Appomattox Courthouse

I am a man who is walking home from Appomattox Courthouse. My country is behind me. My home is in front of me. I am a man who has outlived his country.

The better number of the fingers of my right hand are gone along with my country. I left them with the Confederacy like a keepsake. I learnt how to load and fire with the fingers left to me, and to use a pen to maintain my correspondences while the posts still carried.

I am not a man lacking in education, though it has done me little good and so far as it fed my romantic convictions it might be averred that my education has done me great harm. Though many arrived at my youthful position and believed themselves Cavaliers without the year or so of college having only thumbed through Sir Walter Scott. Others and lesser positioned still managed the trick only on hearing the idea of a Cavalier and a cause, and of Jeb Stuart with an ostrich feather in his cap.  

Jeb Stuart is dead with his ostrich feather.

So is Stonewall, under the shade of the trees. The Marble Man is alive. General Lee signed the surrender and the country with it. He was greatly aged over the course of the late conflict from its start until its end, cracks and dullness appearing in his marble.

I have aged as well, though I have not seen my likeness reflected with exactness greater than might be obtained from a pool of muddy water since the loss of my compact. I have seen my visage doubled in those who have become aged alongside me, all become aged together like wearied doppelgangers in tattered grey.

I know that I am no longer young with more certainty than might be communicated by vision alone.  

It is a feeling in my nerves, such nerves as are still left to me, a great untightening of the strength of them and a dissipation of that strength. Perhaps that feeling is also the hunger that has carried away the muscle and the fat from my frame and left me lean and rawboned. I was stout and of ample proportion in the days of my youth and there were prognostications I would run to fat and corpulence in the fullness of my years and enjoyment of my inheritance.

I am walking to see what remains of my inheritance. The chattel have been manumitted and with them the bulk of the capital. A peculiar way of achieving a total loss, what a wit might describe as a Republican depreciation. 

I was to inherit the estate real as well as personal and if the home was not burnt there might be a roof and a bed, the mattress stuffed with down or currency seeking a more profitable use than the spending, and the library which will be some pleasant distraction if not raided for kindling. The acreage might be cultivated still, and perhaps I will learn to pick cotton like a fieldhand how I relearnt to write like a man of education and breeding. And, if not cotton for lack of hands or markets, perhaps potatoes and greens, because as my country was reminded with increasing and deadening frequency during the late conflict, cotton is hard for the eating.

There were men with me at the beginning and they had the fortune of living nearer to the surrender.

There are men who have passed me and who have conversed with me, and among them were men of the better sort of breeding and others who were my lessers in the ante bellum and we walked and conversed in the universal and leveled brotherhood of defeated men. There were others who I have passed and we have kept our mutual silence, and that silence was likewise an expression of the strange fraternity of the dispossessed of which we have becomes members by hard dues. 

I have far to walk, and the narrow road to the deep south is hardly better than a track.

There is a ditch besides and below the track. There is a man in the ditch. There is a turkey vulture on the man in the ditch, and many flies. The mud in the ditch has coated the man’s face so that if it was fired in a kiln like clay it would manufacture a death mask. The ditch is all mud and I have been walking through mud and the mud has coated my feet.

It rained of late, and I kept on through the rain until the rain became too heavy and the mud too soft. Then I sat beneath the trees and tried to rest under what cover they gave to me. The rain had a pleasant sound, though it would have been better to have been within my home or under the ground to listen to it.

I have become a man much accustomed to the rain. Fighting in the rain.

The rain was worse than the cold to live in, or the heat to fight in. It made the Virginia clay bad to fight in. The sacred soil of our land was not accommodating to us. I lost my shoes at New Market in the mud.

It broke many of our health. Condemned men to shivering malarial death.

And yet it is still pleasant to hear the rain.

The man had disappeared from my vision before the turkey vulture such that I could not have seen him but I could very well see the top half of the bird busying itself in the ditch with unseen carrion. Why I turned back my head knowing I could see but only the turkey vulture, and that the presumptive object of my turning was another member of the unknown and unburied dead to which I have become much accustomed if never reconciled, is a consideration that has occupied my mental faculties and carried my frame many miles.

Perhaps to see one more time Death, for fear that too great a familiarity with him has left me indifferent to him. Like an Oriental lamaist whose thoughts are turned constantly to death such that he might defeat himself and thereby find himself having defeated death.

