This is the incredible tale of the men of the Second Virginia Infantry Regiment, “The Innocent Second,” as told through the eyes of an ordinary soldier, in all of its rich color and vibrant detail. Join Wil Harleck as he recalls his story of how the great and terrible War Between the States changed everything.
A Long Road Home
A Long Road Home
The fall of 1861 is marked by relatively little activity in the eastern theater as the Union scrambles to rebuild the shattered Army of Washington D.C. and restore confidence among the citizenry. The victorious Confederate Army, on the other hand, has also done little. Advancing to within sight of the spires and steeples of the Union Capitol, they wait day after day on the banks of the Potomac while perhaps the single greatest opportunity to bring a swift end to the war slips through their fingers and is lost forever.
Joseph E. Johnston has been placed in command of all Confederate military forces in the District of Northern Virginia, but Johnston is a cautious leader and not prone to aggression. To compound matters, he feuds with Confederate President Jefferson Davis over having been appointed to the rank of general behind three other officers whom he considers junior to himself––among them, a former U.S. Army Colonel named Robert E. Lee. Insisting on waging only a defensive war, Johnston sits behind fortifications near Centreville and prepares for the Union to make the next move.
Across the Potomac, Abraham Lincoln has appointed a new commander for his army in the person of Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan is a skilled organizer who works with zeal and charisma to shape the undisciplined northern troops into a formidable fighting force. But he is also choked by caution. Convinced that Johnston commands a still superior force, McClellan begins plans for an elaborate amphibious invasion around Johnston’s flank, rather than risking a frontal assault.
In the western theater, an obscure Union soldier-turned-failed-businessman-turned-soldier named Ulysses S. Grant is gathering an army near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to challenge Confederate possession of the Mississippi. His initial successes garnish little attention, but little could he know that he is soon to become the North’s first battle-tested war hero––though embroiled in controversy––for his actions on two bloody days in April 1862 at a place called Shiloh.
Meanwhile, back in the east, the Confederacy has already found a new hero in Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The nickname being given, of course, in reference to General Bernard Bee’s rallying cry citing the courage of Jackson’s First Virginia Brigade in battle at Manassas. By October, Jackson is again promoted, rising to the rank of major general, and in November he is given command of the Army of the Shenandoah. With 8,000 men, Jackson detaches from Johnston’s army and returns to the Shenandoah Valley to begin making preparations for its defense. Nestled between the Allegheny Mountains to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east, this vital expanse of land in northern Virginia is considered “the breadbasket of the Confederacy” for its rich and fertile farmland. But it also holds great strategic value. Screened by mountains on both sides, it forms a concealed highway through which an army might pass relatively unharrassed all the way from Maryland and Pennsylvania into the heart of Virginia––or, if used in reverse, as a flanking approach to threaten Washington D.C.
August 12, 1861
Army of the Potomac, near Manassas
I received your letter on the Friday last, but was delayed in writing back as I have been down with the fever these last few weeks. By now you may have read in the newspaper that I was among those wounded in the battle, but I am recovering well now. For this, I owe a great deal of thanks to the Lord above for hearing my prayers and answering them, and as well to a kindly Negro lady named Margaret. I believe she is a house slave who lives with the family who have been generously caring for us this past week or so. She has tended my wound, changed my bandages, and brought me soup every day, along with a cup of strange tea which I cannot recall ever tasting before.
The army is camped here near Centreville, but I am still back in the rear near Manassas with the others who are too weak or ill to fight. I am hopeful that Mr. Lincoln will think twice about continuing down this bloody road to war after the thrashing we gave the Yankees, but I fear he will not, and this war will go on.
You may also have learned that my good friend Fredrick Ruyter was killed in the battle, and also that Tommy Johns has lost his right foot. Tommy somehow manages to move about with great agility on the crutch that was made for him, but it will no doubt be more difficult for him to find work now. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have but one foot, and I hope that I may never find out for myself, as I would not desire to live the rest of my life as a cripple.
Fredrick’s loss has been especially hard for me. He was a good friend and a fine marksman, and very brave in battle. I will greatly miss his presence should we have to face our enemy on the field again. He was well liked in the Jefferson Guards and he will doubtless be missed by many in the company. I shall always remember with fondness our hunting together and working together in Mr. Jennings’ shop. I pray for Mr. Ruyter each day, and hope that you will too, as he has now lost both his wife and his oldest son.
There are rumors that we may be recalled to the Shenandoah, and we are hopeful that we may be able to return to the Valley soon. With my whole heart I long to hold you in my arms and gaze upon the beauty of your face again. I pray you will wait for me until that day should come, by God’s grace. Until then, may
God keep you safe and well.
Your loving and devoted,
I was never so glad as to be back on my feet again and to put that miserable hospital behind me as quick as I could. I’d spent the last nine days in the town of Manassas lyin’ on the porch of a home that belonged to an older gentleman named Mr. Lewis. He was a lawyer there, and he and his wife had been gracious enough to take a few of us in while we recuperated. I didn’t mind layin’ on the porch so much. It provided some shelter from the sun and the rain, and it was a far sight better than lyin’ in the blood-soaked straw in that converted barn that served as a God-forsaken excuse for a hospital. I’d’ve gladly traded everything I owned if it meant not havin’ to see the inside of an army hospital ever again.
It was a hot August night when Arty came back for me. It struck me odd how the nights there weren’t much cooler than the days, and the days were nigh intolerable. We weren’t all that far from Jefferson County, maybe only three or four days’ march, but at least up in the Valley the summer nights were cooler.
It took us the better part of two hours to get from the Lewis house to the place where the First Brigade was camped. Arty said they’d moved to the new camp in early August when conditions at Camp Jackson, near the battlefield, became unbearable. “Camp Maggot,” he called it. He said the smell of the rottin’ corpses and the foul-tastin’ water were makin’ a lot of the boys sick. Some even came down with a deadly fever they called Typhoid.
So Gen’ral Jackson ordered the brigade to be moved across the Bull Run to a new camp on the high ground about a mile or so from Centreville. There they’d built permanent quarters where the water was clear and they were far away from the stench of death that still hung over the battlefield. The new camp was called Camp Harmon, and it was a far sight better than any army camp we’d ever had before. Instead of our bivouac tents, or just sleepin’ on the ground, we actually had wood huts for sleepin’ in.
It was good and dark when Arty and I arrived at camp that evenin’. I reckon I should’ve expected some amount of teasin’ and tauntin’ when I first walked back into camp, but it still felt good to be back with the boys from home.
“Hey! Look who finally decided to come back to the land of the livin’!”
“’Bout time you got off yer back and got back ta work, Wil!”
“Next time be sure to duck, boy!”
And so on and the likes.
All this, of course, was followed by a round of chuckles and smiles all around.
Then I heard the voice of Carlton Willis out of the dark from just outside the fire’s glow.
“Hey Harleck. Seein’ as how you owe me one, boy, I guess you’ll be takin’ my sentry post fer the rest of the week––and doin’ my cookin’ too!”
Then he stepped into the light and I recognized that familiar crooked grin and the gleam in his eye right away. It was the same gleam he always got when he was gettin’ his delights by pickin’ on someone. But I’d long since resigned myself to it, seein’ as how I was, in fact, in his debt after all. So I determined to just pay my debt and be done with it. Besides, I couldn’t be sure, but I thought maybe I saw a hint of an honest smile in that mockin’ grin for once.
“Don’t you worry ‘bout him, Wil. He’s just glad to see ya,” Arty said, not too loud, as he patted me on the good shoulder. “At least he ain’t drunk this time.”
A little while later, as we were sittin’ around the fire havin’ dinner, I realized I was actually enjoyin’ an army meal! It must’ve been the first solid meal I’d had in weeks. Most of the Company was there that night, but I couldn’t help but notice the missin’ faces of Fredrick and Sergeant Kline. Capt’n Rowan was there, but he walked with a cane now and hobbled when he walked. Then I noticed that Tommy wasn’t there.
I searched Arty’s face for some sorta sign to tell what’d happened to Tommy. But his easy smile reassured me that the news wasn’t all bad.
“Mustered out. The army sent him home just last week. Can’t march and fight with just one leg, ya know.”
