The Empty Heart is the prequel to The Nowhere Church and The Nowhere School. When it becomes obvious that the changes to their lives will be too much to bear, two families from Georgia make their way west after the Civil War. In Omaha, a third family is added.
So different in family make up, background, and situations, the three families nevertheless manage to make it to somewhere near the middle of Montana, which they consider must also be the middle of nowhere. Over the course of their difficulties with the weather, the terrain, and trying to make a living in such a new and different place, they manage to get their homesteads made good, and a town started.
The Empty Heart
February 4, 1861
“I’m going,” Gordon said.
“And where might that be?” Atwood asked, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“To the war that’s coming.”
Atwood Butler had always been the impulsive one, the first to do anything new, from eating a fish eye on a dare to speaking to a girl in other than insulting and dismissive terms, to trying to get his plug mare to jump a fence at a dead run. Gordon Tanner was nearly the opposite, always the follower, always the last to know.
Everyone in the south had been forced to accept that indeed, war was inevitable. What they could not agree on was when it was going to happen, and how long it would last. Up until his declaration that he was going, Gordon was decidedly on the side that said it would not be for years, and it would only last a couple of weeks, so there was no reason to get all agitated and excited about the unknown possibilities.
Most of the people in Bulloch County had made their way to Statesboro to watch the parade and help celebrate the new Republic of Georgia’s entry into the Confederate States of America. People who normally didn’t drink were as drunk as old Leo Carter usually was each and every morning, and people who did not usually discuss “politics or religion” were expressing their views on whether the secession from the Union had been good or bad.
Up until this day, the two men had been more busy working to support their small families than be concerned with what was right or wrong with either position. They started work at dawn or earlier, and ended it at dusk or later. The Sabbath was observed only on occasions like Christmas or Easter. Atwood had often made the case that if there is more work to be done in a day than you can do, and you put it off, then you can never catch up, because tomorrow will have its own full day of necessary work to be done. He was already getting fidgety about the time he had taken off to come to the celebration.
Atwood took a glance at his family. His wife Carolina was the only woman he had ever or would ever love. Their daughter Bernice clung tightly to Carolina’s hand, as their son Morgan clung to his.
For the first time, he seriously thought: What if there IS a war? What if it comes here?
Gordon Tanner had already considered such thoughts. He had a wife, Virginia, who was Carolina’s older sister by two years. The Haleys had named both of their daughters after Southern states for no particular reason other than they liked the names.
Atwood looked at the man who had been his best friend for longer than he could remember, and said, “We need to talk about this.”
There was no hurry to go off to war, the most obvious being that there was no place to go. The Republic of Georgia had only the slightest semblance of a government, and any kind of militia was still months away. The idea of heading north and trying to find the pieces of a Confederate Army that had smashed the Yankees at Manassas was not agreeable to either of the men.
“If I fight, it’s going to be for Georgia,” Atwood said, “and not for any other reason.”
It was a statement with which Gordon agreed, although not so vehemently.
They, along with all of the other citizens of the county, got their crops planted, their new cows born, their fences mended, and their wood chopped as the spring and summer wore on. Information about what was going on up north was both sketchy and unreliable. There were those who exaggerated both ways, saying either that the war was already won or that it was already lost. It was either going to be a quick victory or a quick defeat, with no possibility of anything else. But, for most people like the Butlers and the Tanners, many grains of salt were sprinkled on the news, and more moderate opinions prevailed.
Then, on September 1, Gordon Tanner saw a poster in front of the general store in Statesboro, which declared that the Republic of Georgia was indeed going to create its army, and enlistments for this area would be on September 6 at the Effingham County court house. That evening, one in which the two families got together for a bit of social time, Gordon announced that he was going to enlist.
“The crops are in. The wood is cut. We have two steers to butcher. I am as ready as I can be. I’m going to go,” he announced.