I had Schopenhauer in the German or claimed him though my facility with the language is not so prodigious as a more studious and scholarly gentleman might have achieved. And with him a fatalistic atheism, though I have come to accept the merit of a faith that can claim the death of death by forthcoming intervention of an external power.

I have not, though, yet accepted the Gospel, and my baptism possesses such claim for my soul upon the Heavenly Host as an unwitting infant’s unwelcomed immersion might carry when unaccompanied by election.

Though the matter of my election or pre-natal condemnation is, as the Reformers and presbyters explain, unknowable in life, and while its inerrancy and implacability appeal to me as a man whose pretended philosophy and constrained natural learning encourage him to believe the world inclines to predetermination by a harsh will, no experience in my years has led me to believe myself among those saints guaranteed a place near to the distant God of my upbringing.

What I have learned and learnt dear has not inclined me to theology, or to Germans, although it owes something to the idea of the great and terrible Will.

Life has much blood in it.

I have done my share of the bleeding.

My country has bled white and dead.

I had reached South Carolina where Sherman had destroyed the rice fields and the mansions with his hard hand of war when my perspective began its change, subtle and deep. I was following the tracks of Sherman who had brought the North with him from Atlanta to the sea and then at the sea he had turned into the Carolinas because he couldn’t burn the sea though if it had been Confederate he would have tried. Though I could not wish the man good health, I could respect a soul who understood that war was cruelty without trepidation. He was a man of the will, as was our general, though plebian in affect and breeding where General Lee was aristocratic. And victorious in war where our General had been victorious merely in battle.

General Lee was surrendered from starvation. Carolina and Georgia were burnt to help effect that starvation. I am a man who has survived defeat though survival has cost me dear.

The mansion must have been grand and fine when it had all of it sides. The roof had fallen inside of it. The columns were the color of burnt whitewash and the gashes in them showed them to be of wood imitating marble.

My country had been of that sort, Corinthian columns made of wood with master and his kin inside and fields around them and chattel. Our cause will be judged as unrighteous for this spirit, which was our despotic and republican freedom. 

The master and his kin had fled elsewhere, perhaps to extended relations somewhere Union armies had not reached. Or perhaps to roadside graves. It is a matter of one’s predisposition to the sanguinary or the melancholic temperament which end seemed the likelier.

There were Negroes in the shacks behind the big house. Some of the Negroes had likely taken to the road. They had hurried towards emancipation instead of waiting for it to meet them.

Perhaps they had reached it. Like the fate of their former masters, it is a matter of temperament.

One Negro who had remained was sitting idle in the doorframe of his shack. Perhaps this was the best sitting space for the circulation of air, and perhaps it was simply habitual without explicable reason.

I walked to him to inquire if there was a well which I might draw water from or stores of food that might be distributed to a stranger in need.

I waited for the Negro to answer me and for the first instance in my life did not have the means to compel an answer from a member of his race. I knew as he sat with his face partially in the sun and partially shaded so that his Nubian nose and prominent lips were alternatively prominent and obscured, myself the worse of the pair and more distant from bathing, that the South of my birth was dead.

Perhaps we would in the coming years return to something reminiscent of the old hierarchy between the races for which I shall not apologize and which the Yankees, Quakers, and miscegenetic abolitions overturned in their deranged efforts at leveling accompanied by the shedding of rivers of blood.

But the old order had its throat slit and like the Jacobinical French who had condemned one king to the guillotine and who had witnessed his brother’s ineffectual restoration, though the ancient manner of things might be reimposed it could not be entirely restored. What had been an organic relationship between the higher and the lesser, a despotism certainly but a despotism on which an aristocratic freedom could flourish, could never replant itself once it had first been uprooted from its ancient soil.

What came after was like a potted plant transposed into a field. Though on external observance it might appear as native to its place, a man digging would find shallow and vulnerable roots.

But perhaps that was in the manner of the will that must devour all things. Is not revolution another kind of devouring?

I was given permission to use the well and the question of food remained unanswered. I was uncomplaining for I had not expected water and it would have been an easy thing to deny me even that or to kill me.  

I drew the water and the drawing tested my strength. There was no aid offered by the Negro who had granted permission, or the few others no more thoroughly engaged in labor, and no aid would have been accepted. I drank my fill and the water was stone cool and some relief, for though water was not over scarce how food was, cool water was a rarity to me and a palliative to the heat of walking. I filled my canteen and passed the permissive Negro’s shack.

