Home Scenes at the Fall of the Confederacy
As the Hebrew felt when the Roman eagles soared above the holy mount; as the Saxon felt when the rout from Hastings roared through hamlet and town ; as the Greek felt when the Moslem hordes broke like the waves of the sea over the walls of Constantinople; so, with all the added capacities for suffering which modern life has brought, felt the Southerner when the conviction was forced upon him that Lee’s army was no more.
North Carolina went into the war for secession reluctantly. Her attachment to the Union was strong. Her public men were dispassionate and conservative. To the last they believed a reconciliation possible, and, backed by the people, labored earnestly to bring it about. Not till the time came when she must stand either with her Southern sisters or against them did she draw the sword and cast away the scabbard. But, the war once begun, she gave to the Confederate cause not only her strong right arm, but her heart also; and to the bitter end the great body of her people neither wavered nor doubted. Death entered every door, and into many doors death and want came hand in hand. Yet the greater their sacrifices, the stronger their love for the Confederacy and their faith in it.
Towards the close of 1864 we who remained at home began dimly to realize that the flower of the Confederate army was no more, and that Lee was hard bestead. But so had Washington been hard bestead, we averred, till his great genius plucked victory from defeat, and Lee was Washington’s peer. We might have much to endure, much to suffer, but all would yet be well. To us Lee had long been the embodiment of the Southern cause. Beauregard’s, even Davis’s star had dimmed, but Lee’s had grown brighter as the night of war grew darker. Our hopes and affections had centred in him as never before had the hopes and affections of a whole people centred in one man. Even Washington had rivals in the hearts of his countrymen ; Lee had none. What Washington is to posterity Lee was to his contemporaries. He belonged to that small band of historic characters who have been idealized while still in the flesh.
The days passed, while Sherman and Grant drew closer and closer together. Richmond fell. Our faith was strong enough to bear even that. What was the fall of a city, even our capital city, so long as Lee and Lee’s army were left us? So had Philadelphia fallen, New York, Savannah, Charleston, and every other colonial city regarded by the British worth taking, while none the less did fate await the victorious enemy at Yorktown.
Richmond evacuated, the trains on the railroad near us stopped running, the bridges were burnt, and the telegraph wire was cut. The Confederate stores at an adjacent hospital were packed, teams and negro drivers in the neighborhood impressed into service, and a hurried departure was taken for Greensborough. The local warehouses in which were collected the Confederate tithes were looted by the few who had the heart for such business. The tidings came that Lee was making for the impregnable fastnesses of the western mountains, whither Johnston was hastening to join him. At first, on the still April air the faint sound of guns to the south was echoed by the fainter sound of guns to the north. Suddenly the latter ceased. “ Lee has shaken off his foes and escaped.” we fondly said. The firing to the south drew nearer, swung round to the west, and grew silent. “Johnston has checked his pursuers and is off to the mountain rendezvous,” prompted hope. Then for a long time, a time too intense to be measured by the common metewand of hours and days, there was an utter blank. The outside world could not have been more non-existent to shipwrecked mariners on the loneliest island in untraveled seas. A suspense, to which the direst reality was as nothing, lengthened the hours into years, the days into ages.
One evening, about dusk, —it must have been the 15th of April, 1865,— while the supper of corn bread, sorghum, and rye coffee was being placed on the table, a small squad of men came in sight at the farther end of the lane through which the public road ran past our home. There was just light enough for us to see that they wore the Confederate gray, but bore no arms. A strange sight that, — Confederate troops without arms! Who could they be? Not deserters, for deserters usually brought their guns. Besides, even at that time deserters dared not travel the public road by daylight.
A gray coat was then, as the memory of one is yet, a passport to the Southern heart. The consciousness of having given anything to a Confederate soldier was to us the highest pay. The supper was left untouched till our uninvited but not unwelcome guests should arrive. In a body, flanked on both sides by the negro servants, the family flocked to the front gate to greet and bring them in. The men in gray plodded wearily, dejectedly, forward. The step and bearing of the Confederate veteran were wanting. Of the half dozen or more unkempt men, one was barefooted, another hatless, while the garb of all was in sad plight. Mud covered them from head to heel, and they had evidently been on along tramp. We bowed and greeted them warmly, as was our wont in such cases. The soldiers saluted.
