George William Bagby.

Selections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) online

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over and frame it in from the work-day, cornfield
world on either hand. It is a matter of life and
death to cross this bridge except on foot, and its use
as a crossing for vehicles has long since been aban-
doned. The neighbors who used to patronize the
mill abuse Patrick Jackson, the mill-owner, for not
repairing the bridge, and Patrick Jackson, in turn,
abuses the neighbors for not furnishing the timber.
Both parties, I think, deserve leather medals for
being gloriously lazy Virginians, willing rather to
let things rot, and break the legs of horses and the
necks of niggers, than to get into a Yankee stew and
a New England fease the moment anything needs
mending, and to work madly over every crack and
fissure, as if godliness consisted in patching, and the
world would be blotted out of existence the moment
it ceased to smell of newly sawed pine and fresh
varnish. For my part, I hope the bridge never will
be mended, but stay just as it is until the humbler-



215

bees humble-bees ? not any, I thank you I speak
Virginian, not the lingo of Bosting, or even of Ing-
ling, (perhaps you'd like for me to say England. I
be blamed if I do,) until the bumbler-bees, and
other borers, reduce it to wood-dust and scatter it
atom by atom into the stream. As long as the bridge
is in its present break-neck condition, Uncle Flat-
back's plantation will not be a thoroughfare for
everybody who wants to take a short cut from the
plank road to the old stage road to Richmond. I
hate a place that is continually enlivened and afflicted
by people traveling vaguely about in shackly buggies
that can run along a road no broader than a hog
path. There is no peace, no sense of ownership in
such a place as that. You might as well have no
place at all. The hands in the field are always stop-
ping to look at these wandering vehicles, the axles
of which invariably creak loud enough to be heard
half a mile off. Like as not they'll break down right
at your door, and the people will be sure to stay all
night, and the unclean nosed child in the buggy
(there is always one of them) will give your children
the itch or the measles, and the black girl who rides
behind the buggy wil.1 make herself generally ob-
noxious by fascinating the boy that brings wood into
the house. Even if the fugitive buggy doirt break
down, from the moment it heaves in sight, everybody
in the house, the kitchen and the quarters, is in a
fever of uncertainty as to whose buggy it is ; and as
it comes up slowly, a half hour or more is wasted in
conflicting and vain conjectures, until it passes by



216

the man, woman, child, servant and horse all staring
stupidly at you and all your folks, who are staring
stupidly at them ; and when the plaguy thing is gone
and quiet is once more restored, its horrid creaking
leaves you with a toothache and a crick in the neck,
and starts old Ring, who ought to have been dead
long ago, to howling, until you are mad enough to
beat his brains out with the fishing-pole which you
have been peacefully trimming. I am not lacking
in the natural instinct of hospitality, but, Virginian
as I am, if I had a place, by jingo ! there should not
be a gate in it nothing but drawbars twenty poles
high, and each pole fastened with ten thousand knots
of the strongest, biggest, stiffest, roughest and hand-
tearingest grape-vine I could find. The labyrinth
of Crete would be a " main, plain road " compared to
my place, and the labors of Sisyphus wouldn't be a
circumstance to the labor of getting through it. As
for bridges, I wouldn't have one, unless it was two
hundred years old and half gone when it was first
built. A log, a round, slippery log, with the bark
off, fastened high up in the crotch of a tall tree on
this side, and stuck in the crotch of a still taller tree
on the other side of the creek, is a good enough
bridge for me. If people want to see me, let 'em
swim like Leander, or wade like Cousin Sally Dillard.
Maybe I'll have a " cunner" for them I like best, but
further than that I will not go no, I will not you
needn't ask me.

Many pleasant evening strolls I have had to the
old bridge, all by myself, leaning over the bewhittled



21.7

and name-graven railing, thinking thoughts and
dreaming dreams till the evening star arose and the
whippoorwill began his chant. But the water under
the bridge is not clear as crystal, swift as an arrow,
and sparkling as a stream of diamonds fit abode for
Naiads and Undines but muddy as the telegraphic
dispatches from Mississippi before the fall of Yicks-
burg, slow as an army wagon or a conscript making
a charge, and full of all manner of nasty and con-
founded " mud-kittens,'- " snap'n-turkles," and snake-
doctors. Still, I love to go there and look by the
hour, not at the plague-taked water, but at the
pendant vines, the intricate emerald umbrage cut
daintily upon the azure ground of the sky, the many
shaped clouds, the ravishing dyes of sunset, and
fancying what a great fellow I might be if I only
had money enough to quit writing nonsense and
.stick resolutely to poetry and romance.

