<==== Robert L. Perkins ====>
3 “I suppose that’d be all right. I’m Captain Taylor Baldwin and the boys here are various remnants of the First Corps of the late Army of Northern Virginia – General Robert E. Lee commandin’.”
“Good, and I’ll be thankin’ you very much Captain,… men. May I sit down here with you and enjoy your fire?”
O’Brien worked his way in between the soldiers and knelt down on his haunches beside the fire. He slowly moved his head from left to right as he examined the motley band encircled before him. Stretching his hands out toward the fire, he opened his palms to warm them. After a short while he spoke.
“’Tis a cool night, indeed, is it not?” He paused. “Well, I’m supposin’ you men must be anxious to get back to your homes and families now.”
Sam spit a stream of yellow-brown tobacco juice into the fire and answered slowly.
“Well, sir, we’re a’hopin to do jest that, if’n General Grant don’t send us all to some Yankee prison up North”.
“Then you haven’t heard have you? There won’t be any prison time for rebel soldiers as long as you take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Just sign your parole and you’ll all be headin’ home – free as you please.”
O’Brien carefully watched their joyous responses to his bit of good news.
“But, I’ll be thinkin’ you might find things a bit different when you get there. Are any of you men from Georgia?”
“Ah am, sir.” Gordon Hall replied.
“And it’s very sorry to hear that I am, son. General Sherman and his army pretty well ripped that place apart – from Chattanooga all the way on down to Savannah.”
The reporter paused for a moment and then began again, but now there was a certain hint of sarcasm in his voice.
4 “I expect you’ll be findin’ your house burned down to the ground, or at least damaged, and, of course, all of your slaves are free now. Yes son, times they may be quite hard for you Southerners.”
O’Brien was surprised by Gordon’s chuckle. He looked around at his friends, winked and half-smiled.
“I do appreciate them nice words and yore concern for me and my kin, Sir, but Ah think you’ve done made some – what we call down home – “bad assumptions”. You see, Ah ain’t got no house or land – not even the shady side of a sandstone hill. And as fur slaves, why tarnation, we’re hardly more’n slaves ourselves. My Daddy is a dirt-farmer fur shares. He never owned nuthin’ mor’n a couple’a worn out old mules, and whatever he could carry on his crooked back. Ah ain’t got nuthin’ mahself neither – and, if’n you questioned these other boys here you’d see we’re all pretty much the same – just poor, God-fearin’, Southern folks in a hurry now to git back home – to scratchin’ out a livin’ someway, somehow”.
“You shore right, Gordon. Them words is the gospel truth” Sam echoed.
The men all nodded their heads in agreement.
“So you’ll be tellin’ me that you lads aren’t landed gentry and that none of you owned Negro slaves?” O’Brien questioned, taking out his notebook and pencil and beginning to scribble.
“Listen to me, Sir.” It was Captain Baldwin. “This idea that all Southerners live on plantations, sip mint juleps under the trees in the afternoon and beat our slaves every night is utter nonsense. I do own a nice little house in Mobile city, and we did have a house-slave that we inherited from my mother’s family. She died before the war started at the age of eighty-nine, and we buried her right beside our family plot. She raised me from a pup, and when she died I felt like I’d lost my grandma. Anyway, I did run a dry-goods store on Conte Street before the war, but I don’t have any land other than that lot in Mobile. None at all. The rest of these boys are about like Corporal Hall here. Just ordinary folks, caught up in a war like so many straws in a hurricane”.
O’Brien seemed puzzled. He laid down his notebook and pencil on the ground before him, raised his heavy body up, and shifted his weight to one foot and then back to the other.
5 He lifted up his hat and ran his stubby fingers through his hair once and then again before he spoke.
“Well, I’m not sure quite what to make of all this. If none of you owned slaves or plantations and all, then …, then why were you fighting, and what would you be fighting for?”
His words came out slowly and deliberately as he lowered himself back down on his haunches before the fire, retrieving his pencil and notebook. The Captain spoke first.
“Mr. O’Brien, there’s things in life that ain’t worth much and then there’s things that are. I remember once, when I was just a boy, my Daddy sat me down under a big oak tree and gave me a bit of life’s truth. He said somethin’ about like this,
“Son, the day will come in your life when you’ll have to decide the things that count, things that are what they call a priority. When that day comes, and it most certain will, I want you to remember that the important things, the main things, are those things that make your heart feel good – not your stomach or your back, not your guts or even your mind, Son, but your heart. That’s where the value is, those are the things that count. You might not understand that just yet – you bein’ just a kid now – but at the proper time you will. It may be this or it may be that, but if it don’t make you want to shed a little tear of joy or sadness, it probably ain’t too much.” Yes sir, I often reflect on those words of wisdom from my Daddy.”
“Now, in answer to your question Mr. O’Brien, the South and home make my heart feel good – real good. That tells me that those things are important to me, so important that I’m willing to fight and even die to protect them.”
Gordon Hall nodded his head in approval, pulled at his belt and began to speak.
