Only Call Us Faithful

A Novel of the Union Underground

Marie Jakober

Forge Books

The triumph of the Confederacy would be a victory of the powers of evil.
John Stuart Mill, English philosopher
... That cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.
Ulysses S. Grant
The azure on our flag was gone. The few stars left were set in blood.
Elizabeth Van Lew
The past is always with me now. And I can see it, sometimes, with remarkable clarity, as though I were standing just beyond the footlights of a vast stage. Not an actor anymore, nor properly an audience, and yet somehow both. Inescapably both. We are always part of what we look upon, and we change it, however slightly, just by being there.
I won't apologize for that. If I should apologize, we all should; you are changing me even as you read my words. Sherman said it as wellas anyone: These are my memoirs, not someone else's. This is what I remember. If you remember something different, go ahead and write your own. An arrogant man, William Tecumseh Sherman. A divided man, belonging nowhere. Half his soul was forged in the century before he was born, and half in the century after. No wonder he went crazy.
But that was later. During the war he was as sane as any of us, and saner than many. He had a gift for seeing the future. New kinds of nations, new kinds of warfare. I wonder if he knew that seeing the future is often the first act in creating it.
Just like seeing the past. There is a history that really happened, but none of us will ever know exactly what it was. The other one, the one we think we know, is made by us, and we remake it every time we look at it. In the summer of '65 I thought the war was over. Before five years had gone by, I knew it would never be over. It would be fought again and again, and every time it was fought, it would be a different war. Oh, people's names would be the same, and the dates, and the lonely river crossings and country towns where the battles took place. People would agree on those. They would agree on very little else.
So you're free to tell me I'm remembering it wrong, or even making it up. I know some of you think there were no Southern Unionists at all--none worth mentioning, just a few fools and criminal opportunists. You think the whole South rose as one, proud and resolute, to try to forge a nation.
It wasn't like that at all.
It was like the August night in '64, when Kershaw's infantry slipped through Richmond in the dark dead of night. One might have thought they were ghosts already, they went so quietly, crowded into unlit cars in a pouring rainstorm, at two in the morning, with the whole weary city trying to steal a little sleep.
But some of us were not asleep. Every single hour of the day, someone watched the railroad depots. By day they idled nearby, chatting with the workers; by night they watched from sheds and tall windows,or from the streets, wrapped up in ragged blankets pretending to be refugees.
I was awake, too, that night, in my house on Church Hill ... .
AUGUST, 1864 ...
The depot of the Virginia Central wasn't very far from our house; sometimes, in the summer, if my windows were open and the breeze was right, I could hear the trains chugging away, bound for the Shenandoah. But that night I heard nothing except rain hammering on the walls, and wind tugging at the rafters, and the strange sounds houses make at night when one is sleepless and afraid.
I was sitting in the library, with one small lamp burning and the heavy drapes pulled shut. Small papers were scattered about the desk in front of me--notes from friends, and from strangers, and a couple I had written to myself, earlier that afternoon, jotting down things I'd been told by word of mouth. Any one of those papers could have got me hanged.
So it shook me badly when I thought I heard pounding on the door. I listened, and heard nothing more, only the clamor of the storm. I went back to work ... and a few moments later, I heard it again.
I didn't hesitate. I swept all the papers together, stuffed them into the hollow head of the ornamental lion on the mantel, turned out the gas lamp, and fled to my room. If the provost's men came, they would find me where I belonged at four o'clock in the morning, quietly abed. I waited for the shouts of angry men, the tramp of hurrying feet. People came often to our house at night. Most times they were friends; yet every time, until I knew for sure, I wondered: Was this the end?
But when Josey tapped on my door about five minutes later, the tap was gentle, and so was her voice: "Miss Liza?"
I wrapped myself in a dressing gown and opened the door. Josey was alone.
"Was someone at the door?" I asked.
"A black man brung you this." She held out something wrapped in foil. "Young feller. He just took it out of his shoe and skedaddled."
"Thank you."
I went back to the library. Whatever was inside the foil, I knew it would be important. I lit the gasolier again and peeled the foil open, full of eagerness and hope.
It was one of those times in the war when we desperately needed hope. The previous year, three splendid Union victories had given us--or so we thought--a truly decisive edge; final victory seemed only a matter of time. Now it began to look like time was running out. Grant's Union army was bogged down outside of Petersburg, and Sherman's outside of Atlanta. Jubal Early's Rebels were reclaiming the Shenandoah Valley, threatening Washington itself; and the elections were three months away. If the Northern people, disheartened by the stalemate, voted for a different government--a government willing to let the Confederacy go--then the Union was finished, and all the long struggle had been for nothing.
The key to everything, just then, was the Shenandoah, where Early and Union general Philip Sheridan played feint and run. Tucked between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah country was a grand place to live if you were a farmer or a villager. If you were a military commander, it was a grand place to court disaster, a maze of highlands and valleys and passes where--as someone told me, not entirely in jest--one army could easily surround the other, and maybe both of them at the same time.
It might not take much to tip the balance in the Valley, and a defeat in the Valley could tip the balance of the war.
I opened the folded note inside the foil. It was from Samuel Ruth, superintendent of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. He had obviously written it in haste, since he had coded nothingexcept the signature. Large numbers of CS infantry embarked on V. Central tonight in great secrecy. Believed to be Kershaw's division joining Early. J. M. Hills.
I felt as if I were holding a bomb. I put it down very carefully, and went to fetch the papers I had secreted on the mantel, and with them my cipher code and the half-finished letter I'd been writing to Colonel Sharpe at City Point. An hour ago, everything in the letter had seemed important. Now it all seemed trifling indeed. I rewrote it, putting Sam's message at the start, and ciphered it. By then dawn light was creeping in around the curtains, and the servants were starting to get up ... .
