SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER X - ADVENTURES OF A WAR BRIDE
Christian was soon to learn that the hardship of soldiering consisted of more than fighting the enemy. He was unfortunate in that he had enlisted in the company of Captain Hugh Cameron, a peculiar man, who had settled in the free state town of Lawrence in the early Kansas territorial days. Although he rated himself as a free-state man, he had alienated the regard of his party as early as 1855 by accepting a commission as justice of the peace from the proslavery legislature, which usurped the government of Kansas during the first years of territorial government, It was Cameron who issued the warrant for the arrest of a free-state settler, Jacob Branson, which precipitated the Wakarusa War in Kansas in 1855. Now, by adroit wire-pulling, he had managed to obtain a commission to recruit a company for the Second Kansas Cavalry, reorganized to take the place of the Second Kansas Infantry, a ninety-day regiment that had been cut to pieces at Wilson's Creek. Unable to recruit a company in Lawrence, Cameron opened a recruiting office in St. Joseph.
The idea of enlisting in a regiment of Kansas, which had just been admitted to the Union as a state, and which had been engaged in a war against slavery for six years, appealed to Christian's romantic spirit.
In talking to prospective recruits, Cameron assured them that officers would be elected after the company had been recruited to full strength. He held out to each man the probability that he would be an officer and possibly captain. Christian had no desire for a commission, as he had had no military experience, but he had confidently expected that some man other that Cameron would be elected.
The captain, however, already had his commission; and when the recruits reported for duty at Fort Leavenworth, instead of being called on to nominate officers, as was the practice in many other companies, they were curtly ordered to fall in. After they had formed ranks, Cameron read sections of the military law dealing with insubordination, the extreme penalty of which was death. He seemed to take delight in reading the penalties, and placed much emphasis on the word "death" whenever it occurred in the reading.
Naturally, the men were bitterly resentful and hostile. The captain responded to this feeling by administering the discipline with rigor. Frequently, he ordered that men be cruelly punished for minor offenses. He seemed to delight in ordering men to be hung up by their thumbs until their toes partly rested on the floor, or to be bucked and gagged. Christian, who was appointed a corporal, was detailed frequently to make arrests. Instead of doing this willingly, he sometimes pleaded for leniency, thereby bringing the captain's displeasure upon himself.
The regiment remained at Leavenworth all winter with occasional marches into Missouri. When it became evident that Christian would not go south before spring, he arranged for me to be in Leavenworth. At Leavenworth there lived a wagon maker, Gottlieb Joss, who had been a schoolmate of Christian in Ohio. Mr. Joss was married and had a family. He and Mrs. Joss invited me to make my home with them where my husband could visit when on leave. I gladly accepted the invitation and went to Leavenworth in December.
The war had made Leavenworth a bustling city, for it was the rendezvous of regiments from Kansas, Nebraska, and from a large area of Iowa and Missouri. Here, too, was the outfitting point for military expeditions to the mountains, to Santa Fe, and to the Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory fronts.
It was here that I first ate buffalo meat, and I speak of it because so many of my young friends have the erroneous idea that pioneers lived largely on that animal. The truth is that we could have buffalo meat only when plainsmen from the Indian country brought it frozen to the settlements in winter. Although millions of buffalo ranged the western half of Kansas, there was, of course, no refrigeration service for the transportation of fresh meat. It was, therefore. a rarity. A few weeks after my arrival in Leavenworth Mr. Joss brought home several choice cuts of buffalo steak. Mrs. Joss was a good cook and the meat as she served it was the most delicious I have ever tasted. It was more tender and juicy than beef and somewhat fatter.
In such a city at such a time many stirring events took place, but they were none of my life. I lived quietly enough through that winter of 1861-62. My touch with the army was through the visits of Christian on the days when he was on leave. In spite of an overbearing captain, life in camp was not wholly bad. The lieutenants were kindly men and among the enlisted men there was fine comradeship. All were eager to go to the front, and I was willing that they should go, for I reasoned that the sooner they departed the sooner they would return.
Adolph, who was in the Fifth Kansas Infantry, had already taken part in a hard campaign. Occasionally, I heard from him, and the news was disquieting. His regiment was without tents. After forced marches the men bivouacked in the snow about an open fire wrapped in sodden blankets, which were too light by night and too heavy by day. The hardships were too much for the constitution of a seventeen-year-old boy. Late in January there came a letter from Fort Scott, in Southeast Kansas near the Missouri border, bringing the information that he had broken down with pneumonia, lung fever, he called it, and was dangerously ill.
