Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Clifton Johnson, Alexander Davis, and "The Hired Man" (Part 1)

Signpost pointing to the site of the
Nicodemus Farm, 1862
In 1913 writer and photographer Clifton Johnson journeyed southward from his home in Springfield, Massachusetts in search of oral histories of battlefield experiences that "cover what is probably the only important phase of the Civil War that has not been adequately  treated....the struggle from the standpoint of the home...through the eyes of those who lived where some of the greatest conflicts of the war occurred."

He sought out "people not directly concerned in the fighting" who nevertheless witnessed "incidents of that chaotic time [that] were indelibly impressed on their memories." His interviews, published in 1915, captured what his narrators saw "with convincing vividness, and fortunately, also, with much humor and picturesquenesses." He recorded "what they said as frankly as they related it, and in their own language, whether that was one of education and culture or of rude illiteracy."

Over twenty years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, writers supported by the Federal Writers Project followed Johnson's footsteps to capture the personal histories of clerks, farmers, laborers, and everyday citizens. TheWWII Veteran's History Project at the Library of Congress is an example of modern oral history projects that carry on that tradition today.

Johnson's recording of the story of "The Hired Man" is posted here in two parts.

The Hired Man [1]

This village, where I'm livin' now, is right on the southern edge of the battlefield, and it's only two or three miles from the Potomac. Back in war time it had twelve hundred inhabitants.

Lee had been winnin' some victories in Virginia that made him think he could whip any army the Federals could get together to oppose him. So early in the autumn of 1862 he crossed the Potomac and called on the people of Maryland to rally to his standard. But they didn't rally worth a cent. Most of us favored the other side. It wa' n't long before Lee and the Yankees come to grips. They met on the hills hyar, where the battIe was fought on September 17th. It took its name from Antietam Creek, which, at the beginning of the fight was between the two armies. Some of the hottest fighting was done around a Dunkard church, out north of the town on the Hagerstown Pike. Three quarters of a mile farther on, right out on that same pike, was where I lived. I was twenty-two years old. I'd been raised by a man by the name of Jacob Nicodemus, and I was still workin' for him. He had a log house with two rooms downstairs and just a sort of loft divided by a partition up above. There was what we called a bat-house
The site of the Nicodemus Farm of 1862 on private
property. Nothing remains of the original farm buildings.
with a couple of bedrooms in it attached to the rear like a shed. In winter we used a room in the house for a kitchen, but in summer the kitchen was in another building off a little piece from the house. We had one of these old German barns with a roof that had a long slant on one side and a short slant on the other. The roof was thatched with rye straw.

At the time of the battle we'd thrashed our rye and oats, but our wheat was standing in stacks beside the farmyard. Our corn was on the stalk in the field, and there was sixteen acres of it.

We had 'bout a dozen large hogs and mebbe eighteen or twenty pigs that run with their mammy yet in the fields and woods. We never penned any of 'em up till after we'd done seedin' wheat. Even our fattening hogs didn't get any feed till after that time. Ourn was a pretty good breed of hogs. Up in the mountains they had razor-backs. Them razor-backs looked like two slabs off a log put together, and they wouldn't weigh more'n' a hundred and fifty dressed. But the meat was good, and they were all right if you had enough of 'em. They were so wild that the owners would n't see 'em sometimes hardly for a month. The mountains were full of these hyar wild sweet potato roots, and the hogs would eat those roots, and they'd eat chestnuts and acorns and would come home fat in the fall. We had quite a few cattle. I suppose there was over twenty head - countin' steers and everything together, you know.

There was six horses on our place and not one of 'em but what we could both work and ride. All the people round had good ridin' horses then--lopers, rackers, and pacers. There wa' n't no buggies much. Horseback ridin' was the go of the day. Men and women, too, would travel anywhere on their horses. Ridin' was healthy and it was fun. The country people would take a ride to town, and the town people would take a ride to the country. The young ladies had their horses brought out as regular as clockwork, and they wa' n't afraid of a little mud. If they come to a wet place in the road they'd try to see who could do the most splashing. They wore great long skirts that would almost touch the ground, and they looked much better than ladies do on horseback now. Sometimes three or four of 'em would ride up in the mountains among the bushes to get flowers, and when they come back the horses would be so trimmed up with laurel and honeysuckle you could n't tell what color they were.

On the Sunday before the battle of Antietam the Federals and Confederates fit over hyar on South Mountain. We could hear the guns, but we could n't figure out what was goin' on, and thinks I, "Dog-gone it! I'll go and see this fightin'."

So two or three of us young fellers started. We went afoot' cross the fields to Keedysville and then to Boonsboro, a matter of five or six miles in all. As we went along we kept pickin' up recruits till there was a dozen of us. A hotel man in Boonsboro spoke to us and said, "You fellers' will get right in the fight and be killed if you keep on."

