As it was quite dark in the tent, I picked up what I
supposed to be my “raglan,” a waterproof, light
overcoat, without sleeves; it was subsequently
found to be my wife’s, so very like my own…
Jefferson Finis Davis, 1881
He was forced into the ultimate position of
cowardice; he was a man who hid behind
women’s skirts, most literally—a man who
denied his biological destiny and donned
Professor Nancy Bercaw, 1997
We will hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree…
Union marching song
His old discipline served him well. His clothes, even if
threadbare, were “well-fitting, refined,” and “scrupu-
lously clean” and neat.
Felicity Allen in Jefferson Davis:
The train clamored and shook as the jagged landscape of Appalachian twilight ghosted by. Grandfather stared at his reflection in the window, stroked his beard and said:
He was not really attempting to deceive anyone, my boy, not one soul. The Yankee press—hounds on a blood trail— reported him fleeing disguised in woman’s attire and called him coward, but Jeff Davis had not a white feather in his wing. That devil Nast cartooned him as a frocked and bonneted frigate, but we know mischief will ever eclipse truth lest someone step forth to correct the caitiff lies. Jeff was no nance and not even deigning to evade his fate but headed to Mexico to gather loyal forces in the West. He was a tornado seeking fresh wind, new music, a safe place to debouch and contrive. Why, even northern memoirs record he wore on that day “a waterproof and brass spurs of unusual size.” But the victors have penned our history in bile, made the noble cause seem the mischief of ghosts, and they are followed by apologists who weakly protest: “only his wife’s raincoat, only a tossed-on shawl against inclement weather.” Such dodges are little an improvement over the scurrilous lies.
The truth is, son, he was both a fierce warrior and a private cross-dresser, no tribade or bend sinister but a genuine ram who just loved the touch of rust silk faille or taffeta with ruched sleeves and chain lace. He savored the rustle of a train, the feel of pleats and plackets and darts, the intricacies of bustle bows, hooks and buttons. Even the roughest soldier understands the lure of satin on the skin, the need for relief. Even the hardest Spartan loved to spruce and primp. Remember the hot gates of Thermopylae. I loved him for that, as well as martial conduct and caparison, but not in carnal ways. He was our inspiration, a haggard man, a besieged cavalier, a pariah, still equal to any king of Thebes.
With your dear grandmother now at rest and the Styx boatman glaring me in the eye nightly, I see it’s time. I owe you this story. If I could offer it up as a ballad and blend my voice once more with good Jim Speed, it would make more sense. You’d feel the weight. Jim had a sturdy voice and had run the barges on Big Mississippi till news of Manassas stirred him. A lanky Tennessean, he showed me camp cooking and how to mend a rip, how to make weed coffee and allow for windage in a downhill shot.
Before we were mustered in for Jeff’s protection, still pickets outside Fredericksburg, a volley from the dark tumbled us into a shell crater where we prayed and cringed till birdsong coaxed the dawn. It was winter, sixty-three, and we sprawled there silent, clenching our pain while blood seeped and mingled. We shared hard prayers and solemn vows, gave up our secrets freely. In first light I noticed the marvel of his eyes that went darker when he pondered things, as if a bird flew through them and left its shadow behind. After that night of horror and hardship, we were as one, sharing our short rations or a soiled dove in Miss Winnie’s Dixie House. Jim Speed. Now that was a man.
Truths and rumors knot and snarl. It was raining like Noah’s last warning on the night of the capture, but we had been retreating stealthy through Georgia for days. The treasury gold had been dispatched west to confuse our pursuers, and the president’s family achieved the plotted rendezvous at last. Splash and splatter: weather came in torrents and ran through our shelters. I was riding vidette and hating both mud and the dull rain gear over my finery, the brushed livery of a palace guard. The first chiggers of the year were itching me, and my horse was testy. We still believed we might drown Pharaoh’s army in a sea of red.