How many nights did I spend in this fashion, through those four years of war? Truly, I don't remember. And there were others like me; don't ever believe different. Every man and woman who gave me information had sources of their own, supplying them. We weren't legion, perhaps, but we were thousands, all through Richmond, all across Virginia. Much later, I learned that my message to City Point was confirmed three times, from three different agents on the way to Orange Court House. Sheridan knew exactly when Kershaw arrived; and later in the summer, thanks to a loyalist schoolteacher in Winchester, he knew exactly when Kershaw left. And that was the end of the Rebels in the Valley.
But it isn't part of the myth, and some of you will say I'm just making it up: all the resistance, all the people who never believed in the glorious Confederacy. All the forgotten stories I still remember, and want to tell--about the loyalists, yes, but many other things as well--the courage we saw in the war, and the cleverness, and all the craziness, too. Five-course dinners at the Spotswood Hotel, served with music and candlelight, while Lee's half-starved men were gnawing on the corn the army bought for their horses. A young Northern prisoner, a tailor in private life, toadying up to the Rebel officers something shameful, until one of them actually gave him a uniform tomend--which uniform the prisoner quietly put on, and so, transformed into a good Confederate major, walked out of Libby Prison in broad daylight, and never bothered to go back again. Abel Streight, cavalry colonel from Indiana, watching in the same Libby Prison while the names of his junior officers were scrawled on bits of paper and thrown into a dirty cardboard box.
I wasn't there, of course, and so I can only tell it the way it was told to me, the way I see it sometimes, pageant-like, the faces and the deeds played out again, always familiar, and yet never quite the same ... .
MAY, 1863 ...
Colonel Streight was a big man, with a westerner's occasional rough edges, and a tendency to bluntly speak his mind. No one would ever have called him soft or sentimental, but on a day like this one, he would have found it easy to cry. He was hungry right down to his toes. He was exhausted. It was impossible to sleep in Libby, two hundred bodies in a single room, all squashed together like sausages in a tray, some mumbling and some coughing and some yelling at everyone else to shut up, and one damn fool or another always having to go, and always managing to step on somebody's ankle or in somebody's face on the way ... no, the dead couldn't have slept there, unless you shot them two or three more times. Sometimes, when Abel Streight longed for home, he didn't even think about his wife's warm body or his two winsome children; he just wanted a big feather bed, far away in a darkened house on an utterly deserted street, not a sound for twenty miles, not even a cat out, just black Indiana night and sleep.
Just sleep. Just one night to forget where he was, and how he came to be there. He had led a raid out of Nashville in April, a diversionary action deep into enemy territory. By early May he was in Georgia; the horses and mules were giving out, and his supplieswere almost gone. The forces of Nathan Bedford Forrest were all around him, outnumbering him more than two to one.
Or so Bedford Forrest had led him to believe.
It was all deception, all huffery and puffery, the same little bands of Rebel cavalry riding around in circles, seeming to be thousands when they were only hundreds. Had Streight chosen to fight instead of surrender, it might have been Forrest, rather than himself, who would have found the situation hopeless. Every time Streight remembered it, he felt another stab of dark humiliation and regret.
Especially on a summer day in '63, the day they drew the names. The day Captain Turner took his little clerk Erasmus Ross into Libby Prison, the pair of them flanked by armed guards, and called the prisoners to order. There had been a hanging in Kentucky, he told them, a vile and unconscionable murder by their vile and unconscionable army of invasion. Two Confederate captains had been falsely accused of being spies, and put to death. Now, by order of the Confederate government, two men of the same rank would be chosen by lot from among the prisoners, and hanged in retaliation.
Turner shouted to silence the outburst of rage and disbelief. He had not come here to discuss the matter. There was nothing to discuss. The decision had been made; the decision was final.
Justice according to King Jeff.
Clumsily, painstakingly, the way he did everything, Little Ross wrote out the names--all the company commanders in seven regiments, including Streight's Fifty-first Indiana Cavalry. Ross could have done it before they came. The prison officers had all the information in their records. But he did it in front of them, offering them his vile little grin sometimes, his knowing look: You're in for it now, Yankees, oh, yes, indeed, you're in for it now ... !
Richard Turner was undoubtedly the most hated man in Libby, but Ross ran a very close second. The prisoners called him Little Ross when they were being nice. Most times they called him Erasmus Rat, and the little worm, and a great variety of things unprintable. Ross never walked past a shelf without knocking someprecious personal treasure onto the floor, and if it broke, he smiled. He rarely opened his mouth without insulting someone. He lost mail and bragged about it. Perhaps he had a natural talent for nastiness, Streight thought, or perhaps he worked at it. He could picture Ross sitting up nights thinking about his charges, and how to get them good; meditating on them with his lonely sandwich and his comfortless bowl of soup. He had no wife; he had no friends. He had only the secret life of his warped, cold, incomprehensible mind.
Abel Streight didn't swear much, but he swore all the time when he talked about Ross. "It's like he never blinks. The little son of a bitch got eyes all around his head, and he never blinks."
Ross had all the names written, finally; the papers were carefully folded and tossed into a box.
"You." Captain Turner pointed to a skinny, underage second lieutenant. "Come here."
The lieutenant swallowed, his pale face growing paler. He was one of the most timid men there, probably, one who would find this especially horrible to remember. Streight no longer wanted to cry. He wanted to strangle Richard Turner.
"Captain." His voice was louder than he intended, and harsher. "This is no task for a boy."
Turner shifted his attention to Streight. That one again. Cavalry raider, cattle thief, destroyer of railroads and bridges and barns, trampler of sacred Southern soil. The man who lured half the Southern cavalry out of Mississippi for Grant, led them on a devil's chase into Georgia, while that other hellion Grierson ran the rest to Baton Rouge. Had it not been for those two, the Yankee general and his army would have ended in the river. They'd have been wrecked and gone now, instead of blasting cannonballs into the streets of Vicksburg, morning, noon, and night. It was reason enough to detest Colonel Streight, but Turner had another reason. Prisoners were supposed to act like prisoners, and Streight never did. He was aggressive and mouthy, always looking for trouble, always stirring things up. Damnable dog of a Yankee.
