Each year as a part of my JMU Lifelong Learning Institute class, "Mennonites in the Valley," Ruth Stoltzfus Jost joins us at the grave site of two-year-old John Brunk at the Bank Mennonite Church cemetery, where she sings the following piece written by her sister Helen about their great-grandmother Susanna Heatwole Brunk. It is printed here with Helen's kind permission:
THE BALLAD OF GREAT-GRANDMOTHER SUSANNA
by Helen Stoltzfus
In the valley of Virginia,
my great-grandmother Susanna
met and married Henry Brunk.
They had a son.
But not long thereafter the Civil War broke out.
Henry felt he could not stay true to Christ and be a soldier.
He, along with 69 other young men, rode out
of the war zone
hoping to escape.
They were captured by Confederate soldiers who demanded that they surrender their arms.
They surrendered their Bibles.
The Confederate soldiers took their horses and put the men in prison. They gave them three choices
One: Put on uniforms and take up arms; Two: haul supplies as non-combatants, or Three: stay in prison.
I have a young wife and a baby son. I will haul supplies as a non-combatant.
But Henry's conscience still bothered him. He felt that he was still a part of this machinery of war. One day he simply left his team of horses in the field and walked out through the orchard and the woods, a deserter, with a price on his head.
He hid in attics of kind strangers, weaving willow baskets to earn money, while Susanna, pregnant, cared for their son John. One day, one day, one day - she gave birth to a daughter, Sarah. But not long thereafter their son John died.
Henry heard the news. At the funeral, he knew the Confederate spies were there to track him down. So he had to hide at his own son's funeral. Standing in the back like a stranger, leaving before the last hymn was sung.
And Susanna stood alone at her son's grave.
Henry and 17 young men managed to escape to the North. Henry sent a message to Susanna: Meet me in Hagerstown!
She put her possessions in a spring wagon and set out with her baby and her sister. They rode northward into war territory.
Suddenly they were surrounded by Confederate soldiers who seized Susanna's horse. At the same moment, the Union army began to close in on them.
"Yanks, the Yanks are coming! Follow us!!!"
(as Susanna) "I'll do no such thing!"
And since the Confederates were fleeing from the Union Army, they had no time to force her to follow them. So she rode on, continuing northward.
She was almost at Hagerstown. She only had to cross the Shenandoah River.
But when she reached Harper's Ferry the bridge was burning.
Behind her were Confederate soldiers, before her a burning bridge, a baby in her arms.
A miller appeared. He showed her a place where others had managed to cross. She plunged her spring wagon into the Shenandoah and crossed safely.
She arrived in Hagerstown.
"But will I find Henry?"
She rode down the street. She looked from left to right. She passed a store front, glanced in the window at a shoemaker repairing shoes. Henry looked up. Their eyes met.
The story doesn't end there. They moved to Illinois. Susanna, age 26, bore five more children in the next eight years. Then, like many others, they decided to move west to Kansas in a covered wagon.
Even though the Civil War had ended, the feelings of resentment were still very strong between the North and the South. Missouri was a slave state. Kansas, a free state. The Missourians refused to let settlers, on their way to the "free" state of Kansas, drink water from their wells.
So Susanna, pregnant, Henry, and their six children drank from the streams and the ponds.
When they arrived in Kansas, Henry unhitched the horse, turned them out to graze, built a wigwam shelter made of boards, and lay beneath it. He never got up again. He died of typhoid fever.
In the next six months, three of Susanna's seven children died of typhoid fever.
My grandfather remembers his mother, my great-grandmother Susanna. She is leaning over the kitchen table, tears streaming down her face. Silently she cuts up her husband's suit to make clothes for her children.
Her ten-year-old son took work in a mill. Then in the middle of the night, men came knocking on her door. "Mother, mother, your son has been hurt. He fell asleep, his arm got caught in the wheel."
They brought him in from town and laid him on that same kitchen table and cut off his arm.
It is told how near the end of her life, she ironed a dress, but left the ruffles, the beautiful ruffles... unironed.
The following is an additional stanza written by Ruth Soltzfus Jost:
In later years, she told these stories to her grandchildren.
They remember many Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at her prairie home.
They remember the little cakes she sent home with them after a visit.
And though they could never remember her singing before,
When the end came, she sang.
She asked her family to sing.
She asked her doctor to help sing.
And they all sang her favorite song,
"Oh happy day that fixed my choice
On thee, my Savior and my God."