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!

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.

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 College

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!

Minnie’s 116th Birthday and Her Corn Pone Recipe

Minnie Velma Backus, 1898-1993

Minnie Velma Backus, 1898-1993

Yesterday was my Grandma’s birthday. Minnie Velma Backus was born on March 2, 1898. If Heaven is the type of place from where our dear, departed loved ones look down and check out what we’re doing here on Earth, I hope she can see that I am doing my best to fulfill the promise I made to her. I promised her I would keep our family history alive. And in the process, I am writing a book.

Grandma was a sweet, sentimental woman and a saver of keepsakes. She kept little mementoes tucked away in envelopes in shoe boxes, in plastic cases in her chest of drawers, even in her sewing box. She saved letters from her son who served overseas during World War II. She saved  every card a grandchild ever sent her, and even kept five pennies that my little cousin gave her as a present. She put them in an envelope and wrote “From Jennifer” on it in pencil.

A Keeper—In More Ways Than One

Some of Minnie's many keepsakes

Some of Minnie’s many keepsakes

Most importantly to me, Grandma kept a letter that serves as the most important clue to our 19th Century family history. She carefully saved a letter written to my great-great-grandmother Caroline Grose in 1854 Virginia by a man who professed his love for her. The letter lasted through the Civil War—two battles of which were fought within 10 miles of Caroline’s family farm—and it even traveled without leaving home, surrounded by the freshly drawn border of the new state of West Virginia in 1863. It survived Caroline’s marriage to another man, my great-great-grandfather Frank, and was safely passed to her son Adam, his daughter Minnie and finally to me.

And now my historical novel “Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story” is in the works, taking shape every day at my desk as I type and look out at a perpetually snowy back yard. I could not realize my writing dream if it were not for Minnie Backus’ care and preservation of a true treasure. And so I celebrate her 116th birthday (she lived to be 95). In keeping with my promise to pass on our Backus family history, I will also share her corn pone recipe with you. Grandma was a great cook and her many specialties included this corn pone, a type of corn bread, which she oven baked in an iron skillet.

Indian Head Old Fashioned Stone Ground Yellow Corn Meal

Indian Head Old Fashioned Stone Ground Yellow Corn Meal, sitting next to some of Grandma’s vintage Fiestaware plates

My cousin Kitty deserves full credit for saving what she calls “Aunt Minnie’s Sweetened Corn Pone” recipe. She is an outstanding keeper of family traditions. Before you begin to bake this, here’s an important note. It calls for “natural not degerminated” corn meal. So don’t buy the regular corn meal with the Quaker Oats guy smiling at you from the box. Natural corn meal, I have found out, is corn meal in which the heart or “germ” of the corn is ground into the meal rather than removed. I found this brand at my local super-duper-market.

Aunt Minnie’s Sweetened Corn Pone

  • 4 cups corn meal (natural, not degerminated)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Mix the above with hot water (not boiling) to a stiff mixture. Pat down with a spoon and leave on the stove near a pilot or warm place all night. In the morning, if it cracks when it’s stirred, it’s okay.

When ready to bake, add:

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup white flour
  • 1 teaspoon (scant) soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons sorghum molasses
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

Mix and bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. When you take it out of the oven, pour 1/2 cup water over the pone and cover it. The water over it while hot with the lid on makes it moist (a must).

A Chicken in Every Plot

Snowed in!

Snowed in!

Three feet of snow on the ground has me longing for comfort food. Also, this week began with President’s Day and although that holiday honors Washington and Lincoln, it got me thinking about Herbert Hoover (go figure). Add to that odd mix the challenges of writing about 19th century Virginia down to the last detail, including what they ate and how they caught, cooked, stored and traveled with it. Voila! A blog post title.

So first, Hoover. His famous campaign slogan, “A chicken in every pot,” actually originated in a 1928 Republican National Committee ad. The slogan was designed to show that a vote for Hoover was a vote for continued prosperity already set in motion by the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge. But that prosperity was cut short, seven months into Hoover’s presidency, by the stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression.

Chickening out

Editorial cartoon by Tulley, 1932

Editorial cartoon by Tulley, 1932

Was it Hoover’s fault that the banks failed in the first place? Doubtful. Was it his refusal to dip into the federal pot to help economically devastated families that prolonged the Depression? We’ll leave that for historians to decide. I got this information from The History Channel, cablecaster of such historically accurate programs as “Swamp People” and “Pawn Stars,” so believe it at your own risk.

So the voters chickened out, so to speak, and Hoover got the electoral boot in 1932. A chicken in every pot turned out more like a soup line in every neighborhood. And then it all became FDR’s problem.

Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul

Now we jump back almost a century and tackle the question of how my ancestors got their chickens from coop to stove. Writing this historical fiction novel requires me to spend many hours Googling questions about Victorian food, transportation, clothing, social mores and such.

I certainly can assume that my great-great-grandmother’s family raised their own chickens. They lived on a farm, for Pete’s sake. So from visions of their gathering eggs to chopping off the poor birds’ heads, I can draw a picture of 1850s Western Virginia chicken cooking.

Whereas today I throw meaty chicken pieces into my crock pot and walk away to work at my writing desk, preparing poultry for dinner was a much more complex task for my GG Grands. Plucking, gutting, chopping, etc. And then one wonders what type of cook stove they had. For this info, I turn to YouTube and the Historic Cooking Channel.

