I Don't Know — Summer of 1864
I am named Wilhelm Grenville. You must excuse please my English.
I am foreign born. I just learned English. I come from
I moved to this country, but my wife I find in this land. Mary is
her name. She was born in Virginia, but she told me her mother is
Indian. We have many little ones.
First we live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Everything is so good.
Then war begins. Yankees in the north fight Rebels in the south.
I ask my Mary why? She says not to worry, it is not our fight. My
Mary was born in the south, but she says that with her Indian
mother, she cannot be a Rebel.
I live in the north but I am Swiss, I am not a Yankee. My Mary
tells me that I have so many little ones, that I must stay out of
this awful war. I don't know.
My Mary says we must leave this war, we must go west. We must go
away from this bloodshed and this killing. Somehow my Mary, she
finds us an old boat. I load all we have on this old boat. We
take our little ones with us. We must find a new life. We float
down the Ohio River.
First our trip is good. The river is wide but is so pretty.
Steamboats fly past us all the time. We hear the hiss of steam,
the wooooo of whistles, and the wooosh of paddle wheels as
steamboats go by. My little ones always wave at boats.
On our left we see Louisville, Kentucky. My Mary asks is this not
a good place? This place is full with Yankee soldiers. We just
want to stay out of this war. We go through the Falls of the
Ohio. But we are fine.
Five miles past the Falls, a gunboat stops us. My Mary said these
are Yankees. The captain will not let us go down the river. He
said it is not safe. He said we must land at this town called
Brandenburg, Kentucky. We must stay there. We have no money. We
must stay on the boat.
Every day I fish in the river. Catfish we eat everyday. We get by
but this is not what I want for family. My Mary is not happy. I
We must stay. My Mary has another baby. Now we have seven little
ones. Our boat, it is leaking. I fear to move our boat, it may
Our first year we see Yankees with blue coats. They always look
for Rebels with gray coats. They do not bother us. We have no
neighbors. It is lonely but my Mary and me, we have our seven
Always we hear stories about these Rebels but we never see them.
Some folks call them devils. Other folks call them angels. I
The next year we stop seeing Yankee soldiers. Folks tell me they
go south to Tennessee. They fight Rebels there. I try to patch my
boat. I want to leave Brandenburg. But still my boat leaks.
Our money is gone. My Mary says we are poor. I keep fishing. I
try to catch rabbits and squirrels. I have only a small knife. I
do the best I can. It is so hard with seven little ones but I am
My Mary goes to the woods. She gathers nuts and berries. She
makes bread with acorns. It feeds the little ones.
Then one bad day we see men with gray coats. My Mary says these
are Rebels. They have horses and guns. I fear for my little ones.
I fear for my Mary. My heart aches.
Rebels ask me for horses and other animals. I tell them I am a
poor man who lives on this old boat. I have nothing. If I had a
pig, I would kill it to feed my little ones. They are hungry.
They ask me for guns. I tell them I have no guns. I must fish
They ask me for money. I want to laugh. I tell them if I have
money, I would not live on this old boat. I could have a real
home, I could have a farm.
Last they ask me for food. I tell them I have no food. My little
ones want food. These rebels are mean. I still fear for my little
ones and for my Mary.
Soon these rebels are back on their horses. They ride away. From
me they get nothing. I tell my Mary that these mean men may come
back. They do not like my answers. I don't know.
I tell my Mary bad men like this will come back. When they come
back she must do one thing that is so important. She must run
with the little ones into the woods. The two oldest little ones
must carry the two babies. My Mary must drag the other three with
her. They must hide. She tells me yes, she will do this for me.
Many days later more men visit us. They ride horses but they have
blue coats. My Mary says yes, these are Yankees. I tell her to
take the little ones and hide in the woods.
They run into the woods. I go to meet these Yankees. The leader
wants to know about Rebels. I tell him only many days ago. This
man acts like the Rebels. He asks me about food and money. I tell
him I have no food and no money. I tell him I would not live on
this leaky boat if I have food and money. I lie to him. I tell
him I live alone.
This man asks me about guns and horses. I tell him like I tell
Rebels. Can he not see that I am not a rich man? He stares at me.
He likes not my answers.
They look around my boat. Finally they go. I fear so much for my
Mary and my little ones. I think these bad men may return. I
A few days later my Mary starts coughing. There is blood. More
and more she coughs. Soon she coughs all the time. She says she
has something called consumption. Her momma has it, her momma
dies, she tells me. Now it is my Mary's time. I have no medicine.
I have no money. There are no doctors. I worry and worry. She
never gets better. My heart breaks. I don't know.
Then one day more men on horses come. These men are strange. They
are dirty and wild like beasts. They have no uniforms. Who are
My Mary is so sick, so weak, she stays in bed. I hand the two
babies to the two oldest little ones. I tell them to run into the
woods. I tell the other three little ones to follow. I tell them
to not look back, to not come back. They all run towards the
woods. They hide like I tell them.
I go out to the leader. He says he is militia. I ask where are
his uniforms? He tells me it is none of my business. I ask him
Yankee or Rebel? He tells me not to talk, it still not my
business. I think him to be a very bad man.
This bad man, he asks me about bluecoats and graycoats. I tell
him not for many weeks. He maybe does not believe my words.
This man looks around. He asks me for food. I tell him we eat so
little. This awful war has gone on for so long.
He tells me he must have money. I tell him if I have money I have
food. He does not believe me, maybe. He tells me he will look
inside my old boat. I say yes to him. No choice do I have.
He tells me he must have guns, he must have horses. I cannot give
these to him. I have none. I tell him.
This man is angry. He tells me I am hiding everything. I shake my
head no. I say no. I do not lie. I have nothing, I am poor. He
does not believe me. I am so afraid for my Mary and my little
ones. I don't know.
What do I do? I have no one to help me. I have no one to help my
Mary. I have no one to help my little ones. I try to think. These
men are very bad.
I hear something. I look behind me. I see my Mary. She tries to
stand up. She leans on the boat. She is so sick. She tries to
talk but coughing stops her. Go back, I tell her. She coughs and
she does not hear.
Now many men stand in front of me. They point guns at me. They
have mean looks on their faces. I am afraid to move. I am afraid
not to move. I must do something. I don't know.
My Mary tries to run away. There are men yelling. There are men
shouting. I hear guns fire. Black smoke is in my face. My Mary
screams. She falls down. She is crying. She is bleeding. There is
so much blood everywhere. I kneel to help her.
I feel a terrible burning in my belly. I feel wetness on my
fingers. I must fight these bad men. I swing my fists. I kick. I
am angry. I am shouting. I am crying.
I cannot stand. My legs will not work. My arms will not work. My
head hurts me so. My chest hurts me so. There is fire in me but I
am so, so cold. It is so dark. I cannot see. There is wetness
everywhere. I wonder about my little ones.
Oh God! I want to cry out. Why my Mary? Why me? Why? I don't
Historical Note: This story is loosely based on a family history
from Brandenburg, Kentucky. William and Mary Greenfield were
killed in 1864. Brandenburg, the county seat of Meade County, was
hard hit by guerrillas during the Civil War.
by Charles T. Suddeth
... who is currently an MAT graduate student at Spalding
University, and is also working on two historical novels.