Friday, September 23, 2011

Clifton Johnson, Alexander Davis, and "The Hired Man" (Part 2)

This is the second and concluding post from "The Hired Man" in Clifton Johnson's 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).

Detail from the Cope/Carman 1908 map series
showing the Nicodemus farmstead, September 17, 1862

"There was some cannonadin' and fightin' on Tuesday,[1] and they were at it again the next day at sunrise and fought pretty savage way on into the night. They tell me that was the bloodiest day in American history. More than twenty-three thousand men was killed or wounded. During the night Lee got away across the Potomac. It had been only two weeks since he started north with an army of fifty thousand, but he lost so heavily in the battle and by straggling that he went back with scarcely half that number. 

On Thursday morning I walked home. None of the family was there. The soldiers had taken the children and the old man and old woman off the battlefield before day on Wednesday. The house was full of wounded Northern soldiers, and the hogpen loft was full, and the barn floor. The wounded was crowded into all our buildings. I looked around to find something to eat, but there wa' n't enough food in the house to feed a pair of quail. We'd left fifty pounds of butter in the cellar and seventy five pounds of lard and twenty gallons of wine - fine grape wine - and half a barrel of whiskey. We had just baked eight or ten loaves of bread the day before, and pies, and I don't know what else. Those things was all gone. So was every piece of bacon from the smoke-house. When the family went away there was the big end of a barrel of flour in the house, and I reckon the soldiers had used half of it in making shortcakes. They'd mixed up flour and lard and water in a tin that we called a washall- we washed dishes in it - and they'd rolled the cakes out thin and greased the whole top of the cookstove and baked 'em on that.

After bakin' a cake on one side they'd take a-hold of it and turn it over to bake the other side. I didn't hardly know the stove when I come home.

We had four geese and 'bout sixty chickens, and the soldiers got 'em all except one hen. She was settin' under the woodpile, and with all that thunderin' and crackin' goin' on she kept settin'. 'Pears to me that was providential. The Lord seen fit to let us have some chickens. She had seventeen eggs, and every one hatched. We did n't know she was there till she come out with the chickens; and they all lived. I never see chickens grow so fast in my life. We had n't no time to tend to 'em, and the hen raised 'em herself.

The soldiers had done their chicken-killin' in the room where we had our winter kitchen. They'd taken the dough scraper and put it on a chicken's neck and hit it a whack with the rollin' -pin, and that rollin' -pin was all bruised up. They were dirty butchers, and the floor was ankle deep easy with heads and feet, entrails and feathers. It just happened that they could n't cook in there or they'd have burnt the house up, I reckon. The stove was in the summer kitchen.

What we called our cellar was a large cave, 'bout fifteen yards from the house, with a ten by twelve log buildin' settin' on it. The buildin' had been made for a shop, but we'd repaired it up and plastered it, and we kept our parlor furniture in it. If we had visitors of a Sunday we invited 'em in there to set and talk. Our best chairs was in there--mohair· chairs with black, stuffed seats, --and a six-dollar lookin' -glass, mahogany finish, and a nice bed. It was a cord bed with the woodwork of sycamore all through, and it had two feather-beds, one to lay on, and one to cover you. There was two sheets of home-made linen, and these hyar old-time coverlids wove by the women on a loom, blue on one side and red on the other, with flowers of all kinds on 'em. That was what you'd call a fine bed in them days, and you could n't buy one like it now, with the pillows and bolsters and sieh-like stuff on it, for one hundred dollars.

A shell come in at the northeast comer of that buildin' and hit the bureau and took the top off and went out the southeast comer. Another shell went through the gable ends, and it struck the bed and knocked the headboard and footboard out and took the feathers and sheets and carried 'em right along.

The big house did n't escape either. A shell went through the roof and cattycornered across and went out the other side. Great large limbs were knocked off the trees, and sometimes the whole top of a tree had been carried away. Oh! the trees was knocked to pieces considerable. Yes, indeed!

