The Yankees invaded Beaufort in December of 1861. We watched the battle at Fort Macon from our front porch, saw our flag fall. And then we watched the bluebellies march down our own street with their drums and fifes filling the air, rejoicing at our defeat. A captain, or maybe a lieutenant (I wouldn’t know the difference), removed his hat in greeting to Mama as he passed by on a beautiful bay mare. Mama made a sound, something like indignation, turned herself right around and stormed into the house. The officer was left in the road, his hat in his hand.
I followed Mama inside and watched from the window as the troops paraded by. Some of them looked at the houses around them with awe in their eyes, their mouths hanging open. I felt a certain pride, sure that none of these Yankees had seen anything quite like the beauty and wealth of seaside Beaufort. The well-to-do of the Carolinas vacationed here during the summer months, but we stayed year round. We owned one of the finest inns in the town, and Daddy made money off his fishing warehouse. It had been in the family for years. Because Daddy had no male heirs, my cousin Daniel managed the business—though Daddy kept a watchful eye.
“We will not stay here, John!” Mama’s voice rang shrilly from the dining room. “I will not stay here with these—”
Daddy’s voice was low and calm, “Martha, you know we cannot leave. Where would you go? I have the Inn, not to mention the warehouse—”
But Mama’s tirade was not over. I tried to ignore the biting words flying from her lips and instead focused on the soldiers marching by. They wore blue wool coats— with gear of shiny black leather. An officer, this one on foot, halted the regiment. I watched him climb the steps to the neighbor’s porch, heard him bang on the door. I tiptoed to the other window, peered out and tried to catch what he was saying. I was so intent upon what was transpiring at our neighbors that I nearly shouted in alarm at the loud knock on our own door.
I leapt backwards, away from the window, and scurried to the door, hoping no one had caught my eavesdropping. The knock sounded again. I looked to the dining room, could still hear them arguing, and pulled open the front door.
A young officer, not much taller than me, stood on the porch with his hat in his hands. Fancy braid decorated his uniform. He looked at me nervously, cleared his throat. I waited.
“Good day, miss,” he began awkwardly. “I—umh—I noticed that you had a well right there in your yard, and I—umh—”
“Who is it, Rachel?” Mama’s footsteps pounded the floor as she stomped into the room, looking anything but a lady. Her hair was in disarray, as though she’d been pulling it in her frustration. “Who’s at the—” she stopped before the open door. She narrowed her eyes and looked defiantly at the young soldier.
“Yes?” she said coldly. I almost felt pity for the stranger, facing Mama’s wrath as he was.
“Ma’am,” he began again. “I was—uh—” He glanced backwards at the waiting men lining the side of the road, and all at once the words rushed from his mouth, “I was made aware that you have a well right there on your property, and I must ask for permission to use it for my men. We’ve been marching for quite a while now, and our canteens are low, if not empty, and—” he stopped, seeing the fury in Mama’s eyes.
“You certainly may not use that well,” she spoke slowly, enunciating each word, “and should any of your soldiers,” she sneered, “take one step on my property, I will—”
Now, the officer’s own blood was hot. He interrupted, “Perhaps I did not make myself clear, ma’am. This army will be requisitioning your well to fill our canteens. The Union thanks you heartily.” He turned around, shouted to his men, “Go ahead,” and the mob crowded around the well.
Mother exploded. “GET YOUR BLUEBELLY BLOOD OFF MY PROPERTY OR SO HELP ME GOD I SHALL SKIN EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU! OUT, GET OUT—” she was in the middle of the yard, fighting her way through the soldiers to the well. Most of the men weren’t quite sure how to take her outburst and backed away, laughing. She reached the well and laid her arms across the top, as if to cover it with her body.
Daddy was out there in seconds, dragging her back inside, trying to hush her caustic words. I stood on the front porch, embarrassed by her display. Daddy shoved her inside, slammed the door and turned to the officer still standing on our porch. I could tell the man was trying to smother a smile.
“Officer,” Daddy said calmly, “I assume I have no choice in this matter?”
The young man sobered quickly. “I’m sorry, sir, I—” he faltered, looked at his men as soldier after soldier filled his canteen. His eyes fell upon me, and then quickly back to Daddy’s somber face.
“I can do little more than thank you.”
I could feel it, Daddy’s shoulders fall, defeated by the knowledge that he could no longer protect our home. We had hoped the war would not reach here…
But Daddy nodded and turned back inside. “Come inside, Rachel.”
I turned my back on the raucous scene in our front yard—the simple task of refilling canteens had turned into an all-out water fight.
“I’m sorry, miss,” the officer said again. I didn’t even turn around, just closed the door behind me.
