Hiding Places in War Times

by J. H. Gore

For some years after the close of our Civil War, the attention of our people was chiefly occupied with a study and recital of the most prominent battles, the decisive events, and the acts of famous officers. But when these bolder features of the war panorama had been examined and discussed, more time was taken to look at some of the details, to call up the minor incidents, to bestow meed of praise upon privates, or to record the littles that made up the much.

The sacrifices of the women and children at home have been repeatedly referred to in general, but seldom do we see mention made of their daily privations, the petty but continual annoyances to which they were subjected, and the struggle they made to sow and reap, as well as the difficulties they met in saving the harvested crops.

The hiding-places here described were all in one house. This house was in Virginia, near a town which changed hands, under fire, eighty-two times during the war—a town whose hotel register shows on the same page the names of officers of both armies, a town where there are two large cities of the fallen soldiers, each embellished by the saddest of all epitaphs—"To the unknown dead." Out from this battered town run a number of turnpikes, and standing as close to one of these as a city house stands to the street was the house referred to—the home of a widow, three small children, a single domestic, and, for part of the time, an invalid cousin, whose ingenuity and skill fashioned the secret places, one of which was on several occasions his place of refuge.

With fall came the "fattening time" for the hogs. They were then brought in from the distant fields, where they had passed the summer, and put in a pen by the side of the road. And although within ten feet of the soldiers as they marched by, they were never seen, for the pen was completely covered by the winter's wood-pile, except at the back, where there was a board fence through whose cracks the corn was thrown in. Whenever the passing advance-guard told us that an army was approaching, the hogs were hurriedly fed, so that the army might go by while they were taking their after-dinner nap, and thus not reveal their presence by an escaped grunt or squeal. Fortunately, the house was situated in a narrow valley, where the opportunities for bushwhacking were so great that the soldiers did not tarry long enough to search unsuspected wood-piles. On one occasion we thought the hogs were doomed. A wagon broke down near the house, and a soldier went to the wood-pile for a pole to be used in mending the break. Luckily, he found a stick to his liking without tearing the pile to pieces. This suggested that some nice, straight pieces be always left conveniently near for such an emergency, in case it should occur again.

The house had a cellar with a door opening directly out upon the "big road," and never did a troop, large or small, pass by without countless soldiers seeking something eatable in this convenient cellar. It was never empty, but nothing was ever found. A partition had been run across about three feet from the back wall, so near that even a close inspection would not suggest a space back of it; and being without a door, no one would think there was a room beyond. The only access to this back cellar was through a trapdoor in the floor of the room above. This door was always kept covered by a carpet, and in case any danger was imminent, a lounge was put over this, and one of the boys, feigning illness, was there "put to bed." In this cellar apples, preserves, pickled pork, etc., were kept, and its existence was not known to any one outside of the family.

The two garrets of the house had false ends, with narrow spaces beyond, where winter clothing, flour, and corn were safely stored. The partition in each was of weather-boarding, and nailed on from the inner side so as to appear like the true ends, and, being in blind gables, there was no suspicion aroused by the absence of windows. The entrance to these little attics was through small doors that were a part of the partition, and, as usual in country houses, the clothesline stretched across the end from rafter to rafter held enough old carpets and useless stuff to silence any question of secret doors. Several closets also were provided with false backs, where the surplus linen of the household found a safe hiding-place.

In such an exposed place a company of scouts, or even a regiment, could appear so unexpectedly that it was necessary to keep everything out of sight. Even the provisions for the next meal had to be put away, or before the meal could be prepared a party of marauders might drop in and carry off the entire supply. In the kitchen a wood-box of large size stood by the stove. It had a false bottom. In the upper part was "wood dirt," a plentiful supply of chips, and so much stove-wood that the impression would be conveyed that at least there was a good stock of fuel always on hand. The box was made of tongued and grooved boards, and one of these in the front could be slipped out, thus forming a door. Into this box all the food and silverware were put. No little ingenuity was needed in making this contrivance. The nails that were drawn out to let this board slip back and forth left tell-tale nail-holes, but these were filled up with heads of nails, so that all the boards looked just alike. I remember once a soldier was sitting on this box while mother was cooking for him what seemed to be the last slice of bacon in the house. She was so afraid that he would drum on the box with his heels, as boys frequently do, and find that the box was hollow, that she continually asked him to get up while she took a piece of wood for the fire. It was necessary to disturb him a number of times before he found it advisable to take the proffered chair, and in the meantime a hotter fire had been made than the small piece of meat required.

Of course it was advisable to have at least scraps of food lying around—their absence at any time would have aroused suspicion and started a search that might have disclosed all. The large loaves of bread were put in an unused bed in the place of bolsters; money, when there was any on hand, was rolled up in a strip of cotton which was tied as a string around a bunch of hoarhound that hung on a nail in the kitchen ceiling; the chickens were reared in a thicket some distance from the house, and, being fed there, seldom left it.

Although this house was searched repeatedly, by day and by night, by regulars and by guerrillas, by soldiers of the North and of the South, the only loss sustained were a few eggs, and this loss was not serious, for the eggs were stale.