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CHAPTER XXII
The morning of November 29, 1864, found me comfortably seated at my breakfast table with my little boys and my small brother, Campbell Pryor. My venerable father, Dr. Pryor, had departed on his daily rounds to visit the sick and wounded in the hospitals, and my husband was away on special duty for General Lee. John had reported early with one cupful of milk—all that little Rose, with her slender rations, was capable of yielding. This we had boiled with parched corn and sweetened with sorghum molasses. With perfect biscuits well beaten but unmixed with lard or butter we made a breakfast with which we were contented. I indulged myself in a long letter to my dear aunt, telling her of our comfortable home and the prospect of comparative quiet with the army soon to go into winter quarters. I had addressed my letter and was about to seal it when General Wilcox entered, and gently told me that my husband had been captured the day before!

I remember perfectly that I sat for a moment stunned into silence, and then quietly stamped my letter! I would spare my aunt the sad news for a while. In a few minutes clanking spurs at the door announced the presence of a staff-officer.

"Madam," he said respectfully, "General Lee sends you his affectionate sympathies." 217 Through the window I saw General Lee on his horse, Traveller, standing at the well. He waited until his messenger returned—I was too much overcome to speak—and then rode slowly towards the lines.

I had small hope of the speedy exchange promised me by General Wilcox. From day to day he reported the efforts made for my husband's release and their failure. General Lee authorized a letter to General Meade, detailing the circumstances of his capture and requesting his release. General Meade promptly refused to release him.

We naturally looked to the enemy for all information, and although my husband had written me a pencilled note at City Point on the inside of a Confederate envelope, and had implored his guard (a Federal officer) to have it inserted in a New York paper, I did not receive it until thirty-one years afterward. We soon had news, however, through a despatch from the Northern army to the New York Herald. The paper of November 30, 1864, contained the following:—

"Yesterday a rebel officer made his appearance in front of our lines, waving a paper for exchange. The officer in charge of the picket, suddenly remembering that Major Burrage, of the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts, was taken prisoner some time since by the enemy while on a similar errand, 'gobbled' the rebel, who proved to be the famous Roger A. Pryor, ex-member of Congress and ex-brigadier-general of Jeff Davis's army. He protested vehemently against what he styled 'a flagrant breach of faith' on our 218part. He was assured he was taken in retaliation for like conduct on the part of his friends, and sent to General Meade's headquarters for further disposition."

Press despatch to Herald, November 30, from Washington: "Roger A. Pryor has been brought to Washington and committed to the old Capitol Prison." Later a personal through the New York News reached me: "Your husband is in Fort Lafayette, where a friend and relative is permitted to visit him, (signed) Mary Rhodes." From an enormous quantity of letters, newspaper extracts, book notices, military reports, etc., describing his capture written by the men who made it and witnessed it, I select an interesting one, not hitherto published, which my husband received recently through my brother, the Mayor of Bristol.

"Bristol, Tenn., July 10, 1908.

"Hon. W. L. Rice,
"Bristol, Va.

"My dear Mayor:—

"I very cheerfully comply with your request to give you a short sketch of the circumstances which led to my selection as the Officer to convey Gen. R. A. Pryor to Fort Warren, Mass., in 1864. As an aid to my memory I have hunted over my old Army papers, and have found the original Order from the Military Governor of Washington, D.C., and also the receipt given me by Gen. Pryor for money which I turned over to him, on delivering him to the Commandant of Fort Lafayette, N. Y. Harbor, to which place my orders were afterwards changed and which papers I herewith attach.

"In November of 1864 my Regiment, the 39th Mass., 219was serving in the defences of Washington, and I had been detailed as an Aid on the staff of Gen. Martindale, then Commanding the Military District of Washington. Having received a Leave of Absence to visit my home in Mass., Col. T. McGowan, then Adjt. General of the District, kindly offered to place a prisoner in my charge and thus save to me my transportation. I did not know who my prisoner was to be, until my orders were received, and naturally felt pleased to find that my charge was to be Gen. Roger A. Pryor, whom I had known by reputation from my boyhood up.

"Though my Orders read that I was to assist Brig. General Wessels, I saw nothing of that gentleman until after General Pryor and myself had reached and taken seats in the train. Then Gen. Wessels made himself known, and asked an introduction to Gen. Pryor.

