· Old Settlers’ of Reno County Picnic: Civil War Stories
The three men had often heard each others’ stories, but they were good listeners, and good friends. Charles Collins, Jon McMurry, and Houston Whiteside, all recalled the good old days, even when they were bad.
It’s Thursday, August 3, 1899, at Riverside Park in Hutchinson, Kansas. With the picnic dinner nearly over, early-day settlers are moving more slowly. They better hurry home for a nap. There’s a big dance in the evening.
Thanks to the Old Settlers’ Association of Reno County, residents who were once friends and neighbors have congregated and are sharing their pioneer memories of Kansas.
Houston, 53, eating fresh cherry pie; Charles, 55, spitting watermelon seeds; and Jon, 59, drinking coffee with fresh cream from his Jersey milch cows, sit in the shade. They can’t talk about Kansas until they address the War. It was the singular, life-changing event in their lives.
The men agree on one thing: the younger generation doesn’t understand sacrifice. After surviving the Civil War—grasshopper invasions, floods, and droughts are merely inconveniences.
People who were paying attention learned quickly that in frontier towns every settler was from somewhere else. That was certainly true of Hutchinson and Reno County.
Houston Whiteside was born and raised in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Charles Collins was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised in Leavenworth, Kansas. Jon McMurry was born in Donegal, Pennsylvania, and as a young man moved with his parents and siblings to Shannon, Illinois. When it was in its infancy, all three men met in Hutchinson, Kansas before the first railroad had arrived.
The general public, rightly so, thought of firsts for the county. Collins was the first sheriff, McMurry was the first Worshipful Master of Hutchinson’s Masonic lodge and first undersheriff, and Whiteside was the first editor—or co-editor—of the Hutchinson News.
But when the men gathered together, they were boys again, and their selective memories recalled special moments.
The Rebellion, or Civil War—a fight between citizens of one country—would always define them. The men had served a national purpose but were still trying to figure out if anything they had done had made a difference.
Before Kansas, all three men recalled 1861.
“I was 15 when Fort Sumter fell,” said Houston, often referred to as “Judge” by friends and acquaintances.
“I was 16 and wanted to get in the fight before the war was over,” Charlie recalled with a laugh. Judge and Jon, remembering the early days after Sumter had surrendered, joined him with a chuckle. Few people, military or civilian, imagined a war lasting four bloody years that would eventually kill 620,000 soldiers.
“In Tennessee, we were in the middle of it before I could ever get in uniform,” said Judge. “Tennessee was in the path of the armies, and hardly a week passed throughout the long years of the war but soldiers of either the Union Army or the Confederate passed through Bedford County.
“I grew up in a family that owned slaves. I was born and bred in Tennessee, a state with slavery. Our sympathies were divided. We were slave holders, and had no use for abolitionists, and yet we were not secessionists. Tennessee was loyal to the union.
“We were constantly raided by one side or the other seeking food and forage. Part of my work during the war was to hide out with the stock, and try to keep the animals hidden from the soldiers.
“Being a youth of 15, instead of trying to enlist like Charlie, I served with other young men of the community in a patrol guard, an armed and mounted guard. We sought to preserve the peace against the bandits and marauders.”
It was on patrol that I was severely injured when I was thrown from my horse, Houston thought, as he touched his useless arm and remembered the first, sharp pain.
Houston considered what to say and what to leave out. His father had died nearly a decade before the war. His father’s two brothers left home together for the war, one enlisting in the Union Army, and the other in the Confederate forces, and they fought against each other. One was killed at Chickamauga, wearing the blue; the other was badly wounded, as a rebel.
“I was 15, and now I’m 53,” said Judge. “It was a long time ago, but it feels like it was only yesterday.”
Judge stopped. He was done. He looked at Charlie, then Jon.
Jonathan nodded to Charlie who hesitated, his dark eyes no longer matching his once coal-black hair.
“I was 16 in 1861,” said Charlie. “Twice I enlisted without my parents’ consent. Twice my father located me and had the Union Army discharge me.
“But on the third try, I traveled to St. Louis with some boys where I enlisted under an assumed name. I said I was foreign born, making it nearly impossible to be located by my parents.
For fun, Jon asked Charlie, “What name did you enlist under?”
“Michael Crook,” answered Charlie, innocently.
“So, you were a crook before you were sheriff?” asked Jon, as his mouth turned up into a grin.”
It was an old joke. Charlie had heard it before.
“I was in the Fifth US Artillery, Battery H,” said Collins. “Our regiment joined the Army of the Cumberland where I was detailed as General Buell’s army escort, taking part in different campaigns. I was in the battles of Shiloh, Stone River, Crab Orchard, Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, and for a time had charge of the forage train of Cook’s Division.”
Charlie thought of the men he had served with and the friends who had died. Disease had been more deadly than a bullet, bayonet, or cannonball.
“I was an old man of 21 when I enlisted in Company G, 46th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry,” said John. “Joined up at Freeport, Illinois, and mustered at Camp Butler. I participated in engagements at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Siege of Corinth, and Big Hatchie.
“In Tennessee at the Battle of the Hatchie, I was severely wounded, but first to fall was Colonel John A. Davis who died a few days later.
“I was very badly wounded, being shot through both thighs. While in the hospital, I had to fight off one of the sawbones with my crutch to prevent him from cutting off my leg. The butcher seemed more determined to sever limbs than save them.
“I kept remembering Shiloh and the piles of arms and legs outside the surgery tent. There were shoes or boots on many of the feet. And I thought of my family and how I didn’t want to be a burden on them if I came home an amputee.
“I was discharged for disability in 1863. For a few years I was disabled entirely from active life, one of my feet was partially paralyzed.”
“Now that we’ve relived our fighting days, I’m ready for something upbeat,” said Charlie. “Do you have a fiddle in that fiddle case,” he asked, smiling.
“Sure do,” said Jon. “I agreed to play a tune here this afternoon in order to promote the band tonight.”
“For weeks, people around here have been looking forward to your musical return to Hutchinson,” said Charlie. “The old settlers remember that a dance in the early 1870’s wasn’t a dance without the McMurry Brothers String Band.”
“We’ve practiced a bit,” said Jon. “I restrung my fiddle so we can play those old tunes to a frazzle. Our music will be better than it was 25 years ago.”
“I’ll be right back,” said Houston. “Julia won’t want to miss a single note. She’s over there talking with Loretta and Sarah.”
“What song are you going to play?” asked Charlie.
“Fisherman’s Hornpipe,” replied Jon. “But it will be a whole lot better when my brothers join me tonight.”
“You McMurray boys are so talented,” said Charlie. “Mount Hope’s lucky to have your families live in the community. Your music has always knocked my socks off.”
If you’re interested in watching and listening to an entertaining fiddler play one of the oldest fiddle tunes that was ever written down in sheet music, you’re in luck. Click at the YouTube link below to hear PeakFiddler play “Fisherman’s Hornpipe,” straight from his home in England. It’s length is only 2 minutes, 38 seconds. (Permission not required, but obtained.)
Until next time, happy writing and reading.