Taken by an impulse no less than my need to turn to see the carrion-eater many miles back, I turned to the Negro with a great compulsion to ask of him what bore strange weight upon me.

Where has your master gone?

Massah’s gone.

Where has he gone?

Gone south.

Why has massah gone to the south?

Place for him to go.

Why have you stayed?

Don’t got any place else to be.

Much has left me of my time wandering after the surrender, but that short exchange has remained to me with great clarity, though I have never written of it and it is unknown to my intimates and shall die with me so far as any event may be said to survive with the memory of it and die with the passing.

The Negro reclined himself further into the darkness of the interior so that his face was entirely shadowed, black against the blackness and obscured. I knew the conversation was at an end and I walked on. It struck me that I had adopted the Negro’s way of referring to the absent white man, whose name I did not inquire of and who shall therefore remain perpetually anonymous to me.

That white man has always remained to me as “massah,” for I have thought of him often, and that Negro lolling in the shade.

For I considered, as I resumed my walk, un-victualed but with a flask of well water and to such an extent the better provisioned, that the question resounded in my mind like a strange Oriental riddle.

Why has massah gone to the South?

I was along the trails of the Appalachian interior. I could not tell you why I took this farther route, dangerous and Unionist, except that I needed to find something that came with the elevation. God revealed Himself, so the Old Testament recorded, on Mt. Sinai and though I am not such a man as can accept the scripture as Holy Writ, the divinity inhabits higher elevations. There is Burke’s sublimity in them.

The trails, no better than logging paths, were deep and green. The switchbacks in the trails were such that each led only to further undifferentiated trail, surrounded by trees and the season was the high green and ferns along and over the paths. The air thinning with the height and the mobile wall of green was first numbing, and then took onto itself a strange character. The undifferentiated green, each turn in the path the same as the turn before, and my lungs not filling as deep as they were used to in their lowland condition, created in me a sensation not unlike the eating of opium, as I have read that narcotic described in first-hand accounts.

The effect was initially a soporific, but with my senses removed from the meaningful differentiation of external stimulant, it was as though my cognition were forced to turn upon itself. Considering itself as though in a clear mirror, the mirror along the back of the eye, in the back recesses and empty spaces of my mind.

Reflected in itself, I saw the question, the aural become the visual.

Why has massah gone to the South?

And with the question in the clear mirror, and the elevation, and the perfection of the air and the clearing of consciousness, came an answer repeating as often as the question.

Because it is in the nature of massah to have gone to the South.

The answer was oceanic, a kind of grand vista like the first sighting of the Pacific must have been to Balboa. But it was of a kind of obscurity with its grandeur, as I could no more elucidate the answer that was presenting itself in my emptied and green-mirrored mind than I could have discerned the cause behind the question’s persistence.

It took much further walking, reaching to the highest elevations, and arriving upon a clearing at the apex of the mountain such that the trees were spread before me, extending to the horizon like a green sea with its leaves rustling like wave tips in the wind, that the answer took such form in my mind as might with difficulty be communicable.

In the unfolding of the necessity of massah’s nature, he has always gone to the South.

In the unfolding of the necessity of the Negro’s nature, he has always remained.

And in the unfolding of the necessity of my nature, I have always walked a winding trail from the defeat.

I knew that I had always walked the labyrinthine greenness of these paths, and seen the Negro lolling in the shack behind the dead mansion, and the dead man with his turkey vulture. That the General was always surrendered, that Appomattox Courthouse was always the site of the Confederacy’s grave marker. That Chancellorsville was always a victory, and Stonewall always dead on the shore.

All occurred as to their natures, their essential characters.

I had Leibniz by way of a commentary, and his monad which has no window into itself and yet acts in accord with itself is the nearest and barest approximation of this metaphysic known to me from a source other than my own intuition. The centrality of an undifferentiated and indivisible particle, from which arises differentiated and divisible beings all organized by a grand consciousness.

But as I descended from that great elevation my physical decline corresponded to a spiritual leveling, a dampening of enthusiasm, for man is not meant to remain permanently at such a high pitch.   

 I had known war, and had been wounded, and seen other men die grievously, and the benignity of this conception though of great attraction to me and even possessing a kind of compulsion at that highest point, could no more lastingly take possession of me than could my Romantic sensibilities, my Christianity, or my Schopenhauer.

