Western Rifle Shooters Association

Do not give in to Evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it

Friday, June 13, 2008

Vanderboegh: Poor White Boys - The Past as Future

(The conclusion of a chapter in Mike Vanderboegh's upcoming novella, "Absolved". Written to the tune of “Star of the County Down” by Clinch River Pearl)

February 28: The Deacon's Grandson

“The Revolutionary War in the southern states has received little attention in comparison to the detailed study given the campaigns in the North. This is unfortunate since much decisive action took place there, but perhaps the nature of the struggle accounts for the historians’ neglect. The heroes of the southern fighting were not the officers of the Continental army but rather the natural leaders of the people, who had learned their skills in the continuing effort to seize the land of the Indians.

By achieving better perspective of the past, something may be accomplished in the present. For the hero of this book has fallen on evil times. He is called various unflattering names today and is the butt of comic-strip buffoonery and the ‘villain’ of serious novels. Because he remains an individualist, he is a safe target.

There’s nothing new in this attitude, of course. In the Revolutionary War period, he was sneered at by the rich merchants of the lowlands, he was held in contempt by the Continental army’s high command, and he was considered less than human by the British. Major Patrick Ferguson called him a bandit, a barbarian, a mongrel. He had little respect for law and order. He could be quite ruthless. He was also superstitious and at times naïve. Yet Theodore Roosevelt could write of him:

‘The fathers followed Boone or fought at King’s Mountain; the sons marched south with Jackson to overcome the Creeks; the grandsons died at the Alamo.’

And, it should be added, the great-grandsons provided Lee and Johnson with the best fighting infantry the world had yet seen. Poorly clothed, half-starved, they responded magnificently to magnificent leadership and almost won America’s second civil war as their forefathers had won the first.

Moreover, in wars since, they have always been the cutting edge. As F.N. Boney, the Georgia historian, puts it: ‘There is no shortage of rednecks in the neat, quiet American military cemeteries which now dot the globe. However rejected in normal times, the redneck has always been welcomed when the nation went to war.’

Peace is the dream today, and the redneck shares that dream. For him it was often a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” He never started a war, but he was always ready when his home and personal liberty were threatened. And because of the readiness to do his duty, this nation was founded and kept alive….

Given proper leadership, the mountain man can still be motivated. But in recent years such leadership has been largely lacking. The potential remains untapped, but it is there. As my father used to say in Happy Valley-- you may turn the damper up, you may turn the damper down, but the smoke goes up the chimney just the same.”

-- Hank Messick, King’s Mountain, 1976.

It was Will Shipman’s 51st birthday, not that he felt like celebrating. The weather was cold, the coffee was cold, he had a cold and his wife had been acting cold as a brass monkey all week. Will knew why Mary was mad at him, but there was little he could do about it. Sometimes you’re just stuck with the duty, whether you want it or not. Mary didn’t understand that. Well, maybe she understood it, but that didn’t mean she had to like it and she had never been shy about saying what she thought. Heck, that was one of the reasons Will had married her in the first place. Although, Will reflected, it had been a lot more endearing when they had been in their twenties than it was now in their fifties.

“Sometimes you’re just stuck with the duty.” His old shooting buddy Phil Gordon had told him that late one night on one of the rare times they'd spoken about Vietnam. William Sheats Shipman had been too young to participate in the "Southeast Asia War Games," and one night while sitting at the campfire after an unsuccesful day on the deer stands, Will asked the older man what it had been like. Uncharacteristically, Phil Gordon told him. Probably because he considered Will like a younger brother, Shipman thought.

The Shipmans and the Gordons had been kin-close for generations, almost 200 hundred years now, Will realized with a start. Both families traced their ancestry back to two men who had marched with Andy Jackson in the Creek War. Together they had helped avenge the Fort Mims massacre, and at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend they had broken the power of the Red Stick Creeks forever. Hezekiah Shipman and John MacKenzie Gordon had served under Colonel Coffee and his sergeant of scouts, the legendary David Crockett of Tennessee. One thing about following Davy Crockett around - each had learned to count on the other man's skills and they had saved each others' life so many times they had lost count.

After the fighting ended, they each took the 160 acres of free land that the cash-poor government had offered the veterans in lieu of pay, and had tramped over north Alabama looking for parcels they liked. Finally they made their hatchet marks on trees bounding 320 acres in what became Winston County, Alabama.

Being Indian fighters, and with the memory of the burned stockade at Fort Mims fresh in their nostrils, they picked defensible high ground above some of the richest bottom land in the area (not that there was much of that), building cabins hard by each other, each straddling the property line within rifle shot.

It was inevitable that a Gordon daughter would marry a Shipman son, formalizing kinship ties that had first been forged in battle. Succeeding generations of Gordon and Shipman sons went off to the wars of their country (and, once, the war came to them). The lucky ones came back. But even if they didn't, there were always sons left to shoulder the rifles the next time their country called.

