Unknown Soldier's Tale

© Neil Potter 1999
It was early Spring in the mountains as George Potter, son of the pioneer Richard Potter, and Mose Belcher, his father-in-law, were busy clearing new ground in the head of Right Fork of Little Beaver Creek. Unknown to them a party of men was approaching George's cabin located on or near Center Creek near the state line across the river from Potter Flats.
Polly was busy preparing supper. She had spotted the men coming up the trail and knew who they were and what they stood for. She quickly sent her children in the woods to hide before they spotted her. She that knew if she tried to run or scream they would shoot her. So she pretended not to notice the men as they surrounded the cabin. They banged on the door with their rifle butts. "Come on out George", one of them yelled. " We know you are in there." Polly knew if she didn't answer the door, they would start shooting. She removed the crossbar from the door and stood aside as the door was slammed open by the armed men rushing into the cabin frantically searching for George. It took less than a minute as the men realized that George wasn't in the cabin.. "Ok, Mrs. Potter", one of the men turned to her and asked. "Where is George?" "He is over in the Head of Right Fork of Beaver clearing new ground." She nervously answered. . S he had decided to tell the truth since there was no trail leading to George and the only way to get there was to go thru the woods and she knew the men knew that it would be impossible to find him in the woods. "I am expecting him home anytime for supper." She wasn't worried about George for if he was on his way home he would spot the men at the cabin and would hide in the woods. "Mrs. Potter , I am Captain Sowards, the leader of these men." He calmly spoke, for he knew if he scared her or intimated her, she would not cooperate in helping them find George. "We need all the help we can get to fight the Rebs and we want George to join us." All the men went outside except Captain Sowards and his sergeant. "Mrs. Potter", the sergeant spoke as he looked out the window at the wooded , mountainous terrain. "The Rebs are hiding in these mountains and we need help in finding them before they do any more killing. They have murdered our soldiers and what is worse they have raided and plundered and murdered entire families." "They aren't soldiers, Mrs. Potter", the Captain interrupted. "They are nothing but a cowardly bunch of thiefs and murderers." All lies nothing, nothing but lies she repeated in her mind. "He'll be here." she assured him as she backed up against the wall. "For George's sake, I hope you're right. " The Captain answered as he turned to go outside followed by the sergeant. " We will be outside waiting on him." She stood in the doorway watching as several of the men rode off down the trail. "Please continue with your cooking, Mrs. Potter and close the door". The Captain ordered her. " We will let you know when to come out."
Polly knew the evil intentions of the men; they had intentions of killing George or taking him to jail. She was aware that they knew George, his brothers, and his neighbors are all southern sympathizers. So she had to find a way to warn George. She lifted up a three-inch thick loose board from the cabin floor and lowered herself thru the hole and underneath the floor. She crawled under the floor to the back of the cabin and into the woods hoping that she wouldn't be caught. She crawled up a hill and onto a ridge where she found a small trail that would lead her to George. She ran as fast as she could tearing her dress on the branches for she didn't take time to move them out of the way. She ran out of breath but kept on running as she gained her second wind totally exhausting herself. She ran about a mile before she came to a path that would take her straight down a hill into a field where George would be. She looked over her shoulder making sure she wasn't being followed before she started down the hill. The hill was steep. She stepped on the tail of dress causing her to loose her footing as she fell to the ground and slid down the path hurting herself as she came into contact with rocks and tree limbs as she continued to slid down the hill. George and Mose heard her and went to her aid as she came to a stop at the bottom of the hill. George picked her up in his arms and sat her against a tree. She was bleeding from several cuts on her body as she frantically tried to speak but could not' get her breath. After a few minutes she regained her composure and warned the two men that they are in danger, that Captain Sowards and his Yankees are waiting on George at the cabin. George knew they would kill him if he was caught. "Are you well enough to go back to the cabin before they discover that you are gone? " He asked Polly. " I think so." she answered as George helped her up on her feet. "We will split up and go different directions." He said as he faced Mose. "Be careful, Polly, " he said as he kissed her goodby. The three split up with Polly returning to the cabin.
Polly returned safely to the cabin without being caught. She was so exhausted that she almost passed out but managed to clean herself up and change into another dress before looking outside to see what was going on. The men were gone. She went outside and could see no one. "Come on out kids" she yelled. Suddenly, three children appeared out of the woods. "Mama, Mama," John , the oldest screamed. "Those soldiers followed the trail that you took to find Daddy and Grandpa." After talking to the kids, who had kept watch on the men from their hiding place, she realized that two of the men had followed her and she unknowingly led them to George and Mose. The two men returned and informed The Captain, and then the men rode off together in the direction of George and Mose. Polly had doubts that the men could find George and Mose; However, her life and her children's may be in danger if the men returned to the cabin. She was very exhausted and sick, but she and the children left immediately and went in the direction of Richard Potter's place to seek safety.
George and Mose, both, knew their way around in the rugged terrain of the mountains and were very efficient at eluding any search party. George sought refuge on a nearby cliff that gave him a view of the trail that led in and out of the area. Mose was less cautious as he decided to follow Polly at a distance not knowing that the Yankees were approaching in his direction. He ran into the party and before he could get away he was captured. George watched the men as they took Mose prisoner. The men retreated and headed back towards the cabin with Mose. Captain Sowards, undoubtedly thought that George would come to the cabin and turn himself in since they had Mose and would soon have Polly as a prisoner too. George was aware of what would happen if he returned to the cabin and he knew Mose and Polly would be taken as prisoners back to Piketon. George took short cuts thru the woods and kept up with the men without being seen. The party came to a spring beside the trail and decide to rest a few minutes as they watered their horses. George was upon a knoll overlooking the men below. George had his Kentucky Long Rifle him that he had gotten in a trade for a tract of land that was now a part of the community of Praise. He positioned behind a tree and took aim at Captain Sowards. He let off a shot just as the Captain made a move to get on his horse, the bullet caught the brim of his hat knocking it into the air. "It's George!" Mose yelled. "He'll kill you fellas!"
