The following account of the condition and persecutions of the Union men of North Alabama, and of the efforts of our troops, particularly the Fifty-first Indiana regiment, commanded by Col. A. D. Streight, to relieve them, is from the pen of the chaplain of that regiment.
CAMP NEAR DECATUR, July 16.
The subject on which I wish to write, is the condition and suffering of the mountaineers in Northern and Central Alabama. There is a vast valley of rich soil extending from beyond Tuscumbia west to Huntsville in the east. In this valley the great planters live. Here is their great cotton-growing region and the wealth of the state.
These mountains are peopled with quite another class of inhabitants, shorn of highfalutin aristocracy–a plain, candid, industrious people. Now these poor classes deprived of culture, as they climb the mountains, pass through the gorges, and roam over the plains, thick for think for themselves.
It came to pass in the course of human events, when Jeff Davis wished these honest-hearted men to assist him in carrying out his great, grand, and overwhelming scheme of unnatural rebellion against the government they cherished, they said no. Things went on without opposition only as they opposed its course to destruction at the ballot-box. Here they met the enemies of their country every time, and against sucession in every form. When the affairs of the state had assumed a malignant form, and were far on the road to ruin and wild desperation, they only expostulated: but when the abominable, uncivil, anti-republican conscript act passed, and was being enforced by an unfeeling, heartless band of ruffians; when confusion, dire confusion, had come upon them, turning brother against brother, and father against son; when squalid poverty stared them in the face and desperation was ensuing, caused by their being driven from home to seek a place of safety in the mountains, in caverns, in dens,–they opened their eyes to gaze upon the painful sight of liberty gone, constitution prostrated, home gone, and with it quietude and honor. To escape depotism and these heartless ruffians, men left their homes and fled to the mountains. Some made for the Union army, coming through the mountain pathways for twenty, forty, sixty, and some even ninety miles, having a complete line of friends to help them extending from Decutur to near Montgomery–the best underground railroad ever heard of or ever established.
Old men and young men came asking and praying the army to assist them, demanding protection from the old flag, and asking to live and to fight under the old Constitution, declaring they only owed allegiance to the old government, and it was the only one they would fight for.
Their piteous cries moved our colonel, A. D. Streight, who asked for a leave of absence for four days, that his regiment might visit the mountains, pry into the caverns, and ascertain more positively the true condition of those loyal persecuted men. Accordingly, early Saturday morning, July 12th, with the Fourteenth Cavalry, and a sufficient number of our Alabamians for pilots, the Fifty-first crossed the river, and, set out for the mountain regions. On we moved across the valley, while the sun poured his rays upon us–not an Indiana sun, but the sun away down in Alabama. Now this sun was shining much hotter than the sun shines any day in Indiana. Col. Streight steered us for Col. Davis’s, who lived twenty-five miles out from Decatur, at a pass in the mountains called Davis’s Gap.
We arrived at Col. Davis’s at dark, and merciful heavens, what did we there behold! An elderly lady came to the door, who was between sixty and seventy years old. She was asked does Col. Davis live here? She answered he did. Is he at home? She answered he is not.
Said Col. Streight, “we are Union troops have heard of your suffering, and have come to relieve you.” She still hesitated. “Do you believe me?” She said she would dislike to dispute his word, but a young lady came to the door and asked, “have you any of the Alabama boys with you?” They were called up from the rear. While coming, the young lady remarked, “We have been so often deceived by guerrillas, that we”–. The boys came. “Is that you, John?” Instantly she sprang into his arms, threw her arms around him, while she exclaimed: “Thank God, we are safe.” “Now,” answered the elderly lady, “I can have the old man here in a few minutes.” “Where is he?” “Just back in the mountains.” What! an old man of seventy-three years resident of the same farm for more than forty-four years, known by all men as a quiet peaceable, and pious man–to be driven from his home to have to seek refuge in the mountains, in the caverns, and dismal, secluded retreats, where the eyes of only the wild beasts had gazed! Yes, it is this old gentleman who had been driven from home, simply because he loved his country.
