The Salvation of Elijah Campbell – Afterword

If the Civil War novel ever happens, the main character is Elijah Campbell.  The story will concern itself with how Elijah gets from rural Marion County, Alabama to a meeting with Lincoln himself in 1864.  I think that story is interesting, exciting, and emotionally moving.  I am probably the only one who thinks that.  What follows actually happens after the main story closes and probably won’t be in the novel.

This is the dialog of a chance meeting Elijah Campbell has with a couple in Northeast Mississippi in 1868.  Elijah and his black friend, Claude (who figures prominently in the main story), are riding down the banks of the Buttahatchie River to see if it is feasible to establish a tow barge route to the Tombigbee to facilitate the marketing of the cotton produced at the community Elijah has founded at Campbell Springs.  The couple, the Carsons, own a small subsistence farm in the edge of Mississippi.  Their only son joined the Confederate Army in late 1861 and was heard from only once since then.  Elijah and Claude are looking for a place to spend the night as they approach the Carson house.  Mrs. Carson eventually recognizes Elijah from a picture she had seen in an old newspaper.  Here we go…

The Salvation of Elijah Campbell – Afterword

Elijah – Evenin’ Ma’am.  We’re lookin’ for a place to spend the night.  I wonder if we might use your shed over there?

Mrs. Carson – Yes sir.  I’m sure that would be fine with my husband.  He’s not been feeling well.

Elijah saw a man who appeared to be in his sixties, but who, for some reason, he imagined might be somewhat younger than that, in a straight-backed, cane-bottomed chair leaned back against the house on the front porch.  The old man was staring straight ahead and Elijah thought he could hear him mumbling something under his breath to no one in particular.

Elijah – I’m sorry your husband is ill Ma’am.  We’ll be leavin’ at first light.

Mrs. Carson – Stay as long as you like.  My husband starting having spells like this in ’65.  Sometimes they’ll last most of the day, sometimes for only a few minutes.  I can never understand exactly what he says.  Every so often he’ll cry while he tries to talk, big ol’ tears will run down his cheeks and his voice breaks all up, but he never sobs or anything like that.  I think he’s talking about our son.

Elijah – You lost a son in the War, Ma’am?

Mrs. Carson – I reckon we lost him.  All we know is that he went off to the war and he never came back.

Elijah – I’m sorry Ma’am.  (Elijah and Claude removed their hats)

Mrs. Carson – He left in December of ’61.  We told him not to go, that that fight didn’t concern us.  But he wouldn’t listen.  He left anyway, snuck off one night.  When we got up the next morning, he’d left a note, said he was going to kill some Yankees.  We got one letter from him, in March.  He was with Johnston’s army (the one that got himself killed).  He talked about striking the northern invaders who had stuck their nose where it didn’t belong and were trying to take away our rights.  He seemed like he was out of his head, all wild and such.  I guess it was being around all them other rebels.  We think he was killed at Shiloh, but we don’t know for sure.

Elijah – A lot of good Southern boys died there, Ma’am.

Mrs. Carson – He had a friend named Silas Reed.  He mentioned him in the letter.  We know that Silas was killed there.  We figure our boy likely died with him, that they were probably together.  But we never got any word about our son.  We know where Silas is buried, about half a mile from Shiloh Church.  But we don’t know if our son is buried there too.  We don’t even know for sure that he died there.  We don’t know what happened to him.  I sure wish we did.  If we just knew….(her voice trailed off)

Elijah – Claude and I are real sorry, Ma’am.  We’ll just…(but the woman kept talking)

Mrs. Carson – Do you know how the Southern boys were buried at Shiloh, sir?  (She continued before Elijah could speak)  Beauregard had ‘em dig trenches about as wide as a body is long.  They were scattered out over a few acres of the battlefield.  I guess they were mostly about half as long as from here to over there.  (She pointed to the shed, about 20 yards distant)  Then they just piled ‘em in there, one on top of the other.  No body ever dug ‘em up.  I don’t know if you could tell one from another if you did, whether they had anything on them that would give a body its name.  I don’t know if our boy is in one of those ditches or not.  I just don’t know… (Her voice trailed off again)

Elijah and Claude lowered their heads and turned their horses to ride over to the shed.  But the woman started talking again, she had only stopped for a few seconds.  They stopped and turned back around out of respect to listen.

