Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

Tale of Two Brave Women

The Lightning will add chapters of the Tale of Two Brave Woman series after we publish in the print issue.

* * * * *

Several years ago my cousin and neighbor, Mack Gillespie, handed me a faded seven-page typescript. He said a relative had given it to him. Dated 1890, the short but amazing memoir was written by Mary Middleton Orr and titled, “The Experiences of a Soldier’s Wife in the Civil War.” Born in 1843 to Kinson Middleton (1818-1885) and Narcissus Beck Middleton (1827-1907), Mary Middleton married Robert Franklin Orr IV. At the date of the memoir, Mary was mother of 17 children! Only nine had survived at the time. In 1864, Mary Orr, 24, and her mother, 37, decided to walk from Transylvania County to Knoxville, Tennessee, to join their Union soldier husbands. They would be traveling through dangerous Confederate held territory. Here begins the remarkable story in Mary’s own words. — Jere Brittain, the Lightning’s West of the French Broad columnist



Memoir of the Civil War, 1890

Chapter 1

Robert F. Orr and I were married in January, 1862. In the fall of the same year he was taken to the Confederate army, and stayed there until, in the spring of 1863, he ran away and came home. He said he would not go back to the Confederate army, and stayed at home until in the fall, when they made up a company of about seventy-five or 100 men and went to the “Yankees” as we called them. I begged him not to go in the army any more; but he told me not to say a word to him, for he had been driven from his home and he intended to fight his way back, which he did.
So I was left alone. My father also went with Robert F. to the Yankees; my mother was left too, with nine children and I with one child; that made twelve of us in all. My mother was poor and times were hard and she could not keep me. My father-in-law, who lived in Transylvania County, heard that I was alone and sent a wagon for me and moved me to his house.
I went to my father-in-law in March, 1864, and stayed there until the middle of August, when, as my sister-in-law and I were out milking, we saw a crowd coming. We were frightened; it was something uncommon to see a crowd unless it was soldiers, for people were afraid to travel, times were getting so close. But when they came up, we saw it was my mother and the children. It was about sixteen miles to where they lived in Henderson County. My father had sent her word through the lines to come to him if she could get there, if she brought nothing except the children and what they had on their backs. So she had sold or given away all she had and was on her way to Knoxville, Tennessee, to the Yankees.
Now when she told me where she had started I was amazed. I was almost speechless for a moment to think of my condition — my husband gone to the Yankees and my mother started. It was near sundown when they came. I said, “Mother, I am going with you, for we will all starve or be killed here.” She said, “Mary, I am not going to tell you to go or stay, for I don’t know what will happen to us before we get through; though I would be glad of your company.”
Now you may guess I did not sleep much, for my thoughts ran fast. I just had until day to make up my mind. When morning came I had made up my mind to go. My father-in-law said, “Mary you can’t go; you will take that baby away and starve him to death.”
I said, “Yes, I will go. My husband is there and my mother is going, and the Rebs will starve us to death, and what do I want to stay here for?”


Chapter 2

Several years ago my cousin and neighbor, Mack Gillespie, handed me a faded seven-page typescript. He said a relative had given it to him. Dated 1890, the short but amazing memoir was written by Mary Middleton Orr and titled, “The Experiences of a Soldier’s Wife in the Civil War.” Born in 1843 to Kinson Middleton (1818-1885) and Narcissus Beck Middleton (1827-1907), Mary Middleton married Robert Franklin Orr IV. At the date of the memoir, Mary was mother of 17 children! Only nine had survived at the time. In 1864, Mary Orr, 24, and her mother, 37, decided to walk from Transylvania County to Knoxville, Tennessee, to join their Union soldier husbands. They would be traveling through dangerous Confederate held territory. — Jere Brittain, the Lightning’s West of the French Broad columnist
Memoir of the Civil War, 1890
Chapter 2


