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A Virginia Chicken

Editorial Note: This story originally appeared in the August 1887 issue of Household Realm. The Chesnutt Archive was unable to obtain images of the original publication.

A Virginia Chicken

The Rev. Samuel Thompson was born a slave in Virginia, and remained in bondage until the war broke out, when he ran away and joined the Union army, where he was received as contraband of war. He was perfectly able and willing to handle a musket, and by reason of his generous physical proportions, would have made an excellent target for Confederate bullets. But as Congress in its almost infinite wisdom, had not yet seen fit to trust the Negroes with guns, the Rev. Samuel—at that time plain Sam—was assigned to duty in the camp kitchen; and many a hungry officer's burden of care was lightened, and his stomach and heart expanded by the savory soups which Sam served up to the mess. It was often a mystery where he got the materials to make them, for the rules against foraging were very strict, the country impoverished, and the disaffected natives not at all inclined to sell to the hated Yankees at any price.

Sam got through the war with a whole skin, and was then seized with the universal thirst for learning which prevailed among his race just after the war. He began attendance at one of the schools established by the Freedmen's Bureau, and by dint of hard study qualified himself to enter a school of higher grade. Here he attracted the attention of a wealthy patron of the school, who helped him through college. He was ordained some years ago as Presbyterian minister, and went to work as missionary and teacher among his people in the South. He was subsequently appointed by President Grant to a government position of some importance. He drew his salary with commendable regularity, and filled the office with credit to himself and to the government he served. The energy and perseverance which helped him up the rugged path of preferment were the same qualities which at an earlier period of his history and in a different sphere, had enabled him to keep the officers' mess supplied with palatable food when the source of supplies seemed as bare as the widow's cruse. I heard him relate one of his adventures during that period, and I will let him tell it in his own language, though at the time I heard it education had destroyed the fine flavor of the Virginia dialect which his language would probably have possessed some years before:

"We were on the march southward just after the battle of------. The rebels had passed through the country a few days before, and had cleaned up the supplies along their route like a swarm of locusts. There was not a pig to be met with, a cow was a whole show in herself, and the occasional sight of a chicken scurrying through the woods was calculated to make a lover of chicken meat weep with longing. The chickens had been hunted so much that they were shy as partridges. For two or three days my mess had been living on salt pork and army beans, and I could perceive that the diet was beginning to pall on their stomachs. I saw that my reputation was at stake, and I determined to save it. One morning after breakfast I sallied forth on a foraging expedition, determined to find something good to eat if there was anything in the neighborhood.

"We were pushing the Johnnies pretty close, and as they had been hurrying so much in the last day or two, I hoped they might have left behind them as much as a roasting pig, or a chicken or a goose. Our pickets were stationed a mile from camp. I struck out southward and had reached the line before I found anything. A little beyond the line, however, I came across a cabin, and creeping through the bushes toward it, what was my delight to see two or three hens feeding before the door. I picked up a stone and threw it at the group. This startled the hens and they began to cackle, which brought to the door a tall, poor white woman, with a green checked bonnet on her head and a pipe in her mouth. She began to call the chickens, and finally tried to drive them into the open door of the hen-house; but the chickens were not well drilled, and scattered about the clearing. One of them came in my direction, and I made a dash and secured the prey.

"The woman was very angry.

"'Put that chicken down, nigger,' she said.

"'Sorry I can't do it, ma'am, but men must eat, and chickens is made for it.'

"Then she opened the flood gates of her wrath, and poured out a volume of abuse which one would hardly have expected from such a source. She wished me all kinds of lingering deaths, consigned me to eternal tortures in perdition, and had about used up her breath and her imagination before I could get out of sight in the direction of the camp. I told her it was no use to get mad—that the Southe'n people had brought on this war, and that those who danced must pay the fiddler. But, Lord bless you, argument didn't seem to have the least effect upon her.

"When I got a little nearer camp, I sat down on a log and began to pick the chicken. I was just revolving in my mind how I could best cook it, when I heard the click of a musket, and looking up, found myself confronted by a hungry, gray-bearded Johnny, whose musket was pointed directly at me.

"'Drap that chicken, nigger.'

"I dropped it.

"'Stan' up ag'in that tree.'

"I stood.

"Two or three other graybacks came out of the woods. They were evidently bushwhackers, and had seen hard luck. One of them secured the chicken; a fire was quickly started, and in about three minutes the chicken was spitted on a bayonet and cooking nicely.

"'What shill we do with the nigger?'

"'Shoot 'im,' answered a fierce-looking one-eyed fellow.

"I began to feel weak in the knees.

"'Run 'im down ter Richmon' an' sell 'im,' suggested a second. 'Niggers is bringing fifteen hundred dollars in gold at Richmon'.'

"I breathed easier.

"'Too much trouble,' said number three, a stoop-shouldered, long-haired chap. 'Keep 'im to wait on us,' at which there was a laugh, and I didn't know exactly how to feel.

"'We cain't do it,' said the first speaker. 'We ain't got nuthin' ter feed 'im on, an' we hain't got no time ter sell 'im. There's nuthin' ter do but to shoot 'im,' whereat my heart sank down into my boots, went out at the toes, and ran off in the woods.

"The others wouldn't agree to this at once, and the question was argued a while longer. Meanwhile the chicken was cooking nicely.

"'Let's decide the question by a game o' seven-up,' said number two. 'Jim kin ten' ter the chicken, an' me'n you play. I win, we keeps the nigger, an' sells 'im when we kin; you win, we shoots 'im,' to which they all agreed.

"I never watched a game with greater interest, and when I saw the hand the shooting fellow got, I knew my game was up. A minute later they rose.

"'Say yo' prayers, nigger, and say 'em quick,' said the man with the long beard. I began to pray in a loud voice.

"'That'll do,' he said after a minute, raising his gun; 'you take too durn long.'

"I closed my eyes to receive the expected shot. I heard the click of muskets, and— "'Halt!' sounded clear and sharp from the woods behind me.

"I opened my eyes. The Johnnies had dropped their guns and looked by no means pleased. A dozen Yankees swarmed out of the woods. It was a reconnoitering part from our camp. Some secured the bushwhackers, others secured the chicken. In a moment I was at liberty, and I never appreciated liberty so much before or since. But the funniest thing about it was the way the prisoners looked at our soldiers eat that chicken.

"We kept them in camp several weeks. A guard was placed over them, and I spent most of my spare time walking around outside of the guard, asking the Johnnies what they were going to do with the nigger, and how they liked the chicken, and what was the price of niggers down in Richmond. They were the maddest men you ever saw, and I had to dodge many a brick and clod of dirt which they threw at me. And cursing me—I couldn't blame them much. Finally we moved our camp, and they were exchanged a few weeks later. I got off a parting fire at them as they went away, and one of them threw a pebble which struck me and left its mark. I never look in a glass and see that scar on my forehead but what I have to laugh at the way those bushwhackers looked at that chicken."