I should briefly digress. The landscape we had passed through was war ravaged—collapsed barns, fields run rife, black snaggle of foundations still smoking, while sheds already hosted wild grape and ivy. The air was active with insects and pollen, deer flies big as robins. The spoiling corpses of horses stenched from their ditches.
Even the back roads were thronged with refugees, both white and dark, moving in whatever direction might distance them from carnage, carrying whatever they could haul. The aspect of defeat lay upon every pilgrim, from the ancient mammy to the trunk-burdened blueblood in rags, the cracker child in ripped plaid or skulker in mufti. Such sad spectacle tempted us to set the spur and flee the sight, but we aimed to be gentlemen, to avoid driving them to the bramble with our mounts and wagons, and as we waved, some bared their heads or gestured back, though others scowled or spat in our wake.
As we pressed deeper south and into the vernal season, flowers exploded from their stalks, and songbirds brighter than fire paused scarce long enough for us to pass. Then the torrent commenced. Noble Jim had rendered his cloak to a young soldier crutching on a single leg, and I shivered to see him drenched. He was a man who strove never to display his pain. The world will not see his kind again.
It is fact that our commander was wearing female attire when they netted him, but not some haphazard raglan slicker. As I recall the evening—and decades of merchandising have sharpened my discerning eye—he emerged from the tent in leaf-green taffeta with curved back side seams, an artful gown gathered at the weskit with clear seed beads as embellishment along the tulip bodice. It was an outfit I had long admired, but topped by a plain countrywoman’s bonnet, to shield his face from weather. He had just lit a cheroot and lifted a stirrup cup of brandy to the future. Jeff was weary but much relieved to be back with his family, and you could see the Crusader gleam residing in his good eye. The mischief that got him court martialed at The Point, the adventure of camels for the cavalry, the sorties at Buena Vista—they were lurking still, despite his sharpness, his quarrels with Congress and six Secretaries of War. We got our surprise then—it was the initial instance we understood that Miss Varina must have been party to the Confederacy’s closet secret all along. He was dressed for the ball and beaming. She stood at his side, all smiles.
It soothed him to costume and make believe, you see. It helped him plot sorties and calculate supply routes or enfilade, but the sound of gunfire and scrimmaging dragoons, as ever, lured him that morning, and he was looking for his navy Colts—as John Hammond reported—when he saw the Michigan freebooter spurring his nag over Cake Creek. The hour was dark as a skillet, and stumbling, he ripped the skirts away to free his movement. The Black Hawk War had taught him the trick of throwing a rider by lifting a foot from the stirrup, and that was Jeff’s intent, but Miss Varina caught up and threw herself between them as the Yankee was cocking his carbine.
Personally, I believe the weapon might have misfired in the downpour, and Davis would have swung onto the horse and away, bold as Bedford Forrest. Such was his courage that we might yet be a Confederate nation today, but his dear wife, like Pocahontas, intervened. That spelled the end of our odyssey for freedom, our sovereign dream. As you know he lived into his eighties, broken by chains and a close guard, pardoned later but less citizen than penitent, until resurrected as a martyr. Wherever he traveled, defeated people scattered whole Edens of roses at his feet. I wish I had seen it. The papers reported he held his predator’s edge like a falcon in jesses.
Bless his memory, but you must wonder how chance brought a mild clothier like your grandsire to serve as witness to such history. It had little to do with chance, for I was not always this broken crow you see before you. Now listen close.
After years of warring I was still hot for a fight that morning, my blood up since we’d crossed the Ocmulgee at a skirmish site where the uniforms of our fallen were hung like ghosts from the sycamores. Anyone could have seen that I loved our Cause and leader. I was riding with my boon companion Jim Speed and nearly fearless. My breath was quick, face red-appled. I was ready for butcher’s labor. We had escorted him and guarded, served and conferred, polished and preened with our great captain, stood at attention and slept in our boots and kepis, but close duty hemmed up in Richmond had kept us from a soldier’s proper rage. For two years we had not seen a big scrap without a spyglass, and though we had become darlings with charm and delicate palates, as well as a fine eye for millinery, we could still drill a target, put the spurs to a flank, our mounts foamy and snarling, the raised saber lovely as the new April moon.
