A Strange Land
and A Peculiar
A nodule of amygdaloid, a coarse pebble enveloped in a whitish
semi-crystalline paste, lies on the table before me. I know that a
blow of the hammer will reveal the beauties of its crystal interior,
but I do not crush it. It is more to me as it is—more than a
letter plucked from the stone pages of time. Coarse and plain, it is
an index to a chapter of life. In the occupations of a busy existence
we forget how much we owe to the sweet emotional nature which, by
mere chance association, retains the dearer part of the past fixed in
memory, just as the graceful volutes of a fossil shell are preserved
in the coarse matrix of a stony paste. In this way the nodule
connects itself with my emotional life, and recalls the incidents of
We were journeying over the mountains in the autumn of 1869. Our
camp was pitched in a valley of the ascending ridges of the
Cumberland range, on the south-east border of Kentucky. At this point
the interior valley forms the letter J, the road following the bend,
and ascending at the foot of the perpendicular.
It is nearly an hour since sunset, but the twilight still lingers
in softened radiance, mellowing the mountain-scenery. The camp-wagons
are drawn up on a low pebbly shelf at the foot of the hills, and the
kindled fire has set a great carbuncle in the standing pool. A spring
branch oozes out of the rocky turf, and flows down to meet a shallow
river fretting over shoals. The road we have followed hangs like a
rope-ladder from the top of the
hills, sagging down in the irregularities till it reaches the
river-bed, where it flies apart in strands of sand. The twilight
leans upon the opposite ridge, painting its undulations in
inconceivably delicate shades of subdued color. Although the night is
coming on, the clear-obscure of that dusk, like a limpid pool,
reveals all beneath. A road ascending the southern hill cuts through
a loamy crust a yellow line, which creeps upward, winding in and out,
till nothing is seen of it but a break in the trees set clear against
the sky. No art of engineer wrought these graceful bends: it is a
wild mountain-pass, followed by the unwieldy buffalo in search of
pasturage. Beyond, the mountain rises again precipitously, a ragged
tree clinging here and there to the craggy shelves. Around and
through the foliage, like a ribbon, the road winds to the top. A blue
vapor covers it and the hills melting softly in the distance. At the
base of the hills a little river winds and bends to the west through
a low fertile bottom, the stem of the J, which is perhaps a mile in
width. It turns again, its course marked by a growth of low
water-oaks and beeches, following the irregular fold in the hills
which has been described.
Leaning against the bluffs hard by the camp is a low white
cottage, with its paddock and pinfold, and the cattle are coming up,
with bells toning irregularly as they feed and loiter on the way. The
supper-horn sends forth a hoarse but mellow fugue in swells and
cadences from the farm-house. Over all this sweet rural scene of
mountain, valley, river and farm, and over the picturesque camp, with
stock, tent and wagons, now brightened by the grace of a young girl,
the twilight lingers like love over a home. As I listen and look a
soft voice from the carriage at my side says, "Is the ground
damp? May I get out?"
I turn to my little prisoner, and as the mingled lights cross her
features I see that her wide, dark-gray eyes are swimming in tears.
"Why, what is it?" I ask.
"Nothing: everything is so sweet and tranquil. I was
wondering if our new home would be like this—not the hills and
valleys, you know, but so quiet and homelike."
So homelike! With that vague yearning, we, like so many
Southerners of the period, were wagoning from old homesteads, a
thousand miles of travel, to a resting-place.
"It will be like home if you are there," I think as I
assist her to alight—the burden daily growing lighter in my
arms and heavier on my heart—but I say nothing.
Pretty soon she is at her usual relaxation, looking for shells,
ivy berries and roots of wild vines to adorn that never-attainable
home. The kindly, generous twilight, so unlike the swift shrift of
the Florida levels, still lingers; and presently, amid bits of
syenite, volcanic tuff and scoria, she has found this nodule of
amygdaloid. It differs from the fossil shells and alluvial pebbles
she is used to find, and she is curious about it.