"It was 9.30 at night when left Washington, and we did not reach New York until daylight next morning. When I received my prisoner at the Old Capitol Prison, I recall that the Supt., one Colonel Wood advised me to iron my charge, alleging that he was a dangerous man; but this I refused to do, taking only Gen. Pryor's verbal parole that he would not attempt to escape while in my custody. This Gen. Pryor cheerfully gave, and religiously kept while with me. On arrival at Jersey City we became in some way separated from Gen. Wessels, and crossed over by the Cortlandt Street Ferry to New York. As the hour was early we stopped for breakfast at the Courtland Street Hotel, then quite a pretentious Hostelry. After breakfast, and while preparing to leave the Hotel for the Qr. Mas. Gen. Dept. where I was to find my orders and transportation, I was surprised to find that the Rotunda of the Hotel was packed, evidently with friends of Gen. Pryor and for a short time it looked as if my prisoner would be taken from me, but the Gen. directing me to take his arm, we passed through 220without trouble. At the Quarter Master Genl's I found my orders changed, and I was directed to convey my prisoner to Fort Lafayette New York Harbor in place of Fort Warren Boston Harbor. On arrival at Fort Lafayette we found Brig. Gen. Wessels awaiting us, and with him we proceeded across the ferry turning over our prisoner to Major Burke, Commandant at that Fort, taking his receipt therefor.

"At this distance of time (44 years) it would seem that these occurrences must have passed from my memory, but I remember with distinctness the appearance of the General, the incident at the Old Capitol, the crowd in the Rotunda of the Cortlandt Hotel, the miraculous passage through the sea of 'Red' faces therein, and the appearance of Major Paddy Burke (a very old Officer of the Old Army) to whose custody I transferred my charge. I recall also the kind expressions of regard uttered by General Pryor as we shook hands at parting and the promise he extracted that should it be my fate to be wounded or a prisoner in Richmond, during the war, that I would make myself known to his family there residing, who would respond to any appeal made by me. It was my fortune to pass through the remaining months of the war without being captured, and never severely wounded, so I did not have to call on the generosity of a gallant foe, and I presume the memory of that journey to New York, and the memory of the stripling Officer who accompanied him on that journey, long ago passed from Judge Pryor's memory, but I recall it as a pleasant episode in a boy's life and I would wish, that in writing to the Judge, you would kindly convey to him my sincere congratulations on the honors he has attained, and the respect and love which he has received in his declining years, and with kindest wishes to yourself, believe me,

"Very truly yours,
"Wm. G. Sheen."

WGS-OMH

221 Mr. Sheen kindly sent my brother the order to which he alludes:—

"Headquarters Military District of Washington

"PROVOST MARSHAL'S OFFICE

"Washington, D.C., Nov. 29th, 1864.

"Special Orders
No. 217

"Extract

"It is hereby Ordered! That Brigadier Gen'l, H. W. Wessels assisted by Lieut. Wm. G. Sheen will proceed to Old Capital Prison and taken in charge the following named prisoner:

"Roger A. Pryor 7th Va: Car

and deliver him together with the accompany papers to the Commanding Officer at Fort Warren Boston Harbor take a receipt therefore and report action at these Head Quarters.

"The Quartermaster Department will furnish the necessary transportation.

"By Command of Col. M. N. Wiservell,
"Military Governor.
"Geo. R. Walbridge,
"Capt & Asst Pro. Marshal."

It will be perceived by the above that the Federal officers granted their captured private the honor of escort by a Federal general—Brigadier-general H. W. Wessels—and were inclined to confer upon him the further distinction of "irons."

While he was detained in Washington, Major Leary (or Captain) discovered a plot to assassinate him, which he revealed to the prisoner, arranging 222for his greater safety. Before he reached Fort Lafayette it appears he was threatened with assassination and also rescue. Some kind friend in Washington thrust into his overcoat pocket a bottle of brandy. It was taken from him when his pockets were searched, along with his letters and pistols, but returned by a Federal officer, who remarked,—recognizing the touch of nature which establishes the kinship of all men in all nations,—"Keep it, General! There's an almighty sight of comfort in a bottle of brandy." The pistols were not returned and, along with an army cape, are preserved—I have understood—in a museum of war relics at Concord, Mass.

A month elapsed before all the forms required by military law could be observed in sending the letters of prisoners through the lines. At last Colonel Ould forwarded to me a brief assurance of my dear captive's welfare. He was confined in a casemate with twelve other prisoners. A grate held a small quantity of coal, and on this fire the captive soldiers cooked their slender rations of meat. Their bread was furnished them from a baker. They lay upon straw mats on the floor. They were glad of the rule compelling them to fetch up their fuel from the coal cellar, as it gave opportunity for exercise. Once daily they could walk upon the ramparts, and my husband's eyes turned sadly to the dim outlines of the beautiful city where he had often been an honored guest. The veil which hid from him so much of the grief and struggle of the future hid also the reward. Little did he dream he should administer 223justice on the supreme bench of the mist-veiled city.

The captives had no material except coal and water, but of the former they manufactured seal rings (to be set when they regained their liberty), inlaying a polished ebony surface with bits from a silver coin to represent tiny Confederate flags. One of these was given to my general, and lost in the great hour of losses. With the coal as a pencil, the prisoners indulged in caricatures of the commandant. Every morning a fresh picture on the whitewashed wall met his eye: "Burk as a baby," "Burk in his first pants," "Burk in love," etc., etc. The reward was the commandant's face when he saw them.

