Image by Jim Surkamp
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Dick Morris and Ambrose Ranson TRT: 15:30
African-American Dick Morris and his "Owner" Ambrose Hite Ranson by Jim Surkamp
civilwarscholars.com/?p=12254 2864 words
“Dick” by Major A. R. H. Ranson, Late Major of Artillery, C.S.A.
When Dick was a little boy, he was scullion in the kitchen. He carried the wood and water for the cook, and scoured the pots and kettles, and turned the spit when the turkey was roasting, dipping and basting the gravy from the pan. I took him out of the kitchen and put him on the box with me to open gates as I drove about the country. I soon found out
that he had a liking for horses, and that he took great pride in his promotion, and gradually I worked him up into a coachman.
I not only taught him to drive, but also had him taught how to take care of harnesses and carriages, and when he grew to manhood gave him the charge of my wife’s carriage and horses. The horses were beauties, the carriage and harness were new and bright, and Dick showed his pride in them by keeping everything in order, and never turned out without
seeing that everything was bright and would shine and glitter in the sun. But the glories
of that time were passing away from Dick. When the war came the carriage rested in the carriage-house, the horses were taken by the Yankees, and Dick became my servant in the
army of the South — a gentleman’s gentleman, as he called himself.
He was captured twice with me by Union forces, and each time refused the freedom which his capture gave him. Once I discharged him for being drunk. Think! Discharging a slave! It was at Chattanooga, and Dick hung around headquarters for several days and was very unhappy. Finally he came to me with a Bible in his hand and said, "I want to swear on this that if you will take me back, I will not drink a drop during the war." He took the oath and kept it faithfully to the end, at Appomattox.
When I was captured at Rich Mountain I was ill, and was sent to the Federal hospital, an immense tent. I had not fully recovered when we evacuated our position, and wandering
about the mountains in the rain for two days and two nights without food had brought on a relapse. And besides enduring the exposure, we had forded the river nine times in the vain effort to avoid large bodies of the enemy’s troops. The sand got into my boots, and when my socks were taken off, the skin came off with them. I was a pitiable object. Dick stuck to me. He was free now to go where he pleased, but he never left me. He was by my cot all day, kept off the flies from my raw and skinless feet, and did what he could to alleviate my sufferings.
At night he crept under my cot and took his only rest on the bare ground.
When I was well enough to go North with Colonel Pegram. I asked Dick what he was going to do, now that he was free. He said that he would go with me.
14. I_will_go_back_to_Miss_Lizzie”_(my wife)
15. I_will_go_back_to_Miss_Lizzie”_(my wife)
When I told him that was impossible, he said, "Well, if I can’t go with you, I will go back to Miss Lizzie" (my wife).
When he was leaving. I gave him two hundred dollars in Virginia Valley Bank notes (it was before the days of Confederate money), and he walked two hundred and sixty-three miles by
17. way_of_Staunton — to_my_home_in_the_Valley
way of Staunton one hundred and fifty, and down the Valley, a hundred and thirteen — to my home in the Valley, and gave my wife one hundred and ninety-six dollars of the money.
When I was exchanged, Dick joined me and remained with me to the end. He followed me on to
the field at the battle of Murfreesboro, against orders, and when I remonstrated he said, "Who’s going to carry you off when you’re killed?" The shells were skipping over the ground and bursting about us in a lively way, and I was thinking that I was risking two horses.
At last I came upon a little drummer-boy shot through the body, and put him up in front on Dick’s horse, and sent him to the hospital, and thus got rid of Dick. Dick never forgot me. The other officers had servants (hired ones), but with them it was "out of sight, out of mind." They came generally when they were called, and not always then.
After a long day’s march, when the wagons and all supplies were far behind, Dick would come up when we halted for the night, and take my tired horse and leave me a fresh one. He always had in his pocket some morsel of food, if only a dirty piece of bread, for me.
By the summer of 1864 General Lee’s staff was camped on the north bank of Appomattox, opposite Petersburg. It was a good camping-ground, and for a long time we enjoyed it, but when the leaves fell from the trees, we found we were in sight and range of the enemy’s guns. Before the leaves fell, we found that out. It may have been on information from a deserter, or it may have been our tell-tale smoke, but at any rate,
one morning the enemy opened on us with great energy and precision. A shell passed through
Colonel Baldwin’s tent, and he came out with a look on his face as though some indignity had been offered him. But there was no time for explanations.
The tents of the medical department were on fire, and there could be no doubt as to the source from which had come the rain of shot and shell which poured in on us, and we lost no time in gaining a position of safety behind some projecting rocks.
When the firing began, Dick was watering the staff horses in the river, sitting on one and holding three by the halter straps. A shell fell in the water near him, and, bursting, threw up a fountain higher than the trees, and one of the horses got loose. We all yelled at Dick to come under shelter and leave the loose horse to follow, but it was useless. Around and ’round he rode in the river, vainly striving to catch the perverse beast, regardless of the shells flying thick around him, churning the water into foam and covering him with spray.
At last he succeeded, and riding leisurely along by our hiding-place, we heard him mutter, "White folks gittin’ mighty careful of themselves." During the year I was on duty in Tennessee I went to Richmond, taking Dick with me. I had many commissions to execute for the staff.
