Civil War Profiles

The Civil War according to ‘Gath’: Foraging in the countryside

As a reporter for the New York World, Delaware native George Alfred Townsend covered a Pennsylvania unit of the Union army operating in Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Townsend — or “Gath,” his penname — accompanied Capt. Kingwalt’s Pennsylvania unit to gather food for the soldiers and hay for the horses.

Townsend had been in camp a few days when he learned, to his chagrin, of a reporter for another New York newspaper whose pay was higher and who was far better equipped. He made a mental note to “seize the first opportunity to change establishments” to that other paper.

As noted in his memoir “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant,” the detachment set out with six four-horse wagons to forage the nearby farms. They traveled through soggy fields across Difficult Creek into a dense wooded area, through which the teamsters had to clear the way with axes.

After two hours, the unit reached the summit of a hill that revealed “quaint Virginia dwellings, stockyards, and negro-cabins divided by miles of tortuous worm-fence.” However, the land had not been plowed, a sure sign the men of these farm families had gone off to war.

Townsend soon learned the women, children and old men living on the farms adhered to the Southern cause. The officer in charge of the foraging mission stopped at a residence and told a woman he was there to purchase “stacks of hay and corn fodder” that were lying in the fields.

An older gentleman living at the residence said their hens and turkeys had already been “toted off.” Therefore, he had killed the ducks so at least the family would have something to eat.

The Union officer promised to “pay liberally” for their produce, and would leave sufficient hay for their horses. However, a few months prior, the Confederates had seized their horses and cows; therefore, they no longer had need for the hay.

Priscilla or “Prissy,” the oldest daughter, being assured she would receive just payment for the forage, invited the officer and his party to have dinner. She allowed that Virginians were always hospitable “even to their enemies.”

With Townsend in civilian clothes, the woman took him to be a prisoner of the soldiers. Upon learning his identity, she invited him into their home.

The reporter’s eye noticed “the furniture consisted of a mahogany sideboard, table, and chairs — ponderous in pattern; and a series of family portraits on the wall … and the black mantel-piece was a fine specimen of colonial carving in the staunchest of walnut-wood.”

The old man, showing signs of senility, piped up that he was no politician, but “always said that the negroes [who had escaped] were very ungrateful people” — a reflection of Southerners’ misguided justification of the institution of slavery, claiming it benefited those caught in its web.

When Townsend commented about the pleasantly wooded local area, Prissy, “plighted to a Major in the Confederate service,” allowed she did not want to “survive the disgrace of the old commonwealth.” Her younger sister, Bell, added, “Become right down hateful since Yankees invaded it.”

At dinner, Capt. Kingwalt, the Union officer in charge, regaled the group with stories of his own daughters who lived “on the Brandywine [Creek]” in Pennsylvania. The frugal meal served consisted of the aforementioned ducks, some vegetables, cornbread, coffee made from “wasted rye,” and the last of the salt available in the household — no sugar, spices, nor tea.

Gath noted that the girls thought Kingwalt to be, in the local vernacular, “a puffick gentleman.” Nonetheless, it bewildered them that he could stoop to support the Yankee cause.

To ensure the safety of the household, the captain posted two guards before leaving. The family granted Townsend’s request “to lodge in the dwelling” for the evening, so he could avoid the “damp beds, the hard fare, and the course conversation of the [army] bivouac.”

Upon repairing to his room, Townsend placed his head on a soft pillow and dreamt of “freebooting soldiers, foraging Quartermasters, deaf gentlemen, [Sgt.} Fogg’s regiment, and multitudes of ghosts from [the Battle of] Manassas.” In the end, however, the long curls of Miss Bessie, one of the daughters in the household, “brushed into my eyes….”

To be continued….

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point