My Civil War

June 3, 2008
By Kourtney Swank, Seattle, WA

It was hot. “Much hotter than should be allowed,” I mused. I could feel the perspiration on my back and I longed to be somewhere cool. “Preferably, I thought, somewhere near freezing with-.” A loud clanging brought me out of my thoughts as quickly as I came to them. I looked behind me to see Nellie, a slave girl, hurriedly picking up a bucket.
“M’sorry Miss Alice,” she mumbled, keeping her eyes cast down.
“It’s all right Nellie, just be glad Catherine didn’t catch you.” I smiled slightly at Nellie and she ventured a smile in return. I turned my head to look out of the windows towards the fields where our slaves were working. The sight brought back a memory so vivid that I thought I was actually in it. As I felt a lone tear travel down my face, I remembered all the events that caused me to be looking out of the window now:
If someone were to ask my sister Catherine where my family’s problems started, she would look the person in the eye and say, “Thomas Mullings.” She might go as far as to say that problems started appearing the day he was born, the troublemaker. This, to me, is quite funny. Thomas is older than Catherine, and up ‘till the middle of the war she practically worshipped the ground he walked on. I did, too. All of us younger children in the family did.

Thomas was quite impossible not to like. He was funny, smart, and didn’t hold with the practice of slavery. Not that anyone knew that particular aspect of him. Anyone except me, that is. I don’t particularly remember when I found out though. Thomas didn’t even tell me until the war. But, I just…knew. Like in summer people know it’s going to be hot, or in winter people know it’s going to be cold. It’s a natural fact and that’s what my brother’s belief was. A natural fact.

