A REMINISCENCE OF THE WAR OF THE
August 14, 1913 (A True Story)
By Mary Gemeny
(March 10, 1836 - January 10, 1937)
© Copyright 1997, Steven E. Gemeny
At the very earnest request of my children, I will try to write a short history of my painful experiences during the War of the States, that they may have a correct knowledge of their father's troubles and the circumstances leading to his cruel imprisonment, he being a prisoner of War nearly two years. They have always been so interested in little recitals of our experience that I realize how satisfactory it will be to have this retrospect to refer to. I regret that I did not write it sooner while my faculties were brighter and before so much had passed out of my memory that I find it impossible to recall. But the main points and scenes are still vivid in my mind and enough to prove that God will never forsake them that put their trust in Him, however great the mistakes we make in life.
In the Spring of 1861, when the country was all in commotion over the election of Abraham Lincoln for President, we were living in Baltimore City where I was born and reared. My husband coming in there from Virginia when only seventeen had from that time made his home there. We were married in 1855 in Hartford Avenue Methodist Church of that city. There are some still living who will remember the occasion as it was quite an imposing scene, being a double wedding, my sister, Mrs. William Ashley being married at the same time.
At the time my story begins I had three children, Harry five years, Wilbur three, and Minnie, a babe of six months. It will not be necessary to repeat history; you have read of the exciting time we had there that Spring, of the riot the day Lincoln passed through on his way to Washington, the bombarding of his train as they supposed (but you know he had eluded them). The excitement ran high, everything in a commotion for weeks, all business stopped and like hundreds of others my husband was out of employment. I had been very sick and was still in a very weak condition; they had cautiously kept me in ignorance of the conditions, at least the extent of it, but the doctor advised that I should be taken to the country or some place of quiet where I would regain strength.
The country home of the Gemeny's in Virginia where his mother and eldest brother lived was the place immediately decided on. My father, who had been a close observer of the growing troubles in his older and wiser judgment saw that it was a wrong move, and protested strongly against it. Knowing Mr. Gemeny's strong Union sentiments, he advised him to keep out of Virginia. He knew he would find it a hot-bed, but my husband could not believe that the old state that had given us so many illustrious men and the birth place of the Father of our Country could ever secede. So with this firm fend hope inspiring him he proceeded with his arrangements and one beautiful afternoon the latter part of March or the first of April, I do not remember the date, found us sailing down the Chesapeake Bay. The afternoon was so pleasant that I was braced up with pillows in a big chair on deck looking over the waters taking in scenes that had become familiar to me; as I had taken the trip several times before; my husband very happy as he walked the deck with his two little boys, answering their numerous questions or sitting by my side enjoying with me the invigorating breeze, how could we see the maze this seemingly pleasant path was leading to! The following evening found us safely landed at the beautiful country home of the Gemeny's, "Pleasant View", but two miles from Kinsale in Westmoreland County, Virginia. It had been rightly named, a very inviting looking home as you approached by the long carriage drive lined on either side by locust trees and standing on a slight eminence commanding a fine view of the surrounding country. And from the observatory can be seen plainly the light house at Piney Point on the Maryland side - a home with all the comforts of city life inside, and outside all the enjoyments of country life. It was here we had spent the first year of married life, as he had a large contract for work that was a good paying proposition.
As we now walked those familiar paths, reminded of those happy days, how little I dreamed, that in a few short weeks I would walk those same paths alone, with an aching heart, and my little boys looking at my distress in astonishment and asking, "Where has my Papa gone! Can't we go to him, Ma!"
It was not long before we discovered we had made a great mistake, had taken a wrong step, that my father knew what he was doing when he advised us not to go. Every member of the family and nearly every one he would meet were strongly in sympathy with the Southern movement; and with his strong, firm Union sentiments, he found himself very unpleasantly situated, and he had intended to retrace his steps homeward in a short time, but seeing I was being as greatly benefited in health was anxious to remain a little while.
