Piecing Together the Pieces of a Tale.

What matters even more is that a Southern woman’s generosity in the face of her own starvation—“You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar”—ricochets through the ages together with the Union soldiers’ noble act of harming neither the old woman nor her treasured wedding jar.

In Remembrance of Mary “Polly” Conner Slaughter (August 17, 1806-April 10, 1891)

1.  Relic, n. [1] Something kept as a remembrance, souvenir, or memorial; a historical object relating to a particular person, place, or thing; a memento.

-“Luther’s…apartment…contains his portrait, bible, and other relics.”

Piecing together the pieces of a tale is never easy. Like shards from a broken vessel, the pieces are rough edged and resist coming together again. Yet, with loving care, a craftsman can piece together the pieces, yielding—once again and for all eternity—remembrances of that which was.

May the piecing of these pieces bring forth such a tale.

2.  Marriage, n. The action, or an act, of getting married; the procedure by which two people become husband and wife.

–“Euery Minister shall keepe a faithful…Record…of all Christnings, Marriages, and deaths.”   

On Thursday, August 11, 1825, Mary “Polly” Conner (daughter of John David “Daniel” Conner and Lucy Fox Robertson) married Martin Slaughter (son of John Slaughter and Mary Handy). They exchanged vows at home in Elamsville, Patrick County, Virginia. Mary was eighteen, just a week shy of nineteen. Martin was twenty-three, just a few weeks shy of twenty-four. Mary’s father, an elder in the Primitive Baptist Church, gave surety, he performed the marriage ceremony, and he filed the minister’s return.

The marriage license and the return survive.

3.  Infare, n. A feast or entertainment given on entering a new house; esp. at the reception of a bride in her new home.

―“The day after the wedding is the infare … the company is less numerous, and the dinner is commonly the scraps that were left at the wedding-feast.”

The next day, Polly and Martin had their infare. It is not known who attended. Polly and Martin were country people: she, a housewife; he, a farmer and later a minister. What is known is that Polly wore a special infare dress on that Friday reception in their new home. It was dark brown muslin, with an empire waist. Richly patterned in small bright red and orange oak leaves with tan acorns, it was perfect for a heavy-harvest reception.  From the high neckline down to the waist were small black, ivory buttons. At the end of the long sleeves, the same. The dress shows Polly to have been tall, full bosomed, and thin waisted.

The infare dress survives.

4.  Jar, n. A vessel of earthenware, stoneware, or glass, without spout or handle (or having two handles), usually more or less cylindrical in form. Orig. used only in its eastern sense of a large earthen vessel for holding water, oil, wine, etc.

―“At the dore there is a great iarre of water, with a…Ladle in it, and there they wash their feete.”

Also surviving is one marriage gift: a five-gallon stoneware jar, ovoid in shape, with two side “pocket” handles just below the rim. The handwritten note taped to the bottom of the jar authenticates the occasion. The jar itself also confirms the time period. Its thick, rolled rim and its cobalt-glazing are typical of such jars made between 1750 and 1820, more likely closer to 1820. The jar itself weighs twenty-seven pounds. When filled with water, it weighs seventy-five pounds.

The jar survives.

5.  Civil War, n. War between the citizens or inhabitants of a single country, state, or community.

―“The Civil War and Reconstruction represent … an attempt on the part of the Yankee to achieve by force what he had failed to achieve by political means.”

 According to the Federal Census taken on August 1, 1860, Martin Slaughter was 57; Polly, 53. They had four children living with them at home: Judith D., age 25, Martha Jane, age 16; Lavina, age 13; and Dicie Laroma, age 9. (They had six other children, no longer living at home, and thus, not enumerated on the Census: a son, John W. and five daughters: Mary Elizabeth, Lucinda Lucy, Emilia Ann “Millie”, Nina, and Rosina Lee.) Their real estate was listed with a value of $1,300 (equivalent to $456,300, using today’s economic status calculator) and their personal property was valued at $3,000 (equivalent to $1,053,000, again using today’s economic status calculator). According to family lore, “Martin Slaughter gave each of his daughters at the time of their marriage $800 in gold and a fine horse. His wealth was in gold coins, and it was thought his coins were buried near his spring when he died.” By the time of that census, Martin was a Primitive Baptist minister as well as a farmer.

The next year, 1861, the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter, April 12-14. Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, becoming the seventh state to join the Confederate States of America.  On April 19, Company D (formerly the Lafayette Guard, Petersburg) enlisted in the 12th Virginia Infantry.  It reorganized on May 1, 1862, supplementing its roster with conscripts from Patrick County. John W. Slaughter (Martin and Polly’s son) enlisted and became one of Virginia’s 155,000 men who joined the Confederate Army. He fought in the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31 and June 1, Henrico County), and he fought in the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, Henrico County). On July 20, 1862, John died of pneumonia at a field hospital in Falling Creek, Chesterfield County, Virginia. 

