Selma Morgan, Eyewitness to History

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Anselma Liesel Morgan, the fourth of five children by Meeker Morgan and Liesel Brandt Morgan, was born in 1853 on her parents’ small homestead outside Bent Fork, VA.

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Selma Morgan circa 1864

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The Morgan homestead

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, her sister and two older brothers left home, ostensibly to nurse/fight for the Confederacy.

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“Powder Monkey” (not Frederick Morgan; some other kid – a Federal)

In 1862 Selma’s remaining sibling, Frederick, set out to join his brothers.  Unable to find them (they and their sister, it was later discovered, had not in fact gone to war, but rather had moved to Cape Cod to open a clam shack) eight year old Frederick joined the Confederate Navy as a “powder monkey” aboard the C.S.S. Patrick Henry, where he served with distinction.

As the only remaining child on the Morgan farm, young “Selma” was quite lonely.  She busied herself by helping her parents as best as she could, and by keeping a diary of her experiences during wartime.  As the homestead was quite isolated, however, this diary was mostly a rather uneventful record of farming life, interspersed with the occasional vitriolic rant against the “meenest mama in the hole wide world”.  this was to change abruptly during the summer of 1863.  As Selma noted in her diary on June 30:

Mama ses she seed a bunch of yankees wit and blak doin thar washin down by pusywiller crik.  She ses not to tell daddy as he is like to git hiself kilt trine to chase them off.

It was Jonathan Franklin Hale and his Thirteenth Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry to whom this entry refers.

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The Thirteenth, which spent that night along the creek near the entrance to Pussy Willow Gap, was unaware that the spot they had chosen to camp placed them in the immediate path of the Richmond Special Legionnaires – a clandestine force that was heading east on a sneak attack on Washington.

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As Selma would report in her diary on July 1:

Well ges what?  Mama ses a big army of owr boys is on thar way and them yankees fownd out and done hi taled it into the mowntins.  Now we don hafta worry bout daddy gitin shot no more.  Owr boys is gone to teech them yanks sumthin you kin be shore of that.

What transpired, as we now know, was quite to the contrary.  The Thirteenth’s miraculous victory against the Richmond Special Legionnaires the following day would make a lasting impression on young Selma.  As she wrote in her diary on July 7:

Them yankees beet owr boys fare and skware, even tho they was plenty owt numberd.  Even tho I hate yanks lik ever won else I think these yanks are grat men.  An mama ses thar was lady yanks to so I think they are grat ladys.  If I dint hate yanks so much I wood join the yankee army and fite like all them grat women they have sted of livin heer on this boring old farm with daddy and mama who is sumtime so meen I hate her but not rit now rit now she is beeng nice.

But even had Miss Morgan gotten over her professed dislike of Yankees, and even had her mistaken impression that the Federal Army regularly accepted women been true, it was unlikely she would have been able to realize her desire, for by the summer of 1863 she had already been legally blind for several weeks.  This condition, which was the result of a bout of Scarlet Fever and likely accounts for her atrocious spelling and illegible handwriting (factors that contributed to the unpublishability of her diary), was to tie Selma to the Morgan homestead for the rest of her life.  In later years Miss Morgan, who never married, would gain great enjoyment by recounting her girlhood brush with history during the battle of Pussy Willow Creek.

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Clinton Welsher on location somewhere

In 1932 her tale was captured on celluloid by ethnographer Clinton Welsher for installment #21 of his opus documentary, The Complete Accounts of the American Civil War by Every Remaining Eyewitness.transparentspacer

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Selma Morgan from the 1932 Welsher documentary

Footage from this documentary, which for unclear reasons was never completed, was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1956, guaranteeing that Miss Morgan’s testimony would endure, and that future students of history would be able to vicariously experience her own somewhat vicarious experience of the Battle of Pussy Willow Creek.

Click below to see an excerpt from the Welsher documentary.

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