We have included the winners who agreed to have their winning entries published on the blog. Please note we did not receive any entries for the Youth 6th-8th Grade Essay Contest and we received one entry for the Youth 6th-8th Grade Short Story Contest. The one entry for the Short Story Contest was read by the judges and deemed worthy of a first place award.
The Paul Skeen First Place Award for 6th-8th Grade Short Story
“A Year of Healing: 1865”
by Jacob Mitchell
On a cold, crisp evening in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia people gathered in the Methodist Church in Christiansburg, a small town in Montgomery County in the Southwestern corner of the state to celebrate the ringing-in of the New Year, 1865. The citizens of the Confederate States of America were weary, worn down. Food had been scarce over the past few years because the crops had done poorly for the folks of Montgomery County. Worst of all, many families had lost fathers, brothers, and sons because of this war that continued to rage. Despite all the sorrow and afflictions, the ringing-in of the New Year encouraged many who thought the war might end this year. As the weary folks meandered out of the building before midnight, returning to their homes, young twelve-year-old Jonathan Mayfield sighed, “I hope that this war will end soon so that Father can come home.”
“I do, too, Jonathan,” she replied. “All we can do is trust the Lord.”
“I miss Father, too,” chimed in seven-year-old Daniel. Ten-year-old Abraham and eight-year-old Anna agreed although they said nothing.
Jonathan retrieved the horses from the livery stable, hitched them to the buggy, and drove the family out of town and into the country. On the drive home no one spoke. They were all missing their father, hoping for his return. Some two miles outside of town, Jonathan turned the buggy off the dirt road into the oak tree-lined drive that led to their farmhouse in the valley. As they approached the house, Neel, the Mayfield’s elderly African-American slave came out of his small cabin. Returning their warm greetings, he helped the children and their mother out of the buggy, then led the mares to the barn where he would feed and water them. As the family entered the house, the clock struck midnight. The New Year was here. They all went wearily to bed with thoughts of fine things that, hopefully, 1865 would bring.
January and February passed peacefully. Letters from Father came frequently. The letters, thought young Jonathan, were hopeful. His mother always saved them. She tied them in a bundle and stored them in an old tin coffee can on the small oak shelf that Father had made for her long before this appalling war had begun. Little Daniel treasured those letters more than anyone because he had not really known his Father. He was only three when his father had left for war. He had not seen him since.
March came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, leaving daffodils and tulips blooming in the valley where the Mayfield farm lay. Maybe the war will come to an end, thought the family. April arrived. Jonathan and Neel began plowing the fields, preparing them for planting tobacco and corn after the tenth of May when danger of frost would be past.
One fine spring day in April, lilac’s aroma wafting through the opened door and windows, Mrs. Mayfield called all her children to the kitchen. Jonathan and Neel, working in the fields, had seen a rider come to their home. “Who is that and why is he in such a hurry?” wondered Jonathan aloud. Then, answering his mother’s call, he hurried to the house with Neel. “Children, I have some bad news for you,” Mother sighed.
“What is it, Mother?” asked Jonathan, “What did that man have to say?”
“The Yankees are approaching Montgomery County and are destroying everything along the way. They have destroyed the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad line to Salem, burned Mt. Airy, Wytheville, Max Meadows, Hillsville, Jacksonville, and many other towns and communities along the way. Brown’s Brigade is in the West demolishing railroads, bridges, and telegraph lines along Crab Creek. There is a possibility that those terrible troops will reach Christiansburg. They could plunder and burn our home.”
“What are we to do?” cried little Anna fearfully, her eyes filling with tears.
“The only thing we can do: trust in our Lord, children,” Mother answered calmly.
At his mother’s words, Jonathan was dumb-founded. He had heard of the horrendous destruction the Yankees had caused, but never once had he thought they would harm his family.
I know exactly what I’ll do, thought Jonathan to himself. I have an idea. “Mother!” he exclaimed, “I know what we can do! We can hide in that cave up the creek in the woods. It’s big enough for the livestock and the tobacco and corn seeds, too. No one would ever find us in there because it’s covered by the trees.”
“How smart you are, Jonathan!” exclaimed Mother joyously, her face beaming with excitement. “We’d better get started right now.”
