Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Story of Brooks + Rena

1951: Brooks and Rena, shortly after their wedding 

My husband's paternal grand-parents, Brooks and Rena, have now been married for 62 years.      One of my favorite stories that Brooks tells is the one of how he and Rena got together.

Brooks grew up in a valley 120 miles east of Rena in a town called Webster Springs.  Rena, two years younger than Brooks, grew up in a town on the Kanawha River called Nitro.  Brooks was a football player in high school; Rena was a cheerleader and was nominated "Most Mischievous" in her class yearbook.

"I didn't meet her until I started to work on the Charleston newspaper, fresh out of high school," Brooks said. "I was living in Dunbar, WV, about 10 miles away [from Nitro], and one of my buddies said, 'Let’s go down to Nitro, they've got some pretty girls down there.'"

Webster Springs, WV, 1948:
Brooks is the player farthest to the right
It was Halloween night of 1949.  The high school was hosting a Girl Scouts Halloween party and Rena was there, a popular junior at Nitro High School.  "I know what I was wearing," Rena chuckled. I was dressed up like a pirate, and I had a short skirt on that was cut off and, y’know, a low blouse and a sash and the whole bit!  And, so, I met quite a few boys that night!"  

Brooks walked her home that night, and they began dating shortly after.

"She and I started going together," Brooks said. "We dated for about three months, she was a junior then, and then I moved up the river to Marietta [nearly 100 miles away] while she was still living in West Virginia."

They broke up, and for the next year Brooks remained single while he worked at the Marietta Times.  When asked why he and Rena broke up, Brooks laughed.

"Well … I dunno … her mother didn't like me, for one thing!" He said, laughing.  "But I was also living in Marietta, I had no car, and I couldn't drive."

However, several months later, one of his coworkers helped to change that.

"The publisher of the Marietta Times said, 'Get yourself car, I’ll put it in my name, and get yourself an insurance policy.'  So one of the guys on the Times taught me how to drive," Brooks said.  "That meant I could get back to Charleston, WV, and Rena and I [could resume] our relationship."

St. Albans, WV, October 1949:
Rena, age 16, around the time
she first met Brooks
In the middle of Rena's senior year, just a few weeks before her 18th birthday, they began to date again.  It quickly became serious.

"She turned 18 on the 8th of February, and on the 23rd of February, we were married," Brooks said, laughing at the memory.

The 23rd was a Friday.  After feeding a false story to her family, they got in the car and began to drive, hoping to cross the right state line and be married in a single day.

Kentucky, just an hour away, was their first attempt.

"We got over to Kentucky, took a blood test, and we found that we couldn't get married in Kentucky in one day, so we crossed the Ohio River," Brooks said.  "We went to Cincinnati [another 100 miles away], and I made a wrong turn and got back over into Kentucky again!"

They continued to follow the Ohio River west from the Kentucky side until they were just across the river from the state of Indiana.

"I had a world almanac, and I found out you could marry in Indiana in one day," Brooks said.  But the trick was getting there - they had already gotten turned around before, and there were no bridges in sight.

"We were looking at the Ohio River, wondering, 'How on earth are we gonna get across the river to Indiana?'" Brooks said.  "So, we looked across the river, and there was a factory over there, in Marchburg – it’s right across the line – and here was a ferry boat carrying cars and stuff from the factory over to the Kentucky side where people were working on the Kentucky side."

Hamline Chapel United Methodist
Church, where Brooks and Rena
were married
With admirable pluck, they drove down to the ferry dock.

"I said, 'How about taking us back across the river?'  So he took us back across," Brooks said.  "That ferry boat, that was a Godsend."

They were 200 miles from Nitro, had driven hours through parts of four different states, and had endured both getting lost and a failed attempt in Kentucky.  But, finally, they had made it to a state that allowed them to elope in a single day.

"We went to the courthouse, the courthouse issued the license, and they called the Methodist church’s minister.  The minister’s wife and the janitor stood up for us, and we were married!" Brooks said, laughing.

When asked why they got married for quickly, Rena shook her head.

"Dumb, dumb," Rena said.  "I didn't think I was going to college, and there was a whole bunch of us that got married that year, other girls that I went to school with. But not a one of them that got married that year got divorced, they all stayed married."

Part I
Part II

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Grandpa Charlie: Part II

Grandpa Charlie

After resting for six months to recover from starvation in the prisoner-of-war camp in Elmira, NY, and the 400-mile walk home from there, 22-year-old Charlie reenlisted with the Confederacy for the last months of the war.

In 1937, 73 years later, Charlie 95 was the oldest living Confederate soldier in Webster County, West Virginia.  A journalist from a local newspaper sat down with him just before his 96th birthday to interview him and write an article about what he had witnessed at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

"Lee's army was stationed at Petersburg and the battle commenced on Saturday, April 1, 1865," Charlie told the journalist.  "On Sunday the second day of April, owing to the great difference in the number of men, Lee was forced to evacuate his position.  He retreated to Appomattox Court House.

