Saturday, April 18, 2015

Emma's War: Four days in a den of Yankee lions

First in a series of 5 episodes


     Stoneman's cavalry never faced a Confederate more courageous or feisty than a 26-year-old teacher named Emma Rankin. 
     Miss Emma's story will give you a vivid glimpse of the worst elements of Stoneman's Raid, just a few days after Gen. George Stoneman had transferred command to Gen. Alvan Gillem. 
     For four days and three nights, April 19-22, 1865, Miss Emma and the Carson family were terrorized by Union troops as well as desperadoes who used the raid as a license to loot. The Carson household all survived. Thanks to their tenacity, so did the Carson House, a 222-year-old Charleston-style plantation near Marion, N.C.
     Emma Lydia Rankin (1838-1908) was the daughter of Jesse Rankin, a Presbyterian pastor in Lenoir, N.C. She lived at the Carson House for several years as a private teacher for the Carson girls and a few of their friends. After the war, she became widely esteemed as a teacher, especially in mathematics. She originally wrote this account in 1885 at the request of her students. In 1895, she consented for it to be published in The Charlotte Observer. I don't know how they fit it all into print (it's over 7,900 words) but I've chosen to break it down into five daily chapters, serialized much like 19th-century newspapers did with leading novelists. I've edited for clarity and trimmed some. If you would like to read the entire 22-page manuscript, click here.
     Stoneman's Raid is just one chapter in the fascinating history of the Carson House, which is open for tours April through November, Wednesdays through Sundays. Tell them you heard about them in The Stoneman Gazette!

Springtime, 1865


     The winter of 1863 found the writer employed as a school ma'am in a family school, in an old-fashioned farm house in McDowell County, N. C. It was a huge old house, with long, wide porches, the original building constructed of logs 12 inches square, some time in the beginning of this century or the latter part of the last. From time to time, additions had been made to the main building, numerous offices had been built, and it had been for years a summer resort; well known to seekers of health and pleasure from eastern Carolina.
     Pleasure seekers were few at this troublous time, but one or two refugees, two or three school girls, and the family consisting of Col. Logan Carson, his wife Mary and two little girls, and myself occupied the wide old house. It had been for many years one of the stopping places on the old stage line between Morganton and Asheville, and every morning the stage got in before daylight, bringing a load of passengers, generally soldiers, who waited for breakfast, and gave us the latest news.
     Our post office, Marion, being four miles distant, mails were not received till 11 o'clock. In exciting junctures, you could hear anything from the "reliable gentleman" who was generally at this breakfast table, so that our hopes and fears were often aroused, to be dashed or quieted when the mail arrived. Far removed from the seat of war, our only contact with the outer world was at this breakfast table.
     Up to the winter of 1864-1865 our experience of the trials of the war, was confined to the anxiety about friends in the army, and the privations which were lightly esteemed and cheerfully borne, hoping always for a joyful end. True we were as far removed from blockade goods; but what cared we? Factory cloth, which our negroes used to wear, bought at a good price, and warranted to last until six months after a treaty of peace made most valuable underwear; and our homespun dresses, dyed in soft dark colors by our native barks and roots, with a thread of real indigo or madder, and made and fitted with as much care as would have been bestowed on handsome material in former times, looked, as we imagined, very stylish.

     However, more serious troubles were ahead of us. The invading army in a constantly narrowing circle approached us. We had thought it highly improbable that a blue coat would ever be seen in our secluded region, but rumors of raids and marauders came thick and fast during the last winter of the war. Kirk's men were plundering in the counties adjoining us, and had dashed down within ten, and even five miles of us. We began to hide out our clothes and to so arrange our valuables when we retired as to best protect them in case of a dash in the night.
     In the early spring of 1865 it was confidently reported that the Yankees were coming both from the east and the west. One morning a gentleman well known to Col. Carson, came by from Asheville and said we might certainly expect them that day or the next; that he heard when only a few miles from Asheville that they had actually reached that point, and we might look out.
     The day was passed in anxious suspense, and we looked up the road many times. It was Friday evening, and one of the school girls who lived in Marion was going home. A saddled horse stood at the gate, and a little negro boy, who had brought it for her, sat on a mule close by.
     Just then a cry came that the Yankees were coming. I flew to the upper porch where I could best see the Asheville road, and there sure enough was a column of mounted soldiers winding slowly round the high hill that shut out the road from our view, at a distance something less than a quarter of a mile.
     On reporting this, a general stampede commenced. The master of the house was rushed off through the back door, his wife entreating him to leave her and fly. Every darkey on the place, about fifty in number, placed their backs to the foe, and pressed forward. A beautiful creek flowed through the yard, along the banks of which was a road leading off at right angle from the Asheville road. Down this road ran men, women and children—helter-skelter, pell-mell, some with a horse or a mule that they had been able to seize at the moment, but more on foot.
     The little girl, anxious to reach home, had mounted in hot haste and was clattering across the creek at 2.40 speed, followed by her muletorian escort. ["2.40 speed" was a 19th-century term for a fast horse, one that could run a mile in 2 minutes and 40 seconds, which is 22.5 miles per hour.] Before she had gone a hundred yards, the girth broke, and down came “lady and saddle and all.” A negro man rushing ahead of her caught the horse, and she, rising to her feet, nothing hurt, screamed “Put me on, Uncle Davis, please put me on.” And this time either for greater security, the saddle being lost, or by accident, she took a position in which she could have used both stirrups if there had been any, and so, with bonnet off, hair flying, across the river, a-round and over the hills, in less than half an hour she made the four miles, and dashed into Marion and up to the male academy, where her brothers were, screaming at the extent of her voice "4,000 Yankees at Uncle Logan's!" a cry that she kept up down the village street till she reached her home.
      In the meantime Mrs. Carson and I with three children stood on the porch with hearts in our throats, awaiting the dreaded approach of the Yankees, who looked much less formidable near at hand than far away. They made no stop, but went slowly riding by, a company of some 50 or 60 men—some with Confederate uniform and some with no uniform at all. When they had nearly all passed I turned and broke into a laugh and cried out, "Are we going to let these men pass without finding out who they are? Let us run and speak to them." So the older girl and I ran to the gate, and found in halting the troop, that it was a company of Vaughn's men—some of our own precious cavalry, who for some months had been roaming round in our mountain fastness, seeking what they might devour, and now had unwittingly caused this panic. When the situation was explained, they were much amused, and rode on, with the inclination it seems to humor the joke.
     The first person they met happened to be the very man who had come from Asheville in the morning and brought the first report. On his return from Marion he had met the little girl, and though hearing her screaming report, had determined to go a little nearer, and see for himself; but meeting this cavalcade, he wheeled his horse, and as he did so, some of the boys for fun, fired their pistols, which he, of course, thought were aimed at him. He galloped back, arriving in Marion shortly after the school girl, confirming her report and adding that the Yankees were just behind and had fired on him. The result was that by the time these men rode quietly into the village, the whole male population had gone, without "standing on order of their going." A recruiting officer who had been there for some months never stopped till he reached Rutherfordton, 28 miles distant, where of course, he told the tale as 'twas told to him.
     But there came a day when "wolf" was cried in earnest.

NEXT: EMMA'S WAR, Chapter 2: 'Biggest burying I ever attended'

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