Matilda looked at her father with complete frustration on her face. He sat on the side of his bed, staring at the floor, unable to look her in the face. “For God's sake, father! The Yankees are two days away! That means we're just two days away from losing everything! You've got to get up and do something!", she implored, but he just fell limply back onto the rumpled covers and closed his eyes. Matilda stood glaring at him for a moment, trying to decide her next move, then walked resolutely down the stairs and out the front door, heading for the tobacco barn, yelling as she went.
"Moses, Isaiah, Daniel!", she called as she reached the structure and almost instantly two negroes came from within. "Where's Daniel?", she snapped and Old Ike said he was out in the south orchard, picking apples. At the same moment Daniel came running up the hill from the lower orchard, waving his arms as he came, "Yassah, Missus, Yassuh", he shouted as he crossed the bare earth yard, "I's here, Missus", he said as he skidded to a stop on bare feet in front of Matilda.
She barked her orders, "Moses, I want you to get over to Albert's place and tell him I need a place to hide most of our corn and grain. Tell him that I'll hide our brandy and corn whiskey here but I need his help with the rest. Now git!"
Moses took off running across the dirt yard and down across the back pasture, heading toward Uncle Albert's farm over on FT Valley Road.
Matilda took Isaiah and Daniel and led them around behind the main barn and behind the slave's quarters to the old barn. It was a structure that had been built over a hundred and thirty years ago and it was partially collapsed, the roof falling into the interior.
"All right, get all the hands and start moving the corn and grain into the wagons so we can get it over to Albert's first thing in the morning. Then we can move the brandy and whiskey out here. I want to bury it under this old barn. They won't think to look there!"
The two negroes turned and headed for the barn without further instructions and Matilda knew they would have the wagons loaded by dark. She pulled at the collapsed roof of the old barn and knew it would be difficult getting the brandy under there without a complete collapse but saw no other choice. She shrugged and went back to the house and climbed the stairs to her father's bedroom.
"Father! Give me the key to your desk. We can't leave your money sitting there in those bags. I'll bury it until the Yankees are gone." The thought of his money made the old man open his eyes and look at her suspiciously, "I ain't letting you get your hands on my hard-earned money. I'll find a place to hide it myself”, he snarled, “ and that way I'll know I'll be getting it back!"
"Father, now stop it!”, she snapped, she was not in the mood for her father's usual nonsense, “No one is going to steal your money but the Yankees, that is if you don't let me hide it proper! Now, I'm not going to stand here and bargain with you! If you want to keep that money you had just better give me the key so I can get it hid! If not, well then, I'll just let them have it!"
He sat up again, swung his boots onto the floor and thought about it, "All right! I might as well give it to you as give it to them Yankees!" With that he got up, reached into his front pocket and handed her the key to the old roll top desk in the corner. He gave his daughter a cold stare and added, "Don't let them slaves see where you hid them coins or it'll be gone for good!" Matilda just nodded and went to the desk and rolled the top back. There, stuffed into the back of the writing desk, was her father's entire fortune in canvas bags, easily twelve thousand dollars in gold and silver coins, all of the money he had earned, bargained for and stolen over the past sixty years. She lifted one of the heavy bags to gauge it's weight and then put it back, "I'll hide it tonight, after it's dark, so I won't be seen." She locked the desk and, ignoring the old man, went down the steps to the main room of the old log home. She had much to do in the next two days and precious little time to do it.
The next two days were hectic and Matilda barely slept, instead catching cat-naps when she could. Nonetheless, by Tuesday she and the slaves had the brandy and whiskey hidden under the old ruined barn, although it had nearly collapsed on them twice. They finished the job by taking a large sledge hammer to the posts, knocking the supporting timbers loose and bringing the roof down all the way. For all intents and purposes it had been that way for years and the Union raiders would never think to look for any loot there. The night before she had moved her father's money and hidden it under the old pile of stones out at the family cemetery, a hundred and fifty yards to the west. She knew with satisfaction that she had averted a disaster when the union army finally came through and that the looting would be minimal.
