A Civil War Story
We Americans are now in the final months of our Civil War’s sesquicentennial (1861-1865). Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in conflicts since our nation’s founding. Of that number, 622,000 died in the Civil War. It was not until Viet Nam that the number of deaths in all other conflicts combined surpassed the number who gave their lives so that we could figure out who we are as a people and what we stand for as a nation.
The 1939 blockbuster film Gone with the Wind, set near Atlanta, Georgia, is many people’s idea of what life was like for all antebellum Southerners. My Georgia History professor in college used to laugh and say that contrary to popular ideas, most Georgians lived in unpainted dogtrot cabins and eked out a living through subsistence farming. This was especially true in the mountainous areas of the deep South where a man and his sons could till the rocky slopes of their small farms unaided.
After arriving in the New World sometime in the early 1700’s, my ancestors probably worked off their indentured service in Virginia before turning west toward the mountains, no doubt drawn to the area because it reminded them of their ancestral home in Scotland’s Highlands. They settled in Hall County, Georgia at the tail end of the Blue Ridge Mountains where they soften and melt into foothills. Sometime later, the family moved farther west into the Salacoa Valley in northwest Cherokee County.
Salacoa is a Cherokee word that translates as big corn, silk grass place, or bear grass place, depending on the source. Salacoa Creek rises in Pickens County, about sixty miles north of Atlanta and flows through corners of Cherokee and Bartow Counties before it empties into the Coosawattee River in Gordon County. It is said that the Cherokee named the area Salacoa because the creek’s bottomland is so fertile.
The following short fiction takes place in the Salacoa Valley along the banks of the creek where our main character’s family, my family, has sheltered since the early 1800’s. It is based on actual events in my family’s history.
Fighting for Someone Else’s Way of Life
Moses let the ax head drop onto the chopping block and exhaled loudly. Were his eyes playing tricks or were the pine logs multiplying just to spite him? Leaning on the ax handle, he wiped a shirtsleeve across his brow. A long, low growl rumbled through his midsection. One hoecake and half a sweet potato. Not much of a breakfast, for sure. Moses put his hand up to shade his eyes. Gaging by the sun, his belly would stay empty for a good while longer. His gaze drifted to the valley’s low shoulders. A deer would tide them over ‘til the garden came in. Maybe the war would be over by then and Papa would come home to Salacoa.
At fifteen, Moses knew the Salacoa Valley’s rhythms as though they were the beats of his own heart. The rolling seasons painted the mountains in an ever-changing pallet. Spring now moved her brush. Dogwoods’ quatrefoil blooms flashed in bright white or deep rosy pink beneath a canopy just beginning to show a green haze. Yellow, pink, and coral wild azaleas winked from crevices between granite boulders that were spread out across the landscape like seeds tossed by some gigantic hand. At the far end of the yard, clear, cold water trickled over the creek’s rock and sand bed.
Beauty and peace covered the valley. Hard to believe war swirled all around them.
Moses spat into the woodlot’s red clay. Grandma would gladly overlook his desertion of the woodpile if he brought home meat for supper. His gaze followed the ridge line above the barn and ran down over the fields below. Nothing. Not even a squirrel twitched in the blackberry thickets.
He gave the chopping block a vicious kick. Confound the animals and confound the damned Yankee blockades. Giving the valley one last hopeful sweep, Moses’s back stiffened as his eyes settled on a flicker of movement on a near rise in the road that ran between the house and the barn. He raised a hand to his eyes and narrowed his focus. Even at a distance, he knew on sight everybody who was likely to be abroad in the valley, but he did not recognize the two forms striding toward him. He watched for another moment, his heart thudding harder with each step the pair took.
Taking the log house’s front steps two at a time, he came to rest beside his grandfather and jerked his head toward the approaching figures. “We got company coming.”
Grandpa squinted, then ran fingers through his steel grey hair. “They don’t got the look of the Home Guards. And I ain’t heared of any of our valley boys coming home from the war. Stay on the porch and let me do the talking.”
The pair on the road kicked up little clouds of red dust as they drew near. At the edge of the barn’s mule lot, they stopped and leaned against the fence rails. They looked at each and nodded, then turned toward the house. As they came through the picket gate into the yard, Moses’s heart skipped a beat. Grandpa’s hand slipped onto the rifle leaning against the wall and hoisted it across his forearm.
The taller of the two strangers doffed his cap. “Morning, gentlemen. Beautiful day, ain’t it?” His grin must have been an attempt at being charming.
Grandpa nodded. “A mite warm for this time of year.”
The two men glanced at one another before the one nearest the porch said, “Our horses got spooked by a bear and ran off this morning. We thought that bear was going to have us for breakfast, but I guess he didn’t like the smell of us.” The spokesman’s companion chuckled softly.
