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The Young Confederate Soldier

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Last spring my sisters, a few cousins and I visited the family cemetery. The joke is that we all have to go together in order to find it. It’s a very old cemetery located in the middle of Rural Mississippi. You turn off a paved road onto a dirt road, and then drive about a mile until you reach an abandoned, fallen down church. Here you park your car and walk through a grove of huge pines. There behind a fence is the most beautiful little cemetery you could ever imagine. So peaceful, quiet, and restful. We visited the graves and attempted to sort out who was who. Then, in the middle of the cemetery we came to the grave of a confederate soldier with an unfamiliar last name; Pvt. John L. Westwood CSA. We asked each other who he was and how he came to be there. Bit by bit we recalled family stories as each one triggered other memories. Here is the story as near as we were able to recall. 

On a cold snowy night in late November 1865, my Great Grand Father was awakened by the barking of his hounds. He dressed, lit his lantern, picked up his shot gun, and went to investigate. What he found was a tall, skeleton-like man dressed in a ragged confederate uniform, crawling on his hands and knees in the snow. His feet wrapped in rags and were so raw you could see the blood dripping from them. He was too weak to stand and too heavy for Great Grandpa to carry. So, Great Grandpa fired his shot gun and almost immediately help came from the farm workers and old Indian Joe, who lived in the barn. Old Joe always had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, which they used to make a hammock. With a strong man at each of the four corners they carried the young soldier into the house. As quickly as they could, they cleaned away the dirt and snow, removed his wet clothing and got him into dry clothes. Indian Joe was something of a medicine man and when he looked at the boy’s feet he shook his head and mumbled “Too late.” Great Grand Mother heated some chicken soup which was spoon fed to the soldier. He was so tired and starved he could not feed himself. As the night wore on, the young man was able to tell them who he was and where his family lived. He had walked from Richmond, Virginia. An army buddy had been with him as far as Chattanooga, Tennessee where he had rested for a few days. Since leaving Chattanooga he had walked alone; hoping to get home before the winter weather became a problem.

At first light Great Grandpa rode his horse to the nearest town and sent the Doctor out. He then rode on to see the boys family. As it happened the whole family was sick with the measles and unable to come. The father requested that if his son did not get well, they should bury him. He gave Great Grandpa a silver dollar which was all the money he had. As Great Grandpa was leaving, the man said, “Tell John that I will let Anna know.”

It was after dark when Great Grandpa arrived home, and the Doctor was still there. The young soldier’s feet had gangrene and the doctor told him the only way to save his life was to remove the feet. The soldier absolutely refused to have this done. The doctor spent the night and every time the boy was lucid he begged him to let him save his life. Every time the young man gave the same reply, “No, I’ll get well whole or die whole. You will not cut off my feet!”

About mid morning the next day a young woman and a boy of about three rode into the yard. They were riding a mule that was so old and poor every rib could be counted. The mule did not walk he stumbled. The woman and child were sitting on an old quilt instead of a saddle. Despite being emancipated and in rags she was quite beautiful. You had only to look at the boy to know he was the young soldiers child. As she came to the front door the young woman simply said, “I am Anna, John’s wife and this is his boy Johnny.” Day and night she stayed beside her husband; doing everything possible to make him comfortable. When he was aware of whom she was, you could hear her pleading with him to let the doctor save his life. Always came this strong, “No I’ll live whole or I’ll die whole!” There were a number of conferences between the two of them and Great Grandpa. A letter was drafted and sent to John’s army buddy in Tennessee.

Except for giving him laudanum to ease the pain, there was nothing else that could be done for the soldier, and he died within a week. From pine lumber stored in the barn a casket was made. The casket had to be made extra long because the soldier was nearly seven feet tall. In those days a grave was dug by hand with shovels. Because the ground was frozen, fires were built to thaw it bit by bit until the grave could be dug. The young soldier was then laid to rest on a cold gray December day.

Since Great Grandmother knew the contents of the letter sent to John’s friend in Tennessee, she got busy. The civil war was just over and they were all so very poor. Great Grandmother told Anna’s story to her sisters and cousins and they all brought some clothing for her. An old army blanket was made into a cloak, using a quilt pieced from bright satin scraps for a lining. By combining what they could spare and remaking everything, Anna had a decent wardrobe. Except that she had no shoes. Finally my aunt remembered someone who had two pairs. She visited her and actually begged a pair for Anna. Fortunately they were the correct size. One of my cousins had lost her young son the year before and she gave his clothes to little Johnny.

Two weeks went by and still no reply. Then he came, this young friend of John’s, whose wife and child had been killed by raiders. John had written him asking that he take Anna and the boy. A minister was sent for and they were married that day. Great Grandpa brought out the wagon and drove them into town to catch the train for Tennessee.

Anna must have written, but I could find no record of her letters. Of one thing I am certain, Pvt. John L. Westwood CSA, rests in peace, in a small family cemetery in Rural Mississippi.

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