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A Girl in the Shenandoah Valley 1
WHEN the war broke out my father had a large flouring mill here on Cedar Creek. It was doing a good business and he was making money. He had a sawmill, too, and used it constantly until some Yankee troops came through here in '62. Up to that time the people in this vicinity were right prosperous.
I was the oldest of the children of the family, and I was small. Father was a very old man. He was sixty, I reckon. Mother was a good deal younger. They were opposed to slavery, but a family of slaves was willed to Mother, and they came here to live. There were two sisters and two brothers. They were bright, but also real independent, and kind of dangerous. Several white tenants of ours lived across the creek and worked for us, and we hired others.
I s'pose it was about April that the Yankees were here in '62. They broke into our granary and smokehouse in the night, and the doors were all open in the morning when our folks were astir. Besides, they destroyed the bolting cloths in the flouring mill. One army or the other got all Our horses, and we couldn’t use our sawmill any more because we had no teams to draw logs. We couldn’t keep anything that was good, and we thought we were having a hard time, but affairs were n't quite so dizzy those days as they were later in the war.
The Northerners annoyed us most. The trouble of it was that there were so many toughs in the Union army. You opened your penitentiaries and let the convicts out to become soldiers, and you hired a heap of foreigners for soldiers. We were always glad to see our troops back, though there were some bad men among them as well as among the Yankees. You couldn’t trust 'em to behave if they'd been drinking. Yes, our army had its bad men, and yours had its good men. At such times as the Northerners camped near here a guard was sent to stay at the house. We'd get friendly with him, and with others who would come from the camp and sit awhile of an evening. We liked some of them very well.
When the armies would stay away long enough Father would buy one or two old horses and try to draw wood and farm a little. There were right good woods over the creek, but it wasn’t always easy to get to 'em. Oftentimes the bridge was down. The old bridge which was there at the beginning of the war was burned by a retreating army. Afterward a trustle bridge was put up, and the high water washed that away. The troops built temporary bridges in its place one after the other as they were destroyed either for military purposes or by floods. When there was no bridge the only way to cross was at fords.
We planted our garden every year, but we never knew who'd gather what we raised in it. The soldiers would take our onions and dig our sweet potatoes, and we couldn’t have apples or anything. If they were here in grape time they got our grapes. Yes, I can tell you that — they gathered the crops. But if we had good luck we'd grow cabbages and make kraut, and we'd raise enough sorghum to make some sorghum molasses. Whenever we could we had a cow, but we were apt to lose her, and we'd go for a long, long time without butter or milk. We always had corn bread and some wheat bread. Our own mill was disabled, and we got the grinding done at mills off the pike that escaped. There was sure to be lard in the house, but we seldom had meat. We never starved, and our chief complaint was that we didn’t have any variety hardly.
Often the soldiers came to the house to ask for something to eat, and we'd give it to 'em if we had it. Sometimes they'd walk right in and take things. If no officers were on hand they'd be real rude to us.
We raised a little corn on two small fields that lay out of sight like, where the hills and trees hid them. But the fields didn’t either of 'em contain over five or six acres; so we couldn’t raise much.
What helped us out more than anything else was a little mountain farm that we owned. It was eight or ten miles from here. We had sheep up there that furnished us with wool, and fields of corn and wheat. A man rented the farm and got some share of the wool, and he divided with us the crops that he raised.
In the summer-time we'd get the wool ready to send to the fulling mill to be carded and made into rolls. There was always a-plenty for us to do. When the rolls came back Mother would spin 'em into thread, and we took the thread to a woman who wove it into cloth. Some of the cloth was linsey for the women, and some was a heavier cloth for men's wear.
We colored a good deal of the wool. If we wanted black we used logwood, and by mixing black and white wool we'd get gray. For brown we made a dye out of walnut hulls, and for a bright color we'd perhaps use pokeberries, but they didn’t make a lasting color.
It was a very hard thing to get clothes during the war, and yet we always managed somehow. Our summer dresses were cotton. We bought the thread in hanks and had it woven by the same woman who wove our wool. We dyed the thread with indigo and copperas as long as we could get the dyes. I remember I had a summer dress made in those days that was tan and white striped. Toward the end of the war we dyed with hickory wood. That colored the cotton a light yellow. We made the dresses ourselves here at home.
