Percy Johns Article Chevy Chase
In the Ante Bellum days it was a very pretty custom, in the southland, to designate by some appropriate name, the country home.
"Chevy Chase" was the name of the home place of a large and typical Southern family. It is situated fifteen miles north of Jackson, Mississippi, and thirty-five miles East of Vicksburg. Chevy Chase was known far and wide for its beautiful and picturesque views.
The residence was situated on an elevation of several acres of Bermuda sod, from the foot of which a beautiful prairie spread itself out to the East, as a carpet of green. In further ornamentation of, and for the comfort of both man and beast, the generous hand of nature marked the border lines of this noted prairie with clumps of shady oaks and gave to it a prairie-pond, or natural pool of never failing water. The large front yard was open and carpeted with Bermuda, in which was laid a circle, or drive-way, the border lines of which were marked by the sturdy shrub of white and purple "Flag" (Iris or Fleur de Lis). Beautiful shade trees of the larger species of China-berry, Locus and hickory, surrounded the house, from which the distant rolling fields and winding stream 'Lent Enchantment to the View'.
This was the hospitable home of a large and devoted family consisting of Mother, Father, four daughters and six sons. The sons were in two distinct groups of three each. At the beginning of the Civil War, the older group consisted of three stalwart young men. The writer is the youngest of the younger set of boys, and it is my endeavor to record in narrative, as best as I can, the memory of my boyhood at dear old Chevy Chase in "War Times".
Chevy Chase had long been a veritable Mecca -- especially during the summer months -- for friends and relatives of the family, who would flee from the heat and dust, and the maddening crowd of City life, and often as refugees from Yellow Fever in Jackson, Vicksburg and other places. A "House-Party" was a "Continuous Performance" at Chevy Chase. The happy family and visiting friends and relatives were in pursuit of past-time diversion by day, and of mirth and merry-making in the evening.
But alas! The "White Wings of Peace" hovering o'er this happy scene were soon to be put to frightened flight by "Grim-Visaged War", and the clash of resounding arms, -- "The War has actually begun"! "Like a plumed Knight, Like an Armed Warrior", Lamar Fontain rides up with cockade hat, and announces he is on the way to the front to enlist. This is the initial appearance of Lamar Fontain, - a young man reared in sight of Chevy Chase, whose subsequent daring exploits and brave adventure attracted the wonder and admiration of the world. The very air was filled with the martial spirit and patriotism, and the older sons, eager for the gray of battle, were soon kissing their farewell to the tear-stained faces of loved ones at Chevy Chase, and responding to the call of duty, as they saw it then, in defense of their State, - their dear old home and its many hallowed associations. Later on, during the War, when the South was invaded by the Northern Army, we younger boys were often kept busy hiding valuable stock, horses and cattle on the place, and even the poultry, by driving it into some out-of-the-way woodland, in safe keeping from the repeated foraging raids of the Northern army. At five or six years of age I was deeply imbued with the responsibility of "commission" when "I charge upon a flock of geese" and drove them into seclusion one very lonely day, hidden from view by the deep bluffs of a woodland stream, and in the gloaming, with martial tread and militant mien, I marched them single file and in good order back to their quarters - "Without the loss of a man" - to a hungry Yankee!
It is amusing now to recall childhood's vague conception, at that time, as to what a "Yankee" would look like. Up to that time, no Federal soldiers had appeared at Chevy Chase, but from the accounts of the raids, and foraging expeditions, the youthful mind pictured them as some deformed human creatures, possibly with "horns on their head", gathering up and taking away, without the consent of the owner, everything of value within their reach. I smile as I now recall distinctly, when the family were all excited and perturbed by the report that "The Yankees are coming", my little three year old sister Bonnie, gathering up her little kittens, her dearest possessions, and locking them within a wardrobe in the comforting assurance, as she expressed it, "The mean Yankees won't find my kitties"!
Governor Pettus was the War Governor of Mississippi, -- and being a relative, his family were annual visitors at Chevy Chase. I recall that the young ladies of that family were there when the news came that their beloved brother, Jack Pettus, ahd been killed in action, and the heavy gloom which fell over the home, incident to this bereavement, so impressed my youthful mind as to yet linger in my memory.