Though, like those earlier convictions, this one stranger and harder classified imprinted itself upon my nerves and left a deeper and fuller trace.

I was back along the lowlands and was nearing my destination. The fields that had once been familiar were cast in a burnt chiaroscuro whose material was the charcoaled remnants of timber and cropland and Southland.

I first began to see individuals familiar to me from my youth. Negroes of both sexes who had remained and, among the whites, women and those whose adolescence or disfigurement had spared them conscription or volunteerism. Some of the whites recognized me and called my name, and I spoke with them and nothing was offered, and I knew it would be a hungry winter and without charity. Charity rarely survives famine except among the saints, and those blessed fools die emaciated so that others might feed on their sustenance.

The sun had become large at the horizon and red when I reached the home of my youth. I had already been told of its fate and so shock was denied to me. The pillars had survived, and little else.

Instead of shock, the void of my consciousness was filled with wonder.

Had the ruin been in some distant Attica, it would have conveyed sublimity in its defeat fit for the walls of a grand salon. A lithograph of the scene would have made permanent its transient and ravished beauty. Each perspective as appropriate to the media.

I suppose that from the perspective of the divinity or the grand consciousness, as I understood those things at the highest point of my journey, that wonder and sublimity and beauty were all experienced singularly and all exist continuously in some state denied to my own consciousness.

But those must also coincide with the ruin, and the ruins in the more prosaic and ordinary sense of things were what remained to me after that initial vision.

Those of my kin still living had been reduced to a hastily and shoddily constructed cabin. My sisters and a brother whose voice had not yet broken, and so was still intact in his entirety.

They greeted me with greater or lesser enthusiasm dependent upon their particular natures and the extent of their hunger, though the expressions of love were sincere despite the strain.

They slept to a room, and the room was poisonous with vapors from the stove and brutal with the heat from it. They had once each had their own feather bed, and now it was the sickliest and weakest who had a shared camp bed. The rest shared an earthen floor.

It had not been to them to flee, but it had been to them to live in a manner much reduced.  It became apparent by negative inference that my parents were not among them.

Where have my parents gone?

They have gone beneath the ground.

How did they die?

Typhoid and Yankee troops.

Both killed them?

Typhoid killed Mother and Yankee troops shot Father.

Why was I not told?

They died after the mail stopped carrying.

Where can they be found?

They can be found beneath the disturbed earth behind this cabin.

I walked out behind the cabin and in the dying light saw the earth darkened and with only scrubby grass and weeds in two sections approximating rectangles, one the longer and one the shorter.

I took a place on the earthen floor and slept. I was possessed of the impression, in the disorientation accompanying proximity to sleep, that I was continuous with the earth beneath me and extended to my parents entombed within it, and that I encompassed them and made of their tomb into a shelter. 

From there the semi-lucidity of my near dreaming extended father, extending so far as to all the bodies buried south of the Mason-Dixon Line and further along the underground trails of the dead to our salient that ended at Gettysburg. And not only underground, but those still resting upon it, and I was with what was left of the man in the ditch after the turkey buzzard and time. We were one and there was a comfort in this identification with a bare skull wearing a muddy death mask, and many others bleached or rotten.

All the citizens of the Republic of the Dead, and I like Leviathan was composed of them.

On waking, I briefly thought myself the consul of a defeated land.

The Negroes had mostly remained though manumitted, and the landless whites who had tenanted outlying fields. My family retained title to the land, and though un-probated it had passed to me by instrument of my father.

I had returned to discover myself the county’s wealthiest man, though that meant little more than a kind of propertied penury.

On such a bedrock our future prosperity would have to rest. We were a grand family once, and though we should not attain such grandeur again we might have sustenance and even some niggling prosperity.

After waking and learning of my new fortune, and walking my bare fields, I planted a marker on the graves of my parents.

With their marker was recognition that we had have been liberated from our struggle for freedom. Freedom has been forced upon us. A freedom of nigger slaves and planter aristocrats ended at Appomattox, and a new freedom has descended upon us from the North.

Perhaps this is not the Will, though it is accompanied with much bleeding. The world must end and those left after the end must continue, and so the world must begin again. A kind of transmigration of the world by stubborn inertia.

But though I have outlived my country, and many years shall pass, I am still a man walking home from Appomattox Courthouse. I shall be walking the remainder of my days, and into eternity.

© 2022 V.N. Ebert

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