But we did yet have our state secret, and no one kept it half so sub rosa as Jim Speed and I. Dear Heaven, even in this new century I miss him, poor Jim of the walnut skin and honeymoon smile. His cheekbones were Cherokee, surely, deny it as he might. His hair was a raven’s shocking shade. He was among our last true heroes and a wizard with a seaming needle or flatiron. His deer eyes haunt me still… But such a secret. We had a pact, renewed it nightly after taps. We would never betray the masquerade.
Of course, our recruitment to the president’s personal guard had required some doing, some smooth allure, as we were mostly country boys and more ripe for mending hames and larding axles than some sartorial cult. In Richmond at first we’d romp and rollick on our furloughs while the Federals slogged about in the Peninsula’s gumbo mud, taking heavy losses, changing field marshals ring-a-rosy as poor citizens ripped up fences for kindling, the shivering prisoners on Belle Isle moaned and anchored shackles in the slave market rimed with frost.
We’d sample the local bumbo and fall into cribs with doxies we would never greet on the day-lit promenade. The air was filled with desperate festival, garish signs and tease shows, damaged humanity begging in the alleyways with their banjos and mule hide tambourines. Such is the aura of siege, and gaslights gave it an infernal gleam, while the rumble of hearses kept the rhythm grim. I’d pick on the mandolin and sing bawdy tunes as Jim whittled wood scraps. He could make deer and mallard stroll forth from a chunk of oak or cherry, but I entreated him to carve demon faces and fright masks. Pent-up soldiers are the first to wax strange.
Then Jeff called us into his chamber, the inner sanctum of books and flags and presentation sabers. I was nervous to shivering, but Jim stood calm as Jack’s cat, and Jeff’s text was the matter of manners, but what a speech, running from whisper to plea to pulpit thrill. We’d need to learn the gestures of high society to move at his side, to shield him in close quarters. Spies abounded, he said. Sometimes, when he went abroad in disguise, one of us would have to accompany him in the outfit of a matron—convenient, for all the frocks and bother afforded ample space for weaponry. That was why we scraped our chins, despite the style du monde, to adapt the skirt and demure demeanor. Jeff’s own goatee should have been sheared as well, that he could more easily slip through definitions, but the satyr in him would not agree. Samson on his mind, he adopted the widow’s veil. I laugh now at how astonished I was at that first summons just to be standing on a carpet from the Persias. I had so much to learn.
Even now my fingers tremble to think how Granny Lee would have blushed and burned to know his old Mexican cohort had adjusted to lady’s foundations, how he smiled to rouge those hollow cheeks and paint himself for phantom cotillions, to take tea or sherry all genteel and formal with his eight praetorians, we dolls of rebeldom laced tight in Chinese silks and smuggled satins, as we sat circled in his chamber strong as Round Table knights, rehearsing polite society. It was all the odder as most of the natural belles were by then clothed in mourning, but we would map battles over demitasse and discuss rail routes with our pastry. And money, always pondering the problem of money and choked trade. The treasury was a ripped feedsack leaking.
We also had our inner mysteries which are now of little interest, but know this, child, as the planet spins and stars bivouac above: it is not unmanly to address the Eve in your nature, and Jeff Davis, I can testify, contrived his wisest strategies thinking with gathered tulle at his wrists and hoops like the orbits of planets encircling him. With charts and compass and calipers he projected troop movements or figured logistics on the back of a shawl pattern. He often pondered dispatches to Lee and Bragg in the field while eyeing his image in the glass. I remember once his dictating a corrective to righteous Stonewall himself while I pinned up a hem. Jeff’s suggestion likely saved a corps and mad Jackson’s reputation. He summoned great originality to prevent our Cause from being lost.