Will had joined up too, in his time, and as an up-and-coming NCO, helped rebuild the Army after the disaster of Vietnam. He enjoyed making a difference. You could just FEEL the Army regain its bearings and its honor, especially after Ronald Reagan became President. Will decided that he would be a "lifer."

But God had different ideas.

There were a lot of screw-ups during the Grenada operation that were never really publicized. Will Shipman got caught in one of them. By the time he left Walter Reed, he was rated unfit for further service and let go with an honorable discharge and "the thanks of a grateful nation." He never talked about it, even with family. Mary knew, of course, and Phil Gordon, but that was it.

Once, for his birthday, Mary had framed his Purple Heart. It was beautiful to everyone except Will Shipman, who was reminded once again of the shipwreck of his hopes. He put it in his desk drawer, and never hung it on his den wall as Mary had intended, an act that he knew hurt her feelings.

He had made a good life, though, after the Army and Mary was happy for the change. She had followed him dutifully from one dilapidated post to another during his short career. She'd paid her dues and Will knew that without a doubt, Mary was happier now than she had ever been, with the kids married off and grandkids popping up every year or so. Which was why, Will knew, that she was so upset about what must come next.

Lord, Will spoke in silent prayer looking at gathering gloom of the winter sky, I sure wish I had Phil here to talk this over with. After the ATF had murdered Phil Gordon (and Will Shipman had no doubt it was murder, even if Phil had made it a poor trade for them) he had wanted to go to war again. He got ready and so did his friends, the ones he knew he could count on.

But the country -- shocked by the body count Phil had left among his attackers, confused by the media lies that criminalized him and his poor family afterward, or (like Will) shocked into the sudden realization of how ill-prepared they were for a war that they should have seen coming and reluctant to resume the shooting until they WERE ready -- well, the country was holding its breath.

But everyone knew this phony peace could not last.

The Governor had said so too. Invoking the old notion of the "doctrine of interposition," he had warned the Feds that there would be no more Sipsey Streets in his state. Several southern and western states' governors did the same. The Alabama Department of Public Safety was no longer cooperating with their federal counterparts. In retribution, federal matching funds for everything from highways to welfare was cut off.

Right now the Governor had half of the state police intelligence unit keeping track of the movements and probable intentions of every federal policeman in Alabama. A state grand jury was sitting at that very moment, hearing evidence that the Attorney General -- the first African American to hold the job and a staunch defender of the Second Amendment -- was hoping would lead to a murder case against the ATF. All indications were that the Feds, for their part, intended to indict the Governor for failing to obey the new federal laws passed in the wake of Phil Gordon's personal Little Big Horn. There were even rumors that the Feds were trying to engineer a political coup d'etat in favor of the Lieutenant Governor who was a pro-administration Democrat toady.

Will thought it was like being in a bar room, faced off against a bunch of yay-hoos, waiting for the beer bottle to topple off the table and set the brawl off with a crash. You could see it tipping, but you couldn't do a thing to stop it. But if the Governor meant to stand between Phil Gordon's murderers and the people of Alabama, Will Shipman would stand with him.

So even if Mary didn’t like or understand it, Will Shipman was stuck with the duty. And if ever he felt like shirking it, Will just couldn’t do it. The ghost of Phil Gordon, among others, wouldn’t let him.

1861-1865: Aunt Jenny and the Ghosts of Winston County

Now Will Shipman was a man of many parts, as some folks say. Depending upon how you reckoned it, he was a husband, a father and grandfather, a hard-worker, a devout church-going man, a Civil War reenactor, a registered voter, a disabled veteran, a former Republican and a man whose opinions were respected by most all who knew him. He had an easy-going manner and nothing much got him excited, although he was mighty upset and morally offended about how the country had been going lately, even before the Battle of Sipsey Street.

But he also was a man with a secret and a duty. The duty was tied up with the secret and vice versa, or “vicey versey” as they say in Winston County. Truth be told, Will Shipman WAS Winston County, and Winston County WAS Will Shipman. You couldn't understand the future of the one, without understanding the past of the other.

As I said, Will’s family had been in Winston County just about since God made dirt, settling over in the western part of the county near Natural Bridge. The natural bridge itself (that is the rock bridge, not the town named after it) was beautiful then and now despite all the bloody history that has gone on around it. It is the longest natural bridge east of the Mississippi, spanning some 148 feet. Over 60 feet high and 33 feet wide, you must walk beneath the bridge among the wild magnolias, snowball bushes, rare ferns, mountain laurel and Canadian hemlock trees in order to appreciate the awesome beauty of its size. Indians sheltered under it long before the Will Shipman’s ancestors came, and it was Will’s favorite place in the whole world. Sitting beside the ferns In the quiet of a warm afternoon, the glade seemed to be his own private Eden. He had courted Mary beneath the stone bridge, and he proposed to her atop its arch not long after he got back from Basic Training.

