Authors: Barbara Hambly
All stories are true, and some actually happened.
It is very hard to deal with someone who is sane
on all subjects but one.
ROBERT TODD LINCOLN,
writing about his mother
RE DUE (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER) TO
Kathy Tabb at the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, KY; James Patton and Barbara Guinan at Lincoln's New Salem; Ed Russo at the Sangamon Valley Collection; Tom Schwartz at the Old Capitol Building in Springfield, IL; John Eden, proprietor of the Long Nine Museum in Athens (pronounced AY-thens), IL; Mr. Wayne Temple for our long phone conversation on the circumstances of the Lincoln marriage; the staff of the library at the Old Capitol Building; the staff of the Library of Congress.
XTRA-SPECIAL THANKS TO
Roger and David at the Mischler House Bed and Breakfast in Springfield; to Managing Editor Kathleen Baldonado for her usual wonderful job of shepherding my manuscript through the production process; to my long-suffering mother for retyping the manuscript when the hard drive crashed; and, as usual, to Kate, for the genesis of the whole project.
Because it was Lincoln's contention that the Confederate States of America had no legal existence—that his reason for assembling an army was to put down a rebellion, not to invade another nation—I have, in all sections written from the viewpoint of Mary Todd Lincoln, referred to the Confederacy and Confederates as “rebels.”
That is her opinion, not mine, and I extend my apology to those whom it offends.
When writing a historical novel, a writer takes as much as possible the voices of those whose lives the book is trying to re-create. It would be as inappropriate to ascribe recognition of the Confederacy to Mrs. Lincoln as it would be to have General Sheridan refer to the Sioux Nation as “Native Americans” instead of “Indians.”
INCOLN WAS THE NICEST THING THAT
happened to John Wilamet on his first day in the Promised Land. This fact did not speak well for his other experiences in that first twenty-four hours of freedom.
For three weeks he'd been working his way north from his master's plantation in Halifax County, Virginia. As a boy he'd been as far as Richmond twice—once, terrifyingly, when Mr. Henry Wilamet, who owned Blue Hill Plantation, had decided to sell him, but he had changed his mind when he couldn't get the price he wanted. Runaways who'd passed through Blue Hill on their way north to Washington City after the fighting started had told John the route. Such knowledge was a whispered undercurrent among the unfree: which back-roads were safest, what the scrawled marks were on back-fences and sheds that meant,
They'll give you food here.
John could have made the journey quicker, but he had his mother with him, two younger sisters, and a tiny brother.
He was fifteen.
It was October, and the corn had long since been harvested. Mounted patrols seemed to be everywhere, north and south of the river, making it far too perilous to thieve from the houses and the barns they passed. Because Southern troops were camped around the railway junction at Manassas John and his family swung wide and crossed the river in a stolen rowboat near Leesburg, then moved cautiously down the Maryland side: John had been warned that most Marylanders were slaveholders who would as soon secede as not. Just because they'd crossed into Union-held territory did not mean they were safe.
“I'm hungry,” whimpered Isaac, who was five. “We gonna have food when we get to Promise Land?”
“We sure will, baby,” their mother assured him, a dangerous sparkle in her eyes. John caught his sister Cassy's wary sidelong glance. Their mother's touchwood temper and bizarre whims had already cost them several days' travel time. Aside from the fact that John had no desire to deal with her ranting herself to exhaustion about what the Promised Land was supposed to be like, you could hear her for miles when she got going. Trying to hush her only made matters worse.
“We'll have food, and shoes, and a cabin all to our own,” she added, her voice rising, and Lucy, who was eight, asked,
“How we know which one's ours?”
“Don't you back-talk your mama! John'll find him some work, cuttin' wood or drivin' a wagon”—John had never driven a wagon in his life and had no idea where his mother had gotten the idea that he could—“and we'll all have chicken an' biscuits, an' quilts on the beds. You girls'll have pretty new dresses....”
Hooves ahead. The woods here were thin, already blazing with the golds and maroons of autumn. The hard blue of uniforms stood out vivid as jewels. John put a hand on his mother's arm to steer her to the cover of the nearest thicket, but she pulled from him, strode toward the soldiers shouting, “What we got to hide? We here in the Promise Land of Freedom!”
No we not, Mama, we in Maryland....
One of the soldiers reached for his rifle at the sight of movement, but holstered it again the next moment. John panted, trying to keep up with his mother—she could go damn fast when she had a head of steam in her—while Cassy drew Lucy and Isaac to the side of the road, ready to vanish like bunnies if they had to.
