You Are Free, Go and Fight

In September 1864, Sherman took Atlanta, and by late November, he’d sacked Dalton and Marietta and was heading to Milledgeville, where I was serving time in the state penitentiary for things I did before the war started. The Yankees burned up houses, barns, stores, and depots, and the smoke from all those fires gusted into Milledgeville. My cellmate, Rudy Ladd, sniffed the air and said, “I smell my wife’s cooking. Yep, Emma must have got through the siege of Atlanta, and now she’s driving the last of the Federals out.”

The penitentiary sat on the courthouse square, so we had a bird’s-eye view of the refugees stumbling into town, hauling wagons and pushing handcarts. Here and there, a lucky one rode a spavined horse. Skinny dogs tagged along with them and bayed and barked and fought.

The South was so desperate for weapons, we were making them in prison. Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond sent machines, and we turned an old barn into an armory and manufactured rifles, bayonets, bullets, and rowels for spurs. The machinery kept breaking down, but a man named Wiggins, a safecracker from Decatur, knew blacksmithing, so he set up a forge and we worked by hand. Wiggins was a good teacher. If you polished too long, he’d say, “That blade oughta be in a man’s hand today.”

Rumor first, and then it came true: the South needed soldiers so bad, Governor Brown was going to pardon us. The regular guards were long gone, so the warden and his grandson went around letting out those who wanted to fight.

Who wouldn’t?

It’d make a better story if I stepped into sunshine, but the day was stormy, with scudding thunderheads and a sky that put me in mind of the caves I used to play in on Stone Mountain. I rolled up my blanket, but my cellmate laid on his cot.

“Aren’t you coming, Rudy?” I asked.

He yawned. “I’m a-lie here, nice and dry, and listen to the rain beat down.”

“But.” I couldn’t believe it.

He got up. “Course I’m going.”

The warden herded us into the yard. The rain had stopped, and Governor Joe Brown was pacing around the puddles like his shoes felt tight.

“Waiting on us,” Rudy said, delighted.

Governor Brown wore a nice suit, and his cigar smelled like brandy. An aide ran up and said, “Sir, the papers you sent to the asylum, the doctor says he can’t protect them. Do you want me to take them somewhere else?”

Frowning, Joe Brown asked us jailbirds, “Where’s a safe place?”

Rudy spoke up. “Safe for what, Governor?”

“Official state documents.” Joe Brown dropped his cigar and stepped on it.

“Seminole County. Indian country,” Rudy said. “No Yankees there, I guarantee.”

Joe Brown blinked. “Southwest Georgia, hmm. I have an aunt in Donalsonville.” He spoke to his aide, and the man took off.

Joe Brown launched into a speech. “Help citizens evacuate our beleaguered capital, Gentlemen, then stay with the army. If you desert, you’ll be shot. God be with you.” He tugged a watch from his pocket. The yard was so quiet, I heard it tick, counting down the seconds till I was free, tick tock, tick tock, slow and even, while I was holding my breath. A look crossed his face, like he was wondering if he would have time to switch sides. His carriage pulled up, and he clambered in and took off.

“Look, he’s headed over to the crazy house,” Rudy said. “I bet he’ll make his same offer to the loonies, and they’ll be fighting alongside us. I rather deal with Yankees.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Wiggins. He had a girlfriend at the asylum. At night, she’d slip around to his window.

The warden doled out all the extra clothes he could find and said, “I gave the Governor a piece of my mind for putting those little Marietta cadets into active service. I told him. Those boys are hardly older than my grandson, here.”

The grandson was a brat. He said, “Those cadets are on funeral detail, is all. I’d fight.”

The cook came out with biscuits and passed them around.

“Not burnt,” Rudy said. “Cooky, you going soft on us?”

“I’m coming with you,” Cooky said.

“Good luck, boys,” the warden said.

“Is anybody staying here?” I asked.

A few were kept back, the warden said, as too dangerous to let out. Others just wouldn’t leave. Smart or stupid, you could argue that till world’s end.

We never talked much about what we did. That’s a notion people have, that men sit around fessing up. Counterfeiting, my specialty, ought not to be a capital offense, but it was, just like murder and highway robbery.

Even the sick bay riz up. “Hey, Sam,” a man said to me, “we must be dreaming.” That was Darby Kershaw. He had consumption and was so thin his trousers wrapped him twice.

The Home Guard was our escort, old men and youngsters known as Joe Brown’s Pets because he kept them from the front so long. Now the front was the ground we walked on. They told us where to stand, two abreast, there in the yard. A captain named Eldridge from the Army of Tennessee was in charge. The story was, he’d had three horses shot from under him. As he strolled along our line, every man gave his name and where from.

