April 3, 1865
Josephine Weatherly thought she’d already lived through the darkest hour of this endless war, but she had been wrong. Now all hope was truly gone. She huddled with her sister by the upstairs window in her aunt’s home, watching smoke churn into the sky above Richmond, Virginia, like thunderheads. How could the city where she and her family had taken refuge descend into such terror and anarchy? President Davis and the Confederate government were fleeing. Hungry mobs were looting downtown. The enemy invasion everyone had long feared was about to begin.
“Shouldn’t we leave, too?” her sister, Mary, asked. “Everyone else is.” All day they’d watched streams of refugees fleeing Richmond, along with the Confederate government officials, their wagons and carts and wheelbarrows piled high with household goods.
“Where would we go?” Josephine said with a shrug. Hunger made her listless. She couldn’t tear her gaze from the view of the city, barely visible beyond the distant treetops.
“I-I don’t know,” Mary stammered, “but . . . I mean . . . shouldn’t we follow all the others? The Yankees are coming! Someone must know a safe place where we can hide.”
No place is safe, Josephine wanted to say, but she held her tongue when she saw the fear in her sister’s eyes. Sixteen-year-old Mary had gnawed her fingernails and the flesh around them until her fingertips were raw. “Stop doing that,” Josephine said, pulling Mary’s hand away from her mouth.
“I’m sorry . . . I can’t help it! I’m so scared!” Mary laid her head on Jo’s shoulder and wept.
“I know, I know. But we’ll be all right. We’re safe here.” Josephine was lying, and God hated liars, but what difference did it make?
For all of her twenty-two years, Jo had tried to be good and to do what the Bible said, but God hadn’t paid her any notice. Nor had He answered a single one of her prayers during these unending years of war. She had asked Him to protect her two brothers as they’d marched off to battle, but Samuel had been killed, and no one had heard from Daniel in weeks. She had begged God to watch over Daddy after the Home Guard drafted him for duty, but he’d died of pneumonia last winter. Josephine had pleaded with the Almighty to watch over her and Mary and their mother, three women left all alone on their sprawling plantation, outnumbered by slaves. In reply, He’d sent a flood of Yankees into the countryside, forcing her family to flee here to Richmond for safety. She didn’t know if she would ever see White Oak Plantation again.
In the months since they’d lived here with Aunt Olivia, crowded in with other refugee relatives, Josephine had fervently prayed for their daily bread and deliverance from evil, but famine and fear had moved into this house on Church Hill along with them. Dawn never arrived; the long nightmare refused to end. And so Josephine had decided in church yesterday morning that prayer was a waste of time. The Almighty would do whatever He wanted, heedless of her pleas. She wouldn’t ask for protection from the fire or the spreading chaos or the Yankee invasion. A person who had the chair yanked out from beneath her countless times no longer tried to sit down.
“Aren’t you afraid, Jo?” Mary asked.
“No.” She felt wrung of all emotion, including fear. One way or another, by death or deliverance, the uncertainty and sorrow would finally end. Jo no longer cared about the outcome. She simply wished it would come soon.
She heard footsteps and turned to see her mother, Eugenia, standing in the bedroom doorway. Mary saw her, too, and ran into her arms. “Is there any more news?” Mary asked. Josephine dreaded her mother’s answer.
“The colonel was kind enough to stop by before leaving to tell us what’s going on. He said not to worry, that the smoke is from bonfires outside the capitol building. The government is packing their most important documents and burning the rest. They’ll probably burn the tobacco and cotton that’s stored in the city warehouses, too, rather than let the Yankees profit from them.”
Jo studied her mother’s beautiful face, usually so calm and serene, and knew by the crease between her dark brows that there was more bad news. “What else did the colonel say? Are the mobs still looting all the businesses?”
Mother hesitated, then said, “Yes. He warned us to stay away from the commercial district, and so . . . I don’t want to alarm you, girls, but I think we’d better pack, just in case.”
“Are we leaving with everyone else?” Mary asked.
“Not yet,” Mother said, stroking Mary’s dark hair. Josephine remembered the soothing gesture from when she was a child, sitting on her mother’s lap, secure in the comfort of her arms. But she was too old to run to Mother now, and her grief was beyond soothing. Besides, Mother had a wellspring of grief all her own. “We’ll wait here a little longer,” Mother said, “but I think we should be ready to leave if we have to.”
“Are we taking everything?” Jo asked. She surveyed the trunks and crates of belongings stacked in their tiny bedroom. War had stripped their lives bare the way wind and frost strips leaves from a tree, until their once-flourishing life had been whittled down to a single room.
“We’ll pack only what we truly need, this time,” Mother said. “And only what we can carry. We’ll leave the rest to God’s will.”
Jo wondered if these last few possessions would survive or if God would take them, too. She and Mother had clung to these reminders of their old life ever since the day a Confederate captain and his handful of men had ridden to their plantation, fifteen miles from Richmond, to warn of the advancing enemy.
“It isn’t safe to stay here any longer, ma’am,” he’d told them. He’d removed his hat out of respect, but he hadn’t dismounted. The horse snorted impatiently, fogging the chilly air with its breath.
To Jo, another loss had seemed unimaginable, coming a mere month after Daddy’s death. “But we can’t leave our home!” Jo had blurted out. “It’s all we have!”
Mother had stood proud and strong as she’d absorbed the news. Her inner strength seemed to be made from the same glue that held the universe together and kept the stars in place. She reached for Jo’s hand and squeezed it. “What will happen if we decide to stay here?” Mother had asked the captain.
