Saturday, January 22, 2011


DEAR READER, I'M ABOUT TO DRAG YOU back in time. But in case you think I've got another old letter of mine to unload, nope--this tale goes further back into the murky past than my actual lifetime. It does, however, have something to do with me. It even has a little something to do with you, it's true. Because here's the thing--if my great-great-grandfather had not been such a clever man, history may have written me right out of the picture. Also expunged from the annals would have been my father, along with his mother. Her father--my great-grandfather Timothy--had just made it to the record books at the time of this story.

It was 1864 and he was a baby, too young to be afraid of the soldiers that roamed the fields and woods around his home, the troops marching through the area time and again, even camping on the farm (on account of the very high hill with views far and wide) my great-great grandfather owned in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. At eight months old, he likely wasn't even all that alarmed when mounted soldiers came by one day and scooped him up and passed him around. But his older siblings, outside playing, were frightened! One soldier took him for a ride around the farmyard before delivering him over to his big sister.

Now, if you studied your Virginia history book when you were a kid, Dear Reader (er, uh...well, at least you learned about the Civil War, didn't you?) you might have read about the trials and tribulations of this area in the summer, autumn and early winter of that year. If not, here's a little review:

In the summer of 1864, Union forces under General Sherman moved through the Shenandoah River Valley northwest of Richmond, destroying the land they left behind.

In the fall, General Grant sent General Philip Sheridan into the Shenandoah Valley. Grant gave the order to "eat out Virginia clear and that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender [food] with them." The Union army followed these orders. For the next two weeks, Sheridan's troops came through the Shenandoah counties destroying everything in their path. It came to be known as the Burning.

They ultimately destroyed some 2,000 barns, 70 mills, three large iron furnaces, as well as several railroad buildings, leaving the area barren and unable to function.
The Union soldiers also saw to it that thousands of bushels of corn, oats, and wheat were destroyed along with any other crops they found; and hundreds of head of cattle and sheep were driven away.
A newspaper announced that Sheridan’s troops had “behaved with their characteristic vandalism, insulting women, stealing, plundering and burning.” The time of year made it even worse – winter was approaching and the people of the Valley were destitute with many of them homeless.
Clearly, life in this area during the babyhood of my great-grandfather involved the kind of anxiety no child or adult should ever have to bear. His parents were concerned that they'd have provisions to keep them and their seven children alive. All of the livestock had been taken, even the pot off the stove with the last chicken cooking in it! But my great-great grandfather was an ingenious man. He had a plan. When word spread that troops were once again advancing, he and some of the neighboring men took the horses they still owned (better horses were often taken by soldiers and replaced with old nags, or just outright stolen) and went up into the mountains.
Left at home were his wife and children. He also left behind a great pile of wheat. His family needed it for sustenance; he couldn't just let the soldiers rob him of food for the winter. So my great-great grandfather had carefully hidden the wheat.  
"Come in and look!" my great-great grandmother would say, when soldiers came to the door, ready to walk away with anything edible they could find. She may have been nervous as she trailed them through the house, especially fearful if their eyes lingered long on the large wardrobe that stood against the parlor wall.
After the soldiers went away, empty-handed, she would go to the basement with a bowl or sack and climb up on an empty barrel. Pulling the plug from a hole in the ceiling, she'd let wheat flow until she had what she needed. Then she'd stop up the hole again. 
My great-great grandmother thanked the Lord many times, I'm sure, that the house was large enough to camouflage a small bedroom that held no beds.  In that bedroom lay a pile of wheat that was several feet deep on the floor. Completely hiding the door to this bedroom was the big wardrobe in the parlor!
And that, Dear Reader, is the oral history that got passed along to me. Baby Timothy survived to grow up, and he married a spirited young woman of Welsh descent. Of their first seven children--all daughters (sons followed later)--my grandma Molly was fourth. Fortunately, she and my grandpa had a middle son, Daniel, who married my mother.
So, tracing the story backwards, one can see how my great-great grandfather's ingenuity (and that big wardrobe that hid the door) could have possibly reserved a spot for me among his future descendants. Without it, I may not be here. And that would mean that you, Dear Reader, wouldn't be here, either!
Oh, don't get excited. I only meant, of course, you wouldn't be HERE. Reading this. Right now. (Ha. See how it's true--my great-great grandfather's actions may have changed life for you, Reader Dear... if only for a few minutes!)


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