But we was nosey and wanted to nose in. We wa' n't afraid, and we'd 'a' went till we heard the bullets whistle if we had n't met a wounded soldier. He'd been shot in his hand, and he told us the troops was hot at it up there on the mountain. So we thought we'd let well enough alone, and we went back home.

We expected there was goin' to be another battle, but we did n't know where or when it would be fought. Nobody was a-workin' the next day. They was ridin' around to find out what was goin' to happen. By afternoon the Rebel army was gettin' into position on the south side of Antietam Creek. Some of the troops was posted off on the edge of our farm, and I went over where they was and walked right up and talked with the pickets. None of 'em did n't offer to do me no harm. They asked me for some tobacker. I had a right good plug in my pocket, and I divided it up among 'em. They took it all, and they chewed and spit and felt pretty good. An officer lent me his glasses, and I could see the Union army maneuvering over on the hills beyond the creek. By and by, while I was layin' there talkin' to the pickets, a shell landed in a fence 'bout thirty yards from me. I'd never seen no battle nor no war, and I was scared, and I said, "Ain't you fellers afraid?" "

Oh, no!" they said, "a shell has to come closer than that to make us afraid."

But I got up and says I, "Good-by, boys, I'm goin' to take care of my horses."

I went to the house, and a feller named Hines [2] helped me bridle 'em up. Then he mounted one, and I mounted another, and we each led two and rode eight miles north to the place of a farmer we knew. We shut the horses up in his barn and stayed there that night.

The next day I set out to walk home, but when I got most to our farm the pickets would n't let me pass, and I had to return the same way I'd come. While I was gone my horses had been stolen. Hines seen the Union soldiers takin' 'em, and he heard 'em braggin' how much they was goin' to get for 'em. He went to the fellers, and, says he, “Them there belongs to a farmer down near Sharpsburg"; but they took 'em just the same.

Hines said that the fellers belonged to the command of Cap'n Cowles [3] who was stationed at Williamsport, three or four miles away. I follered 'em right up and Hines went along with me. We found Cap'n Cowles and told him what had happened. '

"Well," he said, "come with me to the corral where we keep our horses, and if you see yourn there, take 'em." We found 'em, and the soldiers stood around and looked at us pretty hard while we rode off with 'em.

{to be continued...}


[1] Johnson's footnote: "I was at Sharpsburg, a very picturesque old place in a region of flowing hills and quaint farmhouses. The hired man and I spent an evening together in one of the village homes. There was a piano in the room, and the grizzled old man drew the piano stool up by the stove and sat there bolt upright telling his story and chuckling over in a humorous and unusual phases."

Johnson does not further identify "the hired man." He reveals in his narrative, however, that he was a farm laborer on the Jacob Nicodemus farm. He also tells us that he is 22 years old in 1862 and was "raised by a man by the name of Jacob Nicodemus, and I was still workin' for him." The 1860 Census records an Alexander, 21 years old, who is a "farm hand" and living in the household of Jacob Nicodemus. The 1870 Census shows Alexander Davis as a "farm laborer" living with the Nicodemus family. By 1880, Davis is listed in the household as a farmer. The 1900 and 1910 Census show him still with the Nicodemus family. The final Census listing for Alexander Davis in 1920 lists him as a boarder, 81 years old, and still living within the Nicodemus household. Clearly, Davis had a special and trusted relationship with many generations of the Nicodemus clan. It is also clear that he is the "Hired Man."

Johnson published this essay in 1915. Clifton Johnson, Battleground Adventures: The Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict in Some of the Most Notable Battles of the Civil War (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915). This is available as a PDF download on Google Books.

For a biographical essay on Johnson at the Clifton Johnson Collection, Special Collections, Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts, follow this link.

[2] Probably Daniel Harris, the draft registration record for Sharpsburg, 1864, records him as a 30 year old "fencemaker." Draft Registration Record, Sub District No. 25 [Sharpsburg], 1864.
[3] At this time Captain Cowles cannot be identified.


Jim Rosebrock said...

Jim, the tale is so vivid that you can visualize it. Thanks for posting it. Jim

Robert Gould said...

Great Post-Looking forward to more and after battle thoughts from Alexander. How hard is it to get a copy of this book? Sounds like a great read. Maybe it should be re-published.
Rob Gould

Jim Buchanan said...

Thanks! Jim for the comment.

Robert Gould--Thank you for your post. I have just uploaded Part 2. Scroll down to the Notes section for a fuller description of Johnson's book and a link to the full text at Google Books. I think you will like some of the accompanying artwork. As you probably know, Johnson was not only a writer but a photographer and painter. I added a link to his papers at Amherst for anyone wanting to find out more about this remarkable person. Best regards, Jim Buchanan