Our wheatstacks was full of shells, and we picked 'em out while we was thrashing. There was grapeshots in the stacks too. We could n't see 'em, and they broke down the machine several times and made us a lot of expense.

The soldiers stole a good many of our-potatoes, which they dug out of the ground,· but we still had enough to do us over the winter. We did n't get pay for anything except some hay and rye and oats and two colts. A good deal of our corn was broken down. The soldiers had two batteries right in the middle of it, but we got enough at the ends of the field to see us out the year. [2]

"The soldiers had two batteries right in the middle of
[our corn]..." The Cope/Carman 10:30 a.m. map
shows French's and Branch's batteries in
the Nicodemus corn field. [2]
Our cattle strayed down in the woods by the river. I reckon they got wild at the noise and the sight of the troops and jumped out of their pasture. They did n't none of 'em get killed, but it was three or four days before we found 'em. Our hogs went down by the river, too. Part of 'em come home after the battle, but some was shot. The soldiers took the hams off and let the rest of the carcass lay. More was wasted than was saved.

Fully one third of the fences on our farm was gone. Some of the rails had been used to burn the dead horses, and the soldiers always took rails whenever they wanted a campfire to cook with. It was quite a job to make them rails, and quite a job to lay a fence up again. Yes, Sir!

On Friday morning I fetched our horses. I had n't seen the old man and old woman since the battle, but him arid her got back that day. They did n't like the looks of things very much. The house had been looted. The dishes was gone, and we had no beds and no bed-clothing. There wa' n't a pillow in the house, and no sheets, no blankets, no quilts or coverlids. There was only bedticks--just them left. The soldiers had taken every stitch of mine and the old man's clothing, and they'd tom up the old woman's clothing and used it for bandages. We got gray-backs and bedbugs and everything on us, and the first thing we did was to renovate the house. It took us three weeks with hire to get in shape. I never want to see no war no more. I'd sooner see a fire.

Thursday I had come on down half way to Sharpsburg to Bloody Lane, and I went all around as far as I had time to go. I saw a heap of dead men of both sides. The soldiers was buryin' 'em as fast as they could gather 'em together. They'd dig trenches 'bout six or seven feet wide and eighteen inches deep, and those trenches was dug right straight along a considerable distance unless the diggers come to a rock. Each dead man was first laid on a blanket, then put in the trench and the blanket spread over him, and there the bodies was buried side by side. The trenches was so shallow that after the loose dirt which was thrown back had settled down heads and toes sometimes stuck out. All over the fields the bodies was picked up, but those right around the buildings was left. I suppose the soldiers thought that the people who owned the buildings would bury the bodies to get rid of 'em. It was a warm September. Yes, sir, some days was very hot, and we had to bury them bodies or stand the stench. By Saturday night I had all those on our place buried, but the smell hung on for a month, there was so many dead men and horses that was only half covered. The stench was sickening. We could n't eat a good meal, and we had to shut the house up just as tight as we could of a night to keep out that odor. We could n't stand it, and the first thing in the morning when I rolled out of bed I'd have to take a drink of whiskey. If I did n't I'd throw up before I got my clothes all on. I buried three bodies right behind our smokehouse, then four layin' at the back barn doors, and one near the well. A lane for our stock run through the middle of our farm, and I buried three in that lane, and I buried fifteen in a comer of a field that we'd ploughed and got ready to seed. Those fifteen were government soldiers, and they were very near all Massachusetts men.[3] The flesh of the dead men had discolored so they looked like they was black people, except one. He lay close by our well. He had a wound in his neck, and an army doctor who saw him said to me, "Judgin' from his looks and the len'th of time he's been layin' hyar, he must have bled all the blood he had in him." I took cotton and tied up my mouth and nose and dug a grave right where he was a-layin'. He was an awful big man, and that was the only thing I could do. Then I shoved a board under him. and got him to rollin', and he went into the grave. I'd rather not have buried him so near the well, but the water wa' n't very good anyhow. In the heat of midsummer it seemed stagnant like, and we'd haul water from a neighbor's well, a bar'l or two at a" time.

