“A Rather Rattling Kind of Boy”
(Excerpted from Memories of Col. John Amenas Fite: Seventh Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A., 1832-1925;
Edited by John Fite Rebrovick.)
I was born at Alexandria, in Dekalb County, Tennessee, on the tenth day of February, 1832. On my next birthday I will be seventy-eight years old. I have accomplished little so far, and unless I hurry up, I will go out with a small record.
I am the son of Jacob and Matilda Fite, the grandson of Leonard and Peggy Fite, and the great-grandson of Peter Fite. I was born in a house which stood where Byron Bell now lives, on the corner, on the north side of Main Street at the west side of the square in Alexandria.
The first recollection I have was when I was about two years old. My mother told me to call my father to dinner. He was a merchant and had a store just across the street. The next recollection I have was the day we moved from there to the place where Dan Williams now lives.
My father was a strong Methodist. There was a campground about one mile below Alexandria on the creek at which my father always camped. I remember being at the camp meetings. Among other things, I remember old Jonnie Yeargin was one of the leaders. Caleb Davis had been a Methodist preacher and had gone off with the Baptists. He concluded to come back to the Methodists. Every morning about sunup, Brother Yeargin would blow the horn and the people would meet for prayers. One morning after Davis came back from the Baptists, he hollered for Brother Yeargin to blow his horn and said, “Let’s raise a shout!” There was a great rejoicing over the return of Brother Davis to the Methodists.
I remember very distinctly that sometime after that an old fellow by the name of Megan died. He was regarded as a very bad man. Brother Davis preached Megan’s funeral and the only thing that he could say good of him that might get him into heaven was that Megan once gave him a pig. I remember hearing people say that Brother Davis got Megan into Heaven on a scratch.
I am inclined to think that I was a rather rattling kind of a boy.
When I was about seven or eight years old my father owned a small farm out in the country about a mile from town and had on it some old Negroes, Uncle George and Aunt Rhoda. The old woman got sick and my mother went to see her. She took me behind her on the horse, a mare. On the way out, we passed a field that we owned which had corn on it, and there were some cattle in the corn. After we got to the old Negroes’ house, my mother told me to take Uncle George’s dog and get the cows out of the corn.
I had heard the question of whether a dog could outrun a horse. I concluded that this was a good time to try the question. I called the dog and he came a running. I let the mare out, and looking at the dog, I did not notice that the mare got on the wrong side of a gully. When she jumped she fell and knocked what little sense I had out of me.
They saw me from the house and came and got me. When I was able to talk, they asked how it happened and I told them that the mare got scared at an old sow that was lying in the corner of the fence. It turned out that my left shoulder had been knocked out of place. I was kept in the house about two weeks. I think I got out on a Friday.
That Sunday I went with a fellow by the name of Stiles, a kinsman of John Stiles, about two miles down the creek to get a horse book. As we came back, we found some boys swimming in the creek. We went in, too. Monday morning, my father thought I was well enough to go to work, so he told me to go with him and help plant some artichokes. The truth was, I was sick then but I was afraid to say so because I knew I had acted badly on Sunday. But I was soon too sick to work, however, and I told him so. He sent me to the house again. I went to bed and had a good case of the measles. Soon Brother Jim and Edwin were down with it, too, so they put us all in the same bed. At that time, when a fellow had fever, instead of giving him something cold, they gave him hot teas.
While we were thus suffering, my sister was taken violently ill and they thought she was going to die. Father and Mother left us in charge of Lucy, a Negro woman. There was a cold spout spring at the corner of our yard. I made Lucy bring a big gourd and go to the spring and get the gourd full of water, and I drank it. Before morning, I made her get another and I drank that. Jim and Ed begged for some, but she wouldn’t give them any, for she was not afraid of them.
The next morning when Mother came back, Lucy told her. Mother sent for Father, and old Dr. Sneed came, too. When told of what happened, I remember well what he said: “If these children are to be this way, I will not be responsible for them.” Father asked him if we were any worse. He said that he could not see that we were. I said that I was better. Father told the darky to go to the spring and get us all some water, which she did. That broke up the hot tea business in Alexandria.
My brother Jacob and I used to fight every few days. My father got tired of it and told us if we would not quit it he would send us where we would never see one another again. I loved Jake better than any other brother I had. But he was a high-tempered fellow, and it was not long before we had another fight. The next morning, Father had his horse brought out and ordered me to get up behind him. A Negro put me up on the horse and off we went. He carried me up to old Johnnie Collins’ school about a half mile from town. When we got there, he lifted me down and told Collins to take charge of me and rode off. I remember it as well as if it was yesterday. I thought I would surely die. For a few days, Mother would make a darky take a horse and carry me to school. I soon got over it and was delighted with the change. Every boy in town wanted to do it, but I was the only one who went.
About this time a whole lot of boys, of which I was one, went down the road one Sunday morning towards Carthage hunting peaches or anything we could find. We passed the house of an old fellow named Hezekiah Turner. He was a great stutterer and lived about a hundred yards from the road. Between his house and the road, he had a watermelon patch. We could see the melons and we tried to get him to let us have some. He said there was none ripe, so we went on over to his father’s place, where there was a big peach orchard. His father told us we could have all we wanted. We got all we wanted and started back to town.
