Shades of Gray: The Deserter

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

A tranquil pond rested near to a cluster of four thick willow trees behind the white, three-story Victorian house. The house was accentuated by dark green trim that lined the edges of every window, door, and trellis. Its black shingles were deceptively well arranged in neat rows on the roof, and the paint peeled on the wood siding. Most of the green, clapboard shutters were drawn, allowing the afternoon light to penetrate the narrow windows. A few yards away, beyond the small grove of willows and the pond, lay a thick wood that had been on the property for several centuries.

The pond’s only confidant, a young woman dressed in a plain blue dress, sat beside its stone edge. The tender breeze blew softly against her long black hair while she reclined in the bushy lawn. Her fate was to be the only child in a family that seemed to have everything. Her family had moved to the outskirts of the prosperous city of Lynchburg after her father had inherited her grandfather’s mining company. Her only friends growing up had been her tutor and the playmates she imagined into existence.

But that was many years ago.

The young woman sighed and stared at her reflection in the cool water. Her face looked tired, and the black rings under her eyes contrasted with her porcelain skin. Her eyes stared back at her from just below the surface of the pond―green, jade green that seemed to cut into the otherwise clear water. She watched a school of goldfish dart playfully and wished she was among them, but then one appeared to stare back at her. She smiled at it before tapping the water with her finger. Ripples distorted her reflection, and the fish vanished behind the rocks and shadows.

“Abigail!” a distant call sounded.

The young woman’s eyes fell downward and her shoulders sunk lower.

“Abby!” the cheery voice sang again.

“Coming, Mother!” Abigail shouted with notable agitation. She rose slowly and headed toward the house. The shadows from the willow trees covered her as she glided past. A rusted swing set creaked in the wind, and the willow’s long, rope-like branches swayed towards her as she went by, gently brushing up against the fabric of her dress.

The white, wooden porch loomed. Its pillars rose high in the air, touching the slate overhang far above. Directly above that was the rounded window, shutters drawn, which looked out upon the yard from her bedroom.

Abigail placed her hand on the wooden railing, which was festooned with ivy, and her shoes clicked with each step on the stone as she pulled herself towards the door. The curtains danced from the inside of the open windows, waving at her as she reached for the iron door handles. She swung one of the two doors wide open, revealing the lavish parlor.

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Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion

Spirits lurk among the faded monuments and deserted battlefields of Virginia, from the fabled streets of Fredericksburg to the shipyards of Hampton Roads. From beyond the grave, they beg us to remember. In Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, their stories are told. Twelve spine-tingling tales take you to where this world meets the next. History has never felt so unreal.

Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion is a collection of short ghost stories from the Civil War battlefields of Virginia. It was originally published in print by Quixote Press in 2011, but not available digitally until now.

Some stories are campy and fun, some are classic Gothic romance, and others are modern horror. In one tale, the ghost of a Union prisoner of war helps a boy named Humpy Andrews get revenge on his teasing cousins. In another, a grieving widow returns from the grave to reach out to her reincarnated love.

In some sense, this book was years in the making. It had its origins in a family vacation to Virginia when I was thirteen years old. Already a Civil War buff and amateur historian, I could not wait to explore all the towns and battlefields I read so much about.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I was more familiar with the geography of northern Virginia than I was with my own hometown, Des Plaines, Illinois. From the heights overlooking Fredericksburg to the old diner in Richmond where the waitress took our order on a pink ticket right out of the 1960s, being in Virginia felt like I was living in history. It was an enthralling experience.

Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion is now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

Civil War Ballads: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and primary songwriter of The Band, wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for their second album, The Band (1969). Since then, the song has been covered by dozens of artists, notably Johnny Cash, John Denver, and the Allman Brothers Band. American folk singer Joan Baez recorded my favorite version in 1971. The song speaks to the economic and social loss experienced by Southerners during the last year of the Civil War.

The Lost Cause by Henry Mosler depicts a Confederate soldier returning to a devastated homestead after the war.

Virgil Caine is the name
and I served on the Danville train
‘Till Stoneman’s cavalry came
and tore up the tracks again

In the winter of ’65
we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
it’s a time I remember, oh so well

The night they drove old Dixie down
and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
and the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

Back with my wife in Tennessee
when one day she called to me
Said “Virgil, quick, come see
There goes the Robert E. Lee!”

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Civil War Ballads: Tears of a Generation

David Matthews (no, not that one) wrote and recorded this song for Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. It also appeared on his 1994 album Shades of Blue & Gray: Songs From The Civil War, released by Delta, and re-released on various alternatively-titled albums over the years. The song touches on the battles of The Wilderness and Yellow Tavern, which preceded the Battle of Spotsylvania. All were part of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from May 4 – June 24, 1864.