I tell the story of the watershed of the Ohio as well as I
can—how it was the delta of a great river, fed by the surfage
of a continent lying south—eastwardly in the Atlantic; of the
luxuriant vegetation that sprang up as in the cypress-swamps of her
old home in Louisiana, passing, layer by layer, into peat, to be
baked and pressed into bituminous coal, that slops over the flared
edges of the basin in Pennsylvania, like sugar in the kettles, and is
then burnt to anthracite. I promise her that in some dawn on the
culminating peak, when the hills below loom up, their tops just
visible like islands in a sea of dusk, I will show her a natural
photograph of that old-world delta, with the fog breaking on the
lower cliffs like the surf of a ghostly sea. She listens as to a
fairy tale, and then I tell her of the stellar crystals concealed in
the rough crust of the amygdaloid. She puts it away, and says I shall
break it for her when we get home. We have traveled a long way, by
different paths, since then, but it has never been broken—never
will be broken now.
In addition to the geological and botanical curiosities the
mountains afford, my companion had been moved alternately to tears
and smiles by the scenes and
people we met—their quaint speech and patient poverty. We
passed eleven deserted homesteads in one day. Sometimes a lean cur
yelped forlorn welcome: at one a poor cow lowed at the broken paddock
and dairy. We passed a poor man with five little children—the
eldest ten or twelve, the youngest four or five—their little
stock on a small donkey, footing their way over the hills across
Tennessee into Georgia. It was so pitiful to see the poor little
babes-in-the-wood on that forlorn journey; and yet they were so
brave, and the poor fellow cheered them and praised them, as well he
might. Another miserable picture was at the white cottage near our
camp. The lawn showed evidences of an old taste in rare flowers and
vines, now choked with weeds. I knocked, and a slovenly negress
opened the door and revealed the sordid interior—an unspread
bed; a foul table, sickly with the smell of half-eaten food and
unwashed dishes; the central figure a poor, helpless old man sitting
on a stool, I asked the negress for her master: she answered rudely
that she had no master, and would have slammed the door in my face.
Why tell the story of a life surrounded by taste and womanly
adornments, followed by a childless, wifeless old age? The poor,
wizened old creature was rotting in life on that low stool among his
former dependants, their support and scorn. The Emancipation
Proclamation did not reach him. But one power could break his bonds
and restore the fallen son and the buried wife—the great
The natives of this region are characterized by marked
peculiarities of the anatomical frame. The elongation of the bones,
the contour of the facial angle, the relative proportion or
disproportion of the extremities, the loose muscular attachment of
the ligatures, and the harsh features were exemplified in the notable
instance of the late President Lincoln. A like individuality appears
in their idiom. It lacks the Doric breadth of the Virginian of the
other slope, and is equally removed from the soft vowels and liquid
intonation of the southern plain. It has verbal and phraseological
peculiarities of its own. Bantering a Tennessee wife on her choice,
she replied with a toss and a sparkle, "I-uns couldn't get
shet of un less'n I-uns married un." "Have you'uns
seed any stray shoats?" asked a passer: "I-uns's uses
about here." "Critter" means an
animal—"cretur," a fellow-creature.
"Longsweet-'nin'" and "short
sweet'nin'" are respectively syrup and sugar. The use of
the indefinite substantive pronoun un (the French on),
modified by the personals, used demonstratively, and of
"done" and "gwine" as auxiliaries, is peculiar to
the mountains, as well on the Wabash and Alleghany, I am told, as in
Tennessee. The practice of dipping—by which is meant not
baptism, but chewing snuff—prevails to a like extent.