"Well, then." Turner was rather pleased by his interruption, this time. "Then you will have to oblige us, Colonel Streight."
"No," Streight replied. "It's no task for a man, either."
Casually, he linked his hands behind him, and a ripple passed swiftly through the room. A ripple of fourteen hundred hands slithering out of sight behind seven hundred sullen Yankee backs. It had not been planned, but between two blinks of Richard Turner's black eyes, every prisoner in Libby looked like Venus de Milo in blue, only grubbier, without the nice curves.
The Rebel guards went ramrod-straight at Turner's shout. So did the Federal prisoners. But their arms were still behind their backs. Life wasn't easy for the black-haired, beadle-faced creature who ran the jail there.
He swore then, stringing together a long list of vile names, the worst he could think of, all of them for the man from Indiana. But in the end, he let the Yankees have their little moment of defiance, because he knew it changed nothing. Someone else could draw the names.
Someone else did ... .
I drift along the riverbank, just above the edge of the water. I don't feel the cold anymore, in any physical sense, yet somehow remembering the Rebel prisons makes me notice how chilly the night has become. Libby is gone now. They took it apart and shipped it to Chicago, and made it into a museum. Yet I see it still, as though its lines were carved upon the air; as though its great brutal bulk still took up space, and its barred windows still rang with hundreds of defiant voices: "Oh, may that cuss, Jeff Davis, float, Glory Hallelujah! On a stormy sea in an open boat, In Iceland's cold without a coat, Glory Hallelujah ... !"
Or with one voice, bawling softly in the dead of night: "Spoon left!" or perhaps "Spoon right!" And the rows of sore and tired bodies wouldroll over as one, and lay still again, until their other side was numb.
A lot of Union men died in Libby, and more of them on Belle Isle, where the enlisted men were kept. The provost marshal's office hired a grave digger especially to bury them, a man I happened to know rather well; he made a good living doing it. Some of them are still here. There's one who doesn't know his name, and can't go home because he doesn't remember where he came from. He only remembers the island, and shivering in a ragged blanket with snow blowing in through the cracks of the tent, half a cup of raw cornmeal as a ration with no wood to cook it, and dead men lying stiff as boards until their comrades stumbled over them in the morning. One morning in '64 it was himself.
"They told us it was warm at the South." It's all he ever says. "They told us it was warm." He doesn't walk, as others do; he sits under a ledge by the river like a broken patch of fog, and cries sometimes for sheer despair. There is a coldness always by his ledge, and living folk avoid it.
I came to know the Rebel prisons well, although they never let me near Belle Isle, or into any part of Libby except the hospital wing. And even this much only when I insisted, and cajoled, and flattered, and went on about Christian charity, and being kind to one's enemies, and I don't remember what else. I had to go all the way to Secretary of the Treasury Memminger, who was appalled. He reminded me how dirty these men were, how uncouth. They were totally unfit to be allowed in the same room with a lady.
What he didn't say, and didn't need to say, was that he couldn't imagine why any lady would want anything to do with them. The Northern people were mudsills: conscienceless, humorless, money-grubbing Yankees; brutal westerners without breeding or culture--and, of course, immigrants, who were the worst of all, the leavings and scourings of all the rest of the world.
And here was I in my bonnet and lace, with my immaculate spinster's reputation, with my pillared house on Church Street where Edgar Allan Poe once read poetry, and where a handsome army captainnamed Robert E. Lee sipped brandy and danced ... no. There was something wrong, something terribly and inexpressibly wrong in my wanting to go anywhere near those men.
He knew, of course, that I was a loyal Unionist. I had never hidden the fact; indeed, I was notorious for it. But I was something far more important than anything I believed in. I was a lady, a Southern lady, a creature made of angel silk, untouchable, untouched. White, of course. Parasol white: no sun, no cuss words, no degrading knowledge. No body at all, really, except for mothering. Black people had to use their bodies in place of mine, fetch and carry for me, soak up the sun and the rain. Black women had to lie down in the darkness for me, take the hot desires of my father, my brothers, my husband, my lovers--the lovers I could never have, and was never supposed to think about, not ever. And neither were they.
Would they think about it, those vile unwashed men in Libby Prison? Would they soil me somehow, merely by taking my gifts of oranges and books? Memminger didn't voice the question, not even to himself. The question was part of everything we did, and everything we were. It was part of the war, though the men of the Confederacy mostly misunderstood it, and the men of the Union ignored it altogether.
Without the lady, there could have been no South at all.
Being a lady had its advantages, though. Not advantages I would ever choose again, if God were to send me back to live another life. But advantages nonetheless, and when the war came I used them all. I was a lady to my tender feet, to the tips of my sharpened fingernails, cutting flowers from my garden in the dead of night, wrapping their stems in a drenched linen handkerchief, and sending them through the lines with my couriers. They were always flowers for a wedding, of course, or for a grave site, or convalescing aunt. Imagine if some Rebel picket had been told the honest truth: Actually, they're for General Grant, sir, over at City Point. Something to brighten his table in the morning. And really, you don't need to pick them apart; all themilitary stuff is in my shoe. The flowers are exactly what they seem. They're a gift, a compliment, a lady's tribute to a warrior hero.
Heaven preserve us all, what Richmond would have thought of that!
But no one knew. There were so many things about me Richmond didn't know--couldn't be allowed to know, when it mattered, and didn't want to know, afterward. Richmond and I, well, if one can speak of unrequited love affairs between a person and a place, Richmond and I would surely rank as legends among them. I cherished this city while I lived, whatever my enemies may believe. And I still do. It's a wonderful brave old city, full of dreams and memories and history; and full of ghosts, too, sometimes, on certain chosen nights.
