Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rural Virginia in 1863

From the memoirs of Sergeant Stearns of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers. Haskell is on guard duty at a civilian house in Stafford County, 1863:
I used to go over to see Haskell, but never to eat. I recollect of being over there one afternoon and Haskell invited me into the house. I accepted, and as this is a good representation of a great majority of the poor white establishments, I will give it. The house was simply a log house about 15 feet square, containing one room with a door on either side; for a window there was a hole about two feet square with a sliding board in the inside to stop it up when needed. The fireplace and chimney were built on the outside of the house of sticks and mud in regular Virginia style. In one corner of the room on the opposite side from the fireplace stood the family bed. In the corner on the left of the fireplace stood a table, in the center of the room was a bench about four feet long, used for a seat, and there was two chairs without backs, or stools; I have forgotten which. When we entered Mr. Bullard sat on one, and Mrs. Bullard sat on the other, while the five children, the eldest a girl of fourteen, sat on the bench or floor. On being introduced Mr. Bullard arose, shook hands, and invited me to take a seat, offering at the same time his stool. Mrs. Bullard arose, courtesied, and resumed her seat. Declining with thanks Mr. Bullard’s offer of his seat, I said, “I would sit with Haskell on the bench.” We sat facing the fire; the children were scattered promiscuously around. I now noticed why Mrs. Bullard sat so near the fire; she was preparing a meal for them, and the pot was over the fire in which was their “pone cake”, also a frying pan in which, swimming its own fat, was the ever to be found “smoked sides.” On the hearth were two old tin cans (such as the boys had bought can fruit of the sutler in) in which she was making coffee. Mr. Bullard was chewing tobacco, and spitting into, or rather towards the fire, and as he sat some distance away, many were the times that he failed of his mark and there was stream between him and the fire. We entered into a general conversation, for he was quite an intelligent man and was very well informed in some things. Of course he knew nothing about the resources of the rebels, or their condition even, all this was mere speculation with him, but he could talk like a man who knew it all, and he had great confidence in the success of their cause and that they never would be conquered, but would gain all they wanted in the end. To my enquiry of where he based his opinion, he said “that the South would never submit to Yankee rule, they would never be conquered,” without giving any reasons. Not wishing to excite him too much, I refrained from talking any more about the war. Mrs Bullard, with the assistance of her daughter, had by this time set the table with two platters, or deep dishes, and poured the greasy contents of the frying pan into one, and placed the pone cake on the other, then announced that the meal was ready: Mr. Bullard arose and politely invited me to a seat at the table with him; I as politely declined, giving as my reason that I had just eaten as I had left camp. It was not often that we had a chance to sit at a table and we seldom refused, but the thought of the tobacco juice from Mr. Bullard’s mouth satisfied me, without knowingly partaken of it. Mr. Bullard then drew his stool up, and Mrs. Bullard turning on hers, the children standing around and seeking the most advantageous position. The meal was commenced by each one taking a piece of the cake and dipping it in the fat before eating it. They were not over careful about spilling the fat on the floor or on themselves. While they were at their meal Haskell and myself talked together. After eating everything that was cooked and drinking the coffee, the old man went back to his side of the fireplace, and, producing a dirty looking pipe filled it, and taking a coal from the hearth lighted it. After smoking away for a few moments he passed it to Mrs. Bullard, who, after indulging in a few sweetly pleasant puffs, passed it to the eldest daughter and son on down to the little younger that was hardly able to run alone.
After staying a few moments longer, I bade the family good night and went out with Haskell. I asked him if that was the way they lived, and he said it was, although they were a little on their good behavior.
I asked Haskell where they all slept as I saw but one bed, and I thought by the looks there was no great chamber accommodations; he said they all slept in that one bed. I asked him where he slept and he said on the floor before the fire.
I asked why the old man did not cut his hair and trim his whiskers, for he wore them very long and, by the looks, never combed. He said the old man told him he never shaved, only when he was lousey.
(Howard Musselman, The Civil War in Stafford County. H.E. Howard, Lynchburg, VA, 1995, pp. 37-38.)

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