As you go from George Daniel's I think I'd
better write it Dannill's, that's the way Virginians
pronounce the name as you go from George Dan-
nill's land to Unc' Jim's, the road runs close to the
river bank, and through a dense growth of bushes,
which, in former years, when the carriage could go
on the bridge, and I used to go with Aunt Mary and
Cousin Betsy to church, gave us no end of trouble ;
for if we dodged from one side of the carriage to the
other, to keep the intruding branches from scratch-
ing our eyes out, we were sure to encounter a set of
branches still longer and more insolent, besides skin-
ning our elbows no small calamity to a body with



218

as plump, fine arms as Betsy's against the brass
buttons by which the carriage curtains were fastened.
Unc' Jim never had the address and hardihood to
clear up this thicket, or to prune the pugnacious
branches. So, Sunday after Sunday we had to run
the gauntlet and display our agility in dodging
around a space not much larger than the inside of a
coffee-pot for the carriage was a Yankee carriage,
as scrimp, meagre and rickety as the cheap and
wretched souls that made it. Woodson, the carriage-
driver, when struggling through this bushy maze,
used to imitate the most difficult feats of the ancient
gymnast or modern India-rubber-man of the circus,
by tying himself into a double-bow-knot, and placing
the top of his head on the bottom of the foot-board,
so that only the small of his back and the tips of his
knee-pans were visible. Since the " bustid " condi-
tion of the bridge has made church-going by the
Jackson's mill route impossible, the thicket has been
left to its own wild will, and has become as impene-
trable as the abattis which Hooker vainly erected in
the Wilderness. Well, I am not sorry. Trees, as I
said before, are living souls ; I love to see 'em grow,
and it hurts me to see them destroyed merely to
make room for people to pass. Why, I would like
to know, can't we treat them as politely as we do
other gentlemen of high standing? One vacation
old Hart cut down a dead apple tree that grew by
the fence which enclosed the play-ground at Edge-
hill. I saw the gap the moment I got back, and
felt as if one of the boys had died. When Uncle



119

Jim cut down the pines between the house and Israel
Hill simply to get a better look at the train as it
passed, it seemed to me as cruel and unwise, as if a
tyrant had destroyed a fine army merely to get a
view of a fast woman. I detest clearings and tree-
murderers of all sorts. The sight of a new ground
makes me as mad as the devil. To kill a forest in
order to raise a weed tobacco is to me the very
climax of crime and folly. The depraved and irra-
tional salivary glands of the human race have a
vast deal of sin to answer for. They have played
Mother Earth the same vile trick Lot's sons played
on him; they have uncovered her nakedness; nay,
worse, they have heaped hickory ashes and many
chunks of burnt u bresh" upon her fair bosom, all
for the sake of getting something bitter and dirty
and dauby to make 'em spit, and keep on spitting
the livelong day. Isn't it horrible ?

Not a word none of your sneers, gibes, retorts
and ;< physician heal thyself." I do smoke; nay, to
my shame be it admitted, I even chaw a little. I
own I am as bad as any of you. But that does'nt
make tobacco any cleaner or the clearing of new
grounds less murderous. You see you can't make
anything out of me by your rejoinders and argu-
menta ad hominem. Cease, therefore, and throw
that villainous plug in your coat-tail pocket away,
and don't clap the crumbs into your mouth in a
moment of forgetfulness.

The fence that divides Dannill's land from Flat-
back's had a gate just beyond the thicket before



1220 MY UNCLE FLATBACK'S PLANTATION.

mentioned, and the staples that's the name, I be-
lieve of that gate, are driven savagely into the
trunk of a young and very pretty beech tree. Who
was the unfeeling wretch that did this act of vandal-
ism? Would that I had him by the Adam's apple
or the scruff of the neck. Bad enough to treat an
innocent lad of a tree in this way, but to make a gate-
post of a historical tree is outrageous. On the
bark of this beautiful beech tree the letters J. R. are
cut, and John Randolph of Roanoke is said to have
cut them with his own hand. The tradition may be
apocryphal, but yonder is " Bizarre," scarcely half a
mile away, where Randolph lived for some years
after his brother Richard's death by-the-way, you
know that Dick was a greater man than Jack Ran-
dolph, just as Bobus was greater than Sidney Smith
the same may be said of the almost unknown
brothers of many eminent men and our maltreated
beech is on the road to " Sandy Ford," the mansion of
the Dillons, famous in the old times for its hospi-
tality, and a favorite resort of Randolph's. It is not
at all impossible that, coming home from Dillon's,
flown with, not insolence, but fried, chicken and
wine, and ruminating sadly on the certainty of his
leaving no posterity behind him, he may have stop-
ped his horse, and left his name to be perpetuated by
this lusty young tree, which (albeit the gloomy en-
graver has been mouldering in his grave for many
long years), seems hardly to have attained its adolo-
scence.