In farming they believe in the influence of the moon on all
vegetation, and in pork-butchering and curing the same luminary is
consulted. Leguminous plants must be set out in the light of the
moon—tuberous, including potatoes, in the dark of that
satellite. It is supposed to govern the weather by its dip,
not indicate it by its appearance. The cup or crescent atilt
is a wet moon—i.e., the month will be rainy. A change of the
moon forebodes a change of the weather, and no meteorological
statistics can shake their confidence in the superstition. They, of
course, believe in the water-wizard and his forked wand; and their
faith is extended to the discovery of mineral veins. While writing
this I see the statement in a public journal that Richard Flannery of
Cumberland county (Kentucky) uses an oval ball, of some material
known only to himself, which he suspends between the forks of a short
switch. As he walks, holding this extended, the indicator announces
the metal by arbitrary vibrations. As his investigations are said to
be attended with success, possibly the oval ball is highly
magnetized, or contains a lode-stone whose delicate suspension is
affected by the current magnetism, metallic veins being usually a
magnetic centre. Any mass of soft iron in the position of the
dipping-needle is sensibly magnetic, and a solution of continuity is thus indicated by the
vibrations of the delicately poised instrument. Flaws in iron are
detected with absolute certainty by this method. More probably,
however, the whole procedure is pure, unadulterated humbug. In all
such cases the failures are unrecorded, while the successes are
noted, wondered at and published. By shooting arrows all day, even a
blind man may hit the mark sometimes.
During this journey it was a habit with me to relate to my invalid
companion any fact or incident of the day's travel. She came to
expect this, and would add incidents and observations of her own. In
this way I was led to compile the following little narrative of
feminine constancy and courage during the late war.
It begins with two boys and a girl, generically divided into
brother and sister and their companion, living on the divide-range of
mountains between Kentucky and Tennessee. The people raised hogs,
which were fattened on the mast of the range, while a few weeks'
feeding on corn and slops in the fall gave the meat the desired
firmness and flavor. They cultivated a few acres of corn, tobacco and
potatoes, and had a kitchen-garden for "short sass" and
"long sass"—leguminous and tuberous plants. Apples
are called "sour sass." The chief local currency was
red-fox scalps, for which the State of Kentucky paid a reward: the
people did not think of raising such vermin for the peltry, as the
shrewder speculator of a New England State did. They sold venison and
bear-meat at five cents a pound to the lame trader at Jimtown, who
wagoned it as far as Columbia, Kentucky, and sold it for seventy-five
cents. They went to the log church in the woods on Sundays, and
believed that Christ was God in the flesh, with other old doctrines
now rapidly becoming heretical in the enlightened churches of the
East. Living contentedly in this simple way, neither rich nor poor,
the lads grew up, nutting, fishing, hunting together, and the
companion naturally looked forward to the day when he would sell
enough peltry and meat to buy a huge watch like a silver biscuit,
such as the schoolmaster wore, make a clearing and cabin in the wild
hills, and buy his one suit of store clothes, in which to wed the
pretty sister of his friend.
Then came the war. Although it divided the two friends, the old
kindness kept their difference from flaming forth in the vendetta
fashion peculiar to the region. It was a great deal that these two
young fellows did not believe that military morality required them to
shoot each other on sight. Yet, on reconsideration, I will not be so
sure of their opinion on this point. Perhaps they thought that,
morally and patriotically, they ought to do this, and were conscious
of weakness and failure of duty in omitting to do it. Perhaps the old
good-will survived for the girl's sake; and if so, I do not think
the Union was the worse preserved on that account.
The young lover went into the ranks of Wolford's regiment of
loyal mountaineers, and rose—slowly at first, more rapidly as
his square sense and upright character became known.
