Elizabeth's WAR Missouri 1863
(Late April 1861)
Elizabeth Miers stopped snapping green beans, pushed her hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, and set the half-full pot on the floor between her feet. She sagged against the straight, cane-backed chair and closed her eyes. The delicious aromas of cornbread and roasting chicken drifted from the house to the shaded porch and her stomach growled. She sighed, opened her eyes and gazed out across the 60 acre farm she and her husband, James, owned a mile and a half northeast of Austin, Missouri. The small town was growing when they‘d settled to raise a family, a few crops, and a little livestock, but was now a thriving merchant town—and hotbed of politics. Politics Elizabeth hated.
For over five years they‘d lived in the shadow of the Border War, where men on both sides of the Missouri/Kansas border were set upon, even murdered for their politics, many times in front of loved ones begging for their lives to be spared. Day after day their home was bolted against the night, their guns loaded and ready. They awaited the sound of horses thundering toward the house, signaling the arrival of raiders come to take what was theirs—or burn it to the ground—as many had already suffered.
Cass County, which included Austin, Dayton, a few miles south, and the much larger Harrisonville, fifteen miles north, increased every day in political hatreds and was split almost equally between union and southern supporters. Families were divided on whether Kansas should come into the Union as a slave state or free. Brothers sided against brothers, fathers against sons, and in Austin and Dayton, neighbors stood against neighbors in indignant righteousness of their beliefs. According to many, The Almighty was on their side—regardless of which side it was. All Elizabeth knew was that she hated everything about what was happening and wanted only to be left alone to live their lives without fear of reprisals for what they did – or didn‘t – believe. Wasn‘t that what this nation was founded on? she mused. The right to believe what you wanted?
The country was tearing itself in half. The slave states teetered on the brink of secession in order to govern themselves, while the north promised to abolish slavery and preserve the Union—at all costs. Tempers were high everywhere. No one escaped it. For the past few months whenever James and Elizabeth went into Austin for supplies the store was abuzz with nothing but talk of the South‘s threat to secede or the recounting of neighbors raided by Kansans, their stock stolen, barns burned, and even murder. Elizabeth had taken to making James go into town without her, unable to listen to folks who had been her friends, pitted one against the other with such vehemence. Neighbors who only seven or eight years ago had helped each other build their farms, homes and barns. Each time James left it was with a pistol in his belt in case mischief called in the short distance between home and Austin.
She and James held no slaves. When they married they couldn‘t afford such an extravagance. Although an accepted practice in Missouri, Elizabeth didn‘t believe in it. James saw no wrong with the institution, but to adhere to her wishes, they spent what savings they had on cattle, horses and seed instead. They were young and healthy and, with only 60 acres, could work the land themselves. They never aspired to more property than they had. There was enough to house and feed them and their emerging family, which began with Steven, now almost sixteen and born two years after their marriage. Nora followed two years later, Vera five years after that, then Sally, now three, and Joseph, two.
―Mama, how long before the beans are ready?" Nora snapped her mother back to the present when she stepped onto the porch, hands splayed on her hips. ―The chicken and cornbread are almost done."
Elizabeth glanced up at her oldest daughter, at thirteen almost a woman. Barely over five feet Nora was slender with black hair and bright green eyes. High cheekbones, usually flooded with color from her uncontrollable shyness, marked her as her mother‘s child, also with high, strong cheekbones and black hair, now liberally shot with gray. Generous lips gave Nora a pouting air, but it was her timidness people saw, not flirtation or manipulation like most girls her age displayed.
Nora cocked her head at her mother‘s lengthy perusal and Elizabeth smiled sadly. Fear gnawed at her spine like some dreaded disease, fear for her children and what was coming. "I was just thinking about how grown up you are, Nora."
Her daughter blushed and smiled, but said nothing. The prettier of the two daughters, Nora hid her beauty behind her shyness. She spent the majority of her time with her mother and younger siblings, helping any way she could. When they ventured into town, she was aloof with the boys her age, never speaking with or approaching them. Elizabeth wondered if her daughter would break through her bashfulness to meet a boy she might someday marry, but that day was a long way off, she hoped. Nora was much too young to think about such things!
"Mama? The beans?"
"Oh, I‘m sorry, Nora." Elizabeth looked down at the beans left to snap. "I got distracted. I‘ll be done in a few minutes."
"You‘re always distracted these days, Mama. What‘s the matter with you?"
Unwilling to burden her daughter with her fears, Elizabeth said, "Just wondering where your father and Steven are. They should have been back by now." She‘d sent James and Steven to town for supplies—and to find out what was going on in the county.
"Oh, Mama. You worry overmuch. They‘ll be home when they get here. In the meantime, will you please finish so I can get those beans on the stove or else everything else will be ready and we‘ll still be waiting!" The exasperation in her voice made Elizabeth smile. Nora was thirteen going on twenty and most responsible, a trait she would need in the coming years, Elizabeth feared.
