McDonald Tales | MT5 | Alex McDonald and the Civil War
Brothers fought against brothers in the war
For this McDonald Tale we are going to ‘step aside from’ the McDonald stories through the viewpoint of Daniel and Jane and look a little closer at Daniel’s nephew, Alex. Alex filled a pivotal role in the family in the second half of the nineteenth century. He spent the four years of his life, from age 12 to 16, living in a cave, living off the land, with his grandfather… and a cache of classic books his grandfather had preserved. He had only his faith, and that of his grandfather, that either of them would live to see family and a future life, again. They were in constant danger, both from wildlife around them, and from marauding guerrilla bands, from both North and South, fighting what we call the Civil War.
Born in 1849, as a ‘middle child’ to Harry and Sarah (Baldridge) McDonald, he had three older siblings and two younger sisters. His older sister, Caroline, was six years older, and served more as a ‘second mother’ role to him in his earliest years. His older brothers, Patrick, two years older, and Thomas, four years older, were strong and active. Patrick preferred to hunt and fish in the woods and creek to the south with his friends there. Thomas was the obedient oldest son, anxious to work with his father, uncle and grandfather in the fields to support the family. Alex was small, quiet and very intelligent but preferred to just be left alone. He enjoyed reading books, but was somewhat hampered in the task by poor eyesight. He wore spectacles as soon as they were available to him.
The arrival of the war turned this world upside down, of course, mostly bad, but some good. At the first call for Union troops, his brother Thomas walked to Houston to enlist as a Union soldier. He was killed at Shiloh with thousands of others, on both sides. Patrick, in a fury that Lincoln was elected President, ran off with his Rebel friends, and was never heard from again. [Although, in later years, Karl King learned of his likely final ‘destination.’] Alex’s father, mother and three sisters, ‘evacuated’ the valley with most of their neighbors to the north, spending the war period in the Jefferson City area. When Henry, Alex’s 61 year old grandfather, pledged to stay on his land to retain his ‘claim,’ Alex decided he wanted to stay also, for their mutual benefit. All being strong-willed individuals, that was what they did.
Cattle returned to the valley after the war
Alex during the wartime years and immediately after
GranPa Henry was a pioneer in the Oak Creek valley. He knew the land, the forest, the creek, the caves, and wildlife like he knew the back of his own hand. He had lived and survived there, in his earlier years. Now, he and Alex returned to life like that in those early years. Henry enjoyed reliving the times; Alex enjoyed learning the ways of survival in a near wilderness. In only a matter of months, guerrilla bands had burned every building to the ground. Henry and Alex took the position, in their minds and in their lives, that the future would be good, but they would take care of today, first, and plan for the future. They had cached the plow and other implements in the caves for future use. Now, they took the corn and other seeds, and planted them one hill at a time like the Indians taught the first white settlers to do, with a fish as fertilizer with some seeds. They planted the hills in what looked like random order, not in rows, so that visitors to the valley would not notice them. But they knew where they were.
They made bows and arrows for hunting squirrel, deer, turkey and other available wildlife in the woods. They ate the deer meat and cured the hides to make buckskin clothing. They located edible berry bushes; they harvested and stored nuts and fruit. The many orchards across the valley still bore fruit each year. GranPa Henry knew what to do; Alex learned. Each year, they harvested seed for the next year along with the crops to live on. They planted as much as they reasonably could, in case the war ended quickly and people would return. The war did not end quickly, of course.
Alex and his GranPa Henry used some of their time to continue Alex’s mental education in addition to the extensive ‘hands-on’ education he was receiving every day. Alex read, and re-read each of the books that they had in the cave. They discussed the books, the stories, the history, and what they meant for ‘modern’ times. Alex especially liked the book on William Wallace, the Scottish ancestor of his GranMa Laura, Henry’s wife who had died a couple of years before Alex was born. Laura believed Wallace, her surname’s source, was her ancestor. Whether he really was, or not, was of little meaning. He was a warrior, a hero. GranPa Henry also assured that Alex kept up his writing and math skills, as well, during their life in the cave above Oak Creek during those years.
Finally, in May of 1865, Alex’s uncle Daniel and his now brother-in-law, Lewis Truesdale, entered the valley to let them know that the war was over, and many of the families would be returning. Lewis had married Caroline, Alex’s older sister, a couple of years earlier. Also, it turned out, Alex would soon learn that he was about to become an uncle, himself. Although Henry and Alex had planted their seed already, with the mules the ex-soldiers had brought, along with new harness, they got out the plow and got about planting plots of rows of crops with the new seed brought in on the mules’ packs. Two of the other men were only a few days behind in arriving. So, besides getting the new crops planted, they all worked at getting new cabins built for their own use and the use of the others who would be arriving through the summer and into the fall.
Alex was happy to become a farmer again. He was much stronger, now, of course, and happy to be able to make a man’s contribution, as each new year went by.
Alex hurt himself picking corn
Times always change
Alex had been mildly surprised that his parents hadn’t returned to the valley after the war, until he realized how successful his father had actually become in the freight line business with Jacob Weston. His parents visited from time to time, which was nice, but he knew their hearts were now totally in Jefferson City. They even made arrangements with Daniel and Jane (Truesdale) McDonald to take charge of all the family farm business in the valley. Alex’s other grandparents, Robert and Susannah Baldridge, had died in a carriage accident during the war, so there was really little for them to come back to, it seemed. Even Caroline and Lewis, with their new baby, Jimmie, now lived in Oak Springs, where Lewis ran the Livery Stable, a Sale Barn, and bred horses and mules. He had rented out the Truesdale farmland to buddies of his from the Cavalry Company that he commanded during the war.
Daniel and Jane hired two new men, and then a third, to help work the land and the cattle, to make the most of the land they now managed. They built on a room for the men to live in on the side of the double cabin where GranPa Henry and Alex lived. They were good guys, but it was no longer quite the same with four and then five sharing the space rather than just two. GranPa was getting older. He did more woodworking for the cabins than farm work.
During the fall harvest in 1869, Alex twisted his back while picking corn and it hurt so bad he could no longer work. They took him in to see Dr. Potts, and, over time, the back got better, but he could no longer do farm work, or any manual labor. While he was getting treatments on his back, he lived with Jerry Potts and his wife, Polly. Jerry was a brother of Dr. Potts. They got to know each other quite well. That led to a very surprising change that Alex had not expected.
Note from Author
Much of this McDonald Tale (MT4) has been told in the short story collection, “American Centennial at the Homeplace: The Founding (1833-1876)” but here we are seeing the activity through the eyes and experiences of Alex McDonald, along with new material and insights. The story Alex told of his Civil War days is the centerpiece short story in the American Centennial anthology of stores.
These Tales are a part of “The Homeplace Saga” series of stories.
“The Homeplace Saga” family saga, historical fiction stories are the creation of the author, William Leverne Smith, also known as “Dr. Bill.”
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