Issue 2:1 | Non-Fiction | J. Hayden Hollingsworth
A GATHERING OF GHOSTS
By J. Hayden Hollingsworth
The wind always seems harsher, colder in graveyards. As I stood there, the brown leaves of winter scuttled between the tombstones, alien crabs on the floor of a barren sea. Only a few shards of broom straw whipped in the sandy soil between rows of graves. I was thinking I should have stayed in Atlanta in the warm confines of the Westin Peachtree where my meeting was being held. Skipping my morning assignment and coming to Smyrna Campground to look for my grandfather’s grave, locked in the Georgia clay, seemed like an ill-advised notion now that I was actually there. Why my ancestors had left the sylvan beauty of Pennsylvania and migrated to this desolate place escaped me. I hoped they weren’t part of Oglethorpe’s penal colony, the original settlers of the state. For whatever reason, here they were: more dead Hollingsworths than I ever wanted to see--and somewhere in this sad place, my grandfather was among them.
He’d been dead almost fifty years. I was fourteen when he died, but I remembered him well. His wife had died when he was in his fifties, leaving behind ten children. Fortunately, some of them were grown and married, but my father was the youngest--only eight years old when his mother died. There was little work in Atlanta in the early century, so my grandfather traveled to find work wherever he could. And he found it--the meanest kind: He worked in coke ovens, cleaning the slag from the brick walls in those suburbs of hell. When he became too old, too worn, to work, he had no home, so he lived out the rest of his life with his children, traveling from one to the other as family needs changed. That’s how I came to know him: He spent time with us.
I remember the first time I saw him. I was three. Down to Keysville, Virginia, we rode one hot summer afternoon. The gigantic, green Southern engine chuffed into the train station, the largest June bug I had ever seen, a mechanical marvel of smoke and steam, of clanking pistons and cinders. The wonder of that sight was shortly eclipsed by my grandfather, walking with a cane down the brick pathway beneath the train shed. I loved him the instant I saw him.
He spent a good part of that summer with us, and although he was in his mid-eighties, he was still active. Every morning he would take me for walks through Farmville, down to where the new highway was cutting through town. We would sit for hours, watching the steam shovels--almost as fascinating as the June-bug engines of Keysville. From the hillsides, they took giagantic bites of earth and loaded them onto waiting wagons. Just beyond where we sat lay the mainline of the Norfolk & Western railroad. We could watch the trains pound their way east toward the mysterious place called “High Bridge” or begin their westerly run up to Appomattox. He would tell me stories of train rides to the other worlds of Detroit and Chicago, of working in Denver or Tulsa, places that filled my mind with enchantment. He loved stories and I loved to hear them. I was an old man myself before I learned the value of asking a really old person to tell me a story. The next time you want to learn something, seek out someone like that, sit down and say, “Tell me a story about when you were young.” You’ll learn something, I promise you that.
From Pop, as I called him, I learned about the Civil War. He had been born on July 4, 1856, near Conyers, Georgia, twenty miles east of Atlanta. He remembered watching his father march off to war in 1862, leaving behind a wife, and three small children. He was never heard from again, except the numbing news that he had been wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness and had died somewhere in Virginia. But there were plenty of Civil War stories to be told. The burning of Atlanta, the family hiding in the woods from Sherman’s army as they rattled down the dusty roads heading to the sea; the nearly starving to death after the war as his mother and the three children tried to farm that sandy soil. I heard it all, first hand. Even as a child, I knew I was hearing history in a way that few others could tell.
My mother wasn’t too happy about our wanderings. Sometimes, we would be gone all morning and I can remember her admonishing him that he shouldn’t be taking me off so far from home. “Something might happen to you,” she told him. He looked at her with firmness and said, “I’m old enough to take care of the two of us.” That was the end of that conversation.
Pop caused a bit of trouble with my father, too. I remember Pop cutting our grass one afternoon in the broiling sun. When my father was upset that he had done such hard work at his age, Pop said--and probably with the ring of truth--”I know what’s hard work and cutting the grass isn’t it.” End of another discussion.