After my husband's release, his place in the casemate was filled by a "stylish" young officer who refused, absolutely, to submit to the degradation of bringing up his quota of the coal.

"And so," said "old Burk," "you are too great a man, are you, to fetch your coal? I had General Pryor here. He brought up his coal! I think, sir, you'll bring up yours!"

Before I take leave of my dear captive for the winter, I must record his unvarying fortitude under much physical discomfort, cold, and food which almost destroyed him. On the 20th of December, I received a brief note from Fort Lafayette: "My philosophy begins to fail somewhat. In vain I seek some argument of consolation. I see no chance of release. The conditions of my imprisonment cut me off from every resource of happiness."

I learned afterward that he was ill, and often 224under the care of a physician during the winter, but he tried to write as encouragingly as possible. In February, however, he failed in health and spirits.

"I am as contented as is compatible with my condition. My mind is ill at ease from my solicitude for my family and my country. Every disaster pierces my soul like an arrow; and I am afflicted with the thought that I am denied the privilege of contributing even my mite to the deliverance of—. How I envy my old comrades their hardships and privations! I have little hope of an early exchange, and you may be assured my mistrust is not without reason. Except some special instance be employed to procure my release, my detention here will be indefinite. I cannot be more explicit. While this is my conviction, I wish it distinctly understood that I would not have my government compromise any scruple for the sake of my liberation. I am prepared for any contingency—am fortified against any reverse of fortune."

The problem now confronting me was this: how could I maintain my children and myself? My husband's rations were discontinued. I sent my general's horse far into the interior, to be boarded with a farmer for his services, as I had no possible means of feeding him. My only supply of food was from my father's ration as chaplain. I had a part of a barrel of flour which a relative had sent me from a county now cut off from us. Quite a number of my old Washington servants had followed me, to escape the shelling, but they could not, of course, look to me for their support. My household included 225Eliza Page, Aunt Jinny, and Uncle Frank (old people and old settlers), and our faithful John. I frankly told John and Eliza my condition, but they elected to remain.

One day John presented himself with a heart-broken countenance and a drooping attitude of deep dejection. He had a sad story to tell. The agent of the estate to which he belonged was in town, and John had been commissioned to inform me that all the slaves belonging to the estate were to be immediately transferred to a Louisiana plantation for safety. Those of us who had hired these servants by the year were to be indemnified for our loss.

"How do you feel about it, John?" I asked.

The poor fellow broke down. "It will kill me," he declared. "I'll soon die on that plantation."

All his affectionate, faithful service, all his hardships for our sakes, rushed upon my memory. I bade him put me in communication with the agent. I found that I could save the boy only by buying him! A large sum of gold was named as the price. I unbuckled my girdle and counted my handful of gold—one hundred and six dollars. These I offered to the agent (who was a noted negro trader), and although it was far short of his figures, he made out my bill of sale receipted. Remembered to-day, this seems a wonderful act on my part. At the time it was the most natural thing in the world!

John soon appeared with smiling face and informed me with his thanks that he belonged to me!

"You are a free man, John," I said. "I will 226make out your papers and I can easily arrange for you to pass the lines."

"I know that," he said. "Marse Roger has often told me I was a free man. I never will leave you till I die. Papers, indeed! Papers nothing! I belong to you—that's where I belong."

All that dreadful winter he was faithful to his promise, cheerfully bearing, without wages, all the privations of the time. Sometimes when the last atom of food was gone, he would ask for money, sally forth with a horse and a light cart, and bring in peas and dried apples. Once a week we were allowed to purchase the head of a bullock, horns and all, from the commissary for the exclusive use of the servants—I would have starved first—and a small ration of rice was allowed us by the government. A one-armed boy, Alick, who had been reared in my father's family, now wandered in to find his old master, and installed himself as my father's servant.

The question that pressed upon me day and night was: "How, where, can I earn some money?" to be answered by the frightful truth that there could be no opening for me anywhere, because I could not leave my children.

One wakeful night, while I was revolving these things, a sudden thought darted, unbidden, into my sorely harassed mind:—

"Why not open the trunk from Washington? Something may be found there which can be sold."

At an early hour next morning John and Alick brought the trunk from the cellar. Aunt Jinny, Eliza, and the children gathered around. It proved 227to be full of my old Washington finery. There were a half-dozen or more white muslin gowns, flounced and trimmed with valenciennes lace, many yards; there was a rich bayadere silk gown trimmed fully with guipure lace; a green silk dress with gold embroidery; a blue-and-silver brocade,—these last evening gowns. There was a paper box containing the shaded roses I had worn to Lady Napier's ball, the ball at which Mrs. Douglas and I had dressed alike in gowns of tulle. Another box held the garniture of green leaves and gold grapes which had belonged to the green silk, and still another the blue-and-silver feathers for the brocade. An opera cloak trimmed with fur; a long purple velvet cloak; a purple velvet "coalscuttle" bonnet, trimmed with white roses; a point-lace handkerchief; valenciennes lace; Brussels lace; and in the bottom of the trunk a package of ciel blue zephyr, awakening reminiscences of a passion which I had cherished for knitting shawls and "mariposas" of zephyr,—such was the collection I discovered.