“The enemy could be here within a day, ma’am, so I strongly advise you to leave. The Yankees are savages with no code of decency or chivalry.” He glanced around at the family’s slaves who had stopped work to listen and added, “Besides, there’s no telling what your Negroes will do once the Yankees get them all stirred up, promising freedom and all.”
Jo’s breath seemed to freeze in her lungs as she waited in the icy air to hear what Mother would do. The captain’s horse fidgeted and pulled at the reins as if eager to gallop. “We’ll have soldiers patrolling the roads into Richmond for as long as possible, ma’am. They’ll watch over you all the way. But we can’t guarantee your safety once we pull back.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Mother smiled, still the poised and lovely matron of White Oak Plantation. “Good day and good luck to you and your men.” She then went inside and closed the door. For the rest of the morning she had calmly issued orders as Ida May and Lizzie and the other house slaves had packed up the household, loading bedding and clothing, a few pieces of furniture, and trunkfuls of valuables into the carriage. Otis harnessed their only horse to the overburdened carriage and drove them to Aunt Olivia’s house in Richmond, leaving the remaining slaves alone on the plantation.
The city had been swollen with refugees and pulsing with fear. It bore little resemblance to the Richmond Josephine had visited before the war, but it had provided safety and shelter for the past few months. But no longer.
She turned away from the window and looked around the jumbled room. What should she pack? The things that once seemed so important to her—her brush and mirror set with the ivory handles, her diary, her grandmother’s opal necklace—hardly mattered anymore. These were treasures for another time and place, unnecessary weights in a struggle for survival. She had brought several dresses with her to Richmond, but the only one she needed now was the green muslin one with their gold coins sewed into its seams. She unbuttoned her bodice and changed into that dress. Her mother and sister were changing, as well.
Josephine packed some essential toiletries in a canvas bag, then decided to add the photograph of her father, Philip Weatherly. It seemed like the very last token of the life she’d once known, and she feared losing the memory of his handsome face just as she’d lost everything else. When she finished, Josephine carried her bag downstairs and sat down in the parlor with the rest of her family to wait. Aunt Olivia and her three daughters had also packed their bags, but Great-Aunt Hattie refused to pack a single thing. “I came into this world with nothing,” she insisted, “and I expect that I’ll leave it the same way.”
The sun had set, shrouded behind the smoke-filled sky by the time they were all ready. The parlor grew dark and cold. Aunt Olivia made sure everyone had a quilt to huddle beneath. Fuel had become very scarce, and they needed to conserve every stick of firewood for cooking. They had long since run out of lamp oil, but Aunt Hattie produced a tallow candle she had been saving “for such a time as this,” and opened her Bible to read aloud to all of them: “‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear . . .’”
Josephine stopped listening. The others may find the Scriptures soothing—and Aunt Hattie certainly had enough faith to move a mountain all by herself—but Jo didn’t. She considered the Bible nothing but fairy tales. She closed her eyes, wishing that God would end their lives quickly, if that’s what He had determined to do. As the evening dragged on and on, she began to doze.
A loud banging on the front door awakened her. Aunt Olivia went to answer the door herself, having sent all of her slaves to their own quarters behind the house for the night. Without a word, Josephine rose and followed her aunt. Their next-door neighbor stood on the front step, nervously twirling his hat in his hand.
“Won’t you come in?” Aunt Olivia asked, as if she was having a dinner party and he’d arrived a few minutes late. He shook his head.
“I saw the candle through your window and wanted to make sure everyone was all right. I see you decided to stay?”
“Yes. My sister Eugenia and I decided that we were better off here at home than out on the road somewhere in the middle of the night. Besides, we have no place to go. This is my home. I’ll stay here and defend it the best I can and take my chances with the Yankees, if they come.”
“Oh, they’re surely coming,” he said. “But they’re not our biggest problem. I just walked down to the center of Richmond and . . .” He glanced at Josephine with a worried look before continuing in a softer voice, as if hoping she wouldn’t hear him. “You need to stay inside with your doors locked. There’s no law and order in Richmond tonight, and the looting is out of control. These aren’t the Yankees, mind you, but our own citizens.”
“Do you think the violence will spread up here to Church Hill?”
“No one knows what might happen, Mrs. Greeley. And that’s not all . . .” He glanced at Josephine again, and she knew he didn’t want to say more in front of her.
“Go ahead,” Josephine said. “You won’t frighten me.” But when he spoke, his voice was softer still.
“The guards at the state penitentiary have abandoned their posts. All the prisoners are on the loose.”
“Oh, Lord, help us,” Aunt Olivia breathed.
“I’m going to let all of our slaves sleep inside our house tonight. Strength in numbers, you see.”
“Thank you for telling me. I believe I’ll do the same.” Aunt Olivia closed and locked the door again, then went out to the slave yard to order them inside. Jo heard the slaves stirring in the basement kitchen below her a few minutes later.
“You’re not letting the slaves come into the parlor with us, are you?” Aunt Hattie asked when Olivia returned with the news.
“Certainly not. I told them to stay down in the kitchen and to make sure they bolted the back door.”
Mother reached into the satchel she had packed and retrieved a small leather-covered box Josephine had seen in her father’s desk drawer. Aunt Olivia looked horrified when Mother opened the box and pulled out a pistol.
“Eugenia! Is that thing loaded?”
“Yes, it is,” Mother replied, calmly inspecting it.
“Do you know how to use it?”
“Of course. And I will, if I have to. I suggest you get the pistol your husband left you, as well.”
“But I . . . I really don’t think I could . . .”
“You don’t need to shoot it, Olivia. Merely pointing it at someone acts as a deterrent.”