After you leave Randolph's tree, there is nothing of



221

interest on the road to old Flatback's unless it be
a muddy horse-pond under a little sycamore until
you come to the spring. It is a splendid spring, ex-
cept in very wet weather, when the back-water of
the Appomattox chokes it up, and it tastes of its own
moss. It is shaded by oaks and elms magnificent
old fellows, that would set Virgil crazy were he to
see them, and throw him into a bucolic equal to
an attack of Asiatic cholera. Tityrus never recubed
under anything comparable to them. It is a fine
thing of a hot summer day to sit under these noble
trees, recline your head against their mighty boles,
and muse sweetly for a few minutes, until a caravan
of gigantic black or red pismires begin a pilgrimage
up your back bone for the Virginia ant, as you are
well aware, has a choice knack of getting under the
" body-linen," as old folks call it, which sets wrist-
bands and collar buttons at defiance.

Hard by this spring there are some utilitarian
fixtures which disclose the indifference of the true
Virginian to aesthetics, and knock the sense of the beau-
tiful on the head very effectually. They are fixtures
used at hog-killing time. There are the rocks that
are heated to put in the water that scalds their hair
off. There is the pole on which the hogs are hung
by the hind legs to be disemboweled. There they
are, close to the spring of sweet water and right
under that elm, the equal of which is not in all Vir-
ginia. You are a man of imagination, of course, and
whenever you look at that pole, you see the naked
porcine corpses hanging down, with a great gash in



222 MY DNCLE FLATBACK'S PLANTATION.

front, and a corn-cob in the open bloody mouth of
each of them ; and every time you look at these
rocks, you smell burnt hair and feel bristles, and re-
member, as if it were yesterday, the first night you
ever saw the plantation Crispin making low-quarter
stitch-downs, and how funny it was to see a man sew-
ing with two threads at the same time.

There are some jugs of milk of both kinds sweet
milk and butter-milk in the spring house, and Ada
will be here presently to carry them to the house,
for Aunt Mary is going to give us green apple tart
to-day; but the place reminds us of the hogs, so let's
get away to the thicket of plum and thorn bushes,
just over the grassy knoll above us. Double up
your coat for a pillow and lie down awhile, and I'll
tell you something. You see that old tobacco house
yonder? You do. Well, do you know that in all
the Southern novels and poems that I ever read or
heard of, there is not a line about tilted and sway-
back old tobacco houses or about plum bushes or
thorn bushes? And do you know that I think there
is a deal of romance and of poetry in these things ?
Why, the thorn bush is the home of the nightingale
did you know that ? No, you know nothing and care
less about these very romantic things ! I knew you
didn't. You are Virginian, and, since childhood,
you have ceased to care about plums wild plums,
I mean. You say the skin is bitter and the things
get squashy as soon as they are ripe. You think
thorn bushes were made especially to furnish negroes
with vegetable buttons to fasten "galluses" by, and



223

as for old tobacco houses, you are too busy making
new ones to think about them at all. Very well, sir,
if these are your prosaic views, you can just get up
from under Uncle Flatback's pretty plum bushes and
go with me to dinner, and eat butter-beans until you
burst fit end for you, you miserable materialist.

As we go by the kitchen and the quarters, I shall
not allow you to talk with Malindy, who is cooking
for the hands, or with Polly for dinner is late or
with Locky, who is ironing like mad she is a real
steam engine, Locky is you shall interrupt nobody,
but go straight along into the yard and do your best
to appease the ire of Uncle Flatback, who threatens
momentarily to "skin the head" of Liza and Gary
Ann, if they don't " hurry up that mush." As for
me, I will go into the garden.

