by Sara Matthews Handy.
IN April, 1865, my home was in Cumberland County, Virginia, near what, before the days of railroads, had been the old stage road between Richmond and Lynchburg. There were then left in the whole state but four counties which had neither been reached by raiders nor occupied by the contending armies: Patrick and Henry in the southwestern part, and Buckingham and Cumberland near the centre south of the James River. At the approach of the enemy, the planters on the north side of the river ferried their valuable horses and other stock across to the last two counties, whence Sheridan’s troopers derisively nicknamed them “the horse heaven.”
Again and again had we been threatened, and once narrowly saved by a spring freshet which hindered Sheridan and Custer from laying their pontoons across James River. Every one felt that the “anaconda folds” were tightening, and we looked forward helplessly to the fast approaching time when we too, whose county had been a favorite harbor for refugees, should be left within the enemy’s lines, — an enemy from whom we had been persistently taught that we were to expect no mercy. On Monday morning, April 3, a neighbor sent to ask the loan of our buggy, to take to the railway station her son, a surgeon on duty at Richmond, who had been at home on a brief leave of absence. Early in the afternoon came word that he had returned, bringing tidings that Richmond had been evacuated the previous night, and that Lee’s army was in full retreat. The wildest rumors were afloat, all of them pregnant with disaster, death, and defeat. That night the advance guard of the treasure train arrived, on its way to North Carolina, and from midnight until early dawn its wagons thundered across the bridge at the foot of the hill on which our house was built.
Tuesday, our breakfast table was kept standing from six o’clock, the hour of the early breakfast given to the half dozen officers quartered under our roof the night before, until one P. M., when it was cleared for early dinner. During the day over forty commissioned officers sat down thereto; of the soldiers whom we fed outside no count was taken, and I am unable even to guess at their number. From the officers we learned that the retreating army trains had been divided into three branches; or rather, four. Jefferson Davis had fled, taking the public documents, by railroad to Danville, and a provision train had been sent, by the Danville Railroad, also, to meet Lee’s army at Amelia Court House. That Davis, in his panic, had taken this train on to Danville, leaving the army to almost certain starvation, we heard later on, when the end had come. The quartermaster’s train had gone in the wake of the army, through Amelia, by way of Jetersville; the ordnance and hospital train was in front of the army; while the treasure train, as already stated, had come our way.
Among our guests was Major Isaac Carrington, provost marshal of Richmond, with some of his staff, and the firing of the city was naturally among the chief topics of conversation. The version which he gave may be regarded as official, and I believe has never yet been in print :—
There had been a heated discussion on the subject in a council held by the Confederate Cabinet and generals. General Lee had opposed the measure, on the score of the suffering which it must necessarily entail on the crowded town. Davis urged it strongly, and cited the examples of the Dutch who cut their dikes, and the Russians who fired Moscow. The cotton and tobacco stored in the government warehouses — an immense amount — would go far to defray the Federal war debt: were they to be tamely surrendered? This last argument carried the vote. The warehouses were ordered to be burned, and to Major Carrington was assigned the duty of executing the order. The fire brigade was called out, and every possible precaution taken to confine the fire to these warehouses. The Home Guard, a militia composed of old men and boys, with the aid of a small detachment of regular soldiers, were, at the same time, detailed to break open the liquor stores in the city and empty the liquor into the gutters, in order to mitigate as far as possible the horrors of the expected sack.
The work was begun according to programme; but its projectors had reckoned without their hosts. Out from every slum and alley poured the scum of the city, fugitives from justice, deserters, etc. The troops were knocked down over the barrels they were striving to empty, and a free fight ensued. Men, women, and children threw themselves fiat on the pavement and lapped the liquor from the gutters; or, seizing axes, broke into any and every store they chose. The fire caught the inflammable fluids, and ran in a stream of flame along the streets. The firemen abandoned their hose, and joined the mob in the work of wholesale plunder; and riot and robbery held high carnival, while the flames raged without let or hindrance, until the morning, when the Union army entered quietly and decorously, and at once set to work to extinguish the conflagration, — thus presenting the spectacle, unique in history, of a besieging army occupying a town, and, instead of harrowing the residents, at once proceeding to relieve their sufferings from fire and famine.
