Copyright 2005, 2006
The day dawns bright but
the prospect is grim
on the road to a land
strange and dark and violent.
Camp Vance was only about thirty-five or forty miles from my farm, so I figured I could walk it in two days time or less. Early in the morning of August 23, 1864, I kissed my wife good-bye, hugged Jane and Susan, and started down the path to the Camp Creek Road to make my way to Camp Vance, which was over near Morganton. As I rounded the bend in the path, I turned back and waved at my family. I felt my face get hot and my breath got short. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again or not. My wife stood with my two little flaxen haired girls huddled close. She smiled bravely but even at a distance I could see the glisten of tears on her cheeks. Little Susan turned and buried her face in her mother’s dress. Jane looked at me with a doleful look and waved good bye. I turned and walked on down the path. I left my very heart standing on that ridge above Camp Creek.
The thought of the long road to Camp Vance was oppressive to me. The things that gave me such joy, the beauty of God’s nature around me, seemed superfluous and sullied somehow. My legs felt heavy before I had gone a half mile. I walked on like a man asleep on his feet, a dull ache deep down.
Life sometimes takes curious turns, and one’s aspect can change from day to night and back again in the space of an hour or a minute. Such a change occurred when I had barely begun my journey. I hadn’t gone much more than a mile when I saw Whit Whitaker ambling down the rutted road from his cabin on the lower slopes of Hogback Mountain. Whit hollered at me and I stopped to wait on him. He had a bundle over his shoulder like I did. He was still a hundred feet away when his coarse voice rang out. “You goin’ to sign up. I am!” I nodded.
Whit was the type of fellow who always thought he knew better than anyone else about most any subject you wanted to talk about, religion, politics, farming, or anything else. The fact was most folks realized that half the time he was flat wrong but everybody hereabouts knew him and made allowances. Whit was a bit older than me, about thirty-four, two inches shorter and probably thirty pounds heavier, a deceptively powerful man who had worked with logs and lumber all his life. He always said that logging and lumber work would make a man out of you or kill you in the process. He had brownish hair, ears rounded from too many boyhood fights, a droopy mustache and he wore an old slouch hat, the brim turned up in front. He always had a big chaw in his mouth and there was usually a trickle of tobacco juice running down one corner of his mouth or the other. Doc Callison in Gilbert Town said you could predict whether the day would be sunny or rainy by which side of Whit’s mouth the tobacco juice ran down that day. Doc always was one who tended to say things that were ridiculous and try to make people believe them, but the twinkle in his eye usually gave him away.
Whit spat out a big stream as he walked up to me. “Did you get conscripted too?”
I shook my head. “No, I quit the militia and I’m signin’ up; ain’t gonna be called a dodger.” He laughed his hoarse laugh, sounding a little like Moses when he’s feelin’ sick at his stomach.
He said, “We’ll most likely both end up planted on some hill in Virginia so we’d better get a good look at this old valley now, because we ain’t ever a goin’ to see it again.” He grinned. “Whit, you need to learn when to make a joke and when not to. I don’t think this is jokin’ business,” I said, somewhat irritated.
Whit looked a little sheepish. “I reckon it don’t hurt to joke about such matters. It ain’t gonna change things one bit. At least we can go to our death with a smile,” he said with a grin big as Texas. I didn’t answer him, he always did think he had to have the last word and that what he thought was the way it was or the way it ought to be.
“Yo’re lucky you didn’t get conscripted,” he said. “They came by Frank Scoggins’s house about three weeks ago and tole him that he had ten minutes to gather his belongin’s and say his good byes. I heered his young ‘uns was a squallin’ and his wife was a beggin’ them not to take him. It was a regular pitiful sight, is what I heered.”
I looked down at the rutted road and said, “I heard about it too. They say they need men real bad, that sickness and Yankee bullets are destroying the army.”
Whit said, “Think of it as an adventure, Francis. I never seen Virginny before and I sort of look forward to it, though I’d as soon not have blue bellies shootin’ at me whilst I’m lookin’ around!”
I shifted my musket. “Oh, they’ll be shootin’ all right, and we’ll be the targets. I’ve had two brothers die already and one took to his heels. We don’t know what became of him. I hear it’s so bad that there’s more men leavin’ and comin’ home, than there are new ones to take their places. It don’t sound like much of an adventure to me, Whit.”
Whit grinned. “Well, Francis, we’re on our way for good or ill, so let’s try to act like it’s an adventure ‘cause it will be one way or t’other.”
He might not have been the most desirable of companions, but at least he was someone to talk to besides the crows and the rabbits. I tried to count my blessings. It was not easy. As I walked out of the valley, I felt like something was emptying out of me, like water out of a bucket. I never felt that way before or since, but I felt it that day. We walked for a long time without saying much. Whit seemed to be more thoughtful than usual. The sun rose higher. I pulled out my Pa’s old pocket watch. It was almost eleven o’clock. I suggested we stop over by a little branch that ran near the road and eat a bite. I had some biscuits and some fried chicken, and he had some cornbread and fatback, so we sat and ate.
