Some who follow both my blog and the Emerging Civil War Blog may be familiar with my first guest post, back in 2020, which discussed the life and war experiences of Delity Powell Kelly, a child who followed her father’s artillery company at the young age of 10. For those who haven’t read about her, he’s a link to the article on ECW.
Since I’ve been working at the University of West Florida’s Historic Trust, I’ve had plenty of downtime to burrow through the archives for anything new or interesting that I could apply to research or my schoolwork. I can’t describe my excitement when one day, I found an entire folder dedicated to Delity. In it contained her personal testimony of her wartime experiences, as well as a few transcribed songs like “The Sword of Lee” and “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely”. This valuable primary source is a compliment to her pension application, which I based much of my previous research on. What she wrote sheds new light on her feelings toward the war she couldn’t escape, the Union she resisted, and the Confederacy in which she believed. It added a more personal side to Delity that I wasn’t able to see through formal applications or testimonies. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, I wanted to share some of her story. While she was literate, her spelling, grammar, and utter lack of punctuation can be difficult to read.
I would like to give some of the experience of the Civil War. I went in it in the first year it started witch[sic] was in 1861 oh that cruel war begun. Been in many battles and on the firled wading in blood and as soon as the battle would cease fireings I would go on the battle field and the wounded and dieing men on the field. I would take the canteen [off] thire neck and run to some round or to where I could get watter and thire I would fill the canteent and run back to theas wounded men and give them watter to drink. I would hold thire head up with one hand and give them drink with the other and at the same time I was standing in blood it running under my feet at the same time I was hungry , had nothing to eat at that time But parched corn. I was at Balldon [Baldwin] Florida at that time hear come in to Balldon Seemore [General Truman Seymore] and Gilmore [General Quincy Gilmore] [army] and as I had been captured the night before and go away from them that night and walked to Balldon the same night. Next morning I was in Balldon florida, I walked a bouat 10 miles I think aney way it was from what was called the white house I was captured that night thire. But I got away from them that nigh and went to Balldon and next morning just as I was going in to Balldon I look behind me and what I seen was Seemore and Gillmore army coming in to Balldon. I run in to Balldon and thire was the confeddrate soulders all sleeping a bouat the rail road and I run a round and waked them all up and saved thire lives of I don’t know how many hundred mens lives and Seemore men seen me what I done and he had Darkies and they put me in the yard house and keep me thire a month and 14 days and what was give me to eat was rice and not one grain of salt in it I had a pille of green moss to sleep on while I was in the yard house and the windows in that yard house was just old shutters and at the bottom of them was whear getting rotten and I found a old [?] file and I little by little keep on ever once in a while work on them windows and one night the gard that was put thire to watch me thay left and went to the Rebel lines so I got my old file and went to work on the window and all at once the window was so I could pull it down and I did and I did get it down. I got to the rail road track and I looked up and down to see if I could see aney one and I could not see aney one as it was I think a bouat 3 oclock in the morning and keep on going until I found a road I did not no whear it went to but I keep on going and I was so hungry I began to get week. But I went on and it was night by this time I come to a house and I stopped and ask them people to pleas give me just a little peace of bread and that did give me something to eat and all so give me some bread and some sweet potatos tied up in a cloth and went on the road a gain.
After her harrowing escape, Delity claimed she traveled 114 miles north into Georgia before taking a train back south to Lake City, just west of Olustee. She arrived in time to experience the battle and said she “came out of that battle with 13 holds[sic] in my uniform.” As in other engagements, she spent her time giving water to the wounded. She described the burying of the dead in a mass grave, wrapping the bodies in blankets.
After this, Delity’s testimony starts to become a little incredulous. She claimed she was with the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on the day of surrender. This seems a bit of a stretch, since Delity had followed her father with his artillery company, which never served in Virginia. It’s also odd that no where in her testimony does she mention her family, though she said that her mother was with her during the escape from Baldwin in her pension application. It’s likely that she retold some of the stories from Appomattox from memory of what she learned after the war, such as Lee reclining under an apple tree and said apple tree being cut up and sold as relics of the war. It’s even more problematic to entertain the idea that she was in Virginia, since she then proceeds to tell of how she was captured at Savannah, Georgia, right afterwards by General William T. Sherman. Even if this was true, her narrative is way out of order. Sherman was in Savannah until early 1865 – having arrived on December 10, 1864 – and she claimed that she was a captive of his for a month and 14 days. This was before Appomattox, and she claimed that Sherman sent her on a gunboat to Charleston, South Carolina. It’s difficult to suspend disbelief to think a young girl could have gone from Florida to Savannah to Charleston and then Appomattox by herself, if she wasn’t with her parents or an army regiment. Then again, her last line admits that she was 85 years old, which can explain some lapse in her memories or discontinuity in the narrative.
The language she uses also gives hint to the budding Lost Cause ideology, as she wrote, “to think that we had suffered so maney years with hungry and cold and then to no good from it we was just over powdered for thire was never braver men that ever faced a cannon mouth then thaes men that wore the gray on the banks of the Appomattox.” However, it’s clear from her writings that she loved and had great admiration for the South and the cause for which it fought. Though fraught with spelling and grammatical errors, Delity’s story is just one piece of a much larger puzzle as historians work to understand the lives of civilian women during the Civil War.
“Delity Powell Kelly” Folder, University of West Florida Historic Trust Archives, Pensacola, FL, Accessions 2016.035.0007 – .0022