Olivia went into her husband’s study and fetched the pistol and ammunition. “Here, Eugenia. You’ll have to load it for me.” Mother’s hands were steady as she loaded it. The two women sat with the pistols in their laps as Aunt Hattie resumed her Scripture reading in the flickering candlelight.
“‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid . . .’”
“We’re going to lose the war, aren’t we?” Josephine said as Hattie paused between verses. Everyone stared at her in the darkness. “General Lee’s army is leaving, and the Yankees are going to conquer Richmond. The war is over, and we’ve lost.”
“We’ve had setbacks before,” Mother replied. “But our cause is just. Virginia joined the Union voluntarily, and we have every right to leave it. Right is on our side.”
“But can’t we be right and still lose?” Josephine asked. No one replied. “Do you think God is punishing us?”
“No! What for?” Mother said. “All we asked for was to live in peace the way we always have. The enemy is trying to conquer us and force us to change, but I’ve been to Philadelphia and I’ve seen the way they live up north—and believe me, it is very much inferior to our way of life.”
“How are they different?” Josephine asked. “I know they don’t own slaves but—”
“All they think about is money. They may criticize us for the way we treat our slaves, but they treat immigrants much worse. At least we provide food and shelter for our workers. No one up north cares if those poor foreigners starve to death in the streets. The North has none of the graciousness of our way of life and they worship the almighty dollar. The most important things to us are our families and our land and our traditions.”
“But if we lose the war—” Josephine began.
“Win or lose,” Aunt Hattie interrupted, “we must learn to pray as Jesus did in His darkest hour: ‘Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.’”
“If the war does end, at least the killing will end,” Aunt Olivia murmured. “We’ve lost so many loved ones already.” Her pistol lay limp in her lap; Mother gripped the handle of hers in her fist.
“If General Lee is forced to surrender,” Mother said, “it will only be because they outnumbered us, not because they outfought us.”
“I just wish we knew what was going to happen next,” Aunt Olivia said, “and when all this will end.”
“I wish we didn’t have to be afraid all the time,” Mary added. She was chewing her fingernails again. Josephine reached to take her sister’s hand and hold it in hers. A moment later, Aunt Hattie snuffed out the candle, plunging the room into darkness. One of Josephine’s cousins began to cry.
“Think of how dark it must have seemed to Jesus’s disciples after Calvary,” Hattie said. “Their Messiah was dead. All hope was gone. But then resurrection came on Easter Sunday, not just for Christ but for all of us. The Almighty has kept us safe throughout this day, and we can trust Him for tomorrow.”
What if tomorrow is even worse? Josephine wanted to ask, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Aunt Hattie began singing hymns, but Jo didn’t join in. This seemed like the longest night of her life as she sat waiting for the dawn. Exhausted, Josephine finally leaned against her sister and began to doze.
An enormous explosion jolted her awake. The blast shook the entire house and rattled the windowpanes. Mary leaped from the sofa and into Mother’s arms, Josephine’s cousins sobbed and wailed, and slaves screamed in the kitchen below.
“The Yankees are shelling us!” Aunt Olivia said. “Their gunboats must have made it up the James River.”
Another explosion followed, louder than the first. Josephine ran to the window and parted the curtains. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the entire sky glowed with an eerie, unnatural light.
More blasts followed, one after the other like a hundred cannons firing, until the whole earth seemed to reverberate. Josephine raced upstairs to peer out the window that had the best view of the city and saw molten flames leaping into the sky beneath clouds of thick, dark smoke. This wasn’t a bonfire like yesterday. The city was burning. She stumbled downstairs again to tell the others. “It-it looks like the whole city is on fire.” Everyone stared at her, mute with shock.
Aunt Hattie spoke first. “It says in Scripture that at the end of the age ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and all the elements shall melt with fervent heat.’”
Stop it! Jo wanted to scream. Just stop it! You said that tomorrow would be better, but it isn’t! Her sister and cousins couldn’t stop crying, and it seemed to Jo that the end of the world had truly come. There was nothing to do but wait for it. Aunt Hattie tried to gather everyone together to pray, but Jo wanted no part in it. “I’ll go watch in case the fire spreads this way,” she said. She climbed the stairs again, alone.
Josephine had no idea how much time passed, but eventually the sun rose and the sky began to grow lighter. She could glimpse a small stretch of Franklin Street between the houses and trees and saw a moving wall of dark blue marching down the hill toward the center of town, toward the flames. Wagon wheels and marching feet rumbled like distant thunder. The enemy had arrived.
If God was good, and if He loved Josephine and her family, how could this have happened? She had prayed! They all had. She covered her face and wept, not for her lost nation but for her lost faith.
Another hour or more passed, and the view grew dim behind a haze of smoke. Josephine dried her tears and went downstairs to rejoin the others just as their neighbor arrived at the door again. This time Aunt Olivia led him inside so everyone could hear his news.
“The Yankees are here,” he said quietly. “Richmond has surrendered. The explosions we heard before dawn were our own gunboats, the Virginia, the Beaufort, and the Richmond. We blew them to smithereens in the harbor so the Yankees wouldn’t get them.”
“It looks like the city is on fire,” Josephine said.
“Yes, the commercial district is ablaze, and our fire and police forces are nowhere to be seen. But the Yankees are working hard to quench the flames. Church Hill should be safe.”
“How could this happen?” Aunt Olivia asked. No one replied.
“Well, at least the worst is over,” Aunt Hattie said. She was the only one who hadn’t been weeping. “From now on, we’ll face whatever we must with faith in God.”