So on we walked that summer. To the Buffalo river (scaring my mother even more than the highway job), to visit with other old gentlemen in the neighborhood (not my favorite walk since they talked to each other, not to me), and best of all, to the neighborhood grocery store for ice cream cones. If I shut my eyes, I can still hear the doubling-slapping of the screen door with its painted Rainbow Bread sign, the smell of the oiled wood floor, and feel the cool, solid marble counter top under my hands while the ice cream was dished up. His visit ended with a return trip to Atlanta on the Piedmont Limited from Lynchburg, taking my sister and me with him to visit our favorite aunt and uncle with whom he was going to live. An all-day ride on a train with him! Can you understand why I remember every detail? As the train approached, how could we have known what lay so nearby?
He visited a number of times, but his final visit came when I was ten. He was ninety. For some reason he had decided that he wanted to find his father’s grave before he died. His daughter and her husband agreed to bring him up to Virginia for a visit with us and a trip through some of the Civil War battlefields with their adjoining graveyards. I was delighted to see him, but I knew a needle-in-haystack search when I saw one. Tens of thousands of Confederate graves were in the state and, truly, God only knew how many unmarked graves lay silently tangled in honeysuckle and trumpet vine. To me, finding his father’s grave seemed about as likely as stumbling over the Hope diamond in a junk store. But the threesome arrived in good cheer, we had a visit for a couple of days, then they were off to Fredericksburg and the Wilderness.
When they returned, there wasn’t much conversation about the futile trip, and Pop seemed chastened. I wished there were something I could say, but I couldn’t think of anything comforting. I had seen Gone With The Wind. To know that my great-grandfather had died of his wounds was much worse than thinking a Sharpe’s rifle had taken off the top of his head while eating his hardtack under a maple tree. The horror of the wounded haunted me then; still haunts me today.
I saw him several times after that on our annual summer trek to Atlanta, but I could see his spirit winding down, looking for the exit. He died at ninety-five in the spring of 1950. My father went to the funeral, the rest of us stayed home. When he returned from the Smyrna Campground Cemetery, it was one of the few times I saw him cry. I remember thinking about Pop, “Well, he’s finally found his own father.”
So now, I stood in front of his grave. A double headstone for him and my grandmother who died 25 years before I was born. What emotions I had expected to feel, I’m not sure. The main thing I noticed was being cold and how forlorn this place looked. How much I wanted to get back to something living! As I was leaving the cemetery, I looked at the Campground, a place I hadn’t seen since I was three years old. It looked even worse than the cemetery. The rickety cottages which I remembered as spacious and stately, now were shriveling into decay. Some had burned, the charred timbers standing like bare trunks in an ebony forest. Screen doors hung slackly by a single hinge, the tar-paper roofs were peeling, skin from an alien back, and through the grounds wandered several underfed hounds--the kind you see lazing in the dusty yards of sharecropper houses. I wanted to leave that place . . . and I did.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life--more than my share, some might say--but one thing I did get right: The selection of my mother-in-law. For every joke you have heard about those much- maligned ladies, I can tell you a story that offsets it. I will tell you only one.
In the late 1980s, I was visiting my mother-in-law in Lynchburg one summer day. We had done the Sunday-thing: church, pot roast, string beans, and mashed potatoes followed by apple pie. Having disposed of those obligations, what to do with the rest of the day came to mind. I was perfectly content to sit on her apartment balcony and watch the birds visit the feeder, but she had a different plan.
“Would you like to go see the Lynchburg pest house?” she asked, as casually as if she were suggesting a trip to the market.
“The pest house? They have one still in operation?” I asked.
She laughed. “No, there’s a doctor here who’s interested in Civil War history--Peter Houck, you may know him--and he’s set up the old Pest House as a little museum in the City Cemetery. Would you like to see it?”
Well, I did know Peter Houck and had nothing better to do, so I said, “Sure. Why not?”
