GENDUSA COLUMN: Searching among the heroines

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Hennie looked out her parent’s farmhouse window and saw her father walk deep into the woods. She seldom accompanied him to where he worked the leather from cow hides to make shoes for his large family. At the time, she was beginning to learn how to card and spin wool like her mother, who was operating the spinning wheel that Saturday morning. 

“Mama, what is that I hear?” Hennie immediately yelled in fear. Her mother raced to locate her brood of 14 children to hide them as best she could. The roar of guns blasting was in the direction of their relative’s house down the path from the farm.  

Jack, Hennie’s Dad, heard the gunshots, too, and knew it best to stay in hiding.

In March 1864,  Hennie was only eight years old when the terror began to rein in the pretty farmhouse down the road.  Two hundred federal troops stormed the peaceful Tennessee countryside, finding the home where Hennie’s Aunt Cynthia offered six visiting unarmed Confederate soldiers a hot breakfast. 

Within minutes, a severely wounded Cynthia witnessed all her guests die by rapid gunfire.

When Hennie’s mother, Clementine, heard the first rifle shot,  she picked up a large conk shell in the kitchen. She blew it hard to warn all to stay in hiding, including her husband. Hennie prayed as the soldiers entered their farmland, searching the woods for Jack, but thankfully, they never found her father.

When Hennie was 11, she could create quilts and blankets from cotton and wool spun on the wheel. She worked the pastures, riding her horse sidesaddle and learning skills to shape the future. The family farm is where all remained safe long after the brutality of America’s war was over. 

Hennie would marry Abe Copeland, move into a one-room cabin near the farm, and raise eight children. Hennie would eventually become known for her skills in healing and was often called the “Herb Doctor.” When anyone needed her, she took the reins of her steed, riding through the rugged mountains and hollows to offer aid and carrying her sacred herbs with her.  By the end of her days in 1944, she had delivered more than 1500 babies. Her children became artists, farmers, and business owners and populated the Tennessee hills and valleys. 

Hennie, her mother, and her Aunt Cynthia are only a few of the countless strong women who forged the paths of America.  Every family has stories of these brave, self-sacrificing, confident souls whose tales are rarely told and whose lives impacted so many.  How many today could benefit from learning about their ancestors but aren’t interested in the knowledge? 

History is what teaches us to value today.  We find solutions when we travel back to discover how others survived brutality, lived forgivingly, and worked in harmony. Hennie didn’t have a Home Goods to buy quilts or a DSW shoe store, but she didn’t need one. She was kept warm by the skills of her hands and the work of her father.  

Hennie knew the savagery of war from the events she witnessed, yet she lived on each day, understanding that hate will continue to thrive, but it mustn’t win.

I was born in the hills where Hennie rode her horse and the battles took place.   Today, near the bottom of a mountain is an unpaved road that winds through trees and farmlands. Open pastures spread far and wide, and much of the land remains untouched.

An old house sits vacant to the left of the road as if time suddenly stood still. It is the abandoned home where Cynthia lived, soldiers massacred, and fear gripped all who heard the killing sounds of war. The porch that once held rockers where mothers comforted babies remains, along with an eerie silence.

Further down the road is a small cemetery surrounded by a fence. I lay flowers beside Clementine, Jack, Hennie, and Abe’s tombstones. I realized that even though they lived long ago, I took the time to know them and understand more about myself.

I thank God for those who taught me the value of courage, the strength of love, and the faith to carry on. If I am allowed in the hills of heaven, I will look for the women who walked before me. However, I will not look among the angels but seek them among the heroines. 

You see, Clementine is my great great grandmother, and Hennie is my great Aunt.  Cynthia, who once cooked breakfast for a few hungry soldiers wandering by one morning in March, became my third great-grandmother.

Dedicated to the memory of:

Cynthia Holford Officer 1819-1877

Clementine Verble Walker 1831-1910

Henrietta (Hennie) Walker Copland 1856-1944