But you must yearn for a beginning to set this narrative on a less shocking course. Cipher back to see it. I was but eighteen the year after secession spring and still following our nock-eared Jenny. Sixty-two had opened as a world of axes and reap hooks for me, the tumbrel sledge and bucksaw, scorp and froe maul. I had not heard of Shiloh, but word of iron ships dueling in Virginia had reached me, though I could scarce believe my ears. I endeavored to mind my own business, though I was a stout fellow and handy with a musket. Still, I kept with the clodhopper life until that sweaty day wrestling with the bull-tongued plow for a straight furrow despite the mule’s limp. She had been snakebit in March but survived because I pressed a split hen to the wound.
Since dawn we had been rough-clearing the bottom for jethro cotton, not meddling in others’ business, though Sumter had fallen so long ago, and many enlisted. A few souls were already back home bitter and missing limbs, while the dead list grew, but I strove to think of more local concerns.
The almanac decreed it high time to cut the rows, and my own private mind was a-wander, trying to order and wring out my griefs. My father was stroke-stricken and silent by a dead fire gazing at the dream of gentle Jesus in the ash. My dear one and paramour had thrown me over for a Charleston indigo factor, a fop twice her years strutting his fancy life on the battery, in the mansions and banks, a man who could think with a dollar’s mind and was managing to turn profit from the national plight. Even a bumpkin could see he was a villain.
What came over me that hot Sunday was the question my Chapel Hill mentors would later trace back to the ancients: how do I change my life and shed this man-weakening urge to weep? How do I hold to the honorable line? I had not yet heard of the stoics. I knew nothing of Greeks.
I had just turned a sweet pivot at the south end under the bean tree, lifted the share and dressed its sharpness back into rooty dirt, when I saw the odd sparkle. Another three feet of cleaving and I was wading in stones. When I bent over, son, I could see the cantle was all arrowheads and lances, black flint, quartz and chert, all knapped and trimmed for their dark work. Redwings in the cattails screeched. Somewhere an ivorybill hammered.
It was all a marvel to behold, but I had my appointed labor, and the sun does not hold still—seed wants burial under the fresh moon. I gave the gee and haw, slapped the reins and pushed on, but the soil continued to raise Indian war and hunting, the whole row behind me flashing in the sun. I stopped and took stock, sure this was a crucial moment. Something distant was calling out clear, a voice of duty plain as a trumpet. As some are called to God, I was summoned to the Cause.
That night I slipped out the window and down the road under the year’s last wave from Orion. I passed whippoorwills calling and found the coach road, striding hard, not looking over my shoulder lest Uncle Carbo cracking a plow line might be gaining. My eyes grew to savor the darkness, as I was finally clear on my destiny. My mind said two things: I would abjure treacherous women forever, and I was going to join the war. Half a century has passed now; perhaps I can claim cure. Your dear grandmother—rest her spirit—proved antidote to half my folly.
The war had brought us all deprivation, a diet of rice and turnips and pone, while sandlapper South Carolina was a scab of a land, the remaining residents mostly demons in advanced training. The home front was hard, our blouses thin cotton sacking, our only salt scraped from the smokehouse floor.
My sole refuge had been Melinda Rue Lavelle, who pledged herself to me behind the Berry Church, but when she withdrew all promise in a letter so curt it cut like a neutering knife, I finally understood my home was no more than a wasteland. Even the Cherokees had left. Even the posies were wilting and the dogs shiftless and tattered with mange. Why not go for a soldier? Why not oppose the storm blowing blue and evil from Lincoln’s north?