Nora whirled toward the house, her skirt swirling around her ankles. "I‘ll be back in ten minutes, Mama," she called over her shoulder before disappearing through the door. Elizabeth chuckled under her breath. When had Nora become the mother and she the child?
The rumble of hooves coming toward the house drew Elizabeth‘s attention. She stood up, stepped to the edge of the porch, and shaded her eyes to see who was coming. Recognizing Solomon, James‘ white gelding and Blaze, Steven‘s black, she relaxed.
Her ease didn‘t last long. Something was wrong, she could tell by how they pushed the horses and the way her husband rode Solomon.
She waited on the porch until they slowed down in front of her. James jerked Solomon to a halt, jumped from the animal‘s back and handed the reins up to Steven. "Take 'em to the barn. Rub 'em down and water 'em, but not too much, we don‘t need 'em to go down with the colic after that hard run," he added. "And give them some grain when you‘re done."
Steven looked ready to bust with excitement, but James‘ stern look made him do as he was told. The boy clucked Blaze toward the barn with Solomon trailing behind, both horses still blowing.
"What‘s wrong?" Elizabeth asked the moment her husband turned around.
He stomped up the steps, his face tight, shaking his head. "I don‘t even know where to start." He wiped sweat from his brow, although the April day was cool.
Whatever he was about to say didn‘t bode well. "Start at the beginning. What‘s going on?"
James plopped into the chair Elizabeth had just vacated. He swallowed and pursed his lips, "They‘ve done it, Liz."
Elizabeth sat down on another chair to her husband‘s left, took his hand and gazed at the man she‘d loved for so many years. Nearly six foot tall, lean and dark-skinned from hours in the sun plowing and preparing the soil for crops, he had a strength about him that was much more than his tight arms and chest. It came from deep down in his soul that Elizabeth saw every time she looked into his dark brown eyes or his smiling face. She pushed a strand of sandy hair off his brow. "Tell me," she whispered.
"They did it. The confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. They shelled it for two days before the Union commander, Anderson, surrendered. The war is on, Liz, and we‘re right in the middle of it."
"How can we be in the middle of it here when they‘re fighting in South Carolina?"
"It may have finally exploded at Fort Sumter, but we‘ve been fighting our own war here for years. Kansans will take their revenge on Missourians now, and it won‘t matter which ones. His voice was so low and laced with fear, chills raced up Elizabeth‘s spine.
Elizabeth felt like the roof had fallen down on her. She was trying to catch her breath when Steven came running from the barn. He took the steps two at a time and stopped in front of her, his brown eyes, so like his father‘s, blazing.
"Did you hear?" he shouted. "Did you hear they blew that damned Yankee fort right out of the water?"
"Watch your language, young man," James chastised before Elizabeth had a chance.
"Sorry, sir, but it‘s about time. About time something finally happened."
"You don‘t know what you‘re talking about, son." James’ voice was stern.
"I do, too!" Steven shouted. He was tall and lanky, very much like James when he was young, Elizabeth mused, ready to bust out of his boy‘s body and become a man. "It‘s all anybody talks about whenever I‘m in town."
"You don‘t know what you‘re talking about right now!" James shouted, causing Steven to snap his mouth shut. James took a moment to tamp down his temper before he continued. "Sumter was not blown out of the water. Forts Moultrie and Johnson fired on it for two days before Major Anderson finally surrendered. The fort is still intact—according to all reports. It‘s been surrendered by the Union garrison, but it still stands."
Elizabeth watched the play of her son‘s face as he tried to keep his temper after being chastised, and proven incorrect, by his father. It had always been that way, even when he was little. His father having to prove what was right to a son who constantly questioned and defied him with a strong will so similar to his own.
Steven stood immobile collecting his thoughts before he said, "Even if that‘s true, it doesn‘t matter. We‘re at war." He shoved a strand of the same sandy-colored hair as his father‘s off his forehead, and Elizabeth marveled again at the similarities between father and son, both in physical build and facial features. Both had a square chin and high foreheads, hawkish noses, sharp cheeks and dark eyes. Eyes that grew even darker when angry, as Steven‘s were now.
James‘ head drooped and he nodded. "Yes, Son. We‘re at war."
"So now we can fight, Pa."
"Fight who, son? Reverend Newton from right here in Austin, who is an outspoken Unionist—even though he holds slaves? What about Reverend Dolan? Or perhaps young Joseph Fricke, our neighbor who‘s also spoken in favor of the Union cause? Or how about Mr. Robbins or Mr. Bartlet? Do we just grab up a shotgun and shoot them down because they believe in preserving the Union, regardless some of them even hold slaves?"
