Civil War-era family

Women and Children at Home

  • John Fee -- an account of a wartime journey by a preacher's wife and family
  • Nancy Steele Dowis -- letter from a sister to her soldiering brother
  • Ella Johnson -- a grandmother's recollection of a Civil War childhood in Owensboro
  • Eldress Nancy -- a South Union Shaker woman's Civil War diary
  • Samuel Bennett -- a mother's letter to a son in the Union Army

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John Fee

John Fee was a native Kentuckian, a minister, and an abolitionist. During the Civil War, while Fee was working in Cincinnati, his wife and children made a trip to their home in Kentucky near Perryville, which at the time was under Confederate control. This is a chronicle of a family's experience during the Battle of Perryville.

Ten weeks had elapsed since I had seen my wife and the two eldest children. These were weeks of commotion, anxiety and peril. As previously stated, when I started around by Cincinnati, my wife, with her two children, had started in her private carriage across the country for our inland home. The country at that time was full of soldiers, Union and Rebel. The first day she came as far as five miles south of Blue Licks, a noted "watering-place." The next day, after long delays, because of soldiery and government teams, she came to a country store and "tavern" -- eighteen miles from her home. The next morning, after securing a small supply of groceries for a destitute home in a destitute region, she started for home. On coming through Richmond, our county seat, the people, men and women, expressed surprise at seeing a woman driving along the highway. She had not proceeded more than three miles when she was halted by Union pickets, who at first suspected she might be a rebel spy, conveying news to Kirby Smith's men, who were already near to her home. Her frank manner, her commendation of "eternal vigilance as the price of liberty," her story of who she was and where she was going, together with the Union flag painted on her carriage, and manifestly, not recently, painted for effect, but of previous design -- all these considerations constrained the officer to say, "Let her go; she is all right." She came to her humble home, constructed a bedstead, filled a tick with straw, borrowed a blanket to sleep under, lay down with her two children and slept. The next day whilst out hunting up some simple cooking utensils which two years previously she had distributed among neighbors, rebel soldiers came into her house, took her borrowed blanket, her coarse and fine comb, her better shoes and Burritt's hat, and the carriage harness. The horse and carriage were hid in the woods. My daughter Laura had a very nice Union flag which her mother had made, and with this a set of silver spoons her grandfather had given to her; these she had hid up in the eaves-trough. These the rebels did not find; so the present loss of the little family was not great, and they could say with Col. Slack's slave, "Blessed be nothing; I has nothing to lose, and nothing to be sorry for."

Thousands of Kirby Smith's men were then encamped near by. With some other women my wife went to the encampment to see the complexion of the rebel soldiery. Whilst sitting with other women a rebel officer rode up, and addressing himself politely, inquired of my wife for her home, and then for the "politics" of the region. My wife said, "My home is near by; and, as for politics, we are for the Union, and believe slavery is wrong, and that the rebels are fighting for a lost cause." The officer inquired, "Madam, ain't you from the North?" She replied, "No, this is my home and my native State." Again he inquired in a tone derisive, "Madam, are you an Abolitionist?" She replied, "I am." "Well," said he, "I have seen some men who were Abolitionists, but I never before this saw a woman who was." My wife then asked, "Why are you here with the uniform of our men on you?" He had a Union belt on him with U.S. inverted. He replied, "Madam, don't you see that is S.U. -- Southern Union?" and rode off. Not long after this she heard the Cannon's roar at Perryville. Soon this was followed by the retreating rebel army with trains of wagons laden with plunder, and herds of lowing cattle famishing for the want of water.

Three rebel officers came up to her house and asked for food. My wife had some potatoes, meal, coarse flour and milk. She gave to them bread and milk, with baked potatoes. They received this kindly, and were very respectful. Soon after they were gone my wife learned that some rebel soldiers were in her potato patch, grabbing her potatoes.