The girl, in her retirement, heard of her lover's advancement
with pride and fear. She distrusted her worth, and found the hard
menial duties of life more irksome than before. Not that she shrank
from labor, but she feared its unfitting her for the refinement
required by her lover's new social position. She had few examples
to teach her the small proprieties of small minds, but a native
delicacy helped her more than she was conscious of. She read her
Bible a great deal, and used to wonder if Mary and "the other
Mary" were ladies. She thought Peter was probably an East
Tennesseean, or like one, for when he denied his Lord they said he
did not talk like the others. It seemed hard that to say
"we-uns" and "you-uns," as she habitually did,
though she tried not, and to use the simple phrases of her childhood,
should be thought coarse or wrong. Such matters were puzzles to her
which she could not solve. She got an old thumbed Butler's
Grammar and tried hard to correct the vocables of her truant
tongue. I am afraid she made
poor progress. She had a way of defying that intolerable tyrant, the
nominative singular, and put all her verbs in the plural, under an
impression, not without example, that it was elegant language. She
had enough hard work to do, poor girl! to have been quit of these
mental troubles. Her brother was away, her parents were old, and all
the irksome duties of farm-house and garden fell upon her. She had to
hunt the wild shoats on the range, and to herd them; to drive up the
cows, and milk them; to churn and make the butter and cheese. She
tapped the sugar trees and watched the kettles, and made the maple
syrup and sugar; she tended the poultry, ploughed and hoed the corn
field and garden, besides doing the house-work. Her old parents could
help but little, for the "rheumatiz," which attacks age in
the mountains, had cramped and knotted their limbs, and they were fit
for nothing except in fine dry weather. Surely, life was hard with
her, without her anxieties about her lover's constancy and her
own defects. Letter-writing was a labor not to be thought of. She
tried it, and got as far as "I am quite well, and I hope these
few lines will find you the same," and there stopped. She
ascribed the difficulty to her own mental and clerical defects, but I
think it lay quite as much in the nature of the relation. How was she
to express confidence when she distrusted? how express distrust when
her maidenly promptings told her it was an indelicate solicitation?
She could say Brindle had gone dry and the blind mare had foaled, or
that crops were good; but what was that to say when her heart was
thirsting and drying up? She blotted the paper and her eyes and her
hands, but she could not write a line. She was a sensible girl, and
gave it up, leaving her love to grow its own growth. The tree had
been planted in good ground, and watered: it must grow of itself.
By and by military operations brought her lover into the old
neighborhood. I cannot say he put on no affectations with his new
rank, that he did not air his shoulder-straps a taste too much; but
the manly nature was too loyal to sin from mere vanity. He seemed
natural, easy, pleased with her, and urged a speedy wedding.
We may guess how the Lassie—we must give her a name, and
that will do—worshiped her King Cophetua in shoulder-straps.
Had he not stooped from his well-won, honorable height, the serene
azure of his blue uniform, to sue for her? In all the humility of her
pure loving heart she poured out her thankfulness to the Giver of all
good for this supreme blessing of his love.
In the midst of this peace and content her brother appeared with a
flag of truce. He was hailed as a prosperous prodigal, for he too was
a lad of metal, but he brought one with him that made poor Lassie
start and tremble. It was a lady, young and beautiful, clad in deep
mourning. Although sad and retiring, there was that dangerous charm
about her which men are lured by, and which women dread—a
subtle influence of look and gesture and tone that sets the pulses
mad. She was going for the remains of her husband, and told a
pathetic story, but only too well. She used always the same language,
cried at the same places, and seemed altogether too perfect in her
part for it to be entirely natural. So, at least, Lassie thought,
even while reproaching herself for being hard on a sister in
affliction. Yet she could not escape the bitterness of the thought
that the widow, Mrs. G——, was "a real
lady"—that ideal rival she had been so long dreading in
her lover's absence; and now that he had come, the rival had also
Her brother dropped a hint or two about the lady: Mrs.
G—— had the "shads," "vodles" of
bank-stock and niggers, and she paid well for small service. If King
Cophetua could get leave to escort her to head-quarters, Mrs.
G—— would foot the bills and do the handsome thing. It
was hard such a woman should have to go on such a sad business
What could his sister say? She had herself put off the wedding a
month: she wanted to get her ample store of butter, eggs and poultry to the trader at Jimtown, or,
better still, to the brigade head-quarters at Bean's Station.
