By David Dodge.
IN the war for secession, as in the war of the revolution, the attitude of North Carolina was somewhat anomalous. As in the latter she had some of the most ardent patriots and devoted royalists, so in the former she comprised among her people some of the staunchest adherents of each cause. Stronger and more disinterested devotion to the royal cause was not shown anywhere in the colonies than when the Macdonalds, Macleods, and Campbells, the expatriated Scottish clans of the Cape Fear region, drew for King George at Moore’s Creek the same claymores that they wielded so stoutly for Prince Charlie on Culloden Moor, while perhaps the most spontaneous rising for American liberty was that which resulted in the timely victory of King’s Mountain.
Nowhere in the New World, if indeed the Old, is there a truer survival of the old English yeoman type than among the laboring whites of North Carolina. If the old prints are to be relied on, perfect types of the churl who stood with Harold on Senlac Hill, and whose arrow flights wrought havoc with French chivalry at Poitiers and Agincourt, are still common among them. By laboring whites I do not mean the much caricatured “poor whites,” but a sturdy, independent middle class, who have proved the salt of the earth, not only at home, but in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and the other Southern States, to all of which they found their way in large numbers during the first half of the century. Along with the Saxon in dependence and courage, — for if they did run from Cornwallis at Guilford Court House, they came back the next day, and after that his lordship did all the running away himself, — there was no lack of genuine Saxon stubbornness.
It was this characteristic of her yeomanry that made North Carolina at once the most loyal and disloyal of States to both sides; that enabled her to send more men into the Southern ranks, and give more lives for the Southern cause, than any other State, at the same time that she contained by far the largest and most determined disaffected element of any State where disaffection was as little backed by Northern arms. In the extreme eastern and western counties, encouraged by the presence or expectation of Federal aid, it assumed a bold front, and sent many men into the Union armies. In the mountains of the west the Confederate conscription officers frequently met with stubborn and organized resistance, and in one instance, at least, a company of Confederate troops was surrounded and captured, officers and all.
In the central part of the State, where my experience lay, this disaffection manifested itself in a dogged determination not to serve in the Confederate ranks. It was not that, as a rule, they lacked courage, for some of the most resolute men I ever knew “hid out” during the war. A good many of these men were small slaveholders, although entirely out of sympathy with the slaveholding class in general. In a few instances they went over to the Federals when carried to the front, but the vast majority either deserted and returned home, or, as was still oftener the case, took to the woods and eluded the conscription officers from the beginning,
Our immediate neighborhood doubtless contained more of this latter class than any other in the State, if not in the South. As a youth familiar with the woods as country boys are, and in the confidence of the negroes as only a boy could be, I had an exceptionally good opportunity of learning something of their habits and hiding-places.
The overseer of the farm belonged to this class, his whole kith and kin being in the woods, where, but for convenient attacks of rheumatism, he would surely have been himself. By dint of this, the hiring of a substitute, the twenty-slave exemption act, and what influence we could bring to bear, — for toward the close of the war it took not one but many causes of exemption to save one, —he managed to remain neither soldier nor deserter to the end.
Sometimes at his house, but oftener while hunting or bird-nesting, I met and conversed with these denizens of the woods, who were always armed, and usually in squads of four or five for mutual protection. Once I unexpectedly ran into quite an army of them, and being decked from head to heel in uniform, gold lace and all, as indeed was every boy who could possibly contrive to be thus attired, I was at the first glimpse taken for a Confederate officer, and for the moment ran some risk of a volley of slugs.
For the first year or more after the passage of the conscription act, the deserter had little to fear so long as he avoided public places, or even gave the conscription officer an excuse for not seeing him. Now and then the captain of the home guard would call out such members of his command as could render no plausible excuse for not responding, and bluster through the neighborhood in a perfunctory kind of way. The deserter who was at home tending feeding his stock, and living much the same life as usual, always had abundant warning to step out of sight till the motley array thundered by. An hour later he would be in his cornfield again.
But after the Confederate ranks were thinned by the desperate fighting of 1863, the lines of the deserter fell in hard places. The Richmond government set energetically to work to bring every available man to the front. President Davis by proclamation urged every man to hasten to his country’s defense, and promised pardon for all past delinquency, provided the offender now hastened to do duty. Stringent orders and threats of punishment infused energy into the officers of the home guard. Detachments of Confederate troops visited the neighborhood at short and irregular intervals, while the homes of the deserters were watched and repeatedly searched.