“ To what command do you belong, gentlemen ? ” inquired my mother.
“ We are Lee’s men, madam,” they said.
“ Lee’s men!” she repeated in surprise. In days like these Lee’s men ought to be with Lee’s army.”
“ He has n’t any army, madam,” was the solemn and sententious reply. “ Lee has surrendered.”
“ That can’t be ! No, that can’t be ! General Lee would never surrender ! ’’ we said with one accord.
“ Gentlemen,” my mother continued, “ I am sorry to have to doubt your word or to look upon you as deserters ; but you ask us to believe the impossible.”
“ Ah, madam, it was hard for us to believe our own eyes when the white flag went up. Our paroles will prove us to be no deserters, but true Southern soldiers, who followed Lee to the last,” said the speaker, drawing a paper from his pocket and handing it to her. Further words of explanation followed, till at last, clutching at every straw, we descended into the abyss of despair. Our tears, scarce dried at the death of a father, now flowed afresh at the death of a country ; for in those days of care and anxiety there were no children. Truly has it been said that great sorrows mature the heart of the young as frost matures the grain.
Of course the wayfarers were ushered in and seated at the waiting table, old and young vying with one another as waiters. Meanwhile, all such dishes as could be speedily prepared, and that our depleted larder admitted of, were added to the homely bill of fare. Old hams that we would hardly have afforded ourselves a good look at were cut up and fried, accompanied by eggs without count. Pitiful hoards of preserves and citron, whose very existence had to us children become a faint tradition, were drawn from their hiding-places and heaped before our guests. Considering our means, it was indeed a royal supper, royally given, royally enjoyed.
That night, after we had questioned our guests about the great, sad news, the surrender, till our compassion would let us worry weary men no longer, they were given the best rooms in the house. One of them, a waggish young fellow, amused the smaller children immensely — for on that eventful night the youngest lids were the lightest — when, with well-acted alarm, he fled at the sight of a bed. declaring that he had not seen one for so long he had really forgotten what it was, and begged for a soft stick of wood and a bundle of fodder outdoors, on the warm side of the barn. Even when he ventured to approach the bed, it took the children a long time to explain what it was for and how it must be used. Poor fellow, a mere lad despite his long soldiership, lie was a born comedian, and I have many a time since then wondered what became of him, with his fund of irrepressible humor. But his very name has long since faded from my memory, though his pinched face, bare feet, limp cap, and gaunt form clad in faded, tattered gray are yet more vivid to me than the scenes of yesterday. But this little comedy in the midst of the long tragedy then enacting was soon over, and the gloom, lifted for a moment. settled heavier than before.
The plantation was astir betimes, the next morning, to prepare a breakfast that should be worthy of the occasion. Chickens were slaughtered with a ruthless hand. A generous supply of fried ham and eggs, the Confederate soldier’s delight, was made ready. Our treasured mite of “ real coffee ” and loaf sugar was used as freely as if the world were made of those two commodities only. Other things were in keeping, for it was truly a generous old-time Southern breakfast. Before our guests left, every nook and corner of the house were rummaged, to make them as comfortable as possible in the matter of shoes and dress.
After bidding us a tender farewell — for the wonted levity and exuberance of even the Confederate soldier were subdued then, breaking out only at long intervals, and in such half-pathetic scenes as that of the night before — they took their leave, though we would fain have had them stay longer. For in them we saw, not half a dozen forlorn, unkempt men, but the cause we loved so well and to which we had given such pledges. We felt towards them as one feels when the being he held dearest has passed forever beyond his reach, and, filled with agonizing regrets, he strives to make amends for lost opportunities by heaping affection on the dulled, disfigured remains.