A friend who had occupied the house for a time, left for her a small plat of ground planted with potatoes. Taking her son Burritt with her, she went for her potatoes. Something to live on then was an item of concern. She came to the fence and said, "Men, I have fed your officers, and now you are taking the last potato I have; this is no credit to you." One young fellow looked up pertly and said, "Madam, credit has gone up long ago." They filled their haversacks and went on.

Scenes of privation, anxiety and toil went on from day to day. At the end of ten weeks my wife's mother came, informing her where I was, and helped her and the children back to the border of the State.

From The Autobiography of John Fee

(C) This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use
as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

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Nancy Dowis

In this letter to her brother S.J. Steele, a Union soldier, Nancy Steele Dowis tells him of all her anxiety for family members, both those in the army and those sick at home.

Lynn Camp Ky

At home Mar 9 1862

Dear Brother
With much anxiety -- I assume the present appearance to write to you that you may know that I am well and my family also.

We live here in a land of distress and war. There is now an Army stationed in this County and a battle expected at Cumberland Gap. My oldest son is in the union Army and will be in the battle when it comes Oh! what distress. A great many of our relations are also in the same regiment (7th Ky.)

I am very anxious to know what the times really are in your country. I cant rely on the papers for news. There seems to be great distress in your country. You must write to me and let me know all about the times there. Mother is very ill. she has been at the point of death for a long time. I believe she is stricken with palsy. She was perfectly useless in every respect -- but is now getting a little better so that she can talk a little, but the left side of her body is perfectly paralized. She will never get over it.

The rebels are pretty well cleaned out of Kentucky and I hope the game is about played out with them. There is a great deal of sickness in County now and a good many deaths also. Bill Dowis is dead. Several others also that you know. I lost my youngest son by accident. He volunteered in the service and by accident shot himself and died away from home. I have now but three children. Tell Sam Mitchell if he is at your house that his folks are all well & Bob is in the Army. Brother Speed is in the Army also. Be sure to write.

Your sister,

Letter from Nancy Steele Dowis to her brother S.J. Steele.
She was the mother of Gale Dowis.

15 February 1998 Margy Miles

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Ella Johnson

This section is from a book written by Ella Johnson, who was a child during the Civil War. She tells of her experiences growing up in Daviess County in a family who had Southern sympathies, but lived in a town occupied by Federal forces.

My earliest recollection is a doubted one. My father always insisted that I was far too young to remember it. I persist in thinking I do remember it, and am not just repeating hearsay. Union troops were in possession of our house and had ordered my mother to prepare a meal for them. She appeared to obey, and took me and a negro woman to the outdoor kitchen and from there escaped through a window, and the three of us spent the night in hiding, in a turnip field. Now this is what I think I remember, lying in my mother's lap and looking up at the stars. Presently she put her hand over my eyes and said, "Go to sleep, Ella." I do remember the stars, her hand over my eyes and being told to go to sleep. Father and I always disagreed about it. He said I couldn't and I said, and still say, "I do."

My mother's mother, who lived in Missouri, following a family custom, had sent me, at my birth, a negro boy and girl, Alex and Mimi, about ten and twelve years old respectively. My next recollection is of a line of bluecoated soldiers picketed along our front fence. My father, in irons, was brought to the gate and my mother allowed to speak to him from the front steps; no nearer. I never knew why it occurred nor what it was all about, but Mimi carried me down and held me up while I put my head between the bayonets and kissed him. Being manacled, he couldn't raise his hands. He was later taken away as he had come, under guard.

The Federal gun-boats, as they passed up and down the river, usually shelled the town, on general principles, I suppose, and I grew to know the whine of the bombs as they passed over the house; we were so close to the river that they always fell beyond us.

There were days when every one went about with hushed movements while rows and rows of marching blue-coats went through the street. We watched them furtively through jalousies, as all the houses were closed, shuttered and deserted-looking. Some one, my aunt, perhaps, said: "The whole Union army must be going by," and some one replied, "This isn't a drop in the bucket." For years I puzzled over this remark. It was too much for my childish understanding. Even now I never hear the expression without seeing that darkened room and hearing the sound of those tramping, tramping feet.