But the smile disappeared when the discussion got around to those departed souls who were no longer among us. I’d never figured on so many of us endin’ up on the casualty lists in the newspapers. All in all, twenty-three men of the Innocent Second were killed; fifteen in the battle, and eight died later; and fifty-three were wounded, includin’ Tommy, the Capt’n, and me.
After dinner, some of the fellas sat around the fire singin’ and playin’ on the fiddle and the squeezebox, but I went to collect my gear from the supply wagon, then Sergeant Robertson assigned me a bed in the same hut with Arty, Sean, Carlton, and a few other fellas from the company. I’d been thinkin’ about what Willis had said.
I don’t suppose it’d hurt me any to take his sentry for a night or two, seein’ as how he did carry me off the battlefield, and he did come and check on me in the hospital and all.
So I went lookin’ for him, and found him at the wash tub scrubbin’ his shirt out. I don’t seem to recall ever seein’ Carlton Willis with his shirt off before. He had a chest like an ox, and pert nigh as hairy, and covered with scars such that I had to make myself look him in the eye so as not to stare.
“I’ve been thinkin’ about what you said earlier,” I started.
He stopped scrubbin’ and looked up from the shirt for just a second to see if I was foolin’ or serious, then he looked back down and went on scrubbin’. “Yeah? What about it?”
“Well, I reckon you’re right. I do owe you one.”
“Damn right you do,” he went on scrubbin’. “Nearly got myself killed tryin’ to save your hide.” Then he paused and looked up with a skeptical look on his face. “So?”
“So I wanna pay my debt.”
He went back to scrubbin’. “Ya do, huh?”
Before I could even get a word out, he went on. “Alright then. I got the second post tonight at ten.”
“Consider it done,” I blurted out, tryin’ to sound confident.
“Alright then,” he repeated. And that was all he said.
I passed a restless night after standin’ Carlton’s sentry post. Gettin’ myself reacquainted with the tedious routines of camp life proved harder than expected. I’d only been gone for just over three weeks, but it might just as well’ve been three months. I felt like a new recruit all over again. Still, it was good to be back with friends and comrades. Heck, it was good to be anywhere besides that hospital or layin’ around on that porch.
The next week stretched into a month of endless drillin’, mornin’, noon, and night, occasionally interrupted by sentry duty, latrine duty, which was called “johnny detail,” cookin’, or “mess duty,” and then more drillin’. Since the First Brigade was camped behind the front lines, life in our camp was about as far from exciting as it could get. There were days when we actually prayed that we’d get some orders to march somewhere––anywhere––just to have somethin’ else to do.
There was a sizable collection of merchants and profiteers who’d set up a camp called “sutler’s row” just at the edge of our camp where a fella could get just about anything he wanted for a price. I reckon they had just about everything from a shave and a haircut to tobacco and coffee to unsavory women and hard liquor, if a man was so inclined. I was only too happy to get a shave and a haircut for the first time in two months, and the coffee wasn’t too bad, but I had no use for the liquor or the women.
Most of the boys from the Innocent Second pretty much stayed away from the drinkin’ and the whorin’, but liquor was Carlton’s weakness and somehow he always managed to find some when the boredom got too much. One evenin’ in early September, he and one other fella decided they were gonna go and have some fun, so they came by to see if they could get anyone else to go with ‘em.
“Any of you fellas wanna go over to sutler’s row tonight?” Carlton asked.
“Depends,” Sergeant Robertson said, lookin’ up from the skillet he was cookin’ with. “What for?”
Now Carlton must’ve figured out right away that the Sergeant wasn’t buyin’ what he was sellin’, because he didn’t try very hard to talk him into it. “Aw, ain’t nothin’ but a little fun,” he chided. “What ol’ Tom Fool don’t know won’t hurt ‘im.”
Then he spotted me.
“How ‘bout you, Harleck?” he grinned real big, showin’ off his missin’ tooth. He knew I wasn’t a drinker, but he was bound and determined to corrupt my soul somehow.
“No, thanks,” I said, lookin’ away so as not to let him see how nervous I was.
“Aww, c’mon boy. I know a pretty girl over there who’ll treat ya real good. Make a real man out of ya,” he said hopefully. Then he slapped the other fella on the shoulder. “Ain’t that right?” he added.
“Oh, yeah. She’s real pretty alright. Take real good care of ya!” the other fella agreed. Then they both had a chuckle on me.
Now I’d never been with a woman before, but I remembered my Pa preachin’ about harlots and adulteresses, and I wasn’t about to go foolin’ around with some strange woman I didn’t know––especially not some harlot. Besides, I’d heard stories about some other fellas gettin’ some sort of ailment from whorin’ around, and I wanted no part of it.
“No, thanks,” I said again, firmer this time.
“C’mon, boy. Can’t stay a mama’s boy forever,” Willis taunted. “Gotta grow up and be a man sometime.”
“Let the boy be, Willis,” Sergeant Robertson shot back. But they were already walkin’ away.
Carlton’s visits to sutler’s row were usually followed by Sergeant Robertson roundin’ him up and gettin’ him back to camp before he could get into some kinda trouble. After all, the Innocent Second had a reputation to uphold. What started back in April as a few of the boys from the Fifth Regiment pokin’ fun at us had turned into a matter of pride for most of the fellas from the Second. The last thing we needed was to have our good name soiled and sullied in a fit of drunken tomfoolery.
Mid-September came but still no orders arrived to move on Washington, so we just sat by on our side of the Potomac and did nothin’ while that danged Yankee army trained and drilled and grew larger every day. Ol’ Tom was just about fit to be tied. So hot and bothered he was over the lack of orders from Richmond that he canceled his regular weekly speech to the brigade on account of how he could barely contain his contempt in front of the men.
Early in October we got word that he was to be promoted to Major Gen’ral and a new gen’ral was takin’ command of the “Stonewall Brigade.” It goes without sayin’ that this news wasn’t any too popular with most of the boys. In the days after the battle at Manassas, the man called Stonewall had quite outgrown all the jokes about his fatherly ways and his odd eccentricities. Oh, we may’ve still called him “Ol’ Tom Fool” or “Ol’ Jack” from time to time, but in truth he’d become a genu-ine hero and legend in the brigade. Whenever I’d see him sittin’ atop Little Sorrel with that ol’ yellow cap pulled down almost over his eyes always made me chuckle inside. But then I couldn’t help but join in the multitude of cheers cascadin’ down the length of the camp as he rode by. Say what you want about ol’ Stonewall. He may’ve been a hard taskmaster, but he was our gen’ral and we didn’t take too kindly to the idea of someone else takin’ his place. Many a talk was had around the bivouac fires that week about just what was to become of the man and his brigade.
By that time it was plain to us that the Billy Yanks were all dug in behind their earthworks around Washington like ticks on a dog, and it sure didn’t look like they were fixin’ to come out. So we just sat there and waited. It was a cool and cloudy day on the fourth of October when the brigade was called to form up on the parade field. There was a light rain that was almost a mist that mornin’, which, when combined with the chill in the air and the prospect that we were about to receive bad news, made us feel none too joyful. Four of the five regiments of the First Brigade were there that day. Only the Fifth Virginia was absent on account of picket duty. The Innocent Second was placed near the center of the brigade, and Company A was placed in the front row. And so it was, whether by some strange coincidence or by the hand of God Himself, that I found myself front and center of the brigade on that day.
After about a half hour or so, one of the colonels called the brigade to attention. There was no cheerin’ for Ol’ Jack this time as he rode up. I half expected the men to break ranks and try to crowd up around him, but they all held their place––and their tongues. When he reached the spot right in front of me, he wheeled the famous charger around and reared up, and for just an instant I saw the flash of that familiar smile. Then Little Sorrel lighted again on his front feet, and the smile was gone just as quick.
He stood up in his stirrups so as he could be seen and heard by the whole brigade. In his gloved hand he clutched a folded up piece of paper which I took to be his orders. He waived it in the air over his head briefly, then started to speak. I still recollect those words like it was yesterday, ringin’ clear and true in my mind like a church bell on a Sunday mornin’.
