The Ghosts of Belmont (On a Ladder Under a Hackberry Tree)

By A.H. Pellett (Author of Sleeping in Snow with Bears, sold at East Side Story)

With a strong sense of accomplishment and a proud smile on his face, Jeff clicked send and turned off his computer. He had just sent the final print-ready manuscript of his first book off to the publisher. His contact there was excited about the work and had told him to expect to see the ebook available the following week, the book in print by December, and on reading lists of history enthusiasts before March. It was an historical biographical piece centered around the Civil War, a topic he had taken an interest in since living in Nashville.  And with the upcoming sesquicentennial of the conflict approaching, the subject of much interest of late both nationally and internationally. Jeff’s book told the story of a man named Sirus Hanover, a Colonel who had come through Nashville, Tennessee late in the war leading Union troops in battles just outside the city on Peach Orchard Hill and Shys Hill. It focused on the colonel’s heroism in these bloody battles and the incredible tactics he’d used to salvage victory from defeat. The character was as true as the battles were vicious. The publisher assured Jeff that Sirus Hanover’s tactics were legendary and the book was certain to be a hit with those history buffs who followed the war’s intimate details. Besides that, the retelling was sure to make Sirus a hero all over again.

To treat himself, Jeff walked down a steep hill from his unremarkable apartment to a coffee shop located in a quaint old house on a boulevard across from Belmont University – an institution founded on the grounds of an old southern plantation and once owned by the wealthiest woman in the South. The large mansion with sparkling white pillars and thirty-six rooms still stands as the campus center piece and gives the whole neighborhood a unique vibe.

Before going inside the coffee house Jeff stopped next door in a used-book store to find something to read. The clerk behind the counter who knew Jeff and liked to pride himself on selecting works that fit his customer’s tastes, suggested an old text on Diary’s of Veterans from the 1860’s through the 1940’s. It wasn’t quite what Jeff had in mind but it might make an interesting read, and after all, Jeff didn’t want to upset this man who might someday be a good source for promoting his book. He paid the merchant ten dollars and left the shop with the text under his arm. The book felt oddly cold. Jeff gave it little mind other than figuring no one other than the shop keeper had probably touched it in some years.

As he walked up the stone path to the large porch in front of the old house the coffee shop occupied, Jeff casually noted the usual buzz of activity – mostly young students and college professor types – was oddly missing. Instead the place was without life. Inside he ordered a medium coffee. Upon receiving his drink, he stepped back outside. There he took a seat just off the porch at a worn picnic table under an old tall hackberry tree. Autumn leaves, most already turned brown, occasionally dropped on his table, his shoulders, and lap.

He picked up the text he’d just purchased, and with coffee in one hand and book in the other, felt at ease for the first time in months. Upon opening the old cracked leather binding, a chilly, light breeze picked up from out of the northeast, from the hill where the old mansion stood. The day had been warm, the coffee warmer, and the drink’s unexpected cool nature on Jeff’s lips sent a small chill down his back.

He selected a chapter of letters about the Battle of Nashville from the table of contents. Nothing much interested him as it was mostly a rehash of what he’d read countless times while researching his book. He turned the pages impatiently, and was about to jump to correspondence from the twentieth century when he came across a copy of a letter that stopped him from going further. Among the old fashioned phrasing, two words caught his eye – and his breath. Jeff’s heart stopped. There underlined in soft pencil was the name, Sirus Hanover, the same name and focus of his memorialized account now awaiting publication! Jeff put down his coffee and began to read the letter from the beginning.

 

December 20, 1864

“Dear Papa,

You know I have never lied to you and have always spoken the truth. You also know that I didn’t volunteer to be a mere clerk.  I’ve been yearning to see battle for some time now. Yesterday I can say I did, but alas did not fire a shot. And today hope I never will, but one. Our Colonel elected to hold us back. He used the colored troops instead. He sent them up Peach Orchard Hill on the north-east side of the battle field. They put up a heroic fight, but few survived. Truth be told, they were nothing but cannon fodder to direct attention away from troop movements heading elsewhere. The part of the battle I saw was a total slaughter. The Colonel sent wave after wave of frontal-assaults up the steep hill against a fortified, well armed and seasoned enemy, all when it was clear that reaching the top of the hill was impossible. We lost five color bearers. When one man fell, another bravely took the colors and marched on only to fall himself. It would not be an exaggeration to say a man could have walked to the top of the hill after the fighting was over and not step on solid ground, there were so many dead. Our colored regiment started with around 500 officers and men of which about 220 died. If that wasn’t horrible enough, today I know of another twelve. 

