Monday, August 23, 2010

A Few Words About Mister Ganey

“As a finale to the record of characters whom I personally knew around Wilmington it would not be just to omit one who was unique, if not distinguished, in my early recollections of the town. The facts in regard to him, as given here, are nearly literally true, and may serve to illustrate a phase of our ante-bellum civilization which is not familiar to the present generation, and for their benefit I record them in the following form.

Ganey—Mr. Ganey, as he preferred to be called— was a curiosity; one of those half-witted creatures who occasionally startle us with an observation that sounds uncomfortably like satire. He lived in a cabin in the woods, worked sometimes, when obliged to, in the surrounding turpentine forest, but subsisted chiefly on the charity of the neighboring planters. Although "innocent of the trammels of spelling," and as superstitious as the most ignorant (person), he regarded himself as much better than his poor neighbors. He even assumed an air of familiarity—but in a very solemn way—with the gentlemen to whose houses he paid his periodical begging visits, and was extremely sensitive to any fancied slight on such occasions. In imitation of them he thought it incumbent on him to carry an umbrella, and wear a high hat and gloves of some kind, and he recognized no distinction as to the time when this was to be done; so that, even when chipping turpentine (by an act of trespass on some planter's land) he might sometimes be seen arrayed in a cast-off stove-pipe hat and tattered cotton gloves, and carrying a faded umbrella in one hand, and a turpentine hacker in the other. He liked to be "mistered" when spoken to, and a failure to so dignify him was sure to be responded to by a similar neglect to attach a handle to the name of the person thus addressing him. He had contracted from the local piney woods preachers a habit of droning his words through his nose, and of adding, with an indescribable emphasis, "er" to every third or fourth one, without regard to whether it was a proper name or not. Strange to say, too, he was—perhaps from an incapacity to appreciate danger—absolutely fearless. He borrowed a gun on one occasion and went to a public gathering to demand satisfaction from a leading and wealthy planter for some alleged indignity to him. When asked what he was carrying a gun for, he replied that he was "a totin' it for that wolf-er." "What wolf do you mean?"

"I mean that Mc er," he replied; and the gentleman referred to having just then made his appearance on the round, Ganey would have shot him if he had not been knocked down and disarmed. As soon as he recovered his feet he attempted a second assault, and to the magistrate who seized him and commanded the peace he said:

"You git out'n the way-er, you's a Dimmycrat-er, an' me and him's both Whigs-er."

When food for powder was getting very scarce during the war between the States Ganey was conscripted. He had escaped service up to that time because nobody would enlist him, but they took him at last. He was not afraid of the fighting that was in prospect, but he did have a mortal aversion to being ordered about "like a (poor person)," and made to sleep on the ground, and go hungry, and barefooted, and ragged, as he had seen some of the soldiers doing. So, when he was being brought into town, rigged out in his old stove-pipe hat and cotton gloves, and while crossing a deep and wide stream in a ferry boat, he suddenly stepped overboard, to the astonishment and dismay of the guard, and, disappearing for a moment, rose again serenely to the surface and began to float off, looking like a bottle with a long stopper in it. He was rescued and, on being asked how he managed to float, as he did not seem to try to swim, replied:

"I reckin the Lord done it-er—but I was a'treadin' water-er."

After an interview with the conscript officer, during which he solemnly swore that he was sixty-five years old, although not over forty, if that, it was thought best to put him in the Home Guard, and accordingly he was furnished with an old musket and sent to a sea-coast village which was garrisoned by a Home Guard regiment and a few regular troops. It was a very hot day and the road was through deep sand all the way. After trudging for two or three hours along this road he at last arrived in the village, and upon turning a corner of the street he came to a house with a wide piazza fronting the harbor, and discovered sitting on the piazza in his shirt-sleeves, reading a newspaper and looking exceedingly comfortable, an elderly gentleman whom he at once recognized as the proprietor of a large plantation in the county and whom he had often seen sitting on the county court bench. He immediately halted, brought his old musket down with a thud in the sand, wiped the streams of perspiration from his face with his sleeve, and without other salutation, said:

"I'd like to know how it is-er, that we poor folks-er has to come a-walkin' and a-sweatin'-er through the sand-er, for to fight the battles of the country-er, and you swell heads-er is a-settin' on your piazzas a-keepin' cool-er?"

"Good morning, Ganey," said the gentleman, without noticing the inquiry.

