EMMA SANSOM, AN ALABAMA HEROINE.1
BY THOMAS M. OWEN, Montgomery, Alabama.
The emotions of personal pleasure I have in taking part in these exercises are lost in the suggestions of noble purpose which underlies and gives them meaning. This occasion is one of rare and deep significance, and I doubt whether you – all of you at least – appreciate in the fullest sense its wide import. We are the participants in the formal office of giving and receiving, but back of this and looking beyond it is the exalted sentiment and resolution, for which your organization stands, that heroism and heroic conduct and the memory of them shall not perish from the earth. The full meaning of this lesson gained, and we have a value in life beyond heroic incidents themselves, or their preservation on canvas.
In the fall of 1861, the armies of the Federals, advancing from Tennessee, invaded North Alabama, and excepting a few months, continued its occupation until 1865. To their shame be it said, that they burned and pillaged the homes of defenseless women and children, whose shrieks could oftentimes be heard, as by the light of their burning dwellings they were turned, half clad and starving, into the snowy midnight. During these years of occupation, with their horrors of foray and raid, occurred numbers of unparalleled incidents of personal bravery. And one of these we now commemorate.
In the latter part of April, 1863, Col. A. D. Streight, with a picked command of about two thousand officers and men, left Tuscumbia for the interior of Alabama and Georgia for the purpose of destroying the railroads in that country. His objective point was Rome, Georgia. The expedition had been deliberately planned by the Federal commanders, and was considered of much importance by them. Advised of the enemy's movements Gen. Braxton Bragg directed Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to check their advance. This was what Colonel Streight most dreaded, because he knew that Forrest was "at the head of a determined lot of fighters, made veterans under his iron hand and absolutely devoted to his service."
It may be of more than passing interest here to take a glance at Forrest through the pages of Dr. John Allan Wyeth, whose superb biography of him is more thrilling than the pages of romance. He says that "some of the notable features in Forrest's method of warfare were: the reckless courage in attack; the almost invariable movement on the flank and rear, so demoralizing to an enemy, and especially so when made, as he usually did it, under cover, which concealed the strength of the flanking forces; the quick dismounting of his men to fight under cover of every object which afforded protection; the use of his artillery, which he often carried along with the troops in line and always placed close to the enemy; and, finally, the fierce and relentless pursuit when his antagonist yielded."
The raiding party having set out, they pushed boldly through the mountains of Lawrence, Blount and Cherokee (now Etowah) counties, with the relentless "wizard of the saddle" at their back, harrying them, and so interrupting their march that they made but slow progress. Within my limits I cannot recount the many thrilling engagements which took place, and the numberless daring deeds of pursuer and pursued.
On the morning of the 2d of May, despite Forrest's "persistent rush" at Streight's rear guard, the latter had reached Black Creek, in the present Etowah county, and had crossed that "crooked, deep and sluggish stream, with precipitous clay banks and mud bottom," on the only safe bridge in this section. The Federal commander had placed his hope of escape on the destruction of this bridge; and just as Forrest came dashing up, it was enveloped in the smoke of destruction.
The country around was exceedingly wild and rugged, and the banks of the creek too steep for passage on horseback. In this extremity General Forrest rode up to a modest little farmhouse on the highway, not far from the burning bridge, and, seeing a young girl standing upon the steps in front of the dwelling, he accosted her, and inquired if there was any ford or passage across the creek above or below the destroyed bridge, which his men could use.
This young girl was Emma Sansom, who was born in Social Circle, Georgia, in 1847, and who had been brought by her parents to Cherokee county in 1852. Her father had died in 1859. She had a brother who was a soldier in the Confederate army. She and her sister lived alone with their mother in this modest country home.
On this memorable morning in May as she stood in animated converse with General Forrest, it was a scene for a painter. The young Southern girl, her bright eyes flashing and rosy cheeks glowing; her mother, attracted by the presence of the troops, standing in the door gazing over her venerable spectacles; the great leader with eager and impatient look, his face expectant and determined, his staff drawn up around him, and his veterans near by in groups, some actually nodding in their saddles from sheer exhaustion. After a few hurried inquiries, General Forrest asked the young girl if she would not mount behind him and show him the ford. Turning to her mother she saw that the delicacy of the prudent parent was opposed. However, she did not hesitate, but, forming her own resolution, jumped on the roots of a fallen tree. General Forrest drew his horse near, she sprang behind him, grasping him about the waist, and off they dashed. The way was a difficult one, even for a practiced rider like General Forrest, but his guide held her seat without the slightest evidence of fear. Drawing near the ford the quick eye of General Forrest detected the Yankee sharpshooters, springing from tree to tree, and suddenly an angry minie whistled by his ear. The density of the undergrowth finally compelled them to dismount. The General hitched his horse. The girl then started out ahead, saying that the Yankees would not fire on her, and they might fire if he went first. To this he objected, declaring that he did not wish to screen himself behind her, that she was a guide, not a shield. The ford was presently discovered and they returned in safety. General Forrest then brought up his axemen, cleared out a road, and safely crossed his whole column.
