Sam woke with a crick in his neck and a sore backside. He stretched, trying to ease the hurt in his muscles. In the past two years, he’d slept more nights with a tree canopy for a roof than anything manmade, and he still wasn’t used to it.
With a group of soldiers bound for South Carolina, he’d followed the main road into Chatham, a small Southern town typical of its kind a day’s walk from Appomattox. The smithy and stable, the general store, and a few other establishments lined the town’s main street. Also lining the street had been townspeople with rifles and pistols.
“Just keep on moving through,” said a large man in clothes worn but still presentable. “We don’t mean to be inhospitable, but we’ve had too much trouble with soldiers and others. Keep moving and we’ll all get along just fine.”
A few soldiers had looked as if they were ready to be less than accommodating but were stopped by others. Sam kept walking, wondering if this is what returning soldiers would find everywhere – frightened people trying to protect what little they had left.
They were five miles south of the town when the rain began. At first, it was light, no more than a sprinkle. Sam and the others were used to worse than this, so everyone kept walking. And then the heavens opened up, and the light rain became a proper storm. They rushed for the nearby woods to get some protection. Nearly a hundred men took refuge among the trees.
The rain continued. Sam and the rest made what shelters they could, but they were all soaked. The storm abated, but a steady rain continued through most of the night.
Sam had wakened early; the others were still asleep. It was still dark but beginning to edge toward dawn. He made his way through the woods to find a place to relieve himself. It was then he heard a kind of muffled singing. Curiosity got the better of him and he followed the sound. Going deeper into the woods, he could see a small light as he got closer to the sound. He stepped into a clearing and saw some 20 people clustered around a campfire. They stopped singing as soon as they saw him.
Sam’s father hadn’t owned any slaves, but Sam could tell these people had been slaves. There were men, women, and children of varying ages. They’d been singing “Go Down, Moses” when Sam stepped into the clearing.
Three of the younger men stood and faced Sam.
“What you want here, Reb?” one said, pointing to Sam’s uniform, slightly the worse for wear but still recognizably tan-colored.
“I heard the singing,” Sam said. ‘We’d been sleeping under the trees because of the rain.”
“There are more of you?”
Sam nodded. “About 100 of us, heading home.”
The group around the fire exchanged glances.
“I mean you no harm,” Sam said. “I just head the singing.”
An older man stood. “We are having worship before we go on our way,” an older man said. “You are welcome to join us.”
Of all the decisions Sam would make on his journey home, this was the first and, as it happened, the most important. It set into motion all that would follow.
“I would like that, sir,” Sam said. He walked to the group and sat down next to an older woman. Her hair was gray; her skin was a soft, light brown.
She nodded as he sat. “You’re a young man,” she said, looking at him closely, “younger than you first appeared.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sam said. “I’m 15.”
She said no more; the group continued its worship service around the campfire. The older man who’d welcomed him gave a short message from the Book of Exodus, which was Sam’s first solid evidence that this was a group of slaves who’d left their master.
They sang a few more spirituals and a hymn that Sam knew, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” He knew the words, and the group sang as if the music was coming from their souls.
They finished in prayer, yet no one moved when the worship ended. They were waiting for something, Sam thought.
“Are you headed to, or from, the war?” the older man asked.
“From,” Sam said. “I’m headed home to Mississippi.”
The man nodded. “Discharged or deserted?”
“Mustered out,” Sam said. “The army was disbanded yesterday.” The entire group, including the children, stared at Sam. “General Lee surrendered to General Grant, and his army has been sent home.”
The group broke into excited chatter. “Praise God!” the older man said. “Praise God! We are free!”
People were hugging each other. Two of the women were crying.
“General Johnston’s army is still in the field,” Sam said. “Somewhere in South or North Carolina. They’re headed this way, thinking to join up with General Lee. But they’ll likely surrender as well.”
“We will eat,” the older man said. “You will eat with us. What is your name?”
“My name is Sam McClure, sir,” Sam said. “But I only have a little food to share, and it has to last me some time.”
“You already shared the blessing with us, Mr. McClure,” the older man said. “You gave us the news. We left where we lived four days ago, to walk north to the federal troops. There are many like us, leaving to find the troops. We are not going back. Do you have a cup for soup?”
Sam nodded. He pulled his tin cup from his back, and soon it was filled with a soup so thick that it was more a stew than a soup. A woman handed him a piece of bread.
Sam ate slowly, savoring each sip of soup and bite of bread.
The older man did most of the talking for the group. “We were slaves on a plantation nears Greensboro,” he said. “The master had died in a battle. The mistress died in childbirth, leaving behind a baby boy. Her mother had come from down Alabama way to help with the birth, and she had a granddaughter and young grandson with her. They and the baby were all who were left. Food was getting poor. The field hands left first. We stayed until the baby was weaned, and then we left as well. The grandmother wants to go home, but the railroads have stopped. She is sick, though she will not speak about it, I think because it would frighten the children.”
The story pained Sam, but he supposed it was being duplicated all over the South. Dead masters, workers leaving, fields lying fallow. It was a world in ruins, made up of thousands of stories like this one.
When they finished, he could see they were starting preparations to leave.
“Thank you,” he said, standing up. “Your soup is the best thing I’ve eaten in a year. It’s the closest I’ve found to my mama’s soup since I’ve been gone. Thank you.”
The older man walked up to him. “You may know this, but if you’re headed south, travel with others, or travel in the woods by the road. Satan is walking these roads, and sometimes he looks like a white man, and sometimes like a black man. And sometimes both. We promise to pray for you, the young man who brought us the news.”
Sam nodded hi goodbye andre-entered the woods, making his way back toward the place he and others had slept to get out of the rain.
He walked quickly through the woods. The pale sun made it difficult to determine, but he thought it must be about 7 a.m. The soldiers would be stirring and preparing to leave.
When he reached where they had camped, he saw it was empty. Everyone was gone. He was alone.
Top photograph: Federal soldiers at Appomattox, April 1865.