Monday, April 20, 2015

Emma's War: 'So awfully desolate and forsaken'

Third in a series of 5 episodes
(To read "Emma's War" from the start, click here.)

For four days April 19-22, 1865, residents of the Carson House near Marion, N.C., were terrorized by Union raiders and desperadoes who used the raid as a license to loot. Emma Rankin's account of their ordeal was published in The Charlotte Observer in 1895.

Thursday, April 20, 1865

Miss Emma Rankin
     Aunt Hannah, the negro cook, came early in the morning to say that she had some breakfast for us, but 'lowed it was not worthwhile to bring it up there—"some of 'em would be coming along and snatching it." So we marched off to her cabin, where she had set a table as neatly as she could, and prepared for us some turkey, cut up and stewed, saving part uncooked for future meals, scrambled eggs, bread and butter and rye, coffee. From the same hospitable cabin we got all our meals for the next four or five days, the negroes catering for us, and using their own rations, which had been given out to them for the week, only the day before, and which the Yankees did not take.
     Col. Carson came in and informed me that the raiders had come through Lenoir, where my home was, and now my troubles were increased ten fold by anxiety about my dear ones there.
     A beautiful morning followed the rain, and as the house was too forlorn to occupy, we took possession of the front porch again. Very soon another regiment that had camped below commenced passing. Fewer stragglers came in this morning, and they, finding nothing, remained but a short time.
     The gate was open, and a mounted soldier turned from the column, galloped up to the very door, and said, "I would like to see Miss Rankin. Is she here?" If His Satanic majesty had called for me, I could scarcely have been more astonished, but I stepped to the edge of the porch, and announced that I was Miss Rankin. "I guarded your father's house when in Lenoir," said he, "and here is a letter which I promised to deliver to you." [Emma's father, Rev. Jesse Rankin, was a Presbyterian pastor in Lenoir.]
     I seized the letter, but turned with eager inquiries to the man, "How long were you in Lenoir? What did you do there?"

     "Oh! Lenoir was not injured by us at all. We stopped there one day with our prisoners, but no houses were burnt."
     I knew then that they had eaten up all the meager supplies which the village afforded, if nothing more. I thanked him as he rode away, and then turned to the letter. Oh, how glad I was to get that letter, and to hear that my folks had come off lightly in the sore visitation.
Illustration by Steve Jenkins

     About this time a young lieutenant rode in, bowed politely, and asked for a drink of water. He looked more like a gentleman than any of them I had seen, and I made bold to tell him how his men had been behaving and asked him if he could not stay and guard us while a negro regiment that was just coming in sight was passing. He politely acceded to my request, and ordered a big black negro in an officer's uniform, who was just going into the back door, back to the lines. Oh! How horrid those negroes looked in that blue uniform; how the air was filled with oaths! But that was characteristic of their white comrades also. Did our army fill the air with blasphemies as they marched along? How thankful we were to have protection, even for this hour.
     The officer guarding was Lieutenant Davis, a Kentuckian. He told me that he had been raised by a good father and mother, and that he was heartily ashamed of being in such a command—that his cheeks had tingled at the outrages they had committed ever since they started from Tennessee. I told him I thought he had good reason to be ashamed. He said that the stragglers who followed the raid, and belonged to no command, were the worst, and that as the regiment just passed was the last, we would probably be more annoyed than we had been before, but that he was the officer of the day, and if stragglers should come in, to say that he had just left, and threaten them with him. Regretting that he must leave us so unprotected, but compelled he said, by his duty, he now followed on.
     Col. Carson had been about the house all the morning, continuously urged by his wife to hide out again, but reluctant to leave. Scarcely had Lieutenant Davis gone before we saw half dozen men dashing up the creek, whooping and yelling and cursing, and as drunk as they could be. There was a stillhouse half a mile down the creek, and straight from it they came. Col. Carson was in the parlor and there was no time to get out unseen. Mrs. Carson entreated him to remain quietly seated on the sofa, which was on the same side with the door, which opened on the front porch, and in the doorway we stood to keep him from being seen. The wretches left their horses at the gate, fairly ran up the walk, and two of them rushed up to Mrs. Carson and myself, and with cocked pistols nearly touching our breasts, demanded all the watches and jewelry in the house.
     Col. and Mrs. Carson had hid their watches, but mine was concealed on my person. I had no idea of giving it up. I knew they were only threatening, and I did not suppose they intended to shoot us, but in their tremulous drunken hands, I knew there was great danger of the pistols firing. We threatened to report them to the officer of the day, who we told them was near at hand, but they cursed him and all the other officers, and said they belonged to no command and feared nobody. Still we stood there determined to keep them from seeing into the room. Mrs. Carson was an invalid, and with extreme terror for her husband, who was so near her, and yet so powerless to protect her. I feared she would faint, but she did not.
     We stood our ground and they stood theirs, holding their pistols pointed close to us, and making horrid threats what they would do, if we did not disclose the hiding place of various hidden treasures, but especially of the watches, which they declared they would have every one of them, and moreover, that they knew exactly how many there were in the house.
     Two more of the gang now called out that they were going to burn the house, and placing some straw and other light material on the floor of the porch, they put a match to it, and it blazed up. We thought our time had come now sure enough, but there was nothing to do but escape ourselves, and there was time enough for that; so we just stood still, and to our surprise, they knocked out the fire themselves before the floor had fairly caught.
     Some of them in the meantime had been looking about the house, and finding it so bare, came out, saying, "Come along boys, and let the women alone, there is nothing to be got here," and so they left.
     As soon as they were out of sight Mrs. Carson turned to her husband and said, "Now go, and I beseech you not to come back again while those dreadful creatures are about. You see, you can be no protection to me, and I am a thousand times more afraid when you are here. They threaten to kill, but they would kill you." So he went, but he did not stay.

