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I was a revolutionary, p.3

I Was a Revolutionary, page 3


I Was a Revolutionary

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  A curious thing about the burning of Lawrence is the lack of a definitive death count. Most references cite “nearly 150,” while other estimates range from 132 to more than 200. The August 23, 1863, edition of the New York Times reported “about 180 murdered” under the heading “The Invasion of Kansas.” The granite monument in the cemetery abides by the general estimate of 150 victims, but the surrounding gravestones all etched with the same date make estimates inadequate.

  His grave is in another cemetery, far from the monument. The wars didn’t mean anything to him. He’d never voted, didn’t know Sunni from Shia. He was in debt and depressed, having banked everything on a music career that hadn’t panned out. He enlisted for the money, for the experience. He enlisted, he said, because he needed to fucking grow up.

  (14) The Living and the Dead

  After four hours Quantrill’s men leave town, and the people of Lawrence abandon their hiding spots to survey the destruction and to search for husbands and fathers, sons and lovers, usually to sadness and horror. At first it seems the majority of the dead are colored, but they’re mostly charred white men. All over town, long wailing cries trouble the air like the caterwauling of animals in the rut. A makeshift hospital is raised in the only church that survived the onslaught, but the remaining doctor is little more than mortician and bartender, dispensing whiskey to the newly amputated or slowly dying.

  Massachusetts Street is completely devastated. People hurry pails of water from nearby wells and the Kaw River to the burning buildings, continuing on that first morning, mostly in silence now, mostly in vain, to salvage what they can of Lawrence. And then a strange thing happens: one of Quantrill’s men appears. Slowly he makes his way up the thoroughfare. People turn to watch him, wondering why he is still here. Having drawn from hiding the few surviving men, perhaps the raiders’ exit was a trick and a second attack is imminent. But in actuality this raider, Larkin Skaggs, has been left behind, separated from the group while indulging in drunken plunder. Why he doesn’t hurry to catch up with the others is part of the mystery of this moment. Full daylight now, he seems appreciative, pensive in his appraisal of the destruction, a prince surveying his grounds. No trot, no canter, no gallop—the dapple colt simply walks the street, dragging the Union flag tied to its tail in the dirt.

  No one sees where it comes from, but the first shot hits Skaggs in the shoulder and knocks him off his horse. For a few moments everyone just watches him squirm around, silently clutching his shoulder, before White Turkey, a Delaware Indian, approaches and fires a single shot directly into his heart. If Skaggs, a former Baptist minister, desires a martyr’s death, the survivors of the raid are prepared to grant it. They descend on Skaggs, still alive, and tie a rope around his neck. The father of one of the young black soldiers who died at the raid’s start climbs into the saddle of Skaggs’s horse and starts to sing “John Brown’s Body” as the colt continues its leisurely walk, dragging not only the Union flag but also its owner’s body, tethered to a lug on the horse’s saddle. The grief-shocked crowd follows the sable rider, joining in song and pelting the body with rocks. They need this: the battle hymn, the funereal march, the failed attempts to set the body aflame, the ritual stripping of clothes and removal of limbs and fingers, and at last the calloused boredom of rolling what remains of Skaggs into a ravine to tan and rot, to be picked apart by scavenger animals. Tomorrow they will hang a man who arrives in town and seems a little suspicious.

  (15) Confession

  Shortly before he shipped out, we were walking along Massachusetts Street, stopping at our favorite haunts—listening to records at Love Garden, having an afternoon drink at the Eldridge Hotel, combing stacks at the Dusty Bookshelf—strolling in the early fall with a beautiful ennui. I suggested we drop by the city’s historical museum. He’d never been. I told him of the most abject statue of Langston Hughes on display in a hall honoring notable Lawrencians.

  A volunteer near the entranceway, an old woman revealing bits of corn chip in her teeth when she smiled, informed us we were the only ones there. We walked through the building, so dark and dusty, lit solely by shafts of sun penetrating the high windows. They had added something new since I’d last been: a multimedia program of significant moments in state history. We skipped around the timeline, stopping on Quantrill’s Raid. We were quiet a long time. I wanted to tell him how I felt, to unburden myself, to ask him not to leave. But I knew he didn’t feel the same way about me, never had. How impossible it seemed then that any two people ever connected. He controlled the mouse, advancing to the next screen, saying, “Man, that must have been crazy. Can you imagine shit like that ever happened here?” I murmured agreement and asked if he would miss playing guitar while he was over there, but he didn’t answer. He simply clicked the STOP button, rose, and continued down the hall.

  (16) The Journey of the Body

  By the time Quantrill’s raiders leave Lawrence, Union leaders in Kansas City have finally mobilized forces to intercept the guerrillas before they cross into Missouri, where they’ll disappear into the brush and thicket, gully and wood, into the very soil, and become ghosts. The Union forces stage two dramatic attempts to stop the rebels but ultimately fail.

  Now it is almost twenty-four hours after the ambush began, and with a clutch of Union troops shrinking behind him in the distance, Quantrill feels as though he could sleep for a year, maybe two. He is weary. He knows they’ll be safe if they can just make it to Missouri, and he’s oppressed by the desire to ride straight to Kate’s home and see her face. Amidst all the death has been her memory, the longing to touch her again. Despite this pull, he will take his men to Texas to hide out and let things settle, but as they race for the border there is so much Quantrill doesn’t know.