Whit regained his voice and started on the war again. “Francis, this ain’t our fight. You know them politicians in Richmond is just a bunch of fools and buffoons. They gonna get us kilt.” I reminded him that a short while before he said it was going to be a great adventure. He looked thoughtful for a moment and then he started on the Confederate generals. He said, “Them generals up there is pitiful. They cain’t figure out how to whup a few city-boy Yankees.” Then he said, “They’s plenty of outliers over in the high mountains and we kin go over there and stay until the war’s over. The provost marshals and the militia is afraid to go over there after them boys because they’s a lot of ‘em holed up in that rough country and they don’t aim to be took alive.” I looked at him and shook my head.
Then he took up the theme about how it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. He said it was all about the coloreds and he didn’t own any and why did they bother hard workin’ folks like us anyway. I let him talk, because there ain’t much else to do with Whit, unless you want to slap him, because when Whit’s gonna talk, he’s gonna talk. I sort of faded him out and listened to the buzz of the bees and the rustling of the wind through the white oaks instead. The day was getting hot; rolling white clouds spotted the deep blue sky. It reminded me of wash day and clothes on the line, for some reason. I missed home already.
As soon as we ate, we got started toward Morganton again, walking the dusty, winding road through the mountains. It rose through the passes and then wound down into the valleys. Here and there we passed a farm. Most of the farmers that had not gone off to war were harvesting their crops. It seemed their numbers were few. Most of the fields looked neglected. I felt a pang at not having completed my own work. Between the farms the oaks, hickories and chestnuts crowded the road side, and the deep forest stretched up the mountain slopes, running up and over the craggy summits.
Whit still talked, mostly complaining about being conscripted and about the “durn fool Confederate Government in Richmond that couldn’t run a war well enough to whup a few sorry Yankees.” It seemed to be his theme for the day. I mostly let him talk and tried to listen to the sounds of the woods and fields and, like always, I watched the sky.
The day’s monotony began to replace the anguish of leaving home. I stopped for a moment to watch a red tailed hawk circling overhead. He flew in lazy circles and then at a point about a hundred yards away from us; he suddenly hurtled downward like a bolt of dusky lightning. When he was about six or eight feet off the ground, his wings flared wide, his talons stretched down and he snatched up a fat field mouse and carried it away on powerful wings. I marveled, as I often did, at how he spotted the mouse in the tall grass from several hundred feet in the air; and then swooped down to the exact point to seize the little creature.
As he flew off, Whit said, “Why ye watchin’ that hawk, Francis?”
“Well, I just find it amazing the way they hunt and catch their prey. They move so fast and right to it. God knew what he was doing when he made hawks.”
Whit looked at me a bit sideways and said, “You seen hundreds of them things, Francis. What’s so interestin’ about ‘em today?”
I smiled at him. “I just think it’s something to be admired, don’t you?”
“Well, I s’pose so. Say, I wonder what a hawk would taste like?”
I had to laugh. “Not too good, I think. They eat rats and snakes. I sure don’t plan on finding out.”
I brought along one of my two smooth bore muskets and a fair amount of musket balls and powder. The musket was old and worn and I was hoping they would provide me with a better weapon once we got to Richmond, or maybe even at Camp Vance, but I thought “better safe than sorry.” I shot a fat rabbit along the way for our supper. Shouldering that old musket felt like I was off on a long hunting trip instead of off to kill some of my fellow men. That thought kept coming back again and again. It didn’t seem to bother old Whit any, but it bothered me plenty. Truth is I didn’t know whether I could shoot another man or not. It preyed on my mind, a gnawing thought that imposed itself from time to time. Here I was a small time farmer with forty-two acres, which I still owed the bank thirty-seven dollars for, on my way to fight for the Confederacy and I didn’t even know if I could make myself shoot a Yankee. Some soldier I was.
Along about five in the afternoon I asked Whit how much longer he wanted to walk that day. He said maybe another hour; that he was tired. Well, I was tired too but I said we should walk until dark so as to make as many miles the first day as possible. He finally agreed, but not without some persuading on my part. I told him I was going to walk until dark whether he did or not. He didn’t much fancy walking alone, so he agreed.