No, I am not going to read you a long rigmarole
about the garden not if I can help it although, on
the principle of praising the bridge, I ought to do
so ; for many and many a good meal this garden has
furnished me. It is an unpretentious garden; has
no palings, you see ; only a rail fence. The reason
of this is this Uncle Flatback rents the place, and
won't go to any unnecessary expense about it. If
he owned it, he would fix up things nicely enough ;
but, like every true Virginian, he has been on the
eve of moving to Alabama, or Mississippi, or Texas,
ever since he first came here twenty years ago.
Butter-beans, snaps, green peas, beets, cabbage and
a few flowers, make up the contents of the garden ;
other vegetables, such as tomatoes, onions, black-eye



224: MY TINGLE FLATBACK's PLANTATION.

peas, cymlings and "rosin" ears, being grown here-
and there, first in this and then in that patch, in
various parts of the plantation a curious and pecu-
liar feature of old-fashioned Virginian management.
About gardens and orchards by the way, there is
no orchard at Mountain Yiew ; because, in the first
place, Uncle Flatback is afraid his apples and peaches
might be made into liquor of some sort, and in the
second place, he is continually going to go to Texas
or elsewhere about gardens, orchards, clover and
wheat fields, there is something to be said which 1
have never yet heard said, namely: they are (to me
at least) proofs of the existence, wisdom and good-
ness of Deity, better and more convincing than
Paley's watch, or any other argument from design
ever excogitated by the philosophers. Just think
how ready to the hand all fruits, vegetables and
grains grow. Suppose you had to plant a ladder
against the pole every time you wanted to get a dish
of snaps, or to send a man up in a balloon to get
your apples, or to cut through trees two feet thick,
in order to harvest a crop of corn, or to sink a shaft
whenever you. had sweet potatoes for dinner. What
a hard old world to live in this would be, if a man
had to blast out his turnips, or make use of a patent
Yankee stump-puller to get at each separate head of
clover, or to worry his asparagus out of the earth
with the aid of a jack-screw! Then how easy it is
to shell peas and peel peaches ; why, you can mash
soft peaches with your mouth, without peeling them
at all. Think what intolerable botheration it would



225

be to crack open watermelons with a sledge-hammer,,
or to saw through pea-hulls as you do cocoanuts.
Pursue the idea, my friend, and the next time you
see a curcumber, or a punkin, or cymling lying in-
vitingly on the ground, as much as to say " here I am,
ready for you," thank the Lord for all his goodness.

The garden looks toward the railroad, and on both
sides of the railroad you can see a number of negro
cabins, which you take to be Uncle Flatback's quar-
ters. No such thing. They are relics of a grand
experiment at emancipation made some forty or fifty
years ago, by Dick Eandolph. Like most of the men
of his day, Dick thought slavery a great evil, and at
his death manumitted his negroes, gave them plenty
of tolerably fertile, well-timbered and well watered
land, parcelled it off into small farms, gave them
stock, farm implements, etc. The negroes looked
upon their landed estate as new Canaan, and called
it "Israel Hill," by which name it goes to this day.
They had the advantage of years of slavery, which
civilized and christianized them ; habituated them to
labor and taught them the mode of raising crops.
They had moreover the advice and assistance of
white neighbors, all of whom, at first, regarded the
scheme with scarcely less favor than Randolph him-
self, and were disposed to aid the negroes in any
and every way possible. The experiment was fairly
made. Its failure was signal.

In this year of grace, 1862, the population of Is-
rael Hill is scarcely so great as it was forty or fifty
years ago, when the inhabitants entered the new
15



226

Canaan. Had they remained slaves, their numbers
would' have been quadrupled. As it is, they will
doubtless die out in the course of a few years and dis-
appear, as they have done in Gerrit Smith's and so
many other Yankee experiments at colonizing free
negroes. One or two of the Israel Hill families ex-
hibit in their abodes and crops some capacity for self-
improvement ; the rest are thriftless, to say the least.
Men and women alike earn a precarious subsistence,
laying up nothing and spending much of their earn-
ings in drink. One of their number, the patriarch
of the Hill, old Uncle Sam White, now considerably
more than one hundred years of age, is so remark-
able that a bare outline of his character would re-
quire a separate article. A more honest, upright
man ; a more truly pious and devoted Christian, can-
not be found in this whole Confederacy. A cheer-
ful old man, his laugh, as he w^alks along the rail-
road and stops to speak with his acquaintances, may
be heard for half a mile. He is, withal, a gentle-
man of the old school, full of the gracious hospitality
with which he was familiar half a century ago, in
the house of his aristocratic master ; and, previous to
the war, while wine was yet attainable, never failed
to set his decanter out when you entered his humble
cabin. No man, white or black, is more respected
in his neighborhood than this genial, honest, Godly-
minded old man ; and when he goes to his long home,
as he must soon do, there will be more regret for
his loss among the whites than among the people of
his own color.



