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Manassas

By Bruce Bullen

A young man dressed in a butternut uniform and carrying a rifle is looking out my window, waiting for Yankees. He was standing in my bedroom when they brought me up. There were others like him at the windows on the first floor. I guess they thought we had left for good and wouldn’t be coming back. I know that John and Ellen meant well. They wanted to move me out of harm’s way, so when the shooting quieted down a bit they carried me downstairs with Lucy Griffith’s help and took me to the spring house. I was holding on to the sides of the mattress trying to keep from rolling off the whole way. When we got there I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my house after so many years. The sound of the guns and the smell of smoke were as bad at the spring house as they were up here. I begged and begged until they took me back home.

I’m just an old woman, frail and sickly. I live in Henry House on Henry Hill. Their real names are Spring Hill Farm and Spring Hill. We never say Henry House or Henry Hill, but that’s what people around here like to say. I’ve lived on the farm for close to forty years, and there isn’t a more beautiful piece of property in the Commonwealth to my way of thinking. The farm itself has been fallow for years, cedar and pine are taking over, but the pastures dip as gracefully as always, the catbirds mew, and the scents are fresh, or at least they were until the shooting started.

It’s hot today, it has been for days, and the noise is enough to make you deaf. I’ve been bedridden so long I don’t remember the farm in summer. I’ve lost track of everything but the sounds. I hear the birds, the wind, and Ellen’s voice when she’s outside tending to things. Now, the familiar sounds are gone.

We heard guns in the distance at 5:30 this morning. I was dreaming of my Althea flowers, my pride. Some call them Rose of Sharon. The guns startled me and I woke up. Every so often a hunter comes by, but these guns weren’t hunting guns. The din was like nothing I ever heard before, and it kept up all morning. I could see that John and Ellen were upset. They kept running back and forth to my bedroom from the first floor asking if I was all right, talking to each other about what to do, thinking that I couldn’t hear them. What is it, I said? What is it? Yankees, they said.

I don’t fear the Yankees. My husband, Isaac, was a Yankee, and I’ve always been comfortable up north. It’s been a long time since Isaac died, 1829, not long after we moved here. We didn’t get to enjoy it together long. After Isaac died, I tried keeping up the farm, raised the children, and tended the garden, but it wasn’t the same without him.  My daughter, Ellen, lives with me now and has been such a help. My son, Hugh, is here when he isn’t at school. My son John happens to be visiting, while Hugh is away. I hired Lucy, a neighbor’s slave, to help Ellen with the chores, since I’m such a burden. Everyone is so worried and anxious, pacing about and wringing their hands. The soldiers tell me that I should leave because it’s too dangerous, but I’m not leaving again. I’m staying put no matter what happens. I worry about John and Ellen though, and of course Lucy.

The railroad junction is why they’re fighting. The RF&P line runs from Richmond to the Potomac –  the link between North and South, some say. That “link” meant something different a few months ago. Ellen has been telling me for weeks that Confederate soldiers were gathering at Manassas, but I didn’t believe her. The fight is about controlling the station, otherwise why come to Manassas? The Yankees want an easy run to Richmond, and the Confederates want to stop them. It’s very odd, having two Capitals so close together. It’s enough to make a person dizzy. I hope the fighting moves to Manassas, where it ought to be.

I don’t get many headaches, but my head has been pounding like the dickens all morning. It must be the guns. They sound closer. Ellen has been so kind, asking if I want anything like the good child she is, but when she tries to bring me water or tea her hands shake so much she has trouble holding the cups. Ellen, I say to her, it’s going to be all right. She doesn’t want to believe me. Lucy does her best to act brave, but I can see in her eyes that she is terrified. John tells them both to calm down, but he’s beside himself. I guess I’m not worried as much as they are. Who would harm a bedridden old woman and her family in such a beautiful place? Hugh sent Ellen a letter a while back, when rumors about Manassas first started. He said that our helplessness would make us safe if the troops ever passed through. I think he’s right. This war is nothing but a dispute between people who don’t see eye to eye on a few things. We’ve had trouble like it before, from the beginning in fact. When both sides see how determined the other is, they’ll sit down and work things out like gentlemen. I do wish this pounding in my head would stop. It hurts like the devil.