“This here the road to Washington, sir?” demanded his mother, looking up at the officer. His mother—Phoebe was her name—was a beautiful woman, and even ragged and disheveled had a fey loveliness that drew the men's eyes. John was used to seeing that.
Used, too, to the way most drew back after a closer look.
One of the men spit tobacco over the side of his horse and mumbled, “Damn contrabands. How many does this make today?”
The officer pointed back along the road. “Left-hand fork,” he said, in a curious yapping voice:
sounded almost like
“When you cross Rock Creek, follow the road till you come to the fort: Ask anyone you meet for Fort Barker. You contrabands? Runaways?”
“No, sir,” began John quickly, with a story he'd used before about searching for a lost master, but his mother shook off the hand he'd put on her arm and shrilled,
“Yes, sir! We have run away, run away to freedom!” She swept her arms wide about her, like a raven-haired goddess of the woods.
John flinched—he had no idea what instructions Northern soldiers might have received about runaway slaves—but the officer only shook his head with an air of annoyance. John drew his mother as gently—and as firmly—as he dared along the road in the direction the man had pointed, and said, “Thank you, sir.”
The rider in the back ranks spit again. “Damn contrabands.” The riders went on.
“Why you pullin' me away?” The sharpness of the slap that accompanied the words was less worrisome to John than that hard crazy glitter in Phoebe's eyes. Looking for an argument. Hungering for someone to shout at, the way Mr. Henry's brother Clive would hunger for liquor. “You shouldn't be treatin' your mother like that, when you coming into the Promised Land.”
They smelled Washington City miles before they reached it. Richmond had smelled like that, when they'd circled past it cautiously in the night, and the camps around Manassas railway junction: the reek of thousands of latrine trenches, of countless corrals of horses, cattle, Army mules.
Washington City was a thousand times worse. As they crossed the Rock Creek bridge the first of the Army camps lay jumbled and dirty to the right of the road, row after row after row after
of little round white tents like dirty mushrooms straggling down the brushy hillside. Men in blue uniforms slopped around in mud up to their booted ankles, amid goods-boxes and ambulance-wagons and iron pots slung over campfires. Smoke gritted in the throat. Beyond the camps—and they seemed endless—John saw houses and trees, and farther off a big domed building three-quarters built against the hazy noon sky.
“So this the Promise Land, hunh?” muttered Cassy, though she was careful not to let her mother hear. She was twelve, thin and fine-boned like John, and like John (he reflected gloomily) too smart for her own good. “Don't look so promisin' to me.” On the other side of the road, in weedy fields among thin stands of bright-leaved yellow poplar, lay other camps, smaller and dirtier and less organized than those of the soldiers. Through the open sides of some tents John glimpsed makeshift barrooms, planks laid over barrels and card-games going at crude tables. In other places slatternly women loitered, or lines of laundry hung to dry.
Camp Barker, when they reached it at last, turned out to be like these lesser, unofficial establishments, a vast, messy agglomeration of shanties and rude tents—some no more than blankets stretched over ropes—clustered around the packed earth embankments that in their turn surrounded half a dozen wood buildings. The snubby brown snouts of cannon protruded over the earthen walls and the weedy, trash-littered ground stank of garbage and piss.
There seemed to be no order anywhere. Men crouched over smoldering fires among the ragged willows, arguing in the desultory fashion of those who have little else to do. In a rough board shelter a young woman was suckling a baby.
“This here Camp Barker?” asked John, and she nodded.
“They done give out the food this mornin' already, though,” she added. Her dress was ragged, the faded calico stained by tobacco leaves, like every garment John had ever owned. He guessed she'd been a field hand, like his mother. “It was just soup, and they was so many, most people didn't even get none of that.” She wasn't much older than he, but her eyes were like a tired crone's. Beaten, like those of someone who has come a long hard journey for nothing.
“So what do we do?” John forced cheer into his voice against a dread he could not name. “Where do we go?”
The girl shrugged. “You here.”
“And what you all sittin' around here for?” His mother shoved past him, jabbed a knotted finger at the young woman. “You folks all lazy or somethin'? This here Washington City! This here the Promise Land! Land of milk and honey! You free, and you just sittin' here on your lazy ass?”
The young woman stared at Phoebe in shock, as well she might, reflected John, catching his mother by the arm. “Mama...”