227

Let me now come back, if I possibly can, to Moun-
tain Yiew, and close this discursive and tiresome
article with a brief account of old Flatback himself.
He is the son of a lieutenant of the American Re-
volution, who entered the ranks as a private, and
fought through the war, and bore upon his person
the mark of an honorable wound. This son of his
served in the war of '12, as a private in the Virginia
line, marched from the Yalley to Ellicott's Mill, but
was never in any engagement. True to their parent-
age, his sons have played a manly part in the great
struggle against the North. "When the war broke
out, one of them was in Texas. He hurried home,
joined Garnett's command, and, by the accidental
discharge of a pistol, fell at Rich Mountain, before
the disastrous battle at that place occurred. The
other has been in the war from the beginning, and,
if he be alive, is still a private in Stuart's cavalry.
I am told that the Prince Edward troop, raised by
the gifted and ill-fated Thornton, contains no better
soldier and no greater favorite, than William Flat-
T^ack.

With all his eccentricities of dress and behavior,
old Governor Flatback he is called governor in
compliment to his real or fancied authority over
his nearest neighbors, the sable residents of Israel
Hill is greatly liked and respected. The young
men, and the old as well, of the neighboring village,
are never tired of joking him about his temperance
hobby, his belief in the medicinal virtues of white-
oak bark, and many other odd notions. He takes a



228

joke generally in good part, and is not unskilful in
returning the rough compliments of his assailants,
but is at times quite hot-tempered and excitable
which makes the fun of teasing him all the more
pleasant to his persecutors.

Besides being a great temperance and white-oak
bark man, he is a great raiser of watermelons and
cornfield peas. It was at his house that I was first
made acquainted with the superlative virtues of that
peculiar variety of the cornfield pea known as the
" Grey Crowder ;" and as for his melons, their fame
has gone forth to the ends of the earth with slight
limitations. In addition to these claims to greatness,
he was, in his youth, a mighty fox-hunter, owned the
best pack of hounds in the country, and bred and
trained a series of the most remarkable dogs, all
named " Redcoat," that ever lived. Le Roi est
mort ; vive le Roi. The dog died, but Redcoat sur-
vived. When the first Redcoat expired his son fell
heir to the title, and so on for I know not how many
years. In the same way there was a succession of
terriers named Bob, the property of the Governor's
second son, James, who died, as before stated, at
Rich Mountain. The last Bob, a sober-sided, gen-
tlemanly dog, who travelled with his master to Kan-
sas and back, may be seen to this day at Mountain
View, a mournful reminder of the generous hearted
young man who loved him so fondly, for whose sake
he is cherished and petted to the serious detriment
of his health for over-feeding has produced a cu-
taneous disease that worries him incessantly, and has



MY UNCLE FLATBACK 6 PLANTATION.

made him gnaw nearly all the hair off his hind
quarters. To tell the wonders performed by the
Redcoat lineage would require a volume. If my
Uncle Flatback's fond memory may be trusted, no
such dogs ever lived before, or ever will live here-
after. Lightning on four legs might rival their
speed ; anything less fleet they could distance easily.
Like the Lama of Peru, mentioned by the showman,
who " travels at the rate of forty miles a minute
pigeon tied to his tail can't keep up " they were
considered as rather rapid than otherwise. With re-
gard to their noses, it is enough to state that they
did not consider a trail cold until it was six weeks old
and ploughed up at that. The music of their voices
was so exquisite that Uncle Flatback declares it in-
variably cured him of a raging toothache, or lockjaw,
or hydrophobia, or some such infirmity to which he
was subject in his hunting days.

It remains only to speak of Governor Flatback's
kindly heart and open-handedness, and this is no
easy task to one who has experienced so much of
both as the writer of this fatiguing sketch. To say
that he is hospitable, after the good old-fashion of
Virginia hospitality, is to praise him but lightly, for
that virtue is still common to all who inhabit the Old
Dominion. But the assertion so often and so falsely
made of many men, that no one in want ever left his
door empty-handed, is literally true in his case. His
family, like himself, seem never so happy as when


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Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 16 of 27)