show 'em near cuts through the woods so their troops could surround the Yankees, but Father was new to the country, and he sent 'em to a neighbor who could guide 'em better.
The road was full of infantry. It was late in the fall — a cold, clear, moonlight night. The soldiers stepped along very regular. I could just see their heads moving. There was no talking or jostling. They marched till daylight and came to the Yankee camp. But the Yankees had heard them approaching and had cut out. It seem like the Northern men must have been cooking breakfast and just ran off and left everything. Our soldiers were glad to get that breakfast, for they were nearly starved to death. They rarely did have enough to eat. I know the soldiers at the camp around our house were always hungry. We couldn’t raise anything because they would get whatever we tried to grow. They took all the poultry and stock in the region. It was the same right through the South — where the soldiers were you couldn’t keep a thing. If you went to headquarters to complain a guard might be sent to your house to protect your goods, but he'd take what he wanted to hand to those outside. Hunger will make a man do anything. If he can't get enough to eat you can't blame him if he steals.
Poor fellows! our soldiers were not only starved, man and beast, but they didn’t have enough clothes. Their only way to get good shoes or clothing was to pull 'em off from dead Yankees on the battlefields. Toward the last as many of 'em wore Yankee uniforms as Confederate.
But whenever the troops got sudden marching orders they left a great deal behind them in the camp. There was a sight of waste, especially in the early part of the war. Friends sent comforts to the soldiers, and they'd leave the nicest sort of things on the ground. I've seen 'em dig a hole and put all that they couldn’t carry into that, when they were going to start on a march. We picked up a-many a hundred pounds of bacon and washed and used it. Sometimes we'd find half a box of hardtack — big square crackers as large as your two hands.
Did you ever think what a soldier carried? First there was his knapsack which held a change of apparel. On top of that a blanket was double strapped across his back. He had a gun and a canteen, and he had a bag of white canvas called a haversack that held food and hung under his arm. A leather belt with a large buckle was around his body, and attached to it was a cap pouch and a cartridge box full of cartridges and a bayonet pouch. What do you think of that for infantry marching on foot?
Besides, we had terrible roads here then — all cut to pieces by the great amount of traffic and the heavy artillery. What made things worse was the rain that fell incessantly the whole four years of the war. It looked like it rained more those four years than any years since. They say that was on account of so much shootin'. There'd be great gullies in the roads and some parts became impassable. Teams would often travel the byways in order to get along. I can remember how the commissary wagons would go bumpin', bumpin' past. There ain't no springs in commissary wagons. Four, six, or eight mules were hitched to each wagon. The driver had those mules to take care of, and sometimes he couldn’t find anything to feed 'em.
The teams had to travel those rutted and muddy or dusty roads, and so did the soldiers. Often the soldiers' feet got so sore and blistered they took off their shoes and carried 'em. At night they lay on the ground, and if rain fell they waked up in a puddle of water. I'd prefer suicide to a life like that. It's worse than a brute's life. Then there were all those who lost an arm or a leg and went maimed and limping the rest of their days. Surely, no one with common sense would want to be a soldier.
We had a big scare at the time of McClellan's raid. Mother was a very brave sort of woman, and that was the only time I ever saw her frightened. She got so excited her hair come down. We owned a cow or two, and when we heard that the Yankees were close at hand and advancing in our direction, Mother had our colored man and woman put the cows in the stable. Presently we saw a young man in Confederate uniform coming on a horse as fast as he could gallop. He was slim in figure, and his face was as white as a sheet. "Oh my mother, my mother!" he was saying. "I'll never see my mother any more!"
We were at the back of the house, and he went on out of our sight, and then we heard more galloping and saw two Yankees right after him. They had big, fine horses, and his was only skin and bones, and we were certain They'd ketch him. We supposed he had gone on up the road, but instead he had raced into our front yard, turned his horse loose, thrown his saddle and bridle out of sight and crawled under the porch. The Yankees came to the door and said he was in the house. We didn’t know anything about it, and they walked right in and searched, but they didn’t find him.
As soon as they had gone along he crawled out from his hiding-place, saddled and bridled his horse, and started off in the other direction. But he was hardly out of the yard when those Yankees appeared on the road returning. They were hot after him at once, and he was only about a hundred yards ahead. Below the house was a hollow where there were tall pine woods with a little undergrowth. He slipped off his horse in the hollow, and got in the woods. I was sorry for that man. I think he must have been a scout or he wouldn’t have been away from his regiment. Probably he was safe when he got in the woods, for he must have been used to crawling around and keeping out of sight when he was trying to get as near the Union line as possible.