Atwood and Carolina had discussed the possibilities many times, and although for different reasons, had agreed that if there was an actual army going to formed, and that Gordon was going to be adamant that he was going, that Atwood would also go. It was a decision that neither of them liked, but that both of them accepted.
When the day came to leave, all of the men who had enlisted gathered in the town center, where prayers were offered up for them individually and collectively, where kisses and hugs were exchanged, and where no one thought that the men would not all return, quickly and victoriously. It could have been a gathering to go into the woods to find a black bear which had taken to killing some chickens. It could have been a church social.
All of the people thought: Each of you will be home soon. Thank God.
Nothing is the same in Statesboro. Two years of war have left no one unscathed in one way or another. The first casualty from Bulloch County was a young man named Tony Cannon, who, when he stood to make the first charge of the war for the newly named 61st Georgia Regiment, was shot before he got fully stood up.
It was news which both devastated the Cannon Family, and shocked the entire community. Until the news reached the town, everyone, especially those people who had watched a family member or loved one march off to war, had held onto the dream that every one of the young me would return. The reports of Tony Cannon’s death, along with the dozen other reports of injuries or deaths, eliminated all possibilities of denial that the Confederacy was involved in a war, and not just a demonstration.
Over the two years, as the war grew in intensity, and the real numbers of casualties became known, times correspondingly got harder in Bulloch County. People were torn about mail. The desperately wanted to hear from their loved ones, to receive a letter or note that said something, anything, about whereabouts and condition, but mostly let them know that their soldier was still alive. On the other hand, no one wanted to hear the dreaded news of death or injury, so people checked on their mail less and less, deciding that the unknown was better than any bad news which might come.
On June 15, Carolina Butler decided to check her mail. The day before, the preacher had delivered a particularly moving sermon. She could not remember the specifics of what he said, or even the Scriptures he used, but she felt a new need to know, and a new feeling that her husband was indeed still alive. When she got to the Postal Office, she hesitated at the door, as most people did, gathering herself for news either way, but determined to check.
She was greeted by the postmaster, who informed her right away that he had been holding a letter for her for nearly three weeks. He retreated to his stacks of unclaimed mail and after shuffling through them for a few seconds, which seemed more like a few years to Carolina, he returned with an envelope. She took the envelope, saw that it was from Atwood, and retreated to her home before opening it. Were it to contain bad news, she could not allow herself to read it in public.
She sat at her table for nearly an hour, both grateful for receiving the letter, and fearful of what it might say. She started many times to open it, only to stop, unable to continue. Finally, with one last burst of determination, she opened it.
If you receive this letter, also receive my greetings and assurances that I miss you and your cooking. It does not, however indicate that I am still alive and whole when you receive it, as each day brings with it the possibility of a bullet or cannon ball ending any of our lives.
I hope that you have been able to maintain the farm, and have not let it fall into disrepair, undoing all of the hard work that I put into it before I left. Hopefully, Morgan offers a semblance of help to you, and is not as lazy and worthless around the property as he was before I left. If he is, give him a good whipping to get himself going.
Gordon has been wounded, although is not in danger of his life. He took a bullet which did not hit any vitals or bones. So, I guess we could say he was lucky.
I do not know when I will be back.
She clutched the letter, held it fast to her bosom, cried tears which blurred the ink with which it was written. The worst had not come, and she was grateful. She also felt she could not ask her sister if she had heard anything about her husband, knowing she could not be the bearer of such bad news. She would wait until Virginia found out from another source.
The town itself was unrecognizable from two years prior. The war had taken most of the best and strongest young men— excepting the sons of people rich enough to donate money to the cause instead of the blood of their sons— and that meant that a great portion of the work which needed to be done could not be. Fences were left unmended, houses left unpainted, fields untended. People walked around somber, offering only muted conversation, fearful of hearing of another death.
As long as the son or husband lived, the wives were for the most part able to maintain possession of their property. The ten or twelve dollars a month which were being sent home were enough to survive, although as the prices for all essentials rose, the amount became less and less sufficient.