Christian applied for leave of absence to go to Adolph, but Captain Cameron refused it. Several times during February Christian applied for leave, but Cameron each time refused. Then on February 21 came a letter from Prairie City, Kansas, saying that Adolph was dying. Realizing that he could not live, he had bought a horse and buggy and had attempted to drive home. After traveling about seventy-five miles, he collapsed at Prairie City, where he was given shelter by kindly people, who wrote to Christian and also to my father. Again Christian applied for leave of absence, this time to Lieutenant French, for the captain was temporarily relieved of command and held in quarters pending a trial on a charge of misappropriating soldiers' rations and selling them. The captain was acquitted, eventually, but in the meantime Christian obtained leave and set out on horseback for the South.
That night when he arrived at the Kansas River opposite Lawrence, he found that the ice had broken up and that ferry boats could not cross. Of course there were no bridges. As Christian stood on the bank peering into the dark at the swirling ice cakes, he observed one floe swing in near to shore. He leaped to it, and by tugging at the bridle reins, induced his horse also to jump. They floated downstream on that uncertain raft until another floe drew near, and they jumped to that. The horse soon learned what was wanted, and leaped whenever his master leaped. From cake to cake they made their way until they reached the south bank and were lifted to land by two men holding lanterns. They rebuked Christian for performing so foolhardy a feat. Taking the trail at the break of day, Christian pushed on to Prairie City, where he found Adolph alive. He lived three days after Christian's arrival and had the satisfaction of feeling the pressure of a brother's hand. He was able to send messages to each of us. I have never been so grateful for any misfortune to any man as I was for the temporary arrest of Captain Cameron.
My fifteen-year-old brother Fred drove to Prairie City in a wagon. Being delayed at the Kansas River by floating ice, he arrived a half hour too late to see our brother alive. Fred took the body home for burial in the churchyard in Doniphan County. Now two of the five who had set out so hopefully from Switzerland seven years before had found graves in America.
Christian returned to be assigned to a horse herd detail. One night in March came a blizzard and the poor horse-herders suffered so terribly from exposure that Christian became desperately ill and was in the hospital for six weeks. While he was there his regiment rode away; and when he recovered he was attached to the post artillery for several months, before being finally sent south to reunite with his command. Because of this fact he was still at Leavenworth when our first son was born, on June 28. We named him Adolph in memory of the brother who had died for his country.
Soon after the baby's' birth, it seemed probable that Christian would be ordered to Arkansas at any moment. Under the circumstances there was nothing to keep me in Leavenworth. So, taking my child, I returned to my St. Joseph home, which was occupied by my married step-sister and her husband, whom we had invited to live in the house, rent free, in order to protect it. I made my home with this relative. How valuable was her company I was soon to learn, for Adolph became ill. She and I nursed him but to no avail. At the age of four months his little life was closed.
And now I returned to my interrupted schooling. This I did at the suggestion of my husband who wished me to go on with my education, also he thought school would give me something to occupy my thoughts and take my mind from grief over the loss of our child. This was a girls' school, my classmates being both of Union and Confederate sympathies. They knew that I had a husband in the army, but they also learned that in the company of secessionists I held my tongue, and so we never had any disagreements.
On Sundays I continued to attend the Presbyterian church, where my old friends greeted me and talked about their sons and brothers and husbands, some of whom were fighting on one side and some on the other. During this time many churches were broken up because of disagreement over the war, but Mr. Fackler held his mixed congregation together by the power of his personality and devotion to the church.
It was very evident, even to the Southerners, that slavery was a dying institution. One of our church members, John Colhoun, a wealthy banker, anticipated the Thirteenth Amendment by freeing his slaves. He was a Pennsylvanian by birth, and had never approved of slavery, but his wife, a Virginian, had obtained the slaves through inheritance. Colhoun looked after his negroes even after they were freed and saw to it that they had employment and that they were never in want. One of his freedmen found employment as the janitor of our church. Another, Big Mary, begged not to be freed. She begged so hard to remain that Mrs. Colhoun employed her as a cook at a salary of three dollars a week, the top wages at that time for that kind of help.
Another one of our church members, a Mrs. Williams, lost her slaves through their running away. She came down one morning for breakfast to find no slaves in the kitchen and none in the slaves' quarters. From that time she prepared her own meals. This she did without complaint, accepting it as one of the fortunes of war. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not affect slavery in Missouri, for our state was still in the Union; but runaway slaves found ready refuge in Kansas and Iowa.
My chief interest during the war was in letters from Christian, who eventually joined his regiment in southern Missouri. The envelopes in which they came flamed with slogans printed with red ink. Standing at the delivery window at the post office, one could tell by the slogans whether the recipients of the mail were for the North or for the South. The envelopes from Christian bore such lines as "Keep the old flag flying," "Strike till the last armed foe expires," "We are coming, Father Abraham," "The Girl I left behind me."
