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Chapter 11:

  • Homespun Weddings.
  • -- a Pathetic incident. -- approach of the Northern army.

Leaving a broken home circle, I returned to southern Alabama, where everything was moving on as before; the thump of the house-loom and the whirring of the spinning-wheel were just as regular in every household; substitutes and expedients were still being devised or improved upon. There was no diminution of patience or perseverance, and we still felt, in that section, none of the effects of war, saving the privations and inconveniences to which allusion has been made.

We still had our merry social gatherings. Now and then a homespun wedding would occur, in which the bride and all who were bidden would be in homespun out and out. We were invited to one such marriage in our settlement. I wore a homespun dress of my own labor, but I neither carded, spun, nor wove it. I had become quite skillful in crocheting capes, vandykes, shawls, scarfs, and gloves, and [138] as I had had more than enough work carding and spinning my second homespun dress, I took a neighbor at her word, when she said: “I'll give you a hank of thread to crochet me a cape like yours.” The hank would weave one yard of cloth, and I could crochet two capes per week, besides discharging my school duties faithfully. I thus made two yards of cloth clear, as the thread was furnished for whatever piece I crocheted. More or less in cuts of thread were paid, according to the article I furnished, whether shoulder-cape, vandyke, shawl, or gloves. At one time I had so many hanks of homespun thread that they were quite a weight to lift, and I was proud of them, too, so proud that if a neighbor came to spend the afternoon, I always drew forth that bunch of thread from the large wardrobe where I kept it hanging, for her to view. Beside having enough for another full homespun dress, and all my knitting and crocheting, I sent to my mother as many as twenty hanks, that had been paid me for knitting and crocheting shawls, capes, vandykes, and similar articles for neighbors.

I had the thread for the dress just mentioned [139] dyed blue with our home-made indigo, and a deep garnet with a strong tea of pine-tree roots. One-half was dyed blue, the other half garnet. In the warp it was four blue, and four garnet threads. Two shuttles were used, one with a blue quill of thread, the other with a garnet quill, and the result was a neat and simple plaid. I cut the buttons out of a gourd shell, and covered them with scraps of red merino. We always took pains to take such buttons off when our homespuns required washing. When the stuff had been starched and ironed, we stitched the buttons on again.

The bride's dress was woven a solid light gray color, warp and woof; the buttons were made of gray thread, overcast with white thread. Special pains had been taken with some white cotton flannel, three rows of which, about three inches wide, were placed around the bottom of the skirt, with about three inches' space between each row. The cuffs, collar, and shoulder-cape were trimmed with this white cotton flannel; and from only across the room it appeared as if the bride wore a real fur-trimmed dress, and the effect was graceful in the extreme. [140]

Thread was often spun, both wool and cotton, with the band crossed, so as to knit and crochet with single thread. The wheel-band was crossed only in twisting thread for sewing or knitting purposes. In spinning the single strand the band was always uncrossed, unless we wanted to knit or crochet something very fine and soft, and did not want it double and twisted. Then it was spun with the band of the wheel crossed, so that in crocheting or knitting it would not become untwisted. The cotton thread was bleached by placing it on a line in the yard, where it hung for two or three weeks in the sun and dew. It was a common thing to see long rows of hanks of cotton thread hanging on a line out in the yards or gardens of all the dwellers of our settlement. Such thread would bleach almost as white as snow.

Now and then the stern fruits of war were forced upon our community by the home-coming of some Confederate soldier seriously or fatally wounded; or by the arrival of the corpse of some one of our soldiers whom we had seen quit the neighborhood in the flush of health and confident that the demands of the South would soon be allowed. [141]

On one occasion I wept with a widow bereft of her only son and child, who had died in a hospital near Richmond, from wounds received in battle. She told us that when he had left for the front, in the midst of her terrible grief, her last words to him as she held his hand had been, “My son, remember it is just as near heaven in Virginia as it is here in our home in Alabama.” Years after the young man had been buried, I happened one Sunday to be attending divine service in Hamilton, Georgia, and in the course of his sermon the Rev. William Boothe, a godly Methodist minister, enforced his text by relating an incident. He told how a young man native of Alabama, wounded in battle, lay dying in a hospital hear Richmond. The minister, in visiting that hospital, speaking words of cheer and comfort to the sick, was touched by the sight of the young man, who, it was plain to see, was in immediate danger of death. Taking the hand of the dying boy, Mr. Boothe had said in a kindly, fatherly way, “My son, is there any message or word you would like me to send, or, perhaps, that I can bear myself to your people, wherever they may [142] live?” A glad smile lighted up the pale face of the soldier, who quickly replied, “I am so thankful that some kind friend will bear a message to my mother, who is a widow living down in Alabama. I am her only son and child. Please say to her from me these words: ‘ Remember that it is just as near heaven in Virginia as it is in our home in Alabama.’ There has never been a night on the tented field, or when entering into battle, when those words, my mother's words, and spoken as I left her, have not been with me.” So speaking, the soldier's face was lighted up by a seraphic smile, and he expired.

