Memories of the Civil War
From Mitchell County, Iowa
By Mrs. Annie E. Sweney
I have wondered if the boys and girls of today would be interested in hearing of those other boys and girls who lived through Civil War times.
When Sumter was fired upon, we were all excited and indignant, but it did not seem to be our war until 1862, when Charles Granger, whose school we were attending in Mitchell, was commissioned to raise a company, which was called "Company K." Among those enlisting were several of our fellow students - then it was our war.
Of the younger set, of Mitchell county boys whom I knew best was Henry Sweney, not yet seventeen, Arthur Clyde, older brother of our Judge Clyde, Del Carter and "Aus" White of Brownville. Two years later John Prime, of Mitchell, still lacking several months of the eligible age (17), enlisted and was placed in Co. "K." He afterward enlisted in the Spanish-American War, was sent to the Philippines and received a commission as major from President McKinley.
It was wonderful, the importance these enlisted boys took on in our eyes. Here-to-fore we thought it more desirable to be escorted by real, grown-up men -- all this was changed, however, we were proud to have these boys carry our books and escort us to and from school, church or societies -- they were already hero's in our eyes. Our games hereafter were of a military nature. There could be no sham battles, for no one could be found who would take the Rebel side. The girls stood willing "breast works" from behind which the new soldiers hurled their deadly missiles of snow at the invisible "Rebs." I doubt not that patriotism burned as hotly under the jackets of our boy friends. We, however, had no way of showing it save by wearing rosettes of red, white and blue ribbon, "Garibaldi" waists, "Zouave" jackets and a dinky little straw cap with a broad visor and crossed rifles in front. These gave us quite a military appearance. There were some of the girls, however, daughters of southern sympathizers, ("Copperheads"), who would not wear these emblems, and were ostracized from all clubs, societies and cliques. Their name was "Anathema".
Then there were "rally" meetings, which I am sure would have been called "pep" meetings had that word been invented then. There were drillings, and there was a barbecue. The meat of the barbecue was almost uneatable, as at the present time -- raw or scorched, and liberally sprinkled with dust and ashes on the outside, and raw beneath. But it was a (literal) burnt offering to the god of war, and so we partook of it.
And so, amid feasting, hand-shaking and some tears, the boys went away to war, and the girls home to be father's "boys" and fill the brothers' place the best they could. My older sisters were married or teaching, so it fell to my lot to be "second maid" to mother, and general chore-boy for father: I drove the cows to water, fed the pigs and helped to haul the wood. As a chopper I was not a success, though father said, encouragingly, that after I had learned to strike twice in the same place, he was sure I would do well.
The women held meetings in the school house, or at various homes, and rolled bandages, scraped lint or knitted socks. Canning had not then been discovered, but they dried fruits and vegetables. They also made many articles to be sold at fairs or put in "grab-bags," all to be sold for the benefit of the soldiers.
Prices soared as in the time of the World War. Our grocer at Brownville doled out sugar and tea by the ounce that all might have a taste. Many used 'prairie tea,' a concoction made from a weed growing on the prairies. All drank coffee made from roasted barley or chicory, for the "boys" must have the real coffee. It required ten yards of calico (print), at fifty cents per yard, to make a dress, as six widths must go into the skirt - fancy, six widths of print gathered into a twenty-two or twenty-four inch waist! And this paid for with eggs at five cents the dozen, would mean one hundred dozen eggs.
Woman's only extravagance was her hoop-skirt, which had reached its greatest circumference. A ball-room at this time was a thing to remember. The skirts rose and fell, floated and billowed to the strains of music like nothing so much as a circus tent in a high wind. But withal there was not such a generous display of hosiery as in the present ball-room.
Many letters were received from our boys who were anxious for letters from home, and as I read those old letters now, I can but wonder at the bravery, the stoicism shown by these young, tenderly reared boys. No word of complaint, of hardship endured, of long marches with sore and bleeding feet, of poor food, and the frequent sleeping in wet blankets on the cold ground -- if any complaint was made it was of the inactivity. Not one of those boys was "too proud to fight" but longed to be in the midst of the fray. Sometimes we received letters from boys we had never seen. They were sometimes illiterate, but always respectful. Our names had been given them by one of our boys. We took that as an introduction, a guarantee of their character -- whoever they were, they were helping save the Union, we owed them something. We are glad that we always showed the letters to mother, and always answered them. They could not harm us and we might help them -- and here I smile at the good advice we squandered (probably) on those boys. We were sure our words carried wisdom.
