Monday, February 8, 2010

Aunt Abby House

Aunt Abby House was a familiar figure around Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina during and after the Civil War. A search of the internet for Abby House will return a number of hits. This version of her story was written by Rev. R. H. Whitaker, DD in his book, Whitaker's Reminiscences, Incidents and Anecdotes. Recollections of Other Days and Years: Or What I Saw and Heard and Thought of People Whom I Knew, and What They Did and Said, which was published in 1905. [This book can be found at Google Books and includes other interesting stories.] Rev. Whitaker actually knew Aunt Abby in her later years and much of the story is from what she told him.

A Once Turbulent Woman Whose Life Closed in Peace.

Aunt Abby House is remembered by many, and what she did and said, especially in the last years of her life, are …closely connected with the history of the war and the days of reconstruction, … I rode by the little cottage a few days ago in which she spent the last days of her life. It stands beside a ditch near the old Fair Ground, and was built at the expense of a few Confederate soldiers who appreciated her kindness to them during the war, when she, with the bravery of a Moll Pitcher and the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale, served in the double capacity of soldier and nurse, doing deeds worthy of places in story and song. …

Aunt Abby House was a native of Franklin County, born the latter part of the eighteenth century, according to her statement, being, as she once told me, "a right smart gal, enduring of the time of the war of 1812; big enough to have a sweetheart" That sweetheart, she said, went to the war, and the news came to her that he was sick at Norfolk, Va., and, she said, she walked every step of the way from Franklin County to Norfolk to see him, arriving there the day after he was buried.

"O, yes," said she, "I was a right smart gal enduring of that war; but, I can't tell you exactly how old I am now." The conversation in which she gave me this information occurred in 1877.

I have heard that in her early days, and, indeed, through most of her life, she was a turbulent woman; fond of contentions and law-suits, and that she was able to stand her ground in the court-house, on the court-house grounds, or anywhere else, and that no man could beat her swearing, when things did not go to suit her. Indeed, she had not stopped the swearing habit when I first knew her, when she was quite old.

I knew but little of her before the war; but, during the war she began a career that brought her before the public; and, until she died in 1881, there were few women in North Carolina better known.

The first time I remember seeing her after the war, was at Franklinton, at a district conference. Some one was preaching, and in the midst of his discourse he bore down pretty hard on certain sins, especially that worst of all sins, taking the name of God in vain, showing how worse than foolish was the habit some people had of cursing at everything; even some women, so far forgetting their sex sometimes as to use bad language.

About that time Aunt Abby, with a cane in each hand, bounced up and went toward the door, about half bent, making as much noise with her feet and two canes as a horse could have done. She halted just outside the door until the services closed, and as the congregation passed her, she was giving the preacher fits, and fully demonstrating the fact that cursing was no new thing to her. That was in 1867 or '68. From that time I saw her frequently and began to be on speaking terms with her, as I frequently saw her on the train. She never bought a ticket, and the conductor rarely ever got any fare from her. If she had a quarter, she'd give the conductor that, and if he hesitated as if that were not enough, she would threaten to hit him with her stick, and he would move on.

On one occasion I heard her ask General [Matt] Ransom for half a dollar, at the depot, just before the train left. The General, in a sort of teasing way, said: "Aunt Abby, I don't think I have half a dollar."

She stepped back and looking him full in the face she said: "Matt Ransom, you know that's a lie; and I'm going to tell your wife about it the first time I see her."

The General ran his fingers into his vest pocket and pulled out a dollar and gave it to her, saying, "That's the nearest I can come to it, Aunt Abby. Will that do for you?"

She held it in her hand a second, dropping her head as if in deep thought, and said, "No, that won't do. I'll get it changed."

"No," said the General, "you may need the other half sometime. Keep it."

She replied, "Matt Ransom, I always did say it, you are a gentleman, every inch of you," and the last I saw of her she was crawling into the car.

Aunt Abby's war record will soon be forgotten, as the brave men who wore the gray are falling out of ranks every day, and there will be, very soon, none left to tell how faithfully she ministered, in her rough way, to the sick and wounded men on the Virginia hills. I heard it said of her that she was present at several battles, and that she was as cool and self-possessed as any veteran, and that, on one occasion, while the fight was going on, she was seen, in a very exposed place, holding a horse. Some one said: "Old woman, you'd better get out of here before one of those shells tears you all to pieces."