Major Turner, commandant of Libby Prison, was among our visitors, on Tuesday morning. He had spent the night and breakfasted at the house of a neighboring planter. My sister’s husband, the adjutant general of the cavalry, at that time with Hampton in the south, was by birth a Philadelphian, and his immediate relatives were all officers in the Union army. His brother, a captain on Custer’s staff, had some months previous, to use his own expression, been “picked up by General Heath, while reconnoitring,” and sent to the Libby. Hearing of his capture, my sister at once sent him a box of eatables and some underclothing. The box reached Richmond after his exchange, which, through his brother’s influence, had been promptly effected. In accordance with his parting instructions, the supplies were delivered to his messmates. It was to remind Mrs. McC. (my sister) of this, and to furnish her with the names of the Federal officers who had thus inadvertently been made to break our bread, that Major Turner called, thinking that she might find the incident useful when left within the Union lines.
He seemed to me nervous and anxious, perhaps because I thought he had good cause to be so, but the testimony of others is that he was remarkably cool and collected. My father, by virtue of his more than threescore years, urged him to lose no time in making his escape, since from his position he was doubly obnoxious to the enemy.
Major Turner insisted, however, with evident sincerity, that he had no special reason for apprehension. He had, he said, merely done his duty in the office, which he had never sought, to which the Confederate government had called him. He had always tried to be kind to the prisoners under his charge; for the meagre rations served to them he was in no wise to blame, — a government which could not feed its soldiers could scarcely be expected to feast its prisoners. His fellow officers did not agree with him in his view of the case, and joined my father in his advice. When next we heard from him he had been sent to the Dry Tortugas, and news of his death soon followed.
Later in the day came General Walker and his quartermaster. His brigade was without rations; what supplies had we on hand? He was shown papers certifying that we had already responded to General Lee’s appeal, and put ourselves on half rations in order to feed the army at Petersburg. “In that case,” he said, “we have no right to take more; but,” he pleaded, “my men are absolutely starving.” Such a plea was not to be resisted, and so our slender stores were again divided, though we knew that we ourselves must go hungry in consequence. Next came a pitiful appeal from a party of officers trying to rejoin their command. Their horses had not been fed for thirty-six hours, and had fallen, exhausted, almost at our gates. These too were helped and sent on, the men walking to rest the horses; and so the train passed. It reminded me of nothing so much as a funeral procession.
Wednesday morning was damp and cloudy, though no rain fell. Before daybreak we heard the booming of cannon far away to the southeast, moving slowly toward the west, in the arc of an ellipse, until on Sunday morning, after a pause of some hours, there came a final volley, — the salute fired for Lee’s surrender. On Wednesday, also, the stream of stragglers began, hungry-eyed, ragged, and footsore, begging, one and all, for the food which we had not to give them. The flood which had swept away Lee’s dams at Petersburg had broken our milldam, and the mill wheels stood idle. We had given away corn and meal freely, until little was left for ourselves. We had ordered supplies from Richmond some three weeks previous, and could only hope that the flatboat which was bringing them had left the James and entered our little river before the enemy’s cavalry had overhauled it, — a hope destroyed later on by the arrival of the free negro who owned the boat, with the news that Sheridan’s troopers had sunk craft and cargo to the bottom of the river. “I could er stood it better,” he said, “if dey had er tooken en took de t’ings fur demselves; but ter see all dat good vittles jes’ bodily ‘stroyed, sah, it hu’t my feelin’s, sah, it p’intedly did.”