Sometimes we had plain, gray, linen dresses. We raised flax, and after the husks were roughed off by hackling and swingling, it was spun and woven into cloth for sheets and towels, dresses, and underwear. Some of the linen thread was used for the warp in weaving rag carpets. Pretty much every one had rag carpets then.
This house was a general's headquarters twice. One of the generals who used it was a Dutchman with foreign soldiers. When those Dutch came through the valley in '62 they ransacked houses and treated the people cruelly. I know we had great fear of them. They'd tear up quilts and the homemade counterpanes and coverlids and such things. They were here when the green leaves first came in the spring.
The general took all of our house except one room. His officers would go around with spurs on their boots and their swords clanking on the carpets, and when we saw how they did we took the carpets up. The general had a French cook and lived in style. He said we would all eat together, but oh my goodness! we tried it once and that was enough: They stayed so long at table and had so many courses! and they drank wines and they smoked. Afterward we ate at a little table in our room. Sometimes we'd take things to a neighbor's to cook. We've got one of that general's stone beer jugs here now. We keep vinegar in it.
There were five tents in the yard. I s'pose some of the general's staff were in those. It seemed to us children like a long time that he stayed in our house. He had a large flag on a tall pole near the gate. When the wind blew from the right direction the flag would wave over the path. The older people of our household wouldn’t go under it, and we children patterned after them and turned aside, too.
At one time we had a sick Southern soldier in the house when the Yankees raided through the region. They stopped at our place and asked if any Rebel soldiers were there, and we said "No."
That didn’t satisfy 'em, and they come in and looked around. They even opened the door of the room where the sick soldier lay and poked their heads in, but he was only a young lad and had his face to the wall. So they went away and didn’t discover that he was a soldier. I'll show you his daguerreotype. There, that's him. Isn't he too nice a boy to be shot?
We couldn’t keep any poultry or hogs if they were where the soldiers could get at 'em. When Sheridan camped here the last time we had four chickens in the garret, and we made a pen in the cellar and kept one hog there.
The soldiers destroyed a good deal just from meanness.
Everything was laid waste on the farms around us. At one place they even took the weather-boarding from the corn crib and hoghouse. We had a right large barn, but they tore it down. They told us they wanted the material for building a bridge across the creek, but Father said they used very little of it in the bridge.
Shortly after dinner one day we looked out and saw that the flouring mill was on fire. It had stone walls, and the soldiers had piled up a lot of lightwood just inside of the door and started the fire in that wood. The wind was blowing, and the flames spread to the sawmill and to a small building that we used for extry work such as boiling apple-butter.
The soldiers carried brands to put under the frames of the log hoghouse and the corn crib, and they burnt the hoghouse, but some officers saved the corn crib. The officers told us to watch the house and see that the soldiers didn’t set fire to that.
SETTING FIRE TO THE BUILDINGS
Sheridan's raid was in the autumn of 1864. He came to our valley to destroy everything that an enemy might use, and his troops burned two thousand barns and seventy mills, and they gathered up four thousand head of cattle. They were opposed by the Confederate General Early, and they had a number of fights with him before the battle of Cedar Creek was fought on October 19th.
The Yankee camp was only a short distance from our house when they fought here. It had been there for some time and we had so little food of our own then that we drew rashions at the camp. I reckon we youngsters were thinking about something to eat pretty constantly, and Mother felt obliged to do what she could for us. She and a stout young woman who worked for us would each take a basket and go over to headquarters, and the men there would give 'em crackers, beef, coffee, and sugar.
Father wasn’t well, and at the time of the battle he had been sick in bed with an attack of bilious fever, and had just got up. Mother had hired the young woman because she didn’t like to stay here without some other able-bodied person besides herself in the house. She wasn’t any coward either. She was brave, and she needed to be. We never knew what would happen next. One afternoon Mother was sitting in a rocking-chair side of the lounge holding the baby, and a bullet came through the window sash and fell on her lap. It was a stray bullet fired by the Union soldiers who were practisin' over on the hill. Oh, we had some narrow escapes!