When we got back to old Hezekiah’s, there was no one in sight, so we concluded that he had gone to church. Two of the biggest boys gave us their peaches to hold and went over into the patch. They thumped the melons to see which were ripe. Hezekiah raised up from behind the fence and, stuttering, said, “I have got you now!” The boys, instead of running through the cornfield, broke for the road, and he caught them. The way he belted them boys with a limb was a sin to Davy Crockett. After we had run off a piece, he called us back and when he saw who we were, he said “I will be in town tomorrow and have every one of you whipped.” I knew very well that my daddy would skin me when he found it out.
It was late in the evening. My grandfather Leonard Fite lived six miles from Alexandria, just across the creek near Dowelltown. I knew my salvation depended on getting to him before father found it out. So I started off toward his place, running a while and then walking a while until I got there. On Tuesday I saw Father coming. I went straight to Grandmother and told her that Father was coming to take me home and beat me to death. I told her what I had done. She told Grandfather. Father visited with them a while, and then on in the evening he told me to have the horse caught and we would go home. Grandfather told him that he must not whip me. He told Grandfather that it was his job to run his own boy, that I needed whipping and that he was sure going to give it to me when he got me home. Grandfather told him that unless he promised not to whip me, he could not take me. Father finally promised. I knew if he promised, he would not do it. I had implicit confidence in his keeping his word. The lecture I got on the way home was certainly a caution, however.
It was soon after this that I went to live with my grandfather. There was no one living with the old couple but his Negroes. He had a good many, among them a boy named Jack. He was about my age, and we used to run together. I could make him do most anything.
My grandparents had a great many chickens. Among other things that Jack and I did, we had to hunt up the eggs. One day Jack somehow fell out of the loft and lodged in the rack that the horses ate hay out of. Some of the darkies came and had to cut some of the rack before he could get out.
Some time after this, Jack and I were down on the creek where we had a dispute about something and he gave me the lie. I ran at him and he fell into the creek where it was over his head. It so happened that Uncle Isaac, an old Negro, was working in the field close by, and he ran over and got Jack out. Jack was squalling, and broke for the house. When we got there, the Negro women raised a howl. There were five or six of them and they were saying that I would be the death of Jack. Grandfather came out and wanted to see what this hullabaloo was about. The Negroes told him that I had knocked Jack in the creek and that if Isaac hadn’t saved him, he would have drowned. Grandfather told them that if they did not get into the house and get to work, he would break their heads.
My Uncle John Fite lived about a quarter mile down the creek below my grandfather. Just below Uncle John’s there is a high bluff, and between the bluff and the creek is a field. It was in corn. On top of the bluff was a loose boulder five or six feet square, and it looked as if it was ready to tumble off.
One Sunday, Uncle John’s boys and I and Grandfather’s Negro boys went on the bluff and concluded to push the boulder off to see it roll down the bluff. We worked at it for some time but failed to move it. We sent a boy to the house to get an axe. We cut prize poles, and after we worked at her for a long time, off she went, and such a go…………………! As it went down the bluff it tore small trees and made an immense noise. It then struck Uncle John’s fence and knocked down twenty-five or thirty panels and landed near the middle of the field. We were very much alarmed and broke from there. I went home.
Not long after I saw Uncle John coming to Grandfather’s. He was hot. He told on us and said he was going to whale the whole lot. Grandfather told Uncle John that he could whip his own boys if he wanted to, but he could not whip me or his Negroes. He said that he had often noticed that boulder and wished that he had turned it over, that he would have liked to see it roll down the bluff himself. I passed there a few years ago, and that boulder is still lying there in Uncle John’s old field.
My grandfather got his mail at Liberty, about two miles from his place. He often sent me for his mail. Between our house and Liberty, Uncle Mose Fite lived on the creek. He had a fish trap on the creek just above the ford. One day as I went down for the mail, I saw some fish in the trap, so I concluded to get a few on my way back. The trap was in sight of Uncle’s house.
About the time I got the fish strung, he saw me and hollered at me. I jumped on my horse and lit for home, but I held on to my fish. That evening, I saw Uncle Mose coming to our house. I felt sure he was going to larrup me. I went to Grandmother, as usual, for protection. She went to the old gentleman and told him I had confessed. He said that he didn’t come to hurt me. He asked me how many I got and told me it was all right, for me to get them whenever I wanted to.
I think this about winds up my devilment while living at Grandfather’s. Not long after this, my grandparents moved out to my father’s.
John Amenas Fite (1832-1925) grew up on his family’s farm in Alexandria, Tennessee, southeast of Nashville. His at turns rolicking and poignant memoiir was dictated and typewritten late in his nearly century-long life. He was the youngest child of a large, pioneering family. He seems to have had a knack for showing up at the right place at the right time to witness and to make history. And he had the gift of gab to tell the story well, especially his adventures as a “rather rattling kind of boy” ranging over the countryside in the slave-holding antebellum South, his challenges as a young lawyer in Carthage, Tennessee, and his experiences fighting for the Seventh Tennessee attached to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia all the way up to Gettysburg, where he was captured and spent the duratioin of the wary in an infamous Union prison. His memoir is fun reading and rich history.