Then there were days when a cluster of tents was pitched in a nearby field, and everyone moved heaven and earth to take these gray clad men all the food and clothing that could possibly be spared from our own scanty store, for these were "our boys"; our own "Johnny Rebs," and we'd all gladly go hungry and cold to aid them. We were ready to live and die for Dixie.

I had developed into a runaway. Early in the morning, when Mimi was dressing me, I'd twist out of her hands, unbuttoned and unbrushed, and dart away to my favorite neighbors and present myself in the dining room, where I was welcomed, buttoned and given a seat at the breakfast table -- unless Mimi followed me too closely.

My father had a fine point dog named Ponto, who was sent to get me if he were within call. He'd catch my small garments in his mouth, turn me around and push me ignominiously before him, and neither yells nor coaxing had any effect on him. Sometimes I would drop on the ground screaming with rage, but he'd never loose his hold. He'd wait till I got up or someone came to help him. He had been sent to bring me back and bring me back he did, once from the edge of the river when I had sneaked away while older backs were turned, for those were busy days, filled with many unaccustomed duties. Always after these returns, Ponto was petted and praised and I was spanked with a hair-brush; but experience taught me nothing. Again and again I'd run away, and again and again my mother used the hair-brush. One exploit was almost fatal. I ran over to "our tents" and was being highly entertained by a sick soldier when Ponto appeared and relentlessly marched me home. The harm was done, however. The man broke out with smallpox and so did I, and for a time my life hung in the balance, but I came through unscarred and none of the household had it.

Ponto was a magnificent bird-dog and a most intelligent animal. He brought the mail from the post office, where it was put in his mouth by the postmaster, and he refused to deliver it to anyone outside the house. It must be done in-doors. He did the family marketing on the credit system, carrying a basket with lists for the butcher and the grocer, and he always brought the packages back untouched. He was a feature of the small town and became so famous that he was finally stolen, to the regret of everyone -- even myself.

The first plaything I recall was a goodsized doll trunk, for that place and time quite a pretentious toy. I was alone in my mother's room one day, playing with this trunk when suddenly a Confederate soldier sprang through the open window, followed quickly by two Yankees who fired at him. They ran through the house and killed him at the door of the outside kitchen. I had run under the bed with my cherished trunk, thinking they had taken everything else and they'd take that also. I was too terrorized to answer when I heard my mother's agonized tones, "Ella! Ella! O my God! Where is Ella?" I finally gathered strength to crawl out and let her see that I hadn't been shot, but we were a shaken household that day.

Guerilla bands, formed from the malcontents of both armies, harried an already harassed community. One of these bands burned our county courthouse in broad daylight for the sheer pleasure of destroying. I stood on the steps of our gallery and watched the burning sheets from books and papers rise and fall in fiery showers.

When the war was over, the stricken South stooped to pick up its staggering burden and adjust itself to a changed order of living.

From Granny Remembers by Ella H. Johnson, 1928
Owensboro-Daviess County Public Library Special Collections

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Eldress Nancy

A community of Shakers lived at South Union near Bowling Green, which was occupied by both Confederate and Union armies during the war. Shakers were pacifists who did not believe in war -- and they were against slavery. South Union was located on an important rail line that connected the Union city of Louisville with the Confederate city of Nashville, TN. This passage is from the diary of Eldress Nancy, one of the leaders of the South Union Shaker community.

March 9, 1862

The company of Federal Officers who have been making arrests in our neighborhood of those who have been aiding the rebellion, came here and requested our brethren to provide a vehicle to take one strong secesh of the name of Neal B. Green. He has aimed to figure quite conspicuously in this neighbourhood since the invasion, of Ky by the rebel troops. He fled from Louisville on account of his rebellious sentiments, being in opposition to the majority, and fearing his safety, he left, and came here a refugee; since his appearance in this vicinity he has exerted his whole influence to infuse his rebellious sentiments wherever he could find a place to deposit, and room to receive them.