Our own brother and our sister's husband, who were in the Iowa cavalry, had been sent to protect the western frontier. One dark day as mother sat reading the two weeks old paper, printed at Julesburg, Colo., she felt a heavy hand grasp her shoulder, and looking up she saw the white face of our sister, who had been reading over her shoulder and saw the name of her husband in the list of "killed," and an article headed "Walter B. Talcott killed while trying to save a comrade." A party of men had been sent from the fort to drive off a band of Indians, but the Indians being reinforced, turned upon them, driving them back to the fort. They had nearly reached their goal, when Walter saw a comrade whose horse had fallen upon him, and not thinking of himself, leaped from his horse and went to help his friend. Both were killed. Then mother said "greater love than this hath no man that he lay down his life for his friend." But ours was not the only house of mourning -- all over the land, both north and south, were mothers mourning for their sons and like Rachel of old, "refusing to be comforted because they were not."
Many private schooners passed our place, fleeing from the Indians, uprising in the states west of us. New Ulm a little town in Minnesota, had been literally wiped out, the men killed, the women often met a worse fate, little children killed or taken prisoners, and the houses burned down. Some small bands of Indians came to us for food. The leader would place his hand on his heart and say "Me no bad Injun - me Winnebago." We always fed them but never trusted them, and were glad to see them disappear beyond the horizon.
Many years ago, while visiting in St. Paul, I was made curious by often seeing on the street a fine looking woman, and always a few feet behind pacing with a stately tread came a large handsome Indian woman. She was always dressed in black silk, with a fringed silk shawl over her head, reaching to her knees. I learned their story. At the time of the massacre at New Ulm the white woman was a tiny babe. The Indian woman, who was of the raiding party, took a fancy to her and claimed her for her own. When the girl was seven years old, a clue was obtained, the child found and claimed by her relatives, but the strongest affection existed between the two. When the girl had grown to womanhood and married, she furnished a room for her foster mother, and tried to induce her to live with her always, but the woman's nomadic nature could not be happy in civilization. She would stay with her perhaps months, then would carefully fold her shawl and silken garb, place it in a drawer, don her Indian dress and steal forth at night, only to appear as mysteriously on a future visit.
One hot day in harvest father suffered a severe sun stroke; He must have a doctor. There were no phones or cars at that time. The neighbors' boys were all gone to war, so it was decided that I should ride to Osage, twelve miles away, and drive back with Dr. S. B. Chase, our good family physician; We had no side-saddles and at that time no modest girl would ride cross-saddle, and no modest girl must ride without a riding skirt to conceal her feet. But mother called them "death traps" and said I should not wear mine, "Old Jin" was selected as the safest horse in the stables -- a blanket was strapped on her back, with a loop for the foot, and I, perched on one side like an acrobatic bareback rider, was ready for my journey. Like Loch invar of school book fame, " I rode all unarmed and I rode alone." I remember how I gloated over the beauty spread out before me. The little knolls were blue as the summer sky with the prairie violet, interspersed with wild purple crocus. On the lower land were fringed gentians, both blue and white. Both pink and yellow lady slippers grew in abundance. On the river banks were blue and scarlet lobelia and yellow cowslips. Nearly all of these wild flowers have, by encroaching civilization and ruthless hands, become extinct in Mitchell county.
But I must not linger, for Old Jin also lingers and gets many stolen bites from the lush grass growing by the road side. The bridge across the Little Cedar was gone because of recent freshets [high water or flooding], but it was easy in the bright sunlight to see the diagonal ford.
When I arrived in Osage I found the good doctor himself sick, so the best he could do was give me medicine for father. I was tired and hungry -- the square-fronted restaurants were also saloons; the hotel no better. I must not go there, so tired and hungry, I turned away. One seeing our neat, pretty little town of today could hardly believe that it grew from such an ugly hamlet. The buildings were unpainted, no trees, no sidewalks, the unpaved road had been churned to a quaking mire by the impatient feet of fly-harassed horses tied in front of the saloons. It was indeed an ugly place.
