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Alabama Confederate Heroine, Emma Sansom
Dr. Leah Rawls Atkins, Auburn University (retired)
Correlates to Alabama Course of Study: Social Studies 10th Grade Content Standard 10, p. 73
Correlates to Graduation Exam Eligible Content Standard IV, Objective 1

During Col. A. D. Streight's cavalry raid across north Alabama (April 19-May 3, 1863), he was pursued by a Confederate force half the size of his Union company. Led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederates had several advantages. They were riding horses; the Union troops were riding mules (except for a small contingent of cavalry composed of north Alabama Unionists who were showing Streight the way). Horses were faster and quieter. Stories from the north Alabama hills tell that one could hear the braying of Streight's mules for miles. For this reason, Southerners called Streight's Federals the "Jackass Cavalry." During the raid, a sixteen-year-old Alabama girl became one of the most well-known heroines of the Confederacy. In 1914, when French horse-armies were being slaughtered by German machine guns in World War I and the cavalry was instantly made obsolete, Bennett H. Young, a Confederate cavalry officer, published a book about several Confederate engagements, including the story of Streight's Alabama Raid and Emma Sansom. He wrote, of course, with a Southern bias and in a romantic style typical of the 19th century. The following is from pages 472-478 of Bennett H. Young, Confederate Wizards of the Saddle, 1914; reprint, Kennesaw, Ga.: Continental Book Co., 1958.

By the afternoon of May 2d, the pressure of Streight and his men by Forrest was at its fiercest tension. Guided by his two companies of Alabama refugee horsemen, Streight had been told if he could only cross Black Creek and burn the bridge, that he might hope for a few hours' respite, and if he could not feed his weary men and wearier beasts, he could at least let them sleep enough to restore a part of their wasted energy, and from a few hours' repose get new strength for the struggles and trials that yet faced them in this perilous campaign upon which they had so courageously come....

Sitting in their cottage, mayhap talking of the soldier brother, there fell upon the ears of these defenseless home-keepers strange sounds: the galloping of horses, the clanging of swords, frequent shots, sharp, quick commands. They wondered what all this clamor could mean, and rushing to the porch, they saw companies of men clad in blue, all riding in hot haste toward the bridge over the creek. They were beating and spurring their brutes [mules], who seemed weary under their human burdens, and in their dumb way resenting the cruel and harsh measures used to drive them to greater and more strenuous effort. The passers-by jeered the women, asked them how they liked the "Yanks," and told them they had come to thrash the rebels and run Bragg [Gen. Braxton Bragg] and his men out of the country. They said "Old Forrest" was behind them, but they had licked him once and would do it again.

The well in the yard tempted them to slake their thirst, and dismounting, they crowded about the bucket and pulled from its depths draughts to freshen their bodies and allay the fever that burned in their tired throats. They asked if they had any brothers in the army; and not to be outdone, the women said they had six, and all gone to fight the Yankees. Two cannon went rumbling by. The men on their horses were belaboring them with great hickory wythes, and were driving at a mad pace to get over the wooden bridge. Some of the blue-coated men came in and searched the house for guns, pistols, and opened and pried through the drawers of the wooden bureau, and looked in the closets and presses and under the beds; but they found nothing but a side saddle; and one, more malignant than the others, drew his knife from a sheath dangling by his side, and slashed and cut its skirts into small pieces and threw them upon the floor at the feet of the helpless women.

The line grew thinner. In double and single file some stragglers were all that was left of the men in blue, and then the rear guard came, and over the creek the women saw the cannon on the banks, the horses unhitched, and the little Federal Army dismounted, scattered out among the trees and bushes and standing with guns in their hands, waiting for somebody else to come. They saw the men tear the rail fence down, pile the rails on the bridge, and then one started into house; and, seizing a piece of blazing coal from the chimney place, ran in haste to the bridge and set fire to the brush and rails, and the flames spring high into the air. They looked down the road and wished that some men in gray would come and drive away these rude soldiers who had disturbed the peace of their home, ungallantly destroying their property, and cutting into fragments their saddle which had come as a gift from the dead father whose grave was out in the woods near the garden gate. As they looked down the road, they saw one single blue-uniformed man riding at highest speed, rushing along the highway as if mad, waving his hands and beating his tired mount with his sword. Just behind him, at full speed, came other men, shooting at the fleeing Federals. In front of the humble home, the single horseman suddenly stopped and threw up his hands, and cried, "I surrender. I surrender." Then up to his side rode with rapid stride a soldier in gray. He had some stars on his collar and a wreath about them, and he said to the women, "I am a Confederate general. I am trying to capture and kill the Yankee soldiers across the creek yonder."

Standing on the front porch of the house, these women watched these startling and surprising proceedings. The leader who was pursuing this single soldier in blue sat on his panting steed at the gate. The young girls knew that the gray uniform meant friends, rescue, kindness, chivalry. They walked to the fence and outside the gate touched the bridle of their deliverer's steed and patted his foam-covered neck, and looked up into the face of the stern soldier, without fear or dread.