When I said, “Sam Coulter,” and he nodded, I felt as proud as a Gwinnett or Telfair or Oglethorpe. As we turned our backs on the prison, I heard the warden giving hell to his bratty grandson. The warden’s world was upside-down. He’d made a living keeping us behind bars, and now the only thing that made sense was letting us out.

“We’re soldiers now,” Rudy crowed as we marched out of the yard.

On the town square, people tumbled like acrobats, trying to get out of town before the Yankees got there. Doors flung wide, and women and kids spilled out with sacks and satchels and babes-in-arms. Captain Eldridge set us to loading mule-drawn wagons with the young, old, and feeble. The able-bodied would have to walk. One lady clutched a crystal chandelier. She was straining under its weight. Even on that cloudy day, it sparkled.

“You can’t take that, ma’am,” the captain told her.

“Oh yes I will.” She was lovely, and spoiled, you could tell, used to getting her way. Behind me, somebody whistled.

“Take only things that are absolutely necessary,” the Captain said.

She threw down the chandelier, smash, and it flew apart. A piece hit the Captain, and he jumped back. Crystal danglers rolled in the dirt. On the ground, they were just broken glass.

The Captain gave directions to the wagon drivers. Again the lady argued. Wanted to go east. “Can’t go east,” Eldridge said, “Sherman’ll catch you.”

Rudy yelled, “Try Seminole County.”

The wagon started, and as the lady followed it, her bonnet fell off in the street. I ran over, picked it up, and gave it to her. Up close, she was so pretty, she took my breath away. She snatched the hat and went off.

Captain gave the order to march. That was when it sank in on me that we were free. The red road out of town smelled so good. It had that Indian summer rot of earth and vines, the ground as rich as cake, and I was hungry.

“Is Jeff Davis gonna feed us?” I said.

“He don’t care about our bellies,” a Home Guard youngster piped up, a towhead with fat baby cheeks.

“Bet your mama still gives you titty,” a graybeard taunted.

“No she don’t,” the boy said. The old man sniggered.

Rudy said, “Son, don’t worry. Women’ll run after us with fried chicken. We’ll picnic all the way to Virginia.”

“You ain’t going that far,” the old man growled.

“Yessir, General Lee,” Rudy said.

We passed houses with closed shutters and farms grown up in grass. The woods and road were alive with people on the run. Night would be cold, I knew. I was twenty-four and never been sick except for worms. Ma used to brew a root tonic that’d knot my stomach. “Did the heads come out?” she’d say. “Unless you get the heads out, you still got worms.” I’d say, “Don’t aim to check,” and we’d laugh.

A train sounded, and as it came near, the ground trembled. Few trains were left, because the Yankees had got them, or our men had burned them to keep them out of Federal hands. This was a little one, with only three cars. Rudy loped alongside till it picked up speed and rattled away. Time was, he’d have jumped it and not looked back.

“Halt,” called Eldridge. His voice had Savannah in it—where Sherman was headed. As our column slowed down, I decided to stick with him. Reaching Savannah would mean seeing the ocean. I wanted that, because I loved the ocean. Oh, soon enough, I’d want something else, a new place in a world that was busting up, and I wasn’t sure what that would be, but I’d started to believe I could have it.

“Look, pecan trees,” said Darby Kershaw, who was gripping his loose pants at the waist and somehow keeping up with the rest of us.

I grabbed a tree and shook it, and we gathered the nuts, cracked them open, and ate our fill, except for Rudy, who stood off to the side, looking puzzled.

“Don’t you want some?” I said. They were his favorite.

He shook his head.

Captain Eldridge said we’d gone far enough. He opened a box and gave us weapons—a few rifles and revolvers and squirrel guns, a Navy pistol, and flintlocks from way back when the enemy’s coats were red, yes, that war, maybe they belonged to George Washington. At the bottom of the box was a two-man saw. Me and Wiggins held it up.

Cooky whistled. “That’ll chop down the biggest trees, swampland giants.”

“Be handy if the Yankees would line up and keep still,” Wiggins said. “Slice ’em like sausage, hey, Sam?”

I heard something. “Listen.”

Voices, drumbeats. Tramp tramp. Wagons and horses, men talking loud and careless. We looked at each other. Tramp, tramp, getting closer. The towhead kid threw up in the ditch.

It was too late, of course, and against thirty thousand Federals, we were too few. It happened fast. They swarmed the roads and poured into town. I shimmied up a pine and shot two. The old pistol Eldridge gave me worked fine. The men I shot laid on the road.

From my tree, I saw Wiggins and Cooky taken prisoner and felt proud of them, like we’d fought together for years. When it got dark, sounds of jubilee came from town. Later I found out the Yankees held a mock session in the Capitol, voting Georgia back in the Union.

In the woods, it was quiet and getting cold. The owls were still and silent, scared by all the ruckus. I couldn’t find the moon, but there was enough light from town to make a glow.