During the day other soldiers passed, and what we had to eat or to wear was pressed upon them. Just as the sun was setting we were gladdened by the last sight of armed Confederates, for a spirited little band of horsemen drew up at the gate. Not having been included in Lee’s surrender, they were making their way to Johnston. He having succumbed, they would endeavor to cross the Mississippi and join Kirby Smith. We gathered around them, as they sat their horses in the lane, tendering such food as we had, and begging them to tarry a little while, for their buoyancy and hopefulness gave us strength. But there was urgent need of haste, and in a few moments they were spurring bravely forward on their hopeless mission.
Then came another period of harrowing suspense. To grief and sorrow were now added fear and apprehension. Sherman’s army was, we well knew, within two days’ march of us. Swiftfooted rumor told how around Raleigh was being drawn an ever-increasing circle of pillage and devastation. Johnston’s movement to the west had uncovered our country and left it open to the same fate. Every hour, every minute, we looked for the marauders in our midst, pillaging, burning, and torturing to force the disclosure of hidden valuables. We scanned the horizon by day for the smoke, and by night for the flames, of burning houses.
With all diligence and secrecy we set to work to hide not only silverware, jewelry, and other valuables, but food also. To this end all sorts of expedients were resorted to. Bags of wheat and of shelled corn were carried out by night and hid in hollow logs and trees. Many a cavity, under overhanging rocks, in the ivy-clad bluffs was converted into temporary crib or granary, in which grain was deposited, and covered with stones to keep off the hogs, a bank of leaves topping and concealing the stones. Hollow trees were turned into “smokehouses,” where, on nails driven high up on the inside walls, were hung hams, “ sides,” and such edibles as hungry, keen-scented curs would have appropriated, no matter how deeply buried or well covered. Jars of lard and jugs of the inevitable “sorghum” (home-made molasses) were securely tied up and buried in the woods or “old fields.” Such microscopic remnants of coffee and sugar as still remained among us were usually classed and hid with the valuables. The preservation of the stint of salt which the energy and foresight of the idolized Vance had enabled him to dole out to us a few months before, so many pounds per capita. and at nominal prices, gave us much concern. Sometimes it was trusted in bags hung up in the improvised smoke-houses, but oftener it was deposited in jars and buried with the utmost care and circumspection.
But it was in the concealment of valuables that infinite varieties of ingenuity were displayed, some worthy of Poe’s pirate (vide The Gold Bug), and some pathetic in their innocent disregard of the world and the world’s craft. Rarely left above ground, these valuables were buried in all sorts of places, and all sorts of means were taken to leave no sign that the earth had been disturbed. Some persons preferred to dig holes in the woods, where the spot could be covered with leaves or pine needles. A favorite choice was by the side of the briery fence-corners in remote, unfrequented fields, especially if, as was usually the case in unfilled fields, a thicket of young pines shut in the spot. Behind a dense screen of this kind small packages were often buried in the daytime ; otherwise all such work had, of course, to be done under cover of darkness. Sometimes, to make assurance doubly sure, a small brook would be dammed, the treasure, rendered as near waterproof as possible, buried in the bed beneath, and then the water allowed to resume its former channel. It will be seen at a glance that, so far as danger of discovery was concerned, this mode was the safest of all, provided it could be carried out unobserved. The concealer did not need to make a track on terra firma, either in approaching or leaving the spot, for he had before him the Indian path of running water ; while the stream, rolling down its detritus of sand and gravel, soon made all parts of its bed alike. However, only articles of small bulk could well be hidden in this way. A near neighbor of ours had several very fine gold watches, one of them, at least, a valued family heirloom, whose safety caused him much anxiety. After earnestly considering every possible mode of concealing them, he finally decided to adopt the one last mentioned. A fruitjar was selected, tested as to being perfectly air-tight, and the watches, after being wrapped in flannel, were placed therein, the jar was securely sealed, and the next day found the current of the spring branch flowing serenely above the treasure.