Chicken in a Writer’s Crock Pot

So whether Great-Great-Grandmother Caroline fried, boiled or baked her chickens, she had by the mid-1800s probably graduated from the large, open, colonial-era fireplace to the iron stove, which was much more convenient and modern. Thanks to electricity and big-box superstores, I can buy crockpots and pre-chopped peppers, onions and celery and cut my cooking time to a fraction. Hence, I will share with you my adaptation of Chicken in a Pot, a recipe found in the Fix It and Forget It Cookbook: Feasting with Your Slow Cooker.

Note: As inspired by penny-wise survivors of the Great Depression (aka my parents), I have used three pounds of chicken legs (very meaty) in this one-pot meal (4 pounds of chicken legs cost me $3.00 – such a bargain).

Chicken in a Pot

  • 2 carrots, sliced (or equivalent amount of pre-cut baby carrots, cleaned and scraped)
  • 2 medium onions, sliced (or store-bought diced, about a cup)
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced (or ” , about 1/2 – 3/4 cup)
  • 3 pounds of chicken legs
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 cup water, chicken broth or white cooking wine (I use chicken broth, made with 1 cup of hot water and a boullion cube
  1. Place vegetables in bottom of cooking sprayed slow cooker. Place chicken pieces on top of vegetables. Add seasonings and water or broth.
  2. Cover. Cook on low 8-10 hours (my crockpot runs hotter than this, so it takes me about 6 hours on low; use your own judgment) or high 3 1/2 hours (use 1 cup of extra liquid if cooking on high)

This is a great way to prepare cooked chicken for other recipes — soups, stews, casseroles, etc.

You can read more about Caroline’s life on Facebook/ Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story  or follow along 140 characters at a time on Twitter @panthermtnichol

Soup du Jour: Chard

iStockphoto/Suzannah Skelton

iStockphoto/Suzannah Skelton

My experience with chard began in 1998, when our family joined a community supported agriculture pod in our neighborhood. Yes, that’s right. A pod. We were pod people, although not body snatchers.

To say that our neighborhood was inhabited by organic militants would not be misrepresenting history. You may feel that it’s harsh of me to call my neighbors organic militants. But have you ever had anyone stand in your very own kitchen in your very own house and criticize you in front of children for serving said children Kool Aid containing Red Dye #5? I’m still smarting. So forgive my snarkiness, but really….

Back to chard. One week I picked up our box of organic produce from our podmaster’s house and saw that instead of the lettuce I ordered, a bunch of Swiss chard had been delivered. I am not a greens person like my grandparents who grew their own kale and drowned it in vinegar. But over the years I have grown fond of raw spinach and am absolutely in love with Utica greens as prepared by the wondrous North Syracuse restaurant Nesticos.

Seeing as how I couldn’t return the unwanted chard and had no idea what to do with it, and because I hate to waste food (child of people who lived through The Great Depression), I went online in search of chard recipes.  This was back when Yahoo was Altavista and our computer had dial up, so it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I found a lovely recipe for chard soup which I think is quite tasty.

Chard is a mellow green, not like its bitter cousins arugula and mustard greens, that easily melds with other flavors like onion and garlic. It comes in different varieties, Swiss and rainbow to name just two. And as a bonus, this soup recipe includes sound effects. You begin the process by heating mustard seeds in olive oil and as they warm up, they pop around the bottom of the pot like Mexican jumping beans only much smaller. So here is my chard soup recipe, ripped from the phone lines of slow internet connections.

Chard Soup

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 4 medium potatoes, sliced (you can leave the skin on if you like)
  • 1 bunch chard, shredded and stems removed
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • salt & pepper
  • optional: sour cream or yogurt, chives

Heat oil and mustard seed until seeds begin to pop. Sauté garlic and onion in oil until softened. Add celery, potatoes and chard. Add stock, boil and cook uncovered until potatoes are very tender, about 25 or 30 minutes. Mash potatoes in the pot until coarsely broken up. Add vinegar and cook uncovered for another 10 minutes to concentrate flavors. Salt and pepper to taste. You may serve with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt topped with a sprinkle of chives.

By the way, chard is a “super food,” as they’re called. You can count all the vitamins here.

The Cheese Stands Alone

For most of my life, I have assumed the line “The cheese stands alone” from the childhood circle song “The Farmer in the Dell” had to do with the type of cheese we were singing about. I have always taken for granted that the cheese in question must have been stinky, like limburger, and therefore had to stay outside the circle.

limburger cheeseIn case you’re wondering which other cheeses of the world are odiferous, here is a list of the Top Ten stinkiest cheeses, according to one travel blog.

One might also wonder whether chucking the cheese out of the handheld circle is some ancient German form of bullying by exclusion. If so, we need to stop that right now and say something nice to the poor child who has become the cheese, like, “Aw, we didn’t mean it, come on back into the circle, you crazy cheese.”

If you Google “the cheese stands alone meaning,” you will find all sorts of theories posited on sketchy wiki sites. One interpretation has the cheese representing the means of production which surely smells like Marxian economics. Another explains that “the cheese” is slang for “anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous.”

My favorite pop culture reference to this phrase comes from character Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory”:  “Because I am without friends. Like the proverbial cheese, I stand alone. Even while seated.”Sheldon Cooper

I’m reading a wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, and her words are inspiring and teaching me as I write my first book. Her take on the cheese is the following: “The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” So being the cheese, I’ve decided, is about observing the world around me from outside the circle (a phrase I much prefer to the well-worn cliche “outside the box”).

I hope my blog posts here will include pithy observations and some cheesy recipes as well.