Tonight, I think, is such a night. It hasn't been dark long, but already there's excitement in the air, and definite whispers of uneasiness. Not among the living, who always seem quite distant to me, and quite peculiar, but among the dead, the reveners, who are starting to whisper out from every rock and tree. Several hurry away before I notice who they are. If they notice me, most of them act as though I weren't there--just as they did when I was in the world.
But Will Rowley is out, too, and I'm shamelessly relieved to discover him. One warm face at least; one old comrade to walk beside. He's leaning against a lamp post by the old Danville depot, obviously waiting for me. Beard and bowler and all, if you can imagine what the ghost of a bowler hat is like. He smiles and doffs it, bowing with more grace than he ever had as a man.
"Miss Liza."
"Hello, Will. What a pleasure to see you again."
He is a tall man. With his long dark beard and his austere clothing, he has a distinctly puritan, almost clerical look. But he has imps in his eyes, and in his soul. I knew few men I could have tolerated being married to for longer than a fortnight; Will Rowley was always one of them. Pity he already had a wife when I met him.
"A fair night, Miss Liza."
"You been uptown yet? Place is absolutely crawling with Rebs."
"I'm getting that impression. Do you have any idea what's afoot? Are they celebrating something?"
"This time in October? Only thing I can recall is General Grant being sent down to take charge at Chattanooga. I'd sure be surprised if they were celebrating that."
We exchange a small, celestial grin.
"They're Jennie Rebs, most of'em," he adds. "Maybe the Daughters of the Confederacy are holding a convention."
"Maybe I should go."
"Well, we could at least drift over and see what they're up to."
Will gives me a wry look. We may be dead, but we aren't crazy. There are places even ghosts don't go alone.
"Reckon we could. But I think we should scare up some reinforcements first. McNiven and the Lohmanns are over at New Market. And Marty the Shovel is down by Winder's office, hiding under a hedge."
Marty the Shovel. Will Rowley does have a way with nicknames, and some of them aren't nice at all. He always detested Martin Lipscomb--Martin the grave digger, the con man, the shameless eccentric. He ran seven times for mayor of Richmond, and never got enough votes, in seven tries together, to count as respectable in one. I didn't like him much, either, to tell the truth. But he was very useful.
"We'd best find Mr. Lipscomb first," I suggest. "Or we mightn't find him at all."
So we start off toward the provost marshal's office--or rather to where it used to be. General Winder won't be there, of course. He died in the Deep South, and I think the ghosts of Andersonville must have got him, because no one has ever seen him or heard of him since. Will takes my arm, a totally unnecessary bit of gallantry, but comforting. There is a chilly wind coming off the river, and to the southwest, directly above the valley of the Appomattox, a sliver of moon hangs in the sky like the shard of some broken, godly bayonet. We don't speak at all for a time, lost in our memories, sad and triumphantby turns, as we have been since the war; as we will be forever. Then, very suddenly, we are jarred by the harsh sound of laughter. A dozen or so young men swing around the corner and come toward us. They're very much alive, dressed in what I'm told are army colors now, some kind of ugly mottled green, and they're carrying the battle flag of the old Confederacy.
I have seen such things before, of course, but I'm always bothered by it. And always curious, too, wondering if they know what that banner really stood for.
The men are loud, vulgar, and drunk. We slink back into the shadows to let them pass. But the last one stops, listens, and then calls to his companions, "What the devil is that?"
He doesn't actually say devil. He says something far more rude, a word I never heard spoken by a living man while I was still alive.
"What is what?"
"I thought I heard something."
Perhaps he has. Will is whistling. The boys won't know the song, I suppose. No one seems to know our songs anymore, except a few poor artists, performing them as background noise in theatres. I think the world has forgotten what songs can mean.
One night in '62, the whole Union army sang "The Battle Cry of Freedom," camped in the rain during the Seven Days fighting. A few began, and others joined in; it spread all down the line, from bivouac to bivouac; seventy thousand voices all became a single voice: "The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah! Down with the traitors, up with the stars!" At least one Rebel officer, listening on the other side of the picket line, never recovered from the experience. "We licked them six days running," he said afterward, "and here they were, singing rally round the flag, in that cold and freezing rain, loud enough to wake the very dead. I'm not superstitious, but it sounded like a knell of doom, and my heart went into my boots ... ."
All of that's forgotten now. These brassy young men, if they were ever to hear the name of George Root, would probably think he was a vegetable. But even they have heard of Sherman. At least Will thinksso, swinging into a tree above their heads, whistling that song, the one that still can start a riot in most any Southern bar, whistling it marvelously loud, by afterworld standards, and tapping its jaunty drumbeat against the tree. Da-dadada-dada-da ... . A great song, "Marching Through Georgia," though after a hundred and nineteen western regiments marched past in the Grand Review in '65, every one of them playing it in honor of their chief, poor Sherman, they say, leaned over and muttered to his good friend Ulys Grant: "If I hear that wretched tune one more time I'm going to be sick."
The young men mill briefly on the sidewalk. Two of them, I notice, are wearing armbands, with a peculiar crooked insignia I have never seen before. They curse ferociously. "There's something here," one of them insists. Leaves scatter onto their heads, and he actually draws and brandishes a gun.
Some things haven't changed much at all in the South.
Will is enjoying himself enormously. He reminds me of the Will I knew during the war; and of another man, whom I must admit I never really knew at all, but whose every spoken word I still remember.
"We are all born," he told me, "with an incurable appetite for mischief. And it's a good thing, too. If we weren't, humankind would sink into a bog of tyranny, and never come out again."
