Shelter from the Storm: How a Union Soldier Sought Refuge at My Great-Grandparents’ House

Martin Andrews’ sophomore year at Oberlin College was abruptly upended in the spring of 1861. On April 12, his 22nd birthday, Confederate forces attacked a federal fort in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

The attack marked the beginning of the Civil War and sparked a flame among Oberlin’s students and faculty. This is the story of how Private Martin Andrews came to my great-great-great-grandparents’ home in Virginia after an early Civil War battle.

Soldiers for Social Justice

Martin M. Andrews of Company C, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Martin M. Andrews of Company C, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

As a student at Oberlin, Andrews learned in an academic atmosphere founded upon social justice and Christian principles. Some of the college’s first graduates were women and African-Americans. One student wrote that “Patriotism and the doctrine of Anti-Slavery very naturally found a place in the category of their principles.”

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Andrews and many of his classmates left school and signed up with the Union army. The young men traveled to nearby Cleveland and were mustered into service of the United States as members of Company ‘C’ of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI). A majority of the soldiers in that company were Oberlin students.

Company C’s first taste of battle came in western Virginia. Confederate troops commanded by Generals John Floyd and Henry Wise had pushed into the area around the Gauley River in Nicholas County, where pro-Union sentiment ran high. Among the area’s residents were some staunchly anti-slavery Methodist families, including my ancestors.

The People of Panther Mountain

Days before the battle, the company ended a long day of marching through mud by camping at the foot of Panther Mountain, where many members of my family lived. I imagine when the women found out about the nearby camp they brought food to the troops.

Battle of Kessler's Cross Lanes map, courtesy of Oberlin College

Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes map, courtesy of Oberlin Heritage Center

Andrews and his company were eating breakfast on the morning of August 26th, 1861, when Rebel forces attacked them at Kessler’s Cross Lanes. The Battle of Cross Lanes is also referred to as “The Battle of Knives and Forks” because of the outbreak of mealtime gunfire. The Yankees did not fare well that day and as night drew near, soldiers and officers who survived fled to the nearby woods and mountains, including Panther Mountain.

According to “A History of Panther Mountain Community,” Andrews and 17 other men wandered to the home of William and Susan Grose, my great-great-great-grandparents. The Groses fed the Yankee men and gave them a place to rest before they went on to their next assignment. Elsewhere on the mountain, my great-great-grand aunt Margaret Grose Renick took in a group of three other 7th OVI soldiers, fed them and helped them hide first in her home and then, as Confederate troops set up pickets on her farm, in a cave on her property. Years later Sgt. Edgar Condit wrote an account of their stay with the Renicks.

I am duly amazed that my family members met and cared for these young students-turned-soldiers in the face of great danger. I have learned so much about my family by researching the Oberlin infantrymen, also known as the Monroe Rifles. I included Martin and his Union comrades in my recently published book, Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story,  and will share with you here the recipe for hardtack, a type of super-hard bread (cracker-like) that the troops carried in their haversacks during the war.

Painting by Bernie Rosage, Jr.

Painting by Bernie Rosage, Jr.

According to the American Civil War website, hardtack was so hard that soldiers called it “tooth duller” or “sheet iron crackers.” Time and travel sometimes led to the hardtack supply being infested with bugs. To test it, the troops would dunk the crackers into hot coffee. The weevils, who were not swimmers, would float to the top. Um…yummy! Bon apetit!

Union Hardtack

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon of Crisco or vegetable fat
  • 6 pinches of salt

Mix the ingredients together into a stiff batter, knead several times, and spread the dough out flat to a thickness of 1/2 inch on a non-greased cookie sheet. Bake for one-half an hour at 400 degrees. Remove from oven, cut dough into 3-inch squares, and punch four rows of holes, four holes per row into the dough. Turn dough over, return to the oven and bake another one-half hour. Turn oven off and leave the door closed. Leave the hardtack in the oven until cool. Remove and enjoy!


