Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Interview with John S. Hall, the Blind Poet of Ritchie County

Saturday morning I was talking with my mom about Great Uncle John S. Hall, the blind poet of Ritchie County. John was the youngest son of the venerable Halls of Highland, West Virginia, born in 1845. His name came up because the day before I had been in Nashville, flying home from a business trip, she asked about the flooding, and then asked if I had seen the hospital there, which I took as a strange question unrelated to anything. She then explained that great uncle John Hall, who had been overcome with fever during the battle of Murfreesboro in the Civil War, was taken to the Nashville hospital where he would spend five months, either in recovery or transition to the grave.

I thought it might be entertaining and informative to tell his story by means of an imaginary interview today. It's a remarkable story about a remarkable man.

Ennyman: Is it true you were found in a delirium on the side of the road after the Battle of Murfreesboro? Which side were you fighting for and how did you come to be there?

John S Hall: I'm the youngest of five brothers (we had a sister who went on to marry a McGregor) in the northwest region of the State of Virginia but which is no West Virginia. As you know, this great conflict split families right in two and ours was one so divided. Two of my brothers took sides with the North and two with the South. They were all involved in the political wranglings and my two brothers with Northern sympathies actually led the charge in our state legislature to break West Virginia off from Virginia. My oldest brother Leonard was a member of the Richmond Convention that voted for secession. Simon and William took up arms for the North. The youngest, except for me, was Allen and he fought for the South. After the war, when Allen and William compared notes, they found they'd fought against each other in seven different battles!

You can read about the role my brothers played in the secession of West Virginia in Dr. James C. McGregor's book The Disruption of Virginia. (McMillan 1922)

Enny: I'd always heard you ran away from home to join the army when you were fifteen.

JSH: No, I was fifteen when the Civil War broke out. Still a teen when I ran off though. Mom did not want me fighting -- in fact, vehemently opposed it -- so I snuck off at night to join the Teamsters, serving in the Union's Fourth Brigade. It takes a lot of work to supply an army, and I was part of the machinery of war in that way. We were attached to Sherman's army, cutting through Tennessee in the early part of his famous march to the sea. The fighting was bitter because we were on Southern soil at this point, in the heart of Dixie.

Enny: What can you tell us about your experience from there?

JSH: They say I was found in a delirium on the side of the road somewhere outside of Murfreesboro. They say I protested when I was to be taken to that hospital in Nashville. You know the reputations hospitals have. For most of us, it's the last stop, the gateway to the grave.

I was there from the end of October till the middle of May. That's a long time to be laid up. For three months of that period my hands were tied behind my back. I was full of bed sores and quite beside myself.

For some reason there were doctors who took a special interest in my case, because the other six fellows who came in at the time with this condition had all died in two weeks. So the doctors kept checking in on me.

One day, I heard a doctor describing my circumstances to a visiting physician and I felt a gentle hand touch my forehead. I was still in a semi-conscious frame of mind, so it surprised them when I spoke, "That was a soft hand." Someone replied, "Yes! That was the famous Dr. Mary Walker."

Enny: Ultimately, the fever left you blind, but you fully recovered otherwise.

JSH: Yes, the fever had centered in my brain and left me without sight when it finally lifted. Those were frightening days for a boy so long from home. During that time the doctors tried to find out who I was. They didn't know where I had come from, so they didn't know who to contact. And my parents had no idea where their boy was. They hadn't heard from him in many months and feared he'd already found a shallow grave.

Enny: Tell us about Lelia. Didn't you write a poem about your time in the hospital called Lelia and the Silver Charm?

JSH: One of the doctors there, Dr. Francis, had a wonderful daughter who began to visit me, became special to me. She would come to my bedside and read to me, which helped pass the hours. The poem I wrote was later published in The Wetzel Messenger in 1877. You might say it is my way of enshrining her memory.

Enny: How did you finally find your family.

JSH: Someone came across the address of my sister. Maybe there were some things of mine that had been stored, I don't know. They wrote and my family was overjoyed as you can guess. But it was not an easy road, because their son was now blind and in the prime of his youth.

Once home I went away again, to a College for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio, from which I graduated in 1868. It was an influential school. One of my classmates went on to become Chaplain of the House of Representatives in Washington. I studied to be a teacher and which is what I did for seven years after graduation, five of those years in Highland, named after the Scottish Highlands by the McGregors who'd settled in these parts. I also became the first schoolmaster in Cairo, there in West Virginia.

But I had higher ambitions and went to law school and admitted to the bar. This was still not satisfying and in 1878 I started a newspaper called the St. Mary's Observer with Minus P. Prettyman. Three years later I started a second newspaper called The Oracle. The newspapers fulfilled something for me. Being fond of expressing myself through the written word, I ultimately took an early retirement to enjoy my later years surrounded by nature and writing poetry. My book Musings of a Quiet Hour was published in 1907 when I was 62.

Enny: My grandmother said that the first ten years of her life you used to babysit her and recite poetry out on the hills.

JSH: People had to work and it was easy for them to let me watch over their little ones. I remember your grandmother, Elizabeth. She was a very bright child. She really liked to listen when I would recite verse.

Enny: Thank you for your time here today. Your life made an impact on a lot of people, and I number myself among them. Thank you. Any last thoughts?

JSH: Maybe I should close with this...

The softly fading twilight hours
Bring once familiar things to view,
And memory wakes the withered flowers
To beauty and to life anew;

And friends departed gather 'round
To worship here at memory's shrine,
Till all are here on hallowed ground;
Their presence makes life seem divine.

'Tis sweet to sit at eventide
And pensive watch the fading light
In golden silence softly glide,
From weary day to restful night.

And in the quiet evening hour
When silence soothes the world to sleep,
To yield to some mysterious power,
And gently in with childhood creep.

Primary Source: The History of Ritchie County by Minnie Kendall Lowther.


M. Denise C. said...

Ed, What an interesting posting! I am glad you learned so much about this uncle/relative (another creative person in your family) . . . D

Ed Newman said...

Yeah, I wanted to tell his story and kind of had the notion that it would be fun to interview him. Glad you got to see it... Just another example of how attitude helps overcome adversity.
Best to you

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