But if the natural bridge and Winston County were beautiful, and they were, it was a terrible beauty nonetheless. Only someone raised in Winston County knew or cared about the particulars of the darker side of history in those parts. There was plenty of it. The Byler Road, the first state highway in Alabama, ran right by Natural Bridge and connected the Tennessee and Tombigbee river valleys. Completed in 1822, the road was only slightly less infested with hijackers and highwaymen than its more notorious cousin, the Natchez Trace. An incautious man traveling the Byler Road could find himself at dusk on a lonely stretch and never be seen again.

Even without the highwaymen, Winston was a harsh place to try to make a go of it. First of all, the county is “mostly up and down and very little sideways” as one pioneer put it. The topography of Winston County varies from rolling and hilly to rough and mountainous. God had covered the county with huge, deep-green forests, consisting of oak, poplar, beech, chestnut, sorghum, holly and shortleaf pine. Yet the soil was so poor that the yeomen farmers who settled there scratched out a bare subsistence at best. Even in places where the soil was sufficient for the growing of crops, the unpredictable weather, especially the rains, stunted the growth of cotton, the principal cash crop in the 19th century. Consequently, the production of corn made the most hard cash for the settlers, especially when turned into whiskey. Bootlegging is an ancient and honorable trade in Winston County: always has been, and likely always will be. Although, it must be admitted that by the first decade of the 21st Century, the modern criminal class in the mountain regions of the South had long since graduated to marijuana and crystal methamphetamine as far more lucrative cash crops.

But as tough as life was for settlers in Winston County in peacetime, the Civil War seared the county and its people and forever changed them and defined them as proud and defiant survivors. Will knew all the stories. Many of his ancestors on both sides of his family had killed, and had been killed in turn fighting for the Union or simply for the right to live and be left alone.

Back before the turn of the 21st century, Will had picked up a book called “Bushwhackers” about the war in the mountains of North Carolina. It was one of his favorites because the descriptions of what went on in the Tarheel state mirrored what had happened to his own people. William R. Trotter introduced his history with this passage, which Will Shipman recalled word for word, he had read it so many times:

“The events that happened in the mountain counties. . . furnish a microcosmic view of the Civil War’s effects. The fighting, the suffering, and the dying all took place on an individual scale, and there is a recognizably human profile to the drama. You can tell this much from the way the Civil War period remains alive in the generational memories and oral traditions of the mountain region. This certainly includes, but goes far beyond, the still-vivid demarcations between Republican and Democratic voting patterns in certain counties. For mountain families whose roots go back far, the collective memories do not stop with the stories of those who fell at Gettysburg or suffered at the hands of Sheman’s invaders. When they speak of the Civil War, they also speak of the dark night on a backwoods lane when great-great grandfather was cut down by bushwhackers, or of that raw frontier morning when great-great grandmother stood on the front porch of her cabin and watched a patrol of Thomas’ Legion — full-blooded Cherokee warriors hot with youth and heritage — ride whooping through a patch of morning sunlight with fresh Unionist scalps dangling from their saddle horns.

It was a personal kind of war, up in the mountains. It produced its share of heroes and more than its share of bloody-handed villains. The fighting took place in a different dimension than the organized battles on the main fronts, where huge formations of uniformed men fired massed volleys at other huge formations of distant, faceless, uniformed men. In the mountains, there was little of that long-range impersonal killing. In the mountains, the target in your gunsight was not a nameless figure a thousand yards away, positioned at the other end of a smoke-obscured battlefield crowded with regiments. Indeed, he was an individual human being with a clear and unique face, and he was, all too many times, a man whose identity and home you had known since childhood. When you pulled the trigger on such a man, you did not leave a heap of distant bones—one more swollen, powder-blackened piece of carrion among hundreds, heaped on the same acreage. You left a dead man whose wife and children you probably knew by name. . .

The war in the mountains may not have been large, but it was vicious, and it took place on an all-too-human scale. . . It was this kind of war in the mountains: The killers had names, their victims had kin, and everybody owned a gun.”

Now, going on a century and a half later, neither the descendants of the killers nor the descendants of the victims had forgotten a thing. And heck, everybody in Winston County still owned a gun, Will thought with a chuckle, most of us own more than one. Some of us own a LOT more than one.

Will had been raised on the stories of the “Free State of Winston.” What was it somebody had said of the Irish? They had forgotten nothing of history and learned nothing from it, either… something like that. Well, Will Shipman hadn’t forgotten where he and his kin came from, but whether he had learned something from history, well, that remained to be seen.

The “Free State of Winston” got its name from the turmoil in the region at the opening of the War Between the States. The county, like several of the mountainous counties of northern Alabama had sent anti-secession delegates to the secession convention down in Montgomery and they had been as popular with the planters who ran the convention as a fart in church. A Winston County delegate, Christopher Sheats, had been thrown in the Montgomery County Jail because he refused to change his vote.

