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Part Three

CHAPTER XVII



MAY OF 1864 CAME—a hot dry May that wilted the flowers in the buds—and the Yankees under General Sherman were in Georgia again, above Dalton, one hundred miles northwest of Atlanta. Rumor had it that there would be heavy fighting up there near the boundary between Georgia and Tennessee. The Yankees were massing for an attack on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, the line which connected Atlanta with Tennessee and the West, the same line over which the Southern troops had been rushed last fall to win the victory at Chickamauga.

But, for the most part, Atlanta was not disturbed by the prospect of fighting near Dalton. The place where the Yankees were concentrating was only a few miles southeast of the battle field of Chickamauga. They had been driven back once when they had tried to break through the mountain passes of that region, and they would be driven back again.

Atlanta—and all of Georgia—knew that the state was far too important to the Confederacy for General Joe Johnston to let the Yankees remain inside the state’s borders for long. Old Joe and his army would not let even one Yankee get south of Dalton, for too much depended on the undisturbed functioning of Georgia. The unravaged state was a vast granary, machine shop and storehouse for the Confederacy. It manufactured much of the powder and arms used by the army and most of the cotton and woolen goods. Lying between Atlanta and Dalton was the city of Rome with its cannon foundry and its other industries, and Etowah and Allatoona with the largest ironworks south of Richmond. And, in Atlanta, were not only the factories for making pistols and saddles, tents and ammunition, but also the most extensive rolling mills in the South, the shops of the principal railroads and the enormous hospitals. And in Atlanta was the junction of the four railroads on which the very life of the Confederacy depended.

So no one worried particularly. After all, Dalton was a long way off, up near the Tennessee line. There had been fighting in Tennessee for three years and people were accustomed to the thought of that state as a far-away battle field, almost as far away as Virginia or the Mississippi River. Moreover, Old Joe and his men were between the Yankees and Atlanta, and everyone knew that, next to General Lee himself, there was no greater general than Johnston, now that Stonewall Jackson was dead.

Dr. Meade summed up the civilian point of view on the matter, one warm May evening on the veranda of Aunt Pitty’s house, when he said that Atlanta had nothing to fear, for General Johnston was standing in the mountains like an iron rampart. His audience heard him with varying emotions, for all who sat there rocking quietly in the fading twilight, watching the first fireflies of the season moving magically through the dusk, had weighty matters on their minds. Mrs. Meade, her hand upon Phil’s arm, was hoping the doctor was right. If the war came closer, she knew that Phil would have to go. He was sixteen now and in the Home Guard. Fanny Elsing, pale and hollow eyed since Gettysburg, was trying to keep her mind from the torturing picture which had worn a groove in her tired mind these past several months—Lieutenant Dallas McLure dying in a jolting ox cart in the rain on the long, terrible retreat into Maryland.

Captain Carey Ashburn’s useless arm was hurting him again and moreover he was depressed by the thought that his courtship of Scarlett was at a standstill. That had been the situation ever since the news of Ashley Wilkes’ capture, though the connection between the two events did not occur to him. Scarlett and Melanie both were thinking of Ashley, as they always did when urgent tasks or the necessity of carrying on a conversation did not divert them. Scarlett was thinking bitterly, sorrowfully: He must be dead or else we would have heard. Melanie, stemming the tide of fear again and again, through endless hours, was telling herself: “He can’t be dead. I’d know it—I’d feel it if he were dead.” Rhett Butler lounged in the shadows, his long legs in their elegant boots crossed negligently, his dark face an unreadable blank. In his arms Wade slept contentedly, a cleanly picked wishbone in his small hand. Scarlett always permitted Wade to sit up late when Rhett called because the shy child was fond of him, and Rhett oddly enough seemed to be fond of Wade. Generally Scarlett was annoyed by the child’s presence, but he always behaved nicely in Rhett’s arms. As for Aunt Pitty, she was nervously trying to stifle a belch, for the rooster they had had for supper was a tough old bird.

That morning Aunt Pitty had reached the regretful decision that she had better kill the patriarch before he died of old age and pining for his harem which had long since been eaten. For days he had drooped about the empty chicken run, too dispirited to crow. After Uncle Peter had wrung his neck, Aunt Pitty had been beset by conscience at the thought of enjoying him, en famille, when so many of her friends had not tasted chicken for weeks, so she suggested company for dinner. Melanie, who was now in her fifth month, had not been out in public or received guests for weeks, and she was appalled at the idea. But Aunt Pitty, for once, was firm. It would be selfish to eat the rooster alone, and if Melanie would only move her top hoop a little higher no one would notice anything and she was so flat in the bust anyway.

