(The Story Behind the Photograph)
The girl in this faded carte de visite (CDV) photograph was born in 1847, so she would have been 14 when the Civil War began and 18 when it ended. Her name was Eliza Buffat (later married to August Jules Truan, who was a seven-year-old boy when he arrived in the U.S. with his parents from Switzerland on the same boat as Eliza’s family.) She was my mother’s maternal grandmother—my great-grandmother.
Eliza was the child of two Swiss-French immigrants who arrived in the United States on July 4th 1849 with their four children, including two-year-old Eliza. Five more children would be born to this family, who settled in Tennessee—a state dangerously divided in its loyalty to the North and South by the time the war broke out.
Here are her parents Pierre Francois Buffat—a miller and farmer—with his hand firmly on his Bible, and Sylvie Tauxe Buffat. I believe these images are modern photographs of daguerreotypes.
Seventy years ago, when my mother, Martha Dobson Paulson, was pregnant with me, she typed up all the family history and memoirs she could find. Using lots of carbon paper, she made copies for her two children as well as her eight siblings. (Keeping track of history was a lot harder before the days of computers, Xerox machines and the internet.)
Among the memoirs included in the two spiral-bound volumes was a long one by a Calvinist paternal ancestor from Tennessee who was taken at gunpoint into the Southern army after his brother left to fight for the North. He was captured and put in prison in Chicago, where most of his companions-in-arms died. While that long memoir sounds dramatic, (although it is filled with religious meditations about how Divine Providence kept sparing him because he read his Bible every day) I prefer the 11-page memoir written by Eliza Buffat for her grandchildren, recalling the life of a teenaged girl in Tennessee (“Northeast of Knoxville”) during those turbulent years. Because Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, I thought I would revisit my great-grandmother's memories.
“Every little incident was an exciting one for my sensitive nature,” she began. ”I had been in my young days exempt from the confinement of the school room on account of sickly infancy and youth and I had been raised to an outdoor life…When the war broke out my habits and taste were still in line with sunshine and carelessness…
“The first I remember of war talk was about the winter of ’60 to ’61. My parents had been reading the newspaper one evening and exchanging thoughts when my Mother exclaimed “Le pauvre Sud” [The poor South] in a very sympathetic voice….About Dec. of ’61…my brother Gus had gone to a neighbor and from there enlisted in the Conf. Army. One Sunday we were coming back from Sunday School when at the head of the lane…we saw coming up the road the first body of soldiers, only one company of infantry. The sight thrilled us with enthusiasm for many a day….How we would devour news from the front. Our enthusiasm was like the mercury. When good news it would go up—it was oftener up at first; but toward the end, it would be very low. We girls were so strongly prejudiced against the Federals, we never wore dresses that had blue figures….Uncle Alfred was exempted because he was a miller till about 1863, then no one was exempted; not even ministers. All from 18 to 50 had to go.
“Some of our neighbors who were Unionists had guards to protect them from marauding bands and my father thought as he had taken the oath [to uphold the Union? JPG] he was entitled to protection and asked for one which was granted and two soldiers were stationed at the mill…One Sunday evening one band of about 15 marauders came at our house to pillage They wanted meat and we brought them what we could spare, but they were not satisfied and wanted to search the house. At a sign from my father, we all took refuge in our front room and locked the door. They came to it, ordered us to open. Uncle Alfred told them we had a protection from the Government and they were liable to be punished. We had not gotten our guards yet, but Kinzels had, and when they began to pound on the door, my father thought of Kinzels’ guard and turning to me said, “Eliza, prends la corne et appelle.” (Take the horn and call [for help]. )
“I rushed to the attic window and blew a loud call. We were not suspecting such a quick answer to our distress call. These men were wicked and proved true that “the wicked will flee when no man pursue.” They…ran to their horses and when at about 100 yards from the house fired a volley on it but hit no one. This stratagem succeeded so well that the next time we did the same with the same success, only this time my father and I followed the retreating gang, not thinking of danger. When halfway to the barn, the gang was at the head of Kinzels’ lane, we saw them halt and fire. Even then I was not thinking of danger till my father called my attention to the whizzing of balls thick around us….Such was the reign of terror we lied through till near the close of the strife.”