Jo didn’t want to hear it. She returned to her bedroom, her faith in God as shattered as the Confederate gunboats. Why pray when God wasn’t listening? Besides, her only prayer would be that the Confederate Army would surrender and the war would end—and her family would call her a traitor if she said that out loud. But why keep fighting? Why prolong this nightmare?
Josephine opened her diary, then closed it again. It recorded her past, but there was nothing left of her old life. Everything she’d learned during the past twenty-two years would have to be revised. Not simply cleaned up and pruned the way the slaves back home trimmed the bushes and cut the weeds, but dug up and yanked out by the roots so that something altogether new could be planted in its place.
Jo still believed in God; only a fool could deny the existence of a Creator. But she no longer believed in prayer or in a God who cared about her suffering. It was time to bury her childish faith in a God who was her loving Father, watching over her, doing what was best for her.
As far as she was concerned, He was as distant and unreachable as her own beloved father.
April 19, 1865
Eugenia Weatherly couldn’t bear to watch her daughters go hungry another day. A week had passed since the war ended and the South had surrendered, and Eugenia’s household was starving. She was the strongest one. She had to find food. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders against the morning chill and strode toward the door to the slave yard, determined to find her manservant and enlist his help. But just as she reached the door, her sister Olivia called to her, “Eugenia, wait!”
Eugenia paused with her hand on the knob, impatient to be on her way. Her mind was made up and she wouldn’t let her sister talk her out of it. “What now, Olivia? Your neighbor said to get there early, before the line gets too long.”
Tears brimmed in Olivia’s eyes and soaked her wadded hanky. “I can’t bear the thought of you begging. Father must be turning in his grave. Isn’t there any other way to get food?”
“No. There isn’t. The larder, the root cellar, and all of our stomachs are empty. The market is a charred ruin, our children are hungry, you can’t stop crying—”
“Only because of the news. I can’t believe that General Lee has truly surrendered.”
“Well, he has. The war ended a week ago, and we’re at the mercy of our enemies. If the United States Christian Commission is distributing free rations downtown, then I believe we’re entitled to some.”
“Who would have ever thought we’d have to accept charity?” Olivia wept.
Eugenia kept her chin raised with pride. “I refuse to think of it as charity. The Yankees stole everything we had, so it’s high time they gave some of it back.” She opened the door again, bringing a gust of cool air and the stench of the stables and slave yard into the tiny hallway. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Wait. You shouldn’t go alone. Let one of us go with you.”
Eugenia shook her head. “I’d rather go by myself. You’re still unwell and I won’t allow my daughters out in the streets with Yankee soldiers everywhere.” Nor did Eugenia want her girls to witness her disgrace as she begged for food. “I’ll take my manservant with me—Amos or Otis or whatever his name is.”
“Are you certain he’s still here? It seems like more and more of my slaves are slipping away every day. The Yankees are telling them they’re free to go.”
“I think it’s cruel to grant freedom to people who don’t know what it means or what to do with it. It’s like giving a lit torch to a baby. If my slave isn’t here, I’ll see if one of your people will accompany me.”
“Be careful, Eugenia. Everyone says it’s dangerous downtown.”
“I know . . . And, Olivia, please don’t tell the others where I went.” She hurried through the back door, eager to get this distasteful errand over with as quickly as possible. She was unaccustomed to using the slaves’ door and nearly tripped over a young black boy sitting on the stoop, whittling a scrap of wood. He jumped to his feet when he saw Eugenia and stood with his arms stiff at his sides like a soldier at attention. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Do you know where I might find the slave who drove me here from White Oak Plantation?”
“Otis? Yes, ma’am. He’s probably in the stable, taking care of that horse of yours and shining up your carriage.”
Eugenia felt a wave of relief that Otis hadn’t run off like so many of the others had—or that he hadn’t stolen her horse. “Tell him I would like a word with him.” The boy raced across the barren yard to the stable and returned a minute later with Otis. The big Negro halted ten feet from Eugenia and removed his straw hat. He was a tall, well-muscled field hand, and although Eugenia always found it difficult to determine a slave’s age, she guessed him to be around thirty. He was a docile slave and kept his eyes lowered, as well he should.
Eugenia was suddenly aware that she no longer owned him and had no right to order him to do anything. She would have to ask him to go with her—and Eugenia had never asked a Negro for a favor in her life. She steeled herself for his refusal.
“I have an errand to run downtown near St. Paul’s Church, and I don’t think it’s safe for me to go alone. I wondered if you would accompany me?”
“I been down there and seen the mess for myself, ma’am. I’m willing to go with you but . . .”
“But what?” Was he going to ask to be paid?
“Well, I hope you ain’t planning on taking that carriage of yours. People see you got a horse, they be stealing him away quick as lightning. The carriage, too.”
Eugenia hadn’t considered that possibility. The commissary where the food was being dispensed was at least a dozen blocks away, and she was unaccustomed to walking. But how would she get home to her plantation if someone stole her horse? “I suppose we’ll have to walk then,” she finally said. “Find an empty burlap bag to bring with us.”
They walked two blocks to Franklin Street, then headed down the hill toward the capitol building, its white roof and the spire of St. Paul’s visible in the distance. The closer Eugenia got to the center of Richmond, the more the landscape degenerated into a nightmare. She had tried to prepare herself for the devastation, but it shocked her just the same. Mere skeletons of buildings stood in the deserted commercial district with blackened holes like vacant eye sockets for windows. Rubble lay knee-deep in the streets. Lovely homes had been reduced to piles of charred bricks and beams and tottering chimneys. The heart of Richmond—lovely Richmond—was in ruins.
