A Unionist Widow

from a series of sketches by J. W. De Forest: "Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons."

            She was a woman I suppose of thirty-eight, but looking forty-five. Her form was middle-sized, square, and thin; her sallow face square, and with strong jaws and large dark gray eyes; her expression uncultured, and—but for a certain earnestness—commonplace. When she came to Greenville, riding sometimes in an ox-cart and sometimes in an open farm-wagon, she always wore her best dress of blue checked homespun, narrow in the skirt—no crinoline, no gewgaws. At home her attire was probably of tow-cloth, or coarse, unbleached cotton. Her invariable head-dress was the old-fashioned coal-scuttle bonnet, made of strips of pasteboard covered with calico, and having a cape to shield the neck and shoulders.

            She had visited all my predecessors; she came repeatedly to see me; she called on the magistrates, the Solicitor, the United States Commissioner, the Collector of the Internal Revenue; always with the same grim purpose—vengeance on the murderers of her husband. She staid whole days in the village, going about her from office to office, detailing her wrongs and asking counsel.

            My husband was drawn for the war,” she narrated to me. “He was a good Union man, and wouldn’t go to fight agin the Government. Besides, what was to come of his family if he went off to the army? So they sent a detail after him. I know several of the men in the detail; I can give their names when they are wanted; but one of them I’ll tell you now, because you know him. It was James Parsons, man of our settlement; he was one of the first and fastest to kill my poor man; and since the war they’ve made him a Square!

            “Well, they come down upon us before we for knew it. My old man was out in the yard; he run a little ways, but they caught him. They took him into a holler where thar was a piece of woods, and there they set him up against a tree, some say, and shot him; others say they shot him as he was running—I don’t know; I was in the house and didn’t see it, but I heard firing. Yes, I heard the firing! When I run out to see what was the matter some of ‘em met me, and says they, ‘Your old man is dead; we shot him for a deserter; you’ll find him down there a piece!’ Well, I ran down to the holler, but when I got thar it was over.”

            Such was the tragedy. Was it legally a crime? Two or three similar cases bad been- already presented to me, and I had in vain attempted to bring them before the local courts, the complainants alleging that it would be useless to appeal to a “reb jury.” As for military action, General Sickles had by order forbidden that, except where the civil authorities had refused to prosecute. So far as I knew no case like this one had anywhere been brought before a military commission. Thus I had no precedents to guide me.

            “If I could git it before the United States Court I could git justice,” continued the woman, in her dreary monotone.

            As the Commissioner was next door, I took her in to him. He stated that the affair was not between citizens of different States, that consequently he had no manner of jurisdiction over it. “You must bring your complaint as other to people bring theirs,” I then said. “You must make your affidavit before a magistrate, and thus have it presented to the grand jury. If the magistrate, or the jury, or the court refuses to act, then you can appeal to the military authority.”

            “But our Square is one of the very men who killed my husband,” she replied, raising her voice in natural indignation at such a state of things.

            “Then go to the next Squire. Try it. It is the only way. Let me know what the result is.” Over and over she returned to me; she absolutely haunted the district in search of justice; yet she could not be induced to make complaint legally. “What was the use of going before reb Square and a reb jury?“

            Once she informed me that several of those “concerned in the tragedy had proposed to pay her a moneyed compensation, in case she would agree not to bring suit against them.

            “By all means accept the offer,” I counseled. “Even if you could get your suit before an unprejudiced court, it is not that these men would be found guilty of murder.”

            “What! didn’t they kill my old man?”

            “Yes; but they killed him as soldiers; they were acting under the orders of superiors; it will be hard to fix the responsibility on any individual. Moreover, if they can be tried shooting him, other Confederates can be tried for shooting other loyal citizens. All the deaths of all the Union soldiers during the war might be brought into court. You are poor; you need money to enable you to live; if you can get it, give up the vengeance which you probably can not get.”

            Her reply was worthy of the hot blood and pugnacious education of the Southron, whether chivalrous or semi-chivalrous.

            “Stranger,” she said, “I would rather see the men hung that shot my old man than have lots to eat and wear. I want justice more than money.”

            I asked Parsons the magistrate for his version of this bloody story. He was, as I have described him in another article, a plain and poor farmer, dressed in homespun, mild in expression, quiet in manner, with a slow, soft utterance, and evidently in feeble health. He showed me his right arm, withered to the shoulder by rheumatism.

            “I was drawn for the army, and sent to Virginia,” he told me. “Then the surgeons rejected me as unfit for field-duty on account of this arm. After that I was put into the home guards. Almost every body was put into the home guards who couldn’t do full service; it was made up of old fellows, boys, sick men, and wounded. Their duty was to keep order around home, collect stuff for the army, and hunt deserters. It was a detail of the home guard that went after this man. He had been summoned, and he had failed to join his company, and so they posted him as a deserter. I didn’t make the law, and I couldn’t help executing it. I was as much under orders as if I had been in the regular army. If I didn’t shoot I might be shot myself. It would be hard to say who killed him. Several men fired as he was running, and he fell. I didn’t want to hurt him; I had nothing against him. It was the war that did it.”

            Yes, it was the war that did it; and that impalpable monster will probably be the only one who will ever answer for it; there is no likelihood that the case will come before a court of justice. It is better so; let us bury the bloody past as deep as we can; the present has better and more pressing work on hand than vengeance. 

De Forest, J.W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 225, February 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.

Hit Counter visits since 03/30/2004.
Page updated 05/25/2006