“In the Army of the Shenandoah, you were the First Brigade . . .” he said loud and clear, then paused. “In the Army of the Potomac, you were the First Brigade . . .” He paused again like he was readin’ poetry, then continued. “In the Second Corps of this army, you are the First Brigade . . .” Then he paused again and looked across the brigade like he was surveyin’ a battlefield. “And you are the First Brigade . . .” he swallowed hard with pride, and his voice wavered, “. . . in the affection . . . of your general.”
Then he took a deep breath and that familiar fire returned to his eyes, and his face hardened again just like it had on that hot day on the Henry Hill just before the attack. He cleared his throat, and his voice became loud and clear again.
“I hope, by your future deeds and bearing, you will be handed down as the First Brigade in this, our Second War of Independence! Farewell!”
And with that, he wheeled again, waived his hat in the air, and flashed that brilliant smile once again. Then he spurred the horse and rode off at a gallop, and the whole world broke out into cheers of, “Jackson! Jackson! Jackson!”
Home for Christmas
The October days were gettin’ shorter and the nights cooler, and the leaves in the trees near Centreville turned bright as rooster feathers. I reckon the fall colors lasted a mite longer there than they did back home in the valley. Well, at least that much was good.
Colonel Allen, much recovered from his head wound, sent word to the commissary major that the Second Regiment needed new blankets, as the weather was turnin’ cold. They were a welcomed comfort, to be sure, and made the nights a bit more tolerable. But the added warmth at night was small consolation for the conspicuous lack of fresh meat in our vittles. By the end of the second month of campin’ in the same place, our huge army had all but used up the supply of livestock from the surroundin’ countryside. Grain was still plentiful, it bein’ harvest time and all, but most of our meat had to be brought in by train, which meant smaller meat rations. So our meals in camp mostly consisted of flour formed into hard cakes called “tack” and fried in a skillet with a little bacon grease for flavor. It was a far cry from home cookin’, to be sure, but there wasn’t much use bellyachin’ about it.
Somethin’ must’ve happened down in Richmond because, after three months of hearin’ nothin’ at all from our fair capital, all of a sudden the telegraph wires were alive with messages. It seemed like new orders were comin’ in every day. On October the twenty-second, Gen’ral Johnston was promoted to overall command of the Confederate Army of the Potomac. Then Gen’ral Jackson was placed in charge of the Valley District back home.
Three weeks later, a new colonel named Richard B. Garnett was ordered to take command of the First Brigade, and the brigade was transferred to the Army of the Shenandoah under Gen’ral Jackson. This was welcome news to most of the fellas, seein’ as how it meant that we’d still be marchin’ with Ol’ Jack. And it also meant we’d be goin’ back home soon.
Our new brigade commander was also a Virginia man––from Essex County, I believe it was said. We didn’t really know much about him, but he made a fair enough impression on the men. He was fairly young with a manly face and neatly trimmed mustache and beard, and he had a well-kempt appearance about him.
By mid-November, to our great relief, we found ourselves boardin’ a train at Manassas Junction bound for Strasburg and home. When we arrived in Strasburg, it’d already been rainin’ steadily in the valley for two days, and the ground was soft and muddy everywhere a man could put his foot. We retrieved our gear and piled out of the train into the cold rain. As I slung my pack up onto my back I was rudely reminded of my wound by the sharp pain surgin’ through my shoulder and down through my chest and arm. Sean was standin’ nearby and saw me wince in pain.
“That looked like it hurt a bit, Wil. You want me to carry that for ya?”
I was grateful for his offer, but I couldn’t make myself take him up on it, even if it meant walkin’ all the way to Winchester in pain.
“Nah. It’s alright. Just a little tender, that’s all.”
“You sure? I can carry both yours and mine.”
He sounded sure of himself, but I wasn’t so sure. Sean was a farm boy and strong for his size, but not very big, and carryin’ two packs was bound to slow him down on the march.
“Thanks, but I’m alright. I can manage it,” I answered again, tryin’ not to let the pain show.
“Alright then. Suit yerself.” Then he just smiled and shrugged.
By the time we formed up for the march to Winchester, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle, but the roads were so rain soaked that the soft mud was already ankle deep and the water ran down through the wagon ruts like small streams. Funny thing about marchin’ in the mud: the further back in the formation a man found himself, the worse the mud got. By the time a few hundred boots had stepped in the same place, the mud there was more like tar. It was slick and treacherous to tread on, and our boots picked up great accumulations of it with every step. Some of it was in turn deposited on the ground with the next step, only to be replaced by yet more mud as the foot again left the ground. After a few miles of this, a man’s legs began to tire, so his marchin’ started to bog down until it resembled more of a slow shuffle than a military march.
But we kept right on marchin’ and sloggin’ up that muddy road from Strasburg to Winchester. And even though my feet were gettin’ heavier and the weight of the pack on my shoulder made it hurt more with each step, still every step closer to home seemed somehow easier than the last. Most of the trees in the valley were bare by then, but the fresh mountain air always made everything smell so fresh and green just after a rain. It’d only been four months since we left, but it seemed like a year, and the cool fresh air in our nostrils was like medicine for the soul.
By the time we arrived at Camp Stephenson, just north of Winchester, it was late evenin’ and we were quite a sight to behold, all covered with mud from the waist down. One would’ve thought that our first order of business would’ve been to find some way to get our clothes––and ourselves––clean, but we were too exhausted from marchin’ in that confounded mud. Some of the boys took the time to start a fire and cook a bit to eat before turnin’ in for the night, but others just went straight off in search of a dry place on the ground to sleep. It was a cold night, and we were glad for our new blankets, but even they could only just take the edge off the chilly Shenandoah night air. So we piled up what little dry firewood we could find and I slept close to the fire, but not so close as to chance catchin’ my oil cloth alight––with me on it.
The next day we set about cleanin’ up and buildin’ our winter camp. It was hard bein’ so close to home and loved ones and all, and yet still not bein’ able to see ‘em, but that was life in the army. A few of the boys in other units got up the courage to slip away durin’ the night, but most of us didn’t dare try. We heard Gen’ral Jackson had three men shot for desertion. One thing about Ol’ Jack: he wasn’t one for toleratin’ shirkers. He was a God-fearin’ man, and in his book, laziness and dereliction of duty were sins of the most grievous kind.
So I contented myself with just knowin’ that home was just up the road a bit, and I wrote letters to fill up what free time I had between buildin’ and drillin’ and cookin’ and picketin’. Gettin’ letters to and from home was quite a bit faster now that we were just one county away. So I wrote to Maribel, Mama, Amos, and Vanessa, and got letters in return from all of ‘em.
One day in late November, L’tenant Colonel Botts stopped by to see Capt’n Rowan. Mr. Lawson Botts, Esquire, was a lawyer in Charles Town before the war. He was one of the fellas that was appointed to defend the Yankee abolitionist John Brown back in ‘59. When the war started, Botts formed his own company, Botts’ Grays, which we now called Company G. Upon our return to the Valley, Ol’ Jack had promoted him to Provost Marshall in Winchester, which post afforded him the privilege of travelin’ around a bit.
Anyways, he and Capt’n Rowan bein’ friends and all, he stopped by on his way up to Charles Town and offered to personally carry the Capt’n’s mail back home for him. It was lucky for me that he was also a member of my Pa’s congregation, so he’d sometimes stop by and check on me too, whenever he was around. And seein’ as how he was goin’ that way already, he asked if I had any letters or messages for Mama and Pa he could deliver, for which I was only too happy to be obliged.
We spent the rest of November and the first part of December there at Camp Stephenson waitin’ for the Yankees to make their next move. We figured they’d pretty much lost the nerve to fight, so we set about makin’ sure they stayed on their own side of the Potomac. On December the seventeenth, the regiment got orders to march up to the number five dam, just a few miles upriver from Williamsport. I reckon somebody thought that if we destroyed the dam, it might keep the Yankees from usin’ the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to ship coal to Washington D.C. Problem was, the Yankees didn’t take too kindly to us tryin’ to blow up that dam, so they placed a battery of artillery on the Maryland side to make life difficult for us. We tried workin’ at night, but the fed’rals proved to be more clever and resourceful than we thought. To make matters worse, the water was so cold comin’ down out of the mountains that we feared we might catch pneumonia. So, after five wet, cold, miserable nights of tryin’ with no luck to destroy that dam, we finally gave up the idea and marched back to Winchester.