After the Jefferson Davis declared the Confederacy on the steps of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Chris Sheats was let out of jail. He returned to Winston County an older and wiser man, but no less determined to oppose secession. The mountain folk held a meeting after Chris Sheats' release and passed a resolution declaring that if the Confederacy left them alone, they would leave the Confederacy alone.

Dick Payne, one of the few secessionists at the meeting, sneered “Ho, ho! Winston County secedes! The ‘Free State of Winston.’”

Sneering aside, the people of the hills of north Alabama sincerely hoped that they could continue to live in peace, undisturbed by a war they wanted no part of. It was not to be. Two new laws of the Confederacy saw to that.

The first was the draft law. Conscription parties made up of the Home Guard and draft officers came up into the hills looking for recruits, willing or unwilling. After the first young men were shanghaied, the mountaineers either got of the way of the conscription parties or ambushed them. The fact that the planters exempted themselves from the draft made it easier for the mountain dwellers to resist. This was called the “20 nigger rule”. If a planter could show ownership of 20 slaves, they were exempt from the draft. To men who had been arguing that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight, this law merely proved their point.

The second, and worse ordinance as far as the mountaineers saw it, was the tax-in-kind law. This law said that every citizen of the Confederacy was obliged to pay taxes for the support of the army, and it they couldn’t afford to pay money, they would have to pay “in kind”, that is a portion of their livestock and crops. To the subsistence farmers of the hills, a visit from the Home Guard to take their hogs or milk cow could mean starvation for their family. Coming from a government that the hill folk refused to believe in the legitimacy of any way, this was mere thievery. It was too bad for the Home Guard, but stealing from poor folks with guns has always been a dangerous task. And the Winston County folks not only wouldn’t be pushed around, but they had a highly refined sense of personal justice.

Will Shipman knew all the stories, but not until the book and movie Cold Mountain had the Confederate Home Guards ever been portrayed to the larger nation as the thieving murderers that they were. Will liked that movie a lot. His ancestors had killed more than few Home Guards and he was proud of it.

Will was also related to Aunt Jenny Brooks, and he was even prouder of that. The story of Aunt Jenny was just one of the legends to come out of the war in the mountains, but as Will Shipman well knew, it was true. He had seen the hickory stick.

Will had heard the story of Aunt Jenny Brooks told many times by many folks, but the first time anybody had put it to paper was back in the nineteen thirties when Carl Carmer related what old Tom Knox told him:

“’When I knew her,’ said Tom, ‘she was a little dried-up ol’ woman but she had talkin’ blue eyes. She run this county like she was queen of it. Nobody ever candidated round here without she said so. When they had the War Between the States a lot o’ people in these parts felt like they. . .didn’t want to fight for rich folks in the Black Belt so’s they could have niggers do their work for ‘em free. Folks in this county was pretty well fixed then. They was makin’ liquor the same as now, and the lumber companies hadn’t cut over the woods an’ druv away the game an’ spiled the land. So Henry Brooks, Aunt Jenny’s husband, said he wasn’t goin’ to be a soldier, he was satisfied to stay right here an’ mind his own business.’”

“Not long after that a party of Confederates came up into the hills to force men into their army. Henry Brooks wouldn’t run from ‘em when they come to his house but he fought when they tried to take him away an’ they shot him dead. Aunt Jenny’s four boys was little shavers then but she got ‘em all out o’ bed an’ made ‘em swear on the dead body of their pa that they’d kill the men that shot him. Well, sir, in the next forty year they got ever’ one of ‘em. They kep count with notches on a hickory stick. Aunt Jenny had three of ‘em herself. One was for the leader. She cut his head off an’ cooked it till it was jest a skull an’ made it into a soap dish. She used it ever’ day, an’ jest a minute before she died she washed her hands in it for the last time.’”

The last shots of the extended feud that began with the murder of Henry Brooks were fired in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, in 1904. In the end, all of the men who participated in the killing of Aunt Jenny’s husband were dead, along with a considerable number of their sons, brothers and friends. Aunt Jenny outlived ‘em all. Jenny sure enough kept count, Will knew - he had seen that hickory stick. The skull soapdish had come up missing over the years. His Daddy had said it had apparently been buried by church-going niece of Jenny's who thought it looked satanic, half-grinning at her from the mantle piece over the fireplace.

After the battle of Shiloh brought the Federal army into the Tennessee River Valley, the menfolk of Winston County and the other surrounding mountain counties went down to enlist. The 1st Alabama Union Cavalry Regiment was mustered into service at Corinth, Mississippi in 1863 and served with distinction till the end of the war. Their fellow Alabamians called them traitors and tories and mossbacks and other names unfit to print.

