A Child's Civil War
Updated: Jan 13, 2019
The Civil War has always been one of my favorite subjects to learn about, obviously. But I have to admit that one perspective that I have always neglected is that of the youngest of the time. One source I used for the book was Granny Remembers by Ella Hicks Johnson, published in the early 20th century. If you would like to read it, I found a copy in the library at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Ella Hicks was no more than five years old by 1865 and the end of the war, but in her life's memoir, she insists that she has vivid memories of that time. During the war, it appears that Ella was an only child to Charles Beverley Hicks and Mary D. Hicks, a family with strong Southern sympathies. Charles was a local merchant with a store in Owensboro. The store, Hicks and Allen, or sometimes Allen and Hicks, sold many everyday goods and products, including new washing machines.
The store was also robbed by guerrillas under the command of former Partisan Ranger, Jake Bennett in 1864, which is strange given Hicks' loyalties. The Owensboro Monitor reported that his store lost $418 in goods and money. It was also during this raid that Bennett's men attacked the wharf boat on the river, murdering a number of colored troops who attempted to surrender. The Owensboro Monitor never mentioned this detail of the raid. A few months later, the outlaw and universally detested by both sides, "Bloody Handed" Bill Anderson, arrived in Owensboro and burned the county courthouse in 1865.
Multiple regiments occupied Owensboro at different times throughout the war, including the 35th Kentucky Mounted Infantry. This regiment was an anti-guerrilla regiment that operated around Owensboro and Daviess County for some time in 1863-1864. They also paraded through the city on occasion, and they may have been the soldiers that Ella remembers.
"My earliest recollection is a doubted one. My father always insisted that I was too young to remember it. I persist in thinking I do remember it, and am not just repeating hearsay. Union troops were in possession of our house and had ordered my mother to prepare a meal for them. She appeared to obey, and took me and a negro woman to the outdoor kitchen and from there escaped through a window, and the three of us spent the night in hiding, in a turnip field. Now this is what I think I remember, lying in my mother's lap and looking up at the stars. Presently she put her hand over my eyes and said, "Go to sleep, Ella." I don't remember where we were, but I do remember the stars, her hand over my eyes and being told to go to sleep. Father and i always disagreed about it. He said I couldn't; I said, and still say, "I do."
My Mother's mother, who lived in Missouri, following a family custom, had sent me, at my birth, a negro boy and girl, Alex and Mimi, about ten and twelve years old respectively. My next recollection is of a line of bluecoated soldiers picketed along our front fence. My father, in irons, was brought to the gate and my mother allowed to speak to him from the front step; no nearer. I never knew why it occurred nor what it was all about, but Mimi carried me down and held me up while I put my head between the bayonets and kissed him. Being manacled, he couldn't raise his hands. He was after taken away as he had come, under guard.
The Federal gun-boats, as they passed up and down the river, usually shelled the town, on a general principle, I suppose, and I grew to know the whine of the bombs as they passed over the house; we were so close to the river that they always fell beyond us.
There were days when every one went about hushed movements while rows and rows of marching blue-coats went through the street. We watched them furtively through jalousies, as all the houses were closed, shuttered and deserted-looking. Some one, my aunt, perhaps, said: "The whole Union army must be going by," and some one replied, "This isn't a drop in the bucket." For years I puzzled over this remark. It was too much for my childish understanding. Even now I never hear the expression without seeing that darkened room and hearing the sound of those tramping, tramping feet.
Then there were days when a cluster of tents was pitched in a nearby field, and ever one moved heaven and earth to take these gray-clad men all the food and clothing that could possibly be spared from our own scanty store, for these were "our boys"; our own "Johnny Rebs," and we'd all gladly go hungry and cold to aid them. We were ready to live and die for Dixie.
I had developed into a runaway. Early in the morning, when Mimi was dressing me, I'd twist out of her hands, unbuttoned and unbrushed, and dart away to my favorite neighbors and present myself in the dining room, where I was welcomed, buttoned and given a seat at the breakfast table-unless Mimi followed me too closely.
My father had a fine pointer dog named Ponto, who was sent to get me if he were within call. He'd catch my small garments in his mouth, turn me around and push me ignominiously before him, and neither yells nor coaxing had any effect upon him. Sometimes I would drop on the ground screaming with rage, but he'd never loose his hold. He'd wait till I got up or someone came to help him. He had been sent to bring me back and bring me back he did, once from the edge of the river when I sneaked away while older backs were turned, for those were busy days, filled with many unaccustomed duties. Always after these returns, Ponto was petted and praised and I was spanked with a hair-brush; but experience taught me nothing. Again and again I'd run away, and again and again my mother used the hair-brush. One exploit was almost fatal. I ran over to "our tents" and was being highly entertained by a sick soldier when Ponto appeared and relentlessly marched me home. The harm was done, however. The man broke out with smallpox, and so did I, and for a time my life hung in the balance, but I came through unscarred and non of the household had it.
Ponto was a magnificent bird-dog and a most intelligent animal. He brought the mail from the post office, where it was put in his mouth by the postmaster, and he refused to deliver it to anyone outside the house. It must be done in-doors. He did the family marketing on the credit system, carrying a basket with lists for the butcher and the grocer, and he always brought the packages back untouched. He was a feature of the small town and became so famous that he was finally stolen, to the regret of everyone--even myself.
The first plaything I recall was a good sized doll trunk, for that place and time quite a pretentious toy. I was alone in my mother's room one day, playing with this trunk when suddenly a Confederate soldier sprang through the open window, followed quickly by two Yankees, who fired at him. They ran through the house and killed him at the door of the outside kitchen. I had run under the bed with my cherished trunk, thinking they had taken everything else and they'd take that also. I was too terrorized to answer when I heard my mother's agonized tones, "Ella! Ella! O my God! Where is Ella?" I finally gathered strength to crawl out and let her see that I hadn't been shot, but we were a shaken household that day.
Guerrilla bands, formed from the malcontents of both armies, harried an already harassed community.. One of these bands burned our county courthouse in broad daylight for the sheer pleasure of destroying. I stood on the steps of our gallery and watched the burning sheets from books and papers rise and fall in fiery showers.
When the war was over, the stricken South was stooped to pick up its staggering burden and adjust itself to a changed order of living."