Archive | July, 2015

A Family at War

10 Jul
 On the bucolic Waccamaw River the Union gunboat trawled slowly upstream passing miles of rice fields, most with poorly maintained workings and piers. The drowsy crew of raw recruits were mainly New England boys wilting under the South Carolina low country heat.
 At the bridge Captain Ellis muttered, “I would like to put a ball through the roof.”, nodding towards a sprawling plantation house they were passing.” That old doctor that owns it has two sons in the Reb army.”
 If the Captain had been able to see beyond the mansion to the slave quarters his cannon would have been firing repeatedly. That old doctor being referenced was the owner of at least two thriving rice and indigo plantations along the river.  He was known locally as the most notorious abuser of his hundreds of slaves.  Column inches in newspapers and in broad sheets advertised constantly for information of, and rewards for, runaways. His farms had the dubious distinction of constant slave exitings that had only increased during the chaotic wartime atmosphere.
     As the war dragged on live stock on the plantations was in shorter supply every day. Horses and mules were conscripted into military service until few were left behind.  For the task at hand the two remaining draft horses and two coach animals were sufficient.  
    Big Sam was a constant runaway and had been recently returned by the slave catchers. The tendon on his right heel had been severed in the past as punishment for running but did little to quell his desire for freedom. The other residents of the bleak slave quarters were summoned to witness the punishment designed to make a graphic example of poor Sam who now lay on his back quaking in terror.
     The onlookers had witnessed punishments repeatedly in the past. This was different. They gasped and cried out as the spectacle unfolded.  A dappled gray plow horse was led into place and Sam’s right leg with the dangling foot was secured with a stout rope to the horse.  His other  limbs were swiftly secured in a like fashion, each to a horse. The doctor looked ashen as his driver finished the last knot and snarled at the onlookers, “Next one of you leaves here it’ll be in pieces!” A single stroke on the rump was sufficient to have all four horses bolt forward wildly.
      As the last car cleared the railroad trestle the battered engine creaked to a stop and a contingent of nervous soldiers piled out. They constantly glanced westward over the narrow river as they gathered piles of brush and with several gallons of precious coal oil kindled a hearty blaze that began to engulf the trestle pilings.  In a few hours thirty feet of the railroad bridge collapsed into a pile of carbonized rubble and twisted tracks. Shouts and a few ineffective shots erupted from the opposite shore as a party of Union calvary arrived too late to intercept the train.
“Let’s see if Sherman’s blue bellies kin walk on water!’, shouted a rebel sergeant, with a defiant gesture as the train began to inch forward.    
      Aboard the train, another old man was engaged in a different task. While his cousin the doctor was invoking grotesque discipline back on his Waccamaw plantation, this man took a deep breath and sighed. The narrow escape from the pursuers assured his mission would likely be accomplished.  Aboard the barely serviceable steam train his sad cargo, at least the ones in a position to observe the action at the bridge, had other feelings.
      He was a Confederate Surgeon charged with transporting a thousand Union prisoners from the hell of Andersonville military prison to a more secure prison before Sherman’s forces could free them.   
     The Surgeon had been on active duty since early in the war. His latest posting to the Andersonville stockade was the most stressful and demoralizing experience of his long medical career.  Having performed numerous operations and emergency treatments after major battles, the hopeless conditions he had experienced in the stockade had added to his own personal infirmities.  As grim as battle hospital conditions were in this war, as well as those he remembered from the Seminole War, Andersonville was countless factors worse in terms of death and disease and dispair.    
     The young Colonel languished in his tent alternately freezing and sweating from the ravages of another Malarial attack.  The phantom pain was at him again in the stump at the shoulder of his missing right arm. The regiment was proceeding across north Florida to join up with the main army in Georgia that would then continue on to North Carolina.
      An earlier malarial seizure had prevented him from seeing the Surgeon, his father, at the battle of Ocean Pond in Florida. He had long regretted not being appointed to the post at Andersonville now held by Captain Henry Wurz.  It would have been a last chance to have seen his father. 
       Albert was almost twelve.  A tall, slim, heavily tanned lad, he was reluctant to mingle with others of his age in the small Hudson River village where he now found himself after a harrowing trip through enemy lines with his mother and the younger children.  His heavy southern accent was a burden as the war was still being waged.
      When pressed by his peers he would solemnly state; “Pap, died in a Yankee prison camp”. This became a mantra to hold the most vicious reb haters at bay.  The dying part was true but then, his  ‘Pap’ was an officer at the camp for Union prisoners in South Carolina where he had delivered his charges and soon after perished of prison diseases.