I often think about Isaac. He was a surgeon on the Constellation under Commodore Truxton, one of the first US Navy Captains commissioned by George Washington himself. Isaac was born and raised in Philadelphia, but he went all over the world, or so it seemed, serving his country on the Constellation. He was a good man who always did his duty, and he was a loving husband and father. We met after the country had fought to be free and were so proud to be on our own, thanks to the courage of great men from different states (colonies, I guess they were then) – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton – half of them Virginians, I’m proud to say. Isaac and I felt lucky to be alive at such a time. I wonder what he would think if he were here today?

I’m 84, older than the country itself. I’ve had a full life. A few weeks back was the anniversary of the Declaration, but not too many noticed. If they did it was to claim the Declaration for themselves, depending which side they’re on. Times have surely changed. Who would have thought Virginia would leave the country it worked so hard to shape? But I’m a Carter. Virginia is my state, and if we can’t be part of the Union then I guess we’ll have to be on our own like we were before. It’s too bad, and awfully confusing.

I’m tired and nod off occasionally, even though the sound of gunfire shakes the bedroom. I dream about old Virginia. My great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter was one of the great men around here in the early days. He had the biggest tobacco plantation and more slaves than anyone else. My grandfather Landon wrote a famous journal about life before the Revolution called The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter and lived just long enough to see the country win its freedom. My father Landon Jr. built Pittsylvania. It’s a grand place, but he had a hard time keeping it up. He used to say there was nothing those British wouldn’t try to tax and no price they wouldn’t try to squeeze. Was he ever glad to be rid of them! I had eight brothers and sisters. Daddy was a great family man, a real gentleman. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.

The young man with the rifle is shooting out my window, and I can hear more shooting downstairs. John is shouting at him to stop, but he says he’s got his orders. If they shoot at Yankees from the house, won’t the Yankees shoot back? I’m sure they have respect for private property and must know that we Henry’s are peace-loving civilians, but if there are shots coming from the house won’t they be confused? I can hear shouting, gunfire, and tramping outside, as if it were in my backyard. The smoke is so heavy you’d think the day had clouded over.

I worry about the Robinsons and how they are faring through all the noise and commotion. I hope they’re safe. Gentleman Jim is hard-working and resourceful, so I suspect they will be. Ellen told me he moved the whole household to the Van Pelt’s and came back to secure his house. That would be like him. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in this turmoil. Jim and I are like family. We care deeply about each other and our families. Both of us were born at Pittsylvania. I feel bad for him, having two sons sold down south like they were, but it didn’t stop him from working extra hard to care for his family. Ellen says the roadhouse is doing better and better every month.

Jim’s mother was a free woman – she was a slave of my Daddy’s, but I guess he decided to make her free. At any rate, Jim was born free. We had the same tutor at Pittsylvania, so I know he’s an educated man. Being born free also meant that he was automatically landed, and he was able to buy the house near Bull Run in the 1840’s. He raised eight children in it and owns even more acreage now. When he married Sukey, she wasn’t free, and he had to find a way to buy her freedom and freedom for as many of their children as he could afford. He nearly succeeded, but for Alfred and James. He just couldn’t buy their freedom fast enough. Jim is a determined man, everything he touches seems to pay – his farm, his businesses. He’s a regular tycoon. People say he’s one of the richest freedmen in Virginia. Jim was a special favorite of my Daddy’s, and he treated Jim and his mother with great respect. To me, Jim is like a little brother. I’m proud of him. I wouldn’t want this war or anything else to keep him from being able to make a good life for himself.

John keeps running back and forth, up and down the stairs. He says the armies are getting closer to Spring Hill. Why don’t the Confederates make their stand at Manassas, I ask him?  It’s what they’re fighting over after all. He says they tried to stop the Yankees at Bull Run and now it looks like they decided to stop running and are making a stand. The shooting outside is growing steadier, and John says that reinforcements are being brought up. He says we should have left when we had the chance. Why would they want to fight over Spring Hill, I ask? What use could it be to them? John says he doesn’t know, it’s just where they want to fight. The aching in my head is getting worse. It’s like everything I ever took for granted is breaking into pieces. I’ll lie here quietly and try to put them back together again when the fighting’s over.