John Fairfield. Virginia cavalier, swamp runner, freedom fighter, thief. I met him only once, and I never forgot him. If Will Rowley was a man I might have married, John Fairfield was surely a man I might have loved. But I was a lady, and I loved no one until it was too late.
"Let's go, Will."
I am bored with these ill-bred young men. I belong somewhere else: the one place, the one time, the one reality to which I ever truly belonged: Richmond in the Great Rebellion, a peaceful city transformed overnight into a national capital and a war camp; quiet old houses made over into noisy hives of treason and disorder; armies of functionaries, armies of soldiery, armies of thieves, all colliding in the once tranquil streets. And old General Winder trying desperately tocontrol it, like an aging despot with bad eyesight and untrustworthy friends.
His office was on Broad Street, just ahead of us now ... .
MAY, 1863 ...
It was the ugliest building in the city, the provost marshal's office, a plain frame structure that glared down like a prison on everyone who came. It was always crowded. The halls smelled of unwashed bodies, and the fountain glasses smelled of whiskey. People waited in long lines, right out into the street. General Winder must have thought sometimes that every living soul in Richmond wanted something from him: a pass to leave the city; a disorderly son set free from jail; a nice job away from the fighting. Or certain arrangements, perhaps; certain rare and lucrative privileges; certain harmless and not so harmless bendings of the rules. And then, once in a while, things over which he could only shake his head.
"That one again? God in heaven, Major, didn't you say I was too busy?"
"I tried, sir. I've been trying for an hour."
Winder waved a weary assent, and leaned back in his chair. As he waited, he noticed the fly. It was huge, shimmering, and ugly, and it was sitting directly on his appointment book, rubbing two of its skinny legs together in a manner that he couldn't help considering obscene. He was fascinated just the same. As the war went on, he grew more and more fascinated by ugly things, and more and more distressed by them. He wanted very much to kill the fly, to smash it with his inkwell or even with his fist. But the splatter would have been uglier still. He shrugged and brushed it away.
The general was considered attractive. He had a great shock of white hair, shaggy brows, and a finely chiseled mouth which, depending on your preference, you might have called either sensual or cruel. He was brusque and even abusive toward other men, but hecould be charming to women. Despite his modest station, and his father's disgrace, he had married extremely well. Twice.
Yet if it is possible to speak of a man being utterly without character, then this was such a man. Where his soul should have been, he had a sieve. Where other men and women through the years accumulated good things, conscience and judgment and understanding of the world, he accumulated nothing. He was empty even of true wickedness. Evil merely passed through him, like everything else, without difficulty, without resistance. Over and over again.
He was provost marshal of Richmond. He was responsible for the confinement of Federal prisoners, for military security, for public order, and, ultimately, for the safety of the Confederate government. These tasks were far beyond his competence, and the whole of Richmond knew it. Whether he knew it or not, he would never consider stepping down; he had a name to redeem. His father was disgraced in the War of 1812, allowing a small British force to capture Washington and burn it, after routing his troops in thirty minutes. The Bladensburg Races, people called it, and said the only Americans who died there had run themselves to death.
General Winder the First was not a coward, just a hopelessly inept and irresponsible commander. It should have crossed his son's mind that the family simply wasn't cut out for the military life. He should have been a baker, perhaps, or a bricklayer. But no. Like a singed moth, he came back to the fire, giving up his retirement to demand a place. The wrong place, redeeming nothing. By 1863, men already spat at the mention of his name. A year later, he would build Andersonville.
But he smiled at the woman who came in and sat across from him. Though he was annoyed at her presence, he was also amused. She was a silly little thing, but her very unreasonableness touched him, made him feel wise and rather fatherly, something he wasn't allowed to feel very often anymore.
"Well, madam, how can I be of service to you?"
"Oh, General!" She leaned forward slightly, lifting her handsfrom her prim lap onto his desk. "Can you not speak to Captain Turner? He insulted me terribly yesterday!"
"Insulted you? Surely not." This was the South; when a man insulted a woman, it was a serious matter.
"Yes." Her eyelids fluttered. He couldn't tell if she was about to cry, or if she was trying to flirt with him, or both. "He confiscated my pudding!"
With great difficulty, Winder managed not to smile.
"Can you believe it, General? He took away my pudding because he said it would be bad for the prisoners. In front of everyone, he said it! I was never so mortified in my life! I'm sure his wife put him up to it; she's been jealous of me since we were little girls!"
She leaned forward even farther. She barely stopped for breath, telling him how awful it was, how humiliated she felt, when she was such a good cook. There were tears in the corners of her eyes. There was also a tiny smudge of egg yolk on the front of her dress. It was a very fine dress, made of the best materials, but he hadn't seen one like it since the Mexican War.
He felt genuinely sorry for her. She wasn't a bad-looking woman. She had beautiful hair, poking out in soft ringlets from beneath a bonnet that, like her dress, was a relic of her lost youth. Something sad happened to women when they didn't marry, he reflected; something died in them; it wilted and shriveled like the unused womb. Even her face was growing pinched and thin. She reminded him of a small blond ferret.
"Imagine him thinking my pudding would make the prisoners sick! I shouldn't bring them any food whatever, he said. For their own good, he said. And then he took it home, and do you want to know what he did, General? He ate it himself!"
"But, madam," Winder protested gently, "if he thought the pudding would make the prisoners sick, he wouldn't have eaten it, now would he?"
"Oh." She was bewildered. Something that seemed very simple to her had suddenly been made difficult. "But he said it was for theirown good. What other reason could there possibly be?"
"It's a question of discipline. Libby is a military prison, madam; it must be run like an army."
This was not a useful answer. She stared at him with the blank incomprehension of a child. He knotted and unknotted his hands, and began again.
"The prisoners get used to a certain way of doing things, don't you see? Certain rules, certain structures, a certain diet. When you interfere with these things, you only make it harder for them in the long run. That's what Captain Turner was trying to say."