“We’ll all help you with your plan, Jonathan,” volunteered young Daniel.
Immediately, with Neel’s help, the family began preparation. Jonathan assigned Abraham and Daniel the task of jarring up water from the small stone springhouse. Mother and Anna gathered most of the food items from the kitchen although they would still need to leave some in the house for a few days. The family would not be staying in the cave immediately; they would wait until the Yankees were close. Jonathan and Neel built make-shift stalls in the cave for the animals. Building them was not as difficult as carrying the lumber up the steep bank to the cave. Unfortunately, they were not able to let the horses pull it in the wagon because the path up to the cave mouth was too steep and covered with too many trees.
The next day they got the two mares, the cow, the mule, the chickens and swine into the spacious cave, which went about two-hundred feet back into the wooded hillside, was about ten feet wide at the mouth, but became even wider toward the back. In the back went the mule and horses. In front of them went the swine. Jonathan had built a stall with a lid on top for the chickens. After all the livestock was safe in the cave, Jonathan and Neel carried bags of seed and grain to stack. They had to carry the bags on their shoulders while climbing up the steep slope without sliding down into the creek. This was back- breaking, difficult work but they managed to do it. Next, they carried the gardening tools, rakes, hoes, plow, into the cave. Jonathan and Neel then packed up the jars of water that Abraham and Daniel had gathered earlier and got the boxes of kitchen items from Mother and Anna. All this was stored in the cave.
“Finally,” Jonathan proclaimed, “I do believe we are finished.”
The entire family was relieved. Now all they could do was wait, which was worst of all. April ninth came and nothing happened. Neel fed and watered the animals. April tenth and eleventh passed peacefully.
Maybe they won’t come, thought mother.
April twelfth arrived. While eating breakfast, Mother suggested to Jonathan and the children, “Maybe we should get the animals out today. I don’t think the Yankees will come.”
“I don’t know, Mother. Maybe we should w—“ Jonathan was interrupted by a loud noise in the distance. A gunshot! Following that were more shots. At that moment Neel rushed into the house and exclaimed, “Run to the cave and hide!” Jonathan ran out onto the porch. To his amazement, he could see in the distance Confederates and Yankees engaged in a skirmish.
Hurrying back into the kitchen, he proclaimed to the others, “The Union Troops and the Confederates are fighting! “
Mother’s eyes widened. Daniel and Abraham exchanged shocked expressions. Anna began crying. Everyone ran out onto the porch a second time. The Yankees were now marching right toward their home! What will happen to us? Fear-stricken, Jonathan was unable to move for a few seconds. Then he shouted to his mother and siblings, “Run to the cave now!”
Quickly, the family ran out the back door, across the field, through the woods, by the creek. Climbing the steep bank, they all arrived at the cave safely. Suddenly, Daniel realized something: No one had thought to bring Father’s letters.
Daniel sobbed, “I have to go back. Father’s letters!” Before anyone could respond, the seven-year-old was gone. Mother started after him but Jonathan stopped her. “No! I’ll get him.”
Jonathan and Neel rushed out of the cave. At the edge of the woods, he caught sight of Daniel. Rushing after him, Jonathan prayed, “No! Please let me catch him. He’ll be shot if he’s seen!” Just as Daniel was about to step out into the field Jonathan grabbed him and pulled him back.
“No, Daniel! You cannot go! You’ll be killed. ” Neel carried Daniel, crying, back into the cave. The little boy ran sobbing into his mother’s arms.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” cried Mother to Jonathan and Neel.
There in the black cave the family huddled together. Outside they heard gunshots, men yelling and screaming. They could hear pillaging: tables, chairs, and glass being broken. I wonder what they will destroy, thought Jonathan. Soon the smell of smoke filled the air. Everyone began coughing and their eyes began burning. Anna, sobbing, clutched Mother’s hand; the younger boys silently moved closer to her. Neel sat near the entrance, a shotgun in his hands. Though the cave was pitch-dark, it could not compare to the darkness of evil outside. Jonathan remembered Psalm 27:1. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Mrs. Mayfield and the children and Neel trusted the Lord. They prayed. The Lord was their light in that dark moment. They trusted that He would protect them and see them through this dreadful occurrence.