I turned sharp in the direction of Yankee trouble and reached Tar Heel soil where the roads were flanked with women of all shapes and colors putting in tobacco. Slave coffles trudged in chains. Catalpas bloomed like popped corn, and finches darted about more yellow than silk. Shackled Negroes drove teams at a trot, and some even offered me rides. I saw their attire resembled my own, but their part in the war was a mystery, for I only knew that armies from the world of iron and grimy cities were coming to pillage the land. Still, the dogwoods were in flower, elm and judas tree as well, while hedge birds sang steady enough to celebrate what many of us, alas, would die to defend.
I almost made Raleigh before a cavalry scout in his scarlet-trimmed uniform and polished gorget told me where to sign on and acquire my own outfit. I can still remember gazing up at him, backlit in the angled evening light, his spurs and buckles like pirate treasure, his worsted trousers clean as a preacher’s, waxed moustache like a Shawnee bow. I shaded my eyes to see the bridle and hilt of a cutlass, his brass buttons like small suns. The black boots shone, and above his brimmed hat two feathers from another world caught the smoky wind and shimmered, their pattern a pooling angel’s eye. I later discovered a bird called “peacock” was their source, old fable Argus gone local. I collected for years the symbols of allegiance to a doomed cause’s beauty, but pray never allow yourself to succumb to their lure. They are but tokens that took many a sweet lad to his death. Yet I was awestruck by the cavalier’s braid, a cord twisted tight as a hangman’s rope. He performed a salute and galloped off in the direction of the falling sun. Awestruck, I followed.
It was all dash and chaos that hour of the infamous capture—no sun, no stars, few lanterns. It was little improvement over the last months in the capital, where gravediggers rattled down the night streets and Binder ordered his scouts to torch the stored whiskies to save the city from riot. Richmond was soon a sprawl of scorch and blaze.
We had traveled so many miles that spring—by train to Danville where the citizens were cheery despite the shocking news of Appomattox. Days later in Greensboro, the reception was colder: the hoi polloi shunned us. There the cabinet met in luxury railroad cars, and I later heard Secretary Mallory report of one counselor passing resolutions between a bucket of stewed apples and a ham where a bowie knife stood like a sun clock’s gnomon. Sheer pandemonium. The generals argued surrender—Glory Beauregard most adamant—but Jeff would have none of it. Lee, he harangued, was not our last hope, just a reluctant convert who lost faith. Named the King of Spades that winter, trenching and cannonade had dimmed Marse Robert’s hunger for fight. It was April, though, and Jeff felt his sap on the rise. The fruit trees shook their frills. Only we few of the circle knew, as he admonished the faint of heart, of silk knickers and gartered stocking under his presidential garb. Jet black. Trussed and constricted, he was spoiling to continue the war.
Soon we heard the railsplitter was in Richmond, visiting ruins, breathing the smoke. The spy Miss Lew and Bison Botts were running free, rousing rabble, while the streets teemed with freedmen. LaSalle Pickett actually received Yankees in her parlor. The city was charnel, the trees stripped. Lincoln was seen resting in Jeff’s own easy chair. One soldier claimed, “Ape, in his undertaker’s stovepipe and broadcloth, was perched high on our Confederate mansion, waving his Old Glory like a madman.” Jeff doubted it, said Lincoln lacked the flare, “but he breaketh the bow and cutteth the spear in sunder.” You should have seen the chief’s eyes at that instant.
In Charlotte we learned of the man Booth’s attack, then heard a bishop’s sermon on resignation and acceptance. Hostilities continued in pockets, however, for others thought to pursue insurgent war. We pushed deeper south into the Palmetto State, some 3000 cavalrymen escorting, desperate to catch Jeff’s fleeing family, driving the men and horses near collapse. Always, always, he was agitated and spoke of broadcasting war like dragon’s teeth sharp and ready to rise. “Enemies abound,” he told Jim and me. “We shall never want for targets.”