A few trusted their watches and jewelry to hollow trees and to clefts in lonely rocks, though the enterprise of the ubiquitous negro opossum-hunter rendered this mode somewhat precarious. Such places being the favorite retreat of the opossum, there was danger that he might lead his pursuers straight to the selected cleft or hollow, and, in getting him out, they could scarcely fail to discover other contents of the lair. In one instance this really did occur. A gentleman, having concealed a watch and some valuable diamonds in a small hollow tree, was startled, on reconnoitring the place a few days later, to find that the tree had not only been felled, but actually split open. He had given up his property for lost, when he happened to spy it buried in the leaves, where it had dropped as the trunk was rent asunder. Fortunately, the sable hunter had been too eager after his quarry to have an eye for anything else.
Many people preferred to bury their most valuable possessions near their dwellings, where, whatever the robber might do, they would at least be safe from the thief. Usually the treasures would be distributed in several places; such as were held most liable to damage from moisture being placed in fruit-jars wrapped in oilcloth, or else the package would be coated with beeswax, tallow, or something of the kind to exclude water. A favorite though somewhat awkward and very suspicious plan was to dig a pit just under the house. Sometimes the wood-pile would be chosen, where the chips, the accumulations of years, could be used to cover all traces. They also rendered futile the prodding of iron ramrods, which we apprehended. Again, an ancient pile of stones in the garden or adjacent field would be moved, a hole dug, the box deposited therein, then dirt and stones replaced ; great pains being taken to restore everything exactly. Some buried in the stables ; some built a hog-pen over the spot. Just under where a fire was continually kept to boil clothes, make soap, and for such outdoor work was another very neat hiding-place. Any spot was preferable to the open ground, where the slightest disturbance of the soil would have been hard to conceal. Even a bank of leaves was liable to be blown off or removed through ignorance. Newly ploughed earth or freshly dug gardens were sometimes, though, as it proved, very unwisely, selected ; for wherever the surface of the ground was broken, for whatever cause or to whatever extent, thither the bummer repaired, nor did he leave till his ramrod probe told him that nothing more valuable than stones and earth was to be found thereunder.
The cleverest work of this kind that l heard of was performed by two old ladies. After casting around for a secure hiding-place for the things on which they set the greatest store, they finally hit on the following novel expedient. At the dead of night, while all the negroes slept, with much toil they succeeded in removing the front steps, and where the bottom one lay, fortunately a broad plank, a hole was dug, the treasure secreted therein, and the steps and surroundings replaced and made to look as if untouched for half a century. The surplus earth from the hole was thrown into the well. As the rest of the ground, except where the bottom step very naturally rested, was perfectly open to the eye, the shrewdest bummer might have entered the house many times without suspecting on what he trod.
One old woman, with a sublime ignorance of the penchant of Mars, hid her hoard of silver coin, which not even the allurements of war times had been able to wrest from her grasp, under a sitting hen. Martin gourds, clusters of which were to be seen at every house, hung on poles as inviting building-places for this mortal enemy of the chicken-hawk, held many a gold trinket and family heirloom in those troublous times. More than one urchin’s rough homespun roundabout, like Shakespeare’s toad, bore yet a precious jewel in its midst; urchin being innocent as toad of its presence.
