Caveman of the Civil War

Draft dodger lived out the war in hiding

by David Healey

During the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon to be drafted against one’s will and forced to put on a blue uniform. One Delmarva man hated the Yankees so much that to avoid this fate, he spent several years living in underground hideouts.

The ordeal of John Long, “Caveman of the Civil War,” is certainly one of the stranger tales from the Civil War era on Delmarva. His story was described at length in the Salisbury Wicomico News on May 27, 1920.

It is, unfortunately, a second-hand story, recounted from the childhood memories of the newspaper columnist. The newspaper article, and Long’s experiences, have been summarized by the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture at Salisbury University.

“Having made up his mind that he would not obey the call of his country to duty, his chief thought was to find some place where he could hide until the ‘unpleasantness,’ as he termed it, ‘had blown over,’ ” the columnist wrote.

Long’s solution was to build “two or three” underground caves. Like most of  Delmarva, the region around Salisbury is a flat and sandy place where caves do not naturally occur. It’s likely that Long built his shelters in stream banks and also along the edge of a place called “Polk’s Pond.”

These caves were more than crude shelters. Long made them big enough to stand up in, with sides and ceilings finished with boards. He built bunks for sleeping but probably had no stove or hearth that might give away his hiding place. The entrance was more than likely disguised somehow to avoid discovery.

Long was able to keep a sharp eye out thanks to “portholes” he built to give himself ventilation and as a means to keep watch. The columnist wrote “Hundreds of times, he said, the (Yankee) soldiers were within a few feet of his hiding place, but by good luck he escaped.”

It seems that the Caveman wasn’t just a draft dodger and Southern sympathizer, but had somehow gotten himself into trouble with the local Federal authorities. A reward was offered for his arrest, and troops combed the countryside looking for him.

Friends apparently kept Long supplied with food, bringing him supplies under cover of darkness. The Caveman, however, wasn’t content to spend all his time hiding out. On several occasions, he donned a disguise— sometimes dressing as a “Negro woman”— and ventured into town. Long was described as being a big man who weighed 240 pounds, so the sight of him in a dress must have been interesting, to say the least.

One of his favorite haunts was a saloon run by “Old Man Hawkins” that once stood on East Camden Street. As the columnist described it, “Here the friends of the north and of the south often met and many a wordy conflict finally terminated in a ‘knock down and drag out’ fight.”

It’s a good bet that John Barleycorn played a role when the Caveman got himself into more trouble than he bargained for one night at the saloon. He got in a fight with several Yankee soldiers. He knocked a few of them down, then punched an officer so hard that he knocked the man out cold. “After a great deal of work on the soldier he was finally revived averring that he had been struck many a time but never so hard as that Negro woman struck him.”  Somehow, the Caveman must have made it safely back to his hideout.

CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Work healthier with a standing desk.

Was there really a John Long and did this actually happen to him?   When one takes a harder look at his story, parts of it appear to be nothing more than a tall tale, perhaps embellished by the columnist or by the Caveman himself. After all, it seems to stretch the imagination that a young white man, powerfully built at that, could get away with disguising himself as an African-American woman … one who hung out in saloons, no less. And would the Caveman really have stuck around to hear the Yankee officer compliment him on that knockout punch?   If he felt so strongly about the South, he could have slipped into Virginia to join the Confederacy, like so many other young men from Delmarva. But perhaps John Long was a gentle man and something of a loner, happy to mix things up in a relatively harmless barroom brawl but not eager to join the killing fields of the war.

Census records do show a John Long in the Salisbury area. There’s no mention of him living in a cave, of course, but by then the “unpleasantness” of the 1860s was long since over and the Caveman of the Civil War had become a local legend.

(The chapter above is adapted from Delmarva Legends & Lore.)

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