Moses’s stomach clenched. Smell they certainly did. The pungent odor of unwashed bodies drifted from them with every movement and the faded blue of their Union uniforms was barely discernible under what must be weeks of dirt.
Mustering what he probably thought was an ingratiating smile, the soldier continued, “We’re hoping you’ll sell us that pair of mules over in the lot across the road.”
Grandpa cast a speculative eye over the strangers and then answered the request slowly. “I’m afraid I cain’t do that. I can offer food and some sassafras tea, if you’uns want it. But them mules, they’s the only thing standing ‘twix my family and starvation. What with spring plowing and planting coming on, we just cain’t part with them.”
Grandpa paused and hesitated before continuing, “I cain’t offer y’all no meat. We ain’t had enough salt for curing for some years now, but we got some eggs. Mind, they’ll be salted with smokehouse leavings.”
A little smile played across Moses’s lips. They had been without fresh salt since shortly after the war began. He and Grandpa had dug up more salt from under the smokehouse just yesterday and they were getting pretty far down in the red earth after three years of excavation.
Grandpa eyed the men, placed a hand on a porch post, and added, “I’d be real grateful if’n y’all don’t mention the food to nobody. It’d be more’n my life’s worth if the Home Guards was to find out.” He turned to Moses. “Son, go get these boys some plates.”
A little thrill of fear passed through Moses. Everyone knew what happened if the Home Guards got onto you. They kept order whether people liked their methods or not. Moses and Grandpa argued about them all the time. Moses believed they were doing what was necessary, but Grandpa called the Home Guards a bunch of jumped up, jackleg scoundrels too old or too cowardly to be real soldiers.
Moses returned with plates of scrambled eggs and hoecakes. He waited for the Yankees’ reaction, but the earthy red eggs didn’t seem to faze them. Moses’s mouth watered as his fingernails dug into his palms. Those eggs were supposed to be their supper.
The soldiers wiped their plates clean with the last of the bread and the taller one stood up. “Be sure and thank your missus for the food.”
Grandpa nodded, but did not speak. After several beats, the soldier cocked his head to one side and ran his gaze over Grandpa. “You sure about selling us those mules?”
Grandpa shook his head. “Not for all the Yankee dollars in Washington.”
Moses watched the men amble through the gate to the road. When they were out of sight, Grandpa turned to him. “Them boys ain’t through with us. Not by a long shot.”
Moses’s pulse raced. “You think so?”
Grandpa’s mouth thinned. He looked at Moses without any his usual good humor. “It’s a long walk from here to Dalton where them fools Sherman and Johnston are about to have at it. Them two boys have most likely been over in Pickens County seeing Union folks and are headed back to that damned Sherman.” Grandpa paused and shook his head. “I suwanee, if it ain’t the Home Guards plundering about, it’s Yankees stealing. Ain’t nobody gonna give us no peace.” His eyes darkened. “Mark my words. They’re gonna come back for them mules tonight.”
With the sun dipping behind the mountains, Grandpa and Moses crossed the road to the barn. They settled behind the mule lot’s water trough where they would be shielded from anyone approaching from the road. The night rapidly slipped from cool to cold as the sun faded, replaced by the chill light of the rising full moon. Moses shivered and tugged an old quilt tighter around his shoulders.
It wasn’t long after the house went dark for the night that quiet footfall sounded along the high bank separating the barnyard from the road below. Moses watched in fascination as the moonlight, dancing and winking its way across the metal parts of the Yankees’ uniforms, gave them an ethereal quality. The men crossed the yard, heading straight for the mule lot. Grandpa and Moses flattened themselves into the damp earth within the trough’s protective shadow.
After a moment’s inspection, one of the soldiers growled, “Let’s see what these Rebs have for tack. I don’t relish riding bareback.”
As the soldiers disappeared into the barn, Moses and his grandfather eased themselves into a kneeling position. Moses’s chest pounded while blood beat a tattoo against his eardrums. He stuffed a fist into his mouth and bit down hard on his knuckles.
After a muffled crash, the soldiers stumbled back into the moonlight. Hisses of whispering floated from them, and then the taller one said clear enough to be heard, “Let’s set the barn. These goddamn traitors need a lesson.”
Grandpa threw a glance at Moses and then jerked his head. Moses drew a deep breath as they silently rose up from behind the water trough, just high enough to clearly see the Union men and take aim.
The soldiers gathered hay and twisted it into bundles. Suddenly, the shorter man stared into the darkness all around him as though he could feel two pairs of eyes on him. When he slipped his right hand onto the leather holster flap covering his side arm, Moses froze, hesitating to even draw breath lest it disturb the air around him. It took all of his strength to keep still as the man’s head slowly turned from side to side, finally settling blindly onto the very spot where he and Grandpa were kneeling. Moses’s breath came in short gasps that he prayed couldn’t be heard by the man who seemed to be staring directly into his own eyes. His heart was surely about to jump clean out of his body. He shuddered. A deep coldness flowed all around him, as though the shadow of death actually passed over him. The soldier’s gaze lingered.