“Oh, but Auntie I don’t want to see people when Ashley—”

“It isn’t as if Ashley were—had passed away,” said Aunt Pitty, her voice quavering, for in her heart she was certain Ashley was dead. “He’s just as much alive as you are and it will do you good to have company. And I’m going to ask Fanny Elsing, too. Mrs. Elsing begged me to try to do something to arouse her and make her see people—”

“Oh, but Auntie, it’s cruel to force her when poor Dallas has only been dead—”

“Now, Melly, I shall cry with vexation if you argue with me. I guess I’m your auntie and I know what’s what. And I want a party.”

So Aunt Pitty had her party, and, at the last minute, a guest she did not expect, or desire, arrived. Just when the smell of roast rooster was filling the house, Rhett Butler, back from one of his mysterious trips, knocked at the door, with a large box of bonbons packed in paper lace under his arm and a mouthful of two-edged compliments for her. There was nothing to do but invite him to stay, although Aunt Pitty knew how the doctor and Mrs. Meade felt about him and how bitter Fanny was against any man not in uniform. Neither the Meades nor the Elsings would have spoken to him on the street, but in a friend’s home they would, of course, have to be polite to him. Besides, he was now more firmly than ever under the protection of the fragile Melanie. After he had intervened for her to get the news about Ashley, she had announced publicly that her home was open to him as long as he lived and no matter what other people might say about him.

Aunt Pitty’s apprehensions quieted when she saw that Rhett was on his best behavior. He devoted himself to Fanny with such sympathetic deference she even smiled at him, and the meal went well. It was a princely feast Carey Ashburn had brought a little tea, which he had found in the tobacco pouch of a captured Yankee en route to Andersonville, and everyone had a cup, faintly flavored with tobacco. There was a nibble of the tough old bird for each, an adequate amount of dressing made of corn meal and seasoned with onions, a bowl of dried peas, and plenty of rice and gravy, the latter somewhat watery, for there was no flour with which to thicken it For dessert, there was a sweet potato pie followed by Rhett’s bonbons, and when Rhett produced real Havana cigars for the gentlemen to enjoy over their glass of blackberry wine, everyone agreed it was indeed a Lucullan banquet

When the gentlemen joined the ladies on the front porch, the talk turned to war. Talk always turned to war now, all conversations on any topic led from war or back to war—sometimes sad, often gay, but always war. War romances, war weddings, deaths in hospitals and on the field, incidents of camp and battle and march, gallantry, cowardice, humor, sadness, deprivation and hope. Always, always hope. Hope firm, unshaken despite the defeats of the summer before.

When Captain Ashburn announced he had applied for and been granted transfer from Atlanta to the army at Dalton, the ladies kissed his stiffened arm with their eyes and covered their emotions of pride by declaring he couldn’t go, for then who would beau them about?

Young Carey looked confused and pleased at hearing such statements from settled matrons and spinsters like Mrs. Meade and Melanie and Aunt Pitty and Fanny, and tried to hope that Scarlett really meant it.

“Why, he’ll be back in no time,” said the doctor, throwing an arm over Carey’s shoulder. There’ll be just one brief skirmish and the Yankees will skedaddle back into Tennessee. And when they get there, General Forrest will take care of them. You ladies need have no alarm about the proximity of the Yankees, for General Johnston and his army stands there in the mountains like an iron rampart. Yes, an iron rampart,” he repeated, relishing his phrase. “Sherman will never pass. He’ll never dislodge Old Joe.”

The ladies smiled approvingly, for his lightest utterance was regarded as incontrovertible truth. After all, men understood these matters much better than women, and if he said General Johnston was an iron rampart, he must be one. Only Rhett spoke. He had been silent since supper and had sat in the twilight listening to the war talk with a down-twisted mouth, holding the sleeping child against his shoulder.

“I believe that rumor has it that Sherman has over one hundred thousand men, now that his reinforcements have come up?”

The doctor answered him shortly. He had been under considerable strain ever since he first arrived and found that one of his fellow diners was this man whom he disliked so heartily. Only the respect due Miss Pittypat and his presence under her roof as a guest had restrained him from showing his feelings more obviously.

“Well, sir?” the doctor barked in reply.

“I believe Captain Ashburn said just a while ago that General Johnston had only about forty thousand, counting the deserters who were encouraged to come back to the colors by the last victory.”

“Sir,” said Mrs. Meade indignantly. “There are no deserters in the Confederate army.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Rhett with mock humility. “I meant those thousands on furlough who forgot to rejoin their regiments and those who have been over their wounds for six months but who remain at home, going about their usual business or doing the spring plowing.”