Suddenly, he sent the army away, against all advice, which was his habit. He had secret dispatches. Retreat became flight. His aides Johnston and Lubbock stayed with us, and we rode on tired horses, while the treasury train headed elsewhere. You can imagine his exhaustion and joy when we met with Miss Varina near Dublin, but the pleasure was brief. He sometimes rode in her ambulance, and we moved more by sparse starlight, the bounty of $100,000 on his brow now widely known. The day he heard of Lincoln’s expiration I was beside him, and he stared ahead and whispered, “The fools, they have undone us.” At that moment he looked more Quixote than Lion Heart, and I knew he was thinking even a tyrant was preferable to chaos and anarchy. “They will bear down upon us,” he added, “with zeal,” and turned again to his thoughts.
Jim caught up later and leaned his head on my shoulder. “You wanted to be a soldier, Rowley. These are the times that define us.” His drawl was always a comfort, but I saw in his eyes an awareness that even the false feast was ending. He promised to rub liniment into the arm I’d strained helping him re-wheel a wagon. All in all, it was a day of trials.
The heavens were, as I said, cascading by midnight, and the chief had gone ahead, but Miss Varina’s group reined in at the hamlet of Abbeville, and next day we limped on to Irwinville and halted by a stream. I could not say aught of the site, for the falling rain kept us blind. To dally seemed unsafe, and it was hard labor to sustain even a simmer fire for coffee. Horses snorted, the smoke from their nostrils an omen.
Every one of us was tensed, for reports placed plunderers on our flanks, stragglers from Sherman sporting nooses and leaderless outliers with a nose for gold. Yet we rested. I napped early after spending my last candle helping Jim sew frogs on Jeff’s favorite gown. He had but three left, the others abandoned out of necessity. They had become our only armor, the souvenirs of halcyon hours in Richmond, but those times seemed less memory than dream. He kneaded my neck and back muscles with herb paste till they relaxed enough for me to slip into the arms of Morpheus.
Not long after, I woke to find Jim gone and quickly joined my watch on the perimeter. Through the drumming of deluge I could soon hear horses at a gallop and voices. I spurred to pass the alarm. This was our worst fear—our party at ease and sleepy, them eager for booty and reward. Unhappily, my mount went down in a rillet. Pure confusion, and all around me the fighting commenced—chaos in darkness, disembodied sounds, orders shouted, the rattle of tack, hammers cocking and the cold rasp of blades unsheathed. Random discharge of weapons. I found myself scrambling on all fours, stunned but uninjured. Not even the trees were visible. The way was lost.
Ahead, in obscured darkness with only a knife edge of dawn to aid, I made out a dark figure bearing down with a guidon lance, and when I reached for my revolver, it was missing in the dark. I fumbled in the mud with desperation and no success. You would not be in this coach now, son, your father would never have come calf-squalling into this world, if another horseman had not interposed, and it was dear Jim Speed, ever the guardian, sword drawn, body locked and leaning in the saddle like a jouster, but the flagged lance had the longer reach, and Jim took it full in the belly before he was able to raise and hack. Yet hack he did, and both riders went down shouting.
I could hear more gear clattering and crash of hooves in the filling ruts as I scrambled to where Jim was sprawled, but when I reached his side, his eyes were frozen open, their pools veiling in the morning light. I am not ashamed to say my tears showered as the fallen Yankee’s voice also ceased beneath my hand.
This was why I returned on foot to Jeff’s tent in time to witness the moment of capture. Most firing in the confusion turned out to be two Federal regiments acting independently—the Fourth Michigan and First Wisconsin, as it happens—assailing one another in the Georgia dark with small arms and not certain whom they had surprised. This, it seems, bears the stamp of justice.
Back at camp, the First Lady had sent her maid out with a bucket to accompany the President and make him seem another servant girl while he sought his horse, but he would have none of it and approached the man shouting for him to halt. I am told Jeff addressed the trooper in Chippewa—he was fluent—as he ripped away his skirts and assumed a belligerent stance.