Wednesday afternoon we had a notable caller, a handsome fellow in a brand new Confederate uniform, with a captain’s bars on his collar. He asked for Mrs. McC. by name, claimed to be well acquainted with her husband, the major, and said that he had been a scout at Stuart’s headquarters. He knew the names of the whole staff, claimed Stringfellow as a brother in craft, and talked of officers and men as near and dear friends. I took an instant antipathy to him, principally, I must confess, because he called me “missy;” but my clear-sighted father distrusted him on better grounds, and gave me a hint not to be too communicative. He thirsted for information, and, won by his praise of her husband and his evident familiarity with army matters, my sister was ready to tell him all she knew. Then it was that, for the only time in my life, I told falsehood after falsehood, deliberately and unblushingly. I contradicted her statements flatly: it was the ordnance, and not the treasure train, that had passed our way; the treasure had gone to Danville by rail with Davis. In the midst of my fabrications my father came in, and I gave myself up for lost. The unpardonable sin, in his eyes, was falsehood, and he had no patience whatever with prevarication. But I stuck to my story stubbornly, determined to “die in the last ditch,” even when she appealed to him to corroborate her account of the matter. I could scarcely believe my ears when he threw his weight into my false balance. “I think S. is right, my daughter; you know her memory is unusually good, and you were out of the room a great deal yesterday, while she was present nearly all the time.” Then my sister backed down, and went off to write a hasty note to her husband, to be sent by the stranger, who professed to be on his way to join Johnston, and I was left to perjure myself still further in the service of the Southern Confederacy. The major never received his letter, and he and others afterwards identified our friend as one of Sheridan’s most trusted scouts.
As I look back to those days, they appear as a horrible nightmare. We lay down at night in our clothes, not daring to go regularly to bed, for fear lest we might be roused at any hour by the blaze of our burning mills. I had a small five-shooter, which I wore constantly, and thus felt that, to some degree, I held my fate in my own hands; but it is not an exhilarating consciousness to know that at any moment you may be called upon to save yourself from dishonor by taking your own life. Fortunately for us, the armies were kept well together, and the stragglers were too cowed and exhausted to be dangerous; but, for all that, my feminine fancy for gilt braid and brass buttons died a violent death, and I never see a military uniform without recalling the sickening dread of that time.
Ours was apprehension, not actual suffering, and others fared far worse. It was almost by accident that I was at home during that terrible first week in April, instead of being, as I had planned, on a visit to an intimate friend, whose home lay directly in the line of retreat and pursuit. The last battle of the war, that of Sailor’s Creek, was fought two miles away, on a corner of her father’s plantation, and for four days the house was filled with Federal soldiers, coming and going. At one time kerosene oil was poured on the floors preparatory to burning the house, on the ground that it afforded shelter for Confederate sharpshooters, — an intention which, however, fortunately for the family, was not carried out.
When it first became certain that the armies were coming, the owner of the plantation made ready for them by emptying the valuable contents of his liquor closet into the river, — a measure which did little good, since his more avaricious neighbors hid their liquor, instead of destroying it, and the soldiers had no difficulty in finding plenty in the vicinity. Such provisions and valuables as could be hastily concealed were hidden with the aid of a faithful slave, and the women and children of the family, four generations, — grandmother, mother, daughter, and grandchildren, with their governess and her sister, — were assembled in one room, which as far as possible was prepared for a siege. Their numbers were more than quadrupled when, early in the first day, between forty and fifty refugees, women and children from the wagon train, which had been raided at Sailor’s Creek, rushed in, tired and disheveled and draggled, begging for shelter, which was freely given; no one in need was ever turned away from that hospitable door. The refugees were packed into the chamber with the family, and, as it proved, the crowd was in itself a means of safety. As one of the young ladies said afterwards: “Nobody could get into the door; we were packed like herrings. Now and then drunken soldiers would stagger to door or window and peep in, but there were so many of us that they made no attempt to enter. ‘Mother had thought we could make out with three beds, by close squeezing; but after the refugees came they seemed like nothing. We put two of the mattresses on the floor, and then took turns in lying down, six and eight of us on a bed at once.” The food stored in a closet for the family was merely a bite among so many; and after it gave out they lived on Irish potatoes, handed in through the windows by the faithful slaves, and roasted in the ashes of the fire, kept up by wood supplied in the same way. For three days they had nothing else to eat.