After we returned to Camp Stephenson on December the twenty-second, Colonel Allen obtained permission from Gen’ral Jackson to grant three days’ furlough for some of the regiment for Christmas. Seein’ as how we were so close to home, Arty, Sean, and I set out for Charles Town the very next mornin’ along with several other fellas from the company. I reckon only the Almighty could’ve persuaded Ol’ Jack to be so generous as to let so many of the men go home all at once, but we weren’t about to question it. We were just plain “tickled pink,” as my Mama would say, to avail ourselves of such a rare blessing.
By the time we arrived in Charles Town it was Christmas Eve and the weather was cool, damp, and cloudy, but the streets of home never looked better to my eyes. My tired feet carried me very quickly indeed down Washington Street past the court house all decorated with pine boughs and then around the corner and down Church Street toward home.
I was never so glad to see my Mama cry as I was that night when I came through the door of our old parish house. There were many hugs and tearful kisses to go around, and I can’t recollect ever bein’ so glad to see my little brother Amos and my sister Vanessa as I was that Christmas Eve. Even Pa had a smile on his face, and I could see the look of relief in his eyes as he stood nearby and watched our happy reunion.
I think it was about Mama’s third hug when she squeezed me just wrong and made me wince just a bit in the face. She’d known I was wounded in the shoulder, but I didn’t mention it much in my letters on account of not wantin’ to make mountains out of mole hills. Well, judgin’ by her reaction, she was so happy to see me home that she’d plumb forgot about it. I watched with some bewilderment as she let go and stepped back with a gasp and a confused look on her face.
Then right away she remembered, and her whole face turned red with embarrassment.
“Oh, Wil . . .” she started to apologize, but then I thought I saw a flash of admonition in her brown eyes, like an ol’ mother hen about to scold her chicks, as if I’d been dishonest with her about the whole affair.
“Now Wil Harleck, why didn’t you tell me . . .” she started in, but then stopped again. Lucky for me, that also passed quickly, and a look of relief washed over her face. I reckon the fact that I was standin’ there alive and well might’ve had somethin’ to do with it. And it bein’ Christmas Eve and all probably didn’t hurt either.
“Well, never mind that,” she said. “I’m just glad you’re home.” Then finally came the soft look of a mother’s compassion, and her eyes welled up with tears again. She took me in her arms and buried her face in my good shoulder so as not to let anyone see her cry. Then, almost as quickly as it all started, she stepped back, wiped the tears from her cheeks with the corner of her apron, then smiled.
“Oh! You must be starved!” she exclaimed. “I’ll fix you somethin’ to eat.” And just like that she was off to the kitchen and all was well again.
Dinner that night was like nothin’ I’ve ever tasted before or since. It’s remarkable how good chicken and dumplin’s can taste to a man who’s been livin’ mostly on army rations. Heck, my best meal in six months had been that cup of rabbit stew before the battle.
Amos sat across the table from me at dinner and waited patiently while Pa said grace, but I could tell he was burstin’ with excitement, just by the light in his eyes.
“What’s it like, Wil?” he blurted out eagerly like a school boy who’s just had his first kiss. He could hardly wait to talk about the war and what life in the army was like. It was no secret that he wanted to join the army like me, but I wasn’t all that sure I wanted him followin’ in my footsteps anymore.
“Worse than you could––” I started, thinkin’ maybe I could discourage Amos, but then I caught the look of alarm that flashed in my Mama’s eyes, and decided better of it. “Worse than . . . the stories Joseph used to tell us, that’s for sure,” I corrected quickly with a smile, “but it’s not so bad, all things considered.” I knew if I told Amos the truth of the matter, Mama would never sleep another night as long as I was gone, sure as I live. Worse yet, the look on Amos’ face said he wasn’t the slightest bit discouraged.
“How’d you get hurt?” he pressed. “I mean, what was it like in the battle?”
“Amos…” Pa warned with a stern look in his eye that made the smile on Amos’ face fade just a bit. “That kind of talk is not for the dinner table,” Pa scolded.
Amos looked down at the table for a moment, but it wasn’t long before that excited look brightened his face again.
“I can’t wait ‘til I can join up too!” he announced proudly, but that only brought another disapprovin’ look from Pa, and the look on Mama’s face said she wasn’t real fond of the idea, either. Well, at least the three of us agreed on that. I’d seen the horrors of war, and I didn’t want Amos havin’ any part of it.
“Not yet, Amos. Maybe next year,” Pa said flatly––almost prayerfully. “Lord willing, the war will be over by then.”
“Amen,” I agreed, much to Amos’ dismay. But I reckoned it was better he was disappointed in me––and safe and sound at home––than to have him fightin’ in this war too.
“Won’t it be nice to go to Christmas mass together tomorrow?” Mama asked, hopin’ to change the subject.
“It sure will, Mama,” I reassured her, glad to have somethin’ else to talk about besides the army and the war.
We finished the rest of our dinner with pleasant conversation, and Amos and I even had seconds. Then Mama topped it all off with one of her famous sweet potato pies, and boy was it delicious. But if dinner was good, then takin’ a warm bath and sleepin’ in a real bed in clean clothes and linens for the first time since April was like heaven.
That Christmas was a day I won’t soon forget either. Never before nor since can I recall a day of such momentous joy and such great distress all within the span of one sunrise to sunset. As happy as I was to be reunited with my family––all exceptin’ Joseph, that is––I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of seein’ Maribel’s lovely face again.
I rose early, got dressed in my Sunday clothes, which fit a mite more loosely than I remembered, and headed over to the church with Pa. I wanted to be sure and arrive early so as to surprise Maribel, and so as not to miss any chance of talkin’ with her a little before church.
But Pa hadn’t prepared me for what I’d see when I walked up to the front doors of the church. The once-beautiful doors that formed the entrance to the church now hung strangely on their hinges. And there were scratches in the paint and deep gouges in the wood that looked like they’d been made by the butts of rifles and the sharp ends of bayonets.
As we passed through the doors and into the vestry, the sanctuary, and the sacristy, I could scarcely believe my eyes and nose, and my blood boiled hot with fury. Didn’t those danged Billy Yanks have an ounce of respect for the Lord’s house? I knew my Pa’d done his best to clean up and repair the damage, but it was plain to see they’d used the church as their own personal bivouac and didn’t even bother to have the decency to walk to the privy, but just used any corner they could find. I know because there was no hidin’ that latrine smell. As many times as I’d done johnny detail, I’d know that smell anywhere.
I looked at Pa with disbelief and anger on my face, but his eyes just held my gaze, and he kept his peace.
“Not three weeks ago. They left when Jackson returned to the Valley. I guess they figured they’d be safer on the other side of the Potomac for a while.”
“They figured right.” I couldn’t look at Pa. I was too perturbed and distracted lookin’ around to see what else might’ve been damaged.
Then I thought of Ol’ Jack and how whenever he wasn’t talkin’ about military matters he was always talkin’ about his faith in God. He’d’ve been most displeased with such behavior, whether it be done by Yankee hands or our own. He didn’t take much of a likin’ to blasphemers, no matter which side they were on.
“That’s the nature of war, son,” Pa said. “There’ve been atrocities committed on both sides, I can assure you. And now that you’ve seen with your own eyes, I’m sure no one needs to tell you that it’s an ugly business.”
But I was still mad as a wet hen.
“It’s a good thing Gen’ral Jackson hasn’t seen this,” I said, gettin’ myself all worked up, “or he’d have ol’ Jeb Stuart cross over the Potomac and round ‘em all up to be shot––every last one of ‘em––sure as I’m standin’ here!”
But then Pa got that far off look in his eyes that always told me he was about to say somethin’ deep and wise.
“We’re not guaranteed an easy life, son. War or no war, hard times come on us all, and life is full of disappointments. But God’s love; now that’s something you can always count on.”
He paused to reflect for a moment, then his eyes brightened and the corners of his mouth turned upward ever so slightly, and I could tell he was ready to change the subject.
“No matter. It’s Christmas. This is a time to be joyful. Let’s be about the business of the day and leave the rest for another day.”
Before long some of the folk started showin’ up for the Christmas mass. A lone young boy of about twelve or thirteen arrived first, and Pa greeted him.
“Good morning, Thomas. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Father Harleck.”
