THE GUNPOWDER GALS
I have decided to write down my account of what happened in that fateful year of
1864 and to deposit it in a sealed envelope with our family's lawyers. Tomorrow
is the first day of the twentieth century and I will leave instructions with the
papers that they may not be unsealed until another hundred years has passed. My
descendents may then finally learn the strange truth about how they came to be.
There is certainly much shame in the account but perhaps matters which
seem important now will not seem so important then. Perhaps it may even be that
American men will regard American women as truly free and equal in all human
activities, even the procreative ones. Alas though, I feel that many times a
hundred years must pass before our society can change to such an extent.
Yet although I cannot hope to know what the future holds I can at least be
sure that the great waters of the Missouri river will still be flowing. The
river was my constant companion for many years when I grew up in Kansas, and
again when I crossed the border into Missouri state to become a teacher in the
village of Stony Creek.
Lacking the gift of prophecy, all I can do is to pray on my knees that,
whatever fate may have befallen my descendents, in the year 2000 the glorious
flag of our God given Union will still flutter bravely above every settlement
along the banks of the mighty Missouri. For I remember all too well when for a
day and a night the Stars and Stripes proudly flying above Stony Creek were
ursurped by the iniquitous banner of the Southern Rebels.
It was what I did during those few strange hours that I feel I must
explain, lest dark rumors still linger about my memory. I - and the other
village women - did what we did because that was the way the fortunes of war
fell out for us. In 1861 the mad dogs of the Confederacy dared to fire on Fort
Sumter and in time their rabid bites sent the whole country as mad as
themselves. Can we be blamed for acting out an insanity when we found ourselves
trapped in an insane situation?
Let those who wish to sit in judgement read my story first, and then ask
themselves what they would have done under the same circumstances.
The chalk scratched on the blackboard as Miss Shilling carefully wrote the
date on it, 'October 17th, 1864'. Then, in the top center of the board she wrote
'TRIGONOMETRY'. Finally, underneath the word, she drew the outline of a tree.
When she turned around her class was still waiting dutifully, neither of the
boys or girls daring to indulge in any horseplay even when her back was turned.
Amanda Shilling was an imposing figure, very tall for a female, with a
full figure which caused many an admiring male eye to linger on the generous cut
of her bodice and the trim dimensions of her hips. In fact it was widely agreed
amongst the men of Clayton County that School Ma'am Shilling was just about the
beatingest thing to come down the river in a coon's age. Selectman Jenkins had
spoken for all of his gender at the regular Saturday night cock fight a week
after her arrival: "She's a great young gal, that one. Shaped like a real woman
and as handsome as Cleopatra, you bet. Yes, sirree, she's a huckleberry above
most peoples' persimmons. Gonna be a real lucky man that she sets her cap at."
In the weeks since her arrival Amanda had not picked out any of her many
male admirers for any special signs of favor but the general liking for her in
the village had continued to increase. Respectable but not high-faluting, a
strong disciplinarian but a well gifted teacher, never one to flaunt her good
looks but happy to be sociable with all. In only one way had she upset some of
the population of Stony Creek, and that was in her fervent support of the
Northern cause. Yet she certainly wasn't alone in that regard because both the
secessionist and abolitionist states had their ardent supporters along the banks
of the Missouri. Like so many other settlements in the area Stony Creek was
split almost fifty-fifty between Jayhawks and Separatists.
"Now, children, look at the word on the board. Trigonometry: it sounds
strange but all it's saying is that we're going to study triangles. You are
probably wondering what could be interesting about triangles but they can be
very useful in solving problems. For example, you've seen the tree I've drawn on
the board. Now suppose it was a very tall tree and you wanted to measure how
high it was without having to climb it. Can anybody tell me how you could do
Silence from the rows of well scrubbed faces.
"Very well." Amanda picked up a ruler. "Imagine that the sun is shining
and the tree is casting a shadow. I draw one line straight down the side of the
tree and another straight line across from it to show how long the shadow is.
When we measure the shadow of the tree we find it is sixty feet long. But, of
course, shadows get shorter and longer depending on where the sun is in the sky,
so how can that help us?"
Again there was silence in the class room but a long drawn out howl from a
riverboat's siren called out to the village from the river. Mildly surprised,
Amanda walked across to the window and looked out at the steam packet churning
up the muddy water near the landing with its paddle wheels. Certainly the
Henrietta P. Johnson, but arriving two days earlier than on its normal schedule,
with several blue shirted soldiers visible on the lower deck and with a large
red flag flying above the Texas deck.
A chair scraped behind one of the desks as a boy stood up. "Yes, Ma'am?"
"Why is the Henrietta coming in today, Samuel?"
"Been chartered by the bluebellies - sorry, Ma'am, I mean the army. The
Union army that is." Samuel was proud of his special source of knowledge as the
wharfinger's son, as much as he was obviously influenced by his father's
"She's carrying supplies to General Blunt's men at Lexington?"
"Supposed to be, Ma'm, but the Rebs have gotten clustered up around
Lexington like mountain men around a keg of whiskey. Ain't no way the captain of
the Henrietta is going down river to Lexington with that powder aboard her."
"Powder?" Amanda looked around at her pupil, rising fourteen and standing
so tall he was almost eye to eye with her. "You mean gunpowder?"
Samuel was shyly smiling at this reversal of their usual roles and
reveling in the pleasure of being a source of information to his teacher.
"Why yes, Ma'm, twenty tons of it according to the bill of lading we was
sent. If it's on board she'll be flying a red danger flag."
"Yes, there is a red flag. There are some soldiers on board as well."