John W. Slaughter joined the ranks of 624,511 soldiers (Confederate and Union combined) who did not survive.

As the Civil War continued, it could not hit Martin and Polly Slaughter any harder than it had hit them in death, but it could hit them—and other Virginians—closer and closer to home.  Because of Virginia’s strategic proximity to the north and because the state housed the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond, by 1864 major Union campaigns throughout the state with ongoing raids aimed at diminishing food and water supplies, left Virginians facing a level of famine they had never faced before.

Despite their economic status, Martin and Polly Slaughter were not spared from the food crisis. At one point during this period in the War, so the tale goes, Polly was at home alone, as Union soldiers approached. 

Did she hear the sound of thunderous horse?  A “hello” from the yard?  A knock at the door?  Did they enter her home? 

What look was in her eyes? Fear? Confidence? Defiance? How did the soldiers see her?  Old?  (She was 60.) Vulnerable? Motherly?

The Union troops demanded food. 

“We’ve no food left; we’ve no animals left; we’ve nothing left,” she told them. “Look all you want—there’s nothing here. All I have is a jar of honey in the spring house. You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar.”

The troops advanced to the spring house and devoured the honey.

Did Polly watch as they went on their way?  Did she rush to the spring house to check on her jar?

Poignantly, it had been spared.

The jar survives.

6.  Gravestone, n. A stone placed over a grave, or at the entrance of a tomb; in later use also applied to an upright stone at the head or foot of a grave, bearing an inscription.

―“Cast the shadows of the gravestones on the silent graves.”

Martin Slaughter died on May 7, 1884, age 82, and was buried in the Slaughter family cemetery in Elamsville. He had carved his own soapstone grave marker:

Dear children and companion too I leave you all in God’s care. I hope we will meet in heaven above when parting and mourning is no more. Blessed are the dead that died in the Lord.

Polly died 7 years later on April 10, 1891, “Age 84Y, 7M, 24D”, and was buried beside her husband.

Their stones survive.

7.  Lineage, n. Lineal descent from an ancestor; ancestry, pedigree.

―“The quiet and lowly spirit of my mother’s humble lineage.”

One daughter born to Martin and Polly plays a pivotal role in this tale. Her name was Martha, and she married John H. Adams. Two children born to Martha and John play roles in this tale as well.  One daughter, Cora Belle Martha “Sweety” Delilah Adams, married Pierce Ulysses Witt; another daughter, Jo Ann Adams, married George Harbour. To Sweety and Pierce was born Bertha Pearl and to Jo Ann and George was born Clara.

As first cousins, Clara and Pearl were close and best friends until marriage and relocation separated them. After more than fifty years they were reunited when, in 1980, I took Bertha Pearl—my mother—back home to Patrick County, Virginia, to visit Clara. Although it was the first time that I had met my second cousin, it seemed that Clara and I had known one another forever.  For more than a decade thereafter, mom and I made annual pilgrimages “back home” to see Cousin Clara. Through listening to all the stories that kept the two of them up until the early hours of morning, the lineage that my mom had shared with me as a child took on a richness and a life that had been missing before.

It was during one of those visits that Clara told me the story of Mary “Polly” Conner Slaughter’s encounter with the Union soldiers who took her honey but spared her honey jar.  This was the moment when, in my mind, I helped Polly lift the jar filled with honey—far heavier than the 75 pounds if filled with water—and take it to the spring house.

It was during one of those visits that Clara opened up a brown paper bag and pulled out Polly Slaughter’s infare dress. This was the moment when I clasped the dress, I touched the muslin, saw the vivid red and orange leaves, and rubbed each and every button. This was the moment, even if fleeting, when I took her hand—her eyes level with mine at 5’ 8”—and danced around the room as I imagine she had danced with many of her guests at the feast she and Martin hosted after their marriage.

It was during one of those visits that Clara showed me the large charcoal-on-paper portrait of Polly Slaughter, still in its original frame though painted over with gold radiator paint.  This was the moment when I saw Polly’s penetrating eyes, saw the firm resolve in her face, and understood why the Union soldiers spared her jar.

It was during one of those visits—much later, when Clara was exceedingly ill and close to death—that I went to visit her alone and found more pieces to the tale.  I did not look forward to that visit, I was not certain whether she would be up for company, and I dreaded those awkward silences that punctuate conversations with the sick and dying. But I knew that I had to go to say goodbye. So, I took along some photographs of my Christmas tree from the holidays just ended.  Nearly touching the Cathedral ceiling, the tree was a gorgeous sight to behold, certain to prompt conversation.  And it did.

As Clara looked at one photograph in particular, one that offered up a closer view of my living room, she raised herself up in bed, saying to her daughter, “Why, Iris, looky here.  Brent’s got a whole navigation of crocks just like the one Great, Great Grandma Slaughter had.  You go find her crock and bring it on in here to show Brent.”

