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“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 County.”

 

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.

 

The Ballad of John Wesley Hensley

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.

    It started when my country signed me on in ’62.

Was proud to fight for Dixie, my wife and baby girl,

    A 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,

Then we’ll strike out to join the troops, so say your last farewell,

    For when you’ll see your home again, no one can ever tell.”

While, there, a milkin’ Betsy’s cow, as peaceful as could be,

    My 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.

They went into our humble home, that Betsy kept with pride,

    You can’t believe the things they did! Oh, how my Betsy cried;

Those vicious men abused my wife, dumped supper on the floor,

    Led me away, roped to a horse, and beat me o’er and o’er.

I yelled 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.

The 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.

I’d better go, for Betsy waits, my face to see again;

    Since you insist, I’ll tell the rest that happened to this man.

The Home guards dragged me often when I fell, pulled by the rope,

    My 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

    came through.

That prison 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.

No rations much, or blankets warm, poor shelter from the cold,

    We lived in mud in rainy times--sick, lonely, grief untold,

Men dying all around me, my hope, of freedom gone,

    I 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!”

    I 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

    To train your stomach to behave, with the rolling of the tide . . .

But I’m thanking God, my bones won’t rot in Illinois ground,

    So 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.

On Europe’s coast, we anchored out, the harbor Cherbourg, France.

    A nation friendly to the North, which proved our God-sent chance.

The harbor-master sent us word, a warning for our sake,

    The Alabama lay off shore, no chances we should take.

So Captain Winslow took us out, and Old Captain Semmes, the bait;

    Out seven miles they fought the foe, contested, obstinate.

The battle raged, the seamen prayed, “Oh, God, defend the right”

    The Kearsarge crew, determined grew, and fought with all their might.

“Abandon Ship” we heard the cry, and the dreadnaught slipped away

    Beneath the waves, I saw her go down to her watery grave.

We took aboard the sailors, from life rafts far and wide,

    But Semmes, their cowardly Captain, with the British went to hide.

And the 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,

    We fixed the Kearsarge up again and then went out for more.

Til August 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?

Well, friends, my sailin’ days are done for I will soon be home.

    My 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.

Thanks for 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.

Don’t ever 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!

From Boston, 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.                             

    My “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.

 

This Week's Editorial:

By Helen Morris:

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