Color rose up Steven‘s neck and into his face until he shouted, "All right! I understand what you‘re saying. But what about the damned...sorry, the Kansas raiders that have been crossing the border and stealing from Missourians for years? Taking what they want easy as you please and running back home. Now we can stop them. We‘ve been lucky, Pa, but how long will that last? Especially now that we‘re at war and, to them, we‘re the enemy? They have an excuse to take what they want from us now." Steven stood defiant, waiting.
"Of course we‘re worried about raiders attacking this place. Why do you think we keep our weapons ready all the time? But that doesn‘t mean we want to run headlong into war. You have no idea what can happen...."
"I do so! I‘m not a little boy, Pa. I‘m almost sixteen. I know what going to war means. If it means fighting for the right to protect ourselves and keep our right to decide what we want in our own state without a bunch of blue bellies telling us what to do, then I‘m all for it!"
"Even if that means fighting for the continuation of slavery?" James challenged.
Steven‘s lips tightened and his nostrils flared.
"Yes sir—for now—but not forever. Slavery is an outdated institution. Most slave holders know that, but nobody can figure out how to get out of it without destroying the South‘s economy. If they‘d give us time we could figure it out but," his voice rose, "those damn...those Yankees won‘t give us the time. They want it stopped right now and they don‘t care how they do it!"
Elizabeth was proud of her son. He had given a great deal of thought to what was going on in the nation, had obviously listened to the different points-of-view he‘d heard in town, and absorbed it all.
The boy, now a man from what Elizabeth saw in front of her, stood rigid, his hands in fists at his side. His head was cocked, ready and waiting for his father to challenge him again.
"So if we fight a war that will continue slavery, you will fight for that continuation?"
Steven swallowed. "I‘d fight for my home—and Missoura."
Nora stepped through the door. "What‘s everybody shouting about? What about Missoura?"
Elizabeth felt like the world was tilting around her. She pulled her hand out of James‘, laid it across her chest, and slouched against the chair. "When did the world go crazy?" she asked nobody. "What does this mean, James?"
Elizabeth‘s heart clenched as Vera stepped out beside her older sister and brother. "What‘s going on?"
Elizabeth closed her eyes. "Tell them."
James sighed. "Fort Sumter in South Carolina has been fired upon."
Nora‘s eyes went wide. "What does that mean, Papa?" "It means the country is at war."
Vera‘s huge amber eyes looked blankly at her father then turned to her sister, her mother and brother, then back to her father, but she said nothing. From her demeanor, Elizabeth knew Vera wasn‘t certain about what she was being told, but knew it wasn‘t good.
"War? But what does that mean for us, Papa?" Nora whined.
Her husband shook his head and Elizabeth knew he had no real answer for his daughter. "Only time will tell us. Most folks know I have secessionist views—even though we don‘t hold slaves. Regardless, I believe each state has the right to decide for themselves what they want, without the jacklegs in Washington City telling them what to do. I believe, too," he looked directly at his son, "that slavery is cruel and outmoded and must be stopped, but like you already informed me, the
South needs time to figure out how to end it without destroying its economy—time the Yankees won‘t give us."
James shook his head in bewilderment. "The hot heads on both sides are shouting their cause is just and right, but nobody wants to listen to the other. In Harrisonville today, two men I‘ve never seen before came to blows. They wound up shooting it out in the street. One man was killed and the other will probably die in the next day or two if he hasn‘t died already. It was very ugly and helped a lot of people decide which side they‘re on. Those who refused to declare were bullied, told they had to make a choice, that there was no more riding the fence. It‘s one side or the other and they‘d better make up their minds quick—or someone would make it for them."
Elizabeth reacted as though she‘d been hit. "And how did you declare?"
James shook his head and sighed. "I tried to stay out of it. Tried to keep a cool head, but everybody was screaming, shouting at their neighbors like they were strangers—or enemies." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I declared for secession." He looked up at his son. "For all the same reasons Steven has so aptly pointed out. We need time for the system to be dismantled. It can‘t happen overnight. Although I never disagreed with it, I wouldn‘t fight for its continuance, and I could never fire against my home state. Never."
Tears welled in Elizabeth‘s eyes and her chest tightened like a vice was being turned around it.
"That‘s not all," James continued. "There‘s a meeting scheduled at the courthouse in Harrisonville on April 26th. Cass County will vote whether to secede or stay with the Union. Right now the county is split almost evenly, but what if that changes? If the balance shifts to one side or the other, if we‘re not on the side with the majority, then what?" He shook his head again and frowned.
Staring at her husband and son, fear cut through Elizabeth like a knife. The sunny April day was now dark and dismal, and Elizabeth despaired if their lives would ever be the same again. In her husband and son she saw the future of the country. Fathers would fight sons. Brothers would fight brothers. Families would be shattered. The only thing she wasn‘t sure about—was how long it would take.