Two Civil War stories

Published 8:09 am Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Summer, 1863. The Civil War was raging. Fear raced through Indiana and Ohio like wildfire when Gen. John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River with his elite unit of Southern cavalry.

Cries of “Morgan’s Raiders are coming, Morgan’s Raiders are coming” echoed from farm to farm, town to town, sending shivers through the local populace — one of whom was Mayme Ulrey’s grandmother.

I had been referred to Mayme as an excellent source of local history and stopped to see her in Owensville, Ohio, on my way back to Florida with my family. Mayme, age 95, greeted me warmly and welcomed the chance to tell me about her grandmother’s confrontation with Morgan’s Raiders.

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“Grandmother met Morgan’s men at the doorway to her house. She kept a small store of dry goods which would have been of value to Morgan’s Raiders. But they never got that far. Grandmother looked the lead man straight in the eye and said, ‘Sir, I have been told you men are all Southern gentlemen. No gentleman enters a lady’s house unless invited. And you, sir, have NOT been invited!’”

Morgan’s men were taken aback by this sudden burst of female bravado. They eyed each other, then straightened their shoulders, and turned their horses aside, passing on by with a renewed sense of Southern dignity and pride triggered by a well-timed dose of Yankee ingenuity.

A second Civil War story evolved from Mayme’s listing my name and address in a weekly column she was writing for a small local newspaper. Anyone with information about my Burns ancestral farm in that area could contact me. A man named Robert Brown did just that, saying that he had solved the mystery of the missing letter.

What letter? What mystery?

It seems that my great-uncle, John Harvey Burns, received a letter from a friend who was a Union soldier in the Vicksburg campaign. Uncle Harve read the letter while standing in front of the fireplace, placing the letter on the mantel when finished. But when he returned a few minutes later to retrieve the letter and share it with the rest of the family, the Vicksburg letter had disappeared. Repeated searches came up empty, the letter having apparently vanished into thin air.

But it hadn’t. Robert Brown found it a century or so later. Brown had bought our ancestral Burns farm and set about rebuilding the house’s fireplace, taking it apart brick by brick  And there, amongst the bricks, he found an old letter, brown with age and further darkened by years of smoke.

Soon after Uncle Harve had put the letter on the mantel, evidently a gust of wind from an open door had blown the letter down a small crack between the mantel and the wall. Miraculously, the soldier’s letter had survived, though not read again for well over a century after Uncle Harve had received it.

The Civil War tore this nation asunder, dividing us north and south. But, hopefully, anecdotes like Mayme’s grandmother’s facing down Morgan’s Raiders and the letter lost in the fireplace are Civil War memories that will warm all of our hearts — North and South, right and left.

James F. Burns is an Ohio native and retired professor at the University of Florida