Word came that General Lee had waved the white flag at Appomattox, surrendering the cause to the Union Army, thus delivering the Confederacy back into the care of the North, a vengeful nursemaid to be sure.
The surrender hit the men of Georgia's Fifth Regiment, stationed in northern Virginia, like a blow, leaving them with the coppery tang of blood and bitterness in their mouths.
The men roared, pounded the wagons, sobbed at the futility of their efforts, at the years of their lives lost, their family and friends lost, their way of life lost, so much lost with nothing to show for it now but a battle-scarred flag, a battle-scarred soul.
His soldiers railed against the unfairness of the universe, but not Sergeant Connor Meeks. He was ready to go home.
Wish I was in the land of cotton...
In the years before the war, in another time, another life, Meeks had been a landscaper at Woodlands, one of the most prosperous plantations in Georgia. Woodlands was a wonder.
Most cotton plantations baked in the South Georgia heat, on flat plains where the sun bleached the sky to faded denim and roasted the residents till they looked liked dried apples left too long in an oven.
Woodlands was built in North Georgia, in the Appalachian foothills. Much more temperate than its southern counterparts, the plantation thrived on the mountain. Frequent rains and long, humid summers turned the fields and gardens into an emerald gem amidst the other, myriad greens of the verdant old hills.
Sergeant Meeks was the son of the first landscaper at Woodlands. His da had been invited to Georgia by way of Ireland by the owner, Godfrey Barnsley. The North Georgia countryside reminded him of green Irish hills and he wanted his grounds to resemble those of stately manors like Blarney Castle in County Cork.
Connor Meeks was born in 1830 and raised amidst the daffodils and magnolias, learning from his father how to care for the plants, plan gardens and most importantly, how to please Master Barnsley and his sickly wife, Julia.
After Julia died in childbirth, Connor, just 13 at the time, also learned how to care for a child, as little George, the youngest Barnsley, took a shine to him and toddled everywhere after him while he tended the plants.
His father's assistant, a slave called Washington who could make anything grow, had a son, a little pickaninny called Emmanuel, who was born the same year as the young master.
Often were the days that the two young boys followed Connor out to the gardens, roughousing, carousing like puppies in the gravel aisles between stately boxwoods. They were ever calling to Connor about the wonders they discovered together - a secret nest of blue speckled eggs, a chipmunk's den in the crook of an old tree. He remembered with laughter the day the boys caught a lizard basking in tbe sun only to have it escape when the tail detached and their reptilian playmate scuttled away.
The boys brought him the twitching tail, George and Manny both crying fearfully, and Meeks had intoned that, while they must be gentler to God's creatures, they hadn't actually hurt it, that the tail would, in fact, grow back.
If only Emmanuel's leg could have done the same.
When word of the Secession reached Woodlands, Connor was 31, the boys 18. Young George, affluent and privileged, had a fire in his belly to protect state's rights, and determined to join the efforts against the War of Northern Aggression. When he signed on, Master Barnsley ordered Emmanuel to accompany his son to the front, as a servant and companion. Manny would have gone anyway, to protect his best friend, though his family had never understood he and George's bond.
Meeks had joined the Confederate Army as well, not through a deep desire to preserve a way of life he had never fully approved of, but out of loyalty to his community and the need to protect his home and family. Packing his bag, he carefully wrapped a framed photo of his wife, Sylvia and daughter Katie in an old square of muslin, knowing he'd need it to give him strength over the long months to come.
Kissing his wife in a tearful goodbye, and holding his 14-year-old daughter close, he had no idea, as he turned his back, that it would be four years before he would see them, touch them, again.
Walking down the dirt road from their homestead to the plantation gates, his new woolen uniform made his skin itch in the summer heat, the grey fabric matching his mood. Not even the sight of his well-tended garden could cheer him. It simply reminded Meeks of all he was fixing to leave behind.
He'd met George and Emmanuel at the gate to Woodlands, shook hands with Master Barnsley and promised to keep an eye on the boys. Together, the three men continued down the road toward Atlanta and an uncertain future.
No amount of training could have prepared Meeks for the horrors of war.
The sound the bullet made when it whizzed past his ear and he thanked God for giving him another day, only to turn and realize it struck the soldier behind him.
The terrible crimson of fresh blood as it pooled around someone's brother, someone's father, someone's son, recently shot or gutted by a damn Yankee's bayonnette and left to die on the field.
The thick scents in camp of overflowing latrines, clothing ruined by dysentery, rotten teeth, festering wounds.
The feelings of cold and hunger, of pain and loneliness, God the loneliness, that came upon him in the night. Wondering how his family was getting on without him, when he realized today was his daughter's 16th birthday and he wasn't there to embrace her.