With her own earnings she could then buy such simple muslins for her
wedding-dress as became her and would not shame her lover. She wished
she had married him, as he had urged, in her old calico gown. If he
had asked her now, if he had pressed a little, she would have
yielded; but he did not. He seemed to accept the proprieties and
woman's will as unalterable. In fact, he did follow Mrs.
G——'s motions with only too lively an admiration.
Perhaps he did not know himself what his feelings were—what
this new fever in his pulses meant. Besides the calm, holy connubial
love there is a wild animal passion that tears through moral creeds
and laws. Once, Lassie saw her brother give him a half-angry stare,
that passed into a laugh of cool scorn. "Take care of Mrs.
G——," he said to King Cophetua. "You will get
bit there if you don't look out."
How the sister would have pressed that warning had she dared!
Innocent as her lover might be, she believed that Mrs.
G—— saw the growing passion and encouraged it. But there
was nothing to take hold of. There was nothing bold, forward or
inviting in her manner. If a lady has long lashes, must she never
droop them lest she be charged with coquetry? May not a flush spring
as naturally from shy reserve as from immodesty?
Lassie's lover did take charge of this dangerous siren to
escort her to the head-quarters at Louisville. But just before
starting he came to Lassie with a certain eagerness, as one who is
going into battle might, and assured her, again and again, of his
faith. Did he do this to assure her or himself? I think the last.
How weary the month was! She occupied herself as well as she could
with her sales and purchases, making a very good trade. The brigade
had been at Bean's Station long enough to eat up all the
delicacies to be found there, so that the little maid, who was a
sharp marketer, got fabulous prices. She made up her simple wedding
furniture, gave her mother a new gown and underwear, and pleased her
old father with a handsome jean suit, the labor of her own nimble
fingers. All that belonged to her would appear well on that day, as
became them and her.
At any other time she would have followed up that thrifty market
at Bean's Station. She would have huckstered around the
neighborhood, and made a little income while it lasted; but now she
had no heart for it. Her lover's leave was out, yet his
regimental associates knew nothing about him.
A week after the day set for her marriage her brother came again
with the flag of truce. He too was vexed—not so much at
Cophetua's absence as at not meeting the widow, whom he had been
sent to escort to the Confederate lines. But he treated his
sister's jealous suspicions with a dash of scorn: "There was
nothing of that kind, but if Cophetua would fool with a loaded gun,
he must expect to be hurt. If ever there was a hair-trigger, it was
"Who is she?" asked his sister eagerly. "Tell me:
you say there is something strange, dangerous about her, and I can
see it. Who is she?"
"Humph!" said her brother. "She is a lady, and that
is enough. If she is dangerous, keep out of her way."
This only deepened the mystery. But she had no time to think. Her
brother left in the morning. In the afternoon the colonel of her
lover's regiment came to see her with a very grave face. The
young man had been arrested for dealing with the enemy, harboring
spies and furnishing information of the disposition and number of the
Federal forces. "If we could get at the true story of his
connection with that woman," said the colonel, "I am
satisfied he has only been indiscreet, not treacherous. He is one of
my best, most trusted officers, and his arrest is a blot on the
regiment. If he will tell anybody, he will tell you. Can you go to
Louisville at once?"
Yes, at once. The traveling-dress, made up for so different an
occasion, was donned, and under escort she went, by a hundred miles
of horseback ride, to the
nearest railway station. There was no tarrying by the way: the
colonel's influence provided relays. On the evening of the third
day she was with her lover.
It was as the colonel had supposed: the woman had got her lover in
her toils, and he had been imprudent. He had every reason for
believing that her story of her husband's remains was false. She
was a dealer in contraband goods: this much he knew. Other officers,
of higher rank, knew as much, and corresponded with her. If they
chose to wink at it, was he, a subordinate, to interfere? She had
trusted him, depended on him, and he had a feeling that it would be
disloyal to her confidence to betray her, to pry into what she
concealed, and expose what his superiors seemed to know. But after
she was gone the story leaked out: she was not only a smuggler, but a
very dangerous spy. Some one must be the scapegoat, and who so fit as
the poor, friendless Tennesseean who had escorted her to
head-quarters and acted for her in personal matters?