We were fighting hard at home to keep the upper hand of the difficulties which hedged us in; we were working and fasting and praying that victory might reward all our sacrifices and sufferings, yet day by day the newspapers brought news of defeat after defeat; day by day they told us of the inexorable advance of the Federal troops; day by day the conviction strengthened with us that, struggle as we would, we were on the losing side, and ours was to go down to history as “the lost cause.” Our soldiers were living on parched corn, [143] as they had been for a year; they were going into battle ragged and barefoot and half-starved — in vain.

What a fearful day it was for us, when, in April, 1865, word came into our placid valley that the Northern army was almost at our doors! I could not begin to describe our chagrin and terror. In life one is likely to remember always the exact circumstances under which the first shock of bad news was received. I know that the first tidings of the approach of the Yankee forces came to me as I was about to open the gate leading out on to the public road from Mr. G --‘s homestead. I was on my way to the school, when a man rode up, and halting an instant said, “General Grierson and his army are marching from Mobile to Eufaula, and they will probably reach Eufaula to-night, or early to-morrow morning!”

As Mr. G — lived near the main highway, he did not expect to escape the invading army. Now, it seemed, we were to be awakened from the even tenor of our way, perhaps to know another meaning for “hard times.” Fear was depicted on every face, for who could tell but that the morrow's [144] sun would cast its beams upon a heap of smoking ruins, and we be bereft of all the property we had.

Teaching school was not to be thought of until our suspense was over. The blue heavens, so vast and serene, seemed no longer to clasp, mildly and lovingly, our quiet home in all-embracing arms, nor to smile upon us in peace and love. “Now,” thought we, “we shall realize in part, perhaps fully, what ‘Old Virginia’ and the Border States have passed through for four years, while with us, in the blockaded interior, all has been so quiet and undisturbed.”

How vividly I remember that day of suspense, as the courier heralded from house to house his unwelcome message, “The Yankees are coming!” The explosion of a bomb in each one's yard could not have created greater excitement. Planters hastily fled to the swamps and the deep, unfrequented woods, with their stock and valuables. At intervals throughout the day, droves of cattle and hogs were driven past my employer's residence to hidingplaces in the woods; and wagons and carriages, filled with whatever valuables could [145] be quickly gotten together, were also passing by.

It was amusing, as well as sad, to see a feather-bed protruding at least a quarter of its length from a carriage window. In our great anxiety, appearances were not regarded. The single thought of the people was to protect themselves and their property as expeditiously and securely as possible. In the mean time we were confused and distracted by conflicting rumors. At one time the report would be, “The army is not a mile off;” then we imagined we heard guns firing. Again it would be, “They are not coming this way at all.” Then, “They are only half a mile off,” and we were sure we saw the smoke from some burning dwelling or gin-house.

It was a day of unceasing flurry and excitement, and as the lengthening shadows gave warning that night was drawing on, with troubled feelings we looked from face to face, for no one was left to meet the Federal army, should it pass by on our road, save women and children and the negro slaves. Mr. G-- was in a deep swamp, about half a mile from his dwelling, with all the stock and what was most [146] valuable. His presence with us would have done no good, for if the enemy had come, he might have been hung before our eyes; or he might have been tortured to make him tell where his gold and silver were hidden. Men were so treated in many instances.

There were some comical places thought of in which to hide gold, silver, jewelry, and other valuables. A lady of our settlement wrapped her watch and chain, bracelets, and a valuable breast-pin, together with some other jewelry, in an old faded rag, and tossed it into the middle of a large rose-bush in her front yard. There it remained secure, although the house and yard were filled with Yankee soldiers, who searched the house, turning up beds and mattresses, pulling the clothing out of the wardrobe and bureaus; and yet that rosebush kept its secret.

Another young woman took her father's bag of gold and silver, and ran to the henhouse and put it beneath the nest of a setting hen. An old lady put all her jewelry in a small jar, cemented the top tightly on, placed it in an old bucket, and let it down into her well. When all things had settled [147] down quietly, and it was safe to draw the jar from the well, nothing was found to be soiled or injured in the least. Another filled an old ash-hopper with bacon, covered it with a cloth, put ashes over that about half a foot deep, then with straw built a hen's nest or two, and placed some eggs in them; and of course the Yankee soldiers cared nothing for that insignificant ash-hopper and its hen's nest.

As darkness closed in, we sat with folded hands and bated breath, listening for the tramp of the mighty Northern host, with the unexpressed thought, “Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!” In the midst of silent reveries around the fire, for the night was chill, and a fire had been kindled, in part to dispel the gloom and dread of our feelings, one of the daughters turned to her cousin and said, “Annie, what will you do if the Yankees come?” “Ooo-oo-o!” with hands upraised, was the reply. Then cousin Annie turned to her cousin, after a long pause, and asked, “Marie, what will you do if they come?” “Umph-mph-ph,” with eyes dilated, was Marie's reply. Never a word was spoken save that question, [148] followed by an inarticulate exclamation. Finally it seemed so ludicrous that we all broke forth into merry peals of laughter, which served as a safety-valve to our genuine depression.