One kind word

Author’s Note: West Virginia Writers, Inc. is a non-profit that has supported and celebrated Mountain State writers and their words since 1977. That was the year I gathered the courage, with my mom’s support, to attend the inaugural West Virginia Writers Conference in Charleston, WV and share some of my poems. I am so grateful that this group exists. Here’s a short memory of that terrifying yet exhilarating day at the poetry workshop, which I  recently shared with the current members on the WVW Facebook page. 

I owe West Virginia Writers a debt of gratitude. Back in 1977, which would have been the organization’s founding year and maybe the first WVW Conference, I stood onstage at The Cultural Center in Charleston, all of 18 years old, and read aloud in front of an audience for the first time several of my poems. I was terrified but my mother, who accompanied me to the conference, encouraged me to get my words “out there.”

Me at 18

Me at 18

One poem in particular received both criticism and a compliment. It was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams,” written about saying goodbye to a dear friend. It was short and sweet:

“Without you to share with,
my days will only fly
on half a wing.”

One audience member (or maybe two) quickly pointed out that my metaphor didn’t make sense. How can there be just half a wing?

And then a fellow West Virginia writer, sitting right up in front of the stage in her wheelchair, spoke up and said she completely understood the imagery. I have never forgotten her support that day. Sometimes just one kind word can inspire us to carry on with our writing. And I have.


Once a slave, then free, a beloved neighbor

Isaac Sims manumission letter on display at Nicholas County Courthouse

This is the letter that officially emancipated Isaac Sims, written by his owner James Sims in Nicholas County, Virginia (later West Virginia) in September 1836. It is still on display at the Nicholas County (WV) Courthouse in Summersville.

Author’s Note: Isaac Sims is one of the real people who inhabit Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, a historical fiction novel based on real events in my great-great-grandmother’s life. He is featured in Chapter Three.

A beloved community member

On December 9th, 1836–nearly 180 years ago this week–the Virginia General Assembly received a petition from more than 200 residents of Nicholas County, Virginia. The signers requested that a former slave be allowed to live in their community permanently.

Who was this man, and why was he so well-liked by hundreds of his neighbors that they wanted him to remain in their midst after he was emancipated?

His name was Isaac Sims.

The Sims slaves

There were not many slave owners in western Virginia before the Civil War.  According to David J. Emmick, author of Defending the Wilderness, “Slaves were not profitable in the back country farms.” Unlike Eastern Virginia planters who grew plantation crops like tobacco and cotton, the western mountaineer farmers generally tended their mountain and valley farms themselves, with help from friends and family.

James Sims was one of the few slave owners who lived in 19th Century western Virginia. Census records and legal documents from that time show that he and his family arrived from Bath County, VA with 18 slaves .

Isaac Sims was 14 years old when his owner settled on property in Kanawha (and later Nicholas) County along the Gauley River. Isaac’s brother Robert was also a Sims slave, according to published accounts. At some point, Robert escaped from the Sims farm.”Keeping his eye on the north star as he traveled at night, he reached Canada and freedom,” newspaper columnist Clarence Shirley Donnelly wrote many years later.

Isaac remained with the Sims family and, over the years, gained a reputation for being an excellent marksman.  His master, a gunsmith, allowed Isaac to hunt deer on Sundays and sell the skins. Isaac also sold boat gunwales he fashioned from chunks of wood.

Isaac, described as ‘dark, five foot five, and slender,’ married a woman named Emily who was owned by Joseph McNutt, another Nicholas County slaveowner. Isaac and Emily had a son and a daughter, George Addison and Harriet Jane, who were owned by yet another local master, Robert Neil.

Historic documents present a picture of Isaac as a man who was well-liked by the Sims family as well as others in the community. He was allowed certain privileges that other slaves at that time were unlikely to have. For example, he is listed as holding an account at a local store owned by M.J. Landcraft. And James Sims even decided that he would allow Isaac to buy his freedom with the money earned through sales of the skins and gunwales. The price: $150.

