In the Track of the Raiders
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Lulah Ayer Vandiver
The congressman whose plantation was destroyed, and upon whose head a price was set, was my father, Gen. Lewis M. Ayer, of Barnwell. The lady who saved her home and raked up the corn was his sister, Mrs. Martha Ayer Aldrich, wife of Judge Alfred P. Aldrich, of Barnwell. The Richmond lady who ministered to the soldiers was my grandmother, Mrs. Thos. V. Moore, wife of Dr. T. V. Moore, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Richmond. The lady who lost her shoe was my mother, then a bride.
Thirty years is a long time ago. To some of you children it seems as long ago as the flood. But your grandfathers, maybe your fathers, know all about it. It was to them the greatest, as well as the most dreadful, time they ever knew. It was then that all of the men in our sunny Southern land and many of the boys put on bright, new suits of gray and marched proudly and hopefully away, to fight the invaders. But those who came back! Ah! they were dressed in rags! Painfully and sadly they straggled home, after laying many of their brightest and bravest in unmarked graves.
There were little children then, just as there are now; and those children learned to know suffering and death, when they should have known only sunshine and play.
I will tell you about one little boy of those days who lived in Richmond, Va., the home of General Lee and President Davis.
This little boy heard a great deal about fighting Yankees. He wondered very much over it all, but, being a very quiet, thoughtful little fellow, he did not ask many questions, and consequently he got some very queer notions in his little head. You can never guess the funny idea he had about the Yankees. He had heard a great deal about them, and how dreadful they were, but he did not know what they were. So he imagined them to be very queer looking, fierce creatures, with two legs, just like enormous chickens, with all the feathers picked off. But he learned to know better. One day his mother told him there had been a great fight between our men and the Northern soldiers, and that very many on both sides had been killed and wounded. She said the sick and wounded were in the hospital, and that she was going to see them. So she took her little boy with her, and then he found out what a Yankee was, and what a hospital was, too.
His mother had a basket in her hand, packed full, and they set out on their trip. After a while they came to a big brick house, and the lady and little boy went in. There they found a long room full of little iron beds, side by side; a poor, sick man, or sometimes a poor, sick boy, lay in each one. And after the beds were all filled, pallets were made on the floor, because there were more wounded soldiers than there were beds to put them in. That house was the hospital, and the sick men were the soldiers. Some of them were our soldiers, who fought for us; others were Yankee soldiers, who fought against us. But all were cared for there.
The little boy saw his mother open her basket and give soup, jelly, and other nice things to the nurse for the poor sick soldiers; and bundles of soft linen, too, to dress their wounds, the places where cruel bullets had struck them and torn great pieces out of their flesh. Some had a leg shot off; some an arm. Sometimes a poor fellow would lose both legs or both arms in battle.
After seeing those dreadful things, that little boy never forgot what a Yankee was, nor what a battle was, either.
But the two great armies meeting each other and fighting was not all of the war; that was the best and bravest part of it. There was a great deal that was mean and low. When the Yankees passed through our own little State, they left sorrow and desolation behind them.
There were many good, brave men in the Northern army who fought because they believed it to be right; but General Sherman was not one of these. There are not words enough in the English language to express how wicked and perfidious he was. The best man and most perfect gentleman I ever knew always called him “a dirty dog.” He hated Southern people because they were all that he was not. And he said he would like to see every Southern woman brought to the washtub. He did all he could to bring them there. But General Sherman did not know of what stuff Southern women are made.
He and his soldiers of like type with himself came into our beautiful capital, Columbia, and only left it when they had reduced it to a pile of ashes. His army passed on their march from Atlanta to the sea, burning houses, fences, even every pig-sty and cattle pen, in their track. They carried off all the horses, and either took with them or killed all the other stock they could find. When they discovered something they could not steal, they managed to ruin it, so that it could be of no service to anyone else.
They reached one homestead from which the inmates, hearing of their approach, had fled, because the master of that house had been one of the signers of the Ordinance of Secession, and was an influential member of the Confederate Congress. For him, dead or alive, the invaders had offered a large reward. “If we catch him,” they said, “he won’t be alive long.” Finding that the family had escaped, the ruffianly soldiers wreaked vengeance on the property. A large and valuable library vanished in smoke and ashes under their hands; a handsome new piano, which some faithful Negroes had taken from the house and tried to hide in a thick orchard, was discovered and hacked into splinters.
After helping themselves to all they could carry, they applied their ready torch to the rest until, when the owner returned, he found not so much as a chicken to crow for day on what had been a rich, well stocked plantation.
In another place, they found a handsome carpet, which had been recently bought, that seemed to excite their vengeful spirit, and they searched the house to find oil, vinegar, molasses anything that was liquid and poured it all together on the carpet; then, in great glee, these brave soldiers stood around and stirred the mess with their swords. They set fire to that house, too; but the lady who lived there would not allow it to be burned. She had a little Negro boy, who one day came crying to her, saying the Yankees had set fire to the house. His mistress told him to put it out. “I done put it out tree time. Dey say if I put it out agin dey shoot me,” replied the child. This Southern woman hesitated not an instant. She took the pistol in her hand and, accompanied by the boy, walked out to where the bluecoat was amusing himself by kindling a fire under her house. Calmly she raised the weapon, pointing straight at the Yankee. Then, placing herself between him and the boy, she said, “Put that fire out; if he shoots, he’ll shoot through me.”
But, I am sorry to say, all of the mean, cowardly things were not done by the Northern men. We had some blackguards, too; but none of them held the high position, or received the honor in the South that was accorded to Sherman and Butler at the North. All of my life I have heard of the mean things done by the Yankees; but a few years ago I learned something of the other side of the story. I became acquainted with a very nice man from New York, who intensely hated Southern people. In spite of his prejudice, we became very good friends, and he one day told me how Southern soldiers had treated his father. His father was taken prisoner in Tennessee. He was ill, and the weather extremely cold. His clothes were taken from him, and very poor ones substituted for them. He was given no shoes and stockings at all and, barefooted, made to walk behind the army for three days, over miles of frozen ground. Even when he fell from exhaustion, and his feet had become so sore that every step left a bloody track in the snow, he was urged and driven forward until they were met by a detachment of the Northern army, and he was rescued.
I felt very bad when I heard that story, and for once was ashamed of a deed done by Southern soldiers. But I believe if any of our officers had learned of that shameful conduct the perpetrators would have suffered for it.
The children of those days fared very differently from those of the present time. They had no candy, unless on some rare occasion their mothers would spare a little molasses to make them some. Their dolls were made of rags; their blocks, and other playthings, such as they could find for themselves. We had very little money, and what we had was almost worthless. It took $150 to buy a pair of rough boys’ shoes for a young lady who had lost one of her own while trudging through deep mud at night, fleeing before Sherman’s merciless band.
Our people had scarcely enough to eat after Sherman passed through. I will tell you what one lady did, the same who saved her home from burning. After the raiders left her place, she went and raked up the dirt where they had fed their horses and, washing out of it all the corn that had escaped the animals, ground it up into food for her family.
A little girl who opened her eyes upon the world at that time was dressed in clothes made from her father’s old linen shirts, and rocked in a cradle made of fence rails. How different that is from the pretty cradles and carriages and the dainty clothes the babies of today fall heir to!
Those were indeed “the times that tried men’s souls,” and very bravely they stood the trial. Let them never be forgotten, and let their children, and their children’s children, rise up to honor and revere them.