A low voice called: “Sam Coulter. Sam, you here?”

“Rudy, is that you?” I eased down the tree, so happy to see him.

“You got any water?” His face was black, his clothes torn.

“No.” I was thirsty too. “Are you all right? Who’s left?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on,” I said, “let’s find water.”

We stumbled down a slope through piles of leaves, tripping over bumps and heaps that had to be bodies. At the bottom, we searched for a creek.

All of a sudden, Rudy said, “That train made me sick, worse than the fighting.”

“What train?”

“This morning. Didn’t you smell it?”

“What you talking about?”

“All those dead people piled on top each other, with flies on ’em. I wouldn’ta got on if they stopped and said welcome aboard.”

We’d shared a cell for four years, and he’d never talked crazy.

I said, “The only train I saw was that little short one.”

“No, sirree,” he said. “I counted a hundred cars, and it was still going.”

I let that pass. He was worn out. We couldn’t find any creek or spring, so we backtracked to town. Most of the houses were burnt. I spotted a pump on somebody’s lawn.

“You first,” Rudy said and worked the handle. I bent over and let the water pour down my throat and over my face, icy and sweet. I was back on Stone Mountain, swimming in a stream, feeling the cool little bubbles on my skin. I drank and drank.

When it was Rudy’s turn, he choked. “It’s bad,” he said. “Foul.”

“It’s fine. It’s good water.”

He hawked and spat. “I tasted this before. My family kept rain in a cistern. One time it went bad, and Pa found a dead body in there.”

“Who was it? How’d they get in there?”

“It was a woman. We never knew anything about her.”

“You’re spooked, Rudy. What we need is a place to sleep.”

He looked around and pointed. “Hen house.”

Empty, of course. Sherman’s men stole every chicken, turkey, and slab of bacon in Baldwin County, but it had four walls and a roof. It smelled of feathers and dried corn, and I fell asleep soon as I hit the straw.

In the morning, no Rudy. Where’d he go? I called his name, no answer. I thought it was a joke, he’d come jumping out at me. I walked all around the yard, searching. I drank from the pump, went back in the hen coop, stuck my hand in every nest till I found an egg, and cracked it into my mouth. A black and white cat peeped in, and I said, “Do you know where he went? Seminole County, maybe?,” and the cat came over and rubbed against my legs and purred. I waited awhile longer, thinking Rudy’d gone looking for something to eat, but he didn’t come back, and there was not one sign of him, and I almost wondered if I’d dreamed seeing him after the fighting and if it was only me in the hen house all night.

He just wasn’t there. So I took off.

I went southeast, careful to keep out of sight of the road, hoping to find him, thinking he had to be in the woods, heading away from Milledgeville, same as me. At nightfall, I caught up with Eldridge and a little group of men he’d put together and marched with them the next day, and the day after that, all the way to the sea.

By then, it was Christmastime. Savannah didn’t bother to resist. It was a give-up. Eldridge took a few of us to his family’s house on the Battery, and his mother and aunt fed us hominy, but we had to skedaddle, because a Union general had claimed the place and would come back any minute with his staff and officers. “I said, Fine, just don’t wreck it or burn it down,” his mother said, “and Sister and I get to stay in the yard,” meaning a garden shed.

Eldridge and me went and sat on the seawall. The ocean stretched out wide and light-struck, the tide running high, salt air breezing in. He looked over at his house, where he should have been sitting down to ham and mince pie, with his mother pouring sherry instead of begging soldiers not to knock holes in her walls.

“Hell of a Christmas,” he said. “Well, I guess it’s all over now.”

“Name ’em, Captain,” I said, “the horses shot out from under you.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Henrietta, Grayboy, and Little Bill.”

After the war, I went to Atlanta and found work in a blacksmith shop. There was a building boom, people scrambling to get partway back to where they’d been. Everybody I met, I asked if they knew Rudy Ladd. It was his town, after all. Plenty said yes, but they didn’t know where he was or if he’d survived the war. Then it occurred to me to try and find his wife. I remembered her name was Emma, and I asked around and finally located her at a Federal garrison, working as a cook. I told her who I was and how I’d known Rudy.

She could take a break for a few minutes, she said, and sit with me in the yard. We went out and sat in armchairs under a cedar tree. She smoked a cigarette and said she smoked anytime she felt like it. No, she hadn’t heard from Rudy in a long time. A judge had un-married them before the war. She didn’t even know he’d been in jail. “For what?” she said.

“Horse thieving, second offense.”

“My goodness,” she said. “He fussed at me for taking peaches from the neighbor’s tree.” She knew about the Milledgeville convicts being pardoned and the mayhem afterward. To cap things off, she said, the Yankees poured molasses down the organ pipes at St. Stephen’s church.