Father-in-law left the house; he could not bear to see me start. Mother said, “Now, Mary, if you go with us I will make a pilot out of you, for you have more tongue than I.” So we started up the river through the rough country called Pinkbed Mountain, and traveled one day in that direction. But we made only about eight or nine miles, for we came to the river and had no way to cross except to wade. We all sat down on the bank and pulled off our shoes and waded, thinking that a rough job. We put on our shoes again and traveled about one mile when we came to the river again, pulled off and waded again, and so on until we crossed the river eight times, though we quit pulling off our shoes and went in shoes and all.
We arrived at Luke Osteen’s just at dark. Next day it rained all day, and we had to stay another day and night. They told us there that we could not get through the mountains with all those children. That almost put us out of heart; but we started back the next morning and were told how to keep from wading the river and how to go to the left of Asheville to keep from being taken up by the Confederate soldiers.
We came back in two miles of my father-in-law’s about sundown and stayed at George Orr’s that night. My father-in-law heard we were there and he was not satisfied. He came by sun-up next morning to see if I was in the notion to go back. He came in at the gate as I was at the pump washing my face. He said, “Mary are you going back?” “No sir,” I said. “I didn’t start to go back. I am going to Knoxville if I don’t starve or get killed on the way.”
My little boy, just 19 months old, ran up to him, for he thought a heap of his grandfather. “Well, Mary,” said my father-in-law, “I don’t want any hardness; but if you will go, you shall not take this child,” and he picked up the child as he said it. I cannot tell what I felt. If you have a child, think how you would feel if someone would step up and say, “You shall not have it any longer unless you follow me.”
I begged and cried until George Orr, at whose house we spent the night, ran through the hall into the kitchen to keep me from hearing him. I went to the kitchen where he was and asked him to go to my father-in-law and take the child from him. He said no, he would have nothing to do with it. As I went back to the gate, his wife said to me, “Mary, there are enough of you to take it from him.” So I started and asked Mother to come and help me. Father-in-law ran down the road and I thought he was gone. I fell at the gate and begged and cried until the child got scared and began crying too. The old man could not stand that; he put the child down, and it ran back to me and put its little arms around my neck to make me quit crying. The old man said, “I would not have put it down if I had not thought you would be fool enough to kill yourself.”

Chapter 3


George Orr told us to go right through Asheville instead of going around, and to get Col. Palmer to give us a pass to go to Knoxville. I thought that a big mouthful-to step up to a Rebel colonel and ask for a pass, but we had set our heads to go through if we could get there by the help of the Master Who keeps us all.

We were two days getting to Asheville. The sun was an hour high when we got there and, before we had time to think where we were, we ran right up on the Rebel guards and they halted us. I was scared almost to death, but tried to hold up my head. I asked them where Col. Palmer was. They pointed to a flight of stairs on the left and said that his office was there. We all strolled up the steps and got to the door.
There were four or five men around in the room writing. I asked where Col. Palmer was. They said he would be up in a minute. He came and we told our business, that we wanted a pass to go to Knoxville. Palmer said, “What in the hell do you want to go there for?” I told him we were going to get something to eat. He then asked where our men were, and I thought we were gone up. I had two brothers in the crowd, twelve and fourteen years old and large for their age. The Confederates had already taken the sixteen year old boys, and I was afraid my brothers would be taken.
As I have said, my husband, Robert F. Orr, ran away from the Rebs in the spring. Soon after that, Folk’s Battalion was captured by the Yankees. So I told Palmer that Folk’s Battalion had been captured and that I had not heard from my man since. I made it appear that he was captured in that battalion. So they began to count us. The little children, tired out, were all huddled down on the floor. He counted us over twice and said, “I reckon I will have to let you go; it will take a heap of corn to feed these little children.” He turned round to one of his men and said, “John, write a pass for Mrs. Middleton, three grown daughters, and eight children.” Middleton was my mother’s name.
You may guess I felt free when I got that pass. I took it in my hand and felt like a bird out of a cage. By this time it was near sundown, and the next problem was where we were going to stay all night. When we came out on the street, someone told us there was a man by the name of Mathers that they thought we could stay with. He lived half a mile to the right of Asheville. So we marched double quick until we got there. Mother and the children stayed at the edge of the yard while I went up to the door and asked if we could stay all night.
“How many are there?” Mrs. Mather said. “Twelve,” I said. “Oh no; I can’t keep so many.” I turned to go, thinking that we were bound to stay out that night when she called to me and said, “What is your name?”
I said, “My name is Orr; my mother’s name is Middleton.” She jumped out at the door and said, “Hold on. What Middleton? It’s not Kinson’s wife is it?”
I said, “Yes.” Mother stepped in the yard. Mrs. Mather threw her arms around mother’s neck and said, “Why, Sis, you know I will let you stay, if you have to lie on the floor.

