Bottom Rail on Top, Part 2

The 43rd Pennsylvania Regiment of the United States Colored Troops was headquartered in a commandeered plantation in Orange County, Virginia. Colonel Fox and his officers stayed in the big house, while the noncommissioned officers and the enlisted men camped on the grounds. They put Henry into one of the slave cabins, which they outfitted with a lock. Henry didn’t know whether they did it out of convenience, since the cabin was small and easy to watch, or whether they knew how it would torment his conscience.

It wasn’t bad, as slave quarters went—made of brick, a story tall, sixteen feet square, with two rooms inside. There was glass on the windows, which had also been outfitted with locks. It was hot and stuffy in the cabin with the windows locked shut, but he’d suffered worse. They gave him a cornhusk mattress and pillow to sleep on, a rough blanket—it was too warm at night for the blanket—and a pine table and chair. They didn’t want him leaving to use the latrine, so they gave him a chamberpot from the big house, a pretty thing made of porcelain in a flow blue pattern, the most elegant item in the cabin. He ate as the men did, salt beef and hardtack, with coffee to wash it down, from a tin plate and a tin cup. He sat in the chair and stared at the hearth and thought, They should put a hoe in my hands and tell me how many rows they need from me in a day.

But this was tobacco country, not cotton, and as much as he felt like a slave, he was a Union prisoner of war.

There was always a guard outside his cabin. During the day it was often Private Byrd, whom he overheard telling the evening relief that the prisoner was a damned Reb and he wished he’d shot him on sight. He hadn’t made the acquaintance of the soldier who guarded him at night. He hoped that Sergeant Shaw, or whoever commanded these men, had told them not to shoot him.

On his third day of captivity, Sgt. Shaw came to see him. He looked around the cabin, looked at Henry, and asked, “Are they treating you all right, soldier?”

Henry said, “I’m all right.”

“Col. Fox wants to see you. I’ll give you a moment to straighten yourself a bit.”

He owed Col. Fox the respect of smoothed hair and a buttoned tunic. When he stood, his leg was so stiff and so sore that he winced.

Shaw looked at him. “Were you wounded?”

“Not long ago. It’s still troubling me.”

Shaw said, “I’ll ask Col. Fox if the surgeon can have a look at you.”

Henry limped with Shaw to Col. Fox’s makeshift headquarters. This place had been a grand plantation before the war, which had so badly despoiled the landscape of Orange County and the surrounding counties that tobacco might never grow here again. The house, large and elegant in the colonial style of the 1820s, had been in the middle of a battlefield and was now scarred by bullet holes and scorched by gunfire. The yard, once a formal garden, had been trampled into mud, first by battle, later by Union bivouac. The front steps were in bad repair. Sure-footed Shaw watched his feet, and Henry, lame in the aching leg, struggled with each step. He hoped that Fox hadn’t installed himself on the second floor, up a winding plantation staircase.

Shaw led him to a room that had once been painted in pretty frescoes of landscapes. Someone had fired into the walls. Henry had no love for the pretentions of a Virginia aristocrat—four years of Marse Robert had cured him of that—but it hurt him to see the art on these walls destroyed by battle.

In the middle of the ruined room was a table, once fine mahogany, now burned and blistered, piled with papers, and at the table sat a slender, clean-shaven man in a fresh Union uniform. He frowned, signed a piece of paper, then looked up. “Captain Kaltenbach,” he said. “Please sit down.”

Henry recognized the accent. His native tongue was German, as Henry’s was. Henry sat, and said, “Thank you, Col. Fox.”

Fox asked, “Where are you from?”

“I enlisted in Cass County, in northern Georgia, but I was born in Dresden.”

Col. Fox said, “I came here from Berlin, but I settled in Ohio, where I lived for ten years before the war.”

Henry listened politely. As a prisoner or war, it wasn’t his place to say anything. He would wait to be spoken to.

Fox said, “The 43rd Pennsylvania has a dilemma. Ten of my men are Confederate prisoners of war. We want them back, but the Confederate Army refuses to make an exchange. They say that black soldiers aren’t true members of the Union Army. They’ve threatened to send them back to their masters. As though they could! These men mustered in at Philadelphia.” He looked hard at Henry, blaming him for the racial attitudes of the Confederacy. “But now we have something we can bargain with. We have you.”