Far From Home, at Home
(Source: Contributed by Gene Smith)
“You would not feel at home tonight if you could step in and see our family circle so small, no one at home except Pa, Sarah, Janie, little Mary and myself,” Bettie Smith wistfully wrote to brother Curtis as spring stirred in 1864.
It was a good guess. Eight brothers and four sisters remained, even after nature culled three grown children and their mother as war loomed and then engulfed them. So the Smiths’ memories were rooted in a time of large gatherings at their homeplace between Black River and the Cape Fear. A time before war had left the menfolk scattered among battlefields far away.
This was no pity party, though. Things had just been livened up by a visit from brother Eddie – his first since becoming a Confederate soldier more than two years before.
“He is one of the merriest fellows you ever saw,” Bettie reported, “seems really to enjoy camp life, but he don’t like fighting much. His brigade, Hoke’s, has been ordered down to Kingston so all of our boys are there now.
“Eddie has been in Lee’s army until now. I suppose his brigade has been ordered down here for purposes of recruiting. I guess you saw an account where nearly all of that Brigade was taken prisoner last November on the other side of the Rapidan River. Only four of Eddie’s regiment, the 54th, escaped, two of them by swimming, Eddie and Lt. M. Williams.”
War talk. Always the war. Bettie tried to find a bypass, noting courtships and weddings and school; family members hale and family members ill – and her teenage sisters’ shocking growth, most of which had occurred not in height, but at the waistline. But health wasn’t just Pa’s hoarseness or brother Alex’s “pleuricy.” Inevitably, it involved friends and kin who had come home broken in various ways:
“Kate’s husband, Henry Shepherd, has been a prisoner for a long time, was wounded in both legs and suffered a great deal but has nearly recovered… Angus has recovered from his wounds but nearly lost the use of both arms.”
Bettie took a three-line swipe at the “disgraceful” peace party that was angling to shorten the war, on less-than-ideal terms, before closing her letter with the requisite inquiries about the rest of her Western kin.
Less than a year later, Pa and his girls would be face to face with Sherman’s foragers, and fuming as they unwillingly shared their house with his commanders. And then, that very spring, it was over. Peace and dispirited ex-soldiers returned to Smithville, whose inhabitants set about establishing a normal life – whatever that might turn out to be.