Otis tried to avoid the worst areas, leading Eugenia around mounds of debris and past crumbling walls that threatened to topple in the wind. The breeze blew grit and cinders into Eugenia’s eyes and left the taste of destruction in her mouth. Her shoes weren’t made for such rugged walking. They turned black with soot, and if she hadn’t been dressed in mourning, the soot would have stained the hem of her skirt, as well.
“Wait. I need to rest a moment.” Eugenia paused, feeling light-headed. The burned-out hulk in front of her was the bank where her husband, Philip, had done business. What had become of all the money? The bank records?
At least St. Paul’s Church still stood intact and the capitol building across the square. The sight cheered her until she saw the hated Union flag flying from the capitol’s rooftop. The grassy square in front of the building was a sea of indigo uniforms. Eugenia looked away, pressing her fist to her chest as her heart squeezed painfully. Had the war been for nothing? Had Philip and their son Samuel died in vain? She recalled the words of one of Aunt Hattie’s psalms, mourning Israel’s defeat by her enemies, and never had the words seemed so bitterly appropriate: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
She drew a breath and started forward again, bypassing Capitol Square as she made her way toward Broad Street and the commissary. A line of people stretched away from it for nearly two blocks. Eugenia steeled herself as she took her place at the end of the line, distressed to see that all manner of unsavory people had lined up with her—trashy whites and saloon girls, worthless beggars and Negroes—people that Eugenia had never associated with in her life. She swallowed a knot of anger at being forced to stand in line with them, forced to seek charity. The jostling crowd nudged her forward each time the line moved and she lost her balance for a moment and fell against her manservant. He gripped her arms to steady her, then quickly recoiled.
“Sorry, ma’am! Sorry! You all right?”
“I’m fine.” But tears of rage and humiliation stung her eyes. Eugenia had never dreamed she would stoop this low. She turned her gaze away from the filthy people crowding around her and silently vowed that she would never, ever, stoop this low again. Her dignity would be the very last thing that the Yankees would ever take from her.
“I need rations for my entire household,” she told the clerk when she finally reached the distribution counter, “as well as food for the . . . servants.” She had nearly called them slaves.
“How many people?”
“Eight. My servant can tell you how many Negroes we have left.” She gestured to Otis.
“A handful,” he said with a shrug. “Plus some little ones.” Too late, Eugenia realized that he probably couldn’t count.
The clerk reached behind him and lifted a sack of cornmeal onto the table. He added sacks of flour, dried beans, and rice, a ration of salt pork, and a greasy package of lard, grimacing while he worked. Otis placed everything in the burlap bag and swung it over his shoulder. Eugenia’s task was done. She walked away, refusing to thank the Yankee for giving back what was rightfully hers.
She had to stop and rest several times as they plodded up Church Hill again. The sun had become too warm for the shawl, and Eugenia felt weary with hunger. When they finally reached home, Otis stopped her outside the back door. “Can I ask you something, ma’am?” He stared down at his worn shoes, not at her.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Everyone’s saying we’re free now, and some of the others are saying they ain’t working for Miz Olivia no more.”
“And I suppose you want to leave, too?”
“Well . . . I promised Massa Philip that I’d watch over you and Missy Josephine and Missy Mary while he’s away. He said if I did, he would give my two boys their freedom when he got back—though I guess they’re free now anyway. I kept my promise and helped y’all come to Richmond, but now I’m missing my wife and family something terrible. I’d like to head on back to White Oak and see if they’re okay.”
“How will you get there?”
“Guess I’ll be walking home, ma’am.”
Home. It called to Eugenia, bringing tears to her eyes. She lifted her chin, determined to remain strong. “You don’t need to walk, Otis. If you can wait a few more days, we will all go back. You can drive the carriage for us.”
He broke into a wide grin. “Yes, ma’am. I’d be happy to do that.”
Eugenia was going home. She wanted to tell her sister of her decision right away and found Olivia sitting at her writing desk in the morning room, alone. “You’re back!” Olivia said, springing from her chair. “I’ve been so worried about you. Did everything go well?”
Eugenia nodded. “We have enough food for a couple of weeks. But listen. I’ve decided to go home to White Oak.”
“Oh, Eugenia, you can’t leave! It’s much too dangerous! The Yankee soldiers are everywhere, along with all sorts of vagabonds wandering the countryside. Refugees and Negroes and—”
“White Oak is my home. It’s where the girls and I belong.” She crossed the room to take her sister’s hands in hers, pleading with her. “You should understand how I feel, Olivia. You didn’t want to leave your home and so you stayed here through the very worst of it, when everyone else said it was too dangerous to stay. Now I intend to go home, too, no matter what anyone says. I’ll trust the Almighty to keep us safe.”
“But think this through, Eugenia. How many slaves did you own? Dozens? Suppose they turn against you?”
“Philip always treated them well. I doubt that they’re dangerous. My manservant told me just now that he’s been watching over the girls and me because of a promise he made to Philip.”
Olivia pulled her hands free. “Don’t be naïve. Who knows what your other Negroes have been up to while you’ve been away.”
“Nevertheless, I’m leaving, Olivia. The girls and I are going—”
“Where, Mother? Where are we going?”
Eugenia turned to see her daughter Josephine standing in the doorway. “Home, dear. We’re going back to White Oak.”
A faint smile lit up Josephine’s face, the first that Eugenia had seen in weeks. “When?” she asked.
“In a couple of days. Next week at the latest. I’ve only just decided this morning.”
“I don’t think you’re considering your daughters’ welfare, Eugenia. Or their safety.”
“I’m not afraid. Are you, Josephine? Because if you are, I won’t make you leave Richmond against your will. Mary either.”