"I ain't gwiue a step. I told [the] Colonel I'd hold his horse till he came back out of the fight, and I'll do it, shells or no shells."

While that may not have been literally true, it would not be saying too much of her, that she would have done just such a daring thing if occasion had offered.

Everybody heard during the war how anxious Aunt Abby was about her nephew who was in the army, and how she importuned Governor [Zeb] Vance to help her get that nephew out. She was a constant visitor at the Governor's office, and he treated her so nicely, that she became a life-long admirer of him. Governor Vance, at her earnest solicitation, did secure a furlough for her nephew, upon the condition that she would be sure to send him back to the army when the furlough expired. But she did not do it.

One snowy day she walked into the Governor's office, stamped the snow off her shoes, and sat down by the fire, seeming to be in a deep study. All at once she turned to Governor Vance and said: "Zeb, that boy can't go back to the army, he's got the consumption right now, and he'll die in less than a week if he goes back."

"Ain't that boy gone back yet?" asked the Governor, in astonishment.

"No, he ain't, and he can't go, for I tell you he's got the consumption."

The Governor put on a grave face and said: "That will never do. I gave General Lee my pledge of honor that if he would give Marcellus a furlough he should certainly go back when the time was out, and you promised me that you would send him back; and here it is a month over time and he not gone. That will never do, Aunt Abby. General Lee will never have any more confidence in my word. Marcellus must go right back."

"Well, Zeb, won't you write a letter to old Bob [Robert E. Lee] and tell him how it is?"

"Go bring Marcellus here and let me see him, and if I think his case is as bad as you say it is, 1 will write a letter."

In a few days Aunt Abby brought Marcellus in, and just as he expected, there were no signs of consumption, but a very well-looking man stood before him. The Governor wrote a letter to General Lee which sounded all right to Aunt Abby, but, when read between the lines, meant that the young man's complaint was largely imaginary, and was superinduced, doubtless, by his abhorrence of hardtack and gunpowder; in other words, that Marcellus was fit for duty.

As the Governor handed her the letter, he said: "Now, Aunt Abby, take this to General Lee and let me know what he says when he reads it. The General don't like me much, and he may try to make fun of my letter." She said she'd do it; and out she went, Marcellus following; but in a few days she came again, saying as she entered the Governor's office: "Zeb, they took that boy and put him right back in the army, and he's gwine to die in less than a month."

"Did you show General Lee my letter?"

"Yes, and when he read it he sorter smiled, and I raised my stick, jess so, and said: 'I dare you to laff at Zeb Vance's letter, I'll crack your head in a minit, if you do. Zeb told me you upstarts up here didn't like him.' "

"And then what did he do?"

"Why, he pretended like he thought a sight of you, but under the circumstances he reckoned he'd have to take the boy back into the army; and so he tuck him right in."

Aunt Abby was with Lee's army when it surrendered, and gave me a very thrilling account of it. She said they told her that she must wave her handkerchief to let the Yankees know that she was willing to surrender, too.

"Did you wave it?" I asked her.

"Not much. I shook it so, a time or two, and then I stuck my hand behind me. Then I shook it again, and put it behind me. I never was so mad in all my life as I was when one of them Yankees came along and sed to me, 'Old woman, you needn't mind about shaking that rag any more, we don't care whether you surrender or not.' I said, 'Drat your mean soul, if I had a gun I'd shoot you off that horse and leave you here for the buzzards to pick.' "

"And then what did he say, Aunt Abby?"

"He didn't say another word, but rode off looking as cheap as if he'd stole a sheep."

When Aunt Abby arrived at Raleigh from Greensboro, after the surrender, the city, of course, was in the hands of the Yankees, and, as she was getting, off the car at the depot a Yankee soldier, seeing an old woman hobbling out, went to help her down. She raised her stick as he approached her and said, with an oath that shocked him, "Don't you come any nigher, if you don't want your head cracked. No d—d Yankee shall touch me."

Not long after her return she went to headquarters to see the Yankee officials about some horses that had been taken from her. The Governor's office was being used as Yankee headquarters, and to that Aunt Abby went. When she entered the door, the room being full of Yankee officers, she stopped, leaned on her cane, and with a contemptuous look gazed all around. Of course every eye was upon her, and they waited to see what she wanted.

At length she spoke: "Yes, here's where gentlemen used to sit, but now it's a den of thieves." Then, in a very commanding tone of voice, she said, "I want my crap critters."

"Your what?" asked a Yankee.