The City Cemetery is a serene looking place in Lynchburg. Large trees--oaks and cedar--spread across rolling hillsides. Gravestones from tiny to mausoleum-sized rested in the shade. In the far corner was the Pest House--that’s short for “pestilence,” not suggesting a neighbor who keeps pigs in his front yard. “Hospital” certainly has a more pleasant ambience to it.
The building was small, no more than twenty by fifteen feet, I would guess. It was closed, but you could look in the windows and imagine the grisly work that went on there. After reading a few brochures and listening to an automatic instructional tape, the picture became a little clearer. During the Civil War, wounded soldiers were shipped down the railroads from the northern Virginia battlefields to Lynchburg where tobacco warehouses--thirty of them--had been converted into hospitals. This little city had been the largest medical center in the confederacy. The chant of the tobacco auctioneer was replaced by screams and moans, by frantic pleadings: PLEASE, PLEASE . . . STOP!! DON’T CUT ME ANYMORE!!! But you know they didn’t stop. . . they kept on cutting. A skilled surgeon could amputate a leg in less than a minute, but it would have been a minute that no one would ever forget. Soldiers died by the thousands from their wounds, from smallpox, they wasted away with cholera, tetanus, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and who knows what else. Out on these grassy cemetery knolls had lain the dead, waiting for their nameless graves. Only one thing seemed certain to me the afternoon I stood there: This had been an open-air morgue.
Today the sky was blue, that color so brilliant just before autumn, as if to bolster us for the coming of a leaden winter. Off to the west was an impressive fence row of hybrid tea roses, manicured and proliferate. The humid air was redolent with newly mown grass. Someone was clearly paying attention to the area. The birds were singing and the July flies were sawing their way toward an fall death. Just over the brow of the hill, a train was passing, coming down from the north on the same tracks that had carried my sister and me to Atlanta with Pop so many years ago. I could imagine what the scene must have been like one hundred-thirty years earlier. Creaking caissons carrying the bodies would have drowned out the birds and the July flies; the stench of rotting flesh and the detritus of disease would have obliterated the haunting smells of newly cut grass and delicate roses. And the trains passing by would have been filled, not with shiny new automobiles, but with the wounded. I had seen enough. I took a stroll up the hill.
Just beyond the hedges I was in the midst of the massive military graveyard. Among the thousands of Confederate dead, were thirty Union soldiers. If possible, their deaths must have been even more horrific: dying and among the enemy. I hoped in communal death they re-found their lost brotherhood . Row on row of rounded headstones stood, each marked with the initials and unit of the soldier lying below. I wondered about the stories that could have been told by these dead, and even more, the stories that never happened; at the war’s end the average age of the Confederate soldier, I have been told, was 16. Lives unlived by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands when you think about all the battlefield graveyards.
I turned to leave and retrieve my mother-in-law, but up the hill I saw a monument in the center of the graves. I might as well visit that before I left. The area was paved in brick, and in the center stood an obelisk of granite. It marked a mass grave of fifty Confederate soldiers. On each side of the monument were listed the names--not the initials--the names as well as the unit designation of the fifty sets of bones lying next to each other beneath my feet. I read each name on the first side. Some from every state in the Confederacy. I turned to the second side--more of the same. Then, as I started to turn to the third side, for reasons that I cannot explain to this day, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I moved to where I could read the names. The fourth name from the top on the third side was the name of my great-grandfather: J. Hollingsworth, H Company, 50th Regiment, Georgia.
There haven’t been too many times in my life when I thought I was communing with the dead, but this was one of them. Standing there in the late afternoon sun, I felt myself a living bridge between two dead men--one whom I had, of course, never met and one whom I loved very much. Without thinking, I said aloud, “Pop! I’ve found him. I’ve found him! He’s in a beautiful place.” The answer wasn’t in words, at least not the kind you hear, but they were just as real as if my grandfather had been standing beside me, holding my hand as he had done when I was a tiny child. “Yes!” That’s all he said. “Yes!”
Copyright 2003 J. Hayden Hollingsworth, M.D.