What had we hoped? To rendezvous with the ship Shenandoah and make our way back to the land whose señoritas had shown Jeff the art of a haughty flounce and how to drape a mantilla. Fiesta, new recruits, hope and revenge. Instead, he got cold bonds chafing, Macon and Augusta by rail, on to Savannah and the steamer William P. Clyde to their capital, which was festooned in crepe for mourning. Under guard and in double chains, but note this: he and Varina at least were granted the privacy of their tent for moments before the provost took him out and applied the shackles. He pled his wet state and begged opportunity to change. In that rare kindness, the captors allowed him to quell the worst stirrings of suspicion. He stripped away his distaff finery and emerged in a gray suit and vest, even to the superficial eye of common soldiers, every inch an unbroken man. For years he was thus, all dignity and restraint, a veritable sphinx. What he said when they clasped the shackles was, “God’s will be done.” Gethsemane, you remember.
The Frenchman Diderot wrote, as you know, that the word is certainly not the thing so much as the flash of light which presents the thing to our eyes. I offer these words in that spirit and supplement witness with speculation. “Why?” you are asking, “Why did a war hero, a Kentucky planter and diplomat, the master of Brierfields in Dixie’s deep heart find himself drawn to kohl, rouge and swishing skirts of crimson cambric? Why that path to the eccentric? You will have heard that the mountebank Barnum charged admission to view the very petticoats he claimed Davis wore, along with the jerky-like mummy of J. W. Booth, but the whole display was lost when the circus burned. A hoax, anyway, but I know this much. Jeff had often voiced his love for thespian lore, especially the sorrows and delights of Shakespeare. Juliet, Desdemona, Calpurnia and bloody Mrs. Macbeth—he could say so many speeches with a voice at once eloquent and choking. The roles, in their own time, were always acted by boys.
Distress no doubt played its appointed role. He was elected by a handful of aristocrats and served as provisional president for a year until his office was decreed official. He never enjoyed the lever of a popular vote or any other sort but what the self-appointed firebrands ordained. This was no source of confidence, and the times required a mandate.
I recall one morning months before the capture, soon after the Brown’s Island explosion had killed sixty-two women workers. He had been to the site and spoken as nurse and solace, soothing the wounded, comforting the kin. “I suffer for them, Rowley,” he said, “though they are truly the stronger sex.” That night, he returned to the island escorted only by the serving boy Jim Limber and clad in a maidservant’s homespun, his face shrouded by a mourning matron’s veil. For hours he fed them soup hauled down from his kitchen. Back in his chamber at dawn, he woke me for company and said, “Perhaps by stealth I can better justify the station I am doomed to occupy.”
And when he stilled the surging crowds at the bread riot, he again mentioned needing the strength of women. If I understand correctly, he was far ahead of his time, a man eager to contain both genders, aiming at completeness, and the next evening in private, he commented on my ebony sous-jupe by saying I had the eye of a seamstress. That, as time proved, was prophecy.
And yet, Jeff held hard devices as well and believed slavery a Divine Decree to protect the minstrel mind and lazy heathens. He could praise God in one clause and finish the sentence with a flourish about Africans being a mistake of creation. And though he could always muster the tone of noblesse oblige, when he raised his pealing baritone on “The Harp that Once in Tara’s Hall,” it was pure artillery, the sentiment of pearl and velvet set on a backdrop of lead. The world is a mystery I do not pretend to understand.