Josephine crossed the room to stand beside her. “I’m not afraid. I want to go home, too.”
Eugenia caressed her daughter’s cheek, then turned to Olivia again. “There, you see?”
“I think you’re being very foolish.”
Eugenia exhaled. She recognized the stubborn look in her sister’s eyes, but she could be just as stubborn. She had won the argument this morning and had brought food supplies home. She would win this battle, as well.
“Josephine, would you please give your aunt and me a moment to talk in private? Thank you.” Eugenia waited until she and Olivia were alone, then said, “I need to think of my daughters’ futures. They deserve more than this cowering fear, this day-to-day existence, wondering what tomorrow will bring or if there will even be a tomorrow. They’ve become so quiet and withdrawn, and it makes me furious to think they’ve lost their girlhood to this war, the best years of their lives.” She reached for her sister’s hand again. “Remember when we were their age, how we would lie in the poster bed, giggling with secrets? Remember the dances we went to and the gowns we wore? And that delicious game of courtship? How we loved to tease and flirt! Those years were filled with laughter and joy, but my girls don’t know any of that happiness.”
“I understand, but those things are going to take time—”
“All the more reason to get started right away. We’ve lost five years of our lives, Olivia—five years that we’ll never get back.”
“At least wait until Daniel returns. He’ll probably be home from the army soon. Why not wait until he’s there to protect you?”
“Because Daniel and the other boys have fought so hard, for so long. Even when they were outnumbered they kept on fighting for their homes and their country. I want to make sure my son has a comfortable home to return to.”
Olivia’s eyes filled with tears. “I-I don’t know how to say this but . . . but what if White Oak is gone? What if the Yankees destroyed it?”
Eugenia released Olivia’s hand and turned to gaze through the window. The sun that had shone so warmly on the way home from town had disappeared behind a dark cloud. “I’ve lost my husband, my firstborn son, and the life I once knew,” she finally said. “If I find that my home is also gone, I don’t know how I’ll go on—but I will. The enemy can defeat us, but they can’t break our spirits unless we let them. With God’s help, I’m going to win back everything the Yankees have stolen from me.”
April 21, 1865
Lizzie was out in the kitchen behind the Big House, scrubbing an iron kettle when she heard one of the other house slaves calling to her. “Lizzie! Lizzie, come quick! There’s a carriage coming up the lane.”
Lizzie dropped her scrub rag and ran outside, praying beneath her breath. Oh, Lord, please! Please let it be my Otis coming home. From the moment Miz Eugenia had made Otis load up her belongings last winter and drive her and the two missies to Richmond, Lizzie had been wondering if she’d ever see her husband again. She’d heard Miz Eugenia talking about needing money real bad after Massa Philip died. Suppose she decided to sell Otis? Suppose Lizzie never saw him again? Please bring him home, Lord Jesus!
Winter had turned into spring and there had been no news from the white folks in Richmond. Neither Lizzie nor any of the other slaves who’d been left behind knew a thing about what was happening. Every day Lizzie’s boys were asking her, “Where’s Papa? When’s he coming home again?” What could she say? Life on Slave Row was filled with uncertainty and suffering, and that’s all they’d ever known. Loved ones got snatched away sometimes and were never seen again.
Lizzie’s mama had warned her not to fall in love and get married. “Just get your heart broken when he’s torn away from you,” she’d said. “Hard work and suffering’s bad enough, but losing people you love is the heaviest load you’ll ever carry.”
“But I want to get married and have babies someday,” Lizzie had tried to argue. Her mother’s voice had grown sharp.
“You listen now. If you have babies, you gonna love them. Then you have to watch them grow up and be slaves just like you, living this miserable life. And nothing you can do about it. You wish they could be running around all happy like the white babies, but as much as it hurts, you got to teach your children to obey, no matter what. They belong to the white folks, not to you. Listen to me now, Lizzie. Don’t ever fall in love. Just makes this life harder than it already is.”
Lizzie had thought about her mother’s warning all winter after Otis left, unable to shake it out of her head. But it was too late. She loved Otis more than anything in the world, and nothing could change that. His children loved him, too. But each time they pestered her she’d scold them and say, “Stop thinking about him. Stop asking about him. Maybe we never see him until we get to heaven someday, so quit asking and hoping.”
Impossible to do. That burden of love was such a heavy load that sometimes Lizzie sank to her knees beneath the weight of it. She would never stop hoping or praying, asking Jesus to please bring Otis home.
She was still drying her hands on her apron as she ran to the side yard for a view of the long tree-shaded lane. Something was kicking up a big cloud of dust, so for sure there was a carriage coming. She could hear the horse’s hooves thumping in the soft dirt, the carriage springs squeaking and creaking. But she could only catch glimpses of movement between the trees.
There’d been other visitors to the plantation in the past few weeks, and each time Lizzie called herself a fool when her hopes were raised, then dashed. All kinds of strangers had wandered up the road from the village, some saying the war had ended, others saying all the slaves were free. A bunch of Massa’s field hands had left the plantation for good, but Lizzie and the others who worked in the Big House had stayed, scared to death of leaving for fear of being hunted down and whipped half to death if it turned out it ain’t true. No, Lizzie and her kids would wait right here for Otis. And now, Please, Lord, please, maybe he was coming.
Lizzie halted beside Dolly, the cook, watching to see who was going to appear out of the dust ball boiling up the lane. “If this is Miz Eugenia,” Dolly said, “just wait till she sees what them Yankees done to her house.”
“I hope she don’t blame us.”
“Of course she’s gonna blame us. You know she is.”