The men of the Free State of Winston didn’t care what they were called as long as they were left alone. No one pushed them around. No one. As far as they were concerned, you messed with mountain folk at your own peril. If the Confederates had lost the war, and along with it most everything they owned or held dear, well, the mountaineers figured the planters had asked for it and they deserved what they got. Of course after Reconstruction ended and the planter class took back over, things went hard for Winston County. But things had always been hard up in the hills, and if the unionists regretted the decision they had taken, they didn’t tell their descendants about it.

But, oh, the stories they had left - some like Aunt Jenny’s and some that were worse.

Will Shipman shivered and gathered in the wool blanket tighter around him. Oughta throw another log or two on the fire. Gettin’ too old for this re-enacting stuff. It had been all right when the sun was shining, the blue wool uniform helped maintain his body heat. But the sun was gone now, and the naked trees around the campsite flickered in and out of the darkness like the ghosts that some said still haunted these parts.

There was Mitch Kennedy, who was shot dead by the Home Guards and whose body was pretty well ate up by the hogs before his sickly wife could get help to bury him. And poor Henry Tucker, on leave from the First Alabama Union Cavalry, who Stoke Roberts and the other Confederate Home Guards had staked to a tree, cutting off a piece of him at a time while a slow fire tickled his naked feet. Roberts had finished him by cutting out his liver and eating it, they said. They left him there, staked to that tree. But Tucker’s neighbors and kin had caught up with Roberts later and did the same things to him that he had done to Henry, stroke for stroke. They didn't eat him though, because they were Christians after all.

All the ghosts from the war, all the evil, Will Shipman thought. It was easy enough in the gathering gloom to believe they still stalked through these dancing trees in winter, looking for the justice in death that they had been denied in life. Will guessed that was why he had become a civil war re-enactor to begin with. It was his own way of letting the ghosts know that they were not forgotten. And some of those ghosts were family. He didn’t need to play soldier like some other re-enactors in Company C seemed to. He’d been a real soldier, in a real war, even if it had been a little one. So long ago and far away it seemed now.

Yet he still had trouble with night skirmishes. He wouldn’t do them, even now. The flashes and bangs in the night brought back too many personal demons, too much memory. That was one thing he had discovered. Sometimes, you can remember too much.

Corporal Dan Cutter, who was an advertising account executive in Birmingham during the week, emerged from his A-frame tent wrapped in a federal pattern greatcoat, fiddle in his right hand and a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish Whisky in his left. Bushmill’s, the toast of the cavalry.

Cutter came over and sat down on the hardtack box next to his captain.

“Have a pull, Captain?” the fiddler asked, offering the bottle to Will.

“Thanks,” Shipman said, unscrewing the cap and taking a sip. “Just don’t tell my wife,” Will added, handing back the bottle.

Cutter grinned, “I’m the soul of discretion, sir,” and took a pull himself.

Replacing the cap, the corporal set down the bottle between them on the cold earth.

“Would ye like a tune, Captain?” said the fiddler in his best fake-Irish brogue.

“Sure,” said Will, “Anything.”

Cutter put the fiddle to his chin and struck up “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” The mournful tune echoed in the dead woods and by ones and twos, other men and boys of Company C, 1st Alabama Union Cavalry Regiment gathered around the fire, listening.

Will Shipman ignored them, staring out into the trees, deep in thought about his wife, Phil Gordon, the country and his duty. Yep, he was stuck with the duty, that was sure. His daddy had stuck him with the duty, just like his grandpa had stuck his daddy with it. His daddy had been off to the war when the whole thing had happened. When he got back, Will guessed it had been five or six years before Grandpa Shipman had told his son about what was in the old mine. Both a burden and a legacy, the secret passed from generation to generation and now it was his. And the times being what they were, it was getting close to the time when Will Shipman was going to have to open up that dark shaft and deal with his deadly inheritance.

“Bonaparte’s Retreat” ended, and Tommy Curtis sat down with his dulcimer beside Cutter on a large piece of cut firewood.

“Star of the County Down?” Cutter asked.

Curtis nodded, and they struck up the tune by Clinch River Pearl. The music was beautiful but, if anything, sadder than “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Music fit for ghosts, Will thought. They probably approved the serenade, at that.

1945: The Preacher, the Deacon and the Boxcar

His daddy had told him how the family came to have the responsibility. The Preacher Luke hadn’t known about his son’s last caper until after the funeral. His no-account brother-in-law Curtis Stampp had sidled up to him at the cemetery after the service.

The bootlegger made his condolences and then asked the Preacher if Matthew Mark Luke had called him before his death. The question took the preacher by surprise, and the obvious interest of his wife’s brother in the last days of his son instantly worried him.

“No,” said the preacher. “Did you?” He fixed the bootlegger with his best right-hand-of-God look.

“Uh, naw,” stammered the bootlegger. “I was jest wondering if’n you’d heard from him.”

“No,” said Parson Luke, still suspicious.

“Uh, well, I’m sure sorry about the boy. I know y’all didn’t get along but I always liked him.”

The preacher just looked at the bootlegger, and tried to remember that he was commanded to love the sinner but hate the sin. With his brother-in-law, that was especially difficult.