"On Sunday April 9, General Lee surrendered, between 10:30 and 11:00 o'clock, p.m.  I was standing about a hundred yards from where General Lee sat on his dappled gray horse, under an apple tree.

"After the conditions of the surrender, that we should be paroled, retaining any private arms which might belong to any of his men, we marched into a nice grove.  At this time and place, General John D. Gordon, of my Division, delivered the paroles to the soldiers.  In the address, he made a few remarks I shall never forget.  They are, in part:

"'My fellow Soldiers:  We have not gained our independence but you have fought like heroes, as you did at Bull Run.  Stand firm.  The time will come in one or two or ten years, the Democratic flag will wave over this nation of people.'  He saluted us with his saber and rode off.  This was, of course, his goodbye to us.  We never saw him again."

And that was that.

On Tuesday, April 11th, Charlie started walking home.  He had 200 miles of Appalachian mountain and forest between himself and his father's home in Buffalo Fork, WV and just his two feet to get him there.

A map of Charlie's walk home and his stops
"On the 11th day of April, 1865, I left (A) Appomattox Court House, walking, and arrived at (B) Staunton, Virginia on Saturday the 15th.  Sunday the 16th, being Easter, I remained there until the 20th of the month at the home of Mrs. Fannie Lower.  From there I came to (C) Shaws Fork, a distance of 29 miles, just west of Shannodah mountains.  I spent the night there with a great-uncle of mine, John Burke.  The next day I stayed with Henry Gum, on (D) Knapps Creek in Pocahontas County.  The night of the 23rd of April, I stayed with John Cogar.  On the 24th, I came down Dyer Run to (E) Addison, now Webster Springs.  There were no buildings there, only a small log hut located in the John Skidmore bottom.  I had dinner at the home of Adam Lynch, on Grassy Creek, who was the father of the late Mrs. C.L. Benedum.  On April 25th I arrived at my old homestead on (F) Buffalo Fork, now called Cleveland, where my father located in 1844 and built a large hewed log house.  I found that the Yankees had burned the house.  After viewing the ruins, I started on to (G) Centervillenow Rock Cave."

On today's roads, a non-stop drive from Appamattox Court House to Rock Cave, WV - and through all of these stops - is 262 miles and 6 1/2 hours of driving time on winding mountain roads.  Including a few days of rest in Staunton, Charlie crossed the distance on foot in two weeks time.

Keep in mind that Charlie is wandering the countryside in his grey Confederate uniform, and just because he knows that the war is over doesn't mean that everyone else knows, too.  Even though he had a written parole from General Grant in his pocket, the paper wasn't bullet-proof.  He was mindful of this when he left the burned remains of his father's log house and started toward Centerville.

"About a quarter of a mile from the old home, where the road crosses the right hand fork of the Little Kanawha River, there I saw where people on horseback had crossed.  I decided, being dressed in my full grey uniform, thinking there might be some scouts on the road, went up the river, leaving the main road, topping the mountain about three miles to the house of George Lake, where I stayed until April 27.  His daughter accompanied me to Centerville where my brother-in-law lived.  I walked to the home of my brother-in-law, spoke to his family and took a seat on the porch."

Charlie was still just 22-years-old.  In the past year, he had been a prisoner of war, starved to the point of emaciation, walked hundreds of miles, and fought in and survived battles that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.  And in the past two weeks alone, he had witnessed General Lee surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia, conceding the defeat of his Confederate army, and then had to walk more than 200 miles to get to that seat on the porch.

"There was a man, named George Jackson, spoke to me and said, 'By what authority are you here?'  My answer was, 'What authority have you to question me?  Are you a commissioned officer, or non-commissioned officer?  Sir, I'm here and it is none of your damn business' (I swore in those days).  Jackson left, and my sister stepped on the porch and spoke to me, and said I would have to be careful, that they would send me to prison, and my answer was, 'I know my gate, I am paroled by General Grant.'"

I don't blame the poor guy - if I were Charlie, I'd be cranky, too.

"There was a little town nearby where a company of Union men were located.  Presently I saw two of them coming up through the field.  They were Federal soldiers.  They said: 'Our Captain wants you to come down, he wants to talk to you.'  I told them that as soon as dinner was over we would go.  I invited them to eat with me, but they had just had their meal.  They waited and I returned with them.  They took me to their Captain who asked me all about the surrender.

"There was a man there by the name of Riffle, he said: 'I say, Captain, send him back South.'  I told him that he'd done nothing but try to get Federal soldiers to help rob people, that they had taken the covers off of my mother's bed when she was ill.  The Captain severely reprimanded Riffle, saying, 'Gentlemen and fellow citizens, this man has as much right here as you or me, and if he is molested I'll attend to the man who does it.'

"The next day I went to the home of my father where I rested for several weeks."

The 1886 deed for 80,000 acres
Two years later, on September 19, 1867, Charlie married Nancy Hall in Upshur County, West Virginia.  19 years later, in a deed document dated April 30, 1886, Charlie purchased 80,000 acres of land. He bought the land - 125 square miles, a whopping 22% of Webster County - from his great-uncle Jonathan Bennett, "one of the largest land owners in the state of West Virginia" for $10.