“Would you light a few extra candles this morning, Thomas? I think it might help make the place smell a little more pleasant for Christmas mass,” Pa said with a kind smile.
The boy went straight to the vestry and put on the familiar white robe I used to wear until about four years ago. But I was more accustomed to seein’ Amos wear the acolyte robe in recent days. I looked at Pa, but he must’ve seen the question on my face. I didn’t even get it out of my mouth before he gave the answer.
“Amos is seventeen now, son; practically a man. That old robe doesn’t fit him anymore. Time to pass it to a younger boy, just as you did. Thomas, here, is the Eldridges’ son. You know Mr. Eldridge, the apothecary?”
The young acolyte was dressed neatly enough beneath the robe, with a tussle of long brown hair on his head which had doubtless been neatly combed earlier that mornin’. And as he walked, it was plain to see he was accustomed to wearin’ nice shoes. He went quickly about lightin’ incense and candles for the mass, and in no time at all the church began to smell more like I’d always remembered it, and I could barely make out the foul odor the soldiers had left behind.
The Johns family was the next to arrive. Arty flashed me a smile and waved, and Tommy was grinnin’ from ear to ear as he hobbled along on his crutch, though much quicker than the last time I’d seen him.
“Hey, Wil! Welcome home! Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Tommy! Arty!” I went quickly to meet ‘em and the three of us hugged and laughed in joyful reunion.
A small crowd of people was gatherin’ at the church now, and there were many handshakes and warm greetings as folks began to make their way into the church.
“Welcome home, son. Folks ‘round here are real proud of you boys.”
“Welcome home, Wil. Merry Christmas. Good to see you well and back home.”
Finally the carriage bearin’ the Nellis family came up the street into view. It was the moment I’d been waitin’ for all mornin’, but now that it was upon me, I found my feet unable to move, my eyes unable to look around, and my mouth unable to speak. It’s a cryin’ shame the things a woman can do to a man without even sayin’ a word or liftin’ a finger.
Then I felt a friendly nudge in the shoulder to remind me that Tommy was still standin’ beside me.
“There she is, Wil. The future Misses Wil Harleck!” he laughed in that friendly familiar way I’d heard so many times before. Thing about it was, I knew he was just foolin’, but somethin’ deep down inside of me desperately hoped it was true. So there I stood, watchin’ that carriage draw up to the church and hopin’ no one would notice how red my face was.
The carriage came to a stop and a young Negro driver dismounted and came around to open the door. Mr. Nellis was the first to step out, of course. And bein’ a gentleman and all, he offered his hand to Mrs. Nellis, who looked up at me as she was steppin’ down, and a look of pleasant surprise came across her face.
“Why, if it isn’t Wil Harleck, home from the war! And aren’t you a handsome sight?!”
I tried to say somethin’ polite in response, but I couldn’t make the words come out right. So I just blurted out, “Merry Christmas, Ma’am.”
Then my eyes caught sight of the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The wide brim of white lace and red ribbon on her hat blocked the sight of her lovely face as she looked down to find the carriage step. But my heart still skipped a beat or two at the sight of her long reddish brown curls which shone like gold in the Christmas mornin’ sunlight.
She stepped down from the carriage with the grace of an angel; her light delicate hand still in her pa’s. Her dress was dazzlin’ white and all trimmed with red ribbon and pink lace. It had a wide neckline that spanned from the corner of one shoulder all the way across to the other and dipped down just low enough to reveal the smooth ivory skin of her neck and just a hint of her womanly attributes, while still bein’ modest enough to keep the reputation of a proper young lady.
I thought my heart might just pound right out of my chest when she looked up and her eyes caught mine. Then that bright smile lit up her face and right near made my knees buckle.
I was very glad my knees didn’t actually buckle when she ran right up, leapt into my arms, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me square on the lips! Good and long too! I reckon if it’d been any other occasion, folks might’ve thought her unladylike to be so forward and all, but the situation bein’ what it was, I think most folk were inclined to let it pass. Besides, it was mostly our family and friends standin’ around, and they were too busy smilin’ to be offended.
My heart raced as I felt her warmth in my arms and her tender moist lips pressin’ against mine. It was a kiss from heaven, and I never wanted it to end.
She took my head in her hands and kissed my face again as I set her back on her feet.
“You came back to me,” she said with a big smile, her voice almost bubblin’ with excitement.
I hesitated for just an instant, not wantin’ to disappoint the girl.
“It’s . . . only for a couple of days. I have to go back tomorrow.”
The smile faded and her shoulders stiffened, and she got that look on her face that told me I was in trouble again. It was the same look she’d had when I’d left her standin’ there on that April day eight months before, and I knew I was about to get a right proper scoldin’.
“Tomorrow? That isn’t fair!”
Judgin’ by the look on her face, I could tell she was wrastlin’ with her inner feelings, and for a minute I thought she might slap me again, but she didn’t.
“Eight months you’ve been gone now, Wil Harleck! Off to who-knows-where, fightin’ this . . . detestable war!” she shouted, ballin’ up her fists and raisin’ her voice. “You were even––” she almost couldn’t make herself say it, “––wounded in battle for pity’s sake . . . and all the time the army can spare you to spend with your loved ones is two days?!”
I started to argue that it was really three days, but then I thought better of it.
“It’s a good thing that general of yours isn’t here right now, or I’d give him a piece of my mind!” I could hear her mama’s voice echoin’ in those words.
“Maribel,” Mr. Nellis warned in a low voice that made her look over at him. He didn’t say another word, but the look on his face reminded her that she was makin’ a spectacle of herself. Maribel knew that from time to time her mama had a way of gettin’ her dander up a mite more than a dignified lady ought. But then she was Grace-Anne Nellis, after all, and folks around Charles Town generally gave her a good deal of––well, grace––on account of who she was. But Maribel didn’t want to take after her mama that way.
When she looked back at me the indignant look on her face had softened a bit.
“I thought you said the war would be over by now?” she scolded on, but her voice was lower and gentler now, and I could see the tears buildin’ up in her eyes.
“I’m real sorry, Maribel,” I said, tryin’ to keep calm. She was right, but no one ever said war was fair. “We all thought this war would be over by now, but if they keep on fightin’, well, we’ve gotta keep on fightin’ too.”
She was startin’ to get ahold of herself now.
“Can’t you stay a few days longer?” she pleaded.
“I wish I could, but we were lucky just to get these three days’ furlough. If I don’t go back tomorrow, I could get in real trouble.”
She took a deep breath and let out a sigh, then looked up at me and her face softened again. Then I saw that sparkle in her eyes that said she was about to say somethin’ precocious.
“Very well, then, Mr. Harleck. But you must promise me that you will do your best to end this war and come back to me again––” she pointed her finger in my face, “––for good this time.”
“With all my heart, Miss Nellis,” I smiled back.
“And––” she pointed her finger again, then smiled that playful smile and continued, “––you must join us for dinner after church?” She was half askin’ and half tellin’, but then she looked over at her pa to be sure it was alright with him too. “Please, Papa?”
“Why certainly,” William Nellis replied with a courteous smile. “In fact, your whole family must join us. I insist.”
“It would be our pleasure, sir,” I was only too glad to accept. Truth be told, my Mama and Pa would never presume to invite ourselves, but it was becomin’ a tradition for the Nellises to invite my whole family over for Christmas dinner every year, so Mama hadn’t even made plans for our own family dinner, save the sweet potato pies she’d made to take to the Nellises if we were invited.
Talk of a New State
I s’pose the Christmas service was as nice as any I could recollect, but I hardly noticed. I could scarcely take my eyes off Maribel. The Nellises sat across the aisle from Mama, Amos, Vanessa, and me on the front row. I tried not to be too obvious, but I couldn’t help it. I found myself stealin’ glances at the vision in white sittin’ just a few feet away. The long sleeves cuffed in lace gave her arms a slender angelic look, and the rest of the dress sure did show off the womanly shape the Good Lord gave her. I wasn’t sure whether I should thank the Lord for His wondrous creation or repent for the lustful feelings in my heart. So I did both.