Chapter 4

Though they (the Mathers family, where the sojourners had stayed the night) were Rebs, I was never treated better in my life; and they did not charge us a cent. Mr. Mather also told us that Col. Palmer was bound to give us something to eat if we asked for it. So I sent my two brothers back to him and got a supply of such as he had — corn meal, rice and salt. And he said if we would wait until noon we could have some beef.
But we did not wait. We carried our corn down to Madison County and swapped it for flour. We tried to keep a little rations on hand all the time, so when we came to a place where they would not give us anything to eat but would let us stay in the house, we could cook our own rations. We were two days going from Asheville to Marshall. We stayed there one night at a Mrs. Bailey’s. There was a man in Marshall who took us for tramps; but although we were nothing but a crowd of women and children, we let him know better. After he found out we were not to be fooled with, he seemed to be very sorry for us and wanted to help us. But we were so angry with him we would not have any of his help.
We traveled about eight miles next day. When night came we were five miles from where anyone lived. We knew we would have to lie out that night, and we had nothing to eat except a piece of bread about the size of my hand for each of us. There was a little house on the other side of the river. The river was on one side of the road, so we could not get to the house. We came to a patch of corn. I said, “Mother, we never have stolen anything yet. But now here is a corn patch and we will have some roasting ears. I felt mean about it, for maybe the corn belonged to some very poor man. There was a house about two hundred yards from the corn patch, and no one lived in it. So we took our headquarters there that night, all wet from the rain that fell that day.
Mother had a few matches in her pocket. We struck all of them but one, and no fire. At last I took our pass out of my pocket and got the paper it was wrapped in and the fire started with the last match. We all had a suit of clothes besides the ones we had on. We put them under our heads and lay on the floor and kept the fire all night.
Next day we traveled until two or three o’clock, when we came to someone’s house and got something to eat. We thought we were now among strangers. The woman asked who we were and where we were going. When I told her my mother’s name, she said, “Why Sis, is that you?” We sure had a little meeting. She was one of my mother’s schoolmates.


Chapter 5


We had to show our pass at Big Ivy. It was the only time we were asked to show it. We got within one or two miles of the Paint Mountain, and it rained the hardest rain I think I ever saw fall. We came to a house after we had got awfully wet, and we thought we would go in till the rain stopped. We went in the hall, not seeing anyone. Directly there came a woman with a pail of water, and I told her we thought we would stop a minute out of the rain. She never made any reply, but began to wash the floor where our clothes dripped. We certainly got out of there. We got in the big road, and one of my sisters turned at the gate and just preached their funeral until we had to make her stop. We didn’t know what kind of people they were.

By this time the rain was over but the road was full of water. We got about one half mile away from that house when we looked back and saw four men on horses coming from the direction of that house as hard as they could. I said, “We are gone up now.” I knew it was the Rebs. I told my sister to hold her tongue now, for that was why those Rebs were coming after us. They halted us and asked us where we were going, and we told them. They said, “Haven’t you mail, carrying through?” We said, “No.” They said, “We must search you, for we have heard lots of people say no and have found lots of mail with them.” So they got off their horses and searched our bundles and the little boys’ pockets, and went back.

We soon got to Paint Creek, and it was up. We were already wet, and we packed up the least children and waded up to our waist in water. We crossed Paint Mountain that evening and stayed that night with a man at the foot of the mountain. They were Rebs, but they treated us very well, though we could see that they did not like us. It was hot weather. We went to bed, our clothes all wet, got up the next morning, put on our wet clothes and started again.

We traveled until about one o’clock, when it came another rain as big as ever. This time we stopped before it began to rain. Oh what a rain! It washed away fences and everything as it went. We had to stay there all night. They were very poor people; they could not furnish us any beds to lie on or anything to eat except roasting ears. We gave them forty cents for one dozen roasting ears and slept on the floor. They gave us wood to keep a fire all night, and about midnight fire popped out on me and burned through my clothes. You may guess I woke and did not sleep much more.

Next morning we started bright and early on our journey. The road was filled with logs and brush, so we had to travel slowly to get along. We almost got out of heart for five or six miles. Next we came to the mouth of Chucky River. We had to cross it in a canoe. I thought we were at the end of our journey, for I knew we would get drowned. Some of us had never been in a canoe, but we had to do something. So I began to holler over and over.

Chapter 6


It was about half an hour before anyone came.  At last an old Negro woman came and said she could not take all of us at once, so I took my child and three of the brothers and sisters and went over all right.  I felt safe myself.  But when I looked back to the other side my heart ached for fear some of us would be left in the water.  The old Negro got about half way over the next time and ran against a snag of some sort that threw her in the river.  But she bounced in and grabbed the pole and went to the other side all right and brought the rest across.

We felt as if we had been let out of jail and went our way rejoicing.  We traveled about two miles when we heard someone shout.  We looked behind on the side of the hill in the woods and saw six men coming on horseback at full speed.  They came up and spoke to us and asked where we were going.  We said we were going to Knoxville.  They said, “Go on; we will soon be there too.”  And on they went.  They turned off to the left after they passed us, so we thought we were free again.