At dusk all became silent. The sounds of pillaging and guns and fire and yelling ceased. The chirping of crickets and peepers were all that the family could hear outside. The acrid smell of smoke still filled the air. Everyone fell asleep except Jonathan and his mother. I must protect my family, he thought. The next day came slowly and Jonathan and his family wondered if it would be safe to go out yet. It was a chance they would have to take. Quietly, they stole out of the cave. What would they see? Would their house be burned to the ground?
They climbed down the bank, walked by the creek, and came out through the woods. Mother gasped. Her eyes welled with tears. Anna cried. The boys, including Jonathan, stood with devastated expressions on their faces. Across the field where their house and barn and Neel’s little cabin had stood, were now smoldering ash-heaps.
Mother wiped silent tears from her eyes before she spoke. “Pull yourselves together, everyone. The Lord is still good. Let us thank Him for what we still have. No one is dead. Our animals are alive. We can start over.” Mother’s words were encouraging. Jonathan knew she was right. Mother prayed for them. They all gathered in a circle and bowed their heads. “Dear Lord, we thank you for keeping this family safe and thank you for your many blessings. We pray that you would help us to trust in you and that you would continue to protect us in the days to come. Please bring Father safely home. Please give us strength to rebuild. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Jonathan remembered a verse from Philippians: “In everything give thanks.” He repeated those words to himself over and over, then he commanded, “Well, don’t just stand there. There is work to be done.” He ran back to the cave and grabbed the shovel and rakes. Then he proceeded to shovel the hot ashes and rubble into piles. Neel fed and watered the livestock. Mother trudged back to the cave where she prepared breakfast and tidied up because she knew they would be living in the cave for a while. Everyone pitched in and helped. Anna helped Mother by sweeping out the cave and organizing it. Abraham and Daniel helped Jonathan clean up the debris.
Besides living in the cave for a few months, all was well for the Mayfield family. News shortly reached them that the war was over. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April twelfth, the day of the skirmish. Soon they received word that Father was coming home. The entire family rebuilt their house, the barn, and Neel’s cabin, all of which were now much nicer than the former structures. Although slaves throughout the South were now free, Neel continued to live with the Mayfield family because they were like his own family. In May Jonathan, Father, and Neel planted their fields in corn and tobacco. Everything they planted did very well. The Mayfields prospered. 1865 was indeed a year of healing.
Although much sorrow had come to the fictitious Mayfields of Montgomery County, much good came their way as well. Just as they had hoped, 1865 was a year of healing for their family, along with thousands of other real life families throughout the South. Montgomery County soon became part of Reconstruction Military District Number One. After the war the South was divided into five districts, each being under a major general. The Southern states were under military rule. Reconstruction Military District Number One was under General John Schofield’s command. Several acts by Congress followed which returned all the states to the Union by 1870.
Reconstruction had a positive effect on Montgomery County. It led to the building of a successful black school, Christiansburg Institute. Although the white male population decreased three percent, many free blacks entered the work force. Following the war, the county prospered and grew. By 1870, according to a census, one-hundred and twenty-one families lived in Christiansburg. The county survived the conflict in reasonably good condition.
The skirmish in this story was based on a legend. The legend has it that the last battle on Virginia soil was fought just outside Christiansburg on April 12, 1865. This skirmish was known as the Skirmish of Seven Mile Tree. The legend says that several shots were fired between members of the 25th Virginia Cavalry and the Michigan Cavalry that had been in the area for a couple of days. The skirmish did not cause any real damage, although other troops had already caused much damage in other areas of the county.
The Lost State Writers Guild First Place Award for 6th-8th Grade Poetry
by Roger Cline
The black crow sits looking and
drops like an atom bomb
and the scavenger will eat.
The Virginia Writers Club Second Place Award for 6th-8th Grade Poetry
by Alyssa Plaster
Swimming, foaming, splashing
Sand, shells – sun, plants
Burning, drying, hallucinating
The Kathleen Taylor Third Place Award for 6th-8th Grade Poetry
by Sky Casey
I wish I were…
that sits on a log;
that croaks all day
and likes to play.