When the dreaded Yankees in the form of General James Longstreet and his men besieged Knoxville at the end of November, the family and their farm were surrounded by troops but the soldiers did “not take a thing except to burn our fences.” “Then Longstreet retreated to VA for nearly one week and the army passed in order; not as in a hurried retreat.”
One evening, according to Eliza, a group of high officers including, she thought , Longstreet himself took over their house for a “consultation (to which we did not take part.)” While the officers were in the house “a man of mixed uniform came in and put a bold face to the situation and was closely questioned by the officers….After the army was all gone, a neighbor found on a tree, about one mile from us, what must have been the fate of a spy.”
When Longstreet retreated and Confederate soldiers moved in to the farm, according to Eliza, “Their conduct was always marked with courteousness and appreciation.” The children of the family played games, pulled tricks and chatted daily with their favorites among the officers and soldiers. A Captain Parker gave Eliza a little doll he had found on a skirmishing field—it was dressed in Yankee blue. “We became attached to some of those officers and generally invited them for breakfast” which nearly led to one man’s being court-martialed for leaving his post.
When more Yankees in the form of “General Gillem’s men, and the 113 KY” moved on toward Virginia, an officer of high rank demanded that Eliza’s brother Alfred “show him the way to Bean Station…It was a ridiculous request to think of 10,000 men starting and having no leader.” Alfred pleaded that he did not know the way until the officer drew his pistol. “He answered not a word till about 14 miles from home they turned him loose and he turned his horse homeward through woods he knew not, but God watched over him.”
Next came the 118th Ohio regiment to take over their house and farm until they were driven back by the Confederates. Sometimes the family found their property in the line of fire between the two forces. At one point, Eliza’s father heard gunfire and told her to bring the family’s last horse –a mare--into the barn for its safety, but the horse had sore feet, couldn’t walk and Eliza “fancied I could hear bullets whizzing like bees,” so she left “Bichette” to her fate. The mare survived.
Shortly after, her father became ill and told Eliza and her brother to find a doctor who was visiting in the area. It was bitter cold. “We found two poor horses that we rode 4 miles on frozen roads… When we approached the house we saw a big placard nailed to a tree on which was in big letters ‘Small Pox.’ We did not stop at the sight but were admitted by the fire, where the doctor was sitting, having several big pusticles [sic] visible on his face.”
The ailing doctor gave the children a prescription for their father and the next morning, in a snowstorm, “Brother Emile and I started to walk into town to get medicine. I had on a ‘split bonnet’, a warm linsey dress and a thin green and black checked cape….I unknowingly dropped my cape and went perhaps two miles before I found out.” The children evaded soldiers on guard, made it to a drug store, and when they started back in the snow, Eliza found her cape, to her great relief.
“During all those dark days we’d keep a supply of provisions concealed. My father made a sham wall to the attic and we’d hang old clothes around to hide all joints. Also we’d take some large sums of money and papers to hide [buried outside]. Twice my father took me to share with him where he was putting some.”
“Girls and women had to work like men,” Eliza writes. "We did not cut wood. But my tendencies were to work with horses. … My father yielded to my great wish to let me plow. With my little brother Emile, we raised the two ’63 and ’64 crops. Plowed for wheat, corn and potatoes and sugar cane. We’d use only shovel plows, but managed to do fair work.
“All the time that troops occupied Knoxville, their favorite place to camp was on top of the hill east of the old Scotts Mill. ...At Scott’s Mill they were near a large spring. We’d have to go through their camp on the way in and out of town, but were seldom spoken to by anyone.”
“The Northern soldiers, real soldiers, did not do much harm,” Eliza related, “but the loose people following armies are dreaded. They had mercenary men who lived on what they could steal.”
She ends her letter to her grandsons, “If ever you are called to fill a place in our Government be faithful and work for PEACE. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.' Grandmother Truan."
Then she added a P.S.: “Pennies were not used to make change till after the war. The last of Confederate times, we’d pay $10.00 for a calico dress and $20.00 for a sack of flour.” [These were outrageous prices because the average working man made about a dollar a day.]
And that was the end of my Great-Grandmother''s recollections of a teen-age girl who wasn't afraid to confront Smallpox, enemy bullets, a shovel plow and attacking gangs of thieves when she was a young teenager in Tennessee.