Samuel nodded knowingly: "That'll be the army fire guard, Ma'am. To make
sure nobody smokes anywhere near those powder kegs. And I daresay my Pa will be
searching every wharf rat before he lets any of them start work unloading the
Henrietta. He'll have his cudgel in his hand and he's said he'll break the skull
of any man found carrying a pipe, 'baccy or loco-focos onto the landing stage."
"Really? The gunpowder is that dangerous?"
Samuel Trent came as close to openly laughing in the classroom as he'd
ever done since Miss Shilling had arrived. "Why, Ma'am, one spark in the wrong
place and the Henrietta would get blown so high the pieces could still be
falling come Christmas. Leastways, that's what my Pa says."
"Thank you, Samuel, you can sit down again. Now, we were talking about how
to find the height of the tree. As I said, just measuring the shadow tells us
nothing. So what we might do is to take a stick and carefully cut off three feet
of it. Then we put it in the ground, burying it for a depth of one foot. If the
stick is three feet long and one foot is in the ground, how much would be left
above the ground? Anybody?"
There were plenty of eager hands held aloft: "Teddy Smith?"
"Two feet, Ma'am."
"Quite right. Now suppose we measured the shadow the stick was casting and
it was four feet long. Can anybody tell me what the ratio would be between the
length of the shadow and the length of the stick? Yes, Elizabeth?"
"The shadow is twice as long, Ma'am."
"Exactly. So if we measure the tree's shadow at that very same moment and
it's sixty feet long, then how tall must the tree be?"
"Thirty feet, Ma'm."
Elizabeth Manders was almost always the first to answer any difficult
question. A pity that she was only a girl from a poor family with no hope of
ever being anything more than a village school teacher. Which was precisely
Amanda Shilling's own predestinated fate until she chose to abandon even that
modest degree of ambition by agreeing to love, honor and obey some byre
smelling, muddy booted farmer for the rest of her life.
"Quite right. Now suppose there was a church steeple nearby and you knew
that the top of the steeple was forty feet above the ground. How long a shadow
would it be . . ."
Her lesson was abruptly interrupted by a pounding of hooves, ululating
screams, the sound of shots being fired nearby. The school marm looked out at
the window again, but this time no further than the muddy street beside the
school horse. A dozen horses were galloping down it in a solid mass, their
riders whooping and firing carbines and pistols into the air and the few
citizens of Stony Creek who were abroad scurrying to get clear of the onrushing
charge. Amanda thought at first that she was witnessing an attempt to raid the
township's bank, until she realized the men were wearing uniforms, some of the
jackets a dull gray, others dyed buttercup brown. All of the riders also had on
kepi styled flat hats.
"Lord, save us, they're Johnny Rebs!"
Amanda was astonished. Certainly, she'd seen plenty of Confederate troops
before - in the early days of the Rebellion the entire Missouri state militia
had enlisted in the Southern cause. But that had been long ago, in the heady
days of Rebel pride and confidence. Now General Grant was hammering the
Secessionists' homeland into ruins and the Rebs should have had enough to worry
about without making a futile attempt to recapture lost territory along the
Missouri. In any case General Sterling's Confederate troops were supposed to be
at Lexington, just as Samuel Trent had said, and Lexington was at least a day's
ride away. This must be a small raiding party of cavalry, the kind of lawless
insurgents whom had made the border areas of Kansas and Missouri such places of
misery even before the war had begun.
"Damn their eyes!"
Amanda checked herself guilty as she realized her muttered oath might have
been heard by the tender ears of the children. What sort of feather head was
she, to swear a vile curse in her own classroom just because of a few marauding
"Class, pay attention. It seems that some soldiers have ridden into
village and it maybe that I shall choose to send you home early. But I think it
better that you stay here for the time being, until things settle down. Yes,
"Are they Rebs, please, Ma'm?"
"I do believe so, Samuel."
The boy was clearly pleased. "Ma'm, I just bet they saw the danger flag
flying on the Henrietta and came down to grab her powder for their own army."
Amanda felt her legs trembling. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings
came wisdom. It might well be that it was the sight of the red flagged
side-wheeler arriving which had bought the grayback cavalry sweeping down to the
village and towards the landing stage. Enemy soldiers, and twenty tons of
gunpowder in their hands! But there was nothing to be done about it for the time
being and the children would be better off kept occupied in the school house
until calm was restored. Which shouldn't take long, as soon as the Confederates
discovered that the town was defenseless
"Class, please copy out the drawing on the blackboard."
The children picked up their own chalks and began drawing on their slates.
Amanda walked up the aisle between the desks, lips pursed and teeth gritted at
the chorus of squeaky, scratchy sounds which always annoyed her so much. It
would be a wonderful thing to teach in a school which could afford paper and
pens for every lesson.
Then the irritation of the slates ceased because of the sound of a horse
neighing in the street and a man's rough voice calling out: "Hey, in the school
house there, let's see your hides."
A glance through the nearest window showed three cavalry soldiers outside,
all looking at the schoolhouse, carbines casually resting on their saddles and
pointed at the building. Fury brewed up inside Amanda in a red hot stream at the
thought of her class being threatened by the slave owning ruffians. A desperate
desire to show her contempt for them and their ragamuffin Rebel uniforms made
her careless of the menacing firearms. With a firm resolve she swept back
quickly down the room, her long skirts rustling against the children's desks.
Behind her own desk was the patriotic emblem of her country, a large United
States flag. She unhooked it, draped it around her, then threw open the door and
stepped out onto the verandah.
IN THE MEMBERS SECTION