I ripped all the lace from the evening gowns and made large collars and undersleeves then in vogue. John found a closed dry-goods store willing to sell clean paper boxes.

My first instalment was sent to Price's store in Richmond and promptly sold. I sold the silk gowns minus the costly trimming; but when I had stripped the muslin flounces of lace, behold raw edges that no belle, even a Confederate, could have worn. I rolled the edges of these flounces—there were ten or twelve on some of the gowns—and 228edged them with a spiral line of blue zephyr. I embroidered a dainty vine of blue forget-me-nots on bodice and sleeves, with a result simply ravishing!

After I had converted all my laces into collars, cuffs, and sleeves, and had sold my silk gowns, opera cloak, and point-lace handkerchiefs, I devoted myself to trimming the edges of the artificial flowers, and separating the long wreaths and garlands into clusters for hats and bouquets de corsage.

Eliza and the children delighted in this phase of my work, and begged to assist,—all except Aunt Jinny.

"Honey," she said, "don't you think, in these times of trouble, you might do better than tempt them po' young lambs in Richmond to worship the golden calf and bow down to mammon? We prays not to be led into temptation, and you sho'ly is leadin' 'em into vanity."

"Maybe so, Aunt Jinny, but I must sell all I can. We have to be clothed, you know, war or no war."

"Yes, my chile, that's so; but we're told to consider the lilies. Gawd Almighty tells us we must clothe ourselves in the garment of righteousness, and He—"

"You always 'pear to be mighty intimate with God A'mighty," interrupted Eliza, in great wrath. "Now you just run 'long home an' leave my mistis to her work. How would you look with nothin' on but a garment of righteousness?"

When I had stripped the pretty silk gowns of their trimmings, what could be done with the gowns themselves? Finally I resolved to embroider them. The zeal with which I worked knew no pause. I 229needed no rest. General Wilcox, who was in the saddle until a late hour every night, said to me, "Your candle is the last light I see at night—the first in the morning."

"I should never sleep," I told him.

One day I consulted Eliza about the manufacture of a Confederate candle. We knew how to make it—by drawing a cotton rope many times through melted wax, and then winding it around a bottle. We could get the wax, but our position was an exposed one. Soldiers' tents were close around us, and we scrupulously avoided any revelation of our needs, lest they should deny themselves for our sakes. Eliza thought we might avail ourselves of the absence of the officers, and finish our work before they returned. We made our candle behind the kitchen; but that night, as I sat sewing beside its dim, glowworm light, I heard a step in the hall, and a hand, hastily thrust out, placed a brown paper parcel on the piano near the door. It was a soldier's ration of candles!

Of course I could not find shoes for my boys. I made little boots of carpet lined with flannel for my baby. A pair lasted just three days. A large bronze morocco pocket-book fell into my hands, of which I made boots for my little Mary. Alick,—prowling about the fields to gather the herb "life everlasting," of which we made yeast,—found two or three leather bags, and a soldier shoemaker contrived shoes for each of my boys.

My own prime necessity was for the steel we women wear in front of our stays. I suffered so 230much for want of this accustomed support, that Captain Lindsay had a pair made for me by the government gunsmith—the best I ever had.

The time came when the salable contents of the Washington trunk were all gone. I then cut up my husband's dress-coat, and designed well-fitting ladies' gloves, with gauntlets made of the watered silk lining. Of an interlining of gray flannel I made gray gloves, and this glove manufacture yielded me hundreds of dollars. Thirteen small fragments of flannel were left after the gloves were finished. Of these, pieced together, I made a pair of drawers for my Willy,—my youngest boy.

The lines around us were now so closely drawn that my father returned home after short absences of a day or two. But we were made anxious, during a heavy snow early in December, by a more prolonged absence. Finally he appeared, on foot, hatless, and exhausted. He had been captured by a party of cavalrymen. He had told them of his non-combatant position, but when he asked for release, they shook their heads. At night they all prepared to bivouac upon the ground; assigned him a sheltered spot, gave him a good supper and blankets, and left him to his repose. As the night wore on and all grew still, he raised his head cautiously to reconnoitre, and to his surprise found himself at some distance from the guard—but his horse tied to a tree within the circle around the fire. My father took the hint and walked away unchallenged, "which proves, my dear," he said, "that a clergyman is not worth as much as a good horse in time of war."


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