That was his story, but what a poor story to tell to a
court-martial! What was she to do? Poor, simple child of the woods!
what did she know of the wheels within wheels, and the rings of
political influence by which a superior authority was to be invoked?
She knew nothing of these things, and there was no one to tell her.
She thought of but one plan: her brother could find that woman. She
would seek her out—she would appeal to her.
We need not follow her on that return journey and her visit to the
Confederate camp. Fortunately, the Confederates were nearer than she
supposed. She came upon their pickets, and was taken into the
commanding officer's presence. Her brother was sent for, and when
he came she told him she was looking for his friend, Mrs.
"Looking for her!" said her brother. "Why, that is
what we moved out this way for! She is in camp now. We brought her
and her luggage in last night."
She eagerly entreated to be taken to her, and was carried to a
pavilion, or marquee, a little apart from the officers' quarters.
Mrs. G—— came in richly but simply dressed, attended by a
portly, handsome, but rather dull-looking officer.
"Why, Lassie!" said Mrs. G—— in surprise.
"So you have come to see me? Here are the remains of my poor
dear," she added with a little laugh, presenting the gentleman.
"Do you think he is worth all the trouble I took to get
"Ha! much pleased! Devilish proper girl!" said the man
with a stupid blush, justifying the stolidity of his good looks.
"But where is your preux chevalier, Captain Cophetua?
I declare, I almost fell in love with him myself. Frank here is quite
"Oh, Mrs. G——," broke out the poor girl,
"you have killed him! They are going to try him and hang him for
helping you to spy."
"Nonsense!" said the lady with a little start. "The
poor fellow did nothing but what, as a gentleman, he was compelled to
do. But how can I help you?"
"Save him," said Lassie. "You have your wealth,
your wit, your husband: I have but him!" and she sank down in
"Stupid," said the lady, turning sharply on her husband,
"tell me what to do? Don't you see we must not let them hang
the poor fellow?"
"Of course not," said the big man dryly. "Just
countermand the order of execution. No doubt the Yankees will obey: I
"Of course you would: a precious life you would lead if you
did not," said his wife, who evidently commanded that squad.
"Never mind: there is more sense in what you said than I
expected of you—Jane," to the smart maid who attended on
her, "pen, ink, paper and my portfolio."
Opening the last, she took out a bundle of letters, and, running
them rapidly over as a gambler does his cards, she selected one.
"This," she said to Lassie, "is a note from General
——. It is written without the slightest suspicion
of my character as a spy; but
you will see it involves him far more dangerously than your friend.
He cannot well explain it away. Keep the letter. I will write to him
that you have it to deliver over in return for his kind assistance in
effecting the release of your friend. Don't fear: I ask him to do
nothing he ought not to do without asking, and you give him a letter
that would be misconstrued if it fell into other hands."
Armed with these instructions and the letters, Lassie returned
home, passed on to Louisville, and delivered her message. The general
promptly interfered, thanking her for calling his attention to the
matter. His influence, and a more exact understanding of the means
and appliances of the artful widow in obtaining information, effected
her lover's acquittal and restoration to his former position.
"I owe her my life and good name," said the tall
Tennesseean, taking Baby No. 2 from her arms. "I-uns ain't
wuth such a gal."
"No," say I drily. "What did you take him
for?" to her. Then I get the answer before quoted. But my
companion, with a truer perception, went quietly up and kissed her
Tennessee sister, a little to the surprise of both, I think, but they
seemed touched by the silent little tribute more than by any
I have spoken of the character of the hostilities in that
"debatable land." War is a bad thing always, but when it
gets into a simple neighborhood, and teaches the right and duty of
killing one's friends and relatives, it becomes demoniac. Down
about Knoxville they practiced a better method. There it was the old
game of "Beggar your Neighbor," and they denounced and
"confiscated" each other industriously. Up in the poor
hills they could only kill and burn, and rob the stable and
smoke-house. We were shown the scene of one of these neighborhood
vengeances. It is a low house at the side of a ravine, down whose
steep slope the beech forest steps persistently erect, as if
distrusting gravitation. Thirty Confederates had gathered in that
house at a country-side frolic, and the fiddle sang deep in the
night. The mountain girls are very pretty, having dark, opalescent
eyes, with a touch of gold in them at a side glance, slight, rather
too fragile figures, and the singular purity of complexion peculiar
to high lands.