The sun was getting low in the sky when suddenly we heard voices and crying or yelling, up around a bend in the road. It gave me a very bad feeling here in this sparse country, so I checked my musket to be sure it was ready and we walked on cautiously to see what was making all the fuss. Down to the right side of the road, beyond a grassy field, there were some trees and bushes which formed a deep thicket. The noises were coming from there. There was a sharp scream like a woman or a child in terrible pain. The sound made my blood chill and Whit looked at me like he’d seen a ghost. “We gotta find out what’s goin’ on,” I said. Whit nodded. I checked the musket again to make sure it was loaded and capped. We ran across the field and into the thicket, me in front, Whit right behind me, his Bowie knife at the ready.
As we pushed our way into the thicket, my musket held ready, I could see some people on the ground in some sort of struggle. There was a girl laying there crying hysterically and two men cursing and laughing. There was a big man with a gray hat on top of a young girl and another man holding her arms. The man holding her was as thin as a rail and dirty as a hog in a wallow. He laughed and grinned, toothless in front. The girl was struggling and kicking but they had her pinned down.
When I realized what was happening, my fury rose up, and my body grew taut. Whit gasped, “Good God!” The man holding the girl looked up. Grasping my musket by the barrel, I lunged at the holder and swung my musket so the stock caught the man square in the mouth. There was a loud cracking sound.
He fell backwards with a scream, blood spurting from his nose and mouth and I knew he was out of it for now. The other man jerked around and looked at me, his face as red as a beet and his eyes wild. He had pig-like eyes and his fat face was smeared with dirt and grease, a scraggly beard across his ample jaw. I brought the musket back around and swung it again and hit him a glancing blow in the side of the head. The butt plate caught his left ear and almost tore it off, blood splattered the leaves nearby.
I straightened myself as he toppled over. My heart pounded like it was going to leap plumb out of my chest. He came up fast for a big man, pulling a long hunting knife. I yelled at him to stop as I brought my musket back into firing position, but he kept coming at me. His eyes were filled with pure hate and pure malice. As fast as I could I cocked the musket and pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked. The cap had jarred off. The man grinned and moved toward me. His left eye twitched, his stringy yellow hair hung limp. His belly bulged over his pants. Even as he came at me I wondered how he had got fat in these lean years. He laughed coarsely and said, “Looks like you’re out of luck, mister. I’m agonna kill you!”
I said coldly, “You still got it to do, mister. I ain’t goin’ easy!” I turned the musket and grasped it by the barrel. He came at me with the knife moving back and forth, thrusting it at me now and then, and grunting out a little laugh each time. I took a couple of steps backwards and then I brought the musket back and swung at his head as hard as I could, stepping into the swing. He raised his arm to ward off the blow, too late. The stock connected with his head just above his left ear. There was a sharp crack. He staggered to his right.
His eyes crossed and then closed and he dropped to his knees, stayed there for a few seconds, and then pitched face down to the ground, his skull indented on the left side. Blood began to soak the ground around his head. Whit and I stood there for a moment. Then Whit sidled up and said in a shaky voice, “I think you killed him, Francis.” I nodded. Then I spun quickly to look at the holder. I need not have worried; he was lying on the ground, holding his face, moaning and crying. Whit looked around and kept saying, “Oh Lord, Oh my Lord.” The scene was like something from a nightmare, a hysterical young girl, a dead man covered with his own blood, another rolling about in pain, and two bewildered farmers, gaping and gasping for breath.
The crying, moaning girl began to gather her torn clothes around her. She was a frail, brown haired girl with soft brown eyes. I went to her side. I didn’t know what to say or do. The poor girl had just been violated and beaten. So I just asked her if she was able to stand and she nodded yes, tears streaming down her reddened face, but she didn’t look ready to stand. So I sat down beside her, offered her some water, and asked her who the men were. She said she didn’t know. I asked her name and where she was from. She said she was Janie Samuels and her Pa was deputy sheriff Robert Samuels of McDowell County. She lived about two miles up the Pea Ridge road. She had been out picking flowers, when the men came upon her. I said, “We’d better get you home.” I gave Whit the rope off my bedroll and told him to tie the holder’s hands behind him.
He nodded at the dead man and said, “What about him?”
I said, “We’ll mark the place with a piece of his shirt and let someone come back for the body.”
Whit said, “What about animals?” He knew that bears and bobcats would make a feast of the body.
I spat out the words, “After what these two did to that girl, I don’t rightly care.” It wasn’t the Christian thing to do but the dead man had acted like an animal. Maybe being eaten by one would be his just reward.
It was one of those times when something happens that changes you, maybe forever. I had crossed a bridge I could not re-cross. I was now a killer, something that did not wear well on me. I tried to live like the Good Book says and treat my fellow man as I would like to be treated. I suppose coming face to face with a cold hearted animal of a man brings down the best of intentions.