  He doesn’t know that he’ll never receive the recognition he so covets from the Confederate army—no legitimization of him or his men, no General Quantrill; he doesn’t know that months from now his men will abandon him, either taking up with George Todd or so racked with guilt over their hand in the burning of Lawrence that they can no longer fight, that only a handful of them will follow him to Kentucky with the intention of continuing on to Washington to assassinate Lincoln; he doesn’t know that he’ll never get the chance; ambushed by federals, he’ll die in Taylorsville, Kentucky, dumped in an idler’s grave, farther away from Kate than ever; he doesn’t know that his skull will be stolen and that his eye sockets are destined to garage the limp pricks of awkward freshman pledges in a generational fraternity ritual; he doesn’t know that it’ll be more than a hundred years before his body is exhumed and returned to the loam of Missouri, the people there split on whether to celebrate the occasion or to protest. What he knows now is only a word containing a desire, a wish of coming home, really: Kate.

  It is morning once again and the last twenty-four hours have taken on the feeling of whole calendars of time. There in the distance, as he crosses into Missouri, the sun appears in the sky, purple shading into blue shading into red, forming slowly up over the far-off hills like a blister, a blemish, a birthmark.


  In that year, the South was Redeemed, and with President Hayes having already removed Union troops, something had to be done, for surely nothing good awaited CK Howard and his young family with the return of Democrats to office. Like other black men throughout the Delta, CK had traveled north from his home in Merigold to be part of the meeting in Clarksdale. The hall was packed, bodies pressed against one another, the air heavy with their dank smells and desperation. They listened eagerly for some sign or direction.

  “Eighteen hundred an seven-nine spell calamity for colored folk!” boomed the minister.

  “What we spose to do?” a voice from the crowd called out.

  “I live in Mississip my whole life,” said another man, which elicited a rumbling of support. “My family here!”

  The minister nodded, and waited for quiet. “But this place is set to return to Hell in no amount of time.” He paused. “And
if we stay, we die. Whether a return of the lash or the crush on our soul, don’t much matter to white folk who feel they been wronged these years last.” At that the crowd erupted, neighbors turning to one another while others shouted across the room. “Now, hold on,” he pleaded. “God, I’m here to tell you, will show us the way. The Almighty will lead us out of Egypt, this I promise.”

  “He sure got them words together,” CK said to his neighbor.

  “Need more than words,” the man said quietly, and then, as if boiling up unexpectedly from some hidden place inside him, he shouted at the dais, a voice so strong with intention that it swiveled the heads in the room his way: “What God gon do for us, preach? What, I mean to ask you, He gon do?”

  In subsequent meetings, throughout the final months of 1878, they would debate the religious and secular implications of the change in political winds—whether it was a sure signal of a coming millenarian End or only the formal institution of an already understood way of life—but when the arguing died down the only consensus remained fear of what lay ahead, and so they turned their attention toward what was to be done. There would be talk of Liberia, of chartered ships that would take them to Africa, of petitioning the president to establish a Negro state somewhere in the territories, of staying and trying to strengthen Republican turnout in the next election. There would be talk of Kansas, the “Eden on the Prairie,” of Pap Singleton and the Negro settlements in Hodgeman and Grant counties.

  CK didn’t know what to do. Merigold was his home, and while most of his kin had passed or already left Bolivar County in the years after the war, it wasn’t easy to imagine living anywhere else. But he had his own young family to think about now, his wife, Mil, and their baby, Rachel. He prayed on it nightly, as always, waiting for God to provide some direction, and then one day, coming home from the ginner where he’d taken the last of his unseeded cotton for the season, CK came across the circular, a crumpled handbill lying on the ground. He picked it up and read the advertisement for a newly established town in Kansas whose name was almost familiar, though he’d never once left Mississippi.

  “Nicodemus,” he said, as he continued walking toward the farmland he rented from a white planter, the tracts where he raised his cotton and where he lived in a small wooden shack with his wife and daughter. He said the name again and felt the incipient rush of near recognition he’d often experienced as vision, a sure sign from God. There was Nicodemus of the Bible, of course, the Pharisee who visited Jesus and later helped Joseph of Arimathea bury His body. But that wasn’t the source of the name’s mysterious known-ness. Something else, he knew. Slowly, as he read over the leaflet the way his mother had taught him—“Negro colony on the banks of the beautiful Solomon River”—the words started to come back to him. A song he remembered singing as a boy, before the war, bent over sack and bail in the fields alongside his now-dead mother. That was it: a song about a slave who died speaking of the coming freedom and asked to be woken when it came. Wake Nicodemus, he hummed to himself. Wake me up at the first break of day. He heard those words now as a commandment from his God—it was a sign—and he knew now for certain where he’d take his young family. Wake me up for that great Jubilee.

  Over a year earlier, and five hundred miles away in Kentucky, Talmen Fore had first heard talk of Nicodemus from a man named W. R. Hill, who showed up at Lexington Baptist one Sunday unannounced, whiter than a dogwood in bloom. He claimed to be a minister from Indiana, but land spec seemed the only thing on his mind that day. The audacity—the sheer effrontery—of that white man, talking Kansas, talking all-black towns! Life for the colored man in Kentucky wasn’t as bad as it was in the Lower South, Talmen knew, but that wasn’t saying much. He had a home for his wife and two children, and drew mostly regular pay as a carpenter. But his house was small and the rent high, and he wasn’t allowed to join the new white carpenters’ union, which left him taking what he could get from poor folks on his side of town. It was better than it had been before the war—that strange contradiction of being bound to a master in a slave state that had chosen not to secede, that had somehow fought to preserve the Union—but the thought of their own town seemed a danger even to dream. Hill was stubborn in his persistence, however, and preacherly in his delivery. The more he spoke, the more his claims persuaded: rich black sandy loam. Wