A Thirst for War
The gallows trapdoor opened and the Yankee soldier fell to his death, dangled a moment with feet twitching, and then twisted silently.
The crowd gasped a chorus of Amens, a preacher stepped forward and read a Bible verse, and then the soldier was cut down, his hood removed, and his limp body placed on a stretcher. He was a young boy with flaxen hair, a few sprigs of whiskers around the mouth, and blood stained hands. A large bruise covered one side of his face.
"They said he raped and killed a woman," said a coarse, gap-toothed man standing next to Professor John Ulysses Martin.
"So I've been told," the professor said. "Things like this happen in war."
"You think they was wrong to hang him?" the man asked, eying the professor suspiciously. Rumors about the rapist and an accomplice (who still hadn't been caught) had run rampant in the village of Clarksville, Tennessee.
"I wasn't at his trial," the professor said, jostled from behind as the crowd pushed forward. It wasn't every day they got to see a hanging up close. "And I don't know any of the facts."
"Well, I was there," the man said, placing a large workman's hand on the professor's brown coat and dragging him forward. "Let's get a good look at this son of a bitch the military found guilty!"
"I don't really want to do this," John said. His comment was lost—people behind him were talking; the stale odors of garlic, onions and unwashed bodies assaulting his senses. Involuntarily, he stumbled forward three steps and found himself staring down at the rope burns on the boy's neck.
What was it about good, churchgoing people that made them so desperate to see a dead body? He glanced upward. Lord, the day was far too beautiful for such depravity. Propelled by a strong wind, cottony clouds made their way across a bright winter sky. Then, another scent hit him. It was pungent like the odor from an outhouse. The stench grew stronger, nauseatingly so. People began to complain, and then gagged and coughed. In a final tribute to justice, the soldier's bowels had let loose.
"Stop shoving, you fool!" a voice bellowed in the hallway outside the classroom.
"Go to hell!" came the booming reply. Heavy boots and shoes tramped along the wood floor, followed by a second group pounding up the stairs from the first floor of the Administration Building.
"Take this, you moron!" A body thudded into a wall. Raucous laughter was followed by more profanity.
"Hurry up, nitwits!" A crescendo of boots and shoes scurried along the hall. The two groups were coming closer and closer, the one catching up to the other. "Get out of the way slowpokes or we'll all be late!"
"Go to hell!"
His hands twitching and his face flushed with anger, Professor John Ulysses Martin waited before the lectern in the oak paneled classroom. A dozen Federal-style easy chairs with soiled doilies on the headrests were arranged in a semi-circle before him. The chairs were well-worn, with rips and tears from years of use.
Hanging on the wall to his right was a portrait of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and, more importantly, a Southerner. Across from the portrait, the Ansonia clock on the fireplace mantle showed the time, three minutes after eleven. The students were late again. As usual. He glanced at a set of tall windows at the far end of the room. Bracketed by floor-to-ceiling drapes, the windows looked out onto the common area of Stewart College and the brown winter lawns crisscrossed by gray sidewalks extending all the way to College Street.
With a great crunching of bodies the five young men squeezed through the open door. Cursing and shouting, they headed for their chairs, bumping into each other and knocking over a potted plant in a stand. Somebody lurched sideways and caught the plant before it hit the floor; took an exaggerated series of false steps, and then sat down, giggling but agitated.
"Let's have some order!" Professor Martin shouted. He reached over and took hold of the hall door, gave it a shove, and caught a flashing reflection of himself and two of the young men in the glass. George Singletary stuck a foot out and tripped Curley Holland. Curley got up and threw a punch at George who ducked and cackled with laughter.
"There was a hanging!" Curley Holland shouted.
"I know," the professor said, raising his hand in a gesture of silence. The memory of death came back, haunted him so that he had to push it to the back of his mind.
"It was that damn Yankee who killed a farm woman," George Singletary blurted. A murmuring broke out, metamorphosed into another round of excited conversations.
"Order!" Professor Martin shouted as he turned around. He pounded a large fist on the lectern. "Let's have some order so we can begin today's lesson!"
"Yes, professor," they replied as they settled into their chairs. They removed their winter coats and draped them over the wings of the chairs. Hats and wool gloves fell to the threadbare carpet. Finished, they looked up at him, their eyes bright and wondrous like small children; their faces, by contrast, a gaggle of sneers and smirks typical of mischievous young men in their late teens.
"Gentlemen, now that we've gotten this hanging business out of the way, I assume you've read today's assignment?" John Martin opened his tattered copy of Herodotus' The Histories. His face still crimson with anger, he reached inside his wool jacket and fingered the long envelope bearing the seal of the Confederate High Command. Only this morning a Colonel Armistead in Richmond had informed him his application for military service had been denied. Professor Martin cursed beneath his breath. What more could go wrong today?
All his life he'd dreamed of a career as an army officer, wanted it so badly it gave him chills every time he thought of it. Then, after receiving his degree in History from the University of Virginia, he'd readied himself to accept his commission. He put his financial affairs in order by selling his textbooks and hand-me-down furniture, and used the money to buy uniforms, equipment, and a good horse. This morning's letter had hit him like a blow to the face, and it stung all the more because of its bluntness. It was as if no one cared. And that really rankled him!