Free at last

Having met the terms of the agreement with his owner, Isaac was granted his freedom on September 26, 1836. He was 43 years old. His letter of “manumission,” as it was called, is still posted in the Nicholas County, West Virginia Courthouse today. [see above petition]

But there was a problem. Virginia assemblymen had enacted a law in 1806 that forced  freed slaves to leave the state within twelve months after their emancipation. The idea behind the 1806 act, which was called a ‘black law,’ was that slave rebellions might be triggered by the presence of free people of color living in proximity to the slaveholders’ homes and farms.

This meant that Isaac would have to leave Virginia and face possible re-capture in another slave state. His wife Emily had died by the time of his emancipation, but his children still lived in Nicholas County and he would be forced to live far away from them.

The people of Nicholas County were determined not to let this happen. Sims and other family members, with local judges’ permission, tacked a petition on the front door of the Nicholas County Courthouse at Summersville. People coming and going from court business were able to sign the petition, which by Virginia law was required to be posted for at least two months prior to application to the state’s General Assembly.

The petition reads:


To the Legislature of Virginia

Your Petitioners humbly represent that JAMES SIMS of the County of Nicholas has recently emancipated ISAAC a blackman who is desirous of remaining in the Commonwealth, your Petitioners represent that there are but very few slaves in the County of Nicholas not exceeding sixty — nor is there more than one other coloured person in the County who is free — your Petitioners further state the said black man ISAAC is an exceedingly honest industrious and useful man addicted to no vicious habits whatsoever, but peaceful & inoffensive & meek in all his intercourse & business with the country — your Petitioners would be truly gratified should this Legislature in its wisdom think proper to grant his application — your Petitioners are well convinced that no mischief can result to the country by doing so and as a precedent in this part of the state nothing of evil is to be apprehended.

More than 230 Nicholas Countians signed the petition. I found a few of my descendants’ signatures on Isaac’s petition, including my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Backhouse and his sons, and a few of my Grose family great-grand-uncles.

The Race and Slavery Petitions Project lists two different petitions filed on Isaac’s behalf on December 9, 1836. Each petition lists the same 10 petitioners in addition to James Sims himself. However, one petition is listed as having three pages and the second had five. Even more curious, the first petition is marked “rejected;reasonable,” while the second is marked “no recorded result.”

This brings up a few questions. Why was the petition divided into two? Was the first rejected and the second accepted? Who was the person or persons who traveled to Richmond from Nicholas County to present the petition to the lawmakers?  I hope to find out someday and if I do, I will share that information with you. You can find a digitized copy of the Nicholas County petition in the Library of Virginia’s Legislative Petitions Database.

“We all thought a great deal of Isaac.”

We know from census records, land transactions, ledger books and newspaper articles that Isaac was, indeed, allowed to remain in Nicholas County and lived there until his death, which came sometime before June 9, 1875. Records show his children George Addison and Harriet Jane both died sometime during the Civil War.

In 1850, Isaac is listed in the census as living in the Mathew Hughes household. Mathew was the widower of James Sims’ daughter Margaret. Various records show Isaac buying tools and furniture from estate sales in the 1850s and ’60s. In 1860, we find Isaac living in his own home alone. Land records show that after he was granted permanent residence, he purchased 17 and a half acres of Nicholas County land on both sides of the Gauley River. His real estate value was $1000  that year.

In a 1961 letter to the editor of the Beckley (WV) Post-Herald, Mrs. E.C. Wicker of Hinton remembered Isaac. She was a Sims descendant, and her father Miletus welcomed Isaac into their home, where she says he sometimes spent weekends. “We all thought a great deal of Isaac,” she wrote.

You can find greater detail about Isaac and other Sims slaves in Cathy Meder-Dempsey’s blog, Opening Doors in Brick Walls. Cathy is a descendant of James Sims and her genealogy efforts have provided me with invaluable information about my own family. I am grateful for her intrepid, meticulous research.


Look Away, Dixie – No, Really, Look Away

Editor’s note: I wrote this just over a year ago and it seems very relevant to recent events in South Carolina, so I am reblogging.