"Good mornin', Green-er," replied Ganey, resenting the neglect to "mister" him, "but you haint answered my question-er."0

"Well, Ganey, the reason I am sitting here, and don't turn out with the soldiers is that I am an officer of the regiment."

"You are an officer of the regiment-er? What officer are you-er?"

"I am the Commissary."

"You are the Commissary-er ? What is a Commissary-er?"

"A Commissary is the man that provides rations for the troops—that feeds them."

"A Commissary is the man-er that provides rations for the troops-er, that feeds them?" Well, what are we gwine to have for dinner today-er?

"Really, I don't know, Ganey."

"You don't know-er? Well, you're not fittin' to be a Commissary-er; I'm a-gwine home-er."

And he did go and was allowed to remain there.

One of Ganey's peculiarities was his inordinate fondness for ham, which he conceived to be the most aristocratic of all dishes, and sufficient, if supplemented by wheat bread, to satisfy the most fastidious palate. Bacon in any other form, and corn bread, were objects of his special contempt, the reason being that those articles constituted the standard dishes of the poor whites and (blacks). Nothing short of extreme hunger and the inability to get other food could induce him to eat them. For a ham, however, and some flour he was always willing to sacrifice his pride, even to the extent of working, and the possession of these articles completely filled the measure of his happiness, and brought the umbrella, stove-pipe hat and gloves into continuous use while the larder held out.

The progress of the war, however, resulted in a steady reduction of the number of these seasons of happiness for him, and hams became correspondingly more precious in his sight.

Finally, when all was over, and the Northern soldiers took possession, Ganey, who had not seen a ham in a long time, learned that the Government Commissary in town was distributing rations to the half-starved people, and he thereupon started for the scene of action. His habiliments were more picturesque than ever. His head—which looked as if it had been driven into his shoulders with a force that bent them—was covered by a "bell-crown" of the year 1856, and his clothes consisted of a threadbare and shiny "claw-hammer" of still earlier date, which displayed a waist of excessive length and a tail that appeared to have begun to grow out of it but had never reached maturity, and a pair of baggy cotton trousers. Supplementing these, he wore a pair of gloves which suggested a compromise between mittens and cavalry gauntlets, and the melancholy remains of a pair of Confederate shoes. His umbrella—originally a green cotton one, now colorless except where patched—was used as a walking cane, and with the rib ends tied around the handle, resembled a balloon in the first stages of inflation. As thus arrayed, and walking in the middle of the road leading to town, visions of ham—boiled ham, fried ham, and raw ham—and of flour in barrels, sacks, buckets, or cooked as bread, floated before him and quickened his gait. He did not "let on" to anybody the condition of his mind or stomach, but, as he afterwards confessed, he did "natally hone after ham and flour vittles."

Underlying this longing appetite, however, there was a feeling of dissatisfaction with the business for which he had started to town. He had always regarded his levy of contributions on the surrounding planters as not only legitimate but as a sort of vested right which had been confirmed by long acquiescence on their part but he had never seen any "Yankees"— except a foraging party, who were not engaged in distributing charity—and, being uncertain as to how he might be treated, and withal a little shaky generally in regard to the outcome of the business, he insensibly slackened his pace as he approached the ferry—the same ferry which had been the scene of his floating exploit.

There was a guard of blue-coats there, who were greatly tickled by his appearance, and who chaffed him a little, but good-naturedly sent him on with a word of encouragement, at which his spirits began to revive rapidly. At last he reached the town and meeting a citizen, said:

"Mister, whur's the Commissary-er ?"

"At that large store, yonder," answered the man, pointing to a building into and out of which persons were passing, and then laughing in spite of himself at Ganey's outlandish rig.

Now, Ganey did not know the name of the Commissary, and was therefore entirely ignorant of the fact that he bore the same name as the Commissary of the Home Guard, for whose knowledge of his duties he had expressed such contempt .

He went to the building designated, and upon entering saw what he thought was the most entrancing sight his eyes ever rested on. An apparently countless number of flour barrels were piled over the wide floors, and hams by the hundred were hanging up, or scattered around, loose. Women and children were being supplied by the clerks with provisions of all sorts, and the rush of business quite bewildered him. Several young men of the town had been employed by the Commissary to assist in the work of distribution, and to designate the most needy of the applicants for assistance. One of these young men recognized Ganey as soon as he came in, but said nothing, knowing that Ganey did not remember him, even if he had ever seen him before, and having heard the story of his conversation with the Home Guard Commissary, and remembering the identity of the names of the two commissaries he at once resolved to have a little fun.