The problems occurred when a soldier would die, and the army would cut off the payments to the families. With no way to make up the difference, widows and families began to lose their homes to the snakes who made their rounds offering less than a pittance for properties, which the widows were forced to sell or lose the property and receive nothing.
Each day, it seemed, life got harder. Goods and services to which the people had become accustomed before the war became nonexistent, or available only to the richest. Two years ago, enough cloth to make a shirt or a dress would have cost far less than a dollar. Now, if you could even find some, the price would be nearer to twenty. Shovels and axes were no longer even manufactured, with everything metal being shaped into some weapon of war.
Virginia Tanner had the same difficulties as other wives left to tend the home, but she did not face them with the same sense of resentment or resignation as others. She determined early on that she had no control of whether her husband lived or died, so time spent wishing and wondering, and even on occasion time spent praying, was time better spent working on the things she could control.
Older than her sister by two years, Virginia had grown up always relishing the role of big sister. She had done everything first, from school to boy friend to love to marrying. She had consoled her sister when necessary, and had taught her most of what she knew. She could not, however, pass along her temperament and personality. Virginia was not now, nor had she ever, been particularly swayed by the customs and rules which were so easily cast upon all young girls in the South. She did not mind getting her hands dirty and having sweat roll down her neck into her clothing. She did not mind having chapped hands which were tipped with dirty finger nails. And she did not mind cussing when the situation demanded it.
After two years, Virginia found that her most time consuming task was making sure her sister and two children did not starve. She could not help with fixing things which broke, but spent countless hours adding an extra hand to Carolina, who had to be gently coaxed into any work outside of the house and kitchen. Virginia also knew that at some point, she would have to decide how much she could continue to help her sister and still maintain her duties to her own family.
As Virginia dug in her garden, in the heat and humidity of a June afternoon, she looked joyfully across at Tessa Hamilton. Tessa had just turned ten, and was playing with the flower that she had received for her birthday. Virginia was relieved that Tessa had not been disappointed with such a meager present, and had been hesitant to give it to her as such, but Tessa jumped with childish happiness at getting her very own flower.
Virginia and Gordon had tried unsuccessfully to have a child for all of the eight years of their marriage before Gordon left. She had come to accept that she would never be a parent, would never experience the growth and birth of a child, and had accepted it externally, while at the same time being unable to fill the hole she felt in her soul.
A year ago, Tessa’s father had been killed in a battle, and at the news, her mother had then taken her own life the same day she heard about it. Virginia had been friends with Elizabeth Hamilton since they were younger than Tessa now was, and had even help midwife Tessa’s birth. When she heard that Tessa was now an orphan of the war, there had not been a second’s hesitation. Without asking for permission, or going through any accepted “channel,” she had taken Tessa into her home and had immediately loved her like she would have loved any child of her own. In two weeks, Tessa had taken to calling Virginia her mother, and from then on, it was never questioned by either of them.
Tessa was much like Virginia, more so than anyone Virginia had ever known. She was stubborn, smart, and had the same propensity to dirt and sweat as her new mother. She certainly outworked her two new cousins, including Morgan, who was a year older, but unable to keep up with her for a day.
It was Virginia who had arranged for Carolina to get a new cow after their old one died just after the men had left. Carolina had been so disturbed at the sight of a dead cow that she had not even told anyone about it until a neighbor came over to see what the horrific odor was. None of the meat was salvageable.
Seeing her sister and family with no source of milk, Virginia had traded one of her favorite family items, a necklace that was originally her grandmother’s, to a family that had a bred heifer they could spare. Virginia made the trade with no sense of regret. Still, it meant that the Butlers would have no source of milk for nearly six months, so she also traded some tomatoes and onions for a goat that her sister could use for milk.
Tessa liked both of her new cousins, especially Morgan. She also liked Bernice, who was three years younger than Morgan, but could not stand to do only what they all called “the girl chores.” For Tessa, the kitchen was a place to eat, and not a place to work for a day, unless it was to cut up a deer or a chicken. For Bernice, it was home.
