She was cantankerous, pugnacious, illiterate and profane. Best of all, she wouldn’t take no for an answer—not even from Jefferson Davis.
Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the Civil War has heard of Clara Barton, who received the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield”at Antietam.Her chief rival,Dorothea Dix,may be best remembered for her strict,if somewhat arbitrary,qualifications to be a nurse:She insisted on “women between the ages thirty-five and fifty,plain of mien,and unhooped… attired in either black or brown.” Both were determined and fearless, but history has softened their edges and cast them as angels ministering to the wounded and dying.Abby Horne House was just as determined and fearless. But an archetypal angel? No way.
Aunt Abby, as the soldiers called her, gained her first Civil War battlefield experience in June 1862. Shortly after the battle of White Oak Swamp,Abby encountered a friend from home who was searching for his wounded son, Private Richard P.Minga,Company K,24th North Carolina Infantry.Upon learning that his son had been captured,Minga was preparing to return home when Abby persuaded him to let her see what she could do.A few hours later she returned accompanied by two federal privates carrying young Minga.No one knows how she secured the necessary passes that permitted her to cross between the lines. However, getting her own way seems to have been a habit with her.
Born in either Granville or Franklin County, North Carolina, probably in 1796,Abby was the daughter of Green and Ann House.In 1814,she was old enough to have had a beau— a soldier. He must have been the love of her life.When he was taken ill that year,she walked the 168 miles from her home near Franklinton to Norfolk,Virginia,to care for him.No sooner had she arrived than he died.“She grew up a sturdy young woman of fine sense and judgment doing her own work on a little farm near Franklinton, unmarried, yet always able to pay her debts, take care of her relatives and keep her home in tact,” a neighbor later wrote.“She seemed an old woman when as a child I first knew her.”
As a young woman,the courtroom had been her battlefield where she won more often than she lost. She became a familiar sight in Raleigh acting as her own attorney in various lawsuits.Her theory on litigation was that anything was possible as long as you knew what you wanted to say and said it to the right person. She would find that the same theory worked equally well when dealing with generals or presidents.When North Carolina seceded on May 20,1861,Abby resolved to serve her state in any way she could.For a year she confined her activities to collecting blankets, clothing and shoes to be sent to Franklin County boys serving in Virginia.Her own contribution was vegetables grown on her farm.Proximity to the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad eased the transportation problems.She offered her services as a nurse, diligently tending to the wounded soldiers aboard southbound trains. Franklinton stationmaster Isham Cheatham and some of his friends found this out when she confiscated a stew they were preparing for their own dinner and gave it to a group of wounded men.
Her heartfelt patriotism led her to encourage her eight nephews to enlist.She vowed,“Narry a man in my family would I let stay at home in peace when he was able to shoulder a musket.”She promised that if any of them were wounded or ill she would come to wherever they were and nurse them back to health. If the worst happened, she would see to it that their bodies were returned home.All of them enlisted in the Confederate army;seven nephews joined North Carolina units while their cousin,Edward Sutton,enlisted in a regiment in his native Georgia.
In the fall of 1862 Abby made good on her promise.When she received word that one nephew was gravely ill in Petersburg,she rushed to his side.After a few days of her ministrations, it seemed he would recover so she left him in the care of the surgeons in the military hospital and returned home.But within days of her return she was notified that the young man had suffered a relapse and was not expected to live. She quickly returned to Petersburg to find him in a deep coma. He died a short while later,and she brought his body home.That December Abby lost Edward “Ned” Sutton at the first battle of Fredericksburg.When Ned’s comrades told her that he was missing and presumed captured, she insisted on looking for him herself.Twelve days later she found his body propped up against a fence.True to her word she had Ned’s body sent home to his family in Georgia. In all, Aunt Abby lost five of her eight nephews.
Abby’s tragic experience with the military hospitals in Petersburg convinced her that the soldiers in the field were receiving inadequate medical care from the military doctors. She blamed herself for her nephew’s death, feeling that if she had stayed with him and attended to him herself, he would have recovered.She also told anyone who would listen of the shameful conditions in the hospital where he had died. She believed that the surgeons were more interested in their whiskey than in their patients.She vowed she would never leave another nephew in a military hospital even if bringing him home meant “I has to go inter President Davis’ bed-chamber to get the papers signed.”While her friends and neighbors commiserated with her,they scoffed at the idea that the president of the Confederacy would even agree to see her,let alone listen to anything she had to say.They seriously underestimated the determination of Abby House.