On the morning of the next day, Colonel Streight surrendered, and thus ended one of the most remarkable cavalry pursuits and captures known in military annals. And herein lies the value and significance of the heroic conduct of Emma Sansom, and which makes it enduring and perpetual. "Her presence of mind and coolness, under circumstances which would have paralyzed the faculties of most women, enabled Forrest to overcome a very formidable obstacle in his pursuit of Streight, and gained for him at least three hours in time, inestimable in value, since it enabled him to overtake and compel Streight's surrender almost within sight of Rome."2
At its session in November the General Assembly of Alabama adopted a series of joint resolutions donating her a section of land and a gold medal "in consideration of public services rendered by her." The lofty and animated preamble deliberately written at the time by grave legislators will bear recital:
"A nation's history is not complete which does not record the names and deeds of its heroines with those of its heroes, and revolutions sometimes throw the two in such close proximity that the history of the manly bearing of the one is imperfect unless coupled with the more delicate yet no less brilliant achievement of the other, and such must ever be the history of the most gallant and successful victory of the intrepid Forrest, unless embellished with the name and heroic acts of Emma Sansom.
"Upon discovering the difficulties which embarrassed the advance of our brave army in pursuit of a Yankee raid under the lead of Colonel Streight, produced by the burning of a bridge across Black Creek, near the residence of her mother, in Cherokee (now Etowah) county, Emma Sansom, inspired with love of country, indignant at Yankee insolence, and flushed with hope inspired by the arrival of a pursuing force, exalted herself 'above the fears of her nature and the timidity of her sex,' with a maiden's modesty and more than woman's courage, tendered her services as a guide, and, in the face of an enemy's fire, and amid the cannon's roar, safely conducted our gallant forces by a circuitous route to an easy and safe crossing, and left them in eager pursuit of a fleeing foe, which resulted in a complete and brilliant victory to our arms within the confines of our own State. By her courage, her patriotism, her devotion to our cause, and by the great public service she has rendered, she has secured to herself the admiration, esteem and gratitude of our people, and a place in history as the heroine of Alabama."3
A certified copy of this resolution was presented to Miss Sansom by Hon. Thomas B. Cooper, of Cherokee. Hon. Burwell T. Pope, of St. Clair, responded for her. The ceremony took place at Turkeytown, in Cherokee county, in the presence of a large concourse oJ people. "The lands were surveyed and a portion sold for Confederate scrip, which soon lost all value, while the adverse issue of the struggle caused the loss of the medal and the other portion of the lands."4 In further recognition of the debt of gratitude due her, the Legislature of Alabama, in 1899, passed an act in which she was donated six hundred and forty acres of land. In 1864 Miss Sansom married C. B. Johnson, of the Tenth Alabama Regiment, C. S. A., in 1879 they removed to Texas, and in 1887 her husband died, leaving her with five boys and two girls. On August 22, 1900, at Calloway, Texas, she passed "to where beyond these voices there is peace," leaving a name which will linger long in history.
This heroic incident has been the subject of song and story, and it is but calling your attention to facts perfectly familiar to refer to the earnest and persistent efforts of Hon. John W. A. Sanford, who has honored you with his presence during these exercises, to secure a change in the design of the Great Seal of Alabama, so that one "commemorative of the heroism of Emma Sansom" might be adopted. The details of his proposed design are "the figure of an officer on horseback, fully armed, and a young woman seated behind him with her left hand pointing forward, and the legend 'I will show you the way.'"
Dr. Wyeth has dedicated his "Life" of General Forrest to her as "a woman worthy of being remembered by her countrymen as long as courage is deemed a virtue." And in the text of his immortal work he declares that "as long as the fame of Nathan Bedford Forrest shall last among men – and it must endure forever – coupled with it in artless womanhood and heroic pose will be the name of Emma Sansom."5
Now that I have passed in hurried review the dramatic incidents in the life of one woman, whom we now pedestal in hope of perpetual memory, I must not close until I give you the wider application of the lesson of her life. This portrait stands not only in perpetuation of an incident of 1863, but it stands as well for the embodiment of the collective aspiration and appreciation of the women of Alabama of 1902.