I hadn’t heard that part. “It must have been a mess.”

She was as pretty as the chandelier woman, whose face I’d been carrying around ever since I picked up her bonnet, except Emma’s hands were blistered, and between her green eyes was a worry line, and she looked like she’d only just started getting enough to eat.

“What did you do to get put in jail?” she asked.

“Counterfeiting. I wasn’t very good at it.”

“Tell me more about Rudy,” she said.

I told her everything, how funny he acted after we got out, not eating the pecans, saying the train was full of dead people and the sweet water foul, and how the next morning, he was gone.

“There must’ve been some clue where he went.” She blew smoke sideways. “Put yourself back in that hen house.”

I did and came up empty.

“He never told me about any dead woman in a cistern.” She tapped ashes on a fancy saucer. “Look at this plate. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they have.” We were sitting on brocade chairs. “They don’t care if things get ruined. There’s always more.” She fixed a loose strand of her hair. It was wavy and the color of coffee with cream in it.

As for a trainload of corpses, she said, well, that was news too, because Rudy didn’t have a lot of imagination. “That was part of the trouble. I like to dream things up, and it got on his nerves.” She inhaled, holding the cigarette to her lips, graceful. “You know why I married him? He was a good dancer, and kind of short, so in a reel, I could look him in the eye.”

That confounded me. “But he’s tall.”

Above us, in the cedar, a squirrel chittered. A man carried an armload of boots into the yard, heaped them on the grass, and set to polishing.

“Been so long since I saw him, maybe he grew,” she said. “Does he still have that thick black hair? He used to say he was part French.”

“It’s lighter than yours.”

“No, it’s black as that shoe polish.” With her cigarette, she pointed to the boots the man was working on. “And his nose is a little bit crooked, right?”

“I don’t remember.”

She ticked her tongue. “Don’t you notice anything?”

That stung. I found myself wondering what the war would mean to the way men and women treated each other. There’s always that friend-or-foe side of love, but now there was more hurt. The war broke everybody’s heart and scattered the pieces like that chandelier, smash.

“You know what I think?” She tilted her head and exhaled. Her cheekbones stuck out. “It wasn’t him. It wasn’t the real Rudy Ladd. Nothing you’ve said sounds like the man I was married to.”

I was flabbergasted. “Then who was it?”

She shrugged. “Some liar.”

“But he talked about you.”

“What did he say?”

I wished I hadn’t brought it up.

“Well, what?” she said.

“He made a joke about your cooking.”

“Look, I don’t know you. You could be making all this up.”

“It’s the truth.” But why should she believe me?

“Rudy would never not eat pecans,” she said, and there was the line between her eyes again. “He loved them.”

A boy pushed through the gate, lugging a bushel basket. “Here’s your taters, ma’am.”

“That last batch was sprouted,” she told him.

“These are good,” he said, “and I brought you some nice okra.”

She laughed. “They won’t eat okra no matter how I fix it.”

She stood up. She had to get back to work, she said. The boy took the basket inside, and a few bluecoats ambled into the yard, hammered a stake into the ground, and commenced a game of horseshoes.

“Want to play, Reb?” they called out. “For a dollar, you’re in.”

“No thanks,” but I was glad they asked me.

As I walked Emma to the door, she said, “I don’t know what to think. He had a lot of pals. Maybe one of them stole his name, or there’s another Rudy Ladd.”

“Maybe he just changed,” I said.

“People don’t change that much.”

Behind us, horseshoes clinked and jangled, and the soldiers cheered. I had to lean in close to hear her.

“He might be dead,” she said. “I don’t know. I may never find out.” Her voice was soft, and I suspected when she wasn’t bustling around, she could be quiet and serious.

It was strange, all right. “The man I knew, whoever he was, was my friend.”

“We were so young when we got hitched,” she said. “Have you ever been married?”

“No.” I opened the screen door and held it for her, but she stood there like her mind was far off.

For me, the talking had brought back more and more of what happened—the cat that came into the hen house, the egg I found, the sea breeze I couldn’t get enough of when I sat with Eldridge and he said it was all over—and all of that seemed important for her to know. I wanted so bad to keep talking with her. I like to dream things up, she’d said, and I wanted to know what those things were.

“That must have been wonderful,” she said, “when they opened up the jail and said, You’re free.”

“It was grand.” A fly went in, and I let the door fall shut. Still she waited, like she was thinking, and I waited too. I felt like I was back in Milledgeville, with Joe Brown’s watch ticking so loud I could hear it across the prison yard.

She looked me in the eye and said, “It’s Sam, right? If you’d like to come back at dusk-dark, I can probably give you some dinner,” and her mouth curved up in a beautiful smile.

And the pieces that were exploded, all those broken bits whirling around inside me, started to settle back in place.

“Okra’s fine,” I said.