The grand Army of the Potomac did, in fact, move down the turnpike into Rappahannock County the following morning, one hundred thousand strong. They cut a swath miles wide and they sent foragers far afield, taking what they wanted and leaving very little behind. Anyone who did not prepare properly by hiding their food, their livestock or valuables, would soon to be in dire straits. The Union army showed no mercy to the locals. They knew they were provisioning their enemy, the Army of Northern Virginia, and they took everything worth taking. Many of Matilda's neighbors would be at her door within a month begging for food because they had not properly prepared for the invasion.
Her father's farm was two miles from the little hamlet of Sperryville, two miles from the army's main route but she knew that outriders would come looking for grain, livestock, whiskey, money and anything of value they could carry. There were even reports of Union soldiers forcibly carrying off pianos, organs and stoves in their wagons though no one knew what they would do with them. These treasured family heirlooms ended up lying, destroyed, on the side of a dirt road or at the bottom of a river.
Wednesday afternoon Matilda was returning from the upper orchard when she saw six Union soldiers walking up the dirt road, carrying their rifles loosely and laughing, pushing and shoving each other. She hurried to the house as they reached her fence gate and stopped. They watched her go into the house, joked among themselves for several minutes, opened the gate and walked toward the house. When they reached the front porch they stopped and called out, "Hey! You Lady! You in the house! We saw you! Now, come on out here so we can see you or we'll burn you out!" They continue to laugh among themselves as Matilda came out on the porch, holding a broom, and looking down at them.
They all stopped laughing and stared at her. The only one with Corporal's stripes stepping forward, "Lady! We want your money and we want some whiskey. We don't get it we'll just burn your house!" The others all looked at him and laughed nervously, then looked back at Matilda, expecting her to break out in tears. Instead, her temper rose and she shouted, "You trash will do no such thing and you'll get off of my place if you know what's good for you!"
They were taken aback by her fierce manner but recovered quickly. The Corporal stepped onto the first step up to the porch and said, "Lady, we ain't kidding. You don't want this place burned you better get us that whiskey and your money too. And I mean quick!" She shook the broom at them and repeated, "I told you to get off my place and that's what I meant. Now git!" Her face was glowing red from anger as she held the broom over her head threateningly.
Very annoyed that a woman was telling them what to do the Corporal climbed the six steps to the porch and reached for her broom. Matilda moved quickly, far more quickly than he expected, and struck him on the top of his head, knocking his hat off and sending him backwards down the stairs where he sprawled in the dirt yard. While the others laughed he got to his feet, embarrassed and angry. He grabbed a rifle with a fixed bayonet and started back up the stairs. Matilda had already backed into the house and, as he approached with the bayonet pointed at her, she slammed and bolted the door. In his anger he slammed the point of the bayonet into the heavy oak while his comrades continued laughing. He tried to pull the blade loose but it had penetrated too deeply and he broke it off as he twisted it back and forth. At that point the others were rolling on the dirt laughing and he was so embarrassed and mad that he pointed the rifle at the door and fired, doing nothing more than embedding a 50 caliber mini ball a half inch into the thick pine. The Corporal had lost complete control of his temper and he screamed at the others, "Shut up!"
He went back down the steps and looked around with a crazed expression, saying, "Let's get some kindling! I'm going to burn this house and her with it!" The others looked nervously at each other and one stepped forward, "Look, Gwinny, there's no use killing that lady. Let's git on down the road and find some whiskey." Corporal Gwinny glared back at him, "I said I was going to burn her out and if she stays in there she can burn with her house!" He went to the woodshed and came back with kindling and firewood. "Damned woman", he muttered, as he piled the wood against the house, "Hit me, will she! Hit me! We'll see about that!"
