May 1863 Vicksburg, Mississippi
The only reason we came back to town, and stayed during that terrible nightmare of a time, those forty-seven days of confusion and heartbreak that made up the siege of Vicksburg, was because of Sammy the cat.
Oh, other people stayed, for other reasons, mostly because they couldn’t believe it was all happening. "It will go away," they told themselves. "The Yankees will soon understand that they made a mistake coming here. What’s here for them, anyway?
"And until that realization comes to those Blue Coats, we’ll just build ourselves some caves to live in, to protect ourselves from the cannon fire, the rifled artillery, the exploding missiles, and the general pandemonium all around us.
"And we’ll eat beans and rice and bacon and cornmeal. And maybe, when all that runs out, maybe rats and mule meat." That’s what the people said.
When we heard the first firing, on Sunday, May 17, we were just outside a small town called Bolton’s Depot, at Fruitvale, Pa’s parents’ plantation. We’d been there for a little over two weeks, ever since General Grant and his army crossed the Mississippi and landed at a Confederate stronghold below the mouth of the Big Black River.
Here at Fruitvale we had commodious rooms, the best horses to ride, servants galore. And Mama had brought along all Pa’s medical books and her home remedy books, for her home remedies worked side by side with Pa’s modern doctor ways. She also brought her good dresses and jewelry, and mine and James’s going-to-church clothes.
My little brother, James, who was only five, said he could hear the artillery shells from way down at Big Black River where the Yankees were fighting and getting closer to Vicksburg.
James was afraid for Sammy, who was back home in Vicksburg.
"What you’re hearing is the mortar bombs from Porter’s fleet on the river below the bluffs," Pa explained to him. "We’re safe here."
"But Sammy isn’t. He’s home alone in our house."
"Clothilda and Andy are with him."
"That’s worse," James said. "They won’t let him cuddle next to them at night and he needs somebody." He was trying not to cry. At five it isn’t easy.
I know. I’m thirteen and it isn’t easy.
"He’ll be all right," Mama soothed James. He was her "little man." She called him that, and for the most part he lived up to it. But I envied him for still being able to break into tears when the occasion warranted it. I, myself, was too old. Anyway, Pa would be put out with me if I cried. And the last thing in the world I wanted was for Pa to be put out with me.
He expected me to be a young lady, a comfort to Mama and him, what with my older brother Landon off to war for six months now, home only once, in April.
It would be all nice and fit and proper and we would be the typical Southern family and I would be knitting socks and sending them to Landon, except for one thing.
Landon had gone and joined up with the wrong side.
Landon was with the Yankees, with Grant. Oh, he wasn’t out there this minute fighting his way to destroy our town. He was with Grant, all right. But, like Pa, Landon was a doctor. His was the first class to study under the president of Harvard, Charles Eliot. He had completed written exams, clinical sciences, and a three-year degree program.
"Should have never sent you there," Pa had scolded him when he came home in his blue Yankee uniform with the double row of buttons down the front. "You learned more than medicine. You learned their sentiments, their ideals, their beliefs. Did you get extra credit for all that?"
Pa was as mad as a wet porcupine. I think I even saw tears crowding his eyes when he looked across the supper table at his pride and joy in that blue uniform. He’d been so proud of Landon up until now. He’d had plans for after the war, of Landon working with him in his surgery.
"I’m not going to be shooting Confederates, Pa," Landon said. "I will likely be treating them if they come my way. You know how I feel about killing. The same as you."
Pa had had nothing to say about that. He knew Landon spoke the truth.
"If I embarrass you in this uniform, sir," Landon said quietly, "well, I won’t come home anymore. I don’t want to hurt your standing in this town."
"Yes, and that kind of talk is what will get you run out of the house, as far as your mother and I are concerned,"
Pa said. "You’re a doctor. You do us proud. You just haven’t got the brains to know which side to serve. Now the conversation is over." Pa worried about him. I know he did. Sometimes I caught him sitting there staring into the middle distance, a book in his hands, and I knew he was thinking of Landon, though he never spoke of him.
Mama did. She called him "my boy." She kept his boyhood room as he’d left it. She waited for his letters and read them to us at the supper table. Pa said nothing when she read them.
Now in the parlor at Fruitvale, James ran to Pa and hugged his leg. "I want to go hoooo
Mama’s eyes were tearing up now, too. "Please, can we, Hugh? I miss home. I miss my things."
"You’ve brought many of them with you," he reminded her.
In the last two weeks we’d heard the news from neighbors who’d left town and passed Fruitvale. Forts were springing up on the bluffs of Vicksburg, above the Mississippi. An 18-pound cannon the army had set up on the bluff was named "Whistling Dick."
And finally the words we never thought we’d hear: "The Yankees are coming!"