It’s madness that a country would pull itself apart over a few disagreements. Especially when it had such a hard time coming together in the first place. We were more tolerant of each other in the early days. There were differences of opinion, of course, but we knew we had a job to do and had a long struggle ahead of us. People set aside their differences and realized they had to make sacrifices. I hated that Isaac was away on the Constellation for as long as he was, but I knew it was necessary for the good of the country. I can’t believe that in a few short years, in my lifetime, people could have forgotten what happened back then and what makes our country so great. Too many of us let our differences get in the way. The people of Virginia are struggling, I know, and they aren’t happy with the way things have been going. The plantations aren’t what they used to be, and the slave question never gets settled, but there are people like Gentleman Jim who know how to make their way. We should give them a chance. They could show us something, help get us back on our feet. But the Yankees are stubborn. They won’t recognize that we’re Virginians first, that we have a proud history and our own way of life. They forget that we had the idea of bringing all the states together in the first place. I’m sure both sides will see the danger before it’s too late. I’m too old and too loyal to Isaac to think any other way. If they were here now, I know both Isaac and Daddy would tell me not to worry, to have faith.

John is back upstairs. He says that a Yankee soldier entered the hallway downstairs and that one of the snipers shot him dead. Ellen was standing there when it happened and is hysterical with fear. Poor Ellen. She needs to pull herself together. John says he wants to move me someplace safer, but he doesn’t know where and thinks it’s too late anyway. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be fine where I am. Poor Lucy Griffith looks like she’s about ready to faint.

John went downstairs and came back again, anxious and at loose ends, saying that both armies are bringing up cannon and preparing for some kind of confrontation. The gunfire outside just doesn’t stop. I tell John and Lucy to let me be and turn my face to the wall, wondering if the precious innocence of our country could actually die here at Spring Hill. I can’t believe it will be so.

We’re a peaceful, law-abiding family living in our own house, a patriotic family. The land the house sits on is abundant and undisturbed. The house and the farm are known to everyone in Virginia. I’m an old woman, a Carter, the wife of Isaac Henry, lying bedridden on the second floor, hoping the country will come to its senses. If Spring Hill turns out to be the place where the two armies meet, I know in my bones that all of us will be fine. Common sense is going to win out, and they’ll let us be. They cannot be intending to destroy our traditions and beliefs. I’ll just lie here and hope. I believe it’s my duty. Both sides need to remember the promises our fathers and forefathers made.

The big guns are booming, and the house is shaking. Smoke and fire are visible outside my windows. Ellen comes running upstairs with her hands over her ears. John is holding my hand, trying to comfort me, but his head is hanging down and he’s not doing a good job of it. John, I say to him, be proud, everything will be all right. I look into his eyes and see a fear that I’ve never seen before.

I wish Isaac were here. He would know how to take charge of things, how to deal with the Yankees and the children’s fears. He was never one to be afraid of a little pressure. But he’s not here, and I need to be strong for Ellen, for John, for Lucy and myself. We’ve worked too hard to let fear get the better of us. Isaac used to tell me about the many dangers he faced while serving on the Constellation. I couldn’t understand how he endured them. Now, it’s my turn to be strong. I’m not leaving this house, ever again. I won’t show that I’m afraid. I trust in our people and our traditions. The armies can fight over the railway junction at Manassas all they want, but I’m sure there are plenty of good young men on both sides who will have the decency to honor the sanctity of our farm and family. I may be a bedridden old woman, but I know when to stand up for what’s right.

The shooting is louder and faster now. I can hear the rumble of cannons. A ball struck the side of the house. It must be an errant shot. Who would intentionally shoot at our house? The jolt from the impact upset John tremendously, and he has gone downstairs to to tell both sides, if he has to, that there are civilians inside. I hope he’ll be all right and won’t do anything foolish. Ellen looks paralyzed with fear. She doesn’t know what to do and keeps leaping back and forth, unsure whether she should try to help me or cower in the fireplace. Another ball strikes the side of house, this time higher up. Ellen, I say, stay put in the fireplace. Lucy is running from one corner of the room to another, startled  by the booming of the cannons. It’s enough to make one lightheaded. Lucy, I say, get under the bed, if you’re scared. Under the bed.

The noise outside is deafening, but I’m at peace. The worst is underway. We need only brave it, endure it, outlast it, and we will save ourselves. Isaac and Daddy would be proud. I’m Judith Carter Henry, and I won’t be banished or exiled. This is my land, my country, my family. Everything will survive. It must. But my poor hedge… my bushes… my red and white Althea flowers….

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Bruce Bullen is a retired health care executive. He is unpublished and recently returned to writing fiction full-time. An avid reader of American history, particularly the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, he found the link between the two periods and the paradox inherent in the Judith Henry story both interesting and relevant. In addition to historical fiction, Bruce has produced several collections of short fiction, including fifteen fables and ten stories about the inner workings of government.

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