"But it was just a pudding. What difference can a pudding possibly make to the rules?"
He had already answered the question, as clearly as he knew how, and it was as if he hadn't said a word. Dealing with the ignorant in the world, he thought, was as hopeless as dealing with the ugly. The problem just came back again, like the fly perched on the rim of his desk, rubbing its legs together as rudely as before.
The woman leaned forward again, eagerly.
"General, they're just boys, most of them. They're hungry; they have nothing to do. It can't possibly matter if I give them some food and a few books. Captain Turner is just doing it because his wife doesn't like me. He ate my pudding and then he took my permit and he tore it up. The one you signed yourself. You will give me another one, General, won't you? You wouldn't be unkind just because of some silly rules. I think you should be the one who makes the rules."
There was genuine pleading in her voice and her eyes, an unfeigned softness. The damn Yankees were the only thing she could find to mother, so she wanted to mother them. Make puddings for them, bring them Bibles and Shakespeare. He sighed inwardly. Perhaps that was as it should be, after all. What would the world of men become if women weren't driven by this constant need for taking care of everything? He was annoyed with her because she chose the enemy as the object of her charity. Yet he understood the impulse.And he understood that she wasn't, as they say, driving her buggy with all four wheels on the road.
He opened his desk drawer. Already paper was scarce in the Confederacy; he rummaged for a small piece, and wrote on it, in a fine, flowing hand: Miss Elizabeth Van Lew is hereby permitted to deliver, for the use of Federal prisoners within my jurisdiction, items of food, clothing, and reading material. By order of Brig. Gen. John H. Winder, Provost Marshal.
He handed it across the desk with a smile. "There. Will that do?" It felt good. Turner did have a habit of forgetting who made the rules.
"Oh, yes. Oh, thank you, General. I knew you'd understand. You've always been such a kind man. Do you know, my mother says you have the kindest face she's ever seen!"
"Does she really?"
The woman got to her feet, but didn't immediately leave. She babbled on, saying nice things, but saying them badly. Like an actor, he thought, who remembered all the lines, but forgot where they belonged. She even invited him and Mrs. Winder to dinner, and wilted a little when he declined.
"Oh, that is too bad. My mother would so enjoy it. People just don't socialize anymore, since the war started. It's very sad."
He didn't bother to contradict her. People were socializing just as much as ever, and maybe even more. But the big house on Church Street might as well have had a plague warning on its gates, as far as the decent folk of Richmond were concerned.
It had been a bright place once, when John Van Lew was alive. There were gay parties and elegant dinners, and everyone who was anyone came. Randolphs, Carys, Custises, and Lees. Poets and princes and orators. Frederika Bremer, the Swedish novelist, and Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale. John Van Lew had been a remarkable man, talented and tough, a man who made a fortune in business, lost it all through no fault of his own, honorably paid off his debts, and made another.
Perhaps, Winder thought, perhaps he'd been too busy with his business to watch over his children, because they all took after their mother's side of the family. The Philadelphia side. Abolitionists, every one of them, all Quakerized and sentimental. And two of them, at least, a little soft in the head.
He didn't know much about the youngest daughter. She married in Philadelphia and stayed there. But John Van Lew's son, named after his father, never amounted to anything. Even his wife gave up on him, and went back to Mississippi. All he did now was run his father's faltering store, and try to keep himself out of the Confederate army. He claimed to be unwell, but Winder suspected his only serious disability was a weakness of the spine.
And then there was poor Liza. Well over forty now, without a hope of ever finding a husband, and with so little understanding of the world. The first thing she did, before her father was cold in his grave, was turn loose the family slaves. Every single one, no matter how young they were, or how valuable. Then she started going to the auctions, and buying up their children, and their lovers, and their cousins, and turning them loose, too. Richmond watched in astonishment, and shook its head at the extravagance, and wondered what John Van Lew would have thought, being such a sensible man himself.
Still, no one minded especially. She was a respectable lady, and if she didn't want to own slaves, it was her own affair. If she wanted to waste her inheritance, that was her own affair, too. It was her talk that slowly wore away the patience of the community, and deprived her of her friends. She talked about freeing all the slaves. She said there should be a law against owning them. It made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, a mockery of everything America stood for. It was evil.
Winder shook his head. In a perfect world, like as not, there wouldn't be any slavery. There wouldn't be any sickness, either, or any wars, or any damn flies crawling over his desk. But to call itevil was just plain silly. Every civilized society in the history of the world had slaves; it was a practical institution for dealing with practical necessities, just like government and taxes. Somebody had to do the work. God himself knew as much. He didn't forbid owning slaves in his commandments. Didn't preach against it on the mountain, either, or in any other place. One might as well have called it evil for men to grow a beard--which they did, in Boston, when John Winder was a very young man. He read about it in the papers. Read about the poor fellow who had his windows broken, and his garden trampled, and who was finally beaten senseless on the street, merely because he wouldn't shave. He was evil, too, presumably. And now that beards were fashionable at last, how long would it be till the Northern fanatics decided shaving was a sin?
That's what happened when a society lost its hard grip on order. When the mob took over. When people started thinking religions were alike, and social classes were alike, and races were alike, and even men and women, God help us, were alike. Then every lunacy was listened to, and every passion unleashed, and every damned ism ran wild in the streets.
That's how we got Lincoln, Winder thought grimly. How we got this rotten war.
Elizabeth Van Lew was saying good-bye, thanking him yet again. He realized, without embarrassment, that he must have stopped listening to her several minutes ago. He was vaguely angry now, made so by his own reflections, and he wished he'd never given her the permit. She was a Unionist after all, another confounded abolitionist crazy woman. But he couldn't take it back without seeming a fool. He saw her politely to the door, and allowed himself an audible sigh of relief when she was finally gone.