After church, we journeyed the short distance to the Nellis home for Christmas dinner. It was a fine feast, just like I remembered, with roast pork and green beans and bread puddin’ and another of Mama’s sweet potato pies. The table was set very nicely with candles and fine silver and the most beautiful dishes I’d ever laid eyes on, all spread over a fine white table cloth with a lace fringe. The dining room of the Nellis plantation was always an impressive place, but I reckon they outdid even themselves that day.
Over dinner, Mama and Mrs. Nellis talked about dresses and fabrics and how the price of clothes and the other essentials of livin’ had gone up so much on the Confederate dollar. Then it was Mr. Nellis’ turn to talk.
“Have you heard the talk about forming a new state––a northern state––Wil?”
“Not much, sir. Just rumors, really.”
I remembered hearin’ talk at Camp Harmon before we’d returned to the Valley, but didn’t know much about it. I gathered it was mostly just talk, and I wasn’t much for talkin’ politics anyway.
“I’m afraid it’s somewhat more than just a rumor now,” Mr. Nellis’ voice brought me back. “They actually took a vote back in October, but the soldiers kept over half of the county under house arrest for sympathizing with the Confederacy.”
“Can you believe the nerve of those people?” Grace-Anne added.
“They really took a vote?” I asked.
“They most certainly did,” she replied with all the feigned indignance she could muster. “Why the whole town’s abuzz with the talk. Most of the counties west and north of the Shenandoah voted to break off from Virginia and form a new state loyal to the Union. Of course there are some folks who say Virginia should not have seceded from the Union in the first place.”
To my shock and surprise, it was Pa who spoke next. “That may be true, but I very much doubt that they are the majority here in Jefferson County.” When my Pa wasn’t preachin’ he was a man of few words, but he could read a person like a book and knew how to use his words to influence folks. Then he chuckled and added, “Of course I suppose it would be quite a bit easier to speak of loyalty to the Union with the boots of federal soldiers at your doorstep.”
Mr. Nellis smiled and sat back in his chair. “That is true, Reverend,” he replied. “I suppose that’s why some folks decided it might be wiser to vote themselves back into the Union rather than risk being forcibly dragged back into it.”
Pa nodded in agreement and then added, “And with the Federals occupying most of the counties west of the valley, it’s no wonder so many folks have stayed loyal to the Union up that way.”
Right about then, Mrs. Nellis got that look on her face––that look that only a southern woman can get––the one that lets everyone in the room know that she’s downright shocked and appalled about somethin’ you just said. “Well, most of Jefferson County still remains loyal to Virginia, I can assure you,” she added, soundin’ incredulous.
Pa leaned forward with a polite smile and raised his glass in Mrs. Nellis’ direction. “My dear Grace-Anne, I believe Jefferson County owes much of its loyalty to Virginia and the Confederacy to the deep ties of your esteemed family,” he said. “And let us hope it remains so.”
My Pa could talk a bear down from a tree. He just had a way with words. I s’pose it worked too, ‘cause Mrs. Nellis just blushed and raised her glass without sayin’ a word.
“Hear, hear,” added Mr. Nellis, with his glass also raised.
Pa wasn’t talkin’ about the Nellis family though. Grace-Anne Nellis was a distant cousin of George Washington himself––and proud of it she was too. In fact, it was a point of pride that Jefferson County was home to more members of the Washington family than any other county in Virginia. Why Charles Town itself was even named for George’s brother, Charles, who founded the town back in 1787. Heck, even the streets were named after members of the family.
Now I don’t think my Pa was foolish enough to believe that all of the Washington family was loyal to the Confederacy, but I reckon he was hopin’ Grace-Anne might put some of her considerable influence to work to that end.
Mrs. Nellis gathered herself with poise and grace, like her name, and accepted Pa’s toast with a polite reply. “Yes. Let us hope it remains so indeed, Reverend.” She sipped from her glass and went on talkin’. “But I’m sure you are aware, as I am, that many of my family are federalists, and although they love Virginia, they would be just as likely to cast their lots on the side of the Union should the state be divided.”
“Well then, we shall pray for them, Madam,” Pa smiled back.
We all couldn’t help but laugh. Then Mrs. Nellis spoke again.
“I wasn’t aware you had such strong feelings for the South, Reverend. Isn’t your own son Joseph also a Union sympathizer?”
This time it was Mama who spoke up. “Well, I’m not so sure if it’s really sympathy for the Union or just opposition to the war itself . . .” She trailed off, soundin’ a little unsure of just how much she should be sayin’. Then she brightened up and went on. “He’s just completed his first term on scholarship at Pennsylvania College. All high marks!” She was beamin’ with pride now. “He says he may try to find work as an intern between terms this summer––if there’s any work to be found, that is.”
“Oh, well . . . how proud you must be,” Mrs. Nellis replied, doin’ her best to sound polite. But she wasn’t very good at hidin’ her feelings.
Pa cleared his throat so as to get Mama’s attention, then looked back at Mrs. Nellis to answer her question, but his voice sounded a mite unsteady, like he wasn’t quite sure he meant what he was sayin’. “Yes, well, I’m ashamed to admit, Grace-Anne, that my own feelings about this whole secession business may have been tainted a bit of late by the ill behavior of some uniformed ‘representatives’ of the United States toward the citizens and respected establishments of this community. One would think they might have a greater respect for the rights and property of peaceful civilians, not to mention houses of God.”
Then he let out a deep sigh and looked up at the ceiling like he was lookin’ up there for some help with what he was about to say next. “As for Joseph,” his eyes fell back on Grace-Anne, “he’s a man of deep convictions. He may be against this war, that is true, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love Virginia, our home. These are trying times for all of us. I suppose Joseph is just doing his best to do what he believes is right, and for that, I’m proud of him.”
I can’t recall ever hearin’ my Pa talk about his feelings for Joseph before. Nor me, either. I wasn’t sure if I should be glad he was proud of Joseph or jealous that he didn’t say anything about bein’ proud of me. He was a deeply private man in many ways. He once said his faith in God was better shown than spoken. Maybe he felt the same way about his family. Still, a boy needs to hear it from his pa at least once or twice.
“Well then, let us also pray for Joseph” added Mr. Nellis.
“Pa says I can join up next year when I’m eighteen!” Amos blurted out. He’d been dyin’ to get into the conversation, and all this talk about the war was just too much to resist.
Mr. Nellis looked at Pa with surprise on his face. I reckon he hadn’t expected Pa to give his blessing to Amos joinin’ the army. But Pa just looked at Amos with that gentle patient look he got when any of us boys spoke without thinkin’.
“I said ‘maybe’, son,” he said with just a hint of a smile, “if the war isn’t over before then.”
“Aww,” Amos conceded, lookin’ disappointed. So I reached over and patted him on the shoulder and gave him a big smile to cheer him up. I knew this was important to him, and even though I didn’t want him fightin’ in the war, I understood how he felt. It was the same way I’d felt about Joseph before the war.
“Indeed,” Mr. Nellis replied. Then he sat up and motioned to Samuel, the old Negro house slave, to bring more of the Christmas wine, then continued. “And let us refill our glasses and drink a toast to our very own hero of Manassas, Wil Harleck.”
I didn’t wanna seem ungrateful for Mr. Nellis’ kind gesture and all, but I didn’t much feel like a hero, and bein’ called one made me feel a mite uncomfortable. Heroes rode on horses and led armies. Stonewall Jackson was a hero; I was just a plain ol’ lowly soldier boy. But all around the table there were glasses raised and nods of agreement with a chorus of “Hear, hear.” So I just did my best to be humble about it.
“That’s mighty kind of y’all, but I really didn’t do all that much, except get myself blown up by a cannonball, that is. It was really Gen’ral Jackson and the whole Brigade that deserve all the credit.”
Every eye around the table was on me, and I felt like they were hangin’ on every word I said as if they’d never really heard how it all happened. Then it struck me: they probably hadn’t. So I went on.
“Of course the Innocent Second was a part of it too, but I was just one of many. Though I did witness some of the most incredible bravery I’d ever seen that day. Matter of fact, I owe my life to Fredrick Ruyter and Carlton Willis and some of the boys from the Jefferson Guards. I s’pose they’re the real heroes, leastwise as I see it anyway.”
It was Mr. Nellis who spoke next, glass still raised.
“Indeed. To the Jefferson Guards then. To their valor and patriotism. May God protect them.”