To save face from losing so many men, and to make a point that they should keep quiet about the senseless orders, the Colonel personally chose a dozen men who had survived and hauled them back to the headquarters near the city. He tried them as one, right down the hill from the mansion, and hung them all from a hackberry tree for desertion. 

I suspect you don’t know any coloreds Papa, and nor did I before this week, but truth be told, those men were heroes. They all followed orders. None of them ran. Their assault drew the enemy’s attention making it possible for other troops to move from the west and attack what we’re calling Shys Hill, about a mile west of the peach orchard, and push the Rebs out of the city. Those coloreds that lived through that assault were just lucky, good soldiers. Those that died later, at the Colonel’s hand, they were scapegoats.

Papa, I may get prison for this, but as I write this today, from this day forward the name Sirus Hanover will mean nothing to me but pure evil. I will speak his name no more. I will curse his memory and any man who speaks well of him. May his memory, and those who remember him well, rot in hell.

 

Your son, 

Thaddeus

 

Jeff sat there reading the words over and over again. The leaves had stopped falling, and if he’d looked up he would have noticed none were left to fall. The wind had blown down any that had any thoughts of remaining. Of those that had fallen around him, several had fallen into his coffee. He missed them though he’d drained the cup. Picking his cell phone out of his backpack, he dialed his publisher. His cellular service was dead. Swearing, he tossed the phone back into his pack and stood to go back inside to locate and use a land line. Upon reaching the door, he found it closed. He turned his wrist, but the knob wouldn’t follow. Giving the door a push with his shoulder, he burst inside, breaking whatever seal held it shut.

The room was strangely cold. No one was behind the counter. He turned to his left to face a large common area. This room was full of women and children, all African-American. All were wearing simple, plain, thread-bare clothing. The children hung on their mothers arms, most crying. The women were crying too, though more stoically. Others just stared, expressionless. Jeff remembered none of these people from earlier. They didn’t look at him but instead just stared out the window.

Accustomed to city life and its urban landscape, he gave these people little thought and walked to the phone which faced the inside of the building. There he put in several coins and dialed the number to his publisher. The phone lines connected.

“Adrian, it’s Jeff. I need you to stop my book.”

“Jeff, my favorite new author, give me some slack! We just finished uploading the ebook. It’s already on the web and we sent your e-file straight over to the printer. They’re running the presses as we speak. Like I said before, you and your character Sirus are going to be famous!”

Jeff slammed the phone down against the hook and turned from the wall. What he saw next pushed him back against the phone with the force of a fist. As he looked out over the families, he could see out the window. He now saw what they had all been looking at. A team of mules was pulling away with a wagon. On the wagon was a brown canvas tarp over a pile. As many as a dozen sets of limp brown hands and feet hung out the sides. Laying on the worn picnic table where he had just been sitting were the remains of eleven ropes. A man dressed in red, stood on a ladder with a sharp three pronged long handled tool in his hands.  He was cutting down the last of what appeared to be a noose.

Then, sensing something, the man in red set his tool down against the ladder, turned around and looked in through the window. His gaze looked past the families and straight at Jeff. He smiled, nodded once and then proceeded to pull a cell phone out of his pocket and dial.

The phone inside, next to Jeff’s ear rang like a klaxon. At the sound, Jeff jumped. He paused, then picked up, slowly putting the receiver to his ear. As he heard the words come over the line, he noticed them synchronize exactly to the movements of the man’s lips outside.

“Hello Jeff … Congratulations … My boss and I have been waiting for your book for over one hundred years.” Then the man pulled a vintage blue Union Colonel’s hat off a hook on his ladder, placed it atop his head and began to laugh.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

 

Authors note: While this story including the names and characters are all fiction and wholly the product of the author’s imagination, the Battle of Nashville, including the battles of Peach Orchard Hill and Shys Hill are factual. The tactics, including the assault, the heroism of the soldiers, scale of war dead and the latter’s racial makeup, as described herein, are all believed to be accurate facts of history. The old mansion, the coffee house with the large window and the old hackberry tree under which this story was conceived still stand today. The old picnic table is still there. Any signs of the bookstore … have mysteriously vanished.

 

 

* * * * * *

 

 

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment