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When Courage Wore a Petticoat (The Granny Short Story)

As printed in The History of Stone County Volume I
Used with permission from The Stone County Genealogical & Historical Society

The hillside home of Willis Short and his good wife, Nancy Kendrick Short, was a beehive of activity that Sunday morning in late Autumn, 1850. It most always was, on Sundays, but today it was more so. For Willis Short had just returned from a trip to Missouri on horseback where he had visited his three sons: Elias Bates, Francis Smiley, Samuel and their families and his daughter, Melcena McCullah and her brood. And when news of loved ones in distant places came firsthand, kinpeople and neighbors alike gathered to find out what was going on in a place they'd heard of, but knew little about.

The Willis Short home was located on the east bank of the Tennessee River, in Roane County, Tennessee. Therefore, some of the neighbors came by boat across the river; others, with large families and food to help out at dinnertime, came in ox wagons. The traveler was the center of attention. He told about his long ride, how he had taken along enough money in his saddlebags to buy a place and move where he would have more elbow room. But after he got his visit out with Melcena and the boys, said he, "I just decided I'd best come back to our old home here in Roane County." Then he added, "But it's a right fair country, there in Missouri. The boys and their sister have done well."

Most interested of all his listeners that Sunday, and each time they had heard the elder Short's story, were John Short, one of the sons still at home in Roane County, and his bride of a few weeks, Lydia Coleman Short. They were married on October 10th, 1850, and now John was trying to make up his mind whether to stay in Tennessee and farm worn-out, hilly land or venture out on his own and learn what it would be like to plow in the new ground. And there was this matter to be solved: what would they do about Lydia's widowed mother, Elizabeth Shaw Coleman, if they went to mother, Elizabeth Shaw Coleman, if they went to Missouri?

That problem was solved by the widow herself who announced, "I will go with you!" Once they had reached a decision, they wasted no time getting started. Possessions they would carry along to the new home included Lydia's drafts or patterns she had acquired when apprenticed to a tailor in a nearby town. And Elizabeth Coleman's dye kettle, for she was an artist when it came to turning barks, roots, and herbs into dyes that rivaled all the colors of the rainbow. Bright colors were her specialty, a most welcome one in a mostly drab existence. "And don't forget the piggin," she told her daughter, "for we will need a cow when we get to Missouri."

By flat-boat the trio went down the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. From there they went by dug-boat to Buffalo Shoals and to Searcy, Arkansas. There, John Short took leave of the women and struck out on foot for his promised land. It was early spring of 1851 when he reached Greene County where two of his brothers Elias Bates and Samuel lived. There he bargained to rent some crop land, put in a crop, and then returned to Arkansas to get Lydia and her mother. With their possessions in a two-wheeled cart which they took turns pushing and pulling, they arrived, finally, in the Spring Creek Valley of a new county, Stone County, Missouri. And all three of them set to work to establish a home near a spring of clear, cold water.

In September of that year their first child was born. They named the baby boy Thomas Bates Short. Other babies arrived. Lydia's hands became calloused from hard work. There was little time for dressmaking and not much demand for it outside her own household. In her roomy dress pocket she always carried some knitting or some quilt blocks to piece on. There were few idle moments in her day and well into the night.

Then came the war. John Short knew his first duty was to his country, but he was deeply concerned for his family's welfare. He enlisted in the Home Guards and was, at first, put on limited duty. But as the war's temp was stepped up, so was the demand for his services as a scout for the Union Army. At first the Short household, like many others, was not badly upset by this turn of events. The older children, Tom and George, went ahead taking on extra responsibilities as befitted them, now that they were the men of the family. John made frequent trips home, mostly to spend the night and leave before daylight the next morning. As months dragged by, bands of pilfering men, some in tattered, faded uniforms, began showing up. They demanded food, money, horses, anything. Troops were stationed out of Springfield south and along the Wire Road north from Cassville, until they, too, were likely to put in an appearance most any time, at any place. "Keep a close watch," John advised his wife. "And don't take any chances for you never can tell out strangers these days."

On this particular day though the actual date is not known, John Short had been scouting in and around McCullah Chapel for Union forces stationed farther north. By taking a short cut, he could be home before dark, so he asked leave to make the visit, and his leave was granted.

He arrived in Spring Creek Valley a little before sundown, had supper with his folks; and just as darkness settled over the Valley, he sat down in the open doorway to rest and visit while the women washed the supper dishes.

Lydia was first to catch the sound of horses' hooves. "Listen! There's two of them riding this way." Two men rode up to the front stile which was some little distance from the front of the house. One shouted, "Hello!" way. Hello!" came back the greeting from the door. "We're lost," said one of the men. "We want to get back to the Union lines. Can you help us?" Without heeding his own advice to beware of strangers, John walked quickly to the front stile and sprang over the fence. Almost as soon as his feet hit the ground, one of the men grabbed him. He reached for his pistol; but as he did so, the second man seized his wrist and tried to twist the pistol out of his hand. Lydia, from the doorway, saw that her husband hadn't a chance in a fight as one-sided as that. He was soon on his knees with one man on his back trying to choke him, and the other one attempting to twist the gun out of his hand. With a swift motion toward the woodpile at the corner of the house, Lydia pushed George out the door, urging, "Hurry, George, get me the ax!"

t must have seemed like an eternity, when actually the struggle lasted just a few minutes. Suddenly the man on John Short's back rolled off, the grip on the pistol loosened. And the second man, with a wild scream, fled down the road. John sprang to his feet to see what had happened. There on the ground, sprawled out on his face, lay the man who, a few short moments before, was trying to choke him, an ax sunk almost out of sight between his shoulders. And, leaning against the fence ready to faint now that the deed was done, was Lydia Short, pale and shaken.

As she rushed to aid her husband, she heard one man tell the other, "Hang on, for the balance of the boys will be here directly." She insisted that John go to the woods to spend the night so he would not be in the house in case the others did come. He protested at first, but finally decided she was right, and he did as she requested.

Lydia, Tom and George dragged the dead man around the house to a straw pile in the field just beyond the yard fence. They took off his coat and some of his other garments, for clothing was hard to get right then. They hid him in the straw, then cleaned up around so there would be no telltale traces. And then the family prepared to sit out the long night. Many's the time Short grandchildren have heard the story of that long night, of how frightened they were at every little noise outside. Somehow the hours dragged by, morning came, and so did "the balance of the boys," 24 or 25 of them.

Lydia was watching for them. And when they were sighted, she gave George the little tin trunk containing her patterns and told him to hide down by the branch in the willow thicket. Those patterns in the little trunk were precious. It was George's job to look after them. The gang swarmed in, almost filling the little house. They asked questions, always returned to this same one, "Where's your man?" They pillaged through the bureau drawers and took everything that suited their fancy. Lydia s mother, sitting in her homemade rocker by the fireplace, put on a bold front. As she later told it, "I sassed them, and sassed them good!"

Finally the leader, apparently, took a shovel full of live coals from the fireplace, turned back the feather bed, ripped open the straw tick and dumped the coals into the straw. More than one pioneer home was burned to the ground by that method. Lydia quickly gathered up the burning straw bed in her arms, carried it outside and dumped it over the fence into the road. That must have seemed an admirable feat even to ruffians of their type, for the leader told the others, "Come on, boys, no woman as courageous as that deserves to have her house burned by the likes of us."

After enough time had elapsed that Lydia was convinced the gang had gone for good, she began making preparations for permanently burying the man hidden in the straw stack. With the help of the children and a neighbor who happened along that morning, she dug his grave in a little thicket under the hill quite some distance from the Short home. It would have been hard to find in case the other fellow returned for his comrade. It was we11 off the road with no path leading in that direction.

The two horses left at the Short homestead were never claimed. So one of them was put into use about the place, and the other one was given to Judge Morphey who lived north some distance. It was probably Judge Morphey who helped bury the dead man. After the war was over, most of the families with strong southern ties moved away. Among them was Hardy Hurst, who fought for the Confederacy. He settled in Texas. And some years later Rufe Hurst, his brother who remained in the Spring Creek Valley area, visited him.

One main topic of conversation during that visit was the recent reunion of Confederate soldiers held near the Hurst home in Texas, which Hardy Hurst had attended. There he met a man who knew the Granny Short story to the smallest detail, as most every person then living within miles of her home knew it. But he supplied some missing details, for he was the man who got away.

These two men were always called "bushwhackers," but they were, in reality, escaped rebel prisoners, according to the Texan's story. He said they had stolen the horses they were riding. They were familiar with that pioneer rule, "Travel by night when things ain't right," for that was what they were doing. He said they had no intention of killing John Short; they just wanted his pistol since they were unarmed. Eventually the man who fled down the road and took up the first hollow reached the rebel lines in Arkansas. By the time Rufe Hurst got home from his visit, he had forgotten the bushwhacker's name. And we were never able to learn it. The grave has always been called "the bushwhacker's grave."

The memory of that awful episode stayed with Lydia Short. After the war was over, she marked the bushwhacker's grave by sticking a piece of an iron kettle into the ground at the head of his grave. A few years before her death, when Decoration Day had become established in Spring Creek Valley, she remembered the man's grave and took flowers to it.

That is why the Short grandchildren thought it would be a nice thing to do if they erected some kind of stone at the grave. A boulder taken from the hillside near Short Cemetery was moved to the grave and a bronze plaque embedded in the stone. However, Lydia Short's original marker, the piece of iron kettle, was also preserved. It is embedded in the concrete base at the back of the boulder. The plaque carries this inscription:

Here lies an unknown Confederate Soldier slain
with an ax during the Civil War by Lydia Coleman Short
Erected in 1962 by Short descendants: Dewey Short -
Fred Steele - Ethel Steele - Mary Scott Hair.

Land where the grave is located, including the giant sycamore tree we used to call the "bushwhacker tree," was deeded to the Stone County Court by its owner, Ethel Steele.

We really do not know who of the grandchildren started calling Lydia Coleman Short "Granny," for she was still a young woman when she died at age 43. Nor do we know why she was given that venerable title, unless someone figured such courage as she demonstrated over and over could have belonged only to a woman mature enough to be called "Granny." At the time of her death on July 4th, 1876, she left a four months old baby, Viola, and two or three small grand-children. Lydia Coleman Short, mother of 13 children, five of whom died when they were small, lies buried in Short Cemetery, one mile south of Hurley.

PS: More than a century later, the saddle on the bushwhacker's horse was restored and now decorates a wall of my granddaughter, Margaret Dillabough's, family room. Research determined that it-was a Texas Ranger's saddle, stolen no telling how many times.

by Mary Scott Hair
Reprinted from the White River Historical Society Quarterly.

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© 1996, 1997 Jo Dunne