The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 2
By the end of 1864, most of the Confederate soldiers had given up. They’d been beaten too many times. Food was scarce and they were forced to forage in the fields and towns for something to eat. Even as they took what little was offered, or just took what they could find, they understood some of their countrymen would probably go hungry that night and the next. It pained Seth to know he was taking food from women and children, but if he didn’t eat, he couldn’t fight. If he couldn’t fight, he’d die.
Clothing was a problem too. Seth’s two uniforms had worn to tatters and his boots had rotted away in the mud of the Tennessee spring rains. He was sure it wasn’t right, but after seeing one of the older soldiers taking the boots off a dead union soldier while saying, “He ain’t gonna need ‘em anymore, and I do”, Seth began stripping the dead for things he needed to stay alive and healthy.
He wouldn’t strip the dead Confederate soldiers of their uniforms. It seemed disrespectful to leave them on the battlefield in their long johns. Some of them carried homespun shirts and pants in their haversacks, and he took those. He wouldn’t wear the blue of the Union like some did, but he had no problem wearing Union boots.
The bowie knife at his side had come from a Union sergeant with a hole where his right eye had once been. The holsters and Remington revolvers he wore once belonged to a Union Captain. He carried an extra haversack that a Union corporal had used to carry his rations. Inside it were powder flasks, patches, and balls to fit the Remingtons along with several tins of percussion caps and four spare cylinders.
Riding inside his trousers and tied tightly to his belt was a leather pouch with Seth’s other prize of battle. As the war had worn on, the paymaster seemed not to be able to find the Sixty Third very often. Even if he did get his eleven dollars plus whatever back pay they gave him, it wasn’t worth anything. Seth heard the other men talking of the sutler selling a pair of trousers for two hundred Confederate dollars, and even a plug of tobacco cost twenty.
Seth remembered telling Elizabeth he’d come home with enough money to start farming. After the paymaster missed him three months in a row, Seth began making a search of the pockets of dead Union soldiers after each battle. He quickly realized the Union enlisted men were not being paid regularly either, but officers, even the lieutenants, sometimes carried coins. It was a dollar here, a half-eagle there, but Seth had amassed a little over a hundred dollars throughout the many battles. Union gold coins hadn’t lost any value, and like the revolvers and boots, their owners didn’t need them anymore.
The Confederacy was in its death throes and most of the soldiers understood the end was near. Some deserted even though they knew they’d be shot if caught. A few partook of the devil drink more and more often until they were unfit for battle. Others turned to the company chaplain for guidance. It seemed every night there were prayer services.
Seth didn’t go to the services and his Bible lay unread at the bottom of his haversack. Though he’d tried over and over, he couldn’t find any passage that explained how a God who loved man would allow such suffering as he’d seen and experienced over the last two years. Seth had been lucky, but he hadn’t escaped the wounds of war.
At Chickamauga, a piece of iron from a cannon ball had put a gash in his head. Seth was too busy staying alive to do anything but tie a bandanna over it. By the time the battle had ended, the bleeding had stopped. The cut left only an odd part in his hair. At Missionary Ridge, he’d been shot in the arm and at Nashville, in the hip. Both wounds had only gone through flesh and had healed, but Seth had threatened to shoot the surgeons if they tried to amputate his arm or leg.
Seth had seen officers he’d trusted continue to order men to charge a much superior force of Union infantry in spite of the bodies already lying on the battlefield. He’d seen men from his company capture Union soldiers, search and strip them of weapons, and then shoot them dead while they stood there with their hands up. He’d seen Union soldiers tie Captured confederate soldiers in front of Union riflemen as shields. Seth decided he could only trust himself to get him through this trial of body and spirit. After that, he withdrew from everyone in hopes of just staying alive.
He stayed alive, but being alone didn’t save him from the nights. On the nights he was not slated for picket duty, he had to endure lying awake and trying not to think. When he did finally close his eyes, he had only a few minutes of peace before the faces would come in his dreams. They were the faces of men he’d watched die, the faces of the men he’d killed, and the face of one man Seth had managed to keep in the darkest corner of his mind when awake. When that man’s face invaded his dreams, the face tortured him with the same vision of the barn outside Franklin, and then left him shaking and dripping with sweat when he woke.
The Captain returned to the formation with the Brigade general. The General climbed up on a wagon and said Durham Station was the end of the war for them all. After another bloody battle, the Sixty Third and other units of the Army of
Tennessee had been surrounded by the Union. The general then told what was left of the brigade he was proud of them and didn’t doubt their willingness to fight on, but without food and ammunition, their situation was hopeless. He said Lee had already surrendered, and he was going to surrender too. He then left the men and rode toward the Union lines under a flag of truce.
When he returned, his aide posted a notice of the terms of surrender for all the men to read. They would cease hostilities immediately and turn in all arms, artillery, and any other government property in their possession upon demand. They would be allowed to keep any horses not of government issue and any personal property. Once that was done, they would be considered paroled and allowed to return to their homes. The Union would not bring charges against any soldier so long as he did not again take up arms against the Union. The formal surrendering of arms and artillery would take place in the morning.
