Damned Yankee Buttons

This from a book of essays that I am revising and hope to eventually publish. And by the way, you can get my recently published novel,  Sarvice Mountain, at amazon.com. Also at amazon.com, my memoirs: Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories  and The Soviet Union and Lincoln County USA

I sometimes wonder what great grandpa Amos was like. He died long before I was born. Foreign troops from Ohio crossed into his home country of Virginia. It was an invasion, and who wouldn’t resist an invasion? The slaves at the Malden salt works probably weren’t interested in resisting but to a white boy it was a bunch of strangers from Ohio with guns aiming to take over Virginia. They even talked funny, those buckeyes did.

Nineteen-year-old Amos and his brother James joined the Confederate Second Kanawha Infantry and marched one hundred miles from Charleston to Princeton, where they did boring guard duty. The Barker brothers deserted after less than a year and tried to walk back to Coal River. They were captured by the Yankees at Brownstown (now Marmet), just over the mountain from home.

Amos and James spent time in the Yankee prison at Wheeling and then Camp Chase, a Yankee hell-hole of dysentery and smallpox, in Columbus, Ohio.

After signing an oath to not take up arms against the United States, prisoners were released from Camp Chase a year before the war ended. They walked home through hostile Ohio countryside. I wonder how they managed it. They must have been in ragged clothes, maybe some with Confederate insignia. Did they walk with other prisoners for protection? Did they have any money? Did kind Yankees give them food or let them sleep in the barn?

After the war, Amos worked on the salt barges down the Kanawha River and on the Ohio to Cincinnati. “Stinkin nasty” he called Cincinnati for the smell of human waste flowing into the Ohio River and the stench of the slaughter houses, to which the salt was destined. The crew dismantled the barges and sold the lumber and walked home, I assume in the company with other men for protection against bandits, who were on the lookout for recently paid barge workers. Grandma told me that Amos once helped deliver salt to Memphis and walked home from there.

Many years later, Amos laid dying of dropsy now known as congestive heart failure.. His body swelled with fluids that his heart failed to remove. Only large overalls fit over his bloated body. He ordered that the overalls be put on him backwards, so the “damned Yankee brass buttons,” on a field of blue, wouldn’t be seen when his kin and neighbor viewed his body in the casket.

Charlie Barker, my grandfather, was one of great grandpa Amos’ sons. I was gathering family history and asked Charlie (I never called him grandpa after he threw a rake at me) if there were relatives nearby whom I could talk with. He said there was a Republican cousin not far up the road.

Republicans descended from the Yankee side of the family and Democrats were former Confederates. It was November and cold when we pulled up beside the house. Charlie looked at the house and said that the door was closed so they probably weren’t home. He drove off without checking to see if anyone was there.

It was not unusual for a door to be closed on a cold November day. I figure he didn’t want to talk with his Republican cousins because of the political differences that dated back to the Civil War.


About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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