A Confederate in the Cemetery
Copyright 2008 by Gayle Thawley
Faint cries of “Help! Help!” broke the early morning silence as I sat on the veranda of my grandparents anti-bellum home. Being the only one in the household awake, I had to make a decision. Without hesitation, I began running through the misty fog that hovered over the dawn’s blanket of dew toward the unnerving pleas. Suddenly, without warning, two visibly scared black men I knew to be grave diggers were in my face. “A ghost, a ghost is talking from the grave,” they exclaimed in unison. “There’s a ghost in the cemetery.” Decidedly, too scared to stop, they continued fleeing their ordeal. Ghosts in the cemetery! Should I go on?
The burial ground, a block away, had been the final resting spot for the residents of Vicksburg since the Civil War. Being just a kid, I had never been allowed to go to the cemetery so I didn’t rightly know if there were ghosts there or not. When I had asked my daddy about ghosts one Halloween, he told me there was no such thing. Certainly, my daddy would never have lied to me. Convinced I had nothing to fear, I was off once again to answer the call. Running as fast as my little legs would carry me, I didn’t stop until I reached the monumental, aged wrought iron gates of the fence that framed the resting place. Much like the pearly gates that introduce one to Heaven, the gates introduced me to Vicksburg‘s sanctuary. The continuing cries for help spurred me to enter the forbidden territory.
Not sure which way to go, I found myself screaming, “Where are you?” “Over here, I’m over here.” Tracing the pleas to a huge mound of dirt, I continued calling out. Incredibly, on the far side of the mound was my Great, Great Aunt Nina with her little, white poodle, Dixie, in her lap at the bottom of a dug out grave.
“Darling,” Aunt Nina began. “My little Dixie was filled with the devil last night! When I let her out to do her business she just teased me running all around. I kept trying to catch the little dog but the more I chased her, the more she ran away. We must have been quite a sight playing tag all the way to the cemetery. I finally said a little prayer I’d catch her and, sure enough, my prayers were answered . . . She fell right into this grave. Trying to save her, I fell in too. Now, go get your Mamma. Go on child. You need not worry about me. I‘ll be just fine a little while longer. After all, I lived through the Siege of Vicksburg.”
Two hours later, undaunted by her escapade, my 96 year old aunt dressed in her traditional black, three-cornered hat and white gloves, was settling onto the backseat of her black Buick sedan with her driver, Hudson, at the wheel. It was after all, a Monday and every Monday and Friday at 9:00 AM, like clockwork, the fastidious little woman would go to all of her thirty-two rental properties and sweep each sidewalk and each porch (with gloves removed). Once her Monday chore was finished, the dark sedan returned to her home next door. Then, quite inexplicably, an Emergency Medical Service ambulance quietly pulled up to the curb in front of her home.
Within minutes, Aunt Nina was helped by her longtime maid, Susie, into the back of the rescue van and they were both whisked away, not to a hospital, but rather to an airport. Armed with her telescope and her wheel chair, the fear-nothing Southerner was off to view the lunar event of the decade from the best possible venue, Nevada. No one, at any age, could have been more adventurous than my aged aunt.
Sadly, the next time I saw Aunt Nina she was confined to her bed. Just as the woman was no ordinary woman, her bed was no ordinary bed. It was so extraordinary, in fact, after her death, it was displayed by her daughter at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. With a 12 foot headboard and stairs on its sides, it was the biggest bed I had ever seen before or since. The chin high mattress so engulfed the frail elder like a billowy cloud I could barely see her pale, shriveled face and tussled white hair. Most visible to me was a waving arm, no bigger than mine, tipped by a bony finger shaking at me as she commanded in a raspy voice, “When you are up North in those ‘Damn Yankee’ homes you look for our silver. You look for our silver because those ‘Damn Yankees’ stole it.” How was I to know what the silver looked like? I was bewildered by my assignment, but I knew by upbringing I could not question my matriarch. So obediently I replied, “Yes Ma’m”. With that she reiterated, “Damn Yankees!”
Inarguably, the frail niece of Stonewall Jackson, defined the consummate Confederate Lady though to some, the use of the word damn by a lady would be unacceptable. But, according to the normally impeccably mannered speaker, the use of the word damn, in this case, was totally justified as there was no such thing as a Union gentleman. The premise leading to that conclusion was predicated on personal experience.
Barely thirteen in 1863, the Civil War exploded Nina Jones’ world when Vicksburg came under siege for forty-five long days. The fighting was relentless, except for, quite inexplicably, on Sundays when both the Northern and the Southern armies, without any verbal agreement between them, simply ceased their fire.
Taking advantage of the peace, a young Nina and her younger sister set out one Sunday to pick berries. Without warning, they found the Union soldiers far closer than they had anticipated. Turning toward take the shortest route home they began climbing over a fence. The “Damn Yankees” not only shot the fence out from under them, the soldiers even laughed out loud when the sisters fell to the ground. Certainly, in the story teller’s mind, no gentleman would ever frighten, much less laugh at a lady. Word of the incident spread through the city’s defenders strengthening their resolve to not surrender.
After the Southerners progressed from the rationing of food to the eating of rats to sheer starvation, the city had no choice but to raise a white flag on July 4, 1863. (In deference to the surrender, the 4th of July was not recognized as a National Holiday by the City of Vicksburg until 2006.) For the next eighty-three years, Aunt Nina’s world was her past. No one took more pride in recanting the Southern resolve to not surrender to the “Damn Yankees“. Coincidently, no one, even to this day, can take more pride than I take in recanting the Southern resolve so evinced by my great, great aunt.
Today, my dearest Aunt Nina is not far from the open
grave where she and Dixie braved the night. My mind’s eye has
never pictured her though within her own grave, but rather she is
envisioned as the consummate Confederate Lady declaring from that
open grave, “You need not worry about me. I‘ll be just
fine a little while longer. After all, I lived through the Siege of
Vicksburg.” My daddy was wrong. There is, for me, the ghost of
a Confederate in the Cemetery.
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