Iris came back in a few minutes, proudly holding a five-gallon stoneware crock. 

“Now, Brent,” Clara said in a low, weak voice, hardly above a whisper, “that’s the jar that Great, Great Grandma Slaughter got on her wedding day.  That’s the jar she always kept her honey in.  That’s the jar the Union soldiers spared.”

I was thrilled and flabbergasted at the same time. Thrilled, knowing that the honey jar still survived.  Flabbergasted, wondering why Clara had not shown me that honey jar during one of my many visits “back home” in search of relics.

8.  Mantel, n. A shelf formed by the projecting surface of a mantelpiece.

―“Above the mantle a painting by Gordon Smith…seemed full of an energy to break free.”

Clara died on November 28, 2000. Not long after, Iris called me and wanted to know what I thought Polly Slaughter’s honey jar was worth and whether I was interested in buying it.  I knew, of course, that it was a family relic of inestimable value, but as a collector of Virginia stoneware pottery, I knew, too, what the jar would fetch at auction. I offered Iris a more-than-fair market price, and she accepted.

The jar is ovoid in shape with “pocket” handles. Its base and rolled rim have the same diameter:  6 1/2 inches. It is 14 inches tall, and it is 10 ½ inches across the middle.

The jar is in my kitchen, resting securely on the mantel above the fireplace.

It continues to survive.

9.  Portrait, n. A drawing or painting of a person, often mounted and framed for display, esp. one of the face or head and shoulders.

―“Fixing his starting eyes upon a portrait of Dr. Enfield which hung over the chimney.”

When I bought the jar, Iris sweetened the deal by giving me the framed portrait of Polly Slaughter.  It measures 15 x 30 inches.  A restoration specialist removed the gold radiator paint, revealing the original ornate composition frame of plaster, wood, and gold leaf.

The charcoal-on-paper portrait is head and shoulders. Polly looks to be around 60 or so. No doubt she sat for it just after the Civil War ended. Her hair is parted in the middle. Whether it is pulled back into a bun cannot be determined because her head is covered by an indoor, ruffle-edged bonnet, tied beneath her chin. Her dress has a small plaid pattern with a high neckline and lace collar. She’s wearing a solid black cape, typical of the period.

Her eyes penetrate, watch, follow all around the room wherever I go, and, I like to think, protect.

It seemed fitting that I hang Polly’s portrait above the mantel, just above the jar that she owned. There, she stands guard over the jar that she so treasured from the day of her marriage, all through the Civil War, and all the way until her death.      

10.  Survival, n. Something that continues to exist after the cessation of something else, or of other things of the kind; a surviving remnant.

–“What are they But names for that which has no name, Survivals of a vanished day?”

The survival of the portrait alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s just one more family portrait that can be found in any antique shop. The survival of the infare dress alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s just a rag in a brown paper sack. The survival of the honey jar alone does not matter. Without the tale, it’s like one of many that can be found throughout Virginia and the South.

What matters are the women who held in trust Polly’s jar, her dress, her portrait, and her tale and passed them on for generation after generation after generation.

What matters is the woman who posed for that portrait. What matters is the woman who wore that dress. What matters is the woman who owned that jar.

What matters even more is that a Southern woman’s generosity in the face of her own starvation—“You can have the honey, but please, please don’t break my jar”—ricochets through the ages together with the Union soldiers’ noble act of harming neither the old woman nor her treasured wedding jar.

What matters is piecing together the pieces of a tale. 


[1] Throughout this tale, the word definitions along with quotations supporting the definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

8 thoughts on “ Piecing Together the Pieces of a Tale.

  1. I found the story (I remember hearing about the jar but not the full story or about the dress) intriguing. The writing exercise itself is very compelling. You’ve used 10 distinct words to guide your narrative. Why? Is this an assignment you give your class (it should be) or perhaps your approach to writing?

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    • Thanks, Janet. Your comments please me immensely!
      I have taught segmented memoir essays for decades. However, I have never seen a segmented essay built around words.
      Somehow, organizing this segmented essay by a word appropriate to each section seemed ideal.
      The beauty, as you note, is that the words carry the narrative.
      Again, many thanks, for your observations!

      Like

  2. Like Janet, I know the crock story, but, again like her, I equally enjoyed reading your organization and your approach. What a unique and engaging way to tell her story! Thank you for sharing both Polly’s tale and your creative path!

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  3. I made the mistake of continuing down the blogpost and ran out of time, having continued over several (or more) earlier posts. I stopped only because I wondered where I might leave a summary thanks and wish for a breather. The honey pot captures the family and the poverty of war. You are a master chronicler and professor and poet.

    Like

    • Thank you so much! It’s always good to hear from relatives. I love this post because it highlights one thread of our ancestry.

      On one of my visits to see Clara, I had the great joy of meeting Mattie. Based on your last name, you must be related to her.

      Again, thanks. I am so glad that you enjoyed the post!

      Like

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