Is a crime truly a crime when it is done with a good heart to help someone in need? That is the dilemma that arises in the story told in today’s feature. Written by Confederate veteran George Cary Eggleston, the story was originally published in his 1898 book Confederate Soldier Stories.
Eggleston truly was a writer. After the war he worked for the Atlantic Monthly and for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. He wrote twenty books over the years, including a couple that told stories of his service in the war. In Confederate Soldier Stories Eggleston admits that not all of the stories happened to him, but says he tells “the story as ‘twas told to me.” His service records do show that he served in the places mentioned in the book and he seems to have done a good job recording stories of the war from the soldiers’ perspective. Even the ones that didn’t happen to him.
A Midnight Crime
The Criminal’s Own Account of It
As there is no law that can now reach my crime, I may as well tell all about it.
Soon after we sat down before Petersburg, in the summer of 1864, I was sent on a little military mission accompanied by Johnny Garrett, into the land of desolation—that part of Northern Virginia which lay sometimes in the possession of one army, sometimes in possession of the other, but was mostly left in nobody’s possession at all, and open to raids from both sides.
That region had been swept by fire and sword for nearly four years. It had been tramped over by both armies, and latterly had been subjected to that process of destruction which [Maj. Gen. Philip] Sheridan had in mind when he said of another region that “the crow that flies over it must carry his rations with him.”
How anybody managed to live at all in such a region has always been a puzzle, but a few people did.
We had slept, Johnny Garrett and I, by the side of a fence the night before, and without breakfast we had been riding all day. Late in the afternoon we made up our minds to go for supper and lodging to a great country house which I had frequently visited as a guest in the days of its abundance. As we rode through the plantation, decay manifested itself on every hand. There was a small, straggling crop in process of growth, but sadly ill attended. There were no animals in sight except five sheep that we saw grazing on a hillside.
As we turned the corner of the woodland the mansion came into view. Only its walls were left standing. Fire had destroyed the rest. At the gate we met an old negro serving-man, whom I had known in the palmy days as Uncle Isham.
When I had seen him last he was in livery. As I saw him now he was in rags.
Some eager, hurried inquiries as to the family brought out the fact that the mistress of the mansion with her two grown daughters was living in one of the negro quarters in rear of the burned house, and that he, alone, remained as a servant on the plantation.
“Dey took all de res’ off No’th, an’ dey tried to take Isham too. But Isham he slip’ de bridle one night, an’ he came back heah to look after ole missus an’ de girls. So heah I is, an’ heah Ise gwine to stay.”
We did not remain to hear Isham’s account of his adventures, but hurried on to find out the condition of things with the family. There were but two rooms—one below, and the other above stairs—in the hut in which they were living. Yet the proud woman who was thus reduced showed no shame of her poverty, but gloried in it rather, as the old soldier glories in the scars received in his country’s service.
She welcomed us with as warm a show of hospitality as she had ever made in the old days of lavish entertainment.
After our first inquiries concerning their welfare, she said to us laughingly: “I wouldn’t keep you to-night, but would send you on to a better place, if I knew any better in the neighborhood. As it is, you’ll have to sleep under the trees for lack of room; but you boys are rather used to that. As for supper, I can give you some corn-bread and some sorghum molasses. The bread won’t be very good, because our supply of salt has run out, and of course as the cows have all been killed I can’t give you butter. But there’s enough bread and sorghum, anyhow.”
“How long since you had meat?” I asked.
“About three weeks,” she replied. “That is to say, since the last big raiding party came by.”
“Have you no pigs left?”
“No, we haven’t a living animal of any kind.”
“Whose sheep are those I saw as I rode up?”
“They belong to a neighbor,” she answered. “They’re what’s left of a large flock. When the raiders were here those five sheep ran into the bushes and escaped. But even if they were ours, you know, we couldn’t kill one.”
I remembered then that a law of the Confederacy made it a crime severely punishable to slaughter a sheep, even one’s own. They were wanted by the government for their wool to clothe the army.
Waiving all this aside as a matter of small moment, our hostess pressed us again to dismount for supper.
At this point Johnny Garrett lied:
“Oh, we can’t stay to supper, and the fact is we couldn’t eat if we did. It’s only half an hour since we ate the best part of a ham out of our haversacks. And besides we’ve got to get to Gordonsville to-night.”
I am afraid I was accessory after the fact to the telling of that lie. At least I didn’t contradict it.
We pushed on a little way till we had got out of sight of the house. Then we stopped by mutual consent under a tree and dismounted.
“The grass is pretty good,” I said, “and we’ll let the horses crop it while we wait for it to get good and dark.” It did not seem necessary to mention what we were to wait for darkness for.
“Yes,” said Johnny, “there are the sheep and I’ll keep an eye on them.”
When it was thoroughly dark we committed a double crime.
It was sheep stealing as well as a violation of the other law, but we were not in a mood to consider such things just then. Under cover of the darkness we killed the fattest sheep in the lot, dressed it as well as we could, and then by the light of some matches I wrote a little note on a leaf from my memorandum book. It said simply this:—
“There is no law to forbid some hungry women to eat a sheep that somebody else has killed in violation of the law.”
Pinning this to the carcass we carried the mutton to the house, and hung it to a tree where it would be seen with the dawn.
We felt as well about this thing as if we had been engaged in some highly moral act.