One day there was a fight, not very far from where we lived, at the Nine Mile Battery. A lot of negro infantry with white officers fought on the Yankee side. I saw every one of them niggers as they was goin' there, and I reckon the column was certainly a half mile in length. I stood near the road on an embankment that a Southern battery had vacated, and one of the niggers raised up his gun and pointed it at me to frighten me. Oh! it was skittish times.
Before the battle began all the people that lived roundabout were told to vacate their houses. If they didn’t move they stayed at their own risk. Some houses were burnt down. By and by we began to hear cannon, and there were shells flyin' over. Me and Mother and the children went down to the crick that ran through our place and lay there on the side of the bank till the cannonading was over. The neighbors went down there, too. At the next farm was a sick man, and they put him in a cot and took him to the shelter of the bank. We had some corn on the branch side, and I remember it had got large enough to tassel. The cornblades were shattered by powder from exploding shells. We had hitched a cow to a stump, near the corn, by a long chain so she could graze and she had wound the chain around the stump till she could hardly move. But if she had been out at the full length of her tether she might have been hit by a shell which fell there. That was a mean cow. She kicked. Finally she got away and wandered into camp, and the soldiers killed her.
The niggers that I saw passing our place went down to the Nine Mile Battery, and the Confederates was waiting for them. I don't suppose one of 'em was left to tell the tale. If our men found a wounded nigger on the field they stuck a bayonet through him, or stood him up and shot him. They were mad to have those niggers fighting 'em. It would have made me hot — turning against their masters who had taken care of and protected them!
After the battle the dead had to be buried, and our men dug trenches and threw in four or five Yankees with a nigger on top and shoveled back the dirt.
Some of the wounded were brought to our house. One of 'em died there. He cut his name in the floor where he lay. I could make out John, but not his last name.
Our house was as much as ten mile from Cold Harbor, but we heard the infantry go in there at the time of the battle. The sound was like a package of pop-crackers. We heard the cannon, too. They made the windows rattle and shook the ground. It was just like an earthquake. We had a very large black dog named Smut, and he howled and didn’t know what was goin' to happen to him.
A lady friend and I talked of riding over to Cold Harbor after the fight ended, but Father said the battlefield was not a fit place for females. He and an officer went. They rode on horseback and came back the same day. The officer brought with him a pair of cavalry boots that would come up most to his waist. He pulled 'em off a dead body that had begun to decompose, but he put 'em to soak in the crick and afterward made a nigger clean 'em out.
Father was a very sympathetic man, and he said the battlefield was a sickening sight. The weather was warm, and the stench was almost stifling. I declare! that battle was a sad thing.
There was a Captain Sears who often visited at our house, and one Sunday afternoon in April, 1865, he and I went for a horseback ride. We stopped at a house to make a call and were sitting in the parlor when a courier arrived. He was looking for Captain Sears and notified him that Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, and Richmond was to be evacuated. Of co'se we'd been thinking that Richmond might go up, but you know, while there's breath there's hope, and the news startled and frightened us. Oh, my! it was a big surprise, and you bet we galloped home, and the captain hurried on to join his regiment. Lor', yes! and I never saw him any more.
Then the uproar commenced, and Richmond was torn all to pieces. The city was burned, and we could see the smoke Monday and Tuesday.
The man I afterward married was in business in Richmond. I know two of his horses were pressed by Jefferson Davis when Davis was escaping. My husband used to curse old Jeff Davis many a time and say he was the worst enemy the South had.
It wasn’t just horses that my husband lost. He owned niggers, and they were freed. He had a lot of Confederate bonds, and those didn’t amount to shucks, you know. Besides, he had a mailbag full of Confederate money. At the least calculation he lost over a hundred thousand dollars. He had a wholesale grocery and liquor store, and that and everything in it burned. I don't know how many barrels of brandy and whiskies and wines he lost. His safe got red hot and stayed hot so long that all there was inside melted. Oh! he lost a sight — he lost like all the world — and he mighty near lost his mind.
1 In the passing years she had become a fleshy, hearty old lady. While she talked she sat eating supper in the farmhouse that was her home. It was a house that stood where there had been some sharp fighting, and it was scarred by many a bullet.