     For several hours we sat in solemn stillness. There was no passing, and we began to hope that it was all over, and that we had seen the last of them but it was a vain wish.
     A captain with 50 men now came over with a flag of truce from Gen. Palmer to Gen. Gillem. Palmer had turned off at Morganton, going across by Hickory Nut Gap. He came in, and ordered supper for his men, to be served in half an hour. Mrs. Carson told him there was nothing to cook, and she had no one to cook it if there was. [Ina Van Noppen wrote in her book Stoneman's Last Raid that the "captain" was Gen. Gillem himself.]

     "Cook it yourselves," with the most impudent tone and manner. "I intend to have supper, and if you do not get it for us, I will turn my men loose in the house."
Gen. Gillem may have feasted 
here on cornbread and sorghum
     That was not a very serious threat, considering the condition of the house after his people had been loose in it a day or two. We gave him to understand that we neither could nor would cook for him, and in marched his men. We heard them setting the table in the dining room, and making a great clatter and wondered what they were doing. So far as we knew there was not a thing to eat in the house. After an hour or more, they filed out, and the captain, after stopping for another insolent word with us rode on.
     We then ventured into the house to see what they had been doing. At the dining room door, we stopped and laughed. A long table was set out, covered with the remnants of a feast that seem to have been composed of corn batter cakes, and sorghum, and over everything, floor, table, dishes, chairs and all they had smeared sorghum. We raised our skirts and tipped across to the kitchen, where the same scene of dirt and confusion met our eye. Mrs. Carson then remembered that she had had a bag of meal and a keg of sorghum thrown up above a half open ceiling in a narrow entrance leading to the kitchen, and this, overlooked by the others, they had found.
     We made no attempt to clean up, and the house remained in the condition they had left it for days. Night was now at hand and we began to dread going into the house. It seemed safer in the open air. We, two lone women, and the two little girls, felt so awfully desolate and forsaken in that great bare house in the darkness. We hoped, however, that the last enemy was far on his way, and we would see no more of them till the judgment day.
     Just at dusk, however, here came a long column marching back. Gen. Martin had come from Asheville to the top of the Blue Ridge, and so obstructed the narrow mountain road, by felling trees and throwing in large stones that, as one of the Yankees told me "it would take a month to clear out the road." So they were all returning and would "go around by Hickory Nut Gap." Just to think of having all that army pass us again! Col. Carson now came in, and said that a regiment would camp out before the door, and the colonel—Howard, I think was the name—would make his headquarters in the house.
     I stepped out into the porch which was filling with men, and enquired for the officer of the day, and, in the fading twilight, recognized the man who presented himself as Lieutenant Davis, our friend of the morning. Informing him that Mrs. Carson was sick and ready to give up with fatigue, I begged him to put a guard at the door of our room. He brought up his colonel, introduced him, who expressed great regret at the treatment we had received, promised all we asked and bowed himself off.
     Supperless, we bolted ourselves in, fixed up the beds and went to sleep and slept all night. Col. Carson called us to look at the camp fires, but we did not care to see them. I am surprised that he thought they looked pretty, as they were built up of rails, leaving exposed his growing fields.

NEXT: EMMA'S WAR, Chapter 4: Shirt stolen off old man's back

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