Women of Tragedy

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Eliza Gunn
Cold Days – Cold Hearts

(A first-person interpretation written by Carol Bohl with research supplied by Tom Rafiner)

Good Afternoon, Mr. Daniel. Neighbors tell me you are the best attorney here in Harrisonville for filing war claims. I want you to file this claim immediately with the War Department in Washington, D. C. Today in 1872, it’s been more than ten years since those Jayhawkers rode down our snow-covered lane and turned our lives upside down.

All I am asking for is money I’m owed for two horses stolen from us: $200 for a bay stallion and $175 for a large gray. A fair and honest price.

These are the facts: My name in 1861 was Eliza Gunn. G – U – N – N. I was born in Tennessee where I married James Gunn. We soon moved NORTH ACROSS THE Mason-Dixon Line to Illinois where our first 7 children were born. In 1858 James wanted to seek his fortune and heard of the rich well-watered soil in this county. So we pulled up stakes and moved out west here to Cass County, Missouri where we farmed west of Harrisonville about 5 miles, on a farm on the south side of the road that leads to Morristown and on west into Kansas. This was beautiful land, well watered with rich soil and good prairie grass.

Early on in the war in the summer of 1861 my husband James was visited by our neighbor Benjamin Stephens who said, “James, you know those Kansas Jayhawks under Doc Jennison keep terrorizing the countryside stealing our horses, wagons, corn, fence rails and more. You heard how they looted all the stores on the square in Harrisonville regardless of whether the owners were of the Northern or Southern persuasion. Now, I know you are a loyal Union man, but that doesn’t seem to matter to that gang of thieves. We are organizing the neighborhood into a Home Protection Company.”

To which my husband James replied, “You are right, Benjamin. We need to band together to protect ourselves regardless of our loyalties. It’s a disgrace the way our own government is allowing these attacks on its citizens.”

When war was declared in 1861, our two oldest boys, Isaiah and Meadem, signed up to fight for the Union cause. Isaiah signed up with the Missouri Home Guard, and Meadem went to Kansas to fight to preserve the Union. Several of our neighbors signed up to fight with the Southern cause. Many of these boys fought on both sides down at Springfield and then up at Lexington.

Why, the whole countryside right here in Cass County was in turmoil. The Battle at Morristown raged just five miles west of us, in September, and then the 7th KS Cavalry moved in and took over the town and named it Camp Johnson for their leader who was killed in the battle there.

Picture by permission from “Caught Between Three Fires” by Tom Rafiner. 2010. Artist Brian Hawkins.

I’ll never forget that day – Dec. 21, 1861 – four days before Christmas, it was bone-chilling cold, snow covered everything. Looking out the frosted windows of our house, we saw 80 men from the 7th Kansas come riding up the lane and on up to the front door. James said, “Eliza, this does not bode well. Keep the children inside.”

A Lt. Tanner and a few of his men called James to the porch. “Mr. Gunn, we are in need of your two best horses. And we have orders to place you under arrest.” Before James could speak in protest, I stepped onto the porch and said, “Why are you taking James? He’s a loyal Union man. We have two sons in your Union Army.”

Lt. Tanner replied, “I’m sorry, Ma’m, but we heard your husband had signed up with the Home Protection Company, and it is a known fact they harbor Southern sympathizers. His name is on our list to be arrested.”

“James, tell them, – we are loyal!!” But they had orders and proceeded to drag him away. Never had I felt so helpless and alone.

It was three days later, Christmas Eve, our neighbor James Preston brought the news. I opened the door and let him in from the cold and offered him a seat before the fire. His words haunt me to this day. He said, “Eliza, it is my misfortune to have to inform you that Col. Daniel R. Anthony, commander of the 7th Kansas at Morristown, ordered your husband James shot the day after they arrested him. They buried him there the same day, Dec. 22.”

Shock, then despair. I had no words. I never had a chance to look on my darlin’ James’ face one last time and say a proper good-bye. All I could think of was how those cold, heartless men had made me a widow with six children to raise alone. We had NO Christmas that year, only tears.

But the same neighbor who brought that awful news also told me, he said, “Eliza, I was there, and after James was shot and lying on the ground, I saw him raise himself up and declare with his last breath ‘I die a loyal Union man.’”

So, that winter I pondered the best way to honor him and my sons who were away fighting for their country. And I determined I too must remain loyal. So, this I did, even when neighbors warned me such a course was dangerous. Col. Anthony issued me “protection papers” for my family and property.

The children and I survived that winter, into the spring of 1862. But then Bushwhackers appeared in our lane. Riding up to the house, they shouted, “Woman, you have ten minutes to gather your belongings before we burn your house to the ground. This is what we do to loyal Union folks.” Mind you, some of these were our neighbors: friends before this war turned the world upside down. I snatched quilts, this photo of James, our family Bible.