The battle began early one misty morning before sunup. Sheridan's army of forty thousand men were asleep in their tents. They were not expecting an attack, and Sheridan himself was in Winchester, fifteen miles north of here. Our men crept up by stealth, and the Federals were completely surprised. They didn’t have time to form in line, and they were quickly beaten and retreated in disorder.
We had been inside of the Union lines, and the first I knew of the battle Mother woke us children up to look out and see the Yankee pickets surrender. Soon afterward two Southern soldiers come along carrying a wounded comrade. They would have brought him into the house, but just as they got to the gate he died. The three were brothers, and the two who had been carrying the wounded man buried him in the orchard under an apple tree and put up a piece of pine board at the head of the grave with the name of the dead brother very neatly penciled on it. They said they would come again for the body, but they never did.
It was my lot to take care of the smaller children during the day, and I had right smart trouble with 'em. They were crying for something to eat, and I had nothing to give 'em. It was very trying.
The wounded of both armies were brought to our house till every room downstairs was full, and the yard outside was filled, too. They just lay on the floor or on the grass with maybe a blanket or overcoat under 'em. The surgeons took anything they could get in the house for bandages.
I came downstairs once in a while to see what was going on, and there was one time that I went out to watch some Southern cavalry going along the pike with a lot of prisoners. They brought 'em here and kept 'em in a field behind the house. I'd hardly been outside of the house two minutes looking at the cavalry when I was called back in to take care of those cross children. I never got to give anything to the wounded. Mother was waiting on 'em, and made coffee for 'em.
When the Union army was routed they say that Early's men plundered the camp instead of pursuing the enemy. Then General Sheridan, who had heard the cannonading, came galloping from Winchester. He met his retreating troops and stopped them. "Face the other way, boys!" he shouted.
Soon he had changed the whole course of the movement and got his men into fighting trim. Back they came then, and when the day ended Early's army had been almost destroyed. We heard our men retreating about four o'clock, and toward sundown, as the last of 'em were passing here, the surgeons set fire to the medical wagons and hurried off. Some of the wagons were down on the meadow by the springhouse, and some up the hill back of the orchard. The chemicals in them made a bright blaze.
While the wagons were burning the Northern cavalry came and recaptured the prisoners who were in our field, and took possession of the artillery their men had abandoned in the morning. By night the Union surgeons were here in the house.
I never experienced so many stirring events in any other day in my life. I'm always right wide awake where there's excitement, but after things quieted down that evening we went to bed and I think I slept some before morning.
When we got up we found that right smart of the wounded men who had been brought to our house and yard had died. I tell you what, 'twas awful! Most of the survivors were taken away that day to Winchester, and then we had the cleaning up to do. The rooms were bloody, and out on the back porch, where the surgeons did their amputating, Father cleared the blood off with a shovel.
All of the second night after the battle we sat in the sitting-room on chairs or the lounge. The blinds were pulled down and we kept a bright fire burning, for the night was cool. Two Southern soldiers lay dying on the kitchen floor. They had been fatally hurt, but were so long dying that some of the Union soldiers wanted to bury 'em before they were dead. Mother went to an officer to prevent that.
A good many of the dead were buried on our place — some along the pike, some on the hillside back of the granary, and some near where we got water to use for washing, and the water used to smell. The bodies were all taken up after the war except that of the soldier who had been buried by his brothers in the orchard.
We were dreadfully broken up by the war, and had a hard struggle to get started again. We didn’t have anything hardly, and we had to go mighty far away to get our first meat. The fences were all gone, and rails had to be split before we could inclose the fields to raise crops. Our only horse was a broken-down army horse that was picked up on the battlefield.
Father had a terrible turn with neuralgia and the rheumatism, and he felt so poor that he stopped using tobacco and didn’t buy any more. You know it's mighty bad to break off a lifelong habit that way. Mother was one of those people who always manage to have a little money, and she bought him some tobacco, but he wouldn’t take it. We fared hard — all of us. We certainly did!
1 The girl of long ago was now a gray-haired woman. She was delightfully hospitable and made me welcome to the sitting-room of the fine, dignified old brick farmhouse in which she lived. The day was dull, but indoors a cheerful fire blazing on the hearth banished all gloom.