'Bout a year later that body was dug up to put in the cemetery, and we found a pocket in the back of the man's coat up between his shoulder blades with a ten-dollar bill in it. But the bill was so rotten it fell to pieces, and we could n't make nothin' out of it, only on one comer we could see it was a government ten-dollar bill. All his other pockets was wrong side out, and that was the way with the pockets of every dead soldier I saw on the battlefield. They'd all been robbed.

The battle made quite a change in the look of the country. The fences and other familiar landmarks was gone, and you could n't hardly tell one man's farm from another, only by the buildings, and some of them was burnt. You might be out late in the day and the dark would ketch you, and things was so tom and tattered that you did n't know nothin'. It was a strange country to you. I got lost three or four times when I thought I could go straight home. Another queer thing was the silence after the battle. You could n't hear a dog bark nowhere, you could n't hear no birds whistle or no crows caw. There wa' n't no birds around till the next spring. We did n't even see a buzzard with all the stench. The rabbits had run off, but there was a few around that winter - not many. The farmers did n't have no chickens to crow. Ourn did n't commence for six months. When night come I was so lonesome that I see I did n't know what lonesome was before. It was a curious silent world.


Clifton Johnson's Battleground Adventures (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915) contain 14 sections. The Antietam section includes The "Hired Hand" four more stories--The Slave Foreman, The Slave Woman and the Tavern, The Canal Boatman, and the Maryland Maiden. Also in the collection are sections on John Brown's raid, Bull Run, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Atlanta, and Cedar Creek. The book is available courtesy of Google Books. In most instances, Johnson does not identify by name the person he interviews. As we have seen here, he does provide information that is helpful to the historian. Some historians find these sources suspect because the lack of identification. With a little further investigation, however, most of the persons and interviewees can be identified. This greatly increases, at least in my opinion, the worth and veracity of the eyewitness accounts--and in turn gives us more perspectives to the events of September 17, 1862.

Johnson's Battleground Adventures are now available as a downloadable PDF via Google Books.

Finally, Clifton Johnson's papers are at the Clifton Johnson Collection, Special Collections, Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts. I am planning a swing up that way next month and will look through the collections for additional material pertaining to Antietam and report back here. Meanwhile, click here to visit the online finding aid.

To retrieve Battleground Adventures, click on this link.

[1] September 16.

[2] The two batteries were probably Thomas B. French's Stafford (Virginia) Battery with 3, 10 pounder Parrotts and 3, 12 pounder Howitzers and James Read Branch's Petersburg (Virginia) Field Artillery carrying 1, 10 pounder Parrott; 2, three inch Ordinance Rifles; and 3, 12 pounder Howitzers. Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web. See also, Cope/Carman Map illustration 2 above.

A cursory search of online federal and state case records, shows that unlike some of his neighbors, Jacob Nicodemus did not file claims for damages. This is a preliminary finding only--some further research to verify this is required.

The case files for claims by farmers in and around Sharpsburg are important resources for the Antietam historian. NPS Ranger Mannie Gentile has mined one of these sources. See, Mannie Gentile, "Damage Done to My Farm" (America's Civil War, September 2007, Vol. 20, Issue 4, pp. 48 ff. From the abstract: "The article describes how William Roulette, one of the most prosperous farmers of Washington County, Maryland, painstakingly detailed the devastating losses suffered by his family due to one single day of the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. On September 17, bursting shells and the hideous yells of fighting men replaced the usual farmyard cacophony. In an instant, years of hard work were erased."

[3] Massachusetts units in the West Woods were the 15th, 19th, and 20th. The 2nd Massachusetts were nearby but across the Hagerstown Pike just south of the Miller farmstead.

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