Only a few weeks had passed, when, to our great astonishment, the war was proclaimed, and the blockade was put on. All travel between North and South at that point ceased, except a small sail boat or row boat that went over two or three times a week, to take parties that wished to go North. There were some days allowed for this exchange, but I do not now remember how many. The hotel was soon crowded with people wanting to go over, many of them merchants anxious to renew their stock while they could. We hastened to engage passage with them, and went down to the wharf many times, to find the seats all taken or crowded to a dangerous point. So we would have to return home disappointed. Thus from day to day we waited hoping the rush would cease. During this time the men of the place had been formed into a company of militia. Captain Sanford, the Captain of the company, was the family doctor, and an intimate friend. He advised my husband no to wait longer as it might cause him trouble, but to go with the crows and leave me and the children until the rush had subsided and we could go more safely, promising he would interest himself in giving what assistance he could. So, taking his advice, he went, and I returned to this mother's home with a sad heart.
While we could not see the sorrow and trouble to follow, yet we knew we were placing great uncertainties between us, as that was the last day of the armistice allowed, I would have to go with the blockade runner at night, making it a perilous trip, and enormously expensive; some paying as high as fifty dollars, when the case was urgent. One of the men had promised to be very reasonable with me in his charge, and would let me know when there would be room for me. Of course, they did not venture often, only on dark nights that were free of storm. Three long anxious weeks had passed and I had not yet succeeded in getting away. During this time the militia had been ordered from that point for general muster, and a strange company was sent there to guard that landing and the neighboring country, which proved a sad circumstance in our case.
At last I had received word that room would be reserved for me the following evening, and I was very busy making preparations for my departure, with mingled feelings of joy and fear, for I was exceedingly timid, and it was to me a fearful undertaking. While thus engaged I saw a servant man of one of the neighbors on horseback coming to the house in great haste. Ms. Gemeny went to the door to learn his errand. He was greatly excited and exclaimed:
"Missus, tell Marsa Benny's wife to come down to the landing; he is there in a big Yankee Gunboat, which has come to take him away. Tell her to come quick; everybody seems powerful scared, and pears like they is going to be some trouble."
I was greatly surprised and excited, for I knew he had not come in that formidable way from choice, but could not see through it. By all helping me we were soon ready and as the carriage was waiting at the door, we were not long in getting there. There was a stretch of woods that hid the wharf from view until a turn in the road a short distance from it brought it to our sight. Just before reaching this turn I saw the company of soldiers standing in groups and two soldiers with guns mounted, patrolling the road from side to side. As I approached they crossed their guns in the middle of the road and called to me to halt. The captain then stepped up to me and said, "Madam, we have held a council of war, the result of which is, you cannot pass this line. It is one of our oaths that we give no aid or help to the enemy and your husband had openly avowed himself our enemy by this act. We forbid you to pass this line to go to him at the penalty of death."
I tried to use persuasion, but could not move them. I then grew desperate and declared I would pass at any risk. Picking up my baby girl and telling my little boys to come on, I started. The officer rushed in front of me, then taking hold of me, held me firmly until my husband's brother, who had brought me down, and a friend came to me and pleaded with me not to attempt it. I then asked what they proposed doing. He said if I would write a note saying I would not come it would perhaps save hostilities between them; otherwise, there might be a skirmish in a short time. I told them I positively would not write those words. The whole neighborhood was in a state of alarm and many pleading with me to do or say something that would spare them, so after finding they would not yield to me, I wrote these lines.
"My dear husband, I cannot come."
The officer hesitated a long time, knowing they would understand, but when he found I was firm, dispatched a messenger with the note to the boat and hastened away not knowing what the result would be. My husband told me later, when explaining it all, that he had to plead with the captain as if pleading for life to keep them from firing on the place and insisted on bringing in more force the next day and taking me by force, but he had no desire to endanger life and property of friends and relatives living at that point and finally induced them to move out and take him back to the Maryland side to decide on some other course.
I can never forget that sad ride back home; it seemed more than I could bear, but it was only the beginning of the deep sorrows that I was to pass through. It was well I had learned the true source of help when all else faileth. To the great relief of the people in the vicinity the boat finally moved off quietly and order was restored, but no confidence, for they hourly expected that the boat would return prepared to take us by force.
Here, we must leave the story... The tale continues for quite some time as Ben is subsequently captured, jailed as a Union spy, and Mary embarks on an 18 month effort to free "her Yank". If you have enjoyed this excerpt, feel free to contact me to obtain a copy for yourself, at cost of reproduction.
Copied - May 1995 - (Steve Gemeny) Excerpted and posted online - June 2002 (Steve Gemeny)