He was trying to start the fire when Matilda burst out through the bayoneted door carrying her father's huge ten gauge shotgun, pointing it right at Corporal Gwinny. The others broke and ran toward the gate in a panic and no longer laughing, one dropping his rifle as he went, while Gwinny looked from side to side, trying to decide what to do. When Matilda pulled back the two hammers and prepared to fire he bolted and ran toward the road too, his hat flying off as he ran. Matilda stood there in the yard, holding the gigantic shotgun, watching the six bluecoats running down the road hoping they would find easier pickings elsewhere. She saw no humor in the incident and stood there in the yard glaring after them. She finally lowered the hammers, picked up the soldier's rifle and walked back to the safety of the porch. She sat in her rocker on the porch all that night, holding the shsotgun across her lap, just to be certain they would not return. They did not.
The next day the union cavalry arrived. There was an officer and a gentleman called Captain Severson, a burly Sergeant and twelve troopers. They rode into the yard, stepped down and called into the house. Matilda and her father came outside and greeted the officer. He was polite to Matilda and obviously accustomed to deferring to women but he was harsh with her father, "I heard about you two days ago!", he snapped, "They tell me you're a mean old buzzard who treats his slaves better than his family and neighbors! Why should I leave you anything?"
Her father cowered noticeably and said nothing. Matilda jumped to her father's defense, "Please, Captain, he's just an old man and he hasn't much time left. I'd be so grateful if you would leave him to me." She touched the Captains sleeve with her fingers and he took his hat off to say, "Ma'am. If I hear anything about this old skinflint treating a lady like you badly I'll be back. You hear me, mister?" Her father bent over even more and said nothing.
They took as much of the stock as they could round up and searched the barns, finding only a few barrels of grain. Matilda explained that a party of raiders had already taken most of their supplies and so the Captain gallantly left what was left, not knowing that everything was well-hidden over at Uncle Albert's farm and under the old barn out back. They rode away leading four horses, six cows, a bull and several goats but taking no corn or grain. Matilda knew that it was a fair trade, considering everything she had saved but, nevertheless, early the following morning she walked the eight miles up the New Market Pike to Washington township where the army had established their supply center. She spoke to the Provost Marshal who said she could have her horses back if she could find them. She did, in fact, pick the horses out of two hundred others and was allowed to take them home. She rode Old Whitey home, leading the other three and feeling extemely victorious.
The war ravaged Virginia for two more years and many Matilda's friends and neighbors suffered terribly. Secretly and in spite of the protestations of her father, she helped many starving people, including passing Confederate soldiers, but at the end of the war her father's farm and fortune were intact. She could stand in front of the old house, looking around at the outbuildings, and feel proud that she'd saved nearly everything. She even had that Yankee's rifle, bayonet still fixed, hanging over the fireplace. The tip of the bayonet that Corporal Gwinny stuck in the door and the minnie ball were still there as sort of mementos. Matilda's father, on the other hand, continued to blame her for the little they did lose and he never forgave her.
The conflict had separated Matilda from her own farm and family in the west for three long years and when it finally ended her husband, Richard, was finally able to come for her. He arrived unexpectedly one hot summer evening and she was so overjoyed she couldn't speak. They embraced and kissed in the yard with her father looking on and grumbling that she would now likely abandone him when he needed her the most. She left her father, as all of his slaves had left him when the armistice was declared, and he remained, alone with his money, alone with his land, until the day he died seven years later, a broken and bitter old man. He was buried in a little family plot on a knoll, two hundred yards from the house. His son, Albert, inherited his gold and silver coins, his land and the rest of his property.
Matilda and Richard returned to what would become Harrison County, West Virginia, and continued to work their own farm out on Davidson Run. They raised to adulthood their three remaining children and Matilda died on a cold winter morning in March of 1885. She was buried in the family cemetery and lies there today. Their son, Jacob Albert, remained on the family homeplace throughout his entire life and left a lengthy journal of his mother's adventures back in Rappahannock County, Virginia, during the war of northern aggression.
Dan Barham © 2006