His adjutant brought him coffee and lit his cigar. Lieutenant Todd was waiting to see him, he said. With the names.
"Names?" Winder frowned through a great coil of smoke. "What names?"
"The Yankees who are to be hanged, sir."
"Oh, yes. Send him in."
David Todd marched in smartly, saluted, placed a paper on the general's desk, and stood erect again. Like a pillar. Or, perhaps, like a man who felt he was always being watched. Which he was. Not consciously, of course. Nobody wondered about his loyalty, not in the front of their minds, and certainly never out loud. He belonged to one of the oldest and finest Kentucky families; he had three brothers and all manner of cousins in Confederate gray.
But there was, alas, his half sister Mary, who went to stay with kin in Illinois and married a Black Republican named Abraham Lincoln ... .
Winder read the names without much interest. Captain Henry Sawyer, First New Jersey Cavalry. Captain John Flinn, Fifty-first Indiana Volunteers.
"Have they been placed in special custody, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir. In the lower level."
"Keep them there. They may write to their families, and receive the services of a minister of the gospel. They are to have no other visitors."
Winder put considerable emphasis on the last sentence. He'd been through this process before. The first time, he let Elizabeth Van Lew visit the condemned, and her meddling and whining all but drove him crazy.
"That will be all, Lieutenant, thank you."
Winder rummaged for another piece of stationery, a clean piece with proper letterhead. He would inform President Davis, who would in turn inform the Yankee government in Washington. Last year, the Federals backed down, and no executions were necessary. This time it was too late; the two Confederates were already dead, hanged like dogs in the street. Two splendid officers, sons of the finest Southern blood ... no, they would be avenged, and notice would be served to the barbarians. Spies were spies, and honorable men were honorable men; perhaps after this the Yankees would not confuse the two.
The fly was back, right in front of him, crawling up the side of his coffee cup. He was thoroughly tired of it now, and decided to kill it.
As usual, he missed.
When Liza Van Lew emerged from General Winder's office, she almost flinched from the fierceness of the morning sun. Immediately she hoisted a parasol, and began to make her way down the boardwalk, past the gauntlet of people who were waiting in line.
They all watched her, some idly, some with sharp interest. She was born in Richmond, and thought of herself as a Virginian, but nearly everyone who knew her thought of her as Northern. There were cold stares, and bent heads, and whispers. Natives pointed her out to strangers. That's Lizzie Van Lew. She's always hanging around the Yankee prisoners, bringing them stuff. And she won't even knit so much as a sock for our poor boys, would you believe it, not even a sock, and she has piles of money, she lives in a big house on Church Street. She'll be sorry for it one day, I promise you. Lord, she dresses funny. A lot of people do, since the blockade. It's not the blockade; she's been dressing like that for years. If she likes the Northern savages so much, why doesn't she go live with them? Maybe she's a spy. Crazy Bet? Naw, she ain't no spy, she's just a dumb old maid ... .
Everything about the woman was slightly mismatched. Her gestures were uneasy sometimes, even timid, yet she swept along the street as though she owned it. Her body was slight, her blond hair beautifully feminine, yet children who met her eyes would sometimes freeze, and swallow, and run as though they'd seen a witch. A few people wondered if maybe she was a witch, if she learned dark and horrid things from her niggers, living as she did in that big house with hardly any friends, and the whole family gone a little batty since the old man died.
A black man waited for her at the street corner, holding a small wheelbarrow, on which a huge basket had been fitted.
He straightened like a soldier as she approached; he was eleven inches taller, and easily twice her weight.
"New Market, Miss Liza?" he asked.
"Yes, Nelson."
They moved on. The day was hot, and their progress was slow. When the Confederate government came to Richmond, half the world's noise and crowding and dust and disorder came with it. There were always carriages and wagons and galloping horsemen clattering through the streets. There were always mobs on the sidewalks. Before the war, this early on a hot summer day, only slaves were likely to be out. Now there were clerks and soldiers and hurrying functionaries everywhere. There were paper boys and hawkers and stumbling drunks and homeless refugees sitting on the ground. There were even a great many respectable citizens, some of whom were forced to do their own marketing, and run their own errands, because of the desperate shortage of black labor.
Even the most careful couldn't help getting dirt on their clothing and dung on their footwear. Even the most passionately rebellious couldn't help thinking, at least occasionally, that the honor of being the capital city of the Great Rebellion was an honor they would rather do without.
But on this day, perhaps, they were happy, even though the streets were more impassable than ever. The crushing Confederate victory at Chancellorsville was barely two weeks old. Flags were every where, and music: the doombeat of drums, the mesmerizing tramp of marching feet. Regiment after regiment was parading through Richmond, and wherever they moved, hardly anything else moved at all. Great, cheering crowds lined the streets. They waved hats and scarves, blew kisses, and stepped out eagerly with gifts of food and drink.
Nothing official had been said, and nothing would be, but Richmond knew where these men were going. They were going north, across the Potomac into the free states, and God willing all the wayto Boston. And when they came back the Yankees would be finished and the war would be over.
Not everyone, though, had flowers in their hands, or in their eyes. Off to Liza's left, the second-story window of an old house snapped shut, despite the heat, and a pair of silk-draped wrists yanked the curtain closed. Here and there quiet citizens shouldered through the crowd as best they could, some sorrowfully, some with defiant urgency, as though there were hundreds of things in the world more interesting to them than the Rebel army. Right beside Liza stood a man of obviously Slavic blood, bearded and muscled like a blacksmith, and very tense. Over and over he wiped his face, and put his handkerchief away, and took it out again. An officer trotted by them, a major in glistening knee boots and a uniform tailored to perfection, finished off with a silk sash and miles of gold braid. The Slav cursed viciously under his breath. Viciously, but very low, with an accent so heavy Liza barely understood: God damn something something boyars ... !