Then Mama added with reverence in her voice, “To Fredrick, God rest his soul.”
There was another chorus of, “Hear, hear,” and we all drank the wine, exceptin’ the children, of course.
New Hopes and Old Wounds
As we passed that Christmas afternoon together, the memories of so many lazy Sundays spent at the Nellis homestead in my childhood all seemed so far away, as if I was lookin’ back through an early mornin’ fog. But I can still recollect every moment of that Christmas day. It was almost like time itself was standin’ still. We sat around and talked for awhile, and I found myself gettin’ lost in the moment. Next thing I knew, Maribel was givin’ me a mighty strange look and fiddlin’ with her hair.
“Is there something wrong with my hair?” she finally asked. That’s when I first realized I must’ve been starin’ at her just wrong.
“Oh . . . No . . . nothin’s wrong with your hair,” I tried to sound apologetic. “I was just thinkin’, that’s all.”
“Thinking? You were thinking?” she teased with a gleam in her eye. “Pray, do tell us what about, Mr. Harleck.” She said with a giggle, knowin’ she’d got the best of me again, all of which I suspect made me a mite red in the face.
“Well, if you must know, Miss Nellis,” I saw my opportunity, “it was you I was thinkin’ of––how much I’ve missed you these past eight months.”
Now it was her turn to blush. But I wasn’t done yet.
“I guess seein’ the true nature of war up close like I have, and havin’ a brush with death, has a way of makin’ a man reevaluate his priorities . . . you know . . . makes him realize how short life is . . . makes him appreciate the time he has with the folks he loves a bit more . . . treasure each memory.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Mr. Nellis said, puttin’ his hand on my shoulder and startlin’ me a bit. Guess I hadn’t realized he’d stood up while I was busy waxin’ poetic, and now he was standin’ right behind me. “Perhaps we should make a few new memories to treasure. What we need now is music. Maribel, would you be so kind as to regale us?” he asked, lookin’ at her proudly.
“Oh, Papa, you know I can’t play that well,” Maribel blushed again.
“Nonsense,” he smiled. “You’re a fine piano player, and you have a very pleasant voice,” he insisted.
“Yes, please, Maribel,” Mama injected eagerly. “Please play for us!”
“Yes, Maribel, you must play for us,” Grace-Anne added.
She looked at me like she was half afraid I wouldn’t approve of her musical talents, so I just smiled hopefully and said, “It sure would be a welcome change from the fife and drum.”
“Oh, very well, since you all insist so nicely,” Maribel conceded with a shy smile.
She played “Jeannette Isabelle,” her mama’s favorite. Then she played “The First Noel,” and we all sang along. But as I stood there watchin’ her play and listenin’ to her sing, I thought about leavin’ her again, and I knew what I had to do.
William Nellis had given me his blessing to court Maribel the year before. I remember how nervous I’d been to go and ask him, seein’ as how I didn’t have much to offer in the way of worldly things. But he was a wise man and not so self-important as some other men of means.
I remembered how he’d leaned over to me and said, almost in a whisper, “I’ll tell you a secret, lad. Men with money are easy enough to find, but men with character and honor are not. Should Maribel choose to marry a man of character and honor, as I hope she does, she will never have to worry about money. I’ll see to that. You’re an honest young man, William––polite and well mannered––and you’ve got a good heart. Any man would be honored to have you as a son.”
Up until that day, I’d never really thought I had a cat’s chance in Hell of marryin’ the daughter of William Nellis. But I knew he was no idle flatterer, and I took it to heart as a great and prodigious trust not to be taken lightly. If he thought I was an honorable man, well, I had no intention of lettin’ him down. It was true there was nothin’ I wouldn’t do for Maribel, and I reckon he figured she’d be happier with someone like me than with some rich young man who was only lookin’ for a wealthy socialite bride so as he could increase his own standin’ in society.
So I waited until we were finished singin’ and everyone was in a joyful mood, then I took Maribel’s hand as she stood up from the piano bench.
“Maribel, I do believe you must be an angel,” I told her.
“You sure do play nicely,” I went on, “and you sing like an angel too.”
She smiled and curtsied and batted her eyes playfully just for show. Then with the same playfulness in her voice, she replied, “Why, thank you kindly, Mr. Harleck. Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were tryin’ to flatter a lady.”
“Perhaps I am,” I admitted, “but it’s the truth nonetheless.”
There were a few chuckles around the room.
“Which is why . . .” I knelt down on one knee, “I’m compelled to ask for your hand in marriage––if you’ll have me, that is?––before some other man more worthy than I finds out about all this angelic talent and sweeps you off your feet?”
I could hear my Mama draw in her breath and hold it. I didn’t even have to look. I could tell she was holdin’ her hands over her mouth with that surprised look on her face she always got when somethin’ good happened. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the vision that stood before me with her hand in mine. Her beautiful green eyes grew wide in amazement, and I was quite a bit relieved to see the look of delight there as I’d hoped I’d see. She glanced at her mama and papa to see their reactions, then her gaze met mine again and a hopeful smile appeared on her delicate lips.
“Oh, Wil, do you mean it?”
“With all my heart.” I put on my best gentleman face and cleared my throat. “Maribel Catherine Nellis, will you marry me?”
There was a pause for just a moment while she let the gravity of the whole situation sink in, then the smile widened across her whole face and her eyes watered up.
“Yes! Yes, I will marry you, Wil Harleck!”
I stood up and she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me again. Then she turned and looked around the room with excitement on her face.
“Well, then,” Mr. Nellis said confidently. “It appears we have another reason to celebrate! Grace-Anne, is that wassail ready? We’re in need of some refreshment.”
“It sure is! Samuel!”
There were hugs and handshakes and congratulations all around, and Maribel stayed very close to me for the rest of the evenin’. Neither she nor I were willin’ to waste a single moment together. Just havin’ her beside me, hand in arm, made me feel whole again.
Along about eight o’clock that evenin’ there was a knock at the door, and we all looked to see who it might be. Then Samuel opened the door and in walked a familiar figure.
“Joseph!” Mama exclaimed.
“Welcome home, Joseph,” Mr. Nellis added. “Samuel, his coat and hat, please.”
“I hope you’ll pardon me for just walkin’ in like this,” Joseph started. “I just arrived from Williamsport, and when I didn’t find anyone at home, I hoped I might find y’all here.”
“Please, won’t you come in?” Mrs. Nellis asked.
I wasn’t altogether sure just exactly how I felt about seein’ Joseph at that precise moment. At first, I was real glad to see him, but then the memory of that day back in April when we’d had harsh words came floodin’ back, and I felt that same sinkin’ feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was like that feeling you get when you just ate somethin’ that disagrees with you and you’re not sure if it’s gonna stay down or come back up.
I couldn’t help but wonder if his feelings about the war had changed any since we’d last parted, and I was sure he was wonderin’ the same about me. My mind flashed back to that day on the battlefield when my heart burned with anger toward the Yankees. I remembered how I’d seen Tommy go down, and I thought about Fredrick, and how I’d watched him fall after bein’ struck by the Yankee Minie ball. Then I thought about the church and how I’d felt when I learned what the Yankees had done there. I felt changed alright, but it was a fair bet it wasn’t the change Joseph was hopin’ for.
So there we stood, lookin’ across the room at each other, neither of us able to say a word to the other one. I could feel the eyes of everyone in the room starin’ at me––waitin’ for me to say somethin’––but no matter how much my mind willed it to open and speak, my mouth just wouldn’t do it.
It was Joseph who finally broke the silence.
“Hello, Wil. Good to see you’re well.”
“Hel–” my voice cracked and broke, so I cleared my throat and tried again. “Hello, Joseph.”
The words still weren’t comin’ easy, but at least they were comin’.
It was Pa who spoke next. He stepped over to where Joseph was standin’, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “Welcome home, son. It’s good to have you home.”
Then he turned toward the rest of us and said, “You’re just in time for the celebration.”
The corners of his mouth turned up just so, like they always did when he was about to deliver good news to someone.
“I believe your brother has some news you might find interesting.”
He paused just long enough for that familiar quizzical look to appear on Joseph’s face––the look that said he was interested, but wasn’t about to ask––then he continued.
“Wil, here, has just proposed to Maribel.”
