During the Civil War, Mrs. James W. Harris helped organize and was president of the "Soldier’s Relief Society" in Columbus. She also cared for sick and wounded soldiers in her home, Whitehall. Her pumpkin pie turned out to be a miracle cure for a deathly ill Union soldier known only as No. 27. Photo by: Courtesy photo
October 20, 2018 9:59:12 PM
It is the little twist and turns of history which makes it so interesting to delve into. A week ago I wrote of the search for lost Civil War graves in Columbus' Friendship Cemetery. Surprising as it may seem, that story may be tied to the current fad of pumpkin spice.
Research by Carolyn Kaye and Gary Lancaster has shed much light on the Confederate hospitals in Columbus. A story I was told as a child by my grandmother, whose grandmother had told it to her, fills the human gap found in the business-like military reports.
During the Civil War three large military hospitals were in Columbus. Yandell Hospital, the unfinished Gilmer Hotel, was a 450-bed hospital that at times overflowed with more than 750 sick or wounded soldiers. Newsom Hospital at the Columbus Female Institute, now Callaway Hall at Mississippi University for Women, had 190 beds but at times was filled with almost 300 soldiers. There was another large hospital, possibly named Turner Hospital, constructed at the fairgrounds which were on the north side of town.
In addition there were five other buildings and several homes used as hospitals when Columbus was overwhelmed with more than 3,000 sick and wounded soldiers after the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862.
The women of Columbus organized to help, forming a "Soldier's Relief Society" and Martha Harris (Mrs. James W. Harris) was president. Though organized to help care for sick or wounded Confederate soldiers, many of the ladies, including Mrs. Harris, also cared for sick or wounded captured Union soldiers.
The basement of the Harris home, Whitehall (now the home of Joe and Carol Boggess), provided extra hospital beds when needed and holes once visible in the wall there would have supported six cots or stretchers. Mrs. Harris also volunteered and assisted at the military hospitals. The white ironstone pitcher with which she gave water to the soldiers in her care has been passed down, crazed and cracked, through four generations with the story of her compassion.
The most fascinating account of Martha Harris' actions was not only passed down through the family, but recorded in a Chicago newspaper. Not long after her death in October, 1896, a newspaper article titled "Number 27 and the Pumpkin Pie" appeared in the Chicago Times-Herald. It began:
"The recent death of the venerable and beloved Mrs. James W. Harris of Columbus, Miss., recalls an amusing yet pathetic hospital experience of that lady's. The women of Columbus, when necessity arose, organized a Soldier's Relief association of which Mrs. Harris was president."
Every day Mrs. Harris and the other ladies of the association went to the hospitals and shared with the wounded their meager supplies of food and assisted in providing nursing care. One day, Mrs. Harris came upon a "young Yankee soldier" who the doctors said was dying of typhoid fever. The attending doctor told her not to waste her time on the "poor devil of a Yankee" as there was nothing more that could be done for him and he would soon die.
In a scene that would be repeated by other Columbus ladies at the origin of Memorial Day, Mrs. Harris thought of her sons in the Confederate Army and wondered what would happen to them in such a situation.
She then, "with her eyes filled with tears," turned to the doctor and said: "I'm going to take that poor boy in my own special charge, and if there is any food or medicine left, he shall have his share of it. And I know you well enough, doctor, to feel sure that you will expend on that Yankee boy of mine as much care and skill as if he was one of my own double-dyed Rebel sons."
Even with the loving care of Mrs. Harris and the attention of the doctor, the young soldier's condition grew ever more grave. Finally, one afternoon the doctor said the poor boy would not survive the night. As the boy drifted in and out of delirium, Mrs. Harris asked him if there was anything she could do for him. He weakly whispered "pumpkin pie." Not knowing exactly what he meant she asked again. The boy whispered again "pumpkin pie" and drifted into exhausted sleep.
Mrs. Harris went and baked a pumpkin pie for the boy and took it to him that evening. The next morning she went back expecting to learn of his death. When she arrived and asked the doctor about his condition, she was told the boy had eaten the whole pie, was by some miracle better and was asking for more pumpkin pie. With Mrs. Harris' care and more pumpkin pies, the young soldier recovered.
The Chicago newspaper article concluded: "So the boy from Maine got well, and he always declared that if it had not been for those pumpkin pies he surely must have died!" It was signed L. H. and identifiable only as a Union Army veteran of the Civil War who had served as a 19-year-old backwoods boy from Maine.
I searched old family cookbooks for that magical pumpkin pie recipe but the oldest pumpkin pie recipe I found only dated to the late 1870s and was called New England pumpkin pie. Then in my oldest family cookbook, a 193-year-old copy of The Virginia House-Wife, I found it. It was called Pumpkin Pudding but was a pie. In the mid-1800s this is how a pumpkin pie was made in my family:
"Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry -- rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dryer; put a paste round the edges, and in the bottom of a shallow dish or plate -- pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake it nicely."
I can sure understand how one of those pies could make a sick person feel better.
The story behind that pie puts a human face on the Confederate hospitals in Columbus and the Union soldiers who were treated there alongside Confederate soldiers. If not for the kind heart of Mrs. Harris that backwoods boy from Maine probably would have been in one of the unmarked graves we were looking for a week ago in Friendship Cemetery. The recognition of sick or wounded Union soldiers as victims of war to whom compassion should be shown was evident in the conduct by ladies of Columbus, even as the bitter war still raged.
The decorating of all the graves in Friendship Cemetery, Confederate and Union, on that April day in 1866, brought the ongoing compassion of the ladies of Columbus national attention and became an inspiration for Memorial Day.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]
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