While looking for something else this morning, my hand came on a little book published a good many years ago and reprinted in the 1960s by cousins in Sanford, North Carolina. It was my great-grandfather A.D. Betts' "Experiences of a Confederate Chaplain, 1861-1865," recounting a Methodist minister's trek across the South, while serving as chaplain of the 30th North Carolina Infantry under Lee and Jackson.
It was 150 years ago last week that he wrote of the end of that awful Civil War, and his story concluded not far from the Greensboro home where my father was born a little more than half a century later (1906) and where old A.D. would spend the last years of his life before dying when my father was 12. I'd always heard him referred to as an impecunious parson — a gentle man, kind to those he served, comforting Northern as well as Southern soldiers wounded or dying.
But I've also found bits of his diary disturbing in some ways. Had the troops he supported won the war, it would have prolonged slavery. And as you will see, his final entry suggests that at war's end, he took with him one of those slaves ("a negro servant," as he put it) whom he addressed as "Boy" — though, it is unclear to me whether he owned this "servant" or was simply taking him along with a horse as a favor to a friend.
I never heard any of my family discuss the ownership of slaves, another one of those curious practices often found in Southern families whose collective archives of pictures, writings, odd pieces of furniture and personal belongings give only the vaguest clues as to their participation in the customs of the day. It begs some research.
Here's how he recounted that time in the last entry of his diary, dated April 9, 1865, but evidently covering several days:
April 9 (Sunday) — Heard Brother Willson preach. During this week heard that Lee had surrendered! Sad news. Johnston's Army passed through Chapel Hill. We knew Sherman would soon be in. I did not wish to meet him. I told some of my friends I was going with Gen. Johnston's Army. Rev. Dr. Charles Phillips tenderly told me to go on and my friends would take care of my family. After midnight I kissed my wife and children and mounted a mule and rode away, thinking I might not see them in months or years. I rode all night, crossing Haw river, overtook Johnston's Army and reported to Brig. Gen. Hoke, who assigned me to duty as Chaplain to 17th N. C. Regt. We camped a few miles from Greensboro for two or three days till we heard we were to be surrendered. I rode to Greensboro one day and met Rev. Dr. John B. McFerrin of Nashville, Tenn., at the home of good Mrs. F. M. Bumpass.
The night following the tidings of our contemplated surrender was a still, sad night in our camp. Rev. W. C. Willson, the Chapel Hill pastor, was with us. We had preached a few times in that camp; but that night we made no effort to get the men together. In little, sad groups they softly talked of the past, the present and the future. Old men were there, who would have cheerfully gone on, enduring the hardship of war, and protracted absence from their families, for the freedom of their country. Middle aged men were there, who had been away from wives and children for years, had gone through many battles, had lost much on their farms or stores or factories or professional business; but would that night have been glad to shoulder the gun and march forward for the defense of their "native land". Young men and boys were there, who loved their country and were unspeakably sad at the thought of the failure to secure Southern Independence.
Rev. W. C. Willson and I walked out of the camp and talked and wept together. As I started back to my tent - to my mule and saddle, I should say, for I had no tent — I passed three lads sitting close together, talking softly and sadly. I paused and listened. One said, "It makes me very sad, to think of our surrendering." Another said, "It hurts me worse than the thought of battle ever did." The third raised his arm, clenched his fist and seemed to grate his teeth as he said, "I would rather know we had to go into battle tomorrow morning." There was patriotism! There may have been in that camp that night generals, colonels and other officers who had been moved by a desire for worldly honor. Owners of slaves and of lands may have hoped for financial benefit from Confederate success. But these boys felt they had a country that ought to be free! I wish I had taken their names. And I wonder if they still live. They are good citizens, I am sure.
Next day I mounted my mule and started to Chapel Hill, intending to surrender there. I took along a negro servant and horse for a friend. At sunset we met an old man at his spring near his house. I politely asked to be permitted to spend the night on his land. He objected. I said, "Boy, take off our saddles and halter our horses." The farmer quickly said, "If you will stay, come up to the house." I slept on his porch.
MY FIRST INTERVIEW WITH A FEDERAL SOLDIER ON DUTY.
I had seen many of them dead, wounded, or prisoners. Near Chapel Hill one rode up to my side. The Blue Coat and the Grey chatted softly and sparingly. He kindly offered to show me the way to headquarters. I thanked him and told him I would ride to my house and see my family and report myself later. The town was full of Federals. Each home had a guard detailed by the commanding General. My guard was a faithful, modest fellow. In due time I called at headquarters and was paroled.
The full text can be read through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Documenting the American South.