The pounding in Moses’s chest eased a little when the taller soldier looked over at his companion and grunted, “What the hell you looking at? Get back to work and let’s be done with this.”
The shorter soldier stared for another moment before finally returning to his task. Despite the night air’s chill, a trickle of sweat coursed between Moses’s shoulders. How it was the soldiers failed to smell the fear that was so sour in his own nostrils?
Moses had killed plenty of game in his fifteen years, but shooting a human being was something he never really imagined he’d do in this secluded corner of the world. Over the past three years, he had chaffed at not being part of the action and had feared it would all be over before he got his chance at glory. He dreamed of the day when he could put on Confederate gray and join his father and the Salacoa Silver Grays with the Georgia 23rd. Grandpa made Moses promise not to volunteer until he was of age, saying that the blamed fighting would still be there when he turned eighteen. But it looked like the war had given up waiting for him and had come calling of its own accord.
His hands began to shake again, but his breathing was slowing from the short gasps to something resembling normalcy. He looked over at his grandfather, trying to absorb some of the older man’s calm. Grandpa met his gaze and nodded. Although Moses was as good a shot as any of the men from the valley, the trembling in his hands creept up his arms. Moses had longed for his chance to be part of the fighting, but now that it was here, it in no way matched his vision of bold heroics. Was he a coward or did everybody feel this way just before the shooting started? He drew a deep breath and exhaled a long, slow, silent stream of air. Calm seeped in. The trembling ebbed away. They couldn’t afford to miss.
Grandpa waited a moment more then gently nudged Moses. The Yankees turned and faced the water trough as they set their torches ablaze. It was now or never. Grandpa nodded again. Moses held his breath and took aim. Ever so steadily, they squeezed their triggers until lead thundered from the barrels, splitting the clear cold air.
While they dug two shallow graves on the ridge above the barn, Moses considered taking one of the buckles with the USA insignia on it, but remembered what happened last year when the Home Guards found a Union saddlebag at a neighbor’s house. They were hard pressed to explain where it had come from. The neighbors disappeared from the valley the night their home burned to the ground. No one knew what had become of the family.
Moses looked down on the faces of the soldiers. A little knot formed in his gut. In death, they looked far younger than he had originally thought them to be. Neither one was probably more than twenty-five or so and they were lost forever. Their families would never know what had happened to them. Their graves would never have markers nor be visited on decoration days. Just plain disappeared. Something within Moses’s mind snapped. I was like a bucket of icy water had smacked him in the face. How he could ever have thought war a glorious thing?
After they filled the graves and covered them with forest debris, Grandpa and Moses started for home. The sun perched on the lip of the mountain above the house when they finally reached the barn. By now, Grandma had been up for awhile and probably had breakfast just about ready. As they headed for the house, Moses tried to focus on the prospect of easing his growling stomach rather than on thoughts of what he had done these past hours.
Grandpa hurried through the front door, but Moses paused on the porch and leaned against a post, looking out over the valley road and the mountains beyond. He lifted his gaze up to the ridge above the barn and then let it drift down to the small fields below, fields that had been cleared and farmed with labor provided solely by the men of his family. While he had obeyed the commandment about honoring parents, by his reckoning, he had broken at least one other irredeemably. Killing had staved off starvation for a while longer, but knowing this still did nothing to quash the questions that plagued him. He glanced over his shoulder at the weathered gray walls of their simple three-room home. They were constructed of hand-hewn logs cut by his great grandfather and his sons, daubed with red clay dug by those men from the very ground on which the house now stood. He looked out over the red dirt of the side yard to his grandmother’s vegetable garden, tended by her and enriched with manure that she spread with her own hands. Was Grandpa right? Was Papa fighting for a cause that really had nothing to do with their way of life? If Moses became a soldier, would he be reduced to making war on civilians like the Home Guards or those Yankees?
Everything that he had been so sure of before the war had stumbled into Salaoca was turned upside down. The bright dream of fighting for a glorious cause now seemed as tarnished as an old brass lantern that nobody had the energy to polish anymore, its glass so sooty it no longer emitted enough light to show the way. His vision became blurry and he was glad that Grandpa was already inside the house. The light morning breeze caught on his wet cheeks. Would he ever again feel complete confidence in anything?
Moses wiped his face with his sleeve and sighed before he turned toward the front door. As he passed under the lintel, it occurred to him that the only thing he really knew with any certainty right now was that his family was safe for the time being and that they were better off than a lot of folks these days. At least they still had a barrel of supplies buried in the woods above the house.