The moon went down, and the music of the dance, the shuffle of
feet on the puncheon floor, died away into that deep murmurous chant,
the hymn of Nature in the forest. The falling water, sleeping in the
dam or toiling all day at the mill, gurgles like the tinkling of
castanets. Every vine and little leaf is a harp-string; every tiny
blade of grass flutes its singly inaudible treble; the rustling
leaves, chirping cricket, piping batrachian, the tuneful hum of
insects that sleep by day and wake by night, mingle and flow in the
general harmony of sound. The reeds and weeds and trunks of trees,
like the great and lesser pipes of an organ, thunder a low bass. The
melancholy hoot of the owl and the mellow complaint of the
whippoorwill join in the solemn diapason of the forest, filling the
solitudes with grand, stately marches. There are no sounds of Nature
or art so true in harmony as this ceaseless murmur of the American
woods. So accordant is it with the solemn majesty of form and color
that the observer fails to separate and distinguish it as an isolated
part in the grand order of Nature. He has felt an indescribable awe
in the presence of serene night and unbounded shadow, but to divide
and distinguish its constituent causes were as vain as in the contour
and color of a single tree to note the varied influence of rock, soil
Over the little farm-house in the ravine in the fall of 1863 there
fell with the sinking moon these solemn dirges of the great dark
woods. The stars brightened their crowns till Via Lactea shone
a highway of silver dust or as the shadow of that primeval river
rolling across the blue champaign of heaven. The depths of repose
that follow the enjoyment of the young irrigated their limbs, filling
the sensuous nerves and arteries with a delicious narcotism—a
deep, quiet, healthful sleep, lulled by the chant of the serene
Hush! A light step, like a blown leaf: the loose wooden latch
rises at the touch of a familiar hand; familiar feet, that have
trodden every inch of that poor log floor, lead the way; and then all
at once, like a bundle of Chinese crackers, intermingled with shrieks
and groans and deep, vehement curses, the rapid reports of pistols
fill the chambers. The beds, the floors, the walls, the doors are
splashed with blood, and the chambers are cumbered with dead and
dying men in dreadful agony. Happy those who passed quietly from the
sweet sleep of Nature to the deeper sleep of death! Of thirty young
men in the flush of youth, not one escaped. Six Federal scouts had
threaded their way since sunset from the Federal lines to do this
horrible work. Oh, Captain Jack, swart warrior of the Modocs! must we
hang you for defending your lava-bed home in your own treacherous
native way, when we, to preserve an arbitrary political relation,
murder sleeping men in their beds?
Let me close with an incident of that great game of war in which
the watershed of the Ohio was the gambler's last stake.
The Confederacy was a failure in '62, held together by
external pressure of hostile armies. It converted civil office into
bomb-proofs for the unworthy by exempting State and Federal
officials; it discouraged agriculture by levying on the corn and
bacon of the small farmers, while the cotton and sugar of the rich
planter were jealously protected; it discouraged enlistment by
exempting from military service every man who owned twenty negroes,
one hundred head of cattle, five hundred sheep—in brief, all
who could afford to serve; it discouraged trade by monopolies and
tariffs. But for the ubiquitous Jew it would have died in
1862-'63, as a man dies from stagnation of the blood. It was the
rich man's war and the poor man's fight.
This suicidal policy had its effect. Cut off from all markets, the
farmer planted only for family use. At the close of the war the
people of Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas had to be fed by the
government. The farmers in 1864 refused to feed the Southern army.
