Thomas Lewis had avoided war — until it invaded his own farmThe barking dogs awakened Thomas Lewis.
Ann Elizabeth hadn’t been well since the baby was born and wasn’t sleeping anyway, so she watched him get out of bed. Peeking out the front window, Thomas saw five men walking toward the log house, dark silhouettes in the half moonlight, and he could make out at least
one rifle in their hands. He went to the front door, reached for his shotgun, and waited in the darkness.
“Hello in the house,” came the call. That told Thomas they were strangers. If it were a neighbor, he’d have identified himself.
“Hello in the house,” the voice repeated, “May we approach?”
Thomas cracked the door. “What do you want?”
One of the men took a step forward. “I need to talk to you sir. We need help. May I come up…just me?”
“No,” Thomas called back. “You get on out of here. You have no business here in the middle of the night.”
“I’m sorry to trouble you sir, but we’re in a fix and need help. May I please speak with you?”
Thomas hesitated. It was clear the men weren’t going to leave easily. “All right, come up,” he said. “Just you.”
One silhouette approached.
Thomas lit the lantern that hung by the door so he’d be able to see who was coming up to his house so boldly and yet so humbly at this late hour. He reckoned it was about 10 p.m., certainly long after decent people were in bed.
Thomas could tell by the man’s dragging feet that he had walked a long way, and his manner seemed harmless. But these were dangerous times, especially for a little family on an isolated farm, with the nearest neighbor a mile away. Thomas slipped back behind the door with his shotgun’s muzzle still on display.
Stepping into the lantern’s glow was a soldier in a uniform so filthy Thomas couldn’t tell for sure whether it was blue or gray. The man wore no hat, carried nothing in his hands and had no pack or bedroll. On his right side was a holstered pistol. Though he carried no saber, Thomas recognized the belt where one used to hang, and believed the man must be an officer. He apparently left his spurs back up the road somewhere, but the tall boots said he was cavalry.
What could have happened to this horse soldier to bring him here, in the night, unhorsed? It was known that Rebels had been about the neighborhood for days. The Lewis farm was on the eastern edge of the town of Point Pleasant, now in West Virginia, almost the very spot where Thomas’ great-grandfather, General Andrew Lewis, led Virginia militia into battle against British-supported Indians under Chief Cornstalk in 1774. All his life Thomas heard about the family’s service to the young nation, and he was fiercely loyal to the Union. But like many, he was equally loyal to Old Virginia. Besides, he had a wife and children to care for, so he postponed a decision to serve in the Civil War. Even in 1863, he maintained his faith that the war would soon be over. And yet, here it was, approaching his front step.
The soldier’s unshaven face was only slightly less dirty than the uniform. His hair was short, but tangled and matted. As he came near the lantern Thomas could see that the eyes were dark, hollow and tired. But when the man spoke again, there was a determination that would not bow to exhaustion.
He gave his name and said he was Confederate cavalry. The farmer spoke not a word, but waited to hear what was next. “I apologize sincerely for interrupting your rest, sir, but we are in a desperate state, and have been for near on a week,” said the intruder. “My men are very hungry.”
“I’m afraid I have nothing to feed you,” was the polite reply.
The impatient Reb’s tone changed instantly. “We are hungry and I want supper for these men, and you be in a hurry to get it out.”
But Thomas did not intend to bend. “I do not see how I can do anything for you tonight,” he said flatly. “My wife has been sick and is not able to prepare anything herself.”
Suddenly there was a glare in the stranger’s eyes. “You had better be getting something I tell you,” he insisted.
Thomas felt some sympathy for any man who looked so spent, even if he wore the uniform of an army he could not support. Besides, there were five of them, apparently men who had seen battle, and there was no doubting
hungry men were capable of anything. If they weren’t going to leave, the smart course would be to help them and then get rid of them. Changing his own tone in the hope of softening the other man’s temper, Thomas promised, “If I find anything you can eat I will be glad to get it.”
Thomas closed the door and replaced the shotgun above it, trying to damp down his fear and anger. He wasn’t really thinking of his own safety, but he had his family and a nice home, and he would have given his life to protect them. On the other hand, his turkey-hunting gun wouldn’t be much use against that group. These men were going to have their way, so diplomacy seemed the best course.
They were among the remnants of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Partisan Rangers. After weeks of raiding into Yankee Indiana and Ohio in the summer of 1863, their attempts to cross the Ohio River had left them defeated and scattered. This little group was one of many struggling to get home with no horses, few weapons and little except their wits and audacity to sustain them. Union patrols swarmed the countryside, but by staying close to the river, these five had evaded them and walked more than 40 miles before arousing the Lewis family from their sleep.
By late June 1863, while Confederates were moving on toward Gettysburg and other Rebel forces were consumed by the defense of Vicksburg, General Braxton Bragg needed to cover his withdrawal from middle Tennessee toward Chattanooga. Morgan had been sent to distract Federals in the West with raids into Kentucky. Like many of the best
cavalry officers, Morgan possessed an independent spirit that did not bow willingly to authority. He soon exceeded Bragg’s orders not to cross the Ohio “under any circumstances.” He not only crossed the river but conducted one raid after another through Indiana and Ohio, terrorizing the civilian population and arousing militia. Three weeks into the expedition, pursued by thousands of regulars and militia, Morgan attempted to cross into West Virginia at Buffington Island on the Ohio River. There he was surprised, surrounded and vastly outnumbered.