The night passed away without any strange occurrences and morning came on. We started out, three companies strong, to scour the country round, to, if possible, find the wounded man, but after searching, inquiring after, and tracing him till he abandoned his horse, we came to the conclusion that further search would be fruitless, fearing the rascals had pursued and murdered him. He may, there is a slight probability he will, come up yet. They stole his horse and accoutrements. While this search was going on, companies were sent out in almost every direction to scour the surrounding country. When we all meet, in the evening, some have arrested prominent secessionists, who have saddles, some have pantaloons taken from artillerymen they had previously murdered several miles away, and others horses. Sunday evening found us with over fifty recruits. They came to us all day Monday like doves to the windows. Monday evening we had speaking exercises, in which Col. Streight, Adjutant Ramsey, and Chris. Sheets took part. The speeches of the colonel and adjutant were such as they should have delivered, but that of Sheets was a strange tune coming from an Alabamian. Sheets represented Winson county in the Convention when Alabama is said to have seceded. He was prominent among the very few in that Convention who would not and did not sign the ordinance of secession.
Sheets is a young man of fine promise and makes a splendid speech. He declared to his downtrodden countrymen that the time had come for them to act, and act they must, either in an army they had no sympathy with, and in a cause for which they could have no reasonable hope of success–must thus fight an enemy they loved and for a cause they hated; or, on the other hand, join the army of the United States, fight in a cause they loved, among their friends, contend against a foe to God and man, one they hated, and one that must be put down before peace, quietude and prosperity could again prevail. He advised them to join that army and be men, and fight the Southern Confederacy to hell and back again. Said he, “To-morrow morning I am going to the Union army. I am going to expose this fiendish villany before the world. They shall hear from me. I have slept in the mountains, in caves and caverns, till I am become musty: my health and manhood are failing me. I will stay here no longer till I am enabled to dwell in quiet at home.”
Tuesday morning came–the morning we had set, and were compelled by our time being out to return to camp, thirty-one or thirty-two miles away. At about seven o’clock a company of about twenty men were seen approaching our lines, being led by a woman. They entered amid great applause. She told her story in her peculiar way, with her own peculiar gestures, the tears streaming from her eyes. Said she, “I knew I could pass those guerrillas, and find my husband and son.” who had fled for their lives some thirty-four miles back in the mountains. The lady, not in good health, and fifty-five years old, had ridden a poor horse over the mountains, tracing the mountain pathways through the gorges and around the precipices, sixty-four miles, counting the distance to and from her friends, and had made the trip in thirty hours, hunting her friends and cooking their breakfast in the time. These acts (for there are many such) should be known. Such heroines from the mountains have manifested more devotion for their country and friends than any of our Revolutionary mothers, whose acts of patriotism are held in everlasting remembrance. When the historian tells the noble deeds of daring and devotion to country, Anna Campbell, of Morgan County, Alabama, should stand first on the scroll of fame. It is no use to talk–when this old lady related her simple tale, there were but few who were not affected. Adjutant Ramsey wept, and it is said that even Colonel Streight shed tears. I know I did. I felt it was noble to weep on such occasions.
I visited an old patriot of eighty-four years. He was blind, so that he had not left his home in seven years–a peaceful, quiet old man, ripening for a better land, for he was devotedly pious. Now, simply because this old gentleman had raised his family well, so that they were all for the Union, and none of them in the Southern army, these fiends incarnate were thirsting for his blood, and had threatened him with hanging; for they had taken one of his neighbors not less virtuous, and only ten years younger.
Time came for us to leave, and our boys, having divided their rations with the Alabama recruits, were on less than half rations. This was the hottest day of the season, and there were no ambulances in which to carry the weak. But there could be no falling out, for we must pass through a hostile country. The men were formed into a long line, for we had about one hundred and fifty recruits from the mountains. And now comes the most touching scene of the expedition. We had left our families when it was heart-rending to part with the loved ones; but what was that to the parting here? We left our wives in the bosom of a sympathizing community; but these poor men must now leave their families in the midst of an unfeeling, heartless set–a community who would turn their wives out, or burn their houses over their heads, or destroy their scanty means of subsistence, and, may be, as they have done several times before outrage their persons. The wives bade their husbands farewell, bidding them go, and they would take care of themselves as best they could. Mothers wept when they bade their sons good by, with their blessings on them. Forward! was the command–a wild shriek–and we move from scenes of sufferings such as we have never before seen.