Plots and Crock Pots

In 2011, the United States entered into a sesquicentennial period. That long word represents a long time by a young country’s standards: 150 years. 2011 marked 150 years since the United States of America was sliced in two by the secession of the southern states, who thought it would be better to start their own country where slavery would be allowed. Yet in some patches of the now reattached American South there are still folks hanging on for dear life, all these years later, to that tattered Confederate flag.

Case in point: Students at the College of Charleston (South Carolina) are protesting the hiring of a new president at their school. The new president is the Lieutenant Governor of the Palmetto State Glenn McConnell.

If McConnell signs on the dotted line of his new employment contract , he will become president of a college whose minority enrollment–black students in particular–is lower than that of any other…

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“Sometimes you may have to die…”

My mind is still reeling and stomach tied in knots since hearing of the slaughter in Charleston, South Carolina, this week of a pastor and eight of his church members. A white, racist terrorist sat calmly for an hour in the weekly Wednesday prayer meeting before raising his gun and killing the nine Christians.

I share the sentiments expressed so eloquently by “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart:

“I honestly have nothing other than just sadness that we, once again, have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of just a gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend that it doesn’t exist.”

Artist's rendering of Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

Artist’s rendering of Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

The Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston has faced danger since its creation in 1818.  Denmark Vesey, a free African American and one of  Emanuel’s founders, was sentenced to death and the church burned to the ground because of his plans to help set slaves free. The rebuilt church was shut down by the state during the Civil War. Emanuel was a stronghold during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The church has navigated constant threats and violence and struggled to remain a place of peace and safety for generations of members.

Now we know that even this stalwart sanctuary was not a safe place for nine people praying and praising. Speaking in 2013 about the history of Emanuel AME Church, Rev. Clementa Pickney, also a South Carolina state senator, told of Denmark Vesey and the sacrifices of so many others who have served the church. Here’s what Rev. Pinckney told a group attending the 2013 Civil Rights Ride event:

“Many of us don’t see ourselves as just a place where we come and worship but as a beacon and a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people. But I like to say that this is not necessarily unique to us: it’s really what America is all about. Could we not argue that America is about freedom–whether we live it out or not–but it really is about freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be and have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die, like Denmark Vesey,to do that. Sometimes you have to march and struggle and be unpopular to do that.”

You can watch Rev. Pinckney’s entire speech here:

Corned Beef and a Tip of the Hat to Irish Civil War Soldiers


Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland. Ballintubber means ‘local well,’ and it was here that St. Patrick baptized new Christians before he ascended a nearby mountain, known as Croagh Patrick.


It would not be St. Patrick’s Day in our house without a corned beef and cabbage dinner, a little homemade Irish soda bread and a Guinness or two. This year, I’d also like to celebrate the Civil War contributions of Irish immigrants to the Union cause (they won, remember?).

So here’s a little trivia for you concerning the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, Virginia, which was fought just miles from my great-great-grandmother Caroline’s home. I imagine she could hear the gunfire ringing out early on the morning of September 10, 1861.

The generals of this Gauley River firefight were William Rosecrans (Union) and John Floyd (Confederate), who was also the former governor of Virginia. The Union was heavily represented at Carnifex by regiments of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the 10th unit of which was made up largely of Irish immigrants who mustered in at Cincinnati and trained at Camp Dennison in Columbus.

Union forces took a heavy hit at Carnifex–17 killed, including a colonel, and more than 150 wounded. Although the Confederates suffered few casualties, the battle was a decisive victory for the Yankees and they retained control of the entire Kanawha Valley from that time on. It was a pivotal win early in the war.

William Lytle, commander of what was known as “the bloody tinth,” was wounded at Carnifex Ferry but went on to lead in other battles. He was also a nationally known poet and penned, among others, the poem ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’

Back to the corned beef in the crockpot. Smithsonian Magazine asks the question, is corned beef really Irish? Maybe not, but it’s the way we toast the folks from the Emerald Isle.

London by the book

My great-great-great-grandparents were known to have the largest private collection of books in their community. I don’t doubt that they and all of their children owned and read Charles Dickens books. Dickens published Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and Old Curiosity Shop in the 1830s and 40s, when my G-G-grandmother Caroline was a teenager. I have written Dickens books into Caroline’s story, as a matter of fact. Which brings me to reblog a post I wrote in 2008, when our family lived in London and I visited the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street.

