I am an old man, coming close to the end of my life. I face death with no fear for in war I have seen the worse of mankind. I’ve seen what a cannon ball can do to a body. I’ve seen what battle can do to a mind.
In war we think about the soldiers and what they endure. But how often do we consider those left behind?
In the course of the story of my nation this one incident, something that happened to my patrol, is small, a single drop of blood in a sea of death. But for my men…for my men and the fate of my country… it was a defining moment.
Now comes the time, as death hovers over me, to tell the story. I no longer care for all the documents I signed professing secrecy. I have no family to disgrace…no one who will care. Save for my neighbors who see diligently to my needs, I am alone in the world.
And the nation…no, the world must know the ravages of war. It is not just the soldiers that are changed. No, not just the soldiers.
In the fall of 1864 I was a Captain with Sherman’s troops as he prepared for a march from Atlanta to Savannah, a strategic plan to destroy the Rebels’ ability and desire to wage further war. I was part of the planning and can now say that the General had the backing of others in the field. Such a march would not only destroy supplies but also allow Grant a foothold in Virginia. Even the President, much the one for reconciliation, was not opposed to the burning of southern towns and farms.
The General had been planning the march through Georgia for weeks and I was to head a scouting mission. I had grown up in Georgia but had been educated in the North and was considered by my southern family to be a traitor to “The Cause”. The General wanted to make use of my knowledge of the area and so he sent me at the head of a patrol of five men to take a “lay of the land”. We would traverse the country around Atlanta .We were also to determine what had happened to the first patrol the General had sent out. Were the Rebels still so entrenched in the countryside that they had been captured or killed?
When the history of this nation was rewritten after The War, my report was not mentioned. I was not mentioned. My men and their sacrifice were not mentioned.
This is our story…finally.
Georgia can be hot and damp in the late fall. Five men on horseback in such intemperate weather needed frequent rests. It was during one of these stops, near a stream in order to refill canteens, that I noticed a trail of smoke above the trees. My men needed more to eat than the occasional rabbit and I made the decision to walk toward the smoke, hoping there would be a small farm that could spare a chicken or two.
It is now that I must mention that my men and I were dressed in confiscated Rebel butternut. I still had my southern drawl. If lucky in my endeavor, my men could stay secluded in the wood and I would bring back some provisions for them. Confidently I walked toward the smoke not fearing for my safety. I was very naive.
It was not a farm, but a small plantation house that greeted me, a white three story house and portico much like the ones of my youth. I could smell a feast cooking and I must say that my stomach rumbled in anticipation. I walked up the steps and over the large porch to the open door, calling, “Yoo-hoo”, hoping my accent was still intact.
Out of the gloom of a large entrance came a vision, a young woman dressed as I hadn’t seen women dressed since before the war began. She was in a ball gown of such exquisite material that it seemed to sparkle even in the dim light of the house. She wore her dark hair long, curling around pale shoulders accented by the depth of the gown’s bodice. Her face was heart-shaped with a sweet rosy mouth and dark eyes.
“Oh, dear. One of our boys,” she said softly. “Please come in. I hear there are Yankees all around here and we do not want you captured.”
I think I mumbled a “thank you, ma’am” but I was so captivated by her appearance that I was almost struck dumb.
As if recognizing my confusion, she said, “We don’t always dress for dinner but today is a special occasion. My sister’s birthday. I do believe there will even be cake.” She had turned and was leading me into the house but stopped and looked back at me with a sly grin. “You do like cake, don’t you, young man?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said again. I finally remembered my men. “Ma’am, I would really like to stay for supper, but my men…”
She turned to me. “Of course. After the birthday celebration I will make sure you have provisions for your men.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said following her and feeling not a little guilty for the deception.
I was led into a large dining room, still furnished in a magnificent style as if the war hadn’t touched this household. My hostess must have seen my look and said, “We have been very lucky, young man. We share our hospitality with Yankees as well as our countrymen and the Yankees have spared us.”
I nodded in appreciation of her good will and she introduced herself and her four sisters who were gathered around a full table. I will not mention their names in this missive for I am sure they have relatives living still. But there were four more beauties, all dressed in ball gowns.
The table was set with silver and china. A colored woman stood nearby, probably to go to the kitchen as needed. There was a rump roast, a half a ham and some slices of another type of meat, maybe venison. In addition there were several bowls of root vegetables.
My hostess motioned me to sit next to her and then served me a plate full of tempting food. I could not help but think how different this southern home was from others I had seen. Our northern armies had spared this one when others had been completely destroyed.
The food was delicious although seasoned differently than what I was used to. I was soon full and, determined to take food back to my men, I thanked the sisters for the marvelous hospitality but again mentioned my need.
