Bottom Rail on Top, Part 3

As he limped back to his makeshift prison, Henry asked Shaw, “Will I be sent to a Union prison camp?” He dreaded the prospect. Camp Douglas and Elmira weren’t as bad as the Confederate prison at Andersonville, but they were bad enough. You could get just as dead from typhus in a Union prison as in a Confederate one.

“I don’t think so,” Shaw said. “If we sent you there, we couldn’t use you as a lever to get our men back. They’d sacrifice ten white soldiers for an officer. Let’s see what they think black soldiers are worth.”

Henry asked, “What do you know about Colonel Fox?”

Shaw said, “He’s from Germany, like he told you. Lived in Cincinnati and mustered in there. Ambitious. Didn’t rise fast enough in the army. They offered him a black regiment and the rank of colonel. He jumped at it.”

“Is he fair? Is he decent?”

Shaw said, “Most of the Union officers weren’t Abolitionists. He wasn’t. Now that he’s seen us soldier and fight, he respects us. Won’t abide anyone using the word ‘nigger,’ ever. Gets mad when he hears a story about a new recruit who was contraband. Tells anyone who will listen what good soldiers we’ve become.”

“What happened to Private Byrd?”

“Contraband. Virginia contraband who ran north to Pennsylvania as soon as he could. That boy worries me. He says that when we march near his old plantation he’s going to stop there and shoot his overseer dead. I believe he means to.”

“Bad master?”

“You don’t want to see that boy’s back.”

Henry winced. “I’m sorry,” he said. Byrd, who looked so much like Freddy, sensitive, fragile Freddy, that he had mistaken him for Freddy at a distance.

Shaw asked, “Did you own slaves?”

Henry said, “To my everlasting shame, to my everlasting regret, I owned fifteen slaves.”

Shaw looked at him oddly. He said, “Ever whip anyone?”

Henry looked grave. “My driver and I were agreed that no one ever worked better for being whupped. But we had to.”

“Anyone ever run away?”

Henry winced again, remembering Freddy singing “Steal Away.” “Yes.”

Shaw said, “I’ll tell Private Byrd to try to go easy on you. Since you have a bad conscience about slavery.”

“I don’t think that counts for much with Private Byrd.”