Then it was that the deserters, as we called all who shirked military duty, whether they had ever actually been in the army or not, had recourse to a mode of hiding which they had learned from runaway slaves. The fugitive in this region having neither the swamps of the east nor the mountains of the west for refuge, like all hard-run creatures naturally took to earth. He either enlarged and concealed some natural cavity, or dug a cave in which he hid by day, to sally out under cover of darkness in quest of poultry, pigs, sheep, fruit, roasting-ears, watermelons, and other good things in season. If he feared pursuit by dogs, he rubbed the soles of his feet with onions or odorous herbs in order to confuse the scent. If moderately wary or skillful, he found little difficulty in remaining “out” till the crops were “laid by” and all the heavy work was over, or till cold weather drove him back to a snugger berth in the quarters.
The deserter made a vast improvement on the burrow of the runaway negro. His cave was larger, better constructed, and better appointed than its prototype, but not better concealed. Banding together in squads of two or three, some unfrequented place would be chosen, generally on a hillside to avoid moisture, and as near a stream as practicable, for the easiest and safest way of disposing of the earth thrown up in digging the pit was to dump it in running water. The site being carefully selected and reconnoitred from every possible way of approach, a watch was set, and work was begun and pressed with the utmost dispatch.
First the leaves or pine-needles were raked back and a space “lined off,” usually six by eight feet, but often considerably larger. Then the ubiquitous bedquilt was spread to catch every particle of the tell-tale clay, and grubbing hoes, spades, and all available implements were put in rapid motion. As any prolongation of the work increased the danger of discovery, the object was to get it dug and concealed at the earliest possible moment. Every hand that could he trusted, — old men, women, and children, — was called in to assist. To these auxiliaries fell the hardest part of the task, that of disposing of the dirt, which of course could not be left near the cave. This was generally “toted” away in buckets and piggins, and dumped in the adjacent stream, and as the direction from which the cave was approached had to be constantly changed lest the faintest vestige of a path should betray the spot, the labor of transporting eight or ten cubic yards of earth in this primitive fashion was no light undertaking.
The proper depth, commonly about six feet, being attained, a fireplace was cut in the earthen sides of the cave and connected with a flue cut through the adjacent earth. Across the pit, and slightly below the surface, were then placed stout poles, and on these the roof of pine boards, while over all the earth and leaves were carefully replaced so as to conceal all signs of having been disturbed. Pine-needles made a very good carpet. A bed was constructed by driving forked stakes into the ground, and upon these were laid small poles topped with pine boughs. Sometimes a “cupboard” was cut in the earthen walls.
What gave the cave-dweller most concern was the disposal of the smoke from his chimney. Even under the best of circumstances, in the fairest, warmest weather, and in the driest soil, a cave was a dismal abode. There was a darkness, a chilliness, a strange and grave-like silence down there, which made fire, the only light obtainable in those hard times, an indispensable companion. When rainy weather came, and the walls oozed water, only heat made it habitable. Care was taken to use the driest and most smokeless fuel, but as even that, though burnt ever so sparingly in the daytime, would cause some smoke, various plans were hit upon to minimize the danger of betrayal from this source. When practicable, the cave would be dug near a dead tree, which was first blackened by fire, unless one could be found already partially burned by the chance fire of some coon or opossum hunter. Failing this, an old tree-stump, after being charred, was ingeniously planted over the chimney mouth so that the smoke might rise through or around it. The object of these devices was, of course, that, should any unfriendly eye discover the smoke, it would be attributed to one of the accidental fires which sometimes smouldered in dead timber for weeks at a time. But, as a rule, the occupants, putting their dependence on good eyesight and legs, would, when no especial danger was apprehended, betake themselves to the woods during the day, and use the caves only as sleeping-places. Indeed, few of the deserters took refuge underground except in cases of pressing need, which, toward the last, were very frequent.
Entrance to the cave was usually had by means of a small trap-door in the roof, in the concealment of which much care and ingenuity were also expended. In addition to the leaves always kept on it, a tree would often be felled over the spot, the boughs serving not only to screen the entrance from view, but likewise to lessen the danger of any one walking directly over the cave. As it was all-important that no trace of a path should be seen thereabout, the trunk of the tree afforded a safe walk-way, care being taken always to approach it from different directions. The presence of a newly felled tree, like a burning one, attracted little suspicion, being charged to the negro opossum-hunter.