Seth trusted the Union less than he trusted anyone else. That night, he put his pouch of coins, the Remington revolvers and bowie knife in his extra haversack. He added six nearly full cartridge boxes he’d stripped from the dead during the battle, and his day’s ration of hardtack. Since the war was over for the Sixty Third, there was no need for sentries. None challenged him when he picked up the haversack and slipped out of camp and walked to the deserted cabin a mile away. After hiding the haversack under some broken boards in the floor that also hid the Springfield rifle he’d taken from a Union private and hidden there the night before, Seth took another way back to camp.
After a brief formation the next morning, the men of the Sixty Third surrendered their rifles and bayonets and were then released to return home. Seth walked through the Union lines and continued north for a couple miles. After looking to make sure there were no Union soldiers on picket duty that far out, he walked west for an hour and then turned back south. By nightfall he had been to the cabin, retrieved his haversack and rifle, and was walking back north again.
The roads were filled with Confederate soldiers walking back home, Union troops marching to occupy Durham Station, and wagons carrying Union supplies. The Union officer who took his rifle said the war was over for him, but Seth didn’t trust that a Confederate soldier going north wouldn’t be arrested or maybe even shot by Union troops. He made his way through the woods and fields of the countryside far enough from the roads that he wouldn’t be seen. Any people he met in the countryside, if there were any left, would be more likely to thank him than anything else.
Seth was amazed at the devastation of the countryside. The woodlands were pockmarked here and there by places one army or the other had bivouacked. The rotting remains of the shelters both armies had built for the winter filled the clearings in the forest that had supplied the logs. The burned circles of campfires dotted these spaces, and discarded items littered the area, a tattered shirt here, a boot with no sole there, even a rifle that had been blown in half at the breech. Always at these sites, there was at least one low mound of dirt that marked the final resting-place of a soldier.
The farms and fields were worse. It was late April, and farmers should have been plowing and getting the land ready for planting crops. Instead, the fields lay waiting for the men to return from the war. On most of the small farms, the house was empty of people and empty of anything edible or useful in some way. At some houses, he saw the mounds of earth that marked graves. Some of the houses were just a stone chimney standing amidst the ashes and broken crockery. Seth thought of his mother and father, and quickened his pace.
Between skirting the towns, going over the mountains, and foraging for food as he went, it took Seth three weeks to reach Virginia. Even though he’d been gone only a little over three years, the farm seemed a distant memory. He saw the cabin where Elizabeth lived through the trees to his right, but didn’t stop. He wanted to get home now, home to see his mother and father.
He was relieved to see the house and barn still standing. Smoke wafted into the spring breeze from the chimney, and when he opened the door, the scent of boiling potatoes and beans took him back to his childhood. He saw a woman bent over and stirring a pot on the fire.
“Mama. I’m home.”
The woman who jumped and then turned wasn’t his mother. She was a young black woman, and stared at him for a minute or two before speaking.
“You be Seth?”
“Yes. Where is my mother?”
“She allus said you’d come back.”
“Where is she?”
The woman’s face turned somber.
“Seth, your mama’s out with your daddy, ‘side the garden. The Union soldiers come and –“
Seth was out the door before she finished. Under the big oak tree he saw what he’d always refused let himself think about - two mounds of earth just beginning to sprout grass. Two wooden crosses stood at the head of the mounds. Seth walked to the mounds and stood there, unwilling to believe what he knew to be true. A tear rolled down his cheek.
Seth felt a gentle touch on his shoulder and turned to see the black woman standing there.
“Seth, they wasn’ killed an’ they didn’ suffer. The Union soldiers come and took the horses an’ the cow an’ the hogs. Since he couldn’ plow, your daddy was tryin’ t’ turn over th’ garden wit’ a shovel, an’ ‘is heart jest give out. Your mama cried fer two days, an’ then wouldn’ eat nothin’. She passed two weeks later. I don’ think she wanted much to live ‘thout your daddy.”
“How do you know all this? Where did you come from?”
The black woman smiled wryly.
“Them same Union soldiers come up t’ th’ big plantation, th’ one two ridges over from ‘ere, an’ tol’ all us black folks we ‘uz free. Then, they burnt everthin’, even th’ slave cabins, an’ took all th’ food. We might ‘a been free, but they lef’ us nowhere t’ go and nothin’ t’ eat. The Union soldiers took Zebediah - he’s my husban’ - off t’ th’ war. Your mama and daddy took me in ‘cause I’m gonna have a baby.
“I buried ‘em when they passed an’ put up th’ crosses. I ‘uz a house slave an’ th’ Missus teached me t’ read some, so I said th’ Bible words over ‘em, least th’ ones I knowed t’ say at a grave. Then, I jest stayed here t’ wait fur Zebediah an’ you. Your mama said you’d come home after th’ war and want t’ be a farmer again. I hoped maybe you’d need a woman t’ cook and clean for you ‘til you found a wife, and Zebediah could help in the fields, not…not for pay, just fer food and a place t’ live ‘til my baby comes.”