She jerked free of his grip. “Don't you
me! And don't you grab on to me like I was a child!” Her voice pitched high as she rounded on the woman with the baby. “It stink around here! This here the Promise Land, and all you can do is sit out here makin' it stink! We come a thousand miles through the night and through the storm, an' for what? To see a bunch of shiftless folks settin' in the woods...”
People were gathering and John and Cassy tried to pull their mother away. “You turn my own children against me! You gonna call the pate-rollers on us? You gonna send us back?” Phoebe's voice rose to a scream as she fought them. She seemed to get these spells of quick fury more frequently when she was hungry, or worried, or tired. God knew they were all three. Sometimes it seemed to John that his entire life wrapped around his mother's moods like a vine on a stake.
Two or three other runaways came over to them, but backed off when his mother lunged at them, bending to snatch up handfuls of mud, her black Medusa hair tumbling around her shoulders. “Where we get food around here, hunh? This here the Promise Land, they gotta give us food!” Isaac, clinging to Lucy's hand, began to cry.
John and Cassy walked their mother to the outskirts of the camp. In back of the fort near the stink of the sheep-pens, they settled her under a sycamore tree. John talked her quiet, then left her with Cassy and walked down the main road into town. “There got to be some way we can get food,” he reasoned. “Cuttin' kindling or cleaning some white folks' yard, somethin' they'll just give me a little food for.” He felt light-headed with hunger and too tired to go far, but he knew once their mother got an idea in her head, she'd harp and harp at him until he did what she demanded. It was easier to just do it at once.
He didn't think they could get sent back to Halifax County, anyway, and the soldiers hadn't seemed in any tearing hurry to turn them over to Maryland slaveholders.
But after he passed through the muddy Army camps along the road, and came into Washington City itself, he discovered that he wasn't the first contraband to come looking for food or a little work to get food, not by a good long way.
“We fixed here just fine,” said a man curtly—a slave, John thought, or a servant, anyway—who was cleaning gardening tools in the shed of the first yard he asked at.
“There anyplace you know where I could do work for some food?”
The man grunted. The big yellow house, set among shady oak-trees, was a nice one, like the houses in Richmond, though the street in front of it was like a hog-wallow. “I get four–five niggers a day askin' for food, or work if they honest. Ain't the Army take care of you?”
John shook his head, reflecting that it didn't sound like the Army was taking care of those “four–five niggers” a day either.
“Well, we can't take care of you, neither,” the man snapped. He jerked his head back toward the house again. “With all the Army in town food costs somethin' scandalous. My missus say we can't be handin' out no food to them that comes beggin'.”
“I ain't beggin' for food.” John prickled with anger, but kept his voice even. “I'm askin' for work.”
“An' I'm tellin' you we don't got food nor work. An' I'm wore out with people like you comin' up all the time when the Army's supposed to be takin' care of you. Now get along.”
In the alley again John stood still for a moment, his heart beating so hard he could feel it in his ears. He knew his mother's ideas of the Promised Land of Freedom might be exaggerated—a lot of her ideas were—but it had never occurred to him that when they got there, there might not be enough milk and honey to go around.
Or that those who had it wouldn't want to share.
By sunset he'd been turned away from dozens of big white houses along those astonishingly wide streets and any number of the humbler two-room cottages of the free colored in the alleys. Sometimes roughly, sometimes politely, or with sympathy and pity, and admonitions to “let the Army take care of you”—presumably with the small amount of soup the woman at the camp had spoken of. Two or three housewives gave him food—heel-ends of bread and table-scraps—but it wasn't enough to satisfy one person, let alone five. The autumn afternoon had turned chilly, with a nip to the wind. Harsh cookfire smoke mingled with the ever-present stench of the Army camps that lay everywhere over the city, and as he trudged the wide sloppy street back to where he hoped the fort and Camp Barker lay, he felt a stab of longing for the simplicity of life on the run.
After weeks in the variegated stillness of the woods, he found the
constant rumbling passage of wagons and ambulances confusing, almost painful. Raised on a rural plantation where he saw no one but the same hundred and fifty people he'd known all his life, he felt as if time had somehow speeded up. There were people everywhere, strangers walking and riding and driving buggies and carriages that he had to watch out for, stray dogs snapping at him, walls and fences like a dizzying dirty labyrinth. Too much movement, too many new things coming at him too fast. The stink of the town was awful, the noise a disorienting clamor in his ears.