The men were startled as they scrambled to get on their horses. George got off a couple of more shots as the men rode off leaving Mose behind. It is not known if George hit one of the men, but the man in the unmarked grave could have been a victim.
Later, after the incident, Captain Sowards sent word to George that he was going to "get" him. George was aware of the Captain's threats and avoided him. However, George had to go to Piketon on business and he knew that he would have to confront the Captain. Jim Swiney, George's brother-in-law was to accompany him. Jim was a big man and was known throughout the area as a man who loved to fight and was skilled with a knife. George and Jim took no chances as they sent several young boys ahead of them to spy on the Captain. They overheard the Captain boasting to a group of people that he was going to "get Potter." The boys warned George and Jim as they approached the town. The Captain had spies too as he was informed of Potter's arrival. George and Jim separated as George walked down the middle of the street and Jim went off in another direction. The young boys followed at a distance. The Captain approached to within 50 feet of George as his men took up positions in front of the buildings and on the corners behind him as if a major battle was about to begin. "Well, Reb, you're not going to escape this time.." The Captain boasted as he raised his rifle and pointed it at George. "You shot one of my men the other day and you'll going to pay for it." George stood silent as he glanced out of the corner of his eyes at all the rifles that were pointed at him. " Drop your gun now or die." The Captain demanded. " We don't want to shoot you, we want to hang you at a public hanging so that all the people can watch you die." It was a standoff, George and The Captain had their guns aimed at each other. George knew he never had a chance with all those rifles pointed at him, but at least he'll get one shot off at the Captain before they get him. "Drop your rifle, " Jim yelled as he came from out of know where grabbing the Captain from behind pressing a cold steel blade against his throat. "I'll cut your head completely off your shoulders and feed it to the dogs." The Captain dropped his rifle for he knew Jim could kill him in an instance just as he had done others that tangled with him. " Now tell your men to drop their rifles and back off. " Jim ordered. "Do as he says!" The Captain screamed at his men as he could barely talk with the blade pressed against his throat. "You know he'll kill me, if you don't. Drop your rifles and get out of here." The men dropped their rifles and slowly backed off out of the area. "Now Mr. Captain, George and I have some business to do." Jim continued, "If you make one move towards George, I'll kill you. and if you ever come up into Potter Flats again, you're a dead man.. Now get out of here." Jim scrapped his knife against the Captain's throat bringing blood as he released him. The Captain fearing that Jim would kill him fled out of town. Jim never owned a gun as did a lot of his relatives but he knew how to use his knife as a weapon and had the skill of an indian in tracking down his prey. His enemies in Piketon feared him. George and Jim went about their business and returned to the mountains with their young boys. George continued making trips to Piketon and there was hostility between him and his enemies long after the Civil War ended.
I had another discussion with my grandfather on 25 Feb 1989 about his grandfather George and the Unknown Soldier. Grandfather was 91 years old at this time and had a good memory.
He recanted his prior story and says now that George did not kill the unknown soldier. He stated the story that he told me earlier was told to him by Sidney Daniel, a first cousin of his who stayed with her Grandfather George when he resided on a farm in Tennessee about 1920. She stayed with him to help take care of him, and to help him pick berries.
Some of the things he told me: He said George's cabin was on Right-Hand Fork of Beaver, not near the Potter Flats; He stated that the men followed Polly's tracks; He remembered the man's name that was after George was a Sowards from Pikeville; He stated that he didn't know that his Grandfather was in the Civil War; He stated that George blamed the men for his wife's death--she died later never fully recovering from the sickness that occurred to her when she exhausted herself to warn George; He said that George did kill a man for he remembered his grandfather visiting his home on Beaver and told him sitting in his front room that the worst thing that he (George) had ever done was "killing a man." Grandfather was married in 1919 so this visit must have occurred between 1919 and 1925(George died in 1925); He stated that he stayed a year with his grandfather when his grandfather George live in Greenup County, Ky. He stated that he and his cousin Alec worked in the steel mills at Russell. They rode the train to and from the steel mill to the farm. Frank Potter, Grandfather's brother stated that he stayed with his grandfather George in Greenup county, Ky during the flu epidemic in 1918. He said the entire family was sick and he had to feed and take care of them till they got well. He was the only one that didn't get sick. One other thing that my Grandfather mentioned--he stated that knives were their main weapon during the earlier times-- that rifles were hard to come by. George acquired his rifle by trading a tract of land that he inherited from his mother Mary, who in turn inherited it from her father William Ramey--this land consisted of an large area where the train depot was located in Praise now known as Elkhorn City.
I do not believe that George Potter killed the unknown soldier for the simple fact that George and his relatives were the ones that buried the soldier. the soldier was obviously a confederate killed by mistake for the women washed his clothes and prepared him for burial while the men made him a coffin. Now if it was a Yankee they would have thrown his body over the cliffs or left him lying on the ground for the simple reason they hated the Yankees and would not have taken pain to bury him on their land. I talked to Sidney Daniels many years ago and she told me that she believed George killed the soldier but the family wanted it kept quit and at that time she didn't want me telling anyone about it. I believed that there was a lot of truth to what Grandfather Landon was saying but he tried to cover up some facts for example: He said that he didn't know that his Grandfather was in the Civil War---it was obvious that he did know. I believe that there was a big secret or mystery in our family that happened during or after the war that they have tried to hide all these years and it is my belief that Grandfather Landon, his cousin Sidney and others knew about it and they too, tried to keep it a secret.