The chest? It's at our house?
"I couldn't believe it," my wife said, "but Aunt Mamie told Aunt Zelda it was time to pass the chest down, and we brought it home with us. I was scared to death something would happen to it on the way."
My wife paused. "They gave it to Sarah. Aunt Mamie wanted Sarah to have it."
Sarah is our fourteen-year-old. Many times, I had told her how my grandmother kept the chest on a bureau in her guest bedroom like some museum piece. When I was small, she would allow me to look at the heirloom, but I could never touch it. The leather was cracked and peeling from the studs that bound it to a wooden frame. The ancient lock no longer worked.
The chest, which looks like a miniature foot locker, may have come with my grandmother's people from the British Isles. It was just large enough to hold valuables, such as any jewelry or gold they might have acquired. What turned the chest into a relic, however, was an event that occurred around April 10, 1865. Thereafter, the chest would hold memories, rather than things.
About a week before that date, a detachment of some 1,500 Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Thomas Croxton swept into Tuscaloosa County. They fought off Rebel skirmishers around Vance and then occupied Northport and Tuscaloosa, where they burned the University of Alabama. The Bluecoats next attempted to march southwestwardly through Greene and Pickens counties. They hoped to rejoin the main body of federal raiders under the command of Gen. James Harrison Wilson. But Croxton's men, thereafter known as the "lost brigade," became discouraged as they meandered across hostile country. Some of them drowned in swollen rivers. A few fell captive to Southern sympathizers.
Having learned that a brigade of tough Confederates under Wirt Adams was marching toward them from Pickensville, Croxton ordered his men back toward Tuscaloosa. As rain pelted the retreating federals, Adams' men fell on the Union rear, harassing the exhausted Kentuckians. A running fight occurred for some thirty miles, costing the federals about three dozen men, until finally the raiders stumbled into Northport, just across the Warrior River from Tuscaloosa.
Though safe for the moment, Croxton had to keep moving. In addition to a tired brigade, he had as many as two thousand horses and mules that needed forage. With no word of Wilson's whereabouts, he decided this time to march north toward Jasper, taking the old Byler Road. From Jasper, he would march east to find Wilson.
About twelve miles out of Northport, Croxton ordered his men to make camp for a few days near the plantation of John Prewitt, one of the county's wealthiest slaveholders. This respite would allow foraging patrols to trip the country of anything edible.
Mary Ann Kemp's three hundred acres of rolling farm land and woods lay about ten miles away, as the crow flies. Like most of the South's "plain folk," she and her family subsisted on what they grew, selling the surplus to acquire a little cash. They lived in a modest wooden house and stored their corn in a crib nearby.
It's unclear who first saw the Yankees riding up to the home place. The sun was setting, and family members were probably on the front porch, having finished supper. Mary Ann, a widow, was alone with her two grown daughters, Martha and Sarah, and her twelve-year-old son Robert. Her two oldest sons were away fighting for the Confederacy.
Although word had gone throughout the county that the Yankees were moving northward, Mary Ann probably hadn't expected them to show up so far from the main road. But she thought quickly, as women have always had to do when confronted by menacing men. As the invaders milled around in her yard, she tucked the little chest under her apron and strode out the back door of her house.
She headed for her chicken coop, a primitive structure about three feet long and two feet high. Made of wooden slats, the coop resembled the roof of a house. Farmers used such shelters to protect their chickens at night from predators. They would lift the coop and attract the biddies under it with a tin plate of cracked corn.
Mary Ann raised one end of the coop in the semidarkness and quickly shoved in the chest where the chicks normally slept.
"What are you doing?" yelled one of the Yankee soldiers.
"I'm just checking on my biddies," she replied. "They're all we're going to have for eating this spring."
"You get back in that house and stay there," the soldier ordered.
Inside the chest was the family's small fortune: $300 in gold that somehow Mary Ann had managed to save. The soldier never came over to investigate, and she returned to the house.
Finally, they set fire to the crib and rounded up the family's milk cows and calves. Driving the livestock before them, the soldiers left with the wagons and their plunder—but not with the little chest and its treasure. It remained safely hidden under the chicken coop. Because of Mary Ann's quick thinking, there would be money to see the family through the hard year ahead.
I must digress to explain how the little chest came down through the family. Mary Ann's daughter Martha, whom the family called Aunt Sis, never married. When she was seventy, she moved to Berry to live with one of Robert's children, Patience Kemp Kimbrell, who was my grandmother. In the wagon ride to her new home, Aunt Sis brought with her a trunk filled with her clothes. She also brought the little chest, which she kept in her bedroom. Often she told about the marauding Yankees and how her mother had hidden the chest under the chicken coop.
After Aunt Sis died, my grandmother kept the chest. Later, she brought it with her when she and my grandfather moved to Fayette, where they lived in a cottage that always seemed filled with light and laughter. When I visited my grandparents, I would ask to see the chest and look at the old pictures in the bureau's bottom drawer. One of the photographs showed my grandmother and her brothers and sisters in 1903 standing in front of what may have been the original Kemp house. In the photograph, Aunt Sis is seated with the children.
Upon my grandmother's death, the chest passed to Aunt Mamie, the youngest of her six children. Although she has lost much of her eyesight, she directed me recently to the old Kemp homestead, hidden in the brambles and pines. Near the site, however, and along what is still called "the Kemp Road" in north Tuscaloosa County, remains a tiny cemetery, protected by a chain-link fence. Here lies buried Mary Ann Kemp, my great-great-grandmother, and next to her, Aunt Sis.
Aunt Mamie is the one who insisted that the chest go not to me, but instead to my daughter, Sarah. My Aunt Zelda seemed bemused by that request, but I understood the sentiment. The legacy of their mother's people was that of strong women who persevered in a region that had known a tragically different history from the victorious American version. They were among the conquered people; yet they endured and clung fiercely to their heritage, just as Aunt Sis had protected her little chest during the wagon trip to Berry.
When my wife finished telling me the news about the heirloom, I hung up the telephone and felt an itch to write. Was I responding as a Southerner to my region's peculiar culture, as someone at the literary conference might have suggested? Or was I simply acting upon a universal impulse to understand the human experience through the means of a good story?
I don't know. A more pressing matter was to write these words so that my daughter might store them in the old chest—where they will be safe for the next generation.
This feature was previously published in Issue 50, Fall 1998.
About the Author
Bailey Thomson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. He lives in Tuscaloosa.