So, finally… this Confederate vet and the witch…

Posted on October 2, 2010 by

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Charles Robert Hilliard, ca. 1930

 

One of my great-great grandfathers, Charles Robert “Tanner” Hillard, was born on October 3, 1844 (in fact, that will be 166 years ago… tomorrow), a son of Jacob (1784-1864) and Phoebe Elliott Hilliard (ca. 1822-???). As for the Civil War part goes… Charles’ younger brother, Jacob, hired himself out as a substitute (for Charles W. Dovel) in April 1862, and he ended up serving in Co. D, 7th Virginia Cavalry. Then, in the fall of 1864, Charles Robert joined the same company, but was moved to serve as a wagonmaster with the commissary department of the Stonewall Brigade (and… there wasn’t much left of that brigade by the fall of 1864). He was sick and hospitalized in Waynesboro, Virginia in February 1865, and probably just did miss being bagged as a POW when the battle occurred there.

I could go on and give you a sketch of him as a Confederate ancestor, but I’ll do that at a later time, to accompany the rest of my Confederate ancestor sketches. Now, it so happens that his second wife (he outlived four of five, having married in 1870, 1872, 1887, 1894, and 1896), Margaret Elizabeth Eaton (daughter of Thomas and Amanda Shifflett Eaton) was the victim of a bad “witch”*. The best I can figure is that, though she was from near Elkton in Rockingham County, they were living in Page County at the time of the incident. Roughly remembered, the story goes something like this… and I’ll just give you the facts… or the raw details of the story, sans embellishment… as much as I’d like to add that sort of thing, just for effect… oh well:

One day, Margaret was visited by a woman. There may have been an argument, and I seem to recall something about an accusation of making the milk cow’s milk sour… no doubt, an earlier spell. The woman apparently took my great-great grandmother’s tobacco pouch (if you didn’t know… personal items always work well when wanting to cast a harmful spell on someone else) and cast a spell on said pouch. Great-great grandmother become deathly ill, and was visited by a doctor. In turn, the doctor pronounced, something to the effect, “I know who did this” and that he would make sure the “witch was in hell by morning”. Both Margaret and the witch died… or at least so the story goes.

Well, that’s it. Not at’tall scary, really. It is, however, interesting to try and put some pieces together to make sense of it.

As much as I’ve tried, I can’t verify one single bit of this story passed down through the generations (that would be a total of 3 generations before it got to me in my youth)… and among every last one of the branches (he having been the father of about 9 children between all the wives, and the majority of them – 6 – with Margaret). Also, on a time-line, the best that I can figure is that this happened between 1885 (birth of last child) and 1886 (C.R. Hilliard’s date of marriage to his third wife). Seemingly quite late on our historical time-line of witches recognized in standard U.S. culture. Personally, I find it rather entertaining to think about just how the doctor made sure the “witch” really was “in hell” by morning… a practitioner of some form of “magick” as well?

 

Fuseli's 1783 print The Three Witches, showing the beginnings of the haggish look, and the crooked nose...

 

Now, Appalachian witchcraft is not some sort of surprise… but then again, maybe it is to some. Yet, in the old stories… and not folklore… it was common to hear of a local “witch” (men and women) in the community… but they weren’t generally considered those of the variety that are so regularly seen in popular culture as green, with a wart on the nose, and generally among those “ne’er do-wells”, but rather, were of the “wise woman/man” variety. Even my mother recalls being taken by her mother (ha ha… and I love this part… my grandmother was born on… wait for it… October 31!) to a man who “knew things” for some rather simple things that could not be remedied by the so-called modern medicines or around the house remedies. Just for example… you want to get rid of a wart(?) (no pun intended in relation to the story being about a “witch”), you go to these special people who “knew things.” Let’s even consider this… looking back at this story… if you did have a cow producing sour milk, or wasn’t producing milk at all, there were certain people who knew exactly what type of herb to bring into play to make things right… and generally, these same people were often labeled with the title of “witch” and were known for other “skills”. As rare as it may seem to some… “water witches” are still at play in some geographic communities… and they do an excellent job of using a divining rod (dowsing… yes, a practice original to Germany AND verboten by Martin Luther… and even “Satanic” in practice by the middle 17th century, by the way) to find the spot for a well.

Is the belief in witches original to communities in which there resides a significant number of people of Germannic descent? Well, I had a taste of mountain culture in western North Carolina years ago, for about a year, and it led me to believe that it may be simply common in Appalachia, in general, with roots tying back to varying cultures… German, Swiss, English, Irish, Welsh, Scots, and, very likely, African.

Now, as far as what this has to do with a Confederate veteran. Well, “duh”… :-) … the obvious thing is that his wife (the second one, if you are counting) was “cursed” by a “witch.” That’s the simplest part of it. The more difficult part is weaving this into the ultra-modern picture of Christianity that is affixed to the Confederate veteran by folks in contemporary times; not necessarily by everyone, but among a more than fair number. Believing in a “witch” then, for harm or for good, was a part of life (at least here in the central Valley), and this didn’t impact the sincerity toward religious practices in the local Christian church come Sunday morning. We would think that, perhaps, the ministers frowned upon the thought of going to a “witch” for any sort of assistance…, but maybe they turned to them from time to time as well, when a working solution could not be had.

In short, that was reality… it was part of life, and one only has to wonder how the knowledge from such people may have influenced a wide range of things that may have been seen in the ranks (of the Confederate army) that we never read about. These stories were passed along to me no differently than those about ancestors serving in gray. So, while the study of the battles, leaders, sentiments, and so forth seem to be the center of our attention in studies of the war, and culture becomes smothered in stereotype that makes life then seem so monolithic, the reality of culture can create a greater challenge in our overall assessment of a people at war… and a much more diverse Southern people. Where has that part of culture gone and why has it become unmentionable?

I’ve got more stories coming. A few tales about ghosts, maybe a witch here and there. I do know that one has something to do with bringing a dead Confederate soldier home, and the curious things that were witnessed by those who brought the body home… following execution at the hands of Confederate soldiers in winter quarters outside Fredericksburg. I found that story in a newspaper from the 1910s or 1920s, as related by those who spoke with those who hauled the body home.

* Yes, I make the distinction, and to quote the line in The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”

** and yes, I know, Hilliard isn’t Germannic, but it’s all about the cultural setting of the incident.

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