My hostess nodded to the colored woman who scurried out. She then turned to me. “I will have our slave…servant…accompany you with the food for your men.”
I quickly thought about my men and hoped that they wouldn’t give our true business away to the servant. “That would be most gracious, ma’am,” I said as I stood up from the table, bowing slightly.
The provisions were gathered quickly and the colored woman was ready to follow me. I said my thanks and my good-byes and we left. The servant and I both carried several bundles full of tantalizing smells. Soon we came to the clearing where my patrol was resting. I motioned for silence as I told them about our benefactors and opened up the bundles. The colored woman had made a hasty retreat after dropping her packages.
By this time it was growing dark and I decided it would be best for us to spend the night in the clearing. My men, their stomachs full, settled down for the night. I ordered periodic watches but doubted there would be any problems. Then I, too, decided to sleep.
That would be the last dreamless sleep of my life.
I awoke to a hand across my mouth and a knife point at my neck. A familiar voice hissed, “I am sparing you, traitor, only because I want you to watch what we do to Yankees.”
I struggled to sit and found my feet had been bound. Within moments my hands were bound behind me and I was pushed, sitting, against a tree. I heard the slight rumble of a cart and as my eyes became accustomed to the night, I could make out the forms of the sisters moving around my sleeping men. Only they weren’t sleeping. Around each man was a large dark pool of liquid, blood. Each one had been murdered.
My hostess saw my look of horror when I finally realized what had happened. She laughed. “It was really quite easy. A certain herb in the seasoning and they slept soundly. So soundly they didn’t notice that they were being killed…like stuck pigs.”
Her sisters giggled as they hauled the bodies into the cart. I was then tied to the back of the cart and my feet untied. I followed behind as we went back to the plantation. The dark procession stopped behind the large house just as the sun was beginning to rise. I could see we were near the smoke house and the kitchen area. Is this where my men, and then me, would be buried?
Exhausted, I dropped to my knees behind the cart that held the bodies of the men I was supposed to protect. “Why not just kill me, too?” I asked trying to keep the fear out of my voice. “What are you going to do?”
My hostess slapped me across the face. “Shut up, traitor. And watch.”
Her sisters were quickly unloading the cart, the bodies of my men dropping to the ground. One of the sisters poked a body and said, “This one is plump. Let’s do him first.” I cringed, knowing it was my corporal. But what did she mean, “Let’s do him first…”
I soon found out. Although he was dead, he was stripped of his clothes and his hands and feet tied together. Then two of the sisters threw a rope over a tree limb, tying one end to the rope around the body. The body was then pulled into place, hanging from the tree.
The sisters began to dress him like a deer, gutting him first, removing his organs, placing some, like his liver, on a nearby barrel. Freshly dead, the corporal’s blood pooled at the base of the tree. Flies began to gather on the carcass and one of the sisters, the youngest, worked to keep them off as another butchered.
The horror of what these women were doing was overwhelming. “Why are you doing this?” I cried out. “Why not just bury him?”
My hostess turned to me, her hands covered in blood. “Don’t you get it, Yankee? Don’t you see what you and your kind have driven us to?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to think about what they were doing…what they had been doing. I didn’t want to think about the meal I’d eaten at their table only a few hours earlier. The thought caused my stomach to roil, the bile catching in my throat.
“Charlotte,” she said to the youngest. “Open the door to the smokehouse.”
The girl smiled and nodded. She walked over to the brick smokehouse and opened the door with a flourish. There, hanging like sides of beef and ham, were the bodies of…men, probably Sherman’s lost patrol.
“We’re not going to starve, Yankee,” my hostess said with a laugh. And then, smiling, she leaned down to me, her teeth white and pointed in the sunlight, reminding me of a snake before striking. “We have a different way of fighting the enemy and surviving.”
With that one of her sisters walked over to us. “What are we going to do with him?” she asked.
“I’ve been thinking about that, Gertie. I think we let him live. I think we let him go back to his army.” There were gasps of disbelief.
She shook her head. “Listen to me. We know we’re not the only plantation doing this, especially here in Georgia. Maybe it’s time the Yankees know that they may be living off our land, but we’re living off them. Maybe it’s time they know what their war has driven us poor women folk to do…” The last was said in a small, pitiful voice and then she laughed, her sisters joining her.
I called her name and she turned to me. “Last night? Supper?” I didn’t want to ask but I had to know…
Her laughter mixed with that of her four sisters and I had my answer.
I went back to my general with the unbelievable story. I was deemed crazy, scared in my mind and heart. General Sherman, grateful for my contribution during the long war, secured a discharge for me and I went to live with family in a Northern State.
The south burned.
But I learned years later that the sisters’ plantation home had been spared while ones around them were destroyed.
Maybe the General didn’t think I was crazy after all.