To show how effectual these devices were, I need but state that in one instance a party of guards out hunting deserters actually stopped and ate their dinner seated on the trunk of a fallen tree whose boughs covered a cave at that moment tenanted by three of the men of whom they were in search. Even the burning stump was not lacking, but as the dodge was then a new one it aroused no suspicion; and after spending an hour or more in eating, joking, and horseplay, in which they were often within a few inches of the cave, they finally took their departure, very much to the relief of the three unhappiest men in the whole Southern Confederacy.
One very clever cave architect dug close to a deep, water-worn gully, and, instead of using a trap-door, cut through the walls of the cave into the gully, fitting a flour barrel into the hole as a door frame. Just here the gully was spanned by a large tree felled by some enterprising coon-hunter. By walking on this till directly over the spot, and then springing down on a heap of stones, no trace of his footsteps was left. His ingenuity stood him in good stead. Once he was sighted, fired on, and so hotly pursued that he was seen to dive from the log and disappear underneath. The guards, confident of a capture, hastened to occupy each end of the gully, from which it was clear that no one had issued. It was, of course, found empty; and although the presence of a cave was suspected and diligently searched for, it was never discovered. No one thought it worth while to peer under a stunted pine growing within six feet of the log, and whose boughs hid the flour-barrel doorway.
A daring and eccentric deserter chose as the location of his cave a high, conspicuous hill in the midst of a large cultivated field, and only a few feet from a frequented path. The debris of an old charcoal kiln rendered a small portion of the soil unfit for the plough, and just here the cave was dug, the refuse charcoal being used as a cover for the trapdoor in the place of leaves. It was the best specimen of cave architecture ever seen in the neighborhood, and bore the marks of long inhabitance. Who dug and fitted it up with so much skill and patience, why he chose that exposed and inconvenient place, how he escaped detection in the digging, how he disposed of the dirt, there being no stream within a long distance, is to this day a mystery. The most reasonable supposition was that he was a stranger in the neighborhood and a man of some means, who bribed the negroes cultivating the field to dig the cave and scatter the clay over the adjacent field, where it was turned under by the plough the next day.
A very domestic man burrowed under the hen-house, within a few feet of his dwelling, and contrived so that the smoke from the cave went up the house chimney. On one occasion he was pursued by the guards and chased into his own door, but a skillet of hot water in the hands of materfamilias proved as potent as Greek fire in quelling martial valor; and when at last the water cooled, the most diligent search of the house failed to disclose the whereabouts of the deserter. Let those laugh who will, but a gallon of boiling water in the hands of a determined virago whom long practice on egg - sucking dogs has made an unerring marksman is a weapon not lightly to be faced.
To insure greater safety, a band of deserters would have several caves in different places, occupying the same one but a few days at a time. A timid man is still twitted with having done nothing but dig cave after cave during the whole war.
The subsequent decay of the roof-poles and the dropping in of the tops proved hiding-places of this kind to have been surprisingly abundant, and to have been in the most unexpected places. A wooded bluff near a stream where I had been all unsuspectingly hunting and fishing turned out to have half a dozen in it. This spot was in sight of the flag at a Confederate post, and less than two miles distant.
Sometimes a squad, after having with the utmost circumspection selected a site and completed a cave, would be dismayed to find that they had been watched from the first by another and perhaps unfriendly squad which had preceded them and taken to earth near by. A sudden shifting of quarters by both parties was pretty sure to be the result, for in those times suspicion was rife.
The deserter while “hid out” was fed by his wife or some female of the family. As this was of course suspected by the officers, and their movements were often watched, the women were driven to exercise no little contrivance and cunning on their part. Nearly every woman had her own code of signals to guide the movements of her deserter husband. Sometimes a certain bedquilt hung on the fence meant danger, and another of different color or pattern meant safety; or a certain song sung on the way to the spring conveyed the necessary information. But hog - calling was the favorite signal. In those days of scarcity the hog became of even more than his usual importance. The neighborhood constantly rang with shrill voices imploring him to hasten home to be fed. A slight change in the habitual mode of calling apprised the deserter a mile distant when he could approach his home, and when he must keep close underground.