I helped the girl to her feet. Whit had tied up the holder. He jerked the man to his feet and then shoved him toward the road. He took his knife and cut off a piece of the dead man’s shirt and tied it on a wild cherry limb beside the road. I tried to steady the girl as we walked. We had only gone a few hundred feet when the girl grew increasingly faint. It looked like she had lost some blood, but it came from a private place and I could not tell how badly she was injured. She began to stagger and seemed about to swoon. I tried to steady her. I finally gave Whit my musket and bedroll and picked her up as she passed out cold.
Whit and I decided the two men must be Confederate deserters. One had an old forage cap and the other had a military haversack. They were probably heading for the high country, though the holder couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. When Whit asked him his name two or three times, he finally mumbled that his name was Charles Shepherd. That’s all he would say. He knew he was in a world of trouble whatever he did or said. Whit prodded him on with the barrel of the musket. He staggered, his head hung down, the front of his shirt covered with his own blood.
My arms and back ached from carrying the girl up the Pea Ridge road some two miles or so. It was nearing dark when we arrived at the farm, the unconscious girl in my arms. It was the only farm along that stretch of road. A neatly dressed lady came running out the door of the farm house with her hands up to her mouth. She screamed, “Oh, Dear God! What happened?”
I said, “This man and another, well, they attacked her.” Just then, a big man with a pitch fork ran out from behind the barn to see what the commotion was. We told them the story as best we could. The big man took the girl and went inside with the lady. Whit and I stood there watching the holder until the big man came back a few minutes later.
He went straight for the holder screaming, “What did you do to my little girl?” His voice was tight and his face was twisted with rage. The holder was so scared he fell to his knees and begged the big man not to kill him. The man stopped and kicked dirt at the man. He turned to me, still shaking, and said, “I’m Robert Samuels, I’m a deputy.” He stopped, like he was choking. Then he said, “I swore to uphold the law but I’m tempted to hang this devil right now.”
I looked at Whit and then back at the distraught man. “Mr. Samuels, I’m Francis Yelton and this is Whit Whitaker. We’re from Rutherford County, near Gilbert Town, and we’re on our way to Camp Vance to join the army.”
He reached out his hand. “Mr. Yelton, Mr. Whitaker, I am much obliged. I’m real sure that if you men hadn’t come along, my daughter would be dead right now.” He paused, looked down with his hand over his eyes for a long moment. Then he composed himself and said more calmly, “I’ll take care of this man. We’ll tie him up in the tool shed tonight and I’ll take him into Morganton tomorrow and we’ll put him in jail until the judge can hear the case. Meanwhile, my wife has some supper cooked, so I would be much obliged if you fellows would join us. You can sleep in the barn tonight and start out with me to Morganton at first light. There’s fresh hay and it will be better than sleeping in the woods.”
“We shore appreciate it, Mr. Samuels,” said Whit.
Mrs. Samuels prepared a good meal, much better than rabbit cooked on a spit in the woods. We didn’t see the girl again. She stayed in her room. Her mother said she wasn’t hurt too bad, but I knew than an inside hurt is much worse than one on the outside. On the bright side, the girl was young and there would be time to heal. At least she would have the chance to heal. Still, something like that will stay with her forever. In my mind I could see her as a young woman, marrying, having a family, but her mind going back to this day from time to time, reliving the nightmare all over again.
Mr. and Mrs. Samuels were so grateful they could scarcely do enough for Whit and me. We ate supper like it was our last meal on earth. We all felt thankful to be alive after such an ordeal, and they most grateful that their daughter was still with them. I guess we all shared something more than the meal that night.
Mr. Samuels walked us out to the barn. “We tied a piece of shirt up on a cherry tree near where the dead one is,” I said.
Mr. Samuels sighed, looked down the road and said, “I’ll send Luther Gates from down the road to fetch whatever is left of him tomorrow. It don’t appear to be any great loss.” He looked toward the tool shed and said, “I’ll take that one some water and some bread. It’s the Christian thing to do, though that’s the only reason I’ll do it.” Mr. Samuels showed us to our bed for the night and walked silently back to the house.
“That poor man’s hurtin’ bad, Whit.”
“I know. If somethin’ like that happened to one of my girls...” Whit trailed off. We both lay down on the fresh straw. After a while, Whit said, “How does it feel to kill a man, Francis?”
I grimaced in the dark. “None too good; in fact my insides are turning over.”
Whit sighed. “Already killed a man and we ain’t even in the war yet. It’s not a good sign, Francis.”
I didn’t answer. A man was dead, a family was torn to pieces inside, and you’re in the middle. I stared at the rafters in the barn for a long time. Whit rose up on his elbow and looked at me in the light of the lantern. “Thar’s blood on yore sleeves.” I looked at them, then at him. His eyes were intense, sorrowful. We both settled back. The barn was quiet and after a while we slept.
After that day, Whit looked at me a little differently. I guess he saw another side of a man he thought he knew. I learned that it didn’t take war to bring out that side. It pains me to say it would come out yet again.