With tones as tender as those of a woman, the officer who had captured the Federal vidette said, "Do not be alarmed. I am General Forrest, and I will protect you." Other men in gray came riding in great haste and speedily dismounting left their horses and scattered out into the forest on either side of the road. The youngest girl told the Confederate general that the Yankees were amongst the trees on the other side of the creek, and they would kill him if he went down toward the bridge. She did not realize how little the man in gray feared the shooting. Now the flames from the burning rails and bridge timbers began to hiss and the crackling wood told that the bridge was going into smoke and ashes and no human power could save it from ruin and destruction.

The leader said, "I must get across. I must catch these raiders. Can we ford the creek, or are there any other bridges near?" "There is no bridge you can cross," the younger girl replied, "but you and your men can get across down there in the woods. If you will saddle me a horse I'll go and show you where it is: I have seen the cows wade there and I am sure you, too, can cross it." "Little girl," the general exclaimed, "There's no time for saddling horses. Get up behind me"; and, seeing a low bank, he pointed her there. She sprang with the agility of an athlete upon the bank, and then with a quick leap seated herself behind the grim horseman, catching onto his waist with her hands. The solider pushed his spurs into the flanks of the doubly burdened horse and started in a gallop through the woods, by the father's grave, along the path indicated by his youthful guide.

The mother cried out in alarm, and with ill-concealed fear bade her child dismount. General Forrest quietly said, "Don't be alarmed; I'll take good care of her and bring her safely back. She's only going to show me the ford where I can cross the creek and catch the Yankees over yonder before they can get to Rome." There was something in the look of the warrior that stilled fear for her child, and with eager gaze, half-way consenting, she watched them as they galloped across the corn field. They were soon lost to sight in the timbered ravine through which the soldier man and the maiden so firmly seated behind him now passed out of view. Following the branch a short distance, General Forrest found that it entered Black Creek three-fourths of a mile above the bridge. Through the trees and underbrush, as she saw the muddy waters of the stream, she warned her companion that they were where they could be seen by the enemy. Without waiting for the assistance of her escort, she unloosed her hold from his waist and sprang to the earth.

The soldier, throwing his bridle rein over a sapling, followed the child, who was now creeping on her hands and knees along the ground over the leaves and through the ticket. The enemy saw the two forms crouching on the soil and began to fire at the moving figures in the bushes. Fearing that she might be struck, the soldier said, "You can be my guide; but you can't be my breastwork," and, rising, he placed himself in front of the heroic child, who was fearlessly helping him in his effort to pursue her country's foes. Standing up in full view of the Federals, she pointed where he must enter and where emerge from the water. Her mission was ended. The secret of the lost ford was revealed. Streight's doom was sealed. The child had saved Forrest in his savage ride, ten miles and three hours' time, and now he felt sure that Rome was safe and that Streight and his men would soon be captives in his hands. As they emerged into an open space, the rain of bullets increased; and the girl, not familiar with the sound of shot and shell, stood out in full view and untying her calico sunbonnet, waved it defiantly at the men in blue across the creek. The firing in an instant ceased. They recognized the child's heroic defiance. Maybe they recalled the face of a sister or sweetheart away across the Ohio River in Indiana or Ohio. They were brave, gallant men, the fierceness of no battle could remove the chivalrous emotions of manly warriors. Moved with admiration and chivalrous appreciation of courage, they withdrew their guns from their shoulders and broke into hurrahs for the girlish heroine who was as brave as they, and whose heart, like theirs, rose in the tumult of battle higher than any fear.

Forrest turned back toward his horse, which was ravenously eating the leaves and twigs from the bush where he had been tied. The bullets began whistling about the retreating forms. She heard the thuds and zipping of the balls; and, with childish curiosity, asked the big soldier what these sounds meant. "These are bullets, my little girl," he said, "and you must get in front of me. One might hit you and kill you." . . . Riding with quickening speed, he galloped back to the house. . . . [He] gave orders to instantly engage the foe. He sent aids to direct the artillery to the newly-found ford, and while they were moving with all haste into position, he drew from his pocket a sheet of unruled paper and wrote on it: Headquarters in Saddle, May 2d, 1863.

My highest regards to Miss Ema Sansom [sic] for her gallant conduct while my forse [sic] was skirmishing with the Federals across "Black Creek" near Gadisden, Allabama [sic].

N.B. Forrest, Brig. Gen. Com'd'g N. Ala.

Suggested Questions:

  1. List examples of Young's Southern bias and his romantic attitude.
  2. Find words and ideas that reflect Southern and Victorian ideas about women, chivalry, and honor.
  3. Find words that seem strange to us today.
  4. Discuss bravery and concepts of heroism.