She also liked most of the other kids in the school, although the last year had been difficult. School seemed to be divided into two groups. There were the ones who had not suffered loss from the war, and those who had. Those who had suffered losses were looked down upon, and mostly shunned, as if the loss was somehow infectious.
“Have you heard from Atwood?” Virginia asked her sister one day.
It was a question that Carolina had dreaded, a question which she knew might lead to a question of what she had heard about Gordon, which was one she had determined she was not going to answer. She did not like the idea of lying to Virginia, something she had never done, even when they were children.
“I got a short letter from him a couple of weeks ago,” Carolina replied, with no sign of great excitement.
“And you didn’t say anything?”
“It was a short letter, as you would expect from Atwood. It said he was still alive, and that’s about it.”
“Did he mention Gordon?
Don’t do it. Don’t lie. Tell her the truth. She is your sister, for God’s sake.
“All it really said was he hoped I wasn’t letting the farm go to waste after all of the hard work he put into it, and that just because I got a letter from him didn’t mean he was still alive.”
“He didn’t mention Gordon?”
“Why do you keep asking me that?” Carolina asked, suddenly so angry it surprised even her.
Shocked, Virginia replied that she wasn’t implying anything, but only wondering about her husband. She asked forgiveness for the way it had come across, and promised she would do more to hold her own emotions in check. “Every night I dream he has been wounded somehow or even killed. I dream of him lying in some dirty bed in some dirty building, surrounded by all sorts of people, but feeling alone. It’s horrible.”
Carolina felt the full weight of her lie. She burst out in tears, big, hard sobs which took her to her knees. She tried a few times to talk, couldn’t get the words out. Confused, big sister knelt down to her, picked up her chin, raised it so they were looking eye to eye.
“I am so sorry I have upset you, Carolina. I feel like such a heel, putting my own fears and worries upon you. Again, please forgive me. Virginia’s tears began to fall as copiously as her sister’s.
Carolina could no longer hold the lie in. She gathered herself, wiped her tears, and then her sister’s, took a deep breath. “Gordon has been wounded. That’s all I know,” she said calmly. “It was in the letter. I did not want to be the one who broke the news to you, especially since I know no more than that. Atwood said Gordon had been wounded, but was not in danger of his life.”
An eerie silence followed. Neither woman could quite believe what they had said or heard. Neither could quite get an understanding of their own thoughts and feelings, let alone understand the other’s. It was Virginia who broke the silence. She again wiped Carolina’s tears, held her face gently, said quietly, “I know you meant no harm. I know you were only doing what you thought was best. I am sorry that you had to hold that information in for this long. Please do not fret for one more minute over it.”
No one back in Bulloch County had a full picture of what was going on, or how the war was really proceeding. People shared news that they received from their loved ones, but it was nearly impossible to get a clear picture of the events and outcomes. Names like Gaines’ Mill, Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and dozens more names and places that no one had ever heard of were tossed about, often with each person’s embellishments along the way.
There were some wins and some losses, but what could not be believed were the numbers which came with the names and places. Estimates of Confederate casualties were stunning, unbelievable. Five thousand or so at Fredericksburg, another eight thousand at Manassas, ten thousand at Sharpsburg, thirteen thousand at Chancellorsville, with Yankee casualties surpassing those numbers at every battle. Impossible.
No one admitted it out in public, but at home, in the silence of their own thoughts, people began to know— know— that none of this was sustainable. There were too few men to replace those numbers. Far too few. Even if the war ended right now, and the Confederacy was declared the winner, how could they possibly recover? There were already too many families without men, too many women and children trying to make up for it, too much work to be done to maintain, no time or manpower for progress. A pall began to infect every person, a millstone, a weight of unbearable magnitude. People tried to hide it, tried their best to put on a pleasant countenance, but they knew.
Not a single life would ever be the same.
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