Skulls remaining on the Wilderness battlefield, 1864.

With their backs against the wall, he drew his saber
With the hot breath of the boys in blue so near
And he chose a darkened forest called The Wilderness
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear

Soldiers smashed into the nightmare bramble
Melting into death’s inferno on they came
And the smoke and fire transformed them into devils
At the end they knew they’d never be the same
At the end they knew they’d never be the same

And the rains became the tears of a generation
Hot winds that fan the fires of victory
Charred ruins were their monuments to glory
Look around you for their painful memory
Look around you for their painful memory

Jeb Stewart’s gray cavalry, pride of the Southland
Gray knights they would ride through the dawn
Invisible armor, still rode at his side
Never was wounded in body or pride
But at Yellow Tavern young Jeb was to die

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Civil War Ballads: Battle of Bull Run

Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” was one of my favorite songs as a kid. My parents had it on an old 45 vinyl record with the classic red Columbia label. Horton recorded other folk songs and ballads, but tragically died in a car accident at the height of his career. “Battle of Bull Run” is not as great as “The Battle of New Orleans,” but it has something of the same feel, including the background drum cadence.

The sun shown bright and clear that day
We all left Washington
To lick the Rebel boys in grey
At the Battle of Bull Run
They came from Pennsylvania and some from Maryland
To see the Rebel boys get spanked by Honest Abe’s broad hand

We said we’ll run ’em to Atlanta and to Galveston Bay
But they ran us back to Washington and Philadelphia
And Philadelphia

The ladies wore their brightest shawls
The gentlemen were gay
They came to see their Yankee boys whip old Virginia
I held my momma’s hand and skipped
When a soldier said to me
Would you rather have Jeff Davis’ hat or the sword of Bobbie Lee

Lithograph from Harper's Weekly depicts Col. David Hunter's brigade charging Confederate forces at First Bull Run
Lithograph from Harper’s Weekly depicts Col. David Hunter’s brigade charging Confederate forces at First Bull Run, July 21, 1861

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Civil War Ballads: Rebel Soldier

“Rebel Soldier” is a popular folk song about a Confederate soldier pining for home. Waylon Jennings performed it on the album Songs of the Civil War (1991) by Columbia Records, and it was also performed by The Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007). According to the Civil War Trust, it is a folk song from Southern Appalachia.

The National Park Service estimates between 750,000 and 1.23 million men served in the Confederate armed forces between 1861 and 1865. 69 percent of workers in the Confederate states were farmers, which means they probably didn’t venture too far from home. The war took them hundreds of miles away, and many feared they would never see home or their loved ones again.

Andrew Blevins, 30th North Carolina; John Baldwin, 50th Virginia; and Ephraim Blevins, 37th North Carolina, were captured at Gettysburg on July 3, 1861. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took this photo, which became a famous depiction of Confederate soldiers.
Andrew Blevins, 30th NC; John Baldwin, 50th VA; and Ephraim Blevins, 37th NC, were captured at Gettysburg on July 3, 1861. Mathew Brady took this photo, which became a famous depiction of Confederate soldiers.

Oh Polly, Oh Polly, its for your sake alone
I have left my old Father, my Country, my home
I have left my old Mother to weep and to mourn
I am a rebel soldier, and far from my home

The grape shot and musket and the cannons lumber lie
Its many a mangled body the blanket for the shroud
Its many a mangled body left on the fields alone
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

Here is a good old cup of brandy and a glass of wine
You can drink to your true love and I will drink to mine
You can drink to your true love and I will lament and moan
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

I will build me a castle on some green mountain high
Where I can see Polly when she is passing by
Where I can see Polly and help her to mourn
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

For such an old tune, it has remarkably few variants. Most versions retain the original lyrics, but folk singer Bobby Horton added this stanza:

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Civil War Ballads: Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap is a narrow pass through the Cumberland mountain range, which is part of the Appalachian Mountains, near the junction of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Appalachia gave birth to bluegrass music, so it’s not surprising songwriters would chronicle the cultural and historic significance of the Cumberland Gap.

There are many versions of this popular bluegrass tune. Some only briefly mention events from the Civil War. This version, performed by the Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007), devotes the first five stanzas to the Union occupation of the Cumberland Gap in 1862.

Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan
Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan

Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
14 miles to the Cumberland Gap

September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
Morgan’s Yankees all withdrew

Burned the hay, meal*, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
All the rebels had nothin’ to eat

Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Run George Morgan in the Bluegrass land

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Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

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