SUMMARY: Civil War nurse Charlotte Evans uncovers a mystery at a Mississippi plantation during the middle of the war.
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Late July 1863
"Here we are," Alice commented. "Green Willows." She leaned outside the carriage for a better glimpse.
I glanced at the black iron gateway that arched over the driveway. The carved sign that hung from it read GREEN WILLOWS. I struggled to maintain my disappointment. Being forced to give up a comfortable and friendly house in Vicksburg, I did not look forward to staying at some impoverished plantation.
Alice continued, "Charlotte, do you think it will be one of those large mansions? You know, like the ones we've seen along the river." I noticed how her pale blue eyes shined with anticipation. Dear Alice. Over two years of war, sickness and death had not changed her sweet nature one whit.
Before I could answer her question, Miriam replied dourly, "Probably another farmhouse. With the exception of the Bloom home in Vicksburg, we have been staying at nothing but farmhouses.” Her thin, pale face wrinkled with distaste.
Like me, Miriam Rosen was a pessimistic New Englander from Massachusetts and did not look forward to setting up the new hospital. After the Confederate general, John Pemberton, had surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses Grant, my three fellow nurses and I had stayed in the home of one of the city's residents. Most of the townspeople resented the Union presence and did not want four Yankee nurses in their homes. Especially since two of them happened to be colored women – an ex-slave named Alma and myself. Fortunately, Mrs. Emmeline Bloom had been gracious enough to allow us to stay in her home. Because of damp heat of the Mississippi Valley summer and Joseph Johnston's Rebel troops, the number of sick and injured Union troops had risen and there was no more space in Vicksburg. The Sanitary Commission had ordered one of the surgeons, Doctor Henson to set up a temporary field hospital at some plantation south of the city. Miriam, Alma, myself and our own Ohio belle, Alice Campbell, had been ordered by our employers – the United States Sanitary Commission – to accompany him.
As we rode along the tree-lined driveway, I saw that the estate was aptly named. Willow trees and oaks filled with Spanish moss stood everywhere. They drooped gracefully about us, forming a curtain that hid the house from our view ahead. Alice gasped with pleasure as the big house - or should I say mansion - appeared before our eyes. It turned out to be a two-story affair built from whitewashed wood. Square-shaped white pillars stretched across the two galleries around the mansion and the window shutters on both floors were faded green. Although the house looked as if it could use a new coat of paint, I could tell from Alice’s expression that it was the plantation house of her dreams.
I glanced up at a second-floor. A delicate, light-brown face loomed at a window and glanced straight at me. For some unexplainable reason, I shivered. It was the eyes. They looked exactly like mine. That moment of fear soon disappeared as our carriage approached the front of the mansion. A tall man with dark hair and black eyes stood on the veranda steps. I was surprised to notice how young and good-looking he was, despite his thin features. One would expect a man of his age serving the military. Then I noticed that he leaned on the walking cane in his right hand. "May I help you sir?" he asked Major Henson.
The major dismounted from his horse and approached the steps. "Major Emmanuel Henson, at your service, sir. I'm with the U.S. Army Medical Corps."
The man returned the greeting with a graceful bow. "Major Richard Scott, formerly of the 6th Mississippi Brigade." He looked down at his stiff leg. "I had been injured during the second assault at Vicksburg."
Major Henson explained the reason behind our appearance at Green Willows. "Behind us is a company of the 6th Illinois Calvary. I hope our presence here will not inconvenience you or your family."
"It does not matter," Major Scott replied coolly. "I doubt I have any say in the matter." Oh dear. That was all we needed - another hostile Rebel.
Dismissing Scott's sharp remark, Major Henson introduced us as we descended from the carriage. After I stepped down, I caught Major Scott gazing upon me with a curious manner. There was not a trace of hostility or resentment in his dark eyes. So why did he find my presence disturbing? After all, I was not the only colored woman in the group. I decided to dismiss him from my mind, as we followed the major inside the house.
* * * *
The patients who traveled in wagons behind us were scattered across the front yard. One of the remaining slaves in the major's household, a handsome-looking woman named Maum Janey, escorted us to our rooms. Major Henson and another Army doctor named Lieutenant William Anders were assigned to one room. Miriam and Alice shared another, while Alma and I were led to a large room next door. I saw that Maum Janey managed to keep the color and gender lines intact.
Everyone settled down to setting up the hospital. With the help of some men from the 6th Illinois, we managed to set up makeshift tents for the patients and a large one to serve as the operation room for the doctors and nurses. By the end of the afternoon, Major Scott surprised with invitations for the nurses and doctors to join his family for supper. Including Alma and myself. After I had changed into one the only decent outfits I possessed on hand – a Garibaldi white blouse and a deep green wide skirt, I decided to take a small tour of the house. Unfortunately, most of the furnishings were gone, so I did not have much to see. Green Willows must have sustained an earlier visit by the Union troops.
Admiring an attractive whatnot set in a corner of the East Parlor, I gasped as my eyes fell upon a small miniature painting on the second shelf. It was a picture of a young woman with light brown skin and her arms around a white boy with dark eyes. The young woman looked very familiar. She happened to be the same one whose face I had spotted from one of the windows, this morning. It was amazing. The little boy bore a strong resemblance to Major Scott. Which meant that the miniature may have been painted at least twenty years ago. The woman must be well preserved for her age.
Fifteen minutes later, we all sat around a thick, handsomely carved table, inside the sparsely furnished dining room. Major Scott was the only member of the family who joined us for supper. Maum Janey had informed us he was a widower with a six-year old son and a mother who was still alive, but they were not present. His son had already eaten supper. And Mrs. Scott was not inclined to dine with Yankees.
Major Scott engaged in light conversation with Major Hanson, until he faced me. "Tell me Miss Evans,” he said, taking me by surprise, “have you any kin from around here?" I sat between Lieutenant Anders and Alice, who sat at the Mississippian's right. Wary of the major's apparent friendliness, I revealed that my mother had relatives who lived in New Orleans. My grandmother, a member of the Fontenot family, had married met and married a free colored merchant from Boston. "Just down the river, I see. I have an aunt who lives down there. She married a Creole fellow. Are your mother's cousins free persons of color or slaves?"
Now, why did he want to know? Was he attempting to deduce whether I was a fugitive slave or not? I frankly thought it was none of his business and almost told him so, but I held my tongue. "They are free," I answered coolly.
He apologized gracefully. "I did not mean to pry into your past. You see, one of my nursing mammies hailed from Nawlins. Her name was Marie."
I smiled politely. So that was her name. Yet, despite my curiosity, I did not want to be drawn into some conversation about his slaves. What was he going to discuss next? The glorious Southern way of life and how Negroes were suited to it? But the major persisted. "The reason I brought up Marie is that you strongly resemble her. Especially around the eyes. Those Egyptian eyes, my Aunt Cordelia used to say. Did you inherit your features from your mother?"
I now knew the reason behind his curiosity and relaxed. "No Major Scott. From my father's mother."
He turned to face Miriam, when the memory of that brown face at the window suddenly came back to me. "Pardon me, Major Scott, but is this Marie nursemaid to your daughter?"
"Oh no, Miss Evans. Maum Janey now takes care of Brett. Marie had died many years ago. When I was ten." I nearly jolted out of my seat from the revelation. Major Scott sighed ruefully. "Strange. I even remembered the exact date she died. April 9, 1842. One of the saddest days of my life."
I choked on the water I was sipping when he said those words. Marie died on the very day I had been born.
End of Chapter One