Leaving Osage I took the wrong road. After following many side roads, I came to the old Harlow Gray place - here I stopped to inquire my way. The family was at supper - they all came to the door, eyeing me suspiciously. I believe they thought me a deserter from the army or a fugitive from justice. I smiled to myself to think any sane person would try to make a get away on old Jin. They gave me such explicit directions that I "erred not" and got started on the right road. The bright moon cast weird shadows across the road and old Jin stepped over them gingerly. The silence seemed awful. I tried to sing but my small voice in that awful expanse of silence made the silence unbearable. A white horse rose slowly from the roadside. It seemed to me there never was such a large white horse outside of Revelations. Old Jin shied to the side of the road almost unseating me, which indeed would have been a catastrophe, as I could not mount from the ground, and there was no fence, boulder or stump in sight. I was relieved to see the lights of Burr Oak. A revival meeting was in progress, and as I stopped a moment, I saw a man whom I knew, pacing the aisle, swinging his arms and beating his breast like a demented gorilla; all the time shouting, "Come ye sinners, and go with me to glory." As the "sinners" all remained seated, I believe they thought with me that it was safer to go alone and take my chances. I rode on and the last I heard were strains of the cheerful old hymn, "Hark, from the Tombs a Doleful Sound."
When we reached Little Cedar, the trees shut out the moonlight and darkness closed down upon us like a mantle. The owls questioned, "Who? Who?" and although we knew their voices, we were scared at their uncanny persistence. The ford at the Little Cedar, which was' easy by the bright sunlight, was now as black as the River Styx. I could only draw up my feet, clasp my horse's neck, and trust to her wisdom, and she did not fail me. It was with an inward prayer of thanksgiving that I felt her clamber up the bank on the farther side. As the moon struggled through the foliage, the trees took on fantastic shapes. A tall stump by the roadside shone brightly with phosphorus, and as I cut it with my whip it seemed to spit fire at me like a thing of evil. When I was two miles from home a prairie wolf appeared, and ran sociably a few paces ahead of me. When within a quarter of a mile from home it disappeared in the tall grass, and I found mother watching for me, worrying, as mothers will. A half hour later father had taken the medicine and was resting quietly. I had eaten a bowl of bread and cream, and was resting happily in my bed. Nothing was heard but the munching of well earned ears of corn by Old Jin.
I believe the enemy most-dreaded by us was prairie fire. Some one would give the alarm, we would look out and see creeping up from the south a sinuous line of fire, miles long. Then every able bodied man, woman and child would seize a pail of water and a grain sack and set forth to whip it out. But once it did not creep upon us. The wind blew a gale, and the flames fairly leaped upon us, seeming to meet the sky overhead. It had its way with us, taking everything but the house and the livestock. A year's supply of hay, stables, machinery and fences all gone in a shorter time than it takes to tell it. I remember that the horses refused to leave the already burning stables until their heads were muffled in blankets.
All this time we were getting frequent letters from our boys at the front. Father had secured a post office, which was opened at our home. It was named Nelson (after father), and has been discontinued for many years. A stage coach flourished up to our front door, the horses gave a compulsory plunge and the driver, George Duryea, jumped from the seat and dragged a large leather mail pouch into the house. Father took it and emptied the contents on to the floor, where he and mother (who was deputy) proceeded to sort the mail. We stood, our eyes eagerly scanning the pile, and I am sure at this late day Uncle Sam will not prosecute us for "meddling" with the U.S. mails. I confess that if we saw a letter bearing our name, we took matters into our own hands, and "sorted" it ourselves. Brave letters they were, but with not much that we were eager to hear. They were filled with boyish witticisms -- one had attended a three course banquet with hardtack as the "piece de resistance." Another made a gibe at the sanitary commission for sending them "desecrated" vegetables. Desecrated vegetables were a kind of vegetable soup, or hash used in soup. It was sent in barrels, and usually was fermented when it arrived. They had found a bed of oysters, which they could eat with impunity, "or anything else they could get hold of." Orders had come to all "in tents and pup houses," I believe "pup tents" were individual tents. We always answered promptly, that our letters might be received before they should move on.