London Town

It seems to me only fitting that I should read books by British authors while we’re living here. To that end, I’ve so far enjoyed Jane Austen’s  Sense and Sensibility and Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.

I’m admitting here, of course, that my classic reading credentials up to now are thin. When we studied Great Expectations in high school, I’m pretty sure I used the Cliffs Notes version rather than reading the whole book. Pretty shameful, eh?

But I’m living in Dickens’ city now, and I’m inspired. He is everywhere. Just a few blocks from SU’s London Centre stands Dickens’ former home, at 48 Doughty Street. While he lived there with his wife Catherine, their first two children were born. And his two literary Dickens’ deskchildren, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist were born there as well.

I actually stood next to the desk where he wrote his last…

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‘I Hope…To See You Once More And Then I Would Die Contented’: An Irish Mother Writes to Her Son

The American Civil War was not fought by native-born Americans alone. This heart-touching letter, written by an Irish mother living in New York in 1864, is but one example of the sacrifices Irish immigrants made for this country.

Irish in the American Civil War

Bridget Burns married her husband William in Ireland on 18th August 1840. When her husband died eight years later, he left Bridget a widow and their only child, Henry, fatherless at the age of six. By the time 1861 came along, Bridget and her son were living 125 Greenwich Avenue, New York. On 19th August that year 19-year-old Henry enlisted, becoming a Private in Company D of the 59th New York Infantry. With that act, Bridget became one of tens of thousands of Irish mothers who spent each day on edge, waiting for news from the front. Over the course of the war Henry regularly corresponded with his mother; he sent his letters to neighbour Catharine Farrell who read them out to the illiterate Irishwoman.

Henry, always keen to hear from home, felt his mother didn’t write to him enough and chastised her for it- at one point in 1863 telling…

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19th Century Recipes: Bread, Wine, Soap, Dye and Pantaloons

So you’re living in West Virginia in the 1860s and you decide to bake a nice Sally Lunn bread. You obviously need flour along with butter, sugar, salt and eggs. And yeast, of course. Where to get the yeast? If you haven’t any from the general store–let’s say you live many miles from the nearest town and are fresh out–where does it come from? You make it from scratch in your kitchen, of course.

Or so I’ve learned from this lovingly preserved recipe book. The cook noted this location and date on the page with a recipe for soft soap (page 83): “Springfield, Monroe County, West Virginia, 1867.” At that time, West Virginia would have been a state four years unto its own, broken off from Virginia during the Civil War in 1863.

Soft soap recipe from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869

Soft soap recipe from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869

This foodie treasure comes from Virginia Tech’s History of Food and Drink Collection and is one of several you’ll find on the library’s website. You learn from reading the handwritten recipes that the aforementioned yeast could be made from either hops or potatoes (as in the case of “Philadelphia Yeast,” page 58). The book also includes natural dye recipes, such as one for “turning wool brown.”

Pantaloons as Pastry 

There are many delightful finds in these pages, like the dessert named “Tangled Pantaloons,” which really has no modern equivalent in undergarments or desserts. This is not just a recipe book, though. Tucked in between recipes for corned beef and blackberry wine are inspirational quotes, like this one:

“May all your youthful days be spent in peace, prosperity and happiness. May not one single cloud of sorrow arise to mar your pleasures in this life. And when the evening of life draws near may all who know you be able to say of you, ‘None knew her best but to love her, none named her but to praise.'”

This is taken from a women’s periodical published by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Other verses found in the cookbook were commonly written in Victorian memory or autograph books. The combination of recipes and rosy sentiments gives the reader a peek into one Appalachian homemaker’s daily meals and meditations.

And of course you’ll want the recipe for Tangled Pantaloons…

Tangled Pantaloons (Page 15)

Recipe for Tangled Pantaloons from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869.

Recipe for Tangled Pantaloons from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869.

Link to “What’s Cookin’?”, the History of Food and Drink Collection blog.