One day I took him shopping with me to carry the many packages. Prices had advanced since I was last there, and the money gave out before I had completed my purchases.
When Dick saw the situation, he drew from his pockets large wads of Confederate notes, and laid them on the counter, saying, "There’s plenty of money." I told him I could not take his money. He exclaimed: "Don’t I belong to you? Don’t my clothes, my money, and everything I have belong to you? I am surprised at you, I am. If you won’t take the money, the man can have it," and he thrust his hands into his empty pockets, and walking to the door, looked out into the street.
Of course I took enough for my purposes, and, when we reached my quarters, repaid him, and asked him where he got so much money. Oh, he said, that was easy. When last in Richmond,
he had sold his watch for two hundred dollars. It had not run for two years for him, but he thought perhaps it might run for somebody else. He who bought it was a “fool,” he said, but "thought he was smart."
When he got back to the army, Dick invested his money in eatables. When the army was on
the march, he visited all the farmhouses along the road, and bought anything they had in
the shape of food — apples, potatoes, cabbage, chickens, eggs.
When the column halted, he set up shop by our wagon, and the hungry men bought him out at any price he would ask. Once he said he bought a barrel of apples for five dollars and retailed it out at more than one hundred dollars profit. He bought cabbage at ten cents per head and sold it at one dollar a head. Every day on the march he did this, until he was known in the army as a capitalist with thousands of dollars.
He was very ordinary-looking, short, thickset, strong as an ox; black, with short kinky wool, receding forehead, very small eyes, and a nose so turned up that the nostrils looked like the muzzle of a double-barreled gun. He had one tooth out in front, and when he grinned and his red tongue was thrust into the vacant space of the missing tooth, he was a sight to behold.
A habitual frown wrinkled up his forehead and gave him a forbidding look, but when he smiled, his face lighted up in a wonderful way. Take him altogether, Dick was certainly no beauty, but beneath his ugliness, there was a faithful heart which redeemed him in the eyes of those who knew him. I, for one, never saw his ugliness unless some one reminded me of it.
Besides being a trader, Dick was a horse-doctor, with a large and lucrative practice. He cured scratches at ten dollars a head for soldiers, and up to fifty dollars for a general. Once when I was absent from the army Dick was up for stealing. He defended himself, making, I was told, a very effective speech.
He said: "I don’t steal, I don’t. I has no cause to steal! I got more money than I know what to do with [and he pulled out his wads of it]; then what am I going to steal for? I forgot! There is one thing I will steal for — my master’s horses. If the Quartermaster won’t give me the feed, then he got to look out, for I’m going to steal it sure,
and I’ll tell him so to his face [the Quartermaster was on the court}. And I would steal for my master if he needed it, but he don’t need it. But I won’t steal for myself, ’cause I got no cause to steal. Now I’ve told you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." And he was acquitted by unanimous vote of the court martial, all of them laughing, and Dick grinning, with his small eyes nearly closed, his double-barreled nose leveled at them, and his red tongue protruding through the aperture in his white teeth.
When the army surrendered at Appomattox, Dick asked me if I could spare him until he could go back to Petersburg with General Lee. He said there was a "nice yeller gal" in Petersburg, and that he would marry her and bring her home with him, so that "Miss Lizzie’ would have somebody to wait on her. He had been taking care of the General’s horse, "Traveler," on the retreat from Petersburg, and of course I told him to go. General Lee’s servants had deserted during the retreat.
About three months after I reached home I had a letter from an officer I had known, telling me that Dick was in Petersburg and wished to come home, but had no money. The days of Confederate dollar were over, and Dick’s thousands would not buy him a breakfast. I sent the money, and in four days Dick appeared at the farm, minus the wife.
He remained with me about a year, but he was but an indifferent hand for a poor man trying to farm. He might have done well as a coachman, but even that is doubtful, because he had taken to drinking again, and being free, I could exercise no control over him. At last I determined to part with him. One day when he was perfectly sober I told him I thought we had better part, that I wished we might do it as friends, but feared that some day I would lose my temper. He agreed with me, and we parted in the most friendly way.
Some years after, I moved to Baltimore, and then saw Dick once a year, when I visited Charlestown on business relating to settling up my father’s estate. On each of these visits I saw that Dick was degenerating more and more.
He was always overjoyed to see me, but insisted on my taking him to Baltimore with me. I explained that I was living in a small house and on small means, and there was no room for him, nor anything for him to do, as I had no horses.
The last time I saw him was in 1885, twenty years after the end of the war. I had gone to Charlestown, and after breakfast the next morning I was walking across to the court-house, when I met Dick in the middle of the street. He rushed at me and, taking me in his arms, lifted me and held me high in the air.
I begged him to put me down — everybody was laughing. He said, "I got you now, and I ain’t going to let you go until you promise to take me back to Baltimore." Of course I could not take him. About a year afterward I heard that he was dead. Poor Dick!
Today in 2014 in the Jefferson County Courthouse deed room, where all the original record
books are, there is only one man, listed as being black who died in the period from 1885-1889 inclusive. This man listed in the record books died August 9th, 1889 of consumption. He was forty-nine years old. His name was Richard Morris. Poor Dick.
41. Courthouse today