What “Might Have Been.”
May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
I offer this story for what it is, a reflection of the times: nothing more, nothing less. History is seldom pretty or simple. But we cannot ignore it.
July 29, 1901
“Old Uncle John Price,” Who was Known to Many Austinites
A short time ago the Austin Daily Statesman contained this simple notice. John Price, colored, was buried yesterday, aged 65.
That was all.
Few of those who read that short notice knew or cared who John Price was or had been. Just one more old Antebellum nigger shuffled off.
Brief as that paragraph was it revived memories in the hearts of a few.
Back in the stormy sixties, General W. R. Hamby, Captain W. C. Walsh, General A. S. Roberts, John G. Wheeler of Manor, Garland Calvin of Watters, Dr. L. D. Hill, physician at the Confederate home, and myself, all members of old Company D, Fourth Texas regiment, Army of Northern Virginia, knew that old negro and knew him well.
In camp, on the march, wherever the fortunes of war carried Hood’s Texas Brigade, Old Uncle John was there.
At the field hospital, a little back from the line of battle, where the wounded and dying are hurried in ambulances and on litters, that brave old black Samaritan could be seen, busy preparing bandages, scraping lint or helping the surgeons and nurses.
A field hospital is no bomb proof position, and it takes nerve, lots of it, to stay there and work to alleviate the agonies of the wounded. I had rather be on the firing line anytime than at a field hospital in close proximity to a battle.
As a rule, soldiers of every nation fire, too high while in action, and many of the shot and shells pass over the heads of the men at the front and do great damage in the rear, where the field hospitals are always established.
The Tom Green Rifles, afterwards Company D, Fourth Texas regiment, was the first company to leave Austin in the spring of 1861. John T. Price, former Sheriff of Travis County, was fifth sergeant in the company and took “Yeller John,” the only negro he owned, with him as body servant and cook. It was a familiar sight back in those eventful days to see Old Uncle John flooding along the dusty roads in Old Virginia, literally loaded down with cooking utensils, blankets, canteens and haversacks. Perhaps there were government mules that carried heavier loads of plunder than old John, but none of them carried a more general assortment or got to the place of destination any sooner.
Honest as the days were long, he was faithful to every trust and stuck to his old regiment through thick and thin. A negro cook in the Confederate Army had more privileges than his master, and could take shortcuts and forage through the country, as he was not required to stay in line or answer to roll call. The boys would furnish John with money, he would strike out through the rural districts parallel with the route of the army and at night come into camp loaded down with good things for old mess no. 5.
Some of us will never forget the old man at Gettysburg. On the memorable night of July 2nd, 1863, the Texas Brigade lay on the side of the mountain in a broken disordered line, the crest of the ridge 50 yards above us covered with Federal infantry and artillery. Both armies were whipped and both were vicious. The snapping of a twig or the misplacing of a stone brought a shower of many balls down upon us. All night we lay there, not speaking above a whisper, with our haversacks and canteens empty.
Just as the gray dawn was breaking Old Uncle John came slipping up the mountain with a camp kettle full of boiled beef, a bag of boiled roasting ears, cold water biscuits and several canteens of cold water. He had rambled up and down the line for hours hunting the Fourth Texas Regiment, which was a mere fragment in that great Army.
Giving the provisions to Lieutenant McLaurin he dropped down behind a big boulder and in two minutes was sound asleep. The heavy load and long search had worn the old man out, and he slept like a log with cannon booming all around him.
He had many opportunities to go with his so-called friends the federals, but he clung to those he knew and was as proud of his gray uniform as many of the Confederate soldiers. Many of the Negro cooks and body servants abandoned their masters on the Maryland and Pennsylvania raids but old John remained true through it all.
When the remnant of Lee’s army stacked arms at Appomattox on the 9th of April 1865, Old Uncle John with his white friends, what few were left, turned his footsteps westward and homework. Barefooted, ragged and hungry he tramped back to Texas, back to the land and people he loved, and for all this faithful devotion he has at least received his reward, a pauper’s grave.
The Statesman was misinformed in regard to the old man’s age; he was nearer 80 than 65. When the American National Bank of Austin was organized Major George W. Littlefield, president, and General W. R. Hamby, cashier, gave Old Uncle John the position of porter. This place he kept for a number of years, really to the detriment of the bank, for the old man was not able to do the work required of him.
Then they pensioned him on $10 per month, relieving him of all labor, paying him $2.50 every Saturday night. He soon became too feeble to care for himself, was alone in the world without kindred, and strange to say of one of his race was an old bachelor.
Knowing the history of this old man’s life, knowing how true he had been to his white friends in the Army and how he still stood by them through the dark days of reconstruction when his own color threatened to lynch him, I made an appeal through the Statesman to the managers of the Confederate home. I simply asked them to give the old man a place to rest his weary old bones and something to eat out of the bountiful supply of provisions out there. My appeal met with cold indifference.
In fact it was not noticed at all and the fate of this brave old black Confederate was “over the hills to the poorhouse.”
John was a proud old darky and felt the humiliation of becoming a pauper and he knew the days of his usefulness were gone, and bent with years and toil he accepted the charity of the county and now like Old Uncle Ned in the song:
“There is no more work for poor old John,
He’s gone where the good niggers go.”
That everlasting “might have been” looms up before us wherever we go and like the little word “if” is always chiding us and making us unhappy. We the old soldiers who knew John in the Army might have provided for the old man simple wants and not have permitted him to die at the poor farm a beggar.
But now that he has crossed over the Border beyond the reach of human ingratitude, Christian charity or what “might have been,” let’s do something that no ex Confederates have ever done before. Lest we forget the old man dead like we neglected him while living, let’s build a monument to his memory. A shift of grey granite will not cost much and it will be a fitting tribute to the services and faithful devotion of this old negro to the dead Confederacy.
I spoke to General Hamby, cashier of the American National Bank of Austin, in regard to this matter. And he heartily approves of it. He knew how faithful John had been through all those long years of Civil War and told this anecdote about him.
“John reached home before the federals arrived in Austin. It was on the morning of July 4th 1865 when the federal cavalry entered the city. The Sunday before their arrival John brushed up his old faded grey uniform and remarked to General Hamby’s mother, ‘Well, Miss Louisa, this is the last time I will ever wear this old uniform. The Yankees are coming and won’t let me wear it anymore.’”
True to the last and braver than some of our old soldiers, for I know one fellow who burned his uniform for fear the Yankees would find it and get him into another war. Some soldiers had a better excuse than that for burning their old clothes.
Now, if there are any who have any sympathy with this novel but worthy object and are willing to contribute toward building a modest shift over this faithful old colored Confederate, they can leave or send their contributions, no matter how small, to General Hamby. He will receipt for all monies contributed to the John Price Monumental Fund and at the proper time publish the names of the contributors in the Austin papers.
Signed, Val C. Giles