Our brethren were very unwilling to give so much aid in the cause of war and begged to be excused, fearing it would bring more persecution on us. The Officers learning that we had the carriage and horses and could do it, they told the brethren for their convenience they would say You must do it. The brethren understood this to be a military order, therefore he felt obliged to comply with their demand. Cyrus Blakely was chosen as the one most convenient to perform the duty. Cyrus said they went along very quietly, and Neal professed to be very thankful for the opportunity of riding with him, Cyrus returned home the same evening. He left the prisoner with the Officers. We suppose they swore him and let him go, as it was not long till he was seen in this neighbourhood again. We guess he keeps very quiet.

April 1st 1862

Elder Solomon took the provision to B.G. for the sick [soldiers].

While the Union soldiers were boarding here six or eight for upwards of a week, our secesh neighbors pretended to be very good Union men but when they were gone, the same rebellious spirit began to boil up, and vent itself as it did before, when the rebels bore sway; They pretend to believe, and feel confident their cause will finally prevail. And now we are afraid of private injury, if they are dealt with as they deserve.

March 26 1863

Thursday -- Mercury 27 degrees above zero. Clear and heavy frost. The Peach bloom are putting forth. The Louisville Journal of March 26th has some startling news in it concerning the invasion of the Rebels again into Ky. "It is stated upon good authority that John Breckinridge has command of the invading forces. -- Since his arrival in the State it is known that he has issued a proclamation to the people of Ky. copies of which had been received at Danville on Tuesday. The arch Traitor sets forth his proclamation that he has been authorized by Hawes the provisional Governor of the State, to possess and hold Kentucky as a member of the Confederate States, declaring among other things his intention of enforcing the conscription. We have learned from other sources, also that the provisions of that act are being rigidly enforced, in those regions thro' which the rebel army is passing; and that numbers of loyal men have thus been already pressed in to the rebel service."

The same paper states that the residents of the state Capital were in a state of high excitement this morning in anticipation of an immediate advance of the enemy. It also states that the Confederate force under Wheeler, Forest and Wharton crossed the Cumberland River at Harpeth Shoals, this morning six miles above Franklin, and it further states there is no doubt that the Eastern portion of Ky. has been occupied by rebel troops. Also we have a pretty well authenticated report that Danville has been occupied by the enemy.

It also stated that there was a skirmish in the vicinity of Camp Dick Robinson in which the enemy was worsted. And there is said to be a force of two or three thousand rebels in the vicinity of Glasgow and they meditate a raid on the Louisville and Nashville Rail Road. All the forgoing items were taken from the Journal of the 26th March 1863.

Elder Harvey and others set out a Pine Tree north of our shop next the street.

From The Journal of Eldress Nancy
Edited by Mary Julia Neal, 1963
Owensboro-Daviess County Public Library Special Collections

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Samuel Bennett

This letter was included in the Civil War diary of Samuel Bennett, a Daviess County native who fought for the Union Army. In it, Bennett's mother expresses her worries about his welfare.

July 22 '63

Dear Son

I gladly embrace this opportunity of wrighting you a few lines whitch I am going to send by Isaac foster whitch us in tolerable helth I earnestly hope when these lines comes to hand you will be in good helth Wilson we have not recieve a letter since your uncle came home I was very uneasy for fear somthing had happened you We had wrote several letters and got no answer

Wilson I dreamed last night that you had come home you may be sure that I was sorry when I waked and found it was a dere dream Wilson the crop is in tolerable good order you father commensed mowing yesterday and Amas thought he could mow and your father concluded that he might to get it he does very well Wilson we will get your janes today and if you want a pair of everyday pants I want you to let me know and I will make them and bring them if we get to come and if not I will send them I hope we will get to come yet I must bring my broken lines to a close by saing I hope that it will not bee long till we see each others face Write as soon as this comes to hand I remain your devoted and loving mother untill death

Judith Bennett

Diary of Samuel Wilson Bennett
Owensboro Area Museum of Science and History

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