Seventy thousand men deserted east of the Mississippi between October
1, 1864, and February 3, 1865. They were not recalled: the government
could not feed them. The Confederacy was starved out by its own
people—rather by its own hideous misgovernment, for the people
were loyal to the cause.
One fact was apparent as early as 1863: the South would not feed
the armies—the North must. That plan, so far as the Atlantic
coast States were involved, was foiled at Gettysburg. The only
resource left was in the West, the watershed of the Ohio, which
Sherman was wrenching out of General Johnston's fingers. In a
military point of view, the great Confederate strategist was right:
he was conducting the campaign on the principle Lee so admirably
adopted in Virginia. But President Davis had more than a military
question to solve. If he could not seize the granaries of the
watershed, the Confederacy would die of inanition.
That was what caused the change of commanders in Georgia, and the
desperate invasion that blew to pieces at Nashville; and it
introduces a little scouting incident upon which the event of that
campaign may have partially turned. General Hood was in camp at
Jonesborough: Forrest and Wheeler were detached to destroy
Sherman's single thread of supplies. Prisoners pretended to have
been on half rations, and the sanguine opinion at head-quarters was
that Sherman was on the grand retreat. That able strategist had
disappeared, enveloping himself in impenetrable vidette swarms of
cavalry. He had pocketed one hundred thousand men in the Georgia
hills, and no one could find them; at least, General Hood could
But others were not sanguine about Sherman's falling back.
General Jackson selected a major, a trusted scout, with twenty-five
men, with instructions to find Sherman. Again and again the scout and
his little band tried to pierce that impenetrable cloud, and could
not. Then he tried another plan. He snapped up a Federal squad, clothed a select part of his little
band in their uniform, and sent the others back with the prisoners.
Then he plunged boldly into the cloud, a squad of Federals, bummers,
pioneers. Does the reader reflect upon the fine fibre of the material
requisite for such an exploit? It is not strength, courage or
tactical cunning that is most wanted, but that most difficult art, to
be able to put off your own nature and put on another's—to
play a part, not as the actor, who struts his hour in tinsel and
mouths his speeches as no mortal man ever walked or talked in real
life, but as one who stakes his life upon a word, an accent;
requiring subtlety of analytic sense and quickness of thought.
Polyglot as was the speech of the Federal forces, suspicion, started
by that test, would run rapidly to results. Then there was the danger
of collision with the regiment whose uniform they had assumed. Swift,
constant motion was required. They swept to the head of the column,
and, to be brief, the first Federal pontoon thrown across the
Chattahoochee was laid with the assistance of these spies. The leader
threw himself on the bank and counted the regiments by their insignia
as they passed, until he saw the linen duster and the glittering
staff of the great commander himself as they clattered over the
bridge. Then to Campbellton, hard by, where their horses were
rendezvoused, and whip and spur to Jonesborough.
A council of war was sitting when the scout arrived. He was
hurried into its presence, and told his story with laconic, military
precision. Sherman's whole force was across the Chattahoochee and
marching on Jonesborough, twenty miles away.
"I have sure information to the contrary," said the
commanding general, singularly deceived by a strong conviction,
enforced by scouts who depended on rumor for authority. "It is
some feint to cover the general movement."
"I counted the flags, guidons, regimental insignia—such
force of cavalry, artillery, infantry," giving the numbers.
"I saw and recognized General Sherman," said the scout
His report was not, even then, credited, but, as a precaution, a
brigade of cavalry, with his battalion in the van, was sent out to
beat up the enemy. A short distance beyond Flint River they struck
the Federal line, which attacked at once, without feeling—a
sure indication of strength. The battalion was hurled back on the
brigade, the brigade rushed across Flint River, and back into the
infantry line, now throwing up tardy entrenchments at Jonesborough.
The rest is historical. It was but one of the rash throws of the dice
for that great stake, the watershed of the Ohio, and helps to show
the principles of military action by which it was lost.