The family plate was concealed in the cellar, under a huge pile of potatoes. The soldiers cleared the premises of everything else eatable, but left the potatoes untouched, in spite of the fact that the cellar door stood wide open, and the headman, who had hidden the silver, cordially invited them to help themselves. “I thought ef I did n’ pear to kyar ‘bout ‘um, dey would n’ ‘spicion nothin’,” he said afterwards. Our own silver was tied up in a stout bag, and dropped at midnight into the well. This well had been dug in the hill itself by a former owner of the place, who declared that at any cost he would have water close at hand. He dug ninety feet, and then struck a perennial stream of pure, cold water, which at its normal height was about fifteen feet deep. There the silver lay, like truth, until the next fall, before we could secure the services of a well-cleaner willing and able to go to the bottom in search of it.
The telegraph poles were down, the mails stopped, and it was not until Monday, April 10, that Confederate cavalrymen, returning on parole, brought us tidings of the surrender at Appomattox Court House. First, of course, was the crushing sense of defeat, the helpless and hopeless looking forward to confiscation and possible exile; and, having no expectation of amnesty, next to that came astonishment at the liberal terms which Grant had accorded. The Confederates, men as well as officers, owned their horses; and only a cavalryman, whose steed has for years been his comrade and best friend, knows what that sentence, “Let them keep their horses,” meant to men who had fought to the bitter end, and had looked for no clemency from their conquerors. There was much wild talk of joining Johnston in North Carolina, and retreating thence to the Trans-Mississippi, among those who had come away unparoled, at the first knowledge that the surrender was inevitable. Others took a more practical view of the situation. “I tell you,” said one ingenuous lad, “the Southern Confederacy has gone up the spout, and I ‘m goin’ home to plant corn.”
We did not realize fully, however, that, so far as we Virginians were concerned, the end had come, until the next day, when General Fitz Lee and his staff stopped to rest and water their horses, on their way they scarcely knew whither. We set before them the best we had for lunch; but while the members of his staff ate like hungry men, the general scarcely tasted food, and sat with his head in his hands, as one who has suffered a crushing blow. Only once did he really rouse himself, when my sister spoke bitterly of the straggling from the ranks of our army; then his eyes flashed, and his voice took on its old tone. “Madam,” he said, “the men were not to blame. They fought like devils, until they were faint with hunger, and their officers sent them in quest of food. Our rations from Amelia Court House to Appomattox were an ear of corn a day apiece for the men; nothing for the horses.” None of the party had been paroled, and most of the staff were hoping to make their way by bridle paths to North Carolina and Johnston. They implored their leader to go with them. “We have surely the right to regard ourselves as escaped prisoners,” urged one, a young lieutenant, whose story, as he told it to us in his despair, was a pitiful one. He was from West Virginia, and his family, one and all, were strong Unionists. He had been a Lexington cadet, and had entered the Confederate army under age and against his father’s positive command; and now there seemed no choice for him but that of joining Johnston, or the role of the prodigal son with apparently little chance of success. Some of the officers, with my father’s aid, were tracing the route on a large map of the state, spread out on the piano, through Buckingham and Amherst, and so, by way of the mountains, to the desired goal, only to prove clearly that there was barely a chance of escape.
Suddenly the general lifted his bowed head, and looked my father straight in the eyes. “What do you think?” he said.
“You know best, general,” was the answer; “but if an old man may advise you, I think that your uncle is the best guide for us all in this strait. Moreover, it seems to me impossible that Johnston, hemmed in as he is between Grant and Sherman, can do otherwise than follow his example. If he cuts his way out, it must be at fearful loss of life.”
“Yes, I suppose you are right; only I felt yesterday that I could not give up. Come, boys,” and bidding us a hasty good-by, they rode away on the Farmville road.
