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.

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.