When she heard that another nephew, Marcellus Dickerson, Company K,44th Regiment,was sick in a Richmond hospital,Abby decided to take her concerns to Davis.Without invitation or appointment,she showed up in the president’s waiting room.She informed Davis’aide,Colonel George Washington Custis Lee, that she had something important to discuss with the president and wasn’t going to take no for an answer.Colonel Lee thought to dissuade her by saying she would have to wait, possibly hours, before Mr. Davis would have time for her.The office door opened a few minutes later,however,and when it did Abby walked boldly in and took a seat in the chief executive’s office.
A somewhat bemused Davis listened carefully as Abby introduced herself and began describing the deplorable conditions in field hospitals and the lack of training among the medical personnel manning them.He agreed that the situation was very bad indeed but said there was little he could do under the circumstances.Abby was flattered when Davis told her that he had heard of her,but she kept silent when he wondered aloud if she were the woman who had said some unkind things about him.
Nevertheless, he was ready to listen to any suggestions she might have to improve things.After hearing her recommendation to send all sick and wounded soldiers home for medical care, he explained that her idea was impractical because there was a chance a great many of them might decide not to return.Abby angrily retorted that it was his duty to see to it that his men got better care.Davis’temper flared.too.Drawing himself to his full height, he informed her,“I’m doing my very best, Madam, I assure you.”When she replied that if this was his best she would hate to see his worst, Davis was stunned.Then he roared with laughter as he said,“You MUST be that old woman that’s been abusing of me so.”Abby had no choice but to admit that she was.
The best he could do for her was to write a letter to General Robert E. Lee recommending that she be allowed to take home some of the sickest of the soldiers from her hometown. Abby informed Davis there would be no need for him to send the letter to Lee.She would take it to him herself—and she did. Lee expressed the same reservations that Davis had, but he relented when Abby promised she would see to it that every man she took home returned the moment he was well.
Apparently,Marcellus was not considered sick enough to be taken home, for within a month Aunt Abby was back in Lee’s camp.This time she brought a letter from Governor Zebulon Vance requesting a 30-day furlough for Marcellus.General Lee had already retired for the evening by the time she arrived,but there was no deterring Abby.She sailed right past the guard outside Lee’s tent, tapped the sleeping commander on the shoulder and demanded that he sign the furlough immediately. Lee later recalled that he signed many such demands from Abby for “she seemed to have an unusual number of relatives among the North Carolina soldiers.”
Vance was surprised and perturbed to find that Marcellus was still home in January. In October he had agreed to obtain a 30-day furlough for the young man on Abby’s promise that she would have him back on time.Now she wanted an extension because she believed he was still too ill to return to duty.Vance suspected Marcellus of malingering and that his “bad koff”was an affectation for his aunt.The governor agreed to write another letter to Lee,but Abby would have been furious if she had understood Vance’s true intent.“General:The ubiquitous, indefatigable and inevitable Mrs. [sic] House will hand you this,”he wrote,“…I have not graduated in medicine nor have I seen this patient, but judging from the symptoms as detailed by Mrs.House,I venture the opinion that Marcellus— like his great namesake—has his thoughts ‘bent on peace’—I fear that the air here is too far south for his lungs and earnestly recommend the more salubrious atmosphere of the Rapahannock [sic]—and that when comfortably established there he be made to take for his ‘koff’a compound of Sulphur,Saltpetre & charcoal to be administered by inhalation,copiously.I should be happy to learn of the result of this prescription.”
Vance had instructed Abby to deliver the letter to no one but Lee and to take Marcellus with her so the general could see for himself how “ill” the young man was. But, he warned her, his reputation with Virginians wasn’t what it was with North Carolinians so she needed to be ready for ridicule or laughter.
A couple of weeks later a downcast Aunt Abby reappeared in the governor’s office.Sadly she related,“…they tuck that child back,jist the same as if you hadn’t writ that letter!”Vance asked if Lee had laughed.“No,”she replied,“he begun to laugh once, but I tole him to dry that up,and he read it through very solemn and said it was a mighty smart letter.” In the summer of 1863, Abby tried to obtain passes for seven Franklin County women who wanted to visit their husbands in camp. Secretary of War James Seddon, however, told her he was too busy to sign the passes that day.When she returned the next day and found the documents still unsigned, she irately refused to leave until the chore was completed.She later said,“President Davis never did have a secretary of war that was worth shucks in summer time….” Davis roared with laughter when he heard the story.