As a rule the negroes were not relied on, and were kept in ignorance of what was going on. A few families confided in their house servants, committing silverware, watches, jewelry, valuable papers, and all to their care. In not a single instance in our neighborhood was this confidence betrayed. Since the slaves were distrusted, all the labor of concealment fell on the whites, and very often, indeed. on the white women ; the men being in their graves, or absent in the field, or in prison. Ladies who had never in their lives left the house, even in the daytime. without an escort, wielded other tool than a riding-whip or lifted heavier weight than a tea-urn, bore heavy burdens, unaided, to the woods at midnight, and plied the grubbing-hoe and the spade, when the sustenance of their children was at stake. The conditions under which the work had to be done, and the nervous tension inseparable from it, rendered it vastly more onerous and wearing. The plantation negro, even yet a “ night hawk,” was then much more of one. Few were the hours of the night when he was not astir. If he were eluded, his dog had to be counted on. These dangers past, there came the confusion of localities under the strange, weird aspect they wear in the dark, and the stumble over stones and vines, when, heavy freighted as they were, a fall meant serious injury. Then, no sooner was a site selected and digging begun than it did seem as if. by common consent, the roots and stones of the whole neighborhood had preëmpted that particular spot. The interment effected, and no pains spared to leave the place exactly as it had been, the chances were that daylight would disclose such a bungling attempt at concealment that much, if not all, of the work would have to be done over again. The nearer a graveyard or other “ ha’nted ” spot the hiding was done, the less the danger of interruption or of subsequent discovery. The negro never tarried near such places as these. If by night he heard or saw aught thereabouts, he lingered all the less.
That no condition of life, however sad. is without its humorous side we had still other reminders. Two ladies, after getting all their negroes out of the way, had, in the daytime, lugged a valuable and heavy box off into the woods. Here they set about burying it. With infinite labor and worry a hole had been dug among the roots, their burden deposited therein, and mould and leaves were being placed in statu quo, when they were startled by the sound of footsteps rustling among the dead leaves. The novices in woodcraft crouched on the ground, keeping very still and conversing in low whispers. As to the number of the intruders their opinions differed. One thought, from the noise made, that there were four or five; the other declared there must be at least twice as many. Alarm grew into consternation when the footsteps came straight towards them, and along the very way they had just trod. The pine thicket was too dense to be seen through, but the leisurely advance was proof enough that their trail from the house was being studied and followed. To the question Who followed trails? there could be but one answer: Bummers! Too frightened for flight, even if, with the foe upon them, flight had not been hopeless, all that could be done was to lie low and pray that Providence might lead the pursuers astray. Forty yards dwindled to thirty, to twenty, to ten. The inmost screen of pines was now a-quiver. A long black cylinder was thrust through, which imaginations much less wrought up than theirs might easily have transformed into a gun-barrel, had not a sudden “ Whoof ! ” and scampering betrayed the presence of a rambling porker.
Not very far away lived a man who had been a negro trader. Among his effects, tools of his odious business, were a number of handcuffs. Whatever betided, he felt that a bluecoat must never see these. Gold and silver lay untouched till these tell-tale implements had been safely disposed of. As it turned out, they did prove a veritable Nemesis. First they were placed in a bag and buried in the woods. The hogs rooted them up.
Then they were removed, and buried more deeply in an old field. In a few days a washing rain swept off the litter, and disclosed the presence of fresh digging. In the small hours of the night following, up came the handcuffs, and into the well they went. There, it seemed, they must be safe. But not so. In the hurry of the moment their owner had failed to remove the bag; and just at the wrong time, when the Federals were hourly expected, the bag, very naturally getting entangled in the iron-bound well-bucket, was brought up to its half-frantic owner. After that the irons were separated, and cast, one at a time, into a distant stream, where, so far as I know, they still repose.
More than one family, after a night’s work done, as was thought, in the profoundest secrecy, would be panic-stricken when a pickaninny let slip a word going to show that everything was known to the negroes. Perhaps when a hoe or spade was missed and inquired after, some sable youngster would be ready to “ ’clar’ fo’ God. I ai’ sot eyes awn hit sence dat night mistis had it out in de back er de gyarden,” etc. But these things seem a great deal funnier now than they did then.
I will turn from this digression to take up the thread of events. The neighbors having thus disposed of more or less of their effects, according to the value set upon them by each, and his apprehension of a Federal advance in our direction, we now awaited tidings of an actual approach before hurrying off the horses and cattle to fastnesses already chosen. This was deferred till the last moment, partly because of the difficulty of feeding them in remote places, but mainly from the impossibility of keeping their whereabouts long hidden from malicious or indiscreet persons. There was only one bridge across the river anywhere in the vicinity, and this was closely watched from the adjacent hills. I well remember acting as sentinel on one occasion.
