Bottom Rail on Top, Part 4

Henry stayed in his cabin, his prison, for a week. They didn’t mistreat him, but he knew that many of the men, especially the rank and file, hated the sight of him. Private Byrd never grew tired of telling his relief that “Captain Reb” should have been shot on sight.

The soldiers who had been contraband, many of whom had known the cruelty of slavery, assumed that Henry had owned slaves, and hated him for it. Other members of the regiment, like Shaw, were free blacks from Pennsylvania, some from Philadelphia and others from outlying parts of the state. Shaw was from Chester County. Shaw told him that the ex-slaves were demon soldiers because they were fighting their former masters for their freedom. The free blacks were demon soldiers because they believed passionately that all black people should be free.

No longer free himself, Henry thought a lot. He repented of ever having owned a slave. He yearned for Rachel, whose letters could not reach him. He dreamed of the Battle of the Wilderness and woke up, sweating and terrified, his wounded leg aching.

Shaw liked him. Shaw stopped by every day to ask how he was, made sure that the young hotheads who guarded him didn’t shoot him accidentally on purpose, and one day, left the door not just unlocked, but open to the spring breeze, saying, “It’s all right, Private Byrd, I have my eye on him,” and sat down with him while he drank his morning coffee.

Henry said, “I haven’t had coffee since the blockade began. God bless you for giving it to me.”

Shaw said, “Prisoners get food and drink. Rules of war. We don’t like you, but we won’t torment you.”

“I appreciate it,” Henry said.

Shaw was curious about him, and wanted to talk. Shaw was a small farmer in Chester County whose family had always been free. He was married, he told Henry. He pulled a notebook, his diary, from his pocket, and extracted a precious bit of paper from it. It was a photograph of his wife. She looked serious, but she was pretty, and it was impossible to tell whether she was an extremely light-complected black woman, or a white one. It was indelicate to ask.

Shaw said, “All of my men ask, so I’m sure you’re curious too. She’s white.”

Henry said nothing.

Shaw said, “Does that bother you?”

Henry thought of Rachel, whom he missed so badly that it hurt worse than his leg, and shook his head.

Shaw said, “Her family lives on the next farm over, and she was the prettiest and the smartest young lady I ever met, so I fell in love with her and married her.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“Are you married?”

Henry found this difficult to answer. He decided that the simplest answer was the best one. “Yes, I am.”

“Do you miss her?”

Why were these simple questions so hard to answer? “I miss everyone I left behind,” he said.

“Mother? Father?” Shaw asked.

“They’re in Germany. My wife’s sister, who lives with us. She’s been a great help to my wife.” No reason to explain that, either.

“That’s good of her,” Shaw said. “Tell me something.”

“Yes, sir,” Henry said.

“You owned slaves, but you hated slavery. Then why in God’s name did you enlist in the Confederate Army?”

He said, “It was a matter of family honor.”

Shaw said, “Really? How so?”

Henry gave him part of the truth. “I owed my father-in-law a great deal of money, and he threatened to call in the notes unless I enlisted.”

“How much money?”

“Eleven thousand dollars.”

Shaw said, “I can’t imagine.”

Henry said, “I can’t either.” He hoped that Shaw wouldn’t press for any more, because he could not imagine telling him, liberal-minded about race as he must be, that he couldn’t pay the debt unless he sold his slaves, including his wife’s sister, his sister-in-law, who was the woman he loved with all his heart. Not the matter of honor that he could discuss with a Union officer, even a black man married to a white woman in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

“What are you going to do, now that your slaves are free?”

Henry said, “I believe it’s mostly up to them, now that they’re free. I’ll manage, whatever they decide to do.” He drank the last of his coffee, which had gone cold.