Aunt Abby was seen at almost every major engagement of the Army of Northern Virginia.At the Wilderness she risked her life to hold two horses for officers who had abandoned them to join in the battle.When asked why she had so foolishly stood on an exposed road under fire,she replied she wanted the officers to be able to find their mounts when the battle was over. When the army retreated toward Petersburg, she went along and spent the final winter of the war bringing provisions to the soldiers in the trenches.Abby told two curiously different stories about her activities in the war’s final days. Initially Abby clained she had traveled to Greensboro, N.C., to be with President Davis.She later told a historian that she had been in line with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. It is unknown which, if either, story is true.
Reconstruction was as difficult for Aunt Abby as for most Southerners. Still she showed the same aplomb when dealing with Union officers as she had with Confederates.On a visit to the provost marshal’s headquarters in Governor Vance’s former office,she took a long look around the room where she had spent many happy hours and deliberately insulted the blue-clad officers by saying,“Yes, here’s where gentlemen used to sit,but now it’s a den of thieves.”
Former Confederate Maj.Gen.Henry Heth once asked, “Who among the North Carolinians of the Army of Virginia does not remember old Aunt Abby House?”
In 1875,age and finances made it impossible for Abby to stay on her farm.Veterans from all over the county pooled their resources to buy her a small cabin in Raleigh and hired a woman to help with the chores.Among other contributors to her welfare were her old friend Zeb Vance and her former arch enemy,William Woods Holden,editor of the North Carolina Standard.Holden had once been one of Vance’s staunchest supporters but as the war progressed they broke over political differences.When President Andrew Johnson appointed Holden provisional governor of North Carolina,Abby declared him a “Yankee puppet”who had stolen the governor’s mansion from Vance.When she heard that he had joined the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, she visited the pastor,Dr.Thomas Pritchard,and cautioned him that when he baptized Holden“have the water bilin’ or you’ll never get him clean.”
That same year Abby herself joined the Methodist Church. She told Reverend W.C. Norman that she would do her best to give up “cussin”except when particularly “riled up.”Forgiving her enemies might prove to be a little harder.“I can forgive all my enemies and live at peace with everyone but Bill Holden,” she lamented.However,“God moves in mysterious ways.”Abby began holding weekly prayer meetings in her home and soon found that she could forgive Holden.He became a good friend.
In 1876, Zebulon Vance went back to the North Carolina governor’s mansion,and Abby played a small role in putting him there.Always interested in anything that concerned Vance, she was in Tucker Hall when the State Democratic Convention convened there on June 14, 1876. Paul Cameron,chairman of the convention,invited her to sit with him on the dais when he realized she could not find a seat in the packed hall.When the roll of delegates was called,no one answered for Clay County. Almost as a joke Cameron suggested that Abby represent the mountain county. Delegate Robinson from Macon County put forth the motion that was quickly seconded.The vote was unanimous.
Naturally, her vote went to Vance. In that moment Abby House made North Carolina history by becoming the first woman in the state to vote.The momentous occasion made the newspapers around the country.Vance won a landslide victory,beating his Republican opponent by nearly 14,000 votes. It was a proud moment for Aunt Abby when she stood near him as he took the oath of office in 1877. She was equally proud when he became a United States senator in 1878.
Following a lengthy illness,Aunt Abby died quietly in her home on April 30,1881. Her body was taken back to Franklinton and buried near the railroad that had carried her on her many errands of mercy during the war.The grave was on property owned by E.J. Cheatham, son of the stationmaster whose stew she had appropriated so many years before.It was marked by a plain wooden marker donated by Raleigh newspaperman Fred A. Olds. Cheatham faithfully maintained the grave until his death in 1950. For the next 22 years the grave was allowed to deteriorate until it became a “slight depression in the earth’s surface, midst a grove of oak and pine trees,its location known to no more than a dozen….”
In 1972 The State magazine ran two articles on Abby House by T.H.Pearce of Franklinton,N.C.In the second article Pearce noted the sad state of Abby’s grave.This inspired a number of Tar Heel citizens to contribute to a fund to erect a permanent marker. Their efforts came to fruition in April 1974 when Pearce, with the help of P.H. Cheatham, the stationmaster’s grandson, erected a marble marker like those placed on Confederate soldiers’graves by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Engraved on the stone is the inscription from the original wooden marker given by Olds:“Aunt Abby House,Angel of Mercy to the Confederate Soldiers, Died April 30, 1881.”
Like so many legendary heroes of the Civil War,the story of Abby Horne House may be completely true; it may contain some partial truths wrapped in local lore;it may be a mere folk tale.Most likely,her story belongs in the second category,though precisely how much fact and how much fiction it contains may never truly be known.
Like Aunt Abby,Toria J.Smith is a North Carolinian.She is a frequent contributor to America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.