Lizzie held her breath as the coach rounded the gentle curve in the lane. Please, Lord! Then—was she seeing things? No, that really was her Otis sitting tall and handsome in the driver’s seat! Her knees went weak, and she sank down on the grass. She pulled her apron over her face and wept with relief. Thank you, Lord! Thank you!
“You okay, honey?” Dolly asked, rubbing her back.
“It’s Otis! My Otis is back!” Her apron muffled her voice as she tried to contain her joy.
“He sure is, honey. And that means Miz Eugenia and her girls are probably back, too.”
“Mama! Mama!” Lizzie heard her sons calling from behind her as they raced up from Slave Row. “Is he here, Mama? Is Papa here?”
She struggled to her feet, grabbing their skinny arms just in time to stop six-year-old Jack and eight-year-old Rufus from running to their papa. “Hold on. Just wait, Rufus, honey. You just wait now.” Lizzie longed to run straight into Otis’s arms herself and hold him tight, but he would have to help unload everything first. Miz Eugenia had carted a whole pile of things with her to Richmond in that carriage. Lizzie knew because she’d helped pack everything up, wrapping fancy dishes in towels and newspapers to keep them from breaking.
Miz Eugenia’s old carriage driver, Willy, limped up from the stable to help Otis as Lizzie watched from a distance, still gripping Rufus and Jack. They were as eager to run as hounds on the scent. It seemed to take forever for the men to bring in all the trunks and boxes and pictures and whatnot that Miz Eugenia had taken with her.
“We probably have to help unpack everything now,” Dolly mumbled.
“She gonna be glad she didn’t leave it here for the Yankees to take.”
“Glad? Honey, she always finds something to complain about. Won’t be any different this time, either.”
At last, the white folks and all their belongings were back in the Big House. Otis could drive the empty carriage down to the stables, where Lizzie and the boys were waiting for him. Finally, after all these months apart, after all the waiting and worrying and praying, Lizzie was in his arms again. Otis held her for a long, long time. Then he turned to their boys, who were tugging on his raggedy pants and clamoring for his attention. He lifted Rufus in one arm and Jack in the other as if they weighed nothing at all.
“You’re crying, Papa!” Rufus wiped his father’s tears with his dirty hand, leaving a smudge on Otis’s cheek. “Why you so sad?”
“I’m crying because I’m happy, not sad. Look at your mama. She’s crying, too. Sometimes folks cry when they’re happy, don’t you know that?”
No, Lizzie’s boys probably didn’t know that. Not much to be happy about in the life they lived, always working, always hungry. This was probably the happiest day of their lives. It sure was one of Lizzie’s.
“Where’s Roselle?” Otis asked, looking around. He set the boys down and turned to unhitch the horse from the carriage.
“She was working with Cissy up in the Big House before you came. Miz Eugenia’s probably giving her a hundred things to do by now.” But Lizzie knew that her daughter wasn’t here to welcome Otis home because she didn’t feel the same way about him that Rufus and Jack did. Otis was their real daddy, but he wasn’t fifteen-year-old Roselle’s father.
Lizzie watched her man fussing over the horse, removing the bridle and brushing him down real good before putting him in the stall. He was being so careful to finish the job while Lizzie’s iron pot sat waiting in the kitchen and she didn’t care one bit.
“You boys grab some rags and help me clean the dust off this carriage,” Otis said. “I been worrying over this rig since the day I drove away from here. Lord knows how much trouble I had in Richmond, keeping Massa Philip’s horse and carriage from getting stolen.” Otis was working as if Massa might come out and holler if he didn’t. Lizzie wondered why Otis bothered. Massa and all his sons were gone, and Miz Eugenia never would set foot in this old stable.
“Everyone’s saying the war is over and we ain’t slaves no more,” Lizzie said as she watched him work. “Is that true?”
“Yep, it’s true, Lizzie-girl. I heard lots of folks talking about it in Richmond. The Yankees won and the white folks have to let all us slaves go free.”
“Me too, Papa?”
“All of us, Jack.”
“We heard the same thing,” Lizzie said, “but nobody around here knows what it means. Saul and some of the others think we get to live in the Big House now, and the missus has to move out. He says we get to take over everything.” Lizzie would never dare to dream of living in the Big House even though she knew every inch of it, upstairs and down. Her cabin on Slave Row was the only home she’d known since the day she was born. Otis laughed out loud at Saul’s silly notion.
“That sure ain’t true! Everything still belongs to the white folks, except us. They don’t own us no more. We’re free to leave White Oak and go anywhere we want.”
“Anywhere? How can that be?” Lizzie sat down on an overturned barrel as she tried to take it all in. “We can leave . . . anytime we want?”
“Yes, Lizzie-girl! The door is wide open for all of us now.”
“But where would we go? We’ll be needing food and a place to sleep at night. And what would we do all day?”
“Well, first we’ll have to change the way we think about things and start thinking like free people, I guess. Start deciding for ourselves.”
“But we ain’t supposed to decide things. Never in our life, Otis. They do all the thinking for us up there.” Lizzie tilted her head in the direction of the Big House. “Every day of our lives someone tells us what to do and how to do it, and we ain’t allowed to want anything for ourselves. They treat us like we’re no better or smarter than that horse.” And in the lowest times of her life, Lizzie feared they might be right.
“Do we have to move out of our cabin, Papa?” Jack asked. It was the only home he’d known, pitiful as it was. Neither him, his brother, nor his father had ever been inside the Big House, even when the white folks were away. Lizzie didn’t ever want her boys to know what they were missing. But Roselle worked up there. She knew. Maybe that’s why she always had her head in the clouds, dreaming up something new.
“Don’t worry. We can probably keep on living here for now,” Otis said.