More than 100 men in gray were captured, and Morgan was forced to break through Union lines and escape upstream. After about 18 miles, thinking he was in the clear, he attempted to cross the river again at Belleville, W.Va. Just as the first few hundred men were climbing out on the south bank, Union gunboats approached, spraying the water and both shores with bullets and shells. Morgan turned and led the rest of his men away from the river, only to find the enemy once more blocking the rear. Again he managed to break through the Union line, but hundreds were captured, and he escaped into the Ohio countryside with less than a fifth of his command. Some 300 most likely made it to safety on the other side of the river.
Those who crossed the Ohio faced new difficulties. Regiments and companies had disintegrated. Horses, carbines, side arms and swords were all lost. They were without maps or information indicating where friendly or enemy troops would be. Some men took off their uniforms for the swim and never recovered them. There was no choice but to band together in small groups and struggle toward home, foraging as best they could, running and hiding to evade Union patrols hot on their heels. The soldiers who straggled onto the Lewis family farm were tired, hungry and desperate.
When Thomas hurried from the bed, Ann Elizabeth crept first to the window, then to the bedroom door, where she could hear her husband better. She heard the stranger’s polite request become a demand. She knew these men were going to eat whatever was on hand. She might as well get on with it.
She pulled a work dress over her head and slipped quietly across the kitchen. Thomas admired the courage that roused her when she felt so poorly. He remained in the front entrance, keeping the soldiers’ attention on himself. Ann Elizabeth lit a lamp and silently stepped out the back door into the warm night. Descending the cellar steps, she scanned the paltry stock. They’d been eating fresh greens and peas from the garden, but nothing else was ripe yet. At least they had pork, and she gathered some other things that had kept over the winter.
When she slipped back inside, she told Thomas he might as well let them in because they were going to do whatever they wanted anyway. So he opened the door and invited the strangers inside. They were gracious, those with hats removing them, and all bowing to the lady of the house.
“The menu consisted of scraps (I called it) from a roast of pork left from dinner, stewed apples, a small dish of potatoes, also cold beans and some jelly, also preserves,” Ann Elizabeth later wrote in a letter to her granddaughter. “Your grandfather said, ‘If you can get enough there to satisfy your hunger come and eat.’
“Well, they devoured everything before them.”
Once his hunger was satisfied, the group’s spokesman recovered his kind demeanor. “When they were thro’ the man who seemed to be the leader put his hand in his pocket, and drew out a $5.00 bill,” Ann Elizabeth wrote. “Mr. Lewis said I cannot change it.”
Ann Elizabeth went to the cupboard, where she kept the little bit of money the couple budgeted for store-bought goods. “I got my pocket book out as the man did not seem as if he were going to leave and I luckily had the amount of change your grandfather needed.”
Their bill paid, the soldiers left the house. “But there was no more sleep for us that night as Mr. Lewis did not know how many others were hanging around. Well, what do you think we found next morning? Simply this: before they came to the door they had robbed our chicken roost of 25 or 30 of my frying chickens. I said no wonder that man was so anxious to pay me for my trouble and what they ate too. And the others who did not come in were making fires and cooking the stolen chickens. Your grandfather found three fires they had made and chicken feathers were plentiful all around.”
Confederates appeared at the Lewis farm for weeks, and Thomas had to stand up to them alone. Then a day came when Thomas was in no condition to defend his little farm. “Your grandfather had been working a young colt and when it had done everything else it could do gave a vicious kick which struck your grandfather just above the knee,” Ann Elizabeth wrote. “That laid him up in bed for several days. He had a bunch of fine cattle he had about ready to sell. A party of three men came to the house and wanted to buy a young steer.”
Thomas had painfully hobbled to the porch to see what the visitors wanted. When they told him, he explained that those cattle in the pen were already sold to another man, “just waiting for him to drive them to town,” Ann Elizabeth wrote. “They insisted on having one so [Grand]father said you may have one of those in the next field,” those being the younger steers that were still being fattened. He quoted them a price, but knew if the men cared to assert themselves they could take anything they pleased.
“They insisted on one of those he had sold and he refused, saying he could not as they were not his now, but you can have one that I told you of,” pointing again to the ones in the opposite field. Ignoring him, the men picked out the best steer from those that had been sold, and informed the lame farmer that they would pay the price he had quoted on the others.
To make matters worse, “They went out saying we have not the money with us. You can call on Mr. Hall.” Thomas had no idea who Hall was, but it mattered little, as he knew it was a debt that would never be paid. All he could do was lean against the door frame with his injured leg, watching the hungry soldiers leave the place, driving his steer before them. He knew that within the hour it would be filling their bellies, and probably those of their friends waiting somewhere nearby.
Morgan’s brigade covered more than 1,000 miles in less than a month, with Union forces in hot pursuit. The raiders, in their haste, failed to destroy any bridges, depots or key military facilities. Although they managed to distract some Union troops, the effect on the Union war effort was minor, thanks in part to the willingness of local militias to mobilize for the chase. Perhaps the greatest effect of Morgan’s bold raid into Union territory and subsequent retreat back into the mountains of West Virginia was to raise the ire of Union-loyal civilians and change the minds of many who previously had sympathy for the Southern cause or were undecided.
That proved to be the case on the Lewis farm. Thomas and Ann Elizabeth, like many in the new state of West Virginia, entered the war with mixed loyalties that were eventually galvanized by their limited contact with the armies. Ann Elizabeth summarized her feelings about the Rebels six decades later, saying, “They pretty nearly made a clean sweep of all they lay their hands on. It surely meant a great deal to us when they were continually stealing everything. What do you think of that for soldiers who were fighting for ‘people’s rights’ as they claimed.”
Joe Johnston, author of The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, is a writer, songwriter and artist in Nashville.