Bottom Rail on Top, Part 6

Colonel Fox wanted to see him. It was a dinner invitation. Henry laughed. Shaw, who delivered the invitation, asked why.

“Dinner in the main house!” Henry said. “Too bad I didn’t bring a suit of clothes for evening.”

Shaw laughed too. “Army uniform will suit just fine,” he said.

Private Byrd, who wanted Colonel Fox to know how well he guarded their Confederate prisoner, escorted him to the main house. Colonel Fox sat in a derelict room that had been the parlor before the war. To Henry’s surprise, there was decent whiskey in a decanter. In the dining room, also derelict, somber-faced black men in blue Union tunics served the meal. Colonel Fox said, “They aren’t servants. They’re soldiers. Quartermaster Corps.”

After the starvation rations of the Confederate Army, and the more plentiful, but not more palatable, provisions of the Union army, Henry nearly wept when he saw the meal on the table. Fricasseed chicken. Sliced ham. Sweet potato pone. Okra cooked with onions. A salad of new greens. He ate, and said, “Thank the men of the Quartermaster Corps who are in the kitchen.”

Colonel Fox watched him eat. He didn’t have to ask how things were in the field for the Confederate Army. Henry’s appetite told him exactly how they were. Fox asked, “How long have you been fighting?”

“I mustered in at Cassville in 1861. Just after Fort Sumter.”

“Which campaigns were you part of?”

As he listed them, he recalled them, each battle worse than the last. “Seven Pines. Second Manassas. Sharpsburg. Chancellorsville. Gettysburg. The Wilderness.”

Fox said, “Good God. Everyone a bad’un. Worse than we’ve seen. When were you wounded?”

“I was wounded at the Wilderness. Less than a month ago.”

“I see you’re limping less. Did you see the surgeon?”

He didn’t want to mention Miss Claudia. Northerners were skeptical of root doctors. He said, “I’ve recovered a great deal since I was captured, sir.”

Fox sighed. He said, “They’re treating you well?”

“No complaints, sir.” He wished he could say it: It’s a great relief that no one is shooting at me, and that I’m not shooting at people with whom I have no argument. It’s a great relief to be free of the worry that I might die, any day, in ways too horrible to imagine, much less to write home about. It’s a great relief to stop supporting a government that believes in the worst moral evil I’ve ever seen. He mentioned the smallest thing, but put his true feeling into it. “It’s wonderful to drink coffee again. We Confederates haven’t had coffee since the blockade began.”

“In that, we can oblige you,” Fox said.

After dinner, Fox offered him brandy. He said, “The man who owned this house before the war has some very fine brandy in the cellar.” They drank, and as the liquor’s warmth spread through him, Henry risked the question that bothered him most. He said, “Sir, have you any notion of when the Confederate Army might negotiate an exchange for me?”

“We remind them as often, and as hard, as we dare. They’re stubborn. They don’t want to admit that our men are Union soldiers. It comes all the way from the top, from General Lee himself.”

“Is there anything I might do? Anyone I might write to?”

Fox said, “Not unless you know Jeff Davis.”

Henry laughed. “Not likely, sir.”

Fox asked, “Are you getting your letters from home?”

“Not yet, sir. I haven’t been able to write to tell them where I am.”

“They haven’t given you paper or ink?”

“No, sir.”

Fox said, “We’ll have to remedy that.” He offered Henry another glass of brandy and asked, “Do you care for poetry, Captain Kaltenbach?”

“Yes,” Henry said.

“Who is your favorite poet?”

“Heinrich Heine,” he said.

“Goethe,” said Fox, as though it were the most natural thing in the word for officers who were enemies to share their taste in poetry. Fox began to quote from The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Henry finished the passage for him.

Fox said, “I’m sorry that we’re adversaries.”

Henry said, “I never had any disagreement with the Union. And today we’re in complete agreement. You want your men, and I want to go back to the Confederate Army, so they can give me a medical discharge, and I can limp home.”

They raised their glasses. Fox said, “To a swift exchange of our prisoners.”