It is said that woman's heroism is reserved for revolutions. Therefore, we find the epic period of our history, the four tragic years from 1861 to 1865, filled with examples of the splendid conduct and sublime heroism of the daughters of Alabama, similar to the conspicuous instance, the details of which I have recited. During the period of public and private discussion which preceded the precipitation of the conflict, she counselled resistance to the aggressions of the North. On the fateful eleventh day of January, 1861, when, amidst the most extraordinary and exciting scenes in our political history, the bonds which held Alabama in the Union were dissolved by an ordinance of a convention of the sovereign people, she was present, "the love songs of yesterday" swelling into political hosannas, in commemoration of the event. Her hands fashioned the State flag, which on the same day was flung to the breezes as the Star Spangled Banner came down. Her voice whispered courage when later the first tocsin of war sounded. In the camps of organization and instruction she was a ministering angel to the sick, and an inspiration to the faltering and despondent. Daily her prayers ascended in behalf of loved ones at the front and for the success of our brave armies. In the hospitals where the mangled and bleeding soldiers in groans and agony lay, her gentle hands tenderly bound up their gaping wounds, and brushed the death damp from the brow of the dying. With husband, or father, or son in the army, the management of the household and of the farm, with the slaves, devolved on her, and in economy of administration right well did she demonstrate her fitness for business affairs. Upon her faithful energies largely fell the burden of supplying clothing for the army, and in its manufacture she toiled with sacrificial zeal. In meeting the demands for material she subjected herself to privations and self-denial which are now incredible. The jewels were torn from her neck, rings from her fingers, and in many cases she sold the hair of her head, to aid in raising supplies for our struggling armies.
Hardly had the smoke of battle cleared away when she organized memorial associations for the care of the soldiers' graves, and inaugurated the beautiful exercises of Memorial Day. And to her zeal, fidelity and persistent efforts is principally due the erection of our beautiful Confederate monument on Capitol Hill in Montgomery, as well as those in other towns of Alabama.
And after the terrible ordeal by combat had closed, with a change of social and domestic conditions so abrupt as to be simply appalling, the women of the State, bowing heroically to fate, readjusted their lives to the new order. Thousands of them, reared in luxury, schooled only in the arts, learning and accomplishments of the higher walks of life, bereft suddenly of all domestic help and labor, found themselves the only resource of their families for the support and maintenance of home. Did they repine? No. Did they falter or hesitate? No. With the same lofty courage with which they urged their husbands and sons to battle, and the same fortitude and resignation with which they saw them laid away in soldiers' graves, they moved forward in the course of duty. And now after the lapse of thirty-five years, how faithfully they have struggled and how well they have met all emergencies are known and read of the whole world.
Turning now from the past to a consideration of her condition and achievement in the present, a happy outlook greets us. The restrictions of an arbitrary body of laws have been practically torn away. All of the honorable avocations of business life are open to her, and no questions of propriety embarrass her selection. Many of these she has entered, and her success has only shown her eminent fitness for all. The official positions of postmaster, notary public and register in chancery are at her command. The opportunities for advanced education, which have been enlarged to her through necessary pressure, were never greater. She is admitted to our State University and the Alabama Polytechnic Institute; the special institutions for her particular instruction have increased in number and standard, and the State has provided an "Alabama Girls' Industrial School" for particular domestic and polytechnic training, as well as training in the branches of polite learning. The erroneous opinion which has hitherto obtained that woman is without skill in the deliberative assembly and does not possess the cohesiveness necessary for organized effort has been safely dispelled, and no more healthy and successful organizations exist anywhere than the women's clubs of Alabama, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Art Leagues, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Colonial Dames, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
And now ladies of the Alabama Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to you who are doing so much through your organization in drawing into closer bonds of friendship the descendants of the soldiers in gray, in stimulating the commemoration of the heroic deeds of our Southern dead, in rendering charity to the needy survivors of our Lost Cause and their families, and in obtaining an impartial history of the struggle, that the children of our Southland may be taught to reverence the brave men of their own families, who laid down their lives in defense of the purest principles of patriotism from 1861 to 1865, in the name of the State of Alabama, in whose service I am, and to which your lives and conduct add such luster, I accept this portrait as a further evidence of your progress in thought and aspiration. The grateful appreciation of our people is yours.
Hung in the State Capitol, surrounded by the likenesses of the great ones of our past, this painting will serve as an inspiration, a memorial both to your enlightened appreciation, and to the fair fame of one who in blissful unconsciousness wrote her name high on the roll of the immortals.