A married daughter of Mr. G--‘s was living in a small cottage near her father's, built so that he might have his daughter Under his care while her husband was away in our army. The married daughter did not feel disposed to leave her house exposed, but was too much alarmed to remain alone that night with her two small children. So she urged me to stay with her, as her mother would have the cousin and two older daughters. As I was going down the colonnade steps, with the two young girls, aged between nine and eleven, Mrs. G-- called to me, “Miss A--, if the Yankees come, I shall be sure to send Martha (the colored nurse girl) to tell you.” “All right,” I replied, “you'll see how fast I shall get to you.”

In painful apprehension we sat long on the porch. It was one of those halfmoon-lit nights, so calm that the stillness was oppressive. But exhausted nature demanded her tribute, and finally we sought rest from [149] the day's worry and suspense in sleep, uneasy though it might be. God only knows how fervent and plaintive was the prayer that ascended that April night in southern Alabama, from hundreds of dwellings peopled only by women, children, and negro slaves. As I pillowed my head, I called up soul-comforting passages from the Bible, none bringing greater solace than, “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him.” The ninety-first Psalm, that I had committed to memory in Sabbath-school, now came to mind like a great wave of consolation.

I was just bordering upon the edge of sleep, when I was suddenly startled by a loud and hurried knocking on the door, and immediately recognized the voice of the negro girl, who was excitedly crying out, “Miss A--, missis say come down dar quick, de Yankees coming.” I sprang with a sudden bound into the middle of the room, gathered up shoes and stockings in one hand, dress and other garments in the other, and dashed out in the shadowy night, with the two little girls, who had just as hastily left their bed, and now clung on either side of me in their long white [150] night-robes. A dark cloud skurried across the moon and obscured its light for a moment, making the night darkish, but in another instant all the clouds had rolled by, and left the moon clear, so that the shadows of the great oaks were distinctly outlined, quivering beneath our feet as we flew past. One of the little girls tripped, but managed to gather herself up quickly, without ever letting go of me, to whom she clung with the grip of the Old Man of the Sea.

As we reached the side entrance of the main yard, and passed through the gate, we found the yard swarming with the negro slaves; passing the kitchen, which was detached from the main dwellinghouse (as at all Southern homes in those days), Uncle Ben and Aunt Phillis were standing, in the doorway. They craned their necks, shaded their eyes with their hands, and peered forth at us in the darkness, as we passed swiftly by. “Well I'clare fore God” -- The rest of the sentence was lost in our hurried flight. We jammed against Aunt Jemimah, the regular washerwoman, who held in her hands a pair of cotton-cards, and on whose [151] arm was hanging a wisp of white cotton rolls. She threw up her arms at sight of us, the wisp of rolls floating lightly away on the night breeze. When she recognized us, she exclaimed, “Lors, chilluns, I did just tink you was ghosses.”

We entered the house by the back door, just in time to find all in great confusion, caused by a false alarm. The home guards, composed of old men and young boys of the county, had that afternoon disbanded in the city of Eufaula, knowing that General Grierson would arrive that night or the next morning, and that resistance would be useless. So they deemed discretion just then the better part of valor, and here they were, returning home by the road on which my employer's plantation lay, their expectation being that the Federal commander would march his column into Eufaula by a road on the other side of our settlement.

When the horses' hoofs struck the bridge that spanned a large creek, three or four hundred yards from Mr. G--‘s mansion, the sounds, borne on the still night air with startling distinctness, were naturally mistaken by lone women and children [152] for the advance of the terrible Yankees. When the Babel-like confusion had ceased we presented a droll tableau, for, acting on the impulse of the moment, no one had paused to think of personal appearance.

When asked what she was going to do with the cotton-cards and wisp of rolls, Aunt Jemimah's reply was, “Oh, lor bless yer, honeys, I did n't know I had 'em.” It had been usual to allow the negroes the use of the wheels and cotton-cards, and cotton was given them, in case they wished to spin their own stocking-yarn or sewingthread at night.

The negroes, too, had been expecting the Yankee army, and hearing a great clashing of horses' hoofs on the bridge, thought with the rest of us, “They are coming now.” So large and small left the “quarter” and came over to “Marster's,” as they called the dwelling-house and yard, to see the Federal troops. Perhaps some may have come with the design of going with the Yankees. The cottage of the married daughter and the negroes' quarter were about equally distant from my employer's residence, but in opposite directions, [153] so that by the time I had reached the yard of the dwelling, I found myself in a surging mass of black humanity.

In calling to mind the scenes of that night, I have often thought that had the Federal army really come, and the two little girls and I dashed into view in our long white robes, fleeing as if on the wings of the wind, we should have caused the moving host to halt. And oft as memory recalls those scenes I rub my eyes and ask, “Can it be that on that long April night in 1865, while the Federal army was marching into Eufaula by another road, we women and children, surrounded by negro slaves, were the sole occupants of that exposed house?” Yet so in truth it was. We felt no fear,of the slaves. The idea of any harm happening through them never for one instant entered our minds.

But now, not for my right hand would I be situated as I was that April night of 1865. Now it would by no means be safe, for experience is showing us that in any section where the negro forms any very great part of the population, white men or women are in danger of murder, robbery, and violence.

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