“The Ballad of John Wesley Hensley” was submitted to the
Chronicle by E. Howard Conley, a former resident of the Little White Oak
area of Calhoun. He called to order a reprint of
History of Calhoun County, West
Virginia, 1989, and during the conversation, he shared many stories
of local ancestors and classmates.
Conley, 90, resides in Danville, Ind., and would have
graduated from Calhoun County High School in 1939, but chose to enlist
in the U.S. Army. His brother, Blaine, and sister, Juanita, graduated
from CCHS in 1933, and became teachers in the Calhoun school system.
Blaine Hensley was killed in a auto accident at the age of 25.
Howard has returned for class reunions in recent years
and renewed friendships with Ruth Bartlett, the Cain family, and other
classmates. He said, “I will always cherish my memories of Calhoun
John Wesley Hensley was the maternal
great-great-grandfather of the Conley siblings. The ballad is taken from
a true story and written by Pearl H. Collage of Atwater, Ohio, in 1990.
She was the great-granddaughter of John and Betsy Drake Hensley. John
was born in 1837 in Roane County and Betsy was born in 1836 in Calhoun
County. John died in 1915 and Betsy died in 1912.
The ballad was presented at a reunion of John Wesley
Hensley’s descendants in 2005 in Roane County.
by Pearl H. Collage
A weary man
limped down the Pike, one hot September day,
Tired and footsore, but oh, so glad to be on his homeward way,
A cabin there
along the road, he chose to ask for bread,
They said, “who are you stranger?” and this is what he said.
My name is
Wesley Hensley, and I’ll tell my tale to you.
started when my country signed me on in ’62.
Was proud to
fight for Dixie, my wife and baby girl,
patriotic wildcat out to whip the whole wide world.
We, the 30th
Virginia Sharpshooters learned basic army ways,
Then the Captain said, “You can go home to stay a couple days,
strike out to join the troops, so say your last farewell,
For when you’ll see your home again, no one can ever tell.”
a milkin’ Betsy’s cow, as peaceful as could be,
Betsy and wee Nancy Jane was standin’ close by me?
Up rode two
men I used to know, with ropes and gun in hand,
They took me for their prisoner, from Sunny Calhoun Land.
into our humble home, that Betsy kept with pride,
You can’t believe the things they did! Oh, how my Betsy cried;
men abused my wife, dumped supper on the floor,
Led me away, roped to a horse, and beat me o’er and o’er.
while goin’ down the creek, “My dear, we’ll meet again,”
But many are the troubles seen, between the Now and Then--
I tell you
folks, I’ve been through Hell--can tell you what it’s like,
But now, it’s good to he goin’ home to Betsy, on the Pike.
cornpone’s good, the clabber, too; it suits me to a “T”
And that nice poultice for my feet, has done a heap for me.
go, for Betsy waits, my face to see again;
Since you insist, I’ll tell the rest that happened to this man.
guards dragged me often when I fell, pulled by the rope,
mind was foggy, hazy, of life there seemed no hope.
And up in
Camp Chase stockade, lice and bedbugs chewin’ you,
Thanks to the Calhoun Homeguards, till a westbound train
train took this ole boy and others such as I,
Away out there to Illinois to suffer, starve and die;
To a stockade
on a tiny isle, smallpox rampant ran;
Rock Island Prison Camp killed many a Dixie man.
much, or blankets warm, poor shelter from the cold,
lived in mud in rainy times--sick, lonely, grief untold,
Men dying all
around me, my hope, of freedom gone,
thought of Betsy, what she’d do if I died here far from home.
One day the
Camp Commander said, “You Johnny Rebs, hear me.
Just swear allegiance to the North, and off this isle you’ll be.”
I wanted to
leave that place alive, so “Rock Island, I’m leavin’ you!”
took the oath to save myself, now ain’t that what you’d do?
They took us
boys, those chose to go, up to a lakefront slip.
And up a gangplank marched the crew to man an ocean ship.
I had no
sea-legs, understand? But you learn, and do what you’re told,
For a landsman was a sea-going slave, down in the Kearsarge’s hold.
You think you
know whet sea-sick is--just wait till you have tried
train your stomach to behave, with the rolling of the tide . . .
thanking God, my bones won’t rot in Illinois ground,
I learned to ride the stormy sea, and turn my thoughts around.
Took pride in
my accomplishments, on the Mighty Man-O-War,
While thinking on Betsy, peace and home, what we are fighting for.
coast, we anchored out, the harbor Cherbourg, France.
nation friendly to the North, which proved our God-sent chance.
harbor-master sent us word, a warning for our sake,
The Alabama lay off shore, no chances we should take.
Winslow took us out, and Old Captain Semmes, the bait;
Out seven miles they fought the foe, contested, obstinate.
raged, the seamen prayed, “Oh, God, defend the right”
The Kearsarge crew, determined grew, and fought with all their might.
Ship” we heard the cry, and the dreadnaught slipped away
Beneath the waves, I saw her go down to her watery grave.
aboard the sailors, from life rafts far and wide,
But Semmes, their cowardly Captain, with the British went to hide.
sinking of the Alabam was the winning of the war,
The scourge of the Atlantic, now on the ocean floor.
That came to
pass, on June nineteen, eighteen sixty-four,
fixed the Kearsarge up again and then went out for more.
sixty-six, we cruised, but foes were found no more,
And then the Kearsarge docked at Boston, & I stepped off to shore.
Just look at
me! Would you believe I’ve seen these ports of call?
Liberia, Spain and Portugal and the Azores last of all?
friends, my sailin’ days are done for I will soon be home.
woman knows my rebel yell, she’ll hear it when I come.
Bet she will
be at Mother Drake’s, who lives up Dog Creek way,
And Nancy Jane won’t know her pa, so long I’ve been away;
And White Oak
folks will bear with me, for all that I’ve been through,
They understand the woes of war will make a change in you.
the biscuits, mam, and I’ll not forget your name,
And other folks who’ve helped me home to Betts and Nancy Jane.
Been on the
road four weeks today, a few more days to go;
And when I’m home at West Fork, some one will let you know.
think I’m looking back, for now, I’m safe and sound,
Thank God, my bones ain’t rottin’ in that Illinois ground . . .
But Betsy, no
doubt thinks I’m dead, I never learned to write.
When I show up, out of the blue, she’s apt to die of fright;
Just look at
what I got for her from far across the sea,
This little fan from Egypt and these things from Ital-lee.
Oh, what a
sweet reunion in our cabin on that day,
Just me and Betsy and our babe: Goodbye! I’m on my way!
Oh, the many
times I feared I’d never get back across the foam
But I’ve got my discharge in my hand and now I’m going home!
walked it all the way to Betts and Nancy Jane,
You can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll never leave again!
Yes I’m goin’
home to Betsy, Ma and Pa, and Nancy Jane.
“Home Sweet Home” means more to me and I’ll never leave again!
And if in
years, you tell this tale, make sure you make it plain,
Six hundred miles I’d walk again for Betsy May & Nancy Jane.