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Friday, May 6, 2016

Son of Civil War veteran recalls stories

Thursday, August 21, 2003

He was born in the tiny Oregon County hamlet of Jeff in 1911, the same year as Tennessee Williams, who may or may not be a relation. It also was the year explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole.

The sixth child of a man 64 years his senior, George Williams grew up listening to stories of what the war years were like. Not the World War, nor the Spanish-American. Henry Williams, George's father, fought in the American Civil War, against his own father's wishes and his whole family's beliefs. George, 92, who now lives in Chesterfield, recounted the story to relatives on a recent visit to Thayer.

"The family was living at Elizabethtown, Ky.," George said of his father. "There were seven boys and seven girls. One of them was named George and I was named after him. When the war came, dad joined up. He was just 13 or 14, and he went for the Union side. His dad said he was too young, and went and got him and brought him home. He went to school another year and then he went back, and that time his dad let him go."

The young Henry Williams left to find adventure and got more than he bargained for, his 93-year-old son said.

"The war was all over the country, and all over Missouri. He fought at Shiloh, Tenn., and I remember him telling us the battle was into its second day when they got there. They came and found where the troops had been pinned down by sniper fire on the first day. He said every time someone looked over the rim of the trench, they were fired upon. He said there must have been a hundred dead soldiers in that trench, and none of them was shot below the Adam's apple."

From there, Williams said, Henry's company of Union cavalry traveled from battle to battle all across the South, ill-equipped, barely trained and with never enough to eat.

"They about starved to death. He told how they found a sheep once and shot it, and it was so poor its bones were sticking out all over," he said.

It only got worse as the war drew on, even though his side was winning.

"He was at Andersonville when the Union troops took it and opened up the prison. It was awful," he said.

History says he judged rightly. The Andersonville Civil War Prison, where more than 13,000 Union soldiers died of malnutrition, exposure and disease in the 15 months of its existence, has become archetypal of wartime atrocities committed by any army.

But George said when Henry arrived at Andersonville, although as a free man, he wasn't in much better shape than the prisoners.

"He was in Macon, Ga., when the war ended and he was discharged. They loaded them all onto a freight train and they came home covered with lice, and most of them had dysentery."

Unforgiven; Moving on

That wasn't the worst of it, George said. Henry had elected to take the Union side; he was the only family member who did. He wasn't able to continue living in Kentucky. He married and moved to Missouri, had some children, and then his wife died. Eventually he married again, to George's mother.

"He'd go home to visit once in a while, and they'd always fight. He'd come home with knots on his head."

For his patriotism, George said, the government eventually rewarded Henry with 40 acres -- of the poorest land on earth.

"The ground was too poor to do much with. We had cattle, and we had to carry water a quarter mile up the hill. I loved eggs, but mama had to sell them to buy sugar and flour."

By the time George was born his father was an old man, and life on their little Oregon County farm never got easier.

"Mama was a midwife. They never had a doctor down there. She'd go whenever someone was sick, and there'd always be four or five women who'd gather when someone was having a baby. There's maybe a couple hundred children running around that she helped bring into this world."

A Boyhood of Hard Times

George said his family was no different from others in the area. And the hard times never went away. "It was a hard life. For a long time they would close up the school for a couple of months in the fall so everyone could go to Arkansas and pick cotton. I wasn't any good at it. My mother and sisters could pick 200 to 250 pounds a day. I was lucky if I got 50 or 60.

"But we grew a garden, and always had an orchard, and always had fruit. I don't know where he learned about it, but my father could prune trees and vines, and graft them. We picked blackberries and had apples and plums. You lived on whatever you raised. You'd buy sugar and flour and meal, or if you raised corn you'd take it to the gristmill. Mama would start sweet potatoes in a bed, and break off the sprouts and plant them. There were six of us, two boys and four girls, he said.

But as he grew older, the only way his father could help provide for the family was by leaving, George said.

"He was shorter than me and he was always thin. He would go up to the old soldiers' home at St. James and stay there, and while he was there he would cut the other old soldiers' hair and send the money he made home to Mama. I remember we went up to visit him once, I think it was in 1923," he said. George was 12 at the time of the visit. Just four years later, two days short of George's 16th birthday, Henry died. He was 80.

Grown Up and Traveling to Try to Eke Out a Living

Then it was George's turn to leave.

"I'd go up to St. Louis and do odd jobs for a while and earn a little money, get to doing good, and then I'd get homesick and have to come home and see my buddies and all. Then I'd starve out and have to go back. I remember my first trip up there was all on gravel roads, and took 13 hours. I've been up there off and on since 1928, I guess. I couldn't hardly give up down here because all the folks were here. But I couldn't make a living."

Then the Depression hit, and jobs disappeared. By that time, George said, he was married, and had children to feed.

"I went to Colorado in '34 to work in the wheat fields, but they hadn't got any rain and there was no wheat to harvest. I went on to the beet fields, and finally got work at Fort Collins, where a guy I was traveling with knew someone. I made a total of $35. I rolled it up in my sleeve and rode a freight train home. I'd go pretty regular to Kansas to the harvest fields, too. A lot of us did."

Better Times

It wasn't until the United States started gearing up for World War II that times got better, George said.

"I learned how to weld and was able to get work at Emerson Electric working on war planes, helping build gun turrets. Then after the war I got on at McDonnell-Douglas and stayed there until I retired. So I settled in St. Louis and bought a home there, and we had a good life. Since the war I've done all right. I know how to watch my pennies."

Reading an Obituary Leads to Marriage to Louise

But things haven't always been smooth sailing, he said. "I lost my wife in '87, and went about two years until I decided I wasn't much of a bachelor. I saw in the paper where Louise's husband had died. She was Ruby's cousin and I'd known her for a long time," he said. He paused and grinned. "So I came down here and got Louise."

Once he found a trade and got himself established, George said, his life changed, and everything has been easier since. Until just lately. A botched cataract operation robbed him of part of his sight, and he is no longer able to drive.

"After I retired, I had a hobby of buying and trading sporting guns until my eyes got too bad. That's taken its toll. It's hard not driving. I always loved traveling and loved to drive."

Asked if coming so near to his old home makes him nostalgic for the old days, his answer was emphatic.

"I don't miss the old times. They were hard times for me. I doubt that the young people growing up now could do it," he said.

Lessons Learned

George said his mother taught him many things, and his father just one. But it has taken the lessons from both to get him through his long and successful life.

The value of hard work and determination he learned from his mother, he said. Sticking to what you know is right, whatever the cost, that was his father's gift to him.

"One swat on the pants was all I got from him. He was harder on the older ones. But I was always afraid of him, even though he was shorter than me. He was stern, but he taught us to be honest."

This story originally appeared in the West Plains Daily Quill and is reprinted here with permission.

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