Mrs. Carson – Silas was killed by a Yankee canon shot.  It was in a newspaper one of our neighbors down the river gave us a few months after the battle.  We always figured our son was with him and got killed too.  But we don’t know that, his name wasn’t listed in the paper with the others.  We had hoped…(she paused, Elijah thought she was going to start crying, he started to dismount and go to her, but then she suddenly started up again)… that maybe he wasn’t killed…that maybe he went with that crazy man Beauregard back to Corinth…and then was captured by the Yankees later…maybe sent to that prison up near Chicago…maybe he died there…or maybe he didn’t…maybe he was released in ’65 and tried to get home…(she paused again, Elijah had heard her voice start to break when she said “home” and started again to dismount, but she blinked her eyes real hard, shook her head slightly, and went on)…and for some reason never made it back here.  There was a farm down the road that was raided by a group of Yankees, they shot the husband while he was standing on his porch.  His wife somehow drug him inside their cabin.  The soldiers threw fire through a window and the house burned down.  The wife stayed with her husband and burned up inside the house with him.  They both died.  Our son may have gotten some mixed up word of that and thought it was our house with us inside.  Maybe he never came back because there wouldn’t have been anything to come back too and the grief would have been too bad.  Maybe he’s still alive out there somewhere.  We just don’t know where, and he doesn’t know we’re still here.  That could have happened, couldn’t it?  Too many “maybe’s” and “could have’s”.  But they’re what keep us going.  It’s because of the maybes and could haves that I open my eyes every morning and get up.  Without ‘em, I’d just stay in bed…

Her words trailed off again.  The old man had quit talking.  Elijah noticed that his beard was wet and his eyes were all glisteny.  The woman started to cry again and this time she made it.  Elijah dismounted and walked up to the porch where she was standing.  She had gathered herself and the crying was stopping.  For the first time, she looked straight at Elijah’s face.

Mrs. Carson – Sir, are you Elijah Campbell?  I saw a picture of you once in a newspaper.  It was a few years ago, right after you had raided Washington.  Is that you, sir?

Elijah – Yes Ma’am.  I am your humble servant.

Mrs. Carson – Was the message you sent to Jeff Davis true sir?  Had Mr. Lincoln actually agreed to stop the war?  The papers down here didn’t or wouldn’t print much of what some rumors said actually happened.  And then our government said you were such an evil man.  A lot of people wondered what really happened.  (She looked straight into Elijah’s eyes)  Could you have stopped it sir?

Elijah – There were a few details to be worked out.  But I think it could have ended then (he hesitated, looked to his right, then briefly up toward the sky, then directly at Mrs. Carson and slowly and calmly said)… if both sides had wanted that.

Mrs. Carson – I see sir.  Everybody around here thinks you are a hero.  Our government was a bunch of proud, selfish old men.  They were too proud.  And now we have this mess we’re in, and I don’t have my only son.  If Jeff Davis and the rest of them know so much, can they give me my son back, or just tell me where he is?  Can they do that sir?

Elijah – No Ma’am, they can’t do that.

Mrs. Carson – Can you, Mr. Campbell?  I believe if anybody could, it would be you, sir.

Elijah – I would if I could, Ma’am.  You know that.

Mrs. Carson – I believe you, sir.

Elijah – Ma’am, would it be all right if we had prayer?

Mrs. Carson – I would like that, sir.

Elijah and Claude (who was still mounted) both removed their hats.  Elijah placed his gloved right hand on the woman’s shoulder and prayed this prayer:

All righteous, Holy Father in heaven

Forgive us, Thy children, our many trespasses

Help us order our lives more like the life of Thy Son

Bless this good lady and her husband

Comfort them in their grief and loss

When our lives here shall soon end

Receive us all into Thy loving bosom

In the name of Thy Son

Amen

Mrs. Carson – Thank you, sir, and God bless you.

Her husband had started crying during Elijah’s prayer.  She went over to his chair and whispered something in his ear.  Elijah couldn’t make out what she said.  In a few moments he got up and, without looking at Elijah or Claude, began walking toward the door of their house with his wife’s arm locked in his.  They entered the house and the door closed behind them.

Elijah and Claude were left alone in the yard.  It was beginning to get dark.

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One Response to “The Salvation of Elijah Campbell – Afterword”

  1. John Says:

    Upon further reflection, I believe it was Grant who had the burial trenches dug at Shiloh, not Beauregard.

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