It was two days later, when he’d heard from his wife and other family members that Stampp was asking around about Matt Luke and some sort of railroad boxcar, that the preacher began to suspect that his brother-in-law might have had something to do with his son’s death. But it was his experience with Captain Harrison Fordyce, United States Army, that made him certain of it.

Fordyce roared into the little town of Natural Bridge like General Patton four days after the mortal remains Matthew Mark Luke were laid to rest. Accompanied by three MPs, with the Winston County Sheriff and a state police captain in tow, Fordyce arrived at the little parsonage in a Dodge staff car with all the politeness of a Sherman tank. Fordyce was a fast-talking, nasal New England Yankee, with all that implies to a southerner. He was in a position of authority and was used to getting his own way. He was also in a lot of hot water with his superiors over the missing boxcar and the botched investigation. This did not improve his humor nor did it do anything for his manners. And manners are important in Winston County.

Without polite preamble, the captain began to grill the preacher and his wife over their son’s misdeeds, the missing boxcar, and their duty in time of war to assist the government in retrieving property their son had stolen. Not knowing any of this, Mrs. Luke broke down into tears and was so distraught that even hardboiled Capt. Fordyce allowed her to flee to her bedroom while he continued the interrogation of the parson.

Preacher Luke was unhelpful to the CID captain. How could he be otherwise? His son had hardly shared the fact that he was a gambler, bootlegger and whoremaster. Captain Fordyce thought differently, and wondered if a few days in jail might jog the parson’s memory. Not trusting the sheriff, Fordyce asked the state police captain to take the preacher under arrest to Birmingham, where he was lodged for four long days and nights. Fordyce had learned something though. Before taking Preacher Luke into custody, he made sure that the minister did not suffer from claustrophobia.

The incarceration did not improve the preacher’s memory, as indeed it could not, and it didn’t improve his opinion of the government, either. From the very first minute of Fordyce’s Gestapo tactics, Preacher Luke had determined he would tell the overbearing captain nothing. In fact, he decided that if he ever did find out about this mysterious boxcar, Fordyce was likely to be the last person he called.

Turned out of Birmingham Jail without an apology or a ride, the preacher made his own way back to Winston County, determined never to leave there until the Lord called him Home. But he was also determined to find out about the boxcar and what relationship it had with his son and his crooked brother-in-law.

The day Parson Luke was let out of jail in Birmingham, Deacon Warren Shipman was out hunting when his coon dogs hit on the trail of a raccoon that cut across the old Sipsey Coal Company mine tipple on the far corner of the preacher’s property. The Reverend Luke owned more than 240 acres that he had inherited on the death of his Uncle Jeremiah. Jeremiah had sold the mineral rights for a song back in the 1890s, and in the Twenties the West Sipsey Coal Company had sunk a number of shafts looking for the black rock to feed the growing steel industry in the Birmingham industrial district. The coal company had some success, but then ran into water and methane, the twin banes of the coal miner’s existence.

In 1930, a gas explosion killed two men and the blast caused the lower levels of the mine to flood. Hammered by the depression in addition to the disaster, the company folded. The last thing it did was wall off the lower level, board up the mine entrance and post it with big warning signs. Creditors came and hauled off the equipment and the abandoned mine buildings were dismantled over the next decade bit by bit to provide bricks and wood for other construction in the county. By 1945, the only things left to show there had been a mine there was the abandoned tipple and the railroad track spur which led in from the main line.

So it was that when Deacon Shipman came around the tipple, chasing his dogs who were chasing the ‘coon, he came face to face with the boxcar sitting on the siding and stopped short. The deacon took a look at the lock on the door, saw the US markings and knew even before he looked that this was the boxcar the preacher had been thrown in jail over. Mrs. Luke had told him all about it. But the baying dogs were growing fainter in the distance, so Deacon Shipman grabbed up his shotgun and continued on the hunt. But he’d tell the preacher about this as soon as he saw him.

It took the preacher the better part of a day to get back to Winston County and his frantically worried wife. The next morning he rose to discover that there was little kindling left in the box so the Reverend Luke commenced to splitting some more out back. It was here that the Deacon Shipman found him and imparted the news about the mysterious boxcar.

“Warren, I want you to promise that you won’t say a word to anybody about this,” said the Reverend.

“Preacher, after what they put you through, I won’t tell a soul. But what are you gonna do with it?” asked the deacon.

“I don’t know, Warren. Let’s us go take a look in it.” So they took a sledge and chisel from the preacher’s barn to use on the lock and hiked back to the mine.

Deacon Warren Shipman remembered the moment they rolled back the door on that boxcar for the rest of his life. Not so much for the fact of what it contained, but for the words that blurted out of his preacher’s mouth.

“Well I’ll be dipped in shi….” Parson Luke caught himself at the last instant. He hadn’t always been a preacher of the Holy Word, and the curse from his sinful youth had just popped out. The deacon stared at his pastor, shocked to the soles of his shoes.