Seth spent half an hour at the graves. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t figure Mama and Daddy could hear him anyway. He just stood there and cursed himself for leaving to join the army. If he’d stayed home…But he hadn’t, and this was the price for running off to seek the glory of the battlefield. The day he’d decided to enlist, he told himself he was joining to protect Virginia. After Stone’s River, he’d realized the real reason he’d left – to have stories of the war to tell his grandchildren like his grandpa.
Seth had lived the stories, and now he understood why Grandpa had never told him many. Seth knew he’d never tell anyone most of his stories either. After the first mini ball burned through is arm, he realized no story was worth what he was going through. After the second tore through his hip, Seth wanted to go home, but pride wouldn’t let him. That pride had resulted in a piece of a cannon shell slitting open his scalp, and now, pride had left him without parents.
He turned to look for the black woman, and found her still standing beside him.
“Mrs…what is your name, woman?”
“I be Mary. Zebediah, he got no other name ‘sides Zebediah, so I be just Mary. We gonna pick a last name when ‘e gets home, though.”
“Mary, the farm up the road, toward Abingdon. A man and woman and their daughter, the Dorsets, live there.”
Mary touched his shoulder again.
“Seth, don’ you go goin’ there. There be nothin’ there you wanna see.”
“They was two ol’ black folks at th’ plantation, Millie an’ Moze. Usta be house slaves like me. They didn’ have nowhere to go neither, and them people up the road took ‘em in, jest like your mama and daddy did me.
“’Bout a week after your mama passed, some more Union soldiers come. They was real young an’ had brand-new uniforms and looked fat, not skinny an’ dirty an’ tired like the ones before. They went up t’ that house, and seen Moze out a workin’ in the garden. They dragged Mista Dorset an’ his missus out th’ house an’ said it was agin’ th’ law t’ have slaves. Ol’ Moze tried t’ tell em’ he weren’t no slave no more an’ was jest helpin’ out, but they wadn’t listenin’. Them soldiers, they shot ‘em right there in front o’ th’ house.
Seth was afraid to ask, but he had to know.
Mary shook her head.
“I ain’t gonna tell ya ‘bout ‘Lizabeth. I won’ have that in my mind agin.”
“She’s dead too?”
“Ol’ Moze an’ I buried ‘em under th’ sugar maple in th’ back yard. Moze knowed I cud read th’ Bible, an’ asked me if I’d say words over ‘em, like I did fer your mama and daddy. I did.”
Seth sat down on the ground and put his face in his hands. The war had taken three years of his life and the lives of dozens of men he’d called friends. That should have been enough for one lifetime, but he’d come home to find everything he loved was gone too.
Mary patted his back.
“Seth, iffen you need t’ cry, you go ahead an’ cry. Ain’t nobody gonna hear you but me, an’ I know why.”
She stayed with him until he stopped sobbing and then pulled him to his feet.
“You gonna stay fer supper? Skinny as you look, your mama’d never forgive me iffen I didn’ feed you. I got some beans your mama dried las’ year and some ‘taters. They was up in the barn under some hay, so the soldiers didn’t find ‘em. Didn’ have no hocks t’ put in ‘em, but they still taste purty good.”
Mary was a good cook, but Seth had little appetite. The food reminded him of his mother’s cooking too much to be enjoyable. He finished quickly and then went to the barn. The haystack was a lot softer than the ground Seth was used to, but it still took a while before he stopped thinking and fell asleep.
The next morning, Seth was up at daylight, but waited until he saw the smoke of a freshly stoked fire coming form the chimney before going to the house. He knocked, and after he heard the clang of a pot lid, Mary answered the door.
“Seth, you don’ have t’ knock t’ come in your own house.”
“I want to talk to you about that.”
Mary looked afraid and started to talk very fast.
“Please don’ make me leave. I’ll do the cookin’ an’, an’, an’ wash your clothes, an’, an’ anythin’ else.
Seth took her hands and held them gently in his.
“Mary, the only thing I have left in this world is what’s in my haversack and this farm. I hoped I’d come back from the war and work the farm with my father, then get married and clear some land of my own. I can’t do that now, not with them and Elizabeth gone. I don’t have any other way to thank you for what you did for them and for Elizabeth and her folks. When your Zebediah comes home, you tell him I gave him you farm for what you did for them and for me. I'll leave you a paper that says that in case anybody questions you.”
“But your daddy wanted you t’ come back an’ farm it. What’ll you do iffen you don’ do that?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Wher’ll you go?
“I don’t know that yet either, except it’s going to be a long way from Virginia. I can’t stay here any longer.”
Chapter 3 Preview
Seth walks into Tennessee and meets a young woman living by herself in a cabin.