This sad incident only served to intensify the constant anxiety of all, for the safety of the three boys who were at the front, but from whom we could seldom hear. This brings to my mind the Siege of Vicksburg in which my three brothers served throughout. As has been said, Vicksburg was only thirty-five miles distant. The three boys were attached to the Artillery Service. In the quiet of a Summer's afternoon, during the siege, we could hear daily, the distant cannon's roar; and frequently the intensity of the cannonading would jar the windows of the old home into a simultaneous vibratory noise - an ominous message from loved ones at the front! I vividly remember just such trying condition, one afternoon, attracting the attention of the neighborhood minister, Mr. Whitfield, who had called to talk over war-news. I remember his saying to my Father, most impressively: "Brother Johns, I have an unbounded faith in the efficacy of prayer and I urge you to assemble the family, that we may all unite in the prayer that the City may not fall into the hands of the "Enemy". The distant boom of cannon, with its incident rattle of windows, were the Amen responses that punctuated the most fervent sentences of his prayer, while the weird song of the Summer Locust chanting twilight Vespers, in the trees nearby, told the passing of another day. As we now glance backward down the corridors of the years, to that unusual scene, its solemnity is somewhat marred, in the mind of the writer, as he sees himself in early boyhood at prayer, bare-footed and "rolled-up" trousers, restless and impatient -- a pair of bare heels pointing to the ceiling, as their owner wonders: "how much longer will he pray?"
For many weeks all communication with the beseiged City had been cut off, and it was during these weeks of anxiety that Lamar Fontain performed one of the most daring and picturesque feats of the war. The City of Vicksburg was completely and entirely encompassed by Grant's Army, yet this man alone, Lamar Fontain, in the exercise of an initiative, which characterized the wonderful resources of a wonderful personality, and in obeyance to a restless, dare-devil spirit of adventure, came through those unbroken lines in safety, bringing on his person, and delivering at Chevy Chase, to anxious ones, a "War Treasure", in the nature of letters from loved ones on the firing lines. Greatly to the relief of anxious hearts, he performed this daring feat of adventure, not once only, but on two separate and distinct occasions. And on so many times returned through the lines of the enemy unseen, carrying letters in return to the boys in the ranks. This was but an instance of the many exploits and adventures of this daring young man who seems to have been by nature and profession a true "Soldier of Fortune".
Bit alas! Notwithstanding the ardent and fervent prayer of the good parson in behalf of the doomed City, the news came within a few days that Vicksburg had fallen; General Pemberton surrendering the City and his entire Army to General Grant on July 4th. This indeed was an irreparable, though eventually, unavoidable loss to the Confederate cause and great was the humiliation of the South, coupled with some criticism of General Pemberton for his capitulation on that National Day.
There had been no news from the home boys for many long anxious days, save the muffled sound of cannon, as tantalizing as a broken and unreadable wireless, in this day and time, from a ship bearing loved ones amid a storm at sea! The long strain had borne heavily upon the family and it was lessened but little by the news that the struggle was over, for they knew not if the boys were dead or alive, sick or well. If living and well, whether or not they would be imprisoned in the North indefinitely or paroled and sent home, the latter possibility affording the one sustaining hope, which proved eventually to be a most happy reality.
I can recall most vividly the late afternoon on a showery July day after the siege had ended; - the entire membership of the family then at Chevy Chase were seated on a long front porch enjoying the refreshing summer showers, after the evening meal, when attention was called to a soldier in the lower West corner of the large front yard, as if to save time and distance requiring in going on further to the front gate, he had gotten over the fence and was approaching the house diagonally across the yard. All eyes were united upon him for a moment, -- "I believe it is one of the boys", some one exclaimed; then in unison several voices rang out in glad acclaim; "It is Cal!" and the mad rush to meet and greet him was on.
I can see him now as he approached the house with nap-sack about his shoulders, his face lighted up with joy and with one hand lifted, as if in appeal to be heard, he cried out repeatedly; "The other boys are all right, they are all right!" It is beyond the power of my pen to describe the happy scene that followed, - I see so very vividly our Mother and Father, arm in arm walking up and down the long paved veranda, with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, each in silence for the moment "with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one"; while even yet the several sisters were submerging their hero with caresses and all manner of attention. The tears on the faces of my parents attracted my childlike attention and wonder, and I appealed to my playmate brother to tell me its meaning, which he did, and he and I, restless and impatient with our minor role in this home coming, were soon tracking the mud along familiar paths to the dear old orchard and from limbs bent and bowed with golden fruition, we plucked the choicest fruits and bore it in childish glee and boyish triumph our soldier Brother. He was telling of the other boys, and how he had waited in full sight of the house for hours for them to overtake him, fearing if he came up alone, the family would think the other two had fallen. It was an experience revealing a wonderful self-control and self-imposed deprivation under the most tempting conditions, inspired by a loving consideration for others.