Almost all letters bore testimony to the love and reverence which they bore for "Cap Granger" -- and I am sure that the fathers and mothers rested easier to know that their boys were safe-guarded by such a clean, big hearted man. Capt. Granger of Company K., after his return, practiced law in Des Moines, serving several years as Judge of the Supreme Court. He spent his declining years in Long Beach, Cal. where I think he died.
One dark day in July came the sad news that he whose life I had promised to share had lost his right arm at the battle of Old Town Creek. His brother and another comrade had been detailed to carry him from the field to an ambulance. In the ambulance, lying face to face with him was a rebel lad who had lost his left arm in the same battle. Of that awful ride in the southern hot sun, over jolting corduroy roads, I cannot bear to speak; wounded, sick almost unto death, with nothing to alleviate his suffering but the loving and devoted care of a younger brother. He was carried to Gayoso hospital in Memphis. Then did the good mother leave the father, the farm and two younger brothers, in the care of a young daughter, and hurry to minister to her suffering boy. The minnie ball that had taken his arm, lodged in his thigh bone, making a bad wound, which would not heal. This ball was removed two years later by Dr. S. B. Chase and Dr. Turner, both of Osage. He lay in the hospital for a year, and was brought home by Fred Penney, of Stacyville. He was by that time so emaciated that Fred could carry him from the train to the station. He would give me back my promise, but a thousand times no -- all the more, "I loved him for the dangers he had passed, and he loved me that I did not pity them." It seems strange, even to me, that I can speak so impersonally of so personal a matter -- but it was so long ago, almost it seems as though I am writing of another girl.
He held the office of county treasurer for eight years, being moved with the treasurer's books from Mitchell to Osage, when an injunction was placed on the books.
The Mitchell county boys of Company K, all came back, and said Col. Sweney, proudly, "they all made good." Not many of the gray-haired boys are left, but when they meet they like to go over the old days and tell anecdotes, both sad and amusing. Colonel Sweney told one of the latter, it was of Bart Hutchins, a long time resident of Osage. He said a braver soldier than Bart never lived, but because of his good nature and drollery the boys always tried "getting one" on Bart, One morning as they were at mess call, the call to battle came. Bart had just sweetened his black coffee with the still blacker molasses -- it looked good to Bart, and he did not want to leave it, so pouring the water from his canteen, he emptied the coffee in. During the battle he sank to the ground groaning, "God Boys, I'm shot," They looked him over, but could find no wound. A ball had pierced the canteen, the impact of the ball and the warm coffee running down his leg made him think that he was wounded and his life blood ebbing away. Bart was never to hear the last of that.
Captain Granger told one on Del Carter of Brownville. He said Del, on account of his extreme youth and happy-go-lucky disposition, was a great favorite in the company. He was an enthusiastic fighter, would fairly eat bullets, but like all growing boys, he wanted sleep. In season and out of season he would sleep. One night Captain Granger was making the rounds to see that all was safe, when he came upon Del, who was supposed to be on picket duty, on his face with his gun under him, fast asleep. Thinking to scare him and give him a lesson, Captain Granger made the best imitation of a rebel yell that he could muster and jumped astride his back. Del squirmed over and rubbed his eyes and said reproachfully, "Oh, hell, Cap, get off."
I cannot close this paper without paying tribute to another comrade, who was always first at the side of a sick or wounded boy. He was a kind of "Robin Hood," who would take from those who had plenty, to give to one who needed. He would cheerfully and I believe conscientiously confiscate a chicken, a pillow and even a feather-bed to add to the comfort of a comrade, and many a dainty bit of food from a southern kitchen found its way to a hungry boy. And he would watch, sleepless the whole night through beside a wounded comrade. This is my belated tribute to John B. Ryndes. His faults were many, but his heart was big enough to take in all suffering humanity, be it soldier or civilian. -- "Requiescat in pace."
Reproduced with the approval of the Mitchell County Historical Society; from THE STORY OF MITCHELL COUNTY 1851-1973.
Transcribed in August 2002 by: Neal Du Shane