Every moment of his stay in the store seemed to enlarge the hollow in Ganey's anatomy, until he felt as if his whole interior was a howling wilderness. He looked and ached, going farther and farther into the store until he reached a point in front of the clerk, when the latter very politely inquired what he wished.

"I want to see the Commissary-er."

"You'll have to send in your name before he will see you, he's very busy just now."

'My name's Ganey-er, George Washington Ganey - er."

"Ah! Ganey's your name, is it ? Then you are the man that insulted him, and told him he was a very ignorant Commissary not to know what the soldiers were going to have for dinner1—and all that sort of thing. What do you want to see him for ?"

The expression on Ganey's face was indescribable.

"He told us," added the clerk, "that you would probably come in for a little help, and to be on the lookout for you."

"Who told you-er?" asked Ganey, with a wild look.

"I said the Commissary told us," answered the clerk.

"The Yankee Commissary-er? "Do you wish to insult Captain Green again, by calling him a Yankee ?" said the clerk, sharply. "Captain Green-er.”

"Yes, yes, Captain Green, the Commissary, the man that provides rations for the troops, that feeds 'em."

Poor Ganey! The hams and flour barrels seemed to be receding from his gaze, to be fading in the dim distance never to return, while the figure of Captain Green, sitting in his shirt sleeves, with a newspaper in his hands which fluttered in the breeze, rose up mockingly between him and this vision of bliss. His countenance assumed an expression of despair which was pitiful to see, and the heart of the clerk failed him in presence of such evident suffering. Finally he said:

"Mr. Ganey, Captain Green is a good, kind man, and I'll go into the office and see him for you. Perhaps he will not be hard with you."

Back again came the vision, slowly, but each moment more distinctly, until the world seemed to him to be a vast plain of snow-white flour, studded with golden hams.

"But here comes the Captain, now," and while Ganey looked anxiously for the elderly gentleman whom he knew, a fine looking young man walked out towards them and the clerk, addressing him, said:

"Captain Green, this is Mr. Ganey who wishes to see you," and immediately disappeared, leaving the two confronting each other.

The Captain thought this was the rarest specimen of a native he had yet encountered, and, regarding him for a moment during which he tried hard to keep his countenance, he said:

"Well, sir, what do you wish to see me about?"

"Are you the Commissary-er?


"That feller told me-er, Capt'n Green were the Commissary-er," said Ganey, with indignation.

Well, that was right; I am Captain Green."

Not until then did the truth dawn on Ganey, and it lifted a great weight from his heart. He looked around upon the wealth of hams and flour with an inexpressible longing, and then said:

"I heerd you was a-givin' out-er of rations-er, and I come to git some-er,—some ham-er and flour-er," the last words being uttered in a tone of almost pathetic anxiety.

"Were you in the rebel army ?" asked the Captain.

"They tuck me-er for the Home Guard-er, but I left the fust day-er," quickly answered Ganey; and he felt that he was getting closer to the hams and flour.

"Because," said the Captain, "we reserve the best rations for the rebel soldiers and their families."

Ganey almost fainted, and the entire stock of hams and flour seemed to have been suddenly snatched away by an evil spirit .

In despair he asked:

"What d'ye call-er the best rations-er ?"

"Oh, fresh meats, canned meats and vegetables, sugar and coffee and the like," answered the Captain.

Ganey had never seen any canned meat and did not know what the phrase meant, but he hoped— Oh! how he hoped it did not not mean ham. So, with almost a wail in his voice, he asked the question, and, upon receiving a negative answer, the vision re-appeared to him with more vividness than ever, and under its influence he almost forgot his "ers" in stating his case and the necessity of ham and flour to his very existence. The Captain was, as the clerk said, a good, kind man, and recognizing the situation he overwhelmed Ganey with astonishment by giving him two hams, a small sack of flour and some other things, with he eagerly seized upon and started off with, merely saying, as he left:

"I wish you well-er."

As he went out of town, fairly staggering under his load, he met the Commissary of the Home Guard who hailed him and said:

"Why, Ganey, you must have been to see the Yankee Commissary."
"Yes, and he knows what I'm gwine to have-er for dinner to-day-er!"

From: Alfred Moore Waddell, SOME MEMORIES OF MY LIFE [Raleigh, NC: Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1908: p. 61 -71.

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