We stayed at a rich man’s house that night, two miles from Morristown.  He did not want us to stay, but we begged him.  We told him we did not want to stay out, and we would do our own cooking if he would let us have the use of his cooking vessels, and we would sleep on the floor.  So they said we could stay.  They were Rebs and did not have much to say to us.

Next morning we traveled a short distance when we saw four men coming toward us.  I said, “Mother, I believe that’s Yankees.”  Sure enough, when they came up they asked us where we were from and we told them North Carolina.  One of them said, “I told you so.”  They asked where we were going and we told them and they all waved their hats and wished us good luck.  We asked them if they were Yankees.  They said they were, and we told them we were not afraid of them as we had been of the Rebs we saw the day before.  They said we need not fear any more, for we were in Yankeedom.

I cannot describe my feelings; I felt so relieved and safe.  We aimed to take the train at Morristown.  But when we got there, there had been a big battle at Knoxville.  The Rebs had lost, and as they fled back up the railroad they tore up the crossties, piled them in heaps and set them afire.  They were still burning when we got to Morristown.  You may guess that was a sight for us, for we had never seen a railroad before-then to see it burning and knock us out of our ride.

We walked the railroad to Flat Creek, within thirteen miles of Knoxville.  The train ran to Flat Creek; that was as far as it could go.  I forgot to state at the outset that my mother sold all that she had for Confederate money, except one cow that she sold for $15.00 in silver.  She gave $3.00 of that for a ride to Knoxville from Flat Creek.

Chapter 7

We stayed all night at Flat Creek.  Next morning we were all anxious to see the train coming.  We went out to the station, and the train came.  We all got in as soon as it stopped, for they told us it would not stop long.  The little boys, my brothers, were so taken off with the sight that they ran from one window to the other until the train whistled, and then such a scared set you never saw.  They started for their seats and fell down as they went.

I have talked of being out of heart on our way, but we never really got out of heart until then.  My father had gone to the Yankees.  But instead of going in the army as my husband did, he rented a farm in three miles of Knoxville and made a crop of corn, beans, molasses and such.  We aimed to go to him.  But there we were in Knoxville and knew not which road to go to find him.  We went three miles on several roads.

We asked everybody we met on the street, until I got ashamed to ask any more, if they knew anyone by the name of Middleton.  At last, near night, one man told us to go to the provost marshal and he would tell us what to do.  So we went and found him, or at least his headquarters.  They told us there that we would have to prove our loyalty before we could get anything.

We told him that there was no one here that we knew until we could find father.  So he wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to us.  He told us to go to the relief society, give it to them, and they would give us something to eat.  He showed us where to go.  We went.  They read the paper and we told them we had just come and did not know where to go.  They gave us some flour, rice, sugar, salt, coffee, and soda, and told us to go to the Bell house on Main Street, which had one hundred rooms in it, and we would find a vacant room and could occupy it.

We went and found the room; the rest of the house was filled with what they called refugees.  One woman met us at the door and found out what we wanted.  She said, “What the devil do you want to come here for?  This is the nastiest place I ever saw in my life.  They have whooping cough, measles, mumps, and everything that’s nasty.”

We turned around and sat down on a bench by the well at the edge of the yard.  It was nearly sundown.  I could not bear to go on.  Mother and I began to cry.  Two soldiers stepped up. They seemed sorry for us and asked what was the matter.  We told them we were not used to staying in such a hole as that.  They told us it was so near night they could not do anything for us.  But if we could stay there till morning they knew of a home about a half mile from there they could get for us.  So we stayed.

Chapter 8


Next morning these soldiers came and told us they had been and got us a room in that home and they went with us and loaned us two blankets to use a while.  I felt like I was home with Yanks camped all around us and every store house full of food.  We had left our little town, Hendersonville, empty, not a yard of cloth nor a pound of coffee in it. There was not much to eat in the country, nobody to make anything except women and children.  I concluded at last to advertise for father, so I wrote a little piece and took it to the printing office.

We stayed there five days.  One day there came a man who said he heard we were from North Carolina and thought we might be some of his neighbors. But we were not.  I told him my husband’s name.  He said he knew him.  Said his tent was joining my husband’s at Cumberland Gap.  The man said his name was Henderson and he was discharged from the army on account of bad health.  And he told me where I might write, so I wrote a letter that night.  He also told me where I might find Father.

