Author’s Note. The following story was inspired by Barksdale’s recent historical novel, "Revolutionaries & Rebels."
Athens, December 1864. That terrible war is in its fourth year. It’s cold, snowing and folks are hungry. Barns lay in ashes, and where fine homes once stood, there are blackened chimneys. Cotton and cornfields are overgrown with brambles, bushes and briers. Yankee soldiers occupy Athens.
To add further insult, they torched the courthouse a few days ago. Hardly a bird can be heard chirping. Just last week Yankees showed up at our place and stole my mare, most of our corn, all the chickens they could catch and took the meat from our smokehouse. What an awful time it is. I wake up at night and wonder how we survive. And Christmas is just around the corner.
In spite of all, Ma has declared we’re going to have Christmas, just like always, Yankees or no Yankees. Ma is a determined woman.
“They can whip us, but they’ll never conquer us,” she says.
Pa sits in front of the fireplace and worries – and for good cause. My brother, James Greer Barksdale, and brother-in-law, James Martin Newby, were captured at Missionary Ridge last November and are prisoners at Rock Island where Confederate are starving, freezing, and dying of disease and trigger-happy guards.
Two other brothers, William Coleman and Dudley Richard, are fighting with General Hood’s Army in Tennessee. We just heard they suffered over 6,200 casualties at Franklin. And they are retreating back toward Florence. Oh, how I hate to think of their misery.
Another brother, Robert Beasley, is riding with old Preacher Johnston’s Partisan Rangers over in Madison and Jackson County. The Yankees call him “Bushwhacker” and have put a price on his head.
I’m Thomas Barksdale and I live with Ma and Pa, along with two sisters and a passel of nieces and nephews about three miles east of town on the Athens-Fayetteville Pike. We’ve been living in the same log house since moving from Fayetteville in 1833. Oh, I forgot to mention, older brother George and his family live down the road. George drives the stagecoach from Athens to Fayetteville.
I’d be off fighting like my brothers, but I can’t hear thunder. Ma said I got an ear infection when I was a baby, and it left me nearly deaf.
Last night, after going to bed in the loft, I heard Ma tell Pa, “I can’t stand the thought of our boys not being here for Christmas. We don’t have decent food to eat, nor presents, not even a tree.”
“I’ll think of something,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”
Next morning, Pa took charge. “Ma has declared we’re having Christmas, and by crackies, we are,” he said.
I was dispatched to Swan Creek to snare rabbits and squirrels. My nieces were told to search the barn and woods for eggs, and the boys ordered to dig dirt from beneath the smokehouse and boil it down for salt.
“I’m gonna walk to Athens and ask Aunt Sallie if she can spare a dab of flour,” he added.
Sally is Ma’s older sister and married to postmaster, Robert D. David. They have more than most folks.
Ma brightened. “We’re gonna have squirrel dumplings for Christmas?” she asked.
“Yep, and a Christmas tree too,” Pa boasted.
That afternoon Pa returned from Athens with enough flour to make dumplings. After the children went to bed he sat in front of the fireplace and made corncob and shuck dolls for the girls and carved whistles for the boys.
“I heard in town that Hood’s Army is starving and freezing,” Pa said. “They’re leaving a trail of blood in the snow.”
Ma walked in and overheard the comment.
“Ohh Lordy! I can’t stand the thought of our boys suffering. We don’t even know if they’re dead or alive.”
Christmas Eve morning, Pa and I went with the children, looking for a Christmas tree. Ol’ Luther wobbled in front of us, sniffing the ground and dragging a bad hind leg. Last year a Yankee shot him for no good reason. The children were excited.
“Pa, cut a tall one.”
Finally, after a couple of hours of wading through the woods, Pa was give out and chopped own the first cedar tree he saw. The day had been fruitful. Two rabbits and six squirrels were snared; a handful of salt had been retrieved, and the children found two dozen eggs.
Ma spent the afternoon rolling out dumplings and cooking meat in a black pot hanging in the fireplace. It sure did smell good. When Pa lifted the lid Ma ran him off with a ladle and warning, “Stay outta that! It’s for Christmas!” My mouth watered thinking about dumplings and cornbread.
I erected the tree and the children trimmed it and decorated it with popcorn rope and pine cones. It smelled wonderful.
“Uncle Thomas, it don’t have a star,” my nephew, Luke Newby, complained. I carved a star and attached it to the top. “But it is isn’t silver,” he said.
Christmas Eve Night, with snow falling, Brother George and his family came over and we gathered in front of the fireplace and Pa read from the Bible about the birth of Jesus and told the children about the three wise men bringing gifts.
“That’s how Christmas came about,” he said “and why we exchange gifts.”
Pa shushed us. Then he prayed long and hard that all the boys were safe and would soon return home. Afterward, he shouldered his fiddle and played a mournful tune, one we all knew. George’s baritone voice sang, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…” We joined hands and sang along with tears streaming down our cheeks.
“Y’all sing louder so I can hear all of it,” I said.
Then we sang it again.
It was just past midnight – Christmas morning – and bitter cold. A north wind whistled between the chinked logs, sending shivers up my back. Pity any poor soul outside tonight. I pulled the quilt to my chin and was almost asleep when I heard Ol’ Luther barking and snarling.
Those devils were back again. I cupped my good ear and listened. Someone was in the yard. More barking and snarling. Then I heard a thin, plaintive cry.
“MA! PA!” The voice was familiar. It couldn’t be!
Pa got up and lit a candle. I scrambled from bed. Outside, Pa held the candle high, and it its soft glow, stood a bedraggled man with a scraggly beard.
“Who is it?” Pa demanded.
“Pa, it’s me, Dudley Richard. I’m home.”
Ma came out the door and stared at the man. “Dudley Richard?” she asked in disbelief.
“Yeah Ma, I’m home.”
Ma rushed toward him, arms outstretched. “My son, my son!”
Pa was trembling, tears running down his grizzled face as he hugged his son. I hardly recognized my brother – even ol’ Luther didn’t. Dudley was ill, half frozen and starving. He hadn’t eaten since leaving Hood’s Army two days earlier near Lexington, Alabama.
“The Lord has given me a wonderful present this Christmas.” Ma said. “My son is home.”
Soon the household was awake and hugging Dudley. Everyone was too excited to go back to bed. Pa stoked a big fire in the fireplace. Ma declared it was dinner time, no matter that it was only 2 a.m. We gathered around the table, and after Pa thanked the Lord long and hard, we ate squirrel dumplings and cornbread until we were full. Then we ate some more.
Ma declared it was the best Christmas ever. And it was.