Throughout the forenoon not a living soul came in sight. A little later, a solitary wayfarer was espied tramping up the railroad track, near which I had taken my stand. He was so deeply absorbed in a newspaper that not even the difficulty of stepping from sleeper to sleeper, awkward business at best, drew his attention from it. On a nearer approach I noticed that broad bars of black bordered the pages and separated the columns. I had never before seen a paper so marked. The man informed me that Lincoln had been assassinated, and that the paper was in mourning for him. From the same source I learned that Johnston was on the point of surrendering.
About the middle of the afternoon a storm of wind and rain arose. I took refuge in a dwelling near by, in which several neighbors had collected. During the progress of the storm there came a sudden trampling in the yard. Hurrying to the windows, we found the yard in the possession of Federal horsemen. That was the first glimpse of the bluecoats in our neighborhood. However, they were evidently scouts, and not marauders ; and in a few minutes, after some inquiry as to the roads, were spurring hack across the river to the point whence they came. The dread of Wheeler’s rough riders had not yet lost its force. Although we never saw one of Wheelers men, nor were they ever, I think, at a less distance than forty miles, their very name, as we afterwards learned, served from afar to protect a large territory in which we were comprised. A plunderer got short shrift at their hands. When, at Johnston’s surrender, they were disbanded, Schofield called upon the people to protect their property and to shoot robbers without mercy. One man, at least, took him at his word, shot a bummer while in the act of forcing his cellar door, placed the body in a wagon, carried it twenty-five miles to this officer’s headquarters, and was commended for the deed.
Some of the negroes about us fled to Raleigh as soon as it was occupied by the Union army. Occasionally, a whole family, children and all, would slip off between the suns, as if they feared pursuit, which of course no one thought of giving. But these were exceptional cases. The great body of the race remained quietly at home, giving no sign that they knew or cared aught as to the great events that were taking place. In this they acted wisely. The camp was no place for such people as these. Their demoralization amid such surroundings was even more rapid and thorough than that of the Indians under like conditions. Husbands and wives parted ; children were deserted, and in some cases destroyed. Numbers fell a prey to contagious diseases. Vice and vagrancy claimed most of them.
The Confederacy, depleted of men and of supplies, collapsed. Johnston surrendered. The war ended. The negroes carried off by the hospital authorities as drivers of the impressed teams straggled back to their homes. Yet the glimpse of bluecoats in the April storm was all we had so far seen of the Federals. That the advent of peace had in no wise checked the activity of the bummers we well knew. We felt little, if any, safer than before.
It was on a clear, calm spring day, the very soul of May, that there flashed through the neighborhood the tidings “ The Yankees are coming ! ” Traveling a less-frequented road higher up the river, they had thrown a pontoon bridge across the stream and sent twenty thousand men over before we knew that they were out of Raleigh. The advance proved to be the twentieth corps on their march to Washington to be disbanded. They went into camp just opposite us and a mile to the west. Another corps filled the road four miles to the east. Our position between the two proved a fortunate one indeed. The bummers, now somewhat awed by more rigorous measures taken for their suppression, ventured but little between the lines of march, confining their depredations mostly to the outer flanks of each column.
Great was our surprise at the conduct of the troops. Strict orders must have been issued forbidding the entrance of any private house; for although numbers straggled over from the main body, it was only after a sharp lookout for officers and much pressing on our part that one would venture in to partake of the food prepared as a peace offering. Still greater was our surprise, in our ignorance of the indiscriminating license of the camp, when they pillaged the negro houses, taking bacon, chickens, and such eatables as they saw and fancied.
Our chief apprehension was for the night; and miserable indeed would have been the hours of darkness but for the opportune arrival of a friend just returned from the Confederate army, who remained till the next day. Reassured by his presence, with loaded firearms secreted within easy reach, we made the best of it. The night passed without disturbance. Before the following noon the column had swept by and disappeared, leaving among other mementos of the call the corps marks, XX, chopped on the wayside trees, where, after more than a quarter of a century, faint, blurred traces of them may still be seen.