I made the journey to Ohio by railroad. It was May 1863, when I arrived at the farm of my husband's parents, near the village of Winesburg, in Holmes County, Ohio. There was considerable interest in my arrival among Christian's relatives and friends. They not only wanted to hear the latest news from Christian, but they also wanted to inspect his Missouri wife. What few Westerners they had seen were bronzed men who had crossed the Plains or had lived in the open. Apparently, they expected to find me weatherbeaten and sunburned like the men, for one woman exclaimed at church the next day, after my mother-in-law had introduced me as Christian's wife:
"Eh, I thought all Missourians were black! And you have such a beautiful complexion!"
Another woman, whose son had been in Missouri for a time and who had returned to marry a Holmes County girl, thought to compliment me by saying: "I wish my son had found a wife in Missouri."
In some respects I found the mode of living in Holmes County more primitive than on the frontier. They had less improved machinery and my mother-in-law was still spinning wool and flax.
But in one respect they were ultra-modern. They had coal oil lamps. I had never seen one before, although once in Switzerland I had seen an alcohol lamp in a jeweler's store. When evening came, on that first night of my stay in Ohio, I saw Mother Isely take down a shining glass contrivance from a shelf, remove the glass chimney, strike a match and light the wick. She then adjusted the wick, put the chimney back in place, and a brilliant flood of light filled the room. I was amazed and delighted with that coal oil lamp. Little did I think that the time would come when people would regard kerosene lighting as too dim and yellow for use!
Although they had coal oil lamps, the people of Winesburg were less influenced by economic changes than we of the frontier. For instance the harvesting machine had been invented thirty years before, yet in that neighborhood few of them were in operation. Instead, the farmers still swung cradles. Father Isely was an expert in farm tool manufacture. He had a shop in which he made harvesting cradles, wooden pitchforks, wooden hay rakes, and other hand tools which his neighbors bought. He was so busy in his shop that he left the farm work to his married son Fred.
To thresh the wheat, the men carried it to the threshing floor in the barn, where it was trampled by horses or flailed with wooden flails. Then the large doors on each side of the barn were thrown open to permit the wind to blow through. As it blew, Fred tossed the wheat straw in the air. The passing currents of wind carried the straw and chaff to one side, while the grain fell back to the floor. After the coarsest chaff had been removed by the winnowing process, the wheat was further winnowed by being sifted in a hand-power fanning mill, which Father Isely built. Producing wheat was a laborious effort, but during the war, when the price was two dollars a bushel, Fred raised a great deal of it, sowing it broadcast by hand, harvesting it with a cradle, and threshing it on the barn floor. Of course I came more in contact with the household operations than with the outside work. While Father Isely had his shop where he manufactured tools for sale, Mother Isely had a spinning house where she spun and wove the cloth for all of the family, as my mother had done in Switzerland.
Although the manufacture of clothing by hand was laborious, it made the family independent; and during the Civil War, when clothing prices were very high, economic conditions worked little hardship on the Iselys. They profited from the high price of farm products, but did not suffer from the high price of clothing.
The Iselys kept a small flock of sheep. In the spring these were driven to the shearing pen, and all the family joined in the shearing. Since I was inexperienced in shearing, I was instructed to help hold the sheep while others sheared. The animals were patient and not hard to hold. Perhaps they were glad to be relieved of their wool. After the shearing, we washed the fleeces with soapsuds and warm water in a tub. When the wool was dry, Mother Isely combed it until the fibres lay in one direction, after which they were hung on the distaff of the spinning machine.
It was wonderful to see her spin. She operated the wheel by a foot treadle, while with one hand she picked the fibres of wool from the distaff, and with the other twirled the ends together between forefinger and thumb, twisting the wool fibres into a thread called the rove. The revolutions of the spinning wheel twisted the fibres so tightly together that they would not come apart again, but formed a long thread which was wound about a bobbin. After spinning, she dyed the wool, using pigments which she had herself steeped from plants. I do not recall the sources of the colors she used, except that she obtained the brown from the hulls of walnuts, and shaded it to different kinds of brown by adding extracts from the bark of trees. She made dyes of all colors; bright reds, blues,yellows, greens, grays, blacks. Once her dyes were set in the wool, the colors lasted as long as the fabric.
The next step was to weave the thread into cloth. For the base of the cloth, Mother used a warp either of wool or cotton, and on this she wove the woof. It was like magic to see her convert the fibres of wool into cloth on the loom. After weaving, she shrank the wool and made it into suits. This did very well for clothing about the farm, but for Sunday wear she sent the cloth to a fulling mill for shrinking. There the shrinking was done more perfectly than it could be done at home, also the fuller was able to improve the appearance of the cloth.