“You know, Ah ‘member a sunrise in early September once back home in Bibb County, Georgia. Me and my little sister Anne was walkin’ down to the spring to fetch some water. She must’a been ‘bout three or four at that time, and she always was a followin’ me around. Anne has the most beautiful golden hair that Ah ever did see, and, well, the sunbeams was jest a breakin’ over the tops of the cottonwood trees around that spring, and they begin a dancin’ off’n her lovely little ringlets, and she looked jest like them angels you see in the
6 paintings at the church house – all fat and baby-faced, yet kinda fragile at the same time, with a golden halo gleamin’ ‘round her little head. That’s what tetched my heart then, and it does the same to me now, jest a’thinkin’ of it again, and of her – and of home”.
“That’s right, Gordie, I know that feelin’ too.” It was Sam who spoke next in his flat, Texas twang.
“You light-steppin’ boys ain’t a goin’ to believe this here, but Ah got some tender feelin’s too”. His nervous laugh betraying his emotions, the Texan spoke softly and carefully, as if expecting to be challenged for his vulnerability.
“Back home in Harrison County we got the smartest little white-washed, clapboard church house jest a sittin’ at the crossin’ of the roads to Jefferson and Shreveport, over in Louisiana. It’s in the greenest, softest valley that God ever did make - just a filled up with pine trees and sweet gum. Anyhow, we waren’t much on church goin’ in my family ‘though mama always claimed we was Baptists. But, one Sunday ev’nen’ jest afore dusk, my pappy and me was a passin’ by that little church in our wagon – Ah don’t rightly recall where it was we’d been – and they was a havin’ their services and all. Well sir, they had them one of them pump organs in there, and they was a singin’ and a playin’ that organ, and it was the sweetest sound that a couple of old reprobates like us had ever done heard. Pappy pulled up them mules beside a big pine tree, and we jest sat there and listened to the music – right up ‘til the preacher lit in. But, you know, it waren’t jest the singin’ and all, it was also the singers. We knowed those folks, and good folks they was, ever last one of ‘em. They was our neighbors, and they was our friends. Ah’ll never forgit that evenin’ as long as Ah got breath. Like you said, Cap’n, it makes my heart feel good. Now there’s some value, Ah say.”
Tom Cooper was the next soldier to speak. He was a short, muscular farmer from the hills of eastern Tennessee.
“Ah reckon Ah seldom had them feelin’s myself, ‘bout home and all, ‘cause Ah ‘member home as jest bein’ hard times. But Ah do recall, ‘fore this awful war, takin’ some pride in a job well done. Why, some folks says that Ah kin plow the straightest rows and curl the craggiest hills in all the Smokies. There’s worth to that and them’s deep feelin’s too, if Ah say so mahself.”
Tom paused to reload and fire his pipe and then continued.
7 “Ah’ll declare I’ve had some feelin’s ‘bout this war though, Ah’ll tell y’all that. Ah had to bayonet a Yankee sergeant last week as we was a comin’ outta Petersberg in that battle over at, aw, what was the name of that place?” He paused and swore loudly. “Ah cain’t ‘member. Anyhow, Ah do ‘member the feelin’s Ah had when Ah stuck him. Ah ‘member how mad Ah done got. Not mad at him fur bein’ a Yankee, and not mad at my own self, jest mad. Ah guess Ah wuz mad at Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis fur startin’ up this here fight, and at the Army of the Potomac for comin’ down here to fight us, and Ah was mad at our officers – beggin’ your pardon Cap’n – for makin’ us fight them, and mad at the Yankee sergeant for makin’ me have to kill him. Ah don’t understand. Why don’t he jest give up? Why’d he have to make me gig his gizzard like a fat ole bullfrog? Ah jest don’t know. It jest don’t seem to make much sense to a country boy like me. It’s jest kinda like bein’ mad and bein’ sad all at the same time, and not knowin’ which is right, or what comes up next – or why?”
Several men nodded and grunted their agreement. The reporter scribbled some more notes and then raised his head to speak.
“Looks like I’ll be getting a good start on my story now. It may not be what I planned to get, but I’m thinking it will sell. I’m obliged to you all for your help, lads.”
O’Brien rose once more to his feet, closed up his notebook with a pop and nodded his head to the men. Starting to leave he took several steps, but then paused, turned and stepped back into the circle.
“With your permission, I’ll be asking you one last question. If you had it to do all over again, if you knew what you know now, would you still be doing it? Would you still fight this war of rebellion?” Each man slowly nodded his head without looking to his companions for confirmation. O’Brien carefully noted their response.
“Well, I’ll not be understanding this. By all the saints, I never will.”
“I reckon not,” answered the Captain. “But, you know Mr. O’Brien, sometimes it ain’t the winnin’ or the losin’ that’s the measure of a man, or of an idea, or even of a country. Yes sir, that can kinda slide right on past whoever it was that came out on top.” He paused. “But, that doesn’t make it any less.”
8 O’Brien turned on his heel, laughed out loud and strode off into the night. But, something in the pit of Gordon Hall’s stomach just could not let the conversation end like that. He swore softly under his breath, and then called after the reporter with heavy words – half-choked with the emotions brought on by four long years of pent-up frustration.
“Mr. O’Brien… jest tell yore readers…,” He paused, lowered his head and kicked at the ground before him, seemingly unable to find the words. Finally he spoke again, “Aw hell, jest tell ‘em we done it for Dixie”.
Copyright 2015 – Robert L. Perkins