Peace and quiet once more restored, the business next in order was to recover the hidden things. This may seem simple enough ; but it was not. Intent only on secreting their valuables past detection, some succeeded even better than they intended, and put them not only beyond discovery, but beyond recovery also. In fact, not a few, like Captain Kidd’s treasure, are yet unfound. Many a box of spoons and of old family silver committed to Mother Earth, amid the hurry and excitement of those feverish days, or rather nights, still reposes in her broad bosom, dumb, impartial old guardian that she is.
Till tested as a landmark, no one dreamed how many duplicates a certain tree, gully, or rock - pile could have, or how many hollows and fissured stones there can be in a small piece of woods. The finding of things buried along fencecorners, the spot being marked on the fence, was sometimes hindered by the accidental burning of the fence, and oftener still by the appropriation by some strolling darky of the marked top rail for fuel.
A very humorous and yet very pathetic case occurred near our sohoolhouse. A worthy but somewhat miserly old man had a small sum of silver, — perhaps a hundred dollars, — the hoardings of many years, which, at the first note of alarm, he buried at night by a rock-pile in an adjacent cornfield. When, all danger past, he sought to unearth it, he found that the number of rock - piles in that cornfield had multiplied amazingly, and all grown strangely alike. Fearing, in those unsettled days, to be known as the owner of so much wealth, he dug, prodded, and thumped among stones and briers night, after night for a long time before he disclosed his trouble to any one. Then he took into confidence an old crony of his, and in conjunction with him the digging, prodding, and thumping were all done over again. These also falling, more and more were called into council, and their brains and muscles invoked, till first and last the whole neighborhood had taken a hand, and it had become a very open secret indeed. Yet not only was the coin never found, but there was no spot where the earth showed the least sign of disturbance, which seemed to preclude the idea of its having been stolen. Finally, “ as hard to find as Uncle Billy Knuckle’s silver” — as I will call it — passed into a proverb. Still Uncle Billy never gave up, although enough labor must have been expended on that field to yield many hundred dollars, had it been turned to planting corn instead of digging coin. He always persisted in searching and pestering. Not till the other day was the matter finally ended ; and then, alas, in that summary manner that most of our little affairs are settled. For a long while I had lost sight of the old man, but then, happening to be driving that way, I met in the road a straggling line of vehicles. It was a funeral procession. Death had at last disposed of the matter for Uncle Billy.
Many stories were told of the narrow escapes from discovery of hidden valuables. A squad of Federals built a camp-fire just over a box of buried silverware, yet found it not. The hoof of a trooper’s horse actually sank in the soft, fresh dirt that filled a treasure pit, by a happy stroke of luck without causing suspicion. Many a family sat in fear and trembling while iron ramrods probed every spot but the right one.
A word as to the condition of the recovered things, Almost without exception their plight was a sorry one, and in many instances they were entirely ruined. Buried silverware was tarnished so deeply that it was never the same again. Valuable deeds and bonds had often turned to pulp, or become illegible. If a single watch thus concealed ever after served as a timekeeper, I never heard of it. Even when buried in air-tight fruit-jars and in the driest places, the mere condensation of the moisture in the inclosed air, caused by contact with the chilled earth, always sufficed to rust and spoil the delicate steel works beyond repair. Those hid above ground fared much better. There is still in use in the village an excellent gold chronometer that, during April and May, 1865, adorned the inside of a hollow tree.
Paintings, many of which had been cut from their frames and buried, being first, rolled and, as it was thought, rendered waterproof, fared almost as bad. At the Raleigh Exposition, held in 1884, there were exhibited two very fine portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose glory had been thus dimmed forever. Little could the genial knight or the stately pair who sat for him have dreamed of the strange vicissitudes that, in a foreign land, these richly colored canvases were to pass through, or the strange hiding-places they were to seek.