It’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so here’s a special story about my great-great-grandmother Julia:
If Julia Pearson was frightened as she walked over to her family’s pianoforte, if sweat dripped down her whalebone corset at the smell of fresh cinder, or if her hands trembled under her homemade lace cuffs, she didn’t let on to the frightfully tall Union soldier at her doorstep.
Julia had known this day might come, for stories of General Sherman’s madness and crimes had reached her father’s plantation not long after the men folk had left to fight for the Confederacy. She worried for her young brothers, still in their teens, and her father, aged beyond most of the volunteer soldiers. But duty called, as it called to Julia on this day thick with rain and smoke, a grey that hadn’t let up for weeks. Late in the afternoon on April 21, 1863, General Ben Grierson and his Calvary brigade raided the Pearson plantation near Starkville, Mississippi.
At twenty years of age, Julia should have been wed by now. But men were scarce and Julia was needed to help run the family farm. An order for 200 slaves had been placed by her father before departing, but that was on hold, pending the outcome of the War of Northern Aggression. Even if she were to fall in love, perhaps with one of the many returning wounded, she wouldn’t leave her mother and younger sisters to care for the farm by themselves.
The donkeys brayed as Grierson’s men raided the livery stable, and Julia, in an act of defiance, took to the piano to play a Confederate anthem called Homespun Dress.
Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864–1916) Woman at the Piano
My homespun dress is plain, I know,
My hat’s palmetto, too;
But then it shows what Southern girls
For Southern rights will do.
We have sent the bravest of our land
To battle with the foe,
And we will lend a helping hand;
We love the South, you know.
And while Julia was most certainly frightened, she couldn’t have known that the 36-year-old Calvary leader who came to her door had no intention of hurting her or burning her father’s plantation. For General Benjamin Grierson, who would become a celebrated Union officer for helping to bring down Vicksburg with his daring raid through Mississippi, was a most reluctant Calvary man. He was scared of horses, for one thing.
At just eight-years old, Grierson fell from his brother’s horse and subsequently took a hoof to the face that left him in a coma for two weeks. He spent months sequestered in a dark bedroom. He recovered fully, “a miracle,” the family doctor said. As soon as Ben was able, he grew a thick, full beard to hide the deformity, a look that would become his trademark.
General Benjamin Grierson
After enlisting in the Union army, he quickly rose in rank, recognized by Grant and Sherman for his strategic tactics, relying on quick and stealth travels and the element of surprise over dug-in troops with heavy ammunitions.
Such was the way he tore through Mississippi, wasting little time in each town as he commanded his troops to harm no civilians, burn no civilian homes, but destroy all government property, railroads, and telegraph lines.
Confederates would not be coming to protect Julia. Grierson’s men had backtracked their horses through the mud, and sent a small detachment northward to create a diversion for Grierson’s men to travel by fields unnoticed.
But family lore has it on this day in April, Gen. Grierson would pause his military campaign under the enchantment of Julia Pearson’s solo performance, and perhaps joined her in song.
While it may seem unlikely that a distinguished Union military soldier would be enamored with the musical talent of a Confederate’s daughter, biographers of the war hero would reveal that Ben Grierson was a musical prodigy.
“I was so infatuated with music that I could think of but little else, being unwilling to give up playing . . .even to eat or sleep.” —Benjamin Grierson
When a young Ben Grierson courted his wife Alice, a childhood love that would continue for decades, he would play the flute out his window, hoping the wind would carry the notes to her home across town. Music was what Alice and Ben loved more than anything else.
Not only was Grierson proficient with the flute, he played several instruments, and at the age of 12, became the town’s bandleader. But it was hard to make a living as a bandleader. By the time Civil War broke out, Grierson had no money, and no options but to enlist for the monthly stipend that was puny, but nonetheless vital to his wife and two young sons back home in Illinois.
Perhaps that day on April 21, Grierson felt closer to home, to his beloved Alice, at hearing young Julia’s voice. Perhaps, it gave him hope that one day this horrible war would be over, the Union would be saved, and he could return home.
And if there was ever proof that we are all connected in this American life, it would be in the instrument Julia played. The pianoforte was made by T. Gilbert & Co., a highly regarded piano factory run by Timothy Gilbert of Boston, Massachusetts, where Julia’s great-great-granddaughter would one day live.
One of Gilbert’s colleagues stated, “His heart is full of musical emotions and sweet harmonies.”
But making pianos wasn’t Gilbert’s mission. His mission, in the name of Christianity, was to help abolish slavery, and his piano factory was one of the largest stations on the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were fed and bandaged. One slave hunter referred to Gilbert as the “grandest abolitionist in Boston.” Friends said “he was as fearless and honest as he was brave.”
Gilbert was known for walking the deserted streets of Boston during the “noon of night” to contemplate the desperate situations of his countrymen. As the bells of his church tolled, he would pause, remove his hat, and say a prayer.
I believe Timothy Gilbert would have been comforted to learn our country’s most violent and deadly war paused for a brief moment on a rainy April day in Mississippi to enjoy the sweet harmonies of a Confederate daughter, a Union general, and a pianoforte manufactured by T. Gilbert & Co.