War is hell, there was no doubt in his mind.
Old times there are not forgotten...
Meeks had been raised up with the belief that slavery was a "necessary evil" and that "things were better this way" but the longer he spent in this maddening, messy war, the less he believed it.
He'd been told the darkies were of lesser intelligence, helpless and ignorant, yet in this war he'd seen black men learn to read and write and engineer complex systems to repair weapons and build camps.
He'd been told they preferred to live like beasts, that only the Whites had civilized them, but it was his white compatriots who refused to bathe, stole from one another and who fought like mongrels over imagined slights.
He had been told negroes had no emotions, that they were unfeeling animals, which was why it didn't matter if you sold their children to plantations 300 miles away, but he had seen them bravely fight and cry and die alongside the whites, with men who had become friends at home or on the front, for a cause that only promised to keep them enslaved.
The day George Barnsley was killed, Emmanuel proved this point.
Young George was manning one of the hulking cannons, set near the woods at the far edge of the battlefield. Standing behind its massive bulk like a bulwark, George would light the fuse to send a cannonball barreling toward the enemy. Bullets whizzing by, Emmanuel would run foward to reload it for another shot. He'd rush to the front of the cannon, shoving another cast iron ball full of explosive gun powder down the thing's throat then get out of the way before another boom came.The boys made a good team, George covering Manny as best he could when he ran out in harm's way.
This afternoon though, a lone Union soldier had been hiding in the woods nearby, waiting for a solid moment to strike. Bent over the back of the cannon, George didn't see him coming when the rogue ran out of the brush, brandishing his bayonette.
As he approached George, the Union soldier screamed to Emmanuel "Run! Run and we'll protect you!" believing the black man would take this opportunity to escape to freedom in the confusion of battle.
George looked up, but too late, and Billy Yank's gun blasted him squarely in the chest, at close range, buckshot peppering his torso, blasting him backward.
Blood flowing from multiple wounds, ghastly roses blossoming on his uniform. He fell to the ground and the soldier was on him in a moment, stabbing the prone George with his bayonette.
Manny ran toward them, grabbing the only weapon he had, the Bowie knife in his belt, and slashed madly at George's assailant.
They rolled together on the ground, punching and kicking in desperation, until Manny sat astride the Union soldier. Bloody foam spluttered from the pinned soldier's mouth. Emmanuel raised his knife for a killing blow when the young man asked him, in a strangled gasp, "Don't you want to be free?"
"Yes!" Emmanuel cried. "Dear God, yes! But not like this! Never like this." He raised a shaking finger and pointed toward George. "He was my friend" he sobbed and drove his blade deep into the man's chest.
Emmanuel crawled back to poor George, whose blood soaked his uniform, seeped into the earth. Manny had been born a slave but this white man had seen beyond that, had been his friend, like a brother, and now he was gone. Kneeling, he held George's head in his lap as the warmth left his body. When he was gone, Emmanuel lamented over his fallen friend, throwing his head back and keening at the impassive sky.
His grief made him careless. From behind, he heard the unmistakable whistle of incoming artillery. He turned in time to see a cannonball hurtling toward them. When it struck the ground beside the cannon, the explosion consumed the world. He was thrown heavenward and then he was unconscious.
When he awoke, he was on a cot in the infirmary tent, heart heavy and his left leg gone below the knee.
A black amputee was of no use to the war effort, so they sent a broken Emmanuel, along with a small box containing all that was left of George, home to Master Barnsley. In a munitions wagon headed south, Sergent Meeks and Emmanuel bade their farewells. Tears in his eyes, Manny said "I'm so sorry, Mister Meeks. So sorry."
"There was nothing more you could have done, son," Meeks told him, clapping a hand to Emmanuel's shoulder and pulling the young man close. "You were a hero out there. And, Manny, when you get back to Woodlands, please tell my girls how much I love them."
"I will, sir. You know I will. You come home safe yourself."
At that moment, Connor Meeks knew the past was a lie. There was no difference in white people and black people, beyond a despicable imbalance of power. They were all just people, who loved and hurt and bled the same red blood. This "cause" he was fighting for was no more justifiable than Manny losing his leg fighting in a war that meant to keep him in chains. Meeks couldn't run from it, but he also couldn't see a need for all the death. He longed for the end to this senseless war.
That was more than two years ago and now, finally, finallyit was Meeks' turn to head back home to Georgia. He knew Woodlands was gone, burned by Sherman as he made his fiery march across Georgia the year before, and the Barnsleys had moved to New Orleans, but his wife and daughter were safe at home. In the last letter he had from Sylvia, a few months before, she said there was a happy surprise for him when he returned. That was something to look forward to on the long trip home.