The Confederate Army had been paroled and the three brothers, inviting a comrade, who had no home of his own, to accompany them, started out on foot from Vicksburg the day previous to tram it to their old home at Chevy Chase. They had crossed Big Black River the previous afternoon and rested during the night. Early morning the four had started out all together, eager for their goal; Calvit being the better pedestrian out-stripped the others and pressed on homeward alone. The afternoon found him among familiar scenes of his boyhood. At the very threshold of his home, within almost an arm'w reach of the consummatioin of hopes long deferred, and bouyant with a confidence of their immediate realization, when this thought of others came in his mind: "If I go home alone they will think the other two boys have fallen" He came on further to a thicket of Plum trees on the brow of a hill over-looking the yard and home, and there he decided to wait the coming of Will and Alfred and their comrad that all might go up together and thus spare the loving hearts at home this one more strain. It was the custom in those days to have the kitchen detached from the main house by fifty feet or more, in order to aoid the fumes of the cook-room. From his position on the hill, Calvit looked down into the yard and saw the servants bringing into the dining room the evening meal which in itself was a great temptation to him to come on in, but he did not yield. Athirst, ahungered, foot-sore and weary, this manly and considerate soldier-boy, from a fear of causing loved and loving ones at a home that held for him every joy of mind and comfort of body, for which both so long had yearned. It is a picture of self-imposed deprivation in the midst of plenty, worthy the true artist. It is the proof of the love and manliness that was his own, that I would lovingly inscribe as an epitaph over his recently made grave in the Church Yard at Palestine, Texas.
But we turn with a sigh and again see him come out into the opening and look far down the road to the West in impatient hope of his comrades being within sight, but in vain, and it was then that he yielded to the consoling assurance that the comforting news he would carry would outweigh the momentary apprehension caused by his returning home alone; and this though was uppermose in his mind as he approached the home, crying our the safety of his brothers. It was indeed a pleasure to all to look on and see this ravenously soldier-boy enjoy a bountiful home-cooked meal for the first time since the beginning of the memorable Siege of Vicksburg when all supplies were cut off and his army reduced to the extremity of "rats for rations".
Delightfully the remaining hours of evening passed in gleeful anticipation of further arrivals. The news had spread throughout the negro quarters and their manifestation of loyalty and devotion to the white family, while humble and servile, was beautifully sincere. The duties of the day being finished, the negro men waited in groups about the back premises in very happy but respectful moods awaiting the shake of the hand and some individual recognition and personal comment from each of their young masters, and the women made merry in lending such assistance, as was permitted them by the house servants in the preparations of the meal for those to come.
Soon after dark William and Alfred came tramping up with their friend and comrade Mr. Berry -- better known in the ranks by the cognomen "Long" Berry for his great height. Then there was another indescribably scene. The long wait in the assurance of the safety of the boys and in the expectancy of their coming at any hour, had aroused the family to the highest state of joy and excitement, which, upon their arrival, was given vent unrestrained in shrieks of greetings and peals of laughter between embraces of Mother and Sisters, and my memory of that evening, fades with the subsidence of this bedlam of noises.
The next morning I was ready for more excitement and the wait was not long though the excitement and events were of a different nature from that I had closed my eyes upon the night before. It would seem as if the Fates of War had decreed that Federal Soldiers should make their first appearance at Chevy Chase coincident with the return of paroled Confederates to their home at that place. It was at an early hour and the servants only asteir. The old boys resting from the long tramp home, and others of the family had indulged in late hours and were yet asleep. I was standing at my Father's side in the front door. We were surprised on seeing a group of men, well mounted and in unfamiliar uniforms coming through the larger gate in the lower front yard. My father's attention in that direction was intense and his manner severe. The calvacade was now in full gallop, not in the drive-way around, but directly up toward the house. There were twenty-five or more and I was curious to know who they were, so I took my Father's hand as he walked forward, with dignified composure, to meet them. I think he felt sure they were Federal Soldiers from their uniform and not knowing whether or not they would recognize the paroleunder which the boys were at home, apprehended the possibility of grave complications and decided to show the approaching visitors every civility.
"Good Morning Gentlemen", my Father greeted them as they drew up their horses. "Good morning!" (sternly, I thought the officer replied), "Have you any butter-milk?" "An abundance" father replied, won't you gentlemen slight and tie your horses and com in?" They did not stand back on ceremony or on the order of coming in but went in readily, for I recall, thinking to myself; "Those men make themselves very much at home for their first visit". They were seemingly interested only in securing a meal. Probably a scouting squad or advance guard to learn the roads, and get information as to the general condition of the surrounding country. After enjoying a bountiful breakfast and expressing their full appreciation of the courteous hospitality, they mounted their splendid horses and rode away.
I had seen my first Yankee and he was both hornless and harmless.
/s/ Percy Johns, M.D.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
(Note: It was my understanding that this was written soon after the burial of his brother Calvit Johns, in Palestine, Texas.) This note is probably by Florence Johns. -- SDC
F. Winston Johns P.O. Box 446 Charlottesville, Virginia
March 15, 1961
This little anecdote of the South during the War between the States was copied from the original and was written by Dr. Percy Johns, the great uncle of your copiest, at Hot Springs, Arkansas, on the occasion of his older brother Clavet's death.(1822). Doctor Johns died shortly after. "Chevy Chase" was built by the Great Grandfather of your copiest, Glover Johns who migrated from New Store, Buckingham County, Virginia, with his family and seventy slaves. 1831.