Stories of family, friends and the hobby . .  .


The Tobacco Tote

In the spring of 1962, the Civil War Centennial was in full bloom. Every night, the news on the black and white TV in my grandparents' kitchen had something about President Kennedy's endorsement of it. He said we should remember the great sacrifices of our ancestors of just 100 years ago and that it was the anniversary of our nation's greatest tragedy, and the greatest test of our true sense of freedom.

Every time the subject would come up, someone had a story to share. My grandparents had a plethora of such riveting stories, and I was all ears. I had visions of men in uniform, both blue and gray, doing their deeds and imagined what my town of Frederick, Maryland, must have looked like 100 years ago.

For me, at 12 years old, 100 years seemed like ancient times; but in reality, it was my grandparents' grandparents' time. Just as I was there listening to them, they had listened to their parents and grandparents relate such stories. These were real stories about individuals and personal things, not of epic battles necessarily. It made it so tangible and not like the dictate of the dry pages of some history book. These people who were in the stories were real people, and my ancestors seemed to come to life. I thought of General Robert E. Lee, President Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, and General Sherman as icons of the Civil War, like they were made of marble and almost fictional. But when I heard my grandparents tell their stories, they were real, and I could relate to them. In fact, I was related to them.

One morning at breakfast, my grandmother on my father's side told me a story about herself and her sister, my Great Aunt Mamie. She told of how she and her sister used to play store with a large roll of Confederate money. The money came by way of her mother's sister's husband, who was an Innkeeper on the corner of South Market and All Saints Streets in Frederick. One day in either 1862 0r 1864 (as I was later to divine from the dates on these notes), two Confederate scouts entered the town from the southwest. I presume they were coming from the town of Buckeystown, which leads me to believe it was 1862, because in 1864, Early's army entered Frederick from the northwest and marched down West Patrick Street.

As the story was told, these scouts stopped at the inn and asked for food. The Innkeeper, who was not driven by any sort of patriotic conviction necessarily but more of not wanting Confederate scrip, refused these “boys”, as grandma put it. They immediately pulled pistols and, grabbing him, slammed him against the wall, with one of them pulling a sabre and threatened to bash his “damned ole head in.” His wife, in her Teutonic voice, screamed, “Oh, please, boys don't! He's all I haf und I vill feed you. Come und sit down.” The two incensed Rebels parked their nasty behinds at the table. She fixed them coffee, eggs, bacon, bread, and butter. This was the fare as relayed to me. She said one Reb held a carbine at the old scrooge's head while the other ate in turn. They thanked their hostess kindly and paid in Confederate money. They said, “We would love to rid you of this nasty old man, as we've killed so many like him it wouldn't matter to us to kill one more, and in his case it would be a pleasure.” But for her sake, they would not.

When they mounted and rode away, my grandma said they left a mark on the house. Just what kind of mark or where it was, she didn't know, but she said it was a mark that this was a Southern sympathizer and had accepted Rebel scrip as payment for services rendered. This, she said, would protect them from the army that was behind them and soon to enter Frederick.

I had determined to visit my elderly, spinster Aunt Mamie, who lived just down the road from my grandparents, to get her version of the tale. She lived in a tiny house built for her by my uncle on the rear of his property. She was in her late 70s, had never married, and had some strange “ways” about her. She was the owner of the “tobacco tote” that contained said money. My 11-year-old cousin, Linda, and I thought that she might give us each a bill if we asked for one. So off we went, more out of the excitement of possibly getting a relic to show when we told our “telling” of this tale than of verification of the story.

Aunt Mamie was home and agreed to let us in, provided we stood on a rug just inside the door. This was but one of her strange “ways”; she was extremely fastidious about her little house but agreed to show us the money. Linda and I looked at each other, mostly out of astonishment at Aunt Mamie's weird ways—standing on a rug? Were we so dirty as to not be allowed to sit down on her plastic-covered furniture? Oh, well. Out she came with this rough looking linen drawstring sack, and pulled from it a roll of, sure enough, ancient looking, well handled, frayed, brownish money in a roll big enough to choke a horse. Opening it up and peeling off a bill, I could clearly see written on it “one dollar” and “Bank of Charles Town, Virginia Commonwealth.” She said that Charles Town is now in West Virginia, as a result of the Civil War. Prodded on by my Cousin Linda, I asked her if we could each have one, since she had so many, to which Aunt Mamie replied, “Oh no, children. These must all stay together,” but that when she died, our grandmother could do as she liked with them. I asked to see the rest, but she refused us, as she was about to have her lunch and we should leave.

I never forgot about this story and that money, and several years later, when I was 15 or 16, my father built a new house closer to Aunt Mamie. One day, she paid us a “dinner drop in” visit. She had walked about three miles to visit her nephew, my father, whom she called “Johnnie”. I always thought this was strange, because his name, like mine, is William. I allowed that this strangeness was one of my aunt's “ways” and considered it no more related to William as his other nickname, “Dink”. Aunt Mamie made these visits often and was always welcome as she was, after all, family. It was always on the tip of my tongue to query her about the Confederate money story, simply because I wanted to hear it again.

My mother tolerated her bringing her own saucepan, silverware, plate, and glass, as well as some of her own food to prepare for herself on our stove. Another of her weird “ways” I remember vividly was her manner of eating, which required the removal and exhibition of her false teeth near her plate and the small piles of corn and pea skins which were formed after each kernel of corn or pea had their internal contents sucked out individually. I always wondered how much of an effect living one's entire adult lifetime alone would have. I never brought up the Confederate money with her again.

After Aunt Mamie passed away, I found out that she had liquidated some of her belongings toward the end of her life to a Civil War collector who knew her in her youth, when she was a seamstress at a local sewing factory, making parachutes during World War II. This gentleman retired from his restaurant business and put his Civil War collection up for auction at the Frederick Fairgrounds, with all of the items being displayed for perusal prior to auction. I found the owner and told him who I was and what I was looking for. He went directly to a small box, which contained my aunt's tobacco tote, full of Confederate money! There it was—I couldn't believe it! I persuaded him to sell it to me on the spot for $200. At last I had the verification of the tale and a tangible piece of that time in history.