To my husband's great (and repeated) chagrin, the land has since been sold.  Charlie sold most of it in his lifetime for $1/acre; one of the larger buildings in the town of Webster Springs was probably paid for with the money that came from that sale.

According to Brooks, people would come from miles around just to listen to his great-grandpa Charlie, the oldest living Confederate soldier in Webster County, tell his stories of the war.

Charlie lived to be 99 years old, finally passing on January 26, 1942, just seven months shy of his 100th birthday.

Part I
Brooks &
Rena Elope

Monday, March 11, 2013

Grandpa Charlie: Part I

Charlie E. McCray
I've mentioned before that my husband, Dave, has Confederate roots.  Since we've been married I've heard his grandfather, Brooks, tell (and repeat) many stories about the McCray family and  what Brooks describes as "a lineage that's pretty hard to beat!"

Of all the ancestors in all the stories he's told (and retold), Dave's great-great-great-grandfather, Charlie McCray, is (so far) my favorite character.

Charles Edward McCray was born in Lewis County, Virginia (now West Virginia) on August 21, 1842 to Robert and Margaret McCray, a Scottish family in rural West Virginia.  He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, survived starvation in a Union prison camp, walked more than 400 miles to reenlist after his release, and he lived to be 99-and-a-half years old.

His longevity is why his story is so vivid - Brooks knew his great-grandfather Charlie personally until he was 11 years old, when Charlie finally passed away.  "I don’t have to find out from a tourist what happened at Gettysburg, I sat in the room with my great-grandfather who was there!" Brooks said.  "He was in 17 battles in the Civil War! He was in Antietam! He was in Gettysburg!"  

Charlie was 18, almost 19, when the Civil War began in 1861.  The McCrays were a Confederate family - so much so that the face and signature of Charlie's great-uncle, Jonathan Bennett, was on the $5 Virginia Treasury Note.  Charlie was one of seven sons and, to their mother's pride, all seven of the McCray boys served as soldiers for the Confederacy; remarkably, of those seven, only one died as a result of the war.

Jonathan Bennett, a distant uncle to my husband
Charlie's oldest brother, James, was a 42-year-old Methodist preacher at the start of the war.  By January of 1862, James was a Captain in the Confederate army (Co.5, Virginia State Rangers) and was forming a local militia unit.  During that time, the Mace family, neighbors in the Hacker Valley, had their home and larder raided by Union soldiers.  Hearing of this,  McCray and two comrades, Ebenezer Mace and Elias Snyder, decided to retaliate.  On January 13th, they hid themselves in a cluster of boulders on top of a wooded hill with an aim to ambush the raiders.

However, the northerners were somehow forewarned, and surprised the three men from behind.  Mace was wounded, but managed to escape with Snyder; James had been shot in the knee and was unable to flee.  The Yankees then killed Cpt. James McCray there at the boulders with his own rifle.  Two of his sisters, Eliza and Rebecca, later retrieved James' body and buried him on their brother Evan's nearby farm.  James burial was the first interment at the McCray Cemetery, and the boulders where he was killed were called the James McCray Rocks; both can still be found today down a pitted dirt road in the middle of the West Virginia woods, with the memorial markers that Dave's grandfather, Brooks, helped to dedicate.

Cpt. James McCray's Headstone
Charlie fought in the Civil War as a foot soldier for the Confederate army and participated in historic battles.  In September of 1862, just a few months after his brother's death, Charlie was one of the tens of thousands of men at the Battle of Antietam.  In July of 1863, Charlie also fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.

In 1864, Charlie was captured by northerners and spent some time in Elmira Prison, a prisoner-of-war camp in Elmira, New York.  One in four of those incarcerated  in "Hellmira" ended up dying, and young Charlie was starved so badly his hip bones stuck out.  

Charlie was fortunate enough to survive the experience - a few months after his incarceration, there was a prisoner exchange and Charlie was one of the lucky  ones, emaciated but freed.  When they released him "they looked at him and said, 'If you leave here, you will die,'" Brooks recounted.  "But he was an old Scot, and he said, 'If I stay here, I’ll die!'"

Home was more than 400 miles away, and his clothes were baggy on his thin malnourished body.  But, having no other way to get home, Charlie cinched his belt and walked the whole way, all +400 miles from Elmira, New York to central West Virginia.  More than once he spent his nights in the woods, and on one occasion woke up to a mountain lion sniffing his face (he played dead and the lion left him alone).  

After surviving battles that tens of thousands of men had died in, after months of starvation in a prisoner-of-war camp, and after walking 400 miles over both enemy and rugged terrain, Charlie miraculously made it back home in one piece.

He rested for six months.  But at the end of those six months, the war still had not ended.  So he put on his grey uniform again and he reenlisted, not knowing he'd be a witness to the final battle of the Civil War.