Sunday, January 23, 2022

Betty Collier Marco Island Pioneer

Ribbons of Ibis by Barbara Ann Malta

The War Between the States – 1860  

Fortunately, my William’s company was stationed at Clearwater, where his duties included observation of the coastline for enemy activities. He regularly crewed the sloop ‘Cate Dale’ to transport officers and to transfer a six-pound cannon and provisions between the signal stations. The ‘Mary’ and the ‘Mollie’ were single sail-rigged boats of approximately thirty feet and each was mounted with a four-pound cannon in its bow. He spent afternoons pouring over the nautical charts of Florida and wrote to me telling me how much he loved sailing the ‘Mollie. 

He was finally mustered into Confederate service as a 46-year-old private. The average Confederate privates were between 18 and 35-yearsold. He hoped to join the newly formed Confederate Navy, but was greatly disappointed to learn that those positions were being filled by younger men, many of whom had seagoing experience, some who had been in the United States Navy. 

Because of his age, education and work experience, he was promoted to 5th Sergeant and commanded over several sergeants and their units, transporting supplies over land. He wrote home saying, “Many of the boys have never been away from home before and singing really helps to keep everybody’s spirits up. Some have taken to drinking and smoking, which you know, I do not generally abide. Many of the boys can’t read and some can only sign an ‘X’ for their name. I have been reading to them and writing letters to their folks at night before lights out. I don’t mind doing it. Some days I feel as if I have gained a dozen more sons. They look up to me to keep them safe and guide them home. They ask me to lead them in prayer. You know I am not big on saying prayers but it seems to help them. And helping them helps me to not miss our boys so much.” 

During the early months of the war, many soldiers on both sides were captured, but neither side had the facilities needed to hold large numbers of captives, so an exchange system was devised. But the exchange system broke down in mid-1863 when more than a thousand former slaves enlisted as soldiers in the United States Colored Troops or as sailors in the Union Navy. The Confederacy refused to treat captured Negro soldiers equal to white prisoners, insisting they be treated as runaway slaves. Without knowing if they had been a slave or been born free, they were usually immediately hung as runaways. 

William would later lament, “As a Christian, I just couldn’t cotton to hanging them like dogs.” 

Submitted Photo | Barbara as The Widow Walker.

Once the exchange program broke down, the prison populations on both sides rapidly soared. Prisoner of war camps became overcrowded and resources were scarce. Food, medical supplies, and medical staff were all concentrated on the war effort, not on prisoners. Sickness was rampant and the death rates on both sides rose rapidly in the prison camps. When the severe winter came, conditions got so bad that there was a massive prisoner exchange of 10,000 soldiers, just to ease the horrible conditions in the prisoner of war camps. 

Suddenly, letters from William stopped coming. I didn’t receive any for several months, and naturally, I went to worrying. Living in a Confederate stronghold, the town was full of sick and wounded soldiers and even deserters came through town looking for a handout. My Papa would go uptown every day to check in with the Quarter Master looking for information about the whereabouts of William. 

Finally, I received a letter from his company commander, informing me that William had been taken prisoner. His unit was captured while guarding a supply train after he led his boys into a Yankee ambush. William later said he felt so bad getting them caught up like that and even worse when he found out that he was going to be released as part of a prisoner exchange. Word spread among his imprisoned boys that ‘the old man,’ as they affectionately called him, was gravely ill and was getting sprung. William’s boys were happy for him, but he felt anguished at the thought of leaving ‘his boys’ behind in those filthy prison conditions. 

The Surgeon’s Certificate of Discharge issued on November 12, 1862, at Knoxville, Tennessee, described William as being 5’ 10” tall with fair complexion, blue eyes, dark hair, and by occupation when he enlisted, an engineer. 

The war went on for three more horrible and devastating years. I was thankful that they sent him home. Like so many, he came home sick, disillusioned, and broken down but I was just thankful he came home. I spent the next three years nursing William back to health. The tuberculosis weakened him so. But our garden was producing and made vegetable soup almost every day. If meat was available, it was so expensive that we often had to go without. Even though we had money left from the sale of the ranch, availability of everything was low. 

William slowly began to get better. His cough subsided and his health improved. But with no way to earn money, we stretched our savings, going without everything but food and our love for each other. I gave birth to our eighth child. We named her Barbara, after my mama and me. She was a symbol of our love and of our future. 

There was an old run-down mill near town and William bought it. The thought was that with the help of our three oldest boys, James, Billy and Benjamin, he could eke out a living selling lumber to the Confederate Army. The purchase was a chance he was willing to take. He used most of the reserve from the sale of our cattle ranch. He was just getting it in shape to start production when it burned down to the ground. As the fire raged on, the smell of kerosene filled the air and we knew the fire had been set deliberately. We weren’t truly safe, even in a Confederate stronghold. The fire was too hot to fight, so we couldn’t get it under control. We were forced to just stand there and watch the fire burn up our investment. The next day we sifted through the ashes trying to save anything of value, no matter how little. We soon realized we had nothing. In fact, we had less than nothing. For the first time in our married life, we had debt! 

The book is available at the Marco Island History Museum Gift Shop, Sunshine Booksellers and the Dolce Mare Chocolate, Gelato and Confections Shop where Barbara presents her other character, The Widow Walker in an educational and entertaining narrative entitled, Unlacing the Lady, in which she portrays a Victorian Lady in full and authentic dress at a Ladies Tea Party and describes each item of clothing as she unlaces, resulting in her modest Victorian chemise, knickers, cotton stockings and high-buttoned shoes.  



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