His eyes gleamed and Mrs. Meade bit her lip in a huff. Scarlett wanted to giggle at her discomfiture, for Rhett had caught her fairly. There were hundreds of men skulking in the swamps and the mountains, defying the provost guard to drag them back to the army. They were the ones who declared it was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” and they had had enough of it. But outnumbering these by far were men who, though carried on company rolls as deserters, had no intention of deserting permanently. They were the ones who had waited three years in vain for furloughs and while they waited received ill-spelled letters from home: “We air hungry.” “There won’t be no crop this year—there ain’t nobody to plow.” “We air hungry.” “The commissary took the shoats, and we ain’t had no money from you in months. We air livin’ on dried peas.”

Always the rising chorus swelled: “We are hungry, your wife, your babies, your parents. When will it be over? When will you come home? We are hungry, hungry.” When furloughs from the rapidly thinning army were denied, these soldiers went home without them, to plow their land and plant their crops, repair their houses and build up their fences. When regimental officers, understanding the situation, saw a hard fight ahead, they wrote these men, telling them to rejoin their companies and no questions would be asked. Usually the men returned when they saw that hunger at home would be held at bay for a few months longer. “Plow furloughs” were not looked upon in the same light as desertion in the face of the enemy, but they weakened the army just the same.

Dr. Meade hastily bridged over the uncomfortable pause, his voice cold: “Captain Butler, the numerical difference between our troops and those of the Yankees has never mattered. One Confederate is worth a dozen Yankees.”

The ladies nodded. Everyone knew that.

“That was true at the first of the war,” said Rhett. “Perhaps it’s still true, provided the Confederate soldier has bullets for his gun and shoes on his feet and food in his stomach. Eh, Captain Ashburn?”

His voice was still soft and filled with specious humility. Carey Ashburn looked unhappy, for it was obvious that he, too, disliked Rhett intensely. He gladly would have sided with the doctor but he could not lie. The reason he had applied for transfer to the front, despite his useless arm, was that he realized, as the civilian population did not, the seriousness of the situation. There were many other men, stumping on wooden pegs, blind in one eye, fingers blown away, one arm gone, who were quietly transferring from, the commissariat, hospital duties, mail and railroad service back to their old fighting units. They knew Old Joe needed every man.

He did not speak and Dr. Meade thundered, losing his temper: “Our men have fought without shoes before and without food and won victories. And they will fight again and win! I tell you General Johnston cannot be dislodged! The mountain fastnesses have always been the refuge and the strong forts of invaded peoples from ancient times. Think of—think of Thermopylae!”

Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her.

“They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn’t they, Doctor?” Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter.

“Are you being insulting, young man?”

“Doctor! I beg of you! You misunderstood me! I merely asked for information. My memory of ancient history is poor.”

“If need be, our army will die to the last man before they permit the Yankees to advance farther into Georgia,” snapped the doctor. “But it will not be. They will drive them out of Georgia in one skirmish.”

Aunt Pittypat rose hastily and asked Scarlett to favor them with a piano selection and a song. She saw that the conversation was rapidly getting into deep and stormy water. She had known very well there would be trouble if she invited Rhett to supper. There was always trouble when he was present. Just how he started it, she never exactly understood. Dear! Dear! What did Scarlett see in the man? And how could dear Melly defend him?

As Scarlett went obediently into the parlor, a silence fell on the porch, a silence that pulsed with resentment toward Rhett How could anyone not believe with heart and soul in the invincibility of General Johnston and his men? Believing was a sacred duty. And those who were so traitorous as not to believe should, at least, have the decency to keep their mouths shut.

Scarlett struck a few chords and her voice floated out to them from the parlor, sweetly, sadly, in the words of a popular song:
^ Into a ward of whitewashed walls

Where the dead and dying lay—

Wounded with bayonets, shells and balls—

Somebody’s darling was borne one day.
Somebody’s darling! so young and so brave!

Wearing still on his pale, sweet face—

Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave—

The lingering light of his boyhood’s grace.”
“Matted and damp are the curls of gold,” mourned Scarlett’s faulty soprano, and Fanny half rose and said in a faint, strangled voice: “Sing something else!”

The piano was suddenly silent as Scarlett was overtaken with surprise and embarrassment. Then she hastily blundered into the opening bars of “Jacket of Gray” and stopped with a discord as she remembered how heartrending that selection was too. The piano was silent again for she was utterly at a loss. All the songs had to do with death and parting and sorrow.

Rhett rose swiftly, deposited Wade in Fanny’s lap, and went into the parlor.

“Play ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ ” he suggested smoothly, and Scarlett gratefully plunged into it. Her voice was joined by Rhett’s excellent bass, and as they went into the second verse those on the porch breathed more easily, though Heaven knew it was none too cheery a song, either.
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