Even Emmanuel had made it back to Woodlands safely and, due to the reports of his bravery while trying to save George, Master Barnsley had given him his emancipation, making him a free man in the eyes of the law. Manny had chosen to stay on at the plantation, tending to the gardens where he'd played as a child.
Sergeant Meeks wanted to get home and get on with life too.
He journeyed for weeks, by wagon and on foot, travelling south with the summer, finally hiking through the mountains to reach his homestead.
When he arrived at the long drive that led past cotton fields, on up to Woodlands and then home, he paused. No slaves toiled in the fields, singing their spirituals as they worked, the overseer watching them from horseback.
The cotton fields lay fallow, gone to seed in the aftermath of war. The slave quarters stood empty, a ghost town filled with the shadows of dark deeds.
Meeks walked resolutely up the pockmarked drive, the burned shell of Woodlands growing larger, the once white spires of the big house columns now spikes of coal against the summer sky. The beautiful gardens had been reduced to charred sticks. Those that were spared from the blaze were overgrown, boxwoods towering unkempt and climbing roses stretching runners across once neat paths.
Heart beating faster, he turned just beyond the garden's edge, following the smaller lane up the hill, to his homestead. The familiar sights and sounds of the Appalachian dusk welcomed him home. Tall pines silhouetted against an orange sunset, the warble of a chicka-dee-dee-dee hurrying back to his nest for the night, the swoosh and flip of bats come out for their evening meal, they all urged him on.
And then the trees parted and he stood at the edge of the clearing, his house waiting below.
Tears filled his eyes. So many nights had passed where he feared he would never see this place again. Candles already flickered within the little home his da had built forty years before, with the wide front porch and not one, but two chimneys made of Georgia red clay. Out front, the herb garden his wife lovingly tended - because both food and medicine could be found there - grew, neat as a pin. The swing he'd built for his daughter still hung from the wizened oak at the edge of the yard.
Though he'd lost track of time on his journey, he knew it must be a Monday because of the linens and clothing hanging to dry on the washline. Sylvia had kept this place running smoothly in his absence. He knew she would.
He saw her hands before he saw her face, reaching up to unpin a sun-crisp sheet from the line. As she lowered her arms to fold the worn fabric she spied him too, and she startled for a moment before dropping the sheet in astonishment.
He thought he must have looked a stranger there in the gathering dark, gaunt as a ghost and bearded to boot, but Sylvia knew her husband in a moment and ran to him, skirts swirling as she dashed up the hill.
"Connor! Oh, Connor! You're home!" she cried.
"Katie, Katie! Come see! Your father is home!"
Sylvia threw her arms around him in a joyful, tearful embrace and he could hardly believe the feel of her, so soft and warm, smelling of lavender and baking. He gingerly ran a hand over her head, marvelling at her silky hair. It had been too long. She raised her face to look at him too, examining the unruly beard and smiling.
"We'll have to take care of that tonight," she grinned. "See if we can find youunder there!" When she reached up and touched his face he shivered expectantly.
His daughter Katie was hurrying up the hill now, a bundle in her arms. She looked a woman now, lord, she was 18 already. Where had his baby girl gone?
'What could she be carrying up here?' Meeks wondered idly, but then she was crushing her daddy in a hug and his joy was complete.
A sudden cry between them made him loosen his grip and look down. In Katie's arms was a baby.
Down the hill, the front door to his house opened again and a man stood, holding a cane, his silhouette framed by the light from inside.
Sylvia spoke first. "Connor, I know you remember Emmanuel. After the house burned, he didn't have a place to go, so I offered for him to stay with us. He's a good man. He was such a help keeping things going and then..." Her voice drifted off, unsure of what to say next.
Katie spoke shyly to her father then, holding the bundle out to him. "Daddy, I'd like you to meet George, your grandson."
Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland...
Connor Meeks picked up the child and stared into the face of his grandbaby, coffee colored skin, curious brown eyes and a shock of black fuzz down the middle of his head. Then he looked at Katie, a hundred questions in his eyes, but clearly, he could see the truth.
The world certainly was a different place then he'd left it.
His felt ashamed of his momentary discomfort as, down the hill, Emmanuel bravely began the slow climb toward his family.
Meeks looked back at his daughter's expectant face.
"He is a good man," he said simply. "And this is a fine little baby we have here. Now, why don't you take me inside? I could smell your ma's cornbread baking all the way from the big house!"
Together, they turned their backs on the past and walked to meet Emmanuel.
At last, Connor Meeks could lay down his gun.