In times of danger food had to be carried to the caves by stealth. The ingenuity with which these women, clad only in limp homespun, concealed provisions about their persons would give lessons to the deftest importer of dress silk and kid gloves, aided by crinoline, bustles, and all the paraphernalia of fashion. Many a wild-goose chase did they lead those who followed them. No less a personage than the captain of the home guard himself, after following a will-o’-the-wisp of a faded checked homespun dress for miles through bush and brier, at length brought up in quicksand, where he stuck fast for hours till finally dragged out by the very men he was seeking to capture. Indeed, these women, in their way, proved quite as true and sacrificing as their more refined sisters who sent their husbands, sons, and brothers to the field instead of the woods.
The deserter’s wife had not only to bear more anxiety for her husband’s safety than the soldier’s wife did, for the sight of armed men seeking his capture or death was almost an every-day occurrence, but she must, by her own almost unaided labor, cultivate the crops and raise food for her family. Then, after a hard day’s work, food had to be prepared in the dead hours of night and smuggled out to the men in hiding. In short, her lot was but another proof of the truism that, after all, it is woman who has to bear the brunt of the ills that befall mankind.
The life of the deserter was not without its compensations. There was novelty, excitement, and a spice of danger which added zest to it. Perhaps, as men who had been both declared, it called for more courage to be a deserter than a soldier; but the former enjoyed a freedom impossible to the latter, and the deserter availed himself of his long holiday of two years or more to loaf, hunt, and fish to his heart’s content. Owing to the scarcity of ammunition and the absence of such a large proportion of the male population, game became so tame and abundant as to be taken without trouble. Two deserters out turkey-hunting, having ensconced themselves about dawn in a “brush-blind,” proceeded to yelp up their quarry. But the gobbler proved strangely unresponsive to their most seductive notes. When at last they were driven to stalk him, and had advanced a few hundred yards, the turkey suddenly turned out to be the captain of the home guard, who happened to be out turkey-yelping that morning, too. As his single bullet of loyal lead was no match for two loads of disloyal slugs, a mutual and hasty retreat was instantly beaten.
The tedium of deserter life was broken by all sorts of pranks and practical jokes played by rollicking members of the fraternity. One very effective but somewhat dangerous pleasantry was for several deserters to don uniform and personate Confederate guards. Some timid deserter or band of deserters, chosen a least likely to shoot, would be ousted from their caves, and at intervals chased around the neighborhood for a day or two. It is hard to imagine joking carried to a greater extreme than by soldiers marching toward the cave where a deserter was hid, pausing in his immediate vicinity, carefully and systematically thumping and prodding the ground, and, after what seemed an eternity to the poor fellow beneath, violently pulling up the trap-door, thrusting in a couple of cocked muskets, and sternly ordering him to surrender; or perhaps he would be suffered to burst out and run, receiving a volley as he went, and then be hunted about the country by those familiar with his haunts, and when, exhausted and desperate, he finally gave himself up, his captors, with a loud guffaw, would transform themselves into neighbors and fellow-deserters.
Another comedy in pantomime was acted when a body of Lee’s deserters, in making their way farther south, carrying their arms as they went, suddenly came face to face in the woods with an equally large body of our cave-dwellers. The former took the men in butternut for home guards in search of Lee’s deserters, the latter very naturally supposed the men in gray to be Confederate troops in search of cave-dwellers, and both parties turned and fled precipitately. So headlong was their flight that, blind to the direction they took, each described a circle through the woods, and five minutes later, spent and breathless, again tumbled into each other. Then, in some manner, Lee’s men discovered that the men in butternut were not home guards; doubtless their speed made it plain that they could have no connection with those leaden-footed worthies; and a general recognition and affiliation followed.
When we consider the stir made about them, it is surprising how few deserters were captured. Some caves were found, but in nearly every instance they were empty. A singularly unfortunate man, after serving in the ranks with credit and unwounded almost to the very close of the war, finally deserted, returned home, dug a cave, but was immediately taken and sent back to the front, where he lost an arm in the first skirmish.
As fate would have it, it was the lot of one of the youngest and most ignorant of the deserters in the neighborhood to fall before the rifle of a guard. This youth, who was a kinsman of our overseer, was shot almost within sight of our house. Overcome by the wearing loneliness of deserter life, and longing for the companionship and comfort of home, he crept up to the house to reconnoitre. Seeing no one but his little brother, who was busy loading rails on a cart, he approached him for information. When within a few paces a Confederate soldier jumped up from behind the cart, leveled his rifle, and ordered him to surrender. The boy sprang between the guard and his brother, and shouted to the latter to run. For some time the soldier was prevented from firing. A few steps more and the friendly shelter of the woods would have been gained, when the Enfield got in its deadly work. For years afterwards a scar was shown on a neighboring poplar where the heavy bullet, after piercing its victim, had glanced and ploughed a large hole in the tree.