"My crap critters—my horses, you fool; my horses you infernal thieves stole from me."

"Ah, that's it; you want your horses. How many did you lose?"

"Two as good as ever pulled a plow," she replied.

"Well, madam, just go down to the lot and pick out two of the very best horses there."

"I won't do it. I'll go and get two of the poorest sore-backs I can find. I won't take a fine horse. No Yankee shall ever have it to say I got back more than he stole from me."

It was about 1875 that Aunt Abby made a profession of religion and joined the Methodist church. I saw her not long after, and in our conversation, I told her that in her new life she would have to avoid the saying of bad words. … She finally promised that she would try not to curse at all. I then told her she must forgive everybody and try to live in peace with all men. She said she would forgive everybody but Bill Holden.

"Why not forgive him?" I asked.

"Because," she said, "he treated Zeb Vance so mean."

"But," said I, "you and Zeb, too, must forgive him."

"I hate him too bad," she said, "to forgive him." And, then, she added, "Don't the Bible say that God is angry with the wicked every day?"
"Yes," said I, "but you are not God, and you don't know that Mr. Holden is wicked."

She said she'd try to do the best she could. I do not know how it came about, but she did forgive Mr. Holden, and in her older age, when she was dependent largely upon charity for the necessities of life she had no better friend than he, and there were none she thought more of than she did of him.

Aunt Abby occupied a conspicuous place in Tucker Hall, the day Governor Vance took the oath of office, standing very close to the Governor and watching his every movement with a concern that could only have been equaled by a mother for an only son; and when the Governor, repeating the oath after the Chief Justice, came to the end of it and said, "I will, so help me, God," Aunt Abby, looking upon him with more than a mother's interest, said, "That you will, honey, that you will."

During the "Centennial of Methodism" here in Raleigh in 1876, three of the bishops of that church attended, and, daily, all three of them sat on the stage, in Metropolitan Hall, where they were seen and heard by the thousands of people who came to participate in the proceedings at that most interesting occasion; and, on the same stage, over to one side, there sat an old woman whose eyes and ears caught everything; who sometimes smiled and sometimes cried; whose bunchy figure, old-time clothes and fly-bonnet attracted the attention of everyone who entered the hall.

It was said that Aunt Abby was on very intimate terms with President [Jefferson] Davis, and always called him "Jeff," when in conversation with him; and it made no difference to her whether callers were allowed or not, to see the President, she'd manage somehow to see him. She heard the ex-president was at the Yarborough House on one occasion and went to see him. The meeting between them was amusing, for the reason that she gave him a pair of her home-knit socks, and was anxious to know of him when he expected to have another war.

I do not vouch for the truth of it, but I heard that she went to Washington City during Grant's administration to see the gold chair she heard that the President sat in. That was before she professed religion, quit saying bad words, and doing ugly things. She got into the White House, saw President Grant, and then turning and looking about she asked, "Where's that golden cheer?"

The President said he didn't know.

She said, "There's one here somewhere, for Joe Turner told me so, and I know he wouldn't tell me a lie; and I've come all the way from North Carolina to see it, and I don't want to hear any more of your lies about it. Bring that golden cheer right out, and let me see it and sit down in it."

After a long parley with the President, she was forced toleave without seeing the "cheer," but she always thought that Grant hid it from her. She knew there was a golden chair there somewhere, for Joe Turner told her so, and Joe Turner would not tell her a lie.

In the last days of Aunt Abby she was a quiet, gentle-minded old lady and seemed never happier than when in a prayer-meeting. She opened the doors of her little cottage for prayer-meeting services, and seemed to enjoy, as much as anyone could, the hymns, prayers and exhortations. She was sick for quite a while before she died, but 1 don't think she suffered for the lack of food, medicine or attention. I went to see her a few days before her death, and as I was taking my leave of her I remarked that I was going away from the city for a few days.

"Then," said she, "I'll tell you good-bye for good, for I won't be here when you come back, but will be with Minnie," alluding to my wife, who had died a little while before. And holding my hand for a moment she asked: "Do you want to send her any word?"


  1. I loved this! I just discovered this amazing lady this week, as I found her as a relative, a fifth cousin, the niece and namesake of my great-great-great grandmother, Abigail House Duke, of Franklin County, NC. Abigail House Duke and her husband, Dabney Minor Duke, moved to Dickson County, TN, where she died in 1850. I'm delighted to find such interesting ancestors! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. My kinda Gal. Rest in Peace Aunt Abby.