Gertrude Grubb Janeway has a red ribbon in her hair and a smile on her face. In the thin midmorning light of her log cabin, she looks out from her bed onto a world that must seem strange, even bizarre at times, compared to life as she has known it. Her perspective is from a long, long way back, almost as if she were a stranger from a strange land emerging into the present.
Gertrude, 89, is something of a phenomenon. She is Tennessee's only widow of a Civil War veteran listed on Department of Veteran Affairs records and one of only 15 remaining nationwide. She married John Janeway when he was 81 years old and she was but an 18-year-old farm girl from Grainger County.Theirs is the love story of an era now so far away it seems like a dream, but Gertrude has not forgotten a single detail. She loves to tell the story because in a way it keeps her husband alive.
When she talks about it, her face lights up. Her memories are so vivid, the listener is transported back over 100 years to a time when even Gertrude had not been born. This is John Janeway's story as he told it to her.
Return to the year 1864. It is late May, a fresh, slightly cool morning. An 18-year-old boy is astride the family horse. A sack of corn is thrown across the horse's neck. The two are on their way to the grist mill on Buffalo Creek, the one near the falls that drops about 20 feet.
As the old horse plods the familiar trail to the grist mill, a wild-riding regiment of men in blue suddenly rounds a corner and pulls their mounts to a stop. Clouds of dust powder the soldiers' backs and shoulders.
The soldiers are part of the 14th Illinois Cavalry, a distinguished unit that has fought its way from the siege of Knoxville, chased Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan to Greeneville, run down Thomas' Legion of Cherokees and are now on their way to join Gen. Tecumseh Sherman, who is readying his army for a campaign that will make Georgia howl.
"You look like a stout young man," one of the soldiers says.
John Janeway is a stout young man - tall, angular, rawboned even. The soldiers tell him stories of firing muskets, of fighting Rebels in distant places, of adventures he'll have but one time to see and a lifetime to tell about.
On that fine spring morning, he turns his back on the grist mill and turns his face toward war. John Janeway joins the 14th Illinois Cavalry and rides off with them, pointing the family horse toward home.
When the soldiers ask him his name, he improvises. "John January." He does not give them his family name in fear that his parents will find out and make him come home. He is eager for adventure, eager to leave behind the familiar landmarks of Grainger County's New Corinth Community.
After enlisting June 1 at Maryville, he is sent with the Union cavalry to just outside Atlanta, where Sherman is sharpening his troops.
Barely two months later, John January is captured in a fierce fight during which his unit, under the bold cavalry Col. Horace Capron, commanded by Union Gen. George Stoneman, is "cut to pieces" in a running battle near Macon, Ga.
Stoneman has managed to get himself and his 6,500 infantry and cavalry surrounded by Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry.
After losing 2,000 men Stoneman is captured along with 700 of his soldiers. Pvt. John January becomes a prisoner of war at a place he wrote down as "Chattahoochee."
Years later, after he married Gertrude Grubb, he would speak sparingly of his exploits, the adventure the horse soldiers had promised.
"I just hope I never killed anyone," he said.
"A soldier's life is a hard life," he told Gertrude. "I had to beg at houses for food. You slept when you could. Ate when you could. I've seen some hard things."
His only words about his capture were that he was almost shot in the head the night he and other members of the 14th Illinois were surrounded by swarming Confederates.
The 14th had had no rest or sleep for four days, being hounded by Wheeler's men. Finally, at midnight on Aug. 2, Capron halted his men on the road back toward Atlanta.
About 2 a.m., the men of the 14th were curled up on the ground near their horses, having been ordered not even to dismount. Tired and tormented, they slept. Almost as soon as they fell asleep, they were surrounded. Some were shot where they slept. One Confederate put a bullet through John January's hat brim, barely missing his head.
In December, John January was paroled. He returned to his unit but four months later the war was over.
It would be nice to say that he returned to Grainger County, got on the family horse and took the corn to the grist mill on Buffalo Springs. But the reality of the story is that not much is known about John January's post-war history.
Gertrude's recollections are mainly from shards of conversations she had with her husband. John Janeway was already 63 years old when she was born July 3, 1909.
She knows that he was in California after the war. John Janeway had a family and lived to be an old man. By the time he was 77 years old, he simply showed up in Grainger County.