As soon as definite intelligence of the surrender reached us, my father called his slaves together and formally announced to them that they were free. “I have no money,” he told them, “and I cannot promise you wages; but while you are free to go, you are also welcome to remain, and earn a living for yourselves and your children by your labor, until you can do better for yourselves, or I can do better for you.” Like almost all the negroes in the country, they behaved admirably; gave us no trouble, but remained and did their work as though there had been no change in our mutual relations. This pleasant state of affairs was soon interrupted. There came two men, one in the uniform of a United States sergeant, the other a private, who curtly asked how our ex-slaves were conducting themselves. My father answered that they were behaving much better than we had any right to expect.
“Do any of them talk of leaving?”
“Only one: a woman whose husband is headman on a plantation in another county, and who naturally wishes to be with him.”
“ H’rn! let me see this woman.”
My father was about to accompany them to the cabin, when he was rudely repulsed.
“We prefer to talk to her alone.”
A few moments later he heard screams, and he followed them to find the men whipping her brutally. Again and again he assured them that she had done nothing whatever to deserve punishment, and vainly ordered them to desist. After a savage beating they left, and her stripes were dressed. Her sufferings were intense, and blacks and whites were alike indignant at the outrage. The same men went to various other places in the neighborhood, with the same results. No one ventured to oppose them, and their conduct was, as might have been expected, followed by more or less of a stampede among the colored people, who, suspecting their former owners, flocked to the military stations for protection; We were never able to find out, still less to punish, the perpetrators of these high - handed outrages. The military authorities at Farmville disclaimed all knowledge of them, but made no effort to trace them; and they disappeared as they had come, no one knew whither.
To realize how well the negroes behaved, it must be remembered that we were, for the time being, comparatively in their power. Cumberland lies in what is known as the Black District, where they outnumber the whites seven to one; or, to give the exact figures by the census of 1860, there were six thousand five hundred people in the county, of whom less than nine hundred were white. In 1865 the fortunes of war had more than decimated the able -bodied white men, so that at any time, by a bold and simultaneous uprising, the blacks, had they been so disposed, might have blotted the whites out of existence. It was to this state of affairs, and the fears to which it gave birth, that the Ku Klux Klan owed its origin. Whatever may have been the outrages of that society later on, and farther south, at first it represented a means of self-protection against numbers by working upon the superstitious fears of the negro.
Sunday, April 16, brought us news of Lincoln’s assassination. To us younger folk the murder of the President of the United States was of little moment as compared with our own trials, — a gatepost near by may hide a mountain in the distance, — but our father took it sorely to heart. “It is the worst misfortune that was left to befall us,” said he. “Linicoln was the one man in all the North who could well afford to be magnanimous, and — I say it, not forgetting Grant’s leniency at Appomattox, was the one man wholly inclined to he so. ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’ forsooth! What ‘s Virginia to Booth, or he to Virginia? — and how should he serve her by cutting her throat.?” Months afterwards, when that wise gray head lay at rest under the sod, we appreciated its wisdom only too well.
For the near future, so far as we personally were concerned, the darkest hour was over. That we were under military rule seemed a little thing, after having been without any government at all, and in terror of our lives. When my brother-in-law, from whom for six weeks we had heard nothing, returned safe and sound, we were thankful indeed. He had surrendered with Johnston, and brought with him his share of the military stores which Sherman allowed Johnston to divide among his men, rather than risk a battle with an army at bay and strongly intrenched. Those who blamed Sherman for his liberality in conceding such terms took no thought of the lives saved on both sides; still less of what those army stores, so little to the United States government, were to the beggared people among whom they were distributed. To us, for example, the train of mules, the provisions, and the silver which the major brought home as his share meant salvation, if not from starvation, at least from pinching want.
Handy, Sara Matthews; "In the Last Days of the Confederacy," The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 87, Issue 519; pp. 104 -111; Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co.; January, 1901
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