“Children, I said, “gather your clothes, quickly.” As we gathered in the front yard, I will never forget the crackling and popping of the fire and the smell of the smoke as we watched everything James and I had worked so hard for go up in flames that day.

The children were crying, and I drew them close around me and tried to comfort them, I said, “Children, try to be strong. At least we have our lives and we have each other. And I trust the Lord will see us through.”

And so he has. I stand before you today, Mr. Daniel, as Eliza Gunn Sturges. I and my new husband John Sturges still live here in Cass County. John and I only want to farm, and raise our family in peace as loyal and good citizens.

But I can never forget the loss of my first husband James, killed by Jayhawkers and I can never forget the loss of our house, torched by Bushwhackers. War is a horrid thing. Especially when it is a war on civilians.

Dicey Smith Diaries

Picture of Dicey Smith by artist Brian Hawkins for the book “Caught Between Three Fires” by Tom Rafiner, 2010.

Dicey Smith’s diary provides the best documentation of this period and the dread farm families lived under. Dicey smith lived with her father, brothers and sisters near Pleasant Hill. Dicey had two brothers in the Confederate Army. Her entries for the spring of 1862 tell of the need to hide her father in the fields.

It was June so we had green things to eat. Almost every day Brother bob killed a mess of squirrel or quail or caught fish from the creek. He was only 15 so could not join the Army.

Besides bob there was Mary, Leah, Sally and me – Dicey. Our mother had died when Sally was two. I was the oldest so was the Mother, manager, housekeep and farmer. Our father was old and ill. Bob helped the most, but with our horses gone, it was hard.

We could have gotten along nicely except for the bands of guerrillas and bushwhackers who came by almost every day stealing everything they could find. Our oldest sister had married a Northerner and lived about a mile from us, so Father spent most of his time with them. If he could not get away in time, we hid him in the cornfield. He spent many wary hours in that field.

This afternoon I was at the loom weaving. Mary was filling shuttle for me. Leah was carding wool, and Sally was supposed to be picking the burrs from a pile of wool. She hated that job and once took a lapful out and hit it in a hollow log.

We had fixed a lookout on top of the smoke house, where someone watched most of the time. We could see the road in four directions. As soon as we could see the uniforms, we knew whether to hide Father or not. We were not afraid of the Confederates as two of our older brothers were in the Confederate Army. We did have to feed them however, and there was so little food left.

When the guerillas arrived, they demanded food. I set on the table the little food we had. While they ate, they asked questions. Did we have food hidden? Was there any weapons or money in the house? Where were the men and did we have any livestock?

Another day a band of Confederate soldiers came by with a Federal soldier tied to his horse. They did not stop, but when we went to feed our small pigs, there was the prisoner in the pig pen shot to death. He was very young. We dragged him from the pen and Leah went to get Bob to help dig a grave. We never knew who he was. How some mother must have greaved for her handsome young son who never came home.

Elmina Yost

Picture of Elmina Yost by artist Brian Hawkins for the book “Caught Between Three Fires” by Tom Rafiner, 2010.

It was not unusual for some farms to suffer multiple thefts. George and Bettie Yost’s farm lay northeast of Morristown, and on a convenient path between Kansas and the inner Missouri counties. GeorgeYost farmed 300 acres with the assistance of three young sons. Soon after the September 1862 raid on Olathe by Quantrill, one of the Yost boys was riding near Morristown when he encountered some of Burris’ 9th Kansas Cavalry. The soldiers questioned him and satisfied with his innocence, the cavalrymen jayhawked his horse. Afoot on the open prairie, the boy was forced to walk home.

Burris’ cavalry invaded the Yost farmyard on a later visit. Eight soldiers rode up the Yost house. Inside the corral was a ‘fine broad mare and a mule colt.’ The soldiers entered the corral and prepared to take the mare. This house, a pet, belonged to one of the Yost daughters, Elmina. Angered, Elmina stormed out of the house and into the corral. She grabbed the mare’s reins with both hands and pulled tight. For minutes, the battle between the angry and determined young woman and the mounted cavalryman continued. Elmina’s pulling and pleading had no impact. The soldiers pried the reins from her hands and took the horse.

Later that autumn, the Yost farm was again raided. This time the troops left with a ‘fine, young, large brown mule’ and another mare. During the fall of 1862, the Yost family lost three horses and two mules to Kansas troops. In no instance, per procedures, were receipts, vouchers, or written intentions to pay given the family. These were simple thefts for profit or punishment.

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