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!

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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:

A PETITION FROM NICHOLAS COUNTY, VIRGINIA TO GRANT PERMANENT RESIDENCE TO ISAAC SIMS, 1836

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.

 

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).