When the cloth came back from the fuller's, Mother Isely cut it and sewed it into garments, using homespun thread. You cannot buy such durable fabric these days as she made. There are in existence today wool blankets which Mother Isely spun and wove seventy years ago [in the 1860's - samples are still available in the 1990's], which are just as good as ever. The colors are bright and their warmth is greater than that of factory-made blankets of the same weight. Until a few years ago I had one of Mother's homespun linings, which had outlasted one factory-made coat after another and which had had a half-century of continuous wear. I also have a piece of the checkered wagon cover, which she spun of flax in Switzerland, in 1831, to be used to cover their wagon on their journey to Ohio.
Mother made goods of linen as well as of wool. I helped her to gather the flax from the field and then to shred it by pulling the flax through a hackel, which was merely a maze of spikes driven through a board. Then we combed it out. The coarse tow Mother wove into wheat sacks, while the fine fibres she spun and wove into linen tablecloths, sheets, and material for fine bonnets.
For summer she made bonnets of homespun linen, and for winter hoods of homespun wool, stitching these most beautifully into quilted designs.
I must tell about a woolen overcoat she once made for the Reformed minister, Mr. Colorado. He arrived in Ohio in midwinter to take the pastorate of the church where the Iselys attended, and he had no overcoat. Mother had no wool, so she brought a sheep from the fold, sheared it, washed, combed, dyed, spun, and wove the wool, cut out and made the overcoat and presented it to the preacher, all in a few days' time. The poor sheep was sewed up in a cast-off overcoat, which he wore until spring.
Mother kept up her spinning and weaving until 1872, when she moved from Ohio to Kansas. Her household came as near to being self-supporting as any I have ever known. Besides her own and her husband's home factories she had a son-in-law who could cobble a pair of shoes from first to last. He could skin a cow, tan the hide, cut it up and sew it with a thread he had made of hog bristles, and peg it with wooden pegs he had cut himself. Mother also made the medicines for the family. She understood the medicinal value of various herbs which she gathered each year from which she steeped drugs and simples.
My forte was in the kitchen. I did the housework when Mother was busy in her spinning shop. I was also an expert at milking, an art that I had learned in Switzerland; and I helped Father Isely milk the cows. In fact I often did all the milking when he was rushed with orders for farm tools.
Although I was busy in the house or about it, my thoughts were ever of the war. In fact, I had no opportunity to forget it. It was the subject of conversation everywhere.
What seemed strange to me was the indifference of many Ohio people as to the outcome of the war. Unlike the Kansans and the Missourians, who were intensely partisan on one side or the other, Ohio had thousands with no strong desire to preserve the Union or to do away with slavery. They were opposed to coercion of the South and they even resisted the draft. The loyalists of Ohio referred to these neutrals as "Copperheads," the name of Ohio's most beautiful and most poisonous snake. I cultivated the acquaintance of the loyalists rather than of the "Copperheads."
Among my friends was a Mrs. Bucher, the postmistress at Winesburg, a loyal soul, who worked in the post office to release a man for the battlefields. Her father, a man of sixty years, was in the army, and so were her two oldest sons, one a mere boy of sixteen. She wrote her sons, urging them to do their best and to serve their country valiantly. They did do their best; in fact the sixteen-year-old boy was killed in battle. I was at the post office when the news arrived telling of his death. Tears streamed down Mrs. Bucher's cheeks until they wet the letters she was sorting; but she declared that if her twelve-year-old son were old enough, he too should go to work the gun of his fallen brother.
Bodies of the dead soldiers were buried where they fell, but funerals were held for them at home. With bowed heads unionists and loyalists alike received the news of the death of their sons, for the sons of the disloyal were in the army too. Either the draft took then, or they ran away to volunteer against the wishes of their fathers. At funerals for the dead soldiers the home guards turned out to fire salutes over the graves, sons of the Copperheads as well as sons of the loyalists being given these honors.
At intervals during the war, soldiers were permitted to come home on leave. Among those who returned for a short stay was Christian's brother Henry, who had been serving in Virginia. Naturally, there was great rejoicing, and his coming home strengthened his own morale and that of his family. A barbecue party was given in his honor at which a calf was killed and roasted as a feast for his friends, and at which we served cakes decorated with tiny flags. It was a happy party, but I was sad, for my husband was not given a leave of absence. The fighting was too incessant and the Arkansas front too remote for him to return home. I do not mean to infer that in Arkansas any battles were fought in which the numbers killed were as great as at Gettysburg or Cold Harbor; but for the numbers engaged, the casualties west of the Mississippi were greater than in the East. The fact is forgotten now, but during the war we knew that Kansas had a greater percentage of losses than any other Union state.