Reverend Luke’s face flushed a deep purple. “I’m sorry, Warren, I just…” His voice trailed off. So this was what his son had died for. After Fordyce’s litany of Matt’s alleged sins down at Aliceville, the preacher had few illusions about what his son had been up to. Reverend Luke also knew that his low-life no-account brother-in-law was involved in this business up to his eyeballs. Well, his son had stolen this war material, that much was plain, and by rights it ought to go back to the government.

But the last representative of the United States government that the good reverend had encountered was that nasty Yankee, Captain Fordyce. What right did the captain have, terrorizing his wife like that? And by what right had the CID man thrown him in jail on no evidence, for that matter? The minister still faced the next Sunday service, and the deacon board afterward, when he would have to explain to everyone the extent of his son’s misdeeds and his own involvement. Would the congregation believe him when he told them he had nothing to do with it, despite the fact that the Army had him arrested? He thought they would, but already the gossipy old biddies were making up stories about what they did not know.

To turn the boxcar back to Fordyce was like ratifying that the CID man had a right to do what he did. When the captain had explained to him how his son had died, the Reverend Luke knew it was true. The boy always did have a terror of small spaces. And wasn’t that his fault? But the guilt and the shame and the anger worked on him at cross purposes without decision. What should he do? If he didn’t give the boxcar back to Fordyce, he’d be stealing too, wouldn’t he? And there was never a thought of letting Curtis Stampp have the proceeds of his criminal conspiracy.

His son was dead and buried. The precious son he had held so proudly the day of his birth had gone. Somewhere he had gone astray, and now all the hopes and dreams the preacher had for his son were gone, too. Gone and buried. Buried, the Reverend Luke thought. Yes, that’s it, buried.

He turned to his head deacon and explained what he wanted to do with the contents of the boxcar. They had been friends since the age of twelve, grew up together, hunted and fished together, raised cain on Saturday nights together, found the Lord at the same camp meeting together, and settled down to their lives in Winston County together. Warren Shipman was probably more outraged than the preacher over what had been done to him and his wife by that stinking Yankee.

“Yup, Jim, I’ll help you. But it’s going to be a big job and I don’t think we’d better bring anybody else in on it. It’d better be just you an’ me. We ought not tell our wives either.” The preacher nodded. “We’re gonna need some tools,” the deacon went on. “A team of mules an’ a flat bed freight wagon and a snatch block. There’s enough timber around here to do the job, but it’s gonna take a while. What bothers me is what are we gonna do with the boxcar once we get it unloaded? That shiftless sheriff is gonna come nosing around here one of these days and how are you gonna explain THAT?” Shipman pointed at the huge railroad car.

“I don’t know, Warren,” replied the reverend. “I’ll think on it.”

February 28: The Duty

“Star of the County Down” ended on its last, mournful notes. The deacon’s grandson awoke from his reverie. He was still cold.

“Cutter, you’re depressin’ me with all that scratchin’ fit for a funeral. Can’t you do better than that?”

“What did ya have in mind, Captain?” asked the fiddler.

Shipman looked around at his comrades gathered round the fire.

Little Jimmy Flynn offered, “How ‘bout ‘Poor White Boys’, Cap’n?”

The men agreed, Shipman could see. It was the 1st Alabama Union Cavalry’s unofficial marching song. It was also know as “The Perfect Penultimate Grayback Piss-off Song.”

“Cutter,” said the captain, “Do you know ‘Poor White Boys’?”

“Captain, is the Governor a Baptist?”

“Yeah, I reckon he is.”

“Well, all right then,” said the fiddler and began to scratch out the tune of “Bonnie Blue Flag”, that most sacred of Confederate battle songs, only the words the boys of the “Thirsty First” sang along with the music would have horrified the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“We are a band of planters, unfaithful to our wives,
Fighting for our property, but frightened for our lives.
So when our rights are threatened, our cry goes near and far:
Send us a million poor white boys to fight our wicked war!
Hurrah! Hurrah! For planter’s rights Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!”

The Bushmills’ bottle came up again, making the rounds, sloshing into tin cups.

“Ye men of valor gather ‘round, and help us in our plight.
Old Abe’s freed the dark-skinned girls with whom we spend the night.
And just because ye have no slaves, we’ll give you one or two,
As long as you help us in our fight against the Yankee crew.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For planter’s rights Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!”

In between the verses, the cups were upended, burning throats, and the singing got louder if not more melodious.

“Of course we know that you won’t fight for rich men’s property,
You hardly have enough to eat to feed your family.
So ‘state’s rights’ is the banner we choose to lead your ranks,
And now we won’t repay our loans to all those Yankee banks!
Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll profit more, Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!”