Thomas didn’t come out and say, “I’m going to help end slavery.” Rather, he wouldn’t let a slave be whipped and he genuinely cared for their well-being. Most would say he didn’t want to ‘devalue’ his inheritance. I knew better. Thomas just couldn’t come out and openly free slaves though. He would be shot down sure as Sunday comes every week. By doing simple acts though, I’m sure he was helping appease his conscience.
Things started getting rocky in December of 1860. Abraham Lincoln had been announced as the next president. South Carolina had quickly seceded from the Union, and by February, six other Southern states had left the Union and formed what is now called The Confederacy. My whole family wasn’t sure whether to be excited or worried, but Father said, “Thank God our good state has found her senses.”
At this point, Thomas eagerly grabbed for the newspaper and Father granted him it. I could see Thomas was enveloped in the paper, but I didn’t fully understand why. I was only 10 at the time, old enough to be included in these meetings, but perhaps not old enough to fully understand them. Catherine was 12 and Thomas 14. I don’t think Catherine even fully understood what seceding from the Union would mean at this time. Perhaps she didn’t want to. Problems, to us children at least, seem so much simpler if the full extent of the consequences is not understood. I know Thomas understood. At 14, a body seems to know things that weren’t known before.
Thomas’s interest would have been normal for any 14-year-old boy. Except, he wanted to know about the Union Cause. When he first told me this, I laughed.
“Now, why on earth do you care, Thomas?” I chuckled. I knew it was coming, known it for years. But I wanted to hear him say it. “It’s not as if you’re thinking of joining the Union army.” His grim expression wiped the smile from my face. I didn’t expect him to join the Union army. “B-but you can’t. Why can’t you be normal like the rest of us? Why fight for a lost cause?” I burst into tears and ran for my room. I didn’t count on running into Catherine.
“What’s the matter now, Alice? Why are you crying?” Catherine kept prodding, but I wouldn’t tell her. I knew that if I told her Thomas wanted to join the Union army, she would tell Mother and Father, who in turn would confront him. My parents would talk to him and “convince” him he was in wrong thinking. Thomas would pretend to be “convinced” but he would never trust me again. And I wouldn’t blame him.
“I think I ripped my dress,” I sniffled as I said this. “I need to change.”
Catherine gazed at me for a full minute, but then she allowed me to leave.
Later that day, Thomas told me he appreciated that I didn’t tell Catherine. He said she knew enough as it was.
“You can count on me always,” I gently reminded him, “I just don’t understand-“
“You don’t have to,” Thomas interrupted me, “not now at least. But I intend to show you.” I told him it was all right, that I had seen this coming for years. He looked slightly puzzled at this thought, like he didn’t figure it out until two days ago. But no matter how puzzled he was, he remained firmly steadfast in his decision.
After that day, my “lessons,” if one could call them that, commenced. Thomas would take me around with him everywhere. We went to town, the slaves’ quarters, the fields, the auction block, and all the while he was explaining things to me. How even though slavery helped the economy, something I had to ask him to define time and time again, slavery was immoral.
All the time, I was listening. I asked him question after question. I was the ever diligent pupil, and he my patient teacher. I admit I was interested but still remained skeptical. After all, it clashed with everything every Southern child had grown up learning. It was like Thomas had never learned what everyone else learned at a very young age. I was worried about him, but didn’t tell anyone. Besides, he seemed thrilled at the chance to teach me his point-of-view.
My “lessons” continued until one May evening in 1863. I was thirteen at this point and since I was thirteen, I decided Thomas was sane. This may sound strange, but over the years I had questioned his sanity and was pleased with myself for deeming him sane. He may not have my thinking, I concluded, but it was someone’s way of thinking.
Anyway, I remember that evening well. I had been wearing a white cotton frock and I had been looking towards the river. It was a warm evening, but I felt comfortable. All of a sudden, I got that feeling a body gets when being watched. I twisted ‘round to see Thomas standing behind me. He walked forward and placed his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m leaving,” he said shortly, “I’m leaving to join-“
“I just decided you were sane!” I exclaimed.
He flashed me a look that clearly said, are you sane? “M’sorry, Alice. But I have to go. If I stay here any longer, I’ll go hang myself.”
“But you don’t have to go Thomas. You don’t have to fight for some freedom.”
He gave a great sigh. “Alice, it’s the principal of the thing. I can’t explain it to you anymore than I already have.” He ran a hand through his hair, a sign he was greatly frustrated.
“Why die fighting for a lost cause?” I whispered.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he whispered back.
I swallowed down my tears. “Then I guess I’ll have to wish you luck and pray for you every night until you return.” He beamed down at me, kissed my forehead, said a few comforting words, told me he’d write, and was gone. I couldn’t stop the tears from coursing down my face.
That May evening turned to August, which turned to October, which in turn became February. Time kept changing until it was June of 1864. I hadn’t seen Thomas for more than a year, though letters came every two weeks.
On June 9, right after breakfast, I was filled with foreboding. I felt uneasy all the day and jumped at any manner of noises. Mother and Father asked me repeatedly if I was all right. I just shrugged and commenced with the jumping and unease. For the next several days, I fell into deep mourning. Nobody knew why and truthfully, I didn’t know myself.
My aunts and uncles made the same remark when they visited on June 13 with my cousins for the annual family picnic. The food had just been set out when a courier came into our yard in a hurry.
“Miz Alice Mullings,” he managed to pant after hopping off his horse.
I stepped forward, ready to receive a letter that I surely felt was from Thomas.
“I regret deeply to inform you that Lt. Thomas Mullings has died. His death took place on June 9th at Old Cold Harbor. I am sorry for your loss, ma’am.” He saluted me, then clambered back onto his horse.
That was when all hell broke loose. Mother started bawling, a couple of my aunts fainted, Father looked like he was about to choke to death. The little kids were screaming and some of the older kids looked like they had seen a ghost. And I…laughed. I laughed and laughed like a crazy woman. When Catherine turned to me with tear-stained eyes and asked what was so funny, I just had to tell her. I said, “Thomas didn’t die for the Confederate army. He’s been in the Union army the whole time.” I continued laughing until Father and some of my uncles led me upstairs to lie down.
I could tell my family didn’t believe me when I said that Thomas was in the Union army. Catherine did, though. Now she doesn’t talk to me as much because Thomas and I didn’t feel the need to tell her our secret. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s been left out of everything for a long time. She might say two sentences to me in three days, if I’m “lucky,” because, according to her, I have the “right way of thinking.” Thomas however is wiped completely from her mind, like he never existed.
But I, sitting near the window, know Catherine is in the wrong. It’s funny, but most of the time Thomas was alive I’d roll my eyes at his way of thinking. Now, I embrace it. And it’s all because of Thomas delivering me an ultimatum on that warm May evening that seems so long ago now. I swear I always thought Thomas didn’t believe in slavery. But, perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps his ultimatum came on that December evening in 1860 when he read that newspaper. Maybe that paper alerted him to the fact that slavery was wrong. But, I don’t know. All I do know is that I plan to ask him someday when we meet again.

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