Leaving Home and Escaping the Yankees, Part 5

Eliza wrote her book in 1888, after a second marriage. But, she wrote that would never forget the events of Dec. 17, 1862. Eliza woke that day to see a fleet of gunboats in the river with transportation barges. The Federals had returned. She knew the family had to leave. She ate breakfast on the run and hastily organized their departure. A Negro, William, was sent to Baton Rouge to reconnoiter. He came back and reported 10,000 Union troops back in the city and pickets stationed all around. William said everyone inside the Yankee lines would have to “toe the mark.” Every white man who had harbored a Confederate soldier during the recent battle would be arrested.

The negro men were summoned to help load the wagons. Eliza never uses the word “slave.” She generally says Negro or rarely, “darky.” Her language was typical of her time.

Eliza wandered the rooms of the two story home, reliving ten years of warm memories. Various trunks, bags and bundles of persons who went off to war or who had evacuated were stored at the plantation. She went through all of them removing any papers that might identify the owner.

Eliza and James tried to sleep that night. Early the next morning, the head sugar-maker of a nearby planation, i.e., a slave, knocked on the door and woke James. He told James all his “niggers” went over to the Yankees. The Yankees were at his (the sugar-maker’s) plantation and they were saying they would arrest James at daylight. James left immediately and told Eliza to come find him right after breakfast. Eliza was certain that if he did not flee, then he would be arrested for sending his Negroes to Texas.

William began to suggest he was perhaps not the best person to drive a team of mules. He was clearly trying to avoid this task. That avoidance was a blow to Eliza. William had been the valet for James during his gay bachelor days. William was their confidential servant. But, she knew that after his visit to Baton Rouge, he was feeling more independent already. Eliza knew some slaves had left during the night and some others would likely soon seek their freedom, as well. Such was the master-slave relationship sat the time. On the surface, the relationship appeared close and family-like. Beneath the surface, not so much.

By noon, Eliza still could not locate a Negro who was willing to drive her and the team of mules to safety. She had approached many of the Negro men in the “Negro quarters.” Various men were making excuses. Mrs. McHatton was heart-sick. Finally, old Dave said he would drive old Sal until she balked. Eliza had few options, so she accepted his offer. As she tried various Negro men, Charlotte watched her with mournful eyes.

Old Aunt Hannah, who had been laundress for Eliza’s mother long before Eliza was born was living in her own cabin. Aunt Hannah had rheumatism and could not work. But, noted Eliza, that day she stood straight in her doorway, despite her illness, as one elevated to a new status, and waved to Eliza, saying, “Good-By, madam, I b’ar you no malice.” Eliza had never seen Aunt Hannah stand straight before. Mrs. McHatton bid good-bye to the poor, “deluded creatures.”

As Eliza returned to the main house, William warned her that a Yankee gunboat had pulled up close to the plantation. She waved bye to Charlotte, a close servant, standing next to William on the veranda of the main house. Charlotte sobbing, waved back. It was a remarkable tableau. On a plantation the residents worked, played and lived in very close proximity. Black and white, their lives were intertwined like a community. But, when it came time to go and risk Eliza’s life and the lives of two small ones, only Charlotte showed regret. The “peculiar institution” never looked more peculiar.

Eliza took one more glance at her home for the past ten years. She would embark on a difficult journey cross country to Houston, Texas in December. Even for people with resources, they suffered along the way, enduring foul weather and hunger. As they approach Houston, her baby will pass due to illness.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 28-36

The Great Reunion of 1938

The third great reunion took place in 1938. The 75th anniversary of the terrible U.S. Civil War. It was again in July, in the heat of the Summer. There was controversy. Some GAR chapters objected to any Confederate flag – meaning the Star and Bars – being flown. Some Confederates insisted they would never attend a reunion without their precious flag. The GAR and the United Confederate Veterans held their own state specific reunions. But, Paul L. Roy, of the Gettysburg Times, and executive secretary of another reunion committee, wanted to bring blue and gray together one last time.

Mr. Roy came South seeking a compromise for the Rebel flag. He met with the UCV. The UCV agreed to his suggestion, separate flags in separate areas at the reunion. As Mr. Roy was leaving the auditorium, where they had met, several women blocked his way and harangued him as a “damn Yankee” who was trying to kill their veterans. They would not let him pass. Two women scratched his face and others clutched at his coat. He squirmed away and hurried to his hotel room.

From their respective homes, Union and Confederates sniped at each other. James W. Willett, a 91 year old former GAR commander from Iowa said if the Confederate veterans bring their flag, then the GAR would not vote to support the great reunion. Rice Pierce, the UCV commander said they – the GAR – can “go to hell.” We dare not doubt that these old soldiers still had the spirit that sent them off to war 75 years previous.

