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More from "These Men of Libby..."...and another'Moment to Remember'
What is this ? What follows here below is a story...albeit just two paragraphs from a much greater story. And this greater story is an historical novel I have been working on now for the past two years running. I call my story, "Raisins and Almonds--- A Civil War Story." It's a story about my Great Great Grandparents, John and Emily Ellen Clarke Whitehead, of Number 62 Anderson Street, Allegheny (now Pittsburgh) and later of Middleton, Ohio. John is an ordained Presbyterian Minister and Emily is a musician--- a pianist--- and if you listen very carefully to the music that's playing right here and right now... well, could it possibly be ? But, getting back to my story, when the Civil War first breaks out in 1861 John is adamantly against the war on religious grounds. But with the passage of time and close interaction with a contraband slave family--- Ben and Mattie and their little boy, Raphael--- who live in the stable out back, behind their Manse in Middleton, Ohio, John comes around to favoring the North's position on the slavery issue alone, and so he searches for and ultimately finds the Biblical support for doing so. John then wants to become a chaplain, but Emily will hear none of this, and so John remains where he is--- as Minister to a small Presbyterian Church in Middleton, Ohio, and as husband to Emily and father to their young son, Willie, my Great Grandfather. But in the spring of 1864 John is drafted into the Union Army as the chaplain he longs to be. John is assigned to a unit that sees immediate action in The Battle of the Wilderness, and then later, during the early stages of the siege of Richmond, one fine day in June 1864 the men of his unit assume the role of a work detail whose mission is to tear up several miles of track along the Weldon Railroad just south of Richmond. And in what history has since described as "The First Battle of the Weldon Railroad," Southern forces patrolling the area surround the unsuspecting work detail and open fire in what then resembles a turkey-shoot. And by day's end the Northern troops have been so badly overrun that Grant, as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, fails to even mention the skirmish at the Weldon Railroad in his report to Secretary Stanton on the following day. Failing to anticipate any engagement with the enemy that fateful day, the 3,000 men making up the work detail were armed with little more than pick axes, crow bars, and shovels. Shirtless, or at best, dressed in sweaty, dirty white undershirts, the men in blue pants fought bravely enough--- fighting valiantly to the very last of the short supply of ammunition they had brought with them. But when the last round had been fired, surrender was inevitable. And so John, being a non-combatant with the rank of Captain was sent by the Confederates to where Union officers were always sent--- they were sent to Libby Prison in Richmond. All the others, wounded or not, were loaded onto cattle cars bound for Andersonville, Georgia--- never to be seen again.
And with this brief introduction to my story, come with me now and listen in on a private moment between Sam, a desperate imprisoned Union officer at Libby Prison, and his chaplain, John Whitehead, my Great Great Grandfather---
--- The power of the spoken word ---
First, from Sam--- the complexity in his confession of despair--- "The reality of it all..."
"John, I am numb--- so numb that I no longer possess The Faith that you speak of. I am unfaithful because I have lost my worthiness as a man. And I am unworthy because I have lost any sense of who it is that I am in this wretched place. I am myself now a prisoner amongst prisoners. And we are all doomed to hell, for we are all just as unworthy of God's Grace as the next man. None of us walk with The Lord, John, for we walk only with each other, and we shall continue to do so until the end of our days, which grow fewer in number with each passing day. Just look around you, John, can't you see that we are a doomed lot ?--- for we are all equally unrighteous wretches, every last one of us. We are no longer men among men. We are instead, what they have made us to be..." And with that, Sam looked away, his voice trailing off into a moment of silence before adding in a mostly inaudible voice, "...We are nothing."
And then, from John--- the simplicity in his response of reassurance--- "The promise above it all..."
"Look at me, Sam!" as John reached out with both his hands and his arms, squaring-up Sam's once powerful shoulders as he did so.And when at last he found Sam's sunken yet swollen eyes returning to his, John began--- "You may feel unfaithful, and unworthy, and yes, even unrighteous, Sam, but one thing you are not. And that is this, Sam--- not you, nor any other man here, is unloved. God still loves you Sam, just as you are, and just as He does each and every man here. And God shall continue to do so, no matter what our present circumstance. Always remember this, Sam... always. And remember too that God did not put us here. We are here, each and every one of us, because we believe in the justness of our cause, and we believe that our justness is the same justness of Our Father in Heaven. We cannot let these Rebels take our beliefs from us. They may take away all that we are, Sam, but don't let them take from us that which we feel, too. Were it not as I say, Sam, these Confederates would surely let each of us go our separate way. But no, they hold us fast here, for they know that while they may have stripped us of our wherewithal, and yes, our dignity too, nonetheless, deep inside our very being we are still men holding onto the only thing we have left--- our sense of who we are and our convictions for which we stand, one man next to the other, as both The Union we represent and The Faith that binds us together. This is not the Garden of Eden, Sam. We were first made in God's image, and then long ago we were cast out by a defiled God from that peaceful existence. But God did not make us into 'nothing,' Sam, to drift aimlessly about, for we have God's assurance of eternal forgiveness--- God's Promise of Life Everlasting through His Grace--- forgiveness freely given to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, who not so very long ago walked among us, only to die our death for us so that we all might live on, from this life to the next. You may feel unworthy and unrighteous inside these walls that define this hell-like circumstance in which we now find ourselves, but the Bible assures us that no matter what may come of us here in this awful place, God's mercy and justice for all shall once again prevail on earth, just as it is in Heaven. We may not all live to see God's justice at the end of this war of our own doing, Sam, but we shall all live to see the fulfillment of His Promise of Life Everlasting. And so it is in His Name that I invite you to come with me now, Sam. Come pray with me... come pray for the salvation of your soul, Sam... and for the soul of each and every last one of us. For we are still very much men, Sam, just as we have always been. Changed... maybe... yes, we are all most certainly changed... and we are changed forever. But in our changing, we are still greater than 'nothing,' Sam, for we are... ' The Men of Libby!'"
For: "Raisins and Almonds--- A Civil War Story"
***Story written by Bruce, an occasional Presbyterian, and presented here from scratch in html coding also written by Bruce***
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