One of my sisters and I started next morning to find him. We went through Knoxville and asked for a pass to get out of town.  They told me it was against orders to give anyone a pass without proving their loyalty.  I told them my condition and begged for a pass until they gave me one.  We went two miles out on the Maryville Road and inquired for Middleton. Mrs. Dial, the woman of the house where we stopped, said to her grandson, “Well ain’t that the man’s name who stayed here last night?”  He said that it was and that he was looking for his family. 

My sister and I sprang to the door and said, “That’s Father!”  Mrs. Dial grabbed us by the arm and said, “Hold on. Is this some of his family?”  We said, “Yes!”  But she would not let us go on, but made her grandson saddle the horse and go after him.  While he was gone she fixed dinner for us, but we could not eat much for crying for joy that the lost was found.

Father came back on the horse, and Will walking.  When they got in hearing of us he called out.  My sister and I knew his voice and we went to the gate.  I looked back and Mrs. Dial was coming too, the tears running down her cheeks.  She threw her hands up and shouted, “Oh Mr. Middleton, I must rejoice with you for the lost is found!  You seemed so badly out of heart last night that I was sorry for you.  Now I am glad I can help you rejoice.”

We then went back to Knoxville, and you may guess we had a meeting when we got to Mother and the rest of the children.  We had heard straight news from Robert F., and found Father.  Though we had not a bed to sleep on nor a quilt to cover us except two blankets of our own and the two those soldiers had loaned us, we felt happy, not knowing how we were going to live thereafter.

Chapter 9


Father rented a house near his crop within two miles of Knoxville, and I drew rations from Knoxville until the war closed.  We were two weeks and four days on the road.  We stayed two days at one place near Morristown and washed up our clothes.  We all had two suits with us.   There were two almost babies to carry and our bundles, which made our trip wearisome.

My younger sisters were lively and would laugh at Mother and me for looking so sad on the way.  I would get out of heart sometimes and almost wish I had not started.  Then, the thought of living in the Confederacy and being in dread of my life, and they knowing my husband was with the Yankees or in the mountains (they did not know which) would make me go to the Lord in prayer.  I asked Him to guard us through which I truly believe He did.  Then I would travel on a day or two in good heart with the thought of getting where we would be protected.

It was the fifth day of September, 1864, that we found Father.  He then took us to Col. John Baxter who vouched for our loyalty, which set us all right.  In the winter of 1864 my father moved twenty miles below Knoxville and we stayed there till the close of the war.  In March, 1865, my husband came home sick and stayed until the first of August when he went to his command and was mustered out, I believe, on August 18.

Then we were free to battle through life the best we could.  All we had before we started to the war was gone, we knew not where.  We had to commence anew with two children.  But the war was over and our lives saved, and we would not complain.  We stayed in Tennessee seven years and then thought it best to come back to old North Carolina where we had a little piece of land all in the woods.  He has built a house and opened a little farm and is living on it yet.

I am the mother of seventeen children, of whom eight are dead and nine are living.  My health is down until I am not able to work much.  So sitting about and studying about my life I just thought I would write out a sketch of my war life to let the younger generation a little of the poor southern woman’s trials and hardships.

I can say we have tried to put our trust in the Lord, and He surely has been with us, or we could not have gone through what we have.  We truly think we were aided by the Master, for everybody told us before we started that we could not get through without being killed or taken up and put in jail.  But somehow I did not fear at all, for I was so determined to go that I never thought of being afraid.  I just said, “Where there’s a will there’s a way and the Lord will provide.”  I have never regretted my trip.

Robert F. stayed in the Federal army two years.  When he came home he was not the man he was before.  But we have done a lot of hard work, whether able or not, for that was and is yet all the way we had to support our family.

There is no one who knows the trials and hardships of the southern men and women except those who endured it.  For the Union men who would not fight for the Confederacy had to leave their families and risk their lives to go through the woods to the other side.

Robert F. said he never fired but one gun while he was in the Confederate army and that was at a squirrel on Sunday.  I can say I have seen a sight of soldiers—hundreds and thousands — but never saw a badly wounded or dead soldier.

* * * * *

Mary Middleton Orr died in 1924 at age 81. Robert Franklin Orr died in 1914 at age 79. They are buried side by side at Beulah Baptist Church cemetery in the Big Willow community. “Her life was an example of true morals and a living faith in Christ,” Mary’s marker says. “A plain man true to his Country Church and family; loved by all,” Robert’s says. Next week: Will Confederate colonel in Asheville issue a pass to Knoxville? Next week: “We are gone up now,” Mary fears when four Rebel soldiers on horseback stop the family.