- Posted April 6, 2011 by
North Little Rock, Arkansas
This iReport is part of an assignment:
History in your home: The Civil War
The Apron That Saved a House, April 1864
- nancyt3, CNN iReport producer
(The image is from the Permanent Collection of the Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas.)
In April 1864, as part of the Red River Expedition, several thousand Union soldiers under the command of Major General Frederick Steele set out from Little Rock, to link up with the other Union force then heading towards Alexandria and Shreveport, then hopefully into Texas. The trek into southwestern Arkansas proved tougher than expected, in large part because of the lack of food for the men and forage for the horses.
This problem, and unexpected and heavy resistance from Confederate forces, particularly outside modern-day Prescott, Arkansas, forced the Union command to shift to the southeast, to Camden, Arkansas. At the time Camden was an important town, supposedly holding ample food and supplies. Steele and his men were bitterly disappointed at not finding enough of what they needed.
Over April 17 and 18, Steele ordered nearly 200 forage and supply wagons to leave Camden, spread throughout the surrounding areas, then find and take whatever supplies they could find. As Sherman would even more dramatically supervise later, anything and everything else was to be destroyed.
But word of Steele's actions leaked out almost at once; the news sped up the activities of Confederate forces in the general area, under the command of General Edmund Kirby-Smith. The news also electrified and thoroughly scared the civilian population, certainly when the intent of Steele's foragers became known.
Some miles west of Camden, near to what would soon become the Battle of Poison Springs, was the home of my maternal great-great grandfather, William H. Rushing. Though close to 50 years old, he served with the 15th Arkansas Infantry, until taken prisoner at Fort Donelson in early 1862. He was exchanged due to poor health seven months later, and had been back at home ever since. But when the enemy forces penetrated into southwest Arkansas two years later, Rushing offered his services as a scout for the Confederate forces.
Several family members were living at that house at the time, thanks to the war, but his wife, Catherine Rushing, was in charge while he was away. The only male then at the home was Rushing's then-11-year old son, William Milton Rushing.
On April 18, word reached the Rushings the Union soldiers were heading toward their home, which was on one of the roads leading back to Camden. At some point before leaving home, Rushing told his family what to do, in case. . . . Following instructions from my great-great-grandfather, the family buried or hid most of the food. Young William took several head of cattle into a nearby ravine, tied them to trees, and covered their heads with blankets, to keep them quiet. He would stay there until the bluecoats left or he and the cattle were found. As it turned out, they were not discovered.
A contingent of Union soldiers rode up literally to the front doorstep, with one or two already-loaded-down wagons. The Rushings left a little food in plain sight, and a little more where the soldiers could easily find the "vittels". This plan worked; the men did not press too hard to find more food.
Then the Union officer in charge told the family he had orders to burn down their home. Catherine Rushing and the others begged him to spare the home, which was refused. Likewise were pleas to let them first take out their personal possessions and the furniture, or at least some of their possessions.
The officer agreed to let Catherine Rushing save just one item. (One part of family lore has the saved item being what her husband William told her to save; another version has the selected item was chosen through pure coincidence.) She stepped back into the house as the soldiers prepared and lit their torches. She came back outside with the chosen possession.
Catherine Rushing brought out something that struck the Union officer as oddly familiar, and he asked to see it more closely. She unrolled her husband's Masonic apron, made mostly of silk, and supposedly already somewhat old. The Union officer's eyes widened; the next second his attitude had completely changed.
In one of the curious coincidences that turn up in history, including Civil War History, the officer was a practicing Freemason, as was great-great-grandfather William Rushing. And, a Mason was--and is--not to knowingly do harm to another Freemason.
"Men, we're not burning this house." The soldiers put out their torches and climbed back onto their horses or into the wagons. The bluecoats left at once, much to the amazement and relief of the Rushing women. Their home was the only residence in the area left intact, thanks to the "intervention" of a Masonic apron.
Less that two miles east down the road, Confederate forces launched a surprise attack against the by-then-reunited Union forces. The Rushings were close enough to hear the artillery, and some of the small-arms fire. The Union forces were shattered, then routed. In the course of the action, Choctaw Indians fighting for the Confederacy nearly wiped out the 1st Kansas (U.S.) Colored Infantry. The Confederates also captured the entire wagon train.
The setback at Poison Springs forced Steele and what was left of his forces to retreat back to Little Rock, with the Confederates in pursuit for much of the way back.
William H. Rushing soon returned home; he and his family struggled through the rest of the war and the following years, recovering to a fair degree of financial and social stability.
The Rushing home stood until the 1960s; the family had left it and had had to sell the land at least one generation earlier. The landowners at thast time, a timber-lumber company, razed the house. Nothing, not even the Masonic apron, could save the old house from what was euphemistically called "progress", or, perhaps, "good business practices".
The apron remained with the Rushing family until my maternal grandmother, Lillie Rushing, married my maternal grandfather, Thomas Victor Wallace, who was also a practicing Mason. Their oldest son Billie Tom Wallace inherited the apron; after he died, the one surviving brother, Victor Wallace, got the apron. He and his daughters ultimately decided to donate the apron to a museum, where it could be restored, properly preserved, and exhibited to the public.
This Masonic apron is now at The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.
I know of similar stories concerning homes being spared from the destruction the Civil War produced, but the physical proof is apparently something of a rarity in this area. If there are any other, similar stories, with the central artifacts still existing, I'd like to know about them.