“Some folks already run off,” she told him. “Rest of us been too scared to leave. We been taking care of things because that’s all we know how to do. But if what you say is true, what are we supposed to do now?”
Otis didn’t answer right away. “Well . . . I been giving it a lot of thought. The war’s been hard on the white folks, and they’re as bad off as we are. People in Richmond are starving, Lizzie. I saw Miz Eugenia standing in line for her food just like we used to do with the overseer every month because she and the missies didn’t have anything left to eat. All the plantations around here are trampled and run-down, the slaves gone who knows where. This is the only home we got, and we have three children to feed. I know we have to work hard here, but Massa ain’t never been mean to us.”
“I know, I know . . .”
“Are you saying we should stay? Keep working here when we could walk away and never look back?”
“Well . . . I think—”
The clanging dinner bell outside the kitchen interrupted him, and it wasn’t even close to dinnertime. Lizzie leaped up. “What should I do? Do I have to go see what she wants?”
“You better go, Lizzie. For now.” But Lizzie wrapped her arms around her husband one more time and gave him another big hug before she did.
Cissy was ringing the life out of that bell, and Lizzie had to cover her ears when she got close to it. “What’re you making all that racket for? There a fire or something?”
“Miz Eugenia’s calling all the house slaves inside. Wants to talk to us.”
Dolly emerged from the kitchen, which was a separate building behind the Big House, joined by a wooden walkway. The white folks wanted hot meals, but they didn’t want their rooms getting hot in the summertime, so they built the kitchen outside.
“Otis says it’s true—we’re free,” Lizzie whispered to the other two women as they went inside, “and we don’t have to do a thing she says no more.”
“Better see what she wants, though,” Cissy said, shaking her head.
Miz Eugenia was waiting for them in the dining room, her chin high in the air as usual. The other house slaves were all lined up in a row, waiting like soldiers, but Lizzie’s daughter, Roselle, was looking out the dining room window as if she didn’t care a thing about what Miz Eugenia was going to say. That gal was probably dreaming of fairy tales and happy endings again. Lizzie walked over to her and nudged her with her elbow. “How many times do I have to tell you to look down at the floor when the missus is talking?” she whispered. “Pay attention now.” They had better behave the way they always had until they knew for sure that they didn’t have to.
“We’re home from Richmond to stay,” Miz Eugenia began. “We brought some food supplies back with us, but they were very hard to come by, so please try to make them last.”
Lizzie remembered what Otis had said about Missus having to stand in line to get that food. Could it really be true? Miz Eugenia gestured to the dining room table. The fine, polished tabletop was scarred and pitted with cigar burns. It sure hadn’t looked like that when she left.
“What happened here? Can you tell me, Lizzie?”
“After you left, a bunch of Yankee soldiers moved in for a while. They went all through the house and the barn and the root cellar, looking for any bite of food they could find. Good thing you told us to hide all the food or they would of cleaned us out.”
“That doesn’t answer my question. What happened to my table?”
“Them Yankees moved into this room, ma’am,” Lizzie said. “They set in here with all their papers and maps and cigars and muddy boots and they used this dining room like it was their own. They were none too careful, either. They took over the whole house, in fact, and they even slept in—”
“Stop!” Miz Eugenia held up both hands. “I don’t want to know where they slept. I don’t need to have that image in my mind every time I lay in bed. Did you wash everything thoroughly after they left?”
“Why are so many things missing around here, like my beautiful rugs?”
“Them Yankees stole your rugs and your paintings and a lot of other things, too.”
“Did they now?”
Lizzie knew from her tone of voice and raised eyebrows that Miz Eugenia was really asking if maybe the slaves had stolen all those things instead. It made Lizzie hopping mad. Didn’t Otis say they were free now? Lizzie found a tiny seed of courage deep down inside, planted there by the good news about being free, and said, “You can go on down to our cabins and search them for yourself, ma’am, if you’re thinking we stole your things. But all we cared about after you went away was getting the kitchen garden planted so we’d have enough food to eat.”
“How long were the Yankees here?”
“Couple of days. Maybe a week or two.”
“Well, which was it?”
Lizzie’s nugget of courage grew a little larger. “Slaves don’t keep track of time, ma’am, because every day’s exactly the same.” She dared to glance up at Miz Eugenia, and she knew by the stiff way she stood and how her skinny lips were pinched together that she was losing patience. Then there’d be trouble.
“We need to come to an agreement about work,” the missus finally said. “I suppose you know that you’re all free to go. We’re not allowed to own you anymore. But if you decide to continue living here and eating my food, then I expect you to work for me just like you did before the war. The same goes for all of my field hands, and you can tell them that for me.”
“Most of them are gone already, ma’am,” Lizzie said. Miz Eugenia ignored her.
“If you decide not to work for me, then you’ll need to move off my land. I’ll give you a week to move out—but I expect you to keep working as usual until then.”
So much for freedom. Miz Eugenia still ruled the roost and bossed everyone around, just like always. But at least the door was open now, and they could walk on out if they wanted to.
“Ida May, I could use your help unpacking my clothes,” Miz Eugenia continued. “Roselle, see if Josephine and Mary need your help upstairs. Cissy, you may start unpacking some of these boxes. Put the books back on the shelves in Master Philip’s study, and please be careful with the dishes and breakables. Dolly and Lizzy, I’m sure there’s plenty to do in the kitchen to get dinner on the table on time.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lizzie went back out to the kitchen to finish scrubbing the pot. She still didn’t feel free, but thank the good Lord at least Otis was back. And if what he said was true, then nothing and nobody could ever tear them apart again.
All Things New