He was unique, yet even the unhistoried have known of Beauty Stuart and Yellow Tavern, the Gettysburg folly. That swashbuckling idiot. Is it not obvious that he, too, dressed over the line, was a man with the heart of an Amazon, especially when charging a target? Not to mention Pickett. You’ve seen the pictures, his oiled ringlets and peahen posture. He tossed his glossy hair like Danton and curled his handlebar. That posh man was peevish as Jeff, though he lacked the aura of greatness. Oh, he was one of us, I warrant, but he feared his urges and chose to act the paladin with a bully’s swagger, to strut the Italian and deny as he asked his boys to wade into blood for him. And they complied, but who knows if he wore pantaloons with his staff or fondled bombazine with eager fingers? I have seen his merry eye smile over a captured wagon of Union officers’ tunics. In short, what matter? Battle is the soldier’s test and talent, decisiveness, charisma and wisdom the only questions when you judge a commander. Those years under siege, resources frail or none or few, and yet Jefferson Davis kept us to the task, our hope before us. A hurricane in his anger, a mother in forgiveness, he drew strength and vigor from our discipline of masquerade when shells fell into cowering Richmond like the shouts of an angry Lord.
And afterward? I took the new oath of allegiance and accepted pardon. We all signed parole and dispersed, some to Texas, Mexico or the jungles of Cuba. I sold the horse and McClellan saddle, then turned north to my own home country and turned my angry energy to commerce. The nightmare of Reconstruction dragged by like a sledge, but I prospered and earned the price of an education, matriculated, then took my eye for haberdashery to Savannah. No more cunning and guns, just concentration. I specialized in quality broadcloth and saw fresh ways to shape a wing and collar, always wondering what Jim would think, or Jeff himself, of my drawings and the final designs. Fad and fashion, I led instead of followed, imagining black pekin strips of gauze and moive over yellow taffeta.
Soon your grandmother appeared, herself a vision, and we changed the look of women, pioneering the slip, the yoke, wool twills. Aberrations like lamé silk harem pants and the lampshade tunic made me laugh, but I relied on taste and tact to shape the market. The rest is sheer luck and economics.
Jim himself was never angry, though he had seen too much to be soft. It was woodsmoke he smelled of and fresh bread with something else—wild berry? ginger? The sounds of him were a razor scraping as he looked into the blade of a Bowie. Who could forget him spinning the star wheels of his spurs or emitting a low whistle when impressed. He relished stroking the white blaze of his horse’s muzzle and possessed the most lovely untamed tenor, be it hymn or ballad, come-all-ye or courting carol.
That is why we make this journey, to honor him where his stone steadfasts in Chattanooga. Not his body, of course, which Yankees no doubt rolled into some pauper’s pit in Macon at the swamp end of Rose Hill. They have a small river there, but nothing like the one he floated on, wary of rapids, knowing the bends even by starlight, steering his crew wide of the fuel-stop groggeries and grab-alls, the pirate holts and blowdowns where moccasins nested in a writhe knot. He could thread a needle by the light of a goldfinch at midnight. He could soothe wounds and call country doves out of their thickets, but he could shoot like a Boone and lift a grown man over his head. Deep eyes like a doe, a taste for ant-tiny whips of lace, a voice like wing-cooled honey, a mind for details like a quartermaster, and yet the heart of a panther. He was all a man should be, and I never told him, to my shame. A rare breed, boy. The world will not see his kind again.
Even now, though, seeing your tunic’s buttons, I think of the waste and carnage, all the slaughter I saw, the sorrow, and here at the end? The steady thunder of a train in a tunnel, a man’s life fading. Touch the buttons that keep your gabardine closed. Do you know what they are, those rough white half-moons? They’re bone, boy, and don’t ever forget such details by which we’re measured.
This will likely be my last journey. Now here’s a flask and silver cup, as we cross the ridge and descend the mountain. It would please me no end if you would join me in a toast. “A dram to gallant Jim and Jeff himself, together the pride and prize of the Confederacy and my heart.”
I complied and drank deep, as darkness like pleated velvet smothered all but the southbound cadence of the train.
R. T. Smith’s new collection of stories, Uke Rivers Delivers, was published by LSU Press in October, 2006. His stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and three volumes of New Stories from the South. He lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia and edits Shenandoah for Washington and Lee University. He is fond of fiddles, red quarter horses, frog gigging, and Civil War re-enactments, which he observes from a cautious distance.