Something else is going to happen today. I can feel it in my gut, but I'll be damned if I know what it is or what to do about it!
A recent honors graduate, he was a tall, lanky man of twenty-two with intelligent blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and a smattering of freckles concealed by a beard until only last week. When he spoke his voice resonated with authority. It had to in order to deal with this wild and raucous group sitting before him.
Resting two large hands on the lectern before him, he watched the five young students assembled for Ancient Civilizations class this bright, sunny morning in February 1862. Due to the rampant war fever in town, these were the only students left, the school's upperclassmen having enlisted in General Lee's fine army many months ago.
As Professor of History at Stewart College in Clarksville, Tennessee, John Martin believed it was his duty—nay, his calling—to instill the patriotic virtues of duty to God and country in his students so they would never compromise the South's honor on the field of battle. But one of his students had called him an armchair idealist cloistered in an academic fortress. John scoffed at the idea. His father, James Pettigrew Martin, a hero in the War of 1848, had planted the seeds of John's political philosophy when the boy sat on his knee night after night and listened to tales of derring-do against the Mexican army commanded by Santa Anna. Above the fireplace in their home hung a saber used in battle. The rust on it, his father explained, had come from fresh blood, now dried and turned a reddish-brown with age and memories.
"Gentlemen?" He cracked his knuckles, working them in a slow, deliberate manner as the usual paper shuffling and throat clearing subsided.
"What was the assignment?" James "Curley" Holland called out from his easy chair in the center of the group. Already a big strapping fellow at nineteen, he loved history, cigars, and whiskey, traits his father, a pro-slavery Memphis preacher, detested. Curley had expressed no opinion on the institution of slavery, although he had expressed to John in confidence he felt his father was somewhat of a hypocrite: a man couldn't love one's neighbor and simultaneously believe in slavery. Today, Curley's deep brown eyes glowed with a mischievous brilliance. For once he looked sober, and John counted this as a blessing. Hopefully, there would be no more trouble today. Controlling these rambunctious young men had always been a problem. With the advent of war, it had become an increasing challenge.
"Herodotus' The Histories, Book Seven," John answered. He liked Curley because the boy reminded him of himself at that age: impetuous, irresponsible, and fun loving, all of which was offset by a keen interest in history. However, Curley's love of whiskey often sidetracked his academic pursuits.
"We had planned to discuss the subject of courage," John continued, "and how it applied to King Leonidas and his men at the tragic battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC."
"Where's that horrible smell coming from?" Emanuel "Smiley" Riordan turned to Curley who sat next to him. Son of a local Clarksville farmer who neither owned slaves, nor believed in the institution of slavery, Smiley was a tall, muscular fellow with dark brown eyes, flaming red hair, and large callused hands that played a fiddle with remarkable agility.
"What smell?" John asked. He rested a hand on the lectern to steady himself because he was lame in his right leg. Trouble was brewing. Again. Sometimes it started in an innocuous way, like a wisp of smoke curls under a closed door recognized too late as a danger.
"Yeah, what smell are we talking about?" Curley asked, sitting up straight in his chair. He arched his back.
Smiley leaned toward Curley, pushed his nose up with his index finger, and snorted like a pig. "Been wallowing in the sauce, M. Prodigal Son?"
"Not hardly, Mr. Music Man," Curley said, frowning. "But it sure smells like there's a hint of pro-slavery sympathy emanating from your pores. Most likely in the form of intestinal gas."
"Like hell!" Smiley growled, his face brightening like an oil lamp turned up high. He was the levelheaded one in the group, but if pushed too hard he could explode with the force of gunpowder. "Even though our family owns no slaves, I believe in slavery because it's the bedrock of our economy, jackass. The wealth generated by it allows us to finance this war, in case you've forgotten that simple fact."
"But an economy based on slavery is a false economy," Wilson Compton interrupted. "Compared to the massive industrial might of the North, we produce hardly any weapons or munitions, and we lack their intricate network of railroads to transport goods and supplies. Consequently, we must buy everything from Europe—or trade with the North." Wilson, the youngest of John's students sat next to Smiley. He was a sensitive young artist with a boyish face and liquid green eyes that mirrored the ever-changing colors in the landscapes he painted. His sketches had caught the eye of a Nashville philanthropist who said he painted with the grace and flourish of the French artist David. As a result, an exciting and promising career awaited him.
"Ah, go stuff it, Mr. Portrait Man," Curley said. "We do have a railroad here in Clarksville in case you haven't noticed." He crumpled a piece of paper into a ball and tossed it over Smiley's head. The ball landed on top of Wilson's notes. Scowling, Wilson swept the ball onto the floor.
"Gentlemen, please," John pleaded. "Let's not get out of control like we did coming into class this morning."
He ran a big hand through his mop of brown hair. Three years older than Curley, he understood the temptations and passions ruling young men's lives. At the University of Virginia he had nearly succumbed to these vices. Fortunately, he had reformed himself in time.
"Right, professor," Curley said as he looked at Smiley. Pinching his nose between his thumb and forefinger he spoke nasally. "I apologize."