A JOURNEY OF LOVE
MARIA ELECTA JEWETT WASHBURN and her husband,
COL. JAMES WASHBURN, posing for a portrait taken
in Richland Center, Wisconsin, after the Civil War.
The photo is used by permission of the Brewer Public
Library in Richland Center.
Perils of visiting a husband during America's Civil War
By BARBARA McFADDEN
Throughout history, determined women and their children have braved considerable danger to visit their men at war. In fact, no less a lady than Martha Washington visited her general in camp during the Revolutionary War. So, I wasnt surprised to learn that my great, great grandmother, Maria Electa Jewett Washburn, did the very same thing when she became lonely for her husband-friend-lover, Col. James Washburn, during one of his long absences fighting the Civil War.
Maria Electa was in her mid-30s when she decided that she was going to make arrangements with her friends and neighbors in Woodsfield, midway down the Eastern side of Ohio, to care for and keep an eye on her five children, aged 3-14, while she took a journey across a few states to visit her colonel at his camp near Winchester, Virginia. A friend and neighbor, a Mrs. Simmons, was going to travel with her so that she could visit her young son, who was under Col. Washburns command in the 116th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Early on June 12, 1863, the two women boarded the stage with their stuffed satchels secured on top and merrily waved to Maria Electas youngsters as their adventure began. With cheeks flushed with excitement and the building heat of the summer day, they chatted happily about how much time they hoped to spend with their men.
They arrived in the Union camp on the 14th, had dinner with our men and Marias husband ...engaged board for us at a house near camp. He was called out that evening and she didnt see him again until it had turned dark on the 16th ...when he rode up to the gate where I was standing and said, There is going to be a battle and I must go; goodby and take care of yourself, and he was gone.*
\Suddenly a shell burst nearby and someone shouted that she should hurry to the cellar. When it turned light, she and Mrs. Simmons ventured out only to discover the union soldiers were gone and rebels were headed their way. They hustled back to the house where they found a number of wounded men. One asked her to destroy some papers, which she quickly tore into pieces. In another room was ...a soldier with both arms off above the elbows and he asked me to give him a drink of water; I had some lemons and I made him some lemonade and he was very thankful for it. I sat down beside him and kept the flies off him, they were so thick around him...he belonged to a Massachusetts regiment and was loading his cannon when it went off, shattering both his arms.
With the best of intentions, but no concept of germs, she followed the rebels as they carried him roughly to an ambulance and pulled some weeds to cover the stubs of his arms. (I shuddered when I read that and wondered where those movie heroines were--the ones who would rip up their petticoats to use as bandages when that poor boy needed them?)
They wound up at a fort. After they found no one they knew there, they walked among the dead to assure themselves that neither of their men were among them. Suddenly, a rebel officer rode up and demanded her name and her husbands regiment. When he heard her response, he gleefully told her that he was seated on the colonels riding cloth and it did, indeed, read Col. 116th O.V.I. on one corner. An impending sense of dread turned to horror when he said, Damned Yankee colonel...if we capture him we will hang him to the first tree we come to...
Then he herded them to the hospital packed with wounded men. Shoes and socks had been removed from the dead bodies in the room below and distributed among the rebels. A cavalryman, terribly slashed around his upper body told her, Oh, but I gave him as good as he sent.
She eased the suffering of a young man whose left thumb was nearly shot of by
rubbing his hand and wrist with camphor and wrapping it. Once again she saw the young man whose stumps shed covered with weeds. He seemed quite cheerful about the artificial arms he would get upon returning home.
Since the troops had just been paid, they asked her to take their money to families back home. Some she secured in packets stitched into her skirt and she also took some stitches out of her belt, tightly folded bills into it and restitched it. Another young mans gold watch was wrapped around her waist under her skirt.
Then she and a large number of others were rounded up and herded toward Staunton, Virginia--90 miles away. She and the other union officers wives were taken by stage. The wives and children of the enlisted men had to walk. One night they slept on floors and went without food the following day. Finally, they were put on a train
until they reached a bridge the yankees had destroyed. So they had to stop again.
When they pleaded for food, they were told they could only have some if they paid for it. Although the women had money with them, the Southerners were so convinced that they would prevail that they were unwilling to take anything but Confederate currency. In order to buy decent food she and the other wives of officers sold their excess clothing to Southern women through a colored intermediary. Due to the coastal blockade, the South had difficulty obtaining supplies as well as cloth and clothing.
After being vilified and spat at by southern women upon arrival in Richmond, they were marched off to a dreary old tobacco warehouse turned prison and dubbed Castle Thunder. The Castle part of the name was someones idea of humor. The Thunder part was for the constant pounding of cannon in the distance.
Fortunately, they were not too thoroughly searched and Maria Electa only had to turn over some letters she was to have carried home for the wounded. The watch and money were never discovered. And she managed to prevail upon a guard who took a
silver cup and spoon from a woman to return it so that the mother could give her child its medication.
There were openings in the walls, but no windows or coverings. A few cots and dirty blankets were provided, but Maria Electa and most of the rest chose to sleep on the floor with their depleted satchels for pillows and their shawls for cover. They were only allowed to go down into the yard once a day, if they were lucky, for water. One nursing mother apparently ceased to lactate due to dehydration and her child
starved to death. The Confederates were just going to dig a hole to bury the little one. However, Maria Electa prevailed upon them to take some of their remaining funds to purchase a shroud and coffin for the child. She had to prepare it for burial with a spit bath since there was no access to water.
As hungry as they were, they simply could not eat some of the food provided. However, another prisoner, a colored man, whom she described as the only friend they had while in prison, was allowed to take their money and shop for edible food. They paid as much as $2 a pound for butter.
While all of this was going on, Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was huffily corresponding with a Major-General Schenck on July 1st about Col. Washburns concerns for his wife. Word had previously reached the War Department of the incarceration of officers wives through The Richmond Dispatch (which apparently used the news to buoy Southern spirits). However, it wasnt precisely clear who the women were.
Ultimately, the women and children were identified, exchanged and returned, cheering when they saw the stars and stripes on the vessel that carried them down the James River and up the coast to Annapolis.
Although exhausted, they slept little in Baltimore, where the terrible moans of wounded men brought from the previous days battle in Gettysberg filled the air.
Four pages of War Department correspondence from the National Archives indicate that the South tried to pull a fast one regarding the womens release, and Secretary Stanton withheld release of 300 Southern women and children, already upon a vessel and set for exchange, until things were straightened out.
Physically and mentally exhausted, Maria Electa and Mrs. Simmons spent a few days in Washington, cleaning up and resting before their journey home. However, by the time they reached Barnesville and discovered there would be no stage the next day, which was a Sunday, they just hired a team and headed for home.
Maria Electas oldest daughter spotted them from the top of the church steps as they entered town. Bounding down the steps and shouting all the while that theyd heard their father had been shot from his horse and their mother was dead, she hurtled up and into her mothers arms.
She did not go to church that day. And there was great rejoicing that Sabbath morning as ..my house was filled with neighbors and friends all to welcome me home...
While it was true that the colonels horse had been shot from under him (which was how the rebel officer confiscated his saddle cloth at Winchester), he had struggled back to his feet and led his men into battle.
Having never heard of Maria Electas adventures, it was thrilling to read this journal about a loving couple from a small midwestern town who displayed heroism and valor beyond belief when their lives were suddenly turned upside down -- a couple who then had the ability to quietly return to living somewhat ordinary and long lives.
Heroes walk among us -- even among our ancestors.
©2012 by Barbara McFadden. This column first posted March 12, 2012.
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