Though their reactions weren’t quite as dramatic as Mother’s, the women in town had banded together in defiance of the invading troops. Curse words were hurled from genteel mouths, while glares pierced the men in blue. Their greetings were largely ignored, most certainly never returned. The men, on the other hand, had responded differently. Though they seemed to realize the danger of disobedience, the women were untouchable, sheltered in their disdain.
“Come along, girls,” Mother called over her shoulder one afternoon in late January. A shipment of commercial goods had arrived from up North and Mother had announced a shopping day (she didn’t seem to mind buying from the Yankees when it suited her). Lizzy, my eight year old cousin, accompanied us.
“I would like a new fan,” Lizzy told me as we struggled to keep up with Mama’s own quick pace. She did not appreciate the grace of a slow stroll, preferred to storm on by, her hoop swinging widely, barreling through anyone or anything in her path. My governess would be embarrassed to walk beside her. I just tried to ignore it (and the stares she attracted).
“My mother said I could get a new ribbon, but I can’t decide on the color,” Lizzy rambled on. “What do you think? I like pink, and I have a yellow one, so I thought maybe blue, but Margaret has a blue one, and she said she’d be very unhappy if I had one too, so perhaps I should get green…”
I ignored her, instead searching for mother. It seemed we had lost her in the crowd.
“Looking for someone?”
I spun around, saw the blue uniform and gripped Lizzy’s hand. She quieted.
“Umh,” I began, disconcerted by the man’s arrival. I generally avoided the Yankees. Though I had not succumbed entirely to the hatred that had grown caustically bitter in the townswomen, I certainly did not enjoy their company.
“I was looking—” and then I recognized him. The officer, the awkward one that had come to our house. The man who had used our well. “If you have come looking for water, I haven’t got any. Our well is nearly dry.” That, of course, was a lie.
“Listen now, I apologized for—”
“Let’s go, Lizzy.” I pulled her past him, again looking for Mother.
I stopped, suddenly frightened. “How do you know my name?”
“I—” he looked at me, a frown on his freckled face (I had only now noticed the freckles and his light brown hair). “Your father used it. I just happened to recall—”
“Oh.” I glanced around, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. “Well. I must ask you to, umh, kindly leave me alone.”
“I only wanted—”
I interrupted, “Good day, Officer,” and marched away from him.
“My name is Benjamin,” he called out behind me. “Benjamin Taylor!”
I pretended I did not hear him.
“Who is that?” Lizzy questioned.
“Absolutely no one.”
“He said his name was Benjamin.”
“Did he now?”
“He was rather handsome,” she giggled.
I rolled my eyes. “He’s a Yankee.”
“Oh,” she said as though that explained everything, all our unkindness. The sad part is, it did.
I started to see Benjamin everywhere. I began to see all the Yankees everywhere. It seemed they swarmed on Beaufort like a roiling wave of blue wool and were going to drown us all in their bugles and drums and cold, hard voices.
“Good morning,” they’d say, or maybe, “How are you?” But Mother would just glare and pull us along.
I suppose I adapted to the changes overtaking the town, because after a while, I didn’t so much mind the Yankees. In fact, there were a few I had grown to like… and one I had even grown to love. And that is what brought me here, sitting in the red light of the setting sun with the humid July air resting heavy and moist on my skin.
“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted.
“Say you’ll come with me.” He said it like it was so simple, like it would be so easy to abandon my life and follow him somewhere up North, someplace I’ve never been, somewhere I don’t belong.
I swallowed with difficulty, and my mouth was so dry my lips seemed to stick to my teeth.
“You know I can’t do that…”
“Why not? What have you got…”
I just shook my head and felt tears fill my eyes. I watched disappointment fill his. I looked away, and he brushed a hand across my cheek.
“I guess we were just fooling ourselves,” he said softly. I tried to smile, wished I could stop the rush of memories flooding my mind—all the things we had once shared, all the things we would never do. Not together, at least.
“I guess I’m your Juliet,” I teased sadly.
“Ever out of reach…” he continued talking, but all I could see were his eyes and all I could hear, my beating heart. How do you say goodbye? I didn’t know, had little experience.
And suddenly I just wanted it to be over. I couldn’t handle it anymore; I yearned for an end, any end. I wished to draw this out no longer.
I brought my fingers to his lips, shh’d him. I took a deep breath, looked away, and spoke, “Benjamin. You’ve… you’ve meant very much to me. I’ve loved you, these past four years, and I—”
I gave up, words failing, and just wrapped my arms around him and held on tightly. And then I let go. He said something—I’m honestly not sure what—and then kissed my cheek. And he left.
I stood on the porch, alone, and watched him retreat over the hill into the burning horizon. Despite my efforts to keep the unbearable sadness at bay, it washed over me like the stormy ocean waves. Its salt stung my eyes; and I didn’t know if Beaufort would ever be the same.