AUTHOR: Gary Neil Carden
When I was a child, I often went with my grandfather, Samuel Arthur Carden, to visit his mother “Aunt Nancy” Gibson Carden, who lived in Cowee, which is ten or twelve miles beyond Franklin, NC. Aunt Nancy (who was nicknamed “Babby”), was bedridden and in her 90s. She was often propped up on a chair with pillows between her body and the chair, so her head was elevated. On that day, there had been a family reunion held at Aunt Nancy’s home, and in the afternoon, most family members had gone to the cemetery to tend to the graves. I had been to the cemetery before and did not want to go again, so I stayed with Aunt Nancy, who knew I was bored. She told me to pull out an old trunk from under her bed and open it. I did and found that it was full of old tintypes. There were hundreds of solemn couples, and Aunt Nancy pointed to one couple and said, “That is my wedding photo.” I said that her husband, my great-grandfather John Bowman Carden, looked unhappy. She laughed and said that she didn’t think she had heard him laugh a dozen times in his life. I asked why, and she said, “He never forgot what had happened to his father.” She said that great-grandfather’s father, William Bryant Carden, had been shot by Kirk’s Raiders and hanged in his front yard.
My great-grandmother told me that William Bryant Carden had been wounded during the Civil War in a battle in West Virginia. Taken as a prisoner of war after that battle, a Union surgeon had removed his shattered arm, then seared the stump with a white-hot wagon bolt. Bryant became ill after the operation and almost died in a Union hospital. Eventually he was traded by the Yankees for one of their own, and Bryant was returned to a Confederate camp.
Since he was no longer capable of “bearing arms,” he was officially discharged. Aunt Nancy said that Bryant walked home, coming back to Macon County from Clayton, Georgia. When he arrived home, he was physically weak and spent most of that winter sitting in front of the fire, staring into the coals. He reportedly had “bad dreams,” but when the next spring arrived, he rallied and set about getting ready to farm. He made a brace for his plow so that he could use it with one arm.
On the morning of his death, he was plowing when Kirk’s Raiders came. All mountain families knew what a visit from Kirk meant: North Carolinians knew to stand mute while the Raiders took grain, chickens, and horses. According to Bryant’s wife, Mary Childers Carden, Bryant stood quietly in the field while his mule was taken. As the Raiders were leaving, Kirk halted and noted that Bryant still wore the uniform of the enemy. He was referring to the fact that Bryant was wearing his old Confederate coat with one sleeve pinned up. Mary Carden said that Kirk pulled his pistol and shot Bryant in the face. Afterward, the Raiders hung Bryant’s corpse from a tree in the front yard.
Afterward, my great-great-grandmother Mary went to find help, which was over ten miles away. She left their child, my great-grandfather John Carden, on the front porch with Bryant’s corpse. She did not return until the following day and had trouble finding little John. According to Aunt Nancy, my great-grandfather was hiding in the chimney corner. After his father was killed, he was a quiet and withdrawn child. As an adult, John Carden became a teacher and photographer.
After Aunt Nancy finished telling me this story, she leaned over and plucked a letter from the trunk and handed it to me. It was a remarkable document, and I immediately noticed the cursive script and the “flying bird” in the upper right corner of the document. She said that she had been thinking about it for some time and that she had decided to give me the letter. She asked me to read the last paragraph, which was meant for Bryant’s wife and a friend who was asked to deliver the letter, out loud. Bryant wrote that it was beginning to rain, and he was worried about the rain ruining his letter. He ended the letter by noting that he hoped to be home soon. There are splotches on the letter due to the rain drops that fell while Bryant was writing. Aunt Nancy’s final words to me were, “Now, don’t you forget what they did to Bryant.”