One instance of cave-finding occurred which the finder is not likely to forget. In the summer of 1864 a schoolmate of mine was out hunting partridge nests. It was Sunday, the day which, as all boys will attest, is worth all the other days of the week together for finding nests, catching fish, or indeed effecting any of the multitudinous aims of boy life. Coming to a spot in an old field on which the pines had been felled as if for a tobacco patch, with the broom-sedge springing up around the edges of the dead boughs, making an ideal building-place for bob-white, he proceeded to search it thoroughly. Scrambling over the deep gullies by which the spot was surrounded, and beginning to peer and pry among the brush, he suddenly and to his unutterable terror found the earth giving way beneath his feet, precipitating him into a hole in which he would have disappeared entirely but for the desperate and uncertain grasp which he managed to keep on a tuft of broomstraw. Visions of dire judgments on Sabbath breakers flashed through his mind, stimulated by unmistakable evidences of fire at his feet, which seemed to show that his Satanic Majesty might already be at hand. As if in response to his screams, the surrounding earth rose with a mighty upheaval, and two strange beings, whom his fright transformed into demons, sprang into upper air and proceeded to drag him out by main force. He had simply fallen down the chimney of a deserter’s cave, in the fireplace of which a slow bark fire was burning.
Another troglodyte saw a still more alarming visitor make his entrance through the same novel doorway. Having retreated to his cave upon hearing the danger signal given and urgently repeated, he had scarcely adjusted the trap-door when his attention was attracted by a rustling among the leaves around the chimney mouth. A moment later a snake appeared over it, and fell wriggling and squirming at his feet. The cave was in Egyptian darkness, but the glimpse that he had of the reptile in the straggling light of the chimney assured him that it was of the dreaded high-land moccasin species, which the country people think quite as deadly as the rattlesnake itself. There he was, co-tenant of a gravelike hole hardly six feet square, with the most horrible thing that his imagination could picture. Above were the terrible Enfields of the guards; below, the still more terrible fangs of the reptile. But to stir even for the purpose of springing from the cave must bring the moccasin upon him. So for hours the man sat motionless as a stone, till a companion arrived to extricate him. Fortunately, the snake, doubtless restrained by the proximity of a human being, also remained motionless. The man had been of stout body and strong nerves, but for months after that experience he was all nervousness and timidity.
As was formerly true of the runaway negro, there was hardly anything that gave the deserter so much trouble as his dog. His attachment to the brute was too strong to admit of the thought of killing him. But if he approached his home, even at night, the antics of the dog were sure to betray his whereabouts. When in dire straits his life depended on his legs, the dog running with him hindered his progress, and often tripped his feet. Let occasion come for him to steal to his cave with extreme caution and secrecy, again the dog, refusing to “be-gone,” would take up some prominent position, and keep his gaze riveted on the exact spot on the ground under which his master had disappeared.
Indeed, the deserter had three stanch friends, his wife, his negroes, — for, as I have said, some of them owned slaves, — and his dog. More than one deserter owed not only his comfort, but his liberty, if not his life, to the fidelity and cunning of some trusty slave. Often the negro’s instinctive knowledge of woodcraft enabled him to make suggestions which greatly increased the safety of the hiding-place; and when questioned by the guards, his apparently innocent responses would throw pursuit in one direction while his master was speeding off in another. No one else could mingle the alarm signal with the hog - calling so successfully or be heard so far as he could; and no matter how thick the guards or how strict the watch, the cave was sure to be kept provisioned. While ostensibly very busy at the store or the station, his alert ears were catching every scrap of news, every rumor which could indicate the movements of the “deserter-hunters.”
The war over, almost as many absentees came back to our midst from the woods as from the camp. The meeting between deserter and deserter-hunter was at first very awkward, but the world moved faster now than of old, and the friction disappeared with surprising quickness. When reconstruction was effected, and the deserters went in a body into the Republican ranks, as it was very natural they should do, much of the war-time bitterness revived; but when, a little later, they began to fall back to the Democratic party, the past was forgiven, and, what is better, it was forgotten.
Dodge, David; "The Cave-Dwellers of the Confederacy," The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 514-522; Boston, Atlantic Monthly Co., October 1891
visits since 03/19/2004.
Page updated 05/25/2006