Bottom Rail on Top, Part 7

Nothing was swift. The 43rd stayed put throughout the summer, and the Confederate Army refused to change their position on free black Union soldiers. Henry stayed where he was. Because Fox liked him and trusted him, his windows were unlocked, to let in the cool night air, and he was allowed exercise in the camp, as long as his guard walked along with him. He wrote home, and told Rachel that he was being well-treated by his Union captors. He savored the taste of coffee. He ate dinner with Fox once a week, if Fox were in camp, and he talked daily with Sergeant Shaw.

He wondered about Freddy. He asked Shaw if anyone who find out where Freddy was, and how he was faring. Shaw promised to pass the word along. A few weeks later, Shaw stopped by, his easy-going face a little drawn, and said, “I have word of your former servant.”

They hadn’t found a Freddy Mannheim, but they found a Frederick Mann who mustered into the 30th Regiment Infantry, USCT, and gave his home as Cassville, Georgia. “I’m sure that’s him,” Henry said.

Shaw said formally, “He died valiantly on the field of battle at Rapidan in June of 1864.”

Henry went cold. He said, “No.”

“I’m afraid so, Captain Kaltenbach.” Seeing Henry’s stricken face, he said, “I’m sorry.”

He had seen so many deaths, and lost so many friends, that he thought he had no grief left in him. He was wrong. He began to sob, covering his face with his hands. He felt his wounded leg ache unbearably and he crumpled to the ground, unable to stop the tears. He began to say the words of the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. He thought of Freddy as the words came out in a garbled moan: Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei rabo. . .

He had never mourned Cat, Catullus Payne, his fellow officer and friend, who had died at the Battle of the Wilderness. He had never said Kaddish for Cat. He lay on the ground, in too much pain to get up, saying the words of the mourner’s prayer, over and over.

Private Byrd stood at the door and watched in horror. “He’s crazy, and they won’t take him back if he’s crazy! They’ll say we made him crazy!” he said to Sergeant Shaw.

Shaw, used to men who had broken up, lifted Henry from the floor and lay him on his bed. He wanted to send for the surgeon, but Byrd said, “No, get Miss Claudia. She can fix him up.”

Miss Claudia came, carrying a canteen, and lifted it to Henry’s lips. He murmured, “Is it hemlock?”

Private Byrd, Sergeant Shaw and Miss Claudia, equally distressed, all looked at one another. She said gently, “No, just valerian, to help you sleep.”

“Will I sleep forever?”

“No, just all day and all night.”

When he woke, his head felt thick and sore. Not even coffee revived him. He sat on his bed, heart aching, leg aching, and he buried his face in his hands. Everything that troubled him made him hurt worse. Freddy’s death. Cat’s death. Adelaide. Rachel.

There was a tap on the door. “May I come in, soldier?” It was Shaw.

Henry lifted his face and nodded.

“How are you feeling, soldier?”

It overwhelmed him again. He put his face in his hands and sobbed. The words scarcely discernable, he said, “I never busted up before. Now I’m busted up.”

Shaw put a reassuring arm around his shoulders. Deep in his misery, Henry recognized the gesture. He had embraced and comforted his own men, the wounded, the dying, the gut-sick and the terrified, with similar gestures. Shaw said, “What’s the matter, soldier?”

Even though he was an officer, the Union men disliked calling him “Captain.” They hated to admit that the Confederate Army was a legitimate one. Shaw’s answer was to call him “soldier,” as he addressed his own men. Coming from Shaw, it had a friendly sound.

Henry raised his head, ashamed that his face was wet. “Private business.”

Shaw handed him a wrinkled handkerchief. “It isn’t the cleanest,” he said, “but it will have to do.” Henry wiped his face. Shaw said, “Trouble at home?”

Henry nodded. Shaw put a reassuring hand on his knee. “Tell me about it, soldier.”

Henry said brokenly, “My wife—my marriage—”

Shaw had heard similar tales before, just as he had. “Busted up?”

“From the beginning.”

“Of the war?”

“From the day I married her. I never loved her, and she never loved me.”

“That’s a hard row to hoe,” said Shaw, not realizing what it meant to someone who had chopped cotton.

“I fell in love with her sister.”

“Rachel. The one who writes to you.”

Henry stared at the ground, feeling despair rise in him. He said, “Her half-sister. Rachel’s mother was a slave.”

Shaw, free all his life, happily married to a white woman, wasn’t fazed by this. He said, “That’s a harder row to hoe.”

“When I go home—if I live to go home—I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“What would you like to do?”

Henry stared at Shaw in surprise. As though he had been startled from sleep, he said, “I love Rachel. I want to live with her as husband and wife.  I can’t imagine how.”

Shaw said, “The law of the land in the way, and a lot of hatred, too.”

Henry nodded.

“There’s what’s right in the eyes of the law, and there’s what’s right in the eyes of God. Slavery used to be right in the eyes of the law. See where that got us.”

Henry nodded again.

Shaw said, “When you go home, you figure out what’s right in the eyes of God. Then you do it.”