David Corbin Ker, 90 years old and the last Rebel veteran in Richland Parish, Louisiana, got so angry that his wife had to hold him back from going to Gettysburg and flying the Dixie flag. But, the issue was settled with Roy’s compromise. Each faction would fly its own flag in its own section.

In 1938, Civil War veterans were dying at the rate of 900 each year. It was estimated only some 10,000 veterans still remained. Perhaps 2,000 could make the trip to Gettysburg. Written invitations were sent to 10,000 veterans. 2,000 were returned marked “deceased.” About 1,845 actually attended. Most were Yankees. First-aid stations and wellness stations were set up around the battlefield. Wooden walkways were built. Wheel chairs were rolled out. Sewer lines were dug. Barber shops were set up. Every tent had a cot, and mattress with pillows, sheets, and a wool blanket. The tents came with electric lights, wash basins, soap and towels.

The keynote speech was again delivered by a President, Franklin Roosevelt. He proclaimed all these men now stood under one flag together. Dr. Overton H. Mennet, the commander of the GAR and former Infantryman from Indiana, spoke. “I see here a beautiful national military park where once men lay in agony.” He wore a double breasted blue Union jacket, with gold cord, and a broad brimmed hat and bow tie. The band then played “Dixie.”

The old veterans all had their stories about how and why they came. John Milton Claypool, 92 years old and a retired preacher, was the commander of a UCV post in Missouri. He joked that if the Lord could put up with Yankees all these years, he could do the same for a few days. Alvin F. Tolman, a 91 year old Union veteran, who still drove, motored up from Florida. He arrived early at the encampment. He said he wanted to “get his pick of the Gettysburg women.”

From California, 121 veterans took the train. From Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, came 450 Confederate veterans. Ninety-two year old A.G. Harris, former major General in the Confederate army, came with his son, Homer, a World War I veteran. James Handcock, came to Gettysburg from the Confederate home in New Orleans. He wanted to sight see. So, he went to Philadelphia, and fell asleep at a ball game. Police found him. Handcock told the police he was 104 years old.

Five of the old veterans passed away during the celebration. Six more collapsed while traveling home. There was talk of an 85th anniversary reunion. Said one Union 97 year old veteran, “I wouldn’t put anything past this crew. Some of the boys are strutting around like they’re 50.”

A small group of Alabama veterans refused to leave the battlefield park. They sent a telegram to the Quartermaster in Washington seeking permission to stay as long as they wanted or at least until the Angels came for them. The Quartermaster did not respond and they eventually went home.

See a youtube video of the 75th reunion at Gettysburg here.

Richard A. Serrano, Last of the Blue and Gray  (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books 2013) (reprint), pp. 21-25

The View of One Irishman in the Union Army

So, how was it for Irish immigrants who joined the Union army? It was difficult for some of them to join the Union army because it was ultimately controlled by former members of the Know Nothing party and by Protestants. We get some clues about Irish sentiment from a letter written in 1863. Christopher Byrne was younger brother to one famous Irishman, “Blind” Patrick Byrne, said to have been the last of the great Irish harpers.

Christopher expressed pride in his brother’s fame. He expressed regret that their family was now scattered all over the world. Christopher joined the Union army, but had his regrets. Writing from Minnesota, he described the state of Northern politics. He described the Union leadership as a “Horde of Fanatics” – likely referring to the ardent abolitionists – who would rather “rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” “When they are not interfering with the rights of foreigners or proscribing Religious Denominations, they are Speech Making in favour of Abolition.” Here, Christopher is clearly referring to what was then overt discrimination against immigrants and especially against Irish Catholic immigrants. Many of the abolitionists were clergy or were otherwise very religious. We forget today how deep was the religious divide throughout the 1800’s. Ardent Protestants must have caused alarm for any Irish Catholic immigrant.

Cristtopher discusses slavery several times in his letter. Yet, he never addresses the morality (or lack thereof) of slavery. Instead, he insists the Northern U.S. had no business in meddling in the business of the South. He adds, writing in 1863, that the North can prevail in the war only if it guarantees the South’s autonomy in the matter of slavery.

He rose to Sergeant by the end of the war. Yet, he admits in the letter he enlisted only because “the excitement of the time and the misrule of the administration has forced me and thousands like me into it.”

He describes the civil war in 1863 as one for which “Magnitude has no parallel on record.” Coming from an Irishman in 1863, that does suggest a great rebellion indeed.

See “Irishman’s Diary about the American Civil War” in the Irish Times, Sept. 6, 2017 here.