Boyars. The hereditary lords who ran everything in Russia, even, most of the time, the czar.
She had heard such curses before. Unionist immigrants spoke of the Rebellion with a bitterness even the most passionate native-born rarely expressed. They felt as if they'd come here for nothing. They had abandoned their homeland and their kin; they had hungered and sickened on stinking ships on an ocean that went on forever, for a dream of free land and free men, and now their dream was being torn apart before their eyes.
Liza and Nelson stood by in silence. The black man was almost fifty, and built of brick. He was noticed everywhere he went, as fine horses were noticed, or fine hounds. He would have been worth a considerable sum of money, despite his age, except for the small piece of paper he carried in his breast pocket. It had Mrs. Van Lew's signature on it, and it said he was free. He was grateful for the paper, but he knew exactly what it was. It was scrip. The army tramping before him would determine what it was worth.
This army, and one other.
Liza watched the passing troops with careful attention. The men looked fit and ready, but they seemed too young to be soldiers. Half of them, at least, had no shoes. Their uniforms were dirty, patched everywhere, and tattered where they didn't bother patching. In fact, they mostly weren't uniforms at all, just homespun shirts and trousers of various drab colors, often butternut, but sometimes even blue--a fact that would invariably get one or another of them killed by his own comrades. They had no proper packs, only their bedrolls slung over one shoulder and a burlap bag bobbing at the opposite hip, tied on with a piece of twine. Although most of them carried good Enfield rifles, a few had only old, smoothbore muskets, unlikely to hit an elephant farther away than eighty yards.
But they marched like heroes. They were proud of their tatterdemalion look; they compared themselves to the men of Yorktown and Valley Forge. Washington's men. She prayed Washington was sleeping sound in his tomb, and couldn't see.
There were tears in her eyes, and a painful, hard knot in her stomach. It happened every time, since the first ones came from Georgia in '61. She knew half of these men couldn't read, and most of them owned no slaves. She knew they had been lied to; they were tearing their country apart for a lie. But her tears did not blind her. She took careful note of their weapons, of the artillery and supply wagons that accompanied them. She took note of the condition of the horses. Two years ago, when she began, she had little idea of what to look for, or how to evaluate anything she saw. Now she had a practiced eye--unprofessional still, but practiced and relentless. She missed little that any well-trained army scout would have seen.
"You take a real good look at them now, Miss Lizzie."
The voice at her shoulder was soft, but it cut through all the drums and cheering like a bayonet through a bag of feathers.
"You take yourself a real good look, and tell Old Abe how many are coming. It won't matter none."
She knew the voice, knew the face it belonged to: Reginald Cleary, a hard-boned, straggly-haired horror from Baltimore; Winder's man. She wondered how he found her in this crowd, if he followed her from Winder's office, or if he followed her from home.
She turned slightly, and gave him the most withering look she could manage.
"You are quite right, Detective," she said icily. "It won't matter. They can all go, every last man of them Jeff Davis can find, and they're still going to get whipped."
He pulled a plug of chewing tobacco from his pocket, bit off the end, and spat it onto the ground.
"Do you know, Miss Lizzie, a man mostly shouldn't want to fight with a woman. But I am going to enjoy seeing you hang."
She laughed. A loud harsh cackle that made other people look away from the soldiers, just for a moment, to look at her.
"You go on back to Maryland, you vile little man. Nobody wants your kind here, picking on decent people all the time. Stealing from everybody. Beating up on old men who buy a little brandy for their poor lame bones. Just go on back where you came from, why don't you, you miserable hired thug!"
Now she had the attention of people all around. Not everyone in Richmond hated Provost Marshal Winder, but they all hated his imported policemen. The Plug Uglies, Richmond called them. The Baltimore Bullies. And here was crazy Liza Van Lew practically screaming at one of them. In public.
The citizens exchanged brief looks, small fluttering smiles. The devil and Beelzebub had fallen out. It wasn't a matter of great importance, not today, not with this glittering array of war passing through their streets. But they would talk about it, even while they marveled at the spirit and elan of their troops, and wondered where Lee might be right now, and where he might be going. Even while they hoped that, wherever he might go, he would plunder and wreck and burn and humiliate everything he marched over, just like the damned Yankees were doing down here.
They would talk about all these things, and in the midst of it they would tell each other how Lizzie Van Lew was heard shrieking like a fishwife at one of General Winder's detectives. And it was dreadful, of course it was, how could a lady behave like that? But it was all right. It would serve. Just like it served Levi Coffin back in Cincinnati, admitting to the whole world that he harbored runaway slaves in his house--a serious crime, according to the law. And then he would smile.
"Leastways," he would say, "the poor things claimed to be slaves. But everybody says Negroes are always making things up; there isn't a courtroom in the land will take their testimony. So I'd be a great fool to believe them myself, now wouldn't I? I'm a Christian, that's all; when poor hungry people come to my door, I give them food and shelter. Where do they go afterward? I haven't the faintest idea. I never ask."
Brazen, they were, those Underground Railroad people. Brazen as a noonday sun, and secret as a fogbound, moonless night. What they spoke, they shouted from the housetops. What they kept to themselves, even God might never come to know.
But they lived among friends. It was different here, and every time, facing down another of Winder's men, another group of angry neighbors, Liza was afraid it was the last time. Afraid she'd never get away with it again.
She would have changed, if she had known another way, if she could have become another person. She would have been a proper spy, the kind she'd read about in books, the kind no one noticed and no one suspected. How safe it would feel, how comforting, to be a spy whom no one suspected.
But this way was all she knew; this person was the only person she knew how to be. Crazy Bet. Rich old spinster. Loudmouthed Yankee lover. Poor little fool.
It would work, or it wouldn't, and that was all.
Copyright © 2002 by Marie Jakober