As the verse ended, Corporal Klingman, already half-lit from his private stock when the Bushmills began its journey and who was standing with his left boot on a piece of firewood, stumbled when it rolled under him and he almost fell into the fire. His friends roared with laughter, and resumed singing, but the beginning of the next verse was a little ragged.

“But when the long roll beckons and you all fall into line,
Of all the many faces there you surely won’t see mine.
I’ve business to attend to, and I’m certainly no fool.
I’ll stay right here and hide behind the ‘Twenty Nigger Rule.’
Hurrah! Hurrah! For planter’s rights Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!”

Their voices echoed down the glen, through the naked trees. If there were indeed Unionist ghosts out there, they liked the tune.

“We’ve mountain loads of cotton that’s already been picked,
Bought by the Confed’racy, unable to be shipped.
Jeff Davis says to burn it, but the Yanks’ll buy we’re told.
We’ll compromise our principles, IF THEY PAY IN GOLD!
Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll profit more, Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!”

The bottle came ‘round to Shipman again, but the captain declined to take another drink, handing it off to First Sergeant Williams, who took a healthy slug, even by cavalry standards.

“And when the war is over, and our independence won,
We’ll host a celebration for those left alive to come.
There’ll be food and drink aplenty and our daughters there to charm,
Engaged to other planter’s sons WHO NEVER LEFT THE FARM!
Hurrah! Hurrah! For planter’s rights Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!

Hurrah! Hurrah! For planter’s rights Hurrah!
Hurrah for the poor white boys who fight our rich man’s war!”

The re-enactors of the First Alabama cheered and hooted and huzzahed. This was their song and they loved it. Their forefathers had despised the Confederacy and this was their way of letting everybody know that if it was good enough for their great- great- granddaddies then it was good enough for them.

Somebody yelled “Minstrel Boy!” and the fiddler struck up the tune with all of the by-now well-lubricated troopers joining in.

“The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you will find him.
His father’s sword he has girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him.”

His father’s sword, Shipman thought, staring into the fire. Yeah, that’s what I got.

“Land of song, said the warrior-bard, though all the world betrays thee.
One sword at least thy right shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee.”

Will Shipman made up his mind. He knew a fellow who had a friend who worked in the governor’s office. Maybe there was a way he could discharge the duty he was stuck with, officially. Mary would like that. Lord knows that in the Governor’s sea of troubles he might not notice one more. Then again, maybe the contents of the mine would help a little, in the right hands. He’d make the call on Monday. Will blew hot breath on his cold fingertips, and then held his hands palms out toward the fire, flexing his fingertips up and out, luxuriating in the warmth.

“The minstrel fell but the foeman’s chains could not bring that proud soul under.
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again, for he tore its chords asunder,
And said 'no chain shall sully thee, the soul of love and bravery.
Thy songs were meant for the proud and free, they shall never sound in slavery!'”

“Never sound in slavery.” That was a cause in which Will Shipman had enlisted a long time ago. It wasn’t new to Winston County either.

Yes, he’d make that call on Monday, he surely would.

And Phil Gordon, he knew, would be pleased.

(To be continued . . .)


Blogger chris horton said...

Linked. Tanks!


June 14, 2008 at 12:18 PM  
Blogger hlhanna said...

This praise for the Yankee destroyers of the Contitution under Lincoln and his minions is disgusting. Some of my people owned slaves, an evil, but most did not, and they fought against the invader who came to loot and pillage their homes and property. The South was Right.

December 28, 2009 at 8:32 AM  
OpenID neoprophet said...

Since when were these poor white boys classified as Yankees?

December 30, 2009 at 8:54 PM  
Blogger Sharp Chedder said...

My great-great grandpa and his two brothers fought at Shiloh (Pittsburgh Landing) and were captured by Confederate cavalry during the final Union assault that carried the day. They were sent to Belleville where his brothers starved to death. He escaped when a distant cousin who was a guard recognized him and sent him on his way from a work detail with a pair of shoes and a sack of dried corn. He returned home to east Tennessee where he recovered his health. After the war he immigrated to the Blue Mountains of eastern Washington Territory and became a rancher. My grandpa told me his grandpa always thought he did the right thing as the rich men rarely served and slavery stole work from the poor, blacks and whites alike. None the less, he also recognized that the rich in the north were no better. Some things never change. His son saw the same thing in the Philippines while serving with the Oregon Volunteer Infantry (state militia) in 1898-1901. The South was wrong. So was the North. By the way South men, out here we regard anyone from south of the Siskyous and east of the Rockies as a Yankee.

October 14, 2010 at 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

aunt jenny brooks lived in lawrence
county , not winston . the 1st. al.
descendants of today in our ares
of north al. are ashamed of the
choice their forefathers made . they rode thorugh the homes with
streight burning and looting their
neighbors and kin. they were with
devil sherman looting, rapeing,
burning across ga. i've never heard
of any winston renactors . playing
the traitor's part .
when you write about north al. ask
don't put in false information .

August 29, 2011 at 4:24 AM  

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