     The family had been refugees since Atlanta fell to the Union forces. His older step-brother, the Colonel, commanded a regiment and was on active duty until losing an arm at the battle of Sharpesville, called Antietam in the North.  After a period in the Invalid Corp during which he tried unsuccessfully to get the post at the prison camp being established near Andersonville, Ga. 
      Apparently, the powers in Richmond were not interested in posting an officer who was married to a northern woman and who’s deceased mother was also from the North. They ignored the fact that the Colonel was a graduate of the Military College of South Carolina, The Citadel. That he had distinguished himself in the War with Mexico as Quartermaster of the 3rd Dragoons. Who, since that war ended, had organized the Police Force of Savannah Georgia and the Mounted Police of Charleston, SC., and was commandant of the Georgia Military Institute prior to the outbreak of the war. They preferred a non-entity who could be molded to their use.
     The Colonel was fortunate to have been passed over for that posting considering the fate, on the gallows, of Captain Henry Wurz who did get the job.
      Margaret had endured with equanimity the loss of her home near Atlanta and the refugee status of herself and her young ones. A few months of relative normalcy with relatives near Athens, Ga. were interrupted by the arrival of horsemen at the farm home. 
     This band of Sherman’s ‘bummers’ were confronted on the front porch by an angry women who turned out to be a fellow northerner.  They demanded all weapons on the premises. She presented a small quail gun owned by her step-son and pleaded for its return. “Naw,'”said a trooper, “This could kill a Yankee as easy as a bird.” With that he smashed the small gun into pieces.
     The looters discovered the one remaining horse that Albert and an old slave, Daddy Tate, had secreted in a cane break.  They stormed into the barn and strewed about and spoiled all the corn  and provisions the family was depending on for survival. Margaret was desperately trying to salvage what she could of the provisions when a messenger arrived. 
      A few elderly men, her children and female relatives, along with old Daddy Tate, saw the Surgeon interred in a quiet ceremony near the University of Georgia. Margaret had not seen her husband in many months and quietly told the children their father died of the same illnesses he was trying to ease in others.  Her resolve quickened at that point to petition General Sherman, still in the vicinity, for safe conduct to her childhood home among the Hudson River Dutch in New York. 
      A laborious trip to one military camp in South Georgia was a waste of time, provisions and firewood as that stockage was already bulging with Union prisoners.  The Surgeon was advised to continue north to Florence, South Carolina where a prison camp was expanding.  Acquiring food for all those emaciated prisoners, many of whom were subsisting on nothing heavier than thin gruel, plus potable water in sufficient quantity, all of this compounded by the absence of good sanitary facilities made the journey daunting.  After an agonizingly slow passage, complete with firewood and boiler water shortages, Charleston was in sight.  The stockade at Florence would be reached and the prisoners landed. The harrowing trip caused the Surgeon to go into rapid decline and he soon perished from the same prison diseases that felled so many others.  .
     “There were piles this high.” Albert indicated with his arms at chest level. “Legs, arms, feet, I dunno what all. And the blood… everywhere!”  His status amonst his  local peers improved greatly having actually witnessed the war.  This survival mechanism would help the boy live, uneasily, in enemy territory as an intruder from the hated seccessionist South.
“Me and old Daddy Tate,” (no mention of Tate’s slave status) ” found this real fine cavalry hoss with a saber slash on him.  We fixed him up good and were ready to plow him when the looters got him.”  No mention that the looters were from General Sherman’s command.
     Albert’s defensive use of historical facts and perhaps necessary distortions of truth would remain part of his psychic inventory unto his advanced years.  His  descendents would
come to know family history through a prism which bent the facts to Albert’s boyhood distortions..
     The Emancipation Proclamation teamed with several Union gunboats in the region caused a mass exodus of slaves from the plantations.  The doctor confined himself to his medical practice in Charleston and the farms were idle.  It was not until after the cessation of hostilities that his returning sons attempted to restart rice farming.  Two growing seasons with reluctant hired help and poor crops that came in grassy was sufficient to throw the lot into bankruptcy and the properties were lost to the family.
After his surrender along with Johnson’s Army of Tennessee to Sherman in North Carolina the Colonel rejoined his family and in time located to Jacksonville, FL.  He was simultaneously a Justice of the Peace, Inspector of Fertilizers (in Florida that meant phosphate mining) and had orange groves south of the city at Fruit Cove on the St. John’s River. Conditions in north Florida were much warmer then and citrus growing had thrived for years.  The weather changed permanently, however, and in 1895 all the trees were killed by frost. 
Albert’s lifetime saga of having pestered his father to please, please take me with you was possibly true. But whether or not the Surgeon actually took the boy to a battlefield hospital is unknown. His graphic tales of seeing all the severed limbs and oceans of blood did have a profound effect on his descendents for generations. Few became physicians.