Pa watched the look on Joseph’s face change from quizzical to surprised, then his own face broke out in a smile that we hadn’t seen in a while.
“Your brother’s getting married.”
Now it was Joseph’s turn to smile, and our differences were forgotten just in that moment.
“Well, whataya know! Congratulations, Wil!”
He came straight toward me and hugged me, and I could feel the uneasiness drainin’ out of me like it was runnin’ right out through the bottom of my shoes and onto the floor. He was still a good three inches taller than me, and even though I was a man now, I still felt like a teenage boy when I stood next to him.
I nearly forgot that Maribel was still standin’ next to me until I heard her clear her throat.
Joseph smiled sheepishly at her, embarrassed that he’d forgotten his manners, then stepped back and turned to her.
“Forgive me, miss.” He bowed with a flourish of his hand, looked up at her, and put on his most charming voice. “My most humble apologies, and congratulations, of course.”
She held out her hand and he took it in his own and kissed it.
“Why thank you, kind sir,” she said, returnin’ his feigned charm with another playful curtsy of her own. Her whole face was a smile, and her voice could barely contain the giggle of delight.
Joseph held his bow and continued, still holdin’ her hand in front of his face, and glancin’ in my direction with a gleam in his eye that said he was about to say somethin’ at my expense.
“Though I’m not quite sure whether I should be apologizin’ for my own rude conduct or for the fact that you are about to marry my little brother.”
Joseph straightened up and smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
Maribel hesitated but for a moment, glanced at both of our faces, then back at me with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes.
“Your apology is accepted in either case.” Her voice turned downright giddy at the chance to poke fun at me, but then the warm smile spread across her whole face again. “Welcome home, Joseph.” She stepped up and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
For one brief moment on that blessed Christmas afternoon, everything was just as it had been before the war. We talked and laughed just like those lazy Sunday afternoons at the Nellis plantation with Joseph, me, Maribel, Amos, and Vanessa. What good times we’d had. And for just that one moment, Joseph and I forgot about the war and there was peace on earth.
Funny thing about those moments: they never seem to last. Joseph and I could only dance around the matter until the small talk ran out.
“So, you must tell us all about college,” Maribel asked eagerly. “It must be so exciting!”
“Not much to tell, really,” Joseph replied. “Lots of books and writin’. Mostly English and arithmetic so far. But the folks up Gettysburg way seem nice enough. It’s a pretty little town.”
“I’ve never heard of Gettysburg before. Is that anywhere near Harrisburg?” she continued.
“Not far. Maybe just a day’s hard ride south of there. It’s only about three days’ ride from here on a good horse.” Then he got a thoughtful look on his face. “Did you know the college was founded in 1832 by the Reverend Samuel Simon Schmucker? Ever hear of him?”
“I’m afraid not,” Maribel answered politely. “Is he famous?”
“He’s a well-known abolitionist up in those parts.”
There it is. He just couldn’t resist bringin’ up the war, could he?
“I see,” she replied.
The war seemed to hang in the air over our heads like a thick smoke that couldn’t be ignored. It was only a matter of time until the conversation was bound to come back around to it before the evenin’ was over, sure as daylight was a-comin’.
“So, you goin’ back?” he asked finally, lookin’ at me.
It seemed like a simple enough question, but it felt more like a stab in the heart. I knew how Joseph felt about the rebellion. I couldn’t look him in the eye because I knew what was comin’ next, so I found myself lookin’ around the room nervously like a school boy who was in trouble with the teacher.
“I reckon so. We only have three days furlough. Arty, Sean, and me, we leave for camp in the mornin’.”
“Just Arty? What about Tommy?”
I knew I was losin’ control of the conversation, and I could feel the knot formin’ in my belly.
“Tommy… was mustered out. Lost his right foot at Manassas.”
I could see the look of admonition in Joseph’s eyes, and his mouth turned into a frown.
“You didn’t mention Fredrick. Isn’t he goin’ back too?”
My heart was beatin’ faster now, and I could feel the anger risin’ up inside my chest like a cannon set to go off, but I couldn’t make myself speak.
“Joseph . . .” It was Mama’s voice. “. . . Fredrick was killed.”
The look in Joseph’s eyes turned to anger as well, and I braced myself for what I knew was comin’ next.
“Haven’t you had enough of this cursed secession business yet, Wil? Dear God, little brother!” he shouted. “For the life of me, I don’t know why you have to be so blasted eager to pick up the rifle against your own countrymen!”
It was plain he was gettin’ his dander up, and so was I. I opened my mouth to argue back, but he cut me off.
“Don’t you see it?” he blustered on. “This war is a curse from God upon our land. It’s His righteous judgment and punishment for toleratin’ the blight of slavery on this continent for over two hundred years!”
He stopped when he remembered that William Nellis––a slave owner––was standin’ right there in the room next to him.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, ma’am,” he said, bowin’ his shoulders slightly in the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Nellis. “I don’t mean any disrespect to you kind folks, but the only peaceful way out of this whole mess, as I see it, is to free the slaves, repent of this cursed institution, and ask God in His mercy to heal our nation.”
Then he looked back at me with daggers in his eyes. “But all you ‘Seceshes’, you’d rather fight and spill innocent blood than to free the slaves and keep the country together!”
My heart was poundin’ in my throat. Joseph had never gotten all wrapped around the axe handle about the slaves before. It had always been about preservin’ the Union up until now. My mind raced to find the words to say.
Does he really think this war is a punishment from God on account of a handful of rich gentlemen who own slaves? I don’t believe that! There are lots of good folks like the Nellises who own slaves, but they’re more like family than property. What about them? And what about all the good southern folk like us who don’t own slaves at all? Does he think God is punishin’ us too?
Then my mind went back to that hilltop near Manassas. In a flood my thoughts filled with the images I’d witnessed. I remembered the lines upon lines of soldiers––federal soldiers––on Virginia soil. I could see the smoke and flame from the Yankee guns; smell the air thick with powder; hear the cries of agony echoin’ again in my mind. Could all of that really be on account of the Darkies? Somethin’ just didn’t add up about it all. Where did Joseph get that idea from? What’re they teachin’ him up there at that college?
The more I thought about it, the more I got my dander up. Finally, I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I heard myself blurtin’ out things I wouldn’t ordinarily say to my own kin, but the soldier inside me had got the better of me, and he was not about to be denied the chance to be heard.
“It ain’t about the danged Darkies, Joseph! Not for me! And it wasn’t my ‘countrymen’ who shot Fredrick and Tommy and me on the battlefield, either! It wasn’t my ‘countrymen’ who defiled the church! My ‘countrymen’ would never take up arms and invade the sovereign territory of another state without good cause! No sir! They might be your countrymen, but they are most certainly not mine! We have a right to defend our homes against any army that invades our land and threatens our freedom! And that, my dear brother, is exactly what the Yankees have done! May I remind you that the battle of Manassas was fought on Virginia soil?!”
“That’s enough!” It was Pa’s voice that broke through the blood poundin’ in my ears. My Pa made a point of not preachin’ when he wasn’t in the pulpit, but on rare occasion he broke his own rule. It was undeniably his preachin’ voice he was usin’ now.
“You are brothers, and this is neither the time nor the place for this sort of contemptible display of hostility. It’s Christmas, for God’s sake! Can we not be civil enough toward each other to set aside our differences and be a family for just a few short hours?!”
A long pause hung in the room as Joseph and I both glared at one another, neither one of us willin’ to admit we were wrong. Then Joseph’s face softened just a bit.
“You’re right of course, Father. Forgive me,” Joseph said. Then he turned and walked toward the door to retrieve his coat and hat.
“I should not’ve come here tonight. Mr. Nellis. Mrs. Nellis. Please forgive me. Thank you for your hospitality.” he nodded in courtesy to them.
“Joseph . . .” Mama’s voice pleaded with him to stay, but he’d made up his mind. Then, quick as you please, he was his usual calm and well-mannered self again. Puttin’ on his coat, he turned to Amos and Vanessa.
“Amos, Vanessa, Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Joseph” they replied together, no doubt a mite stunned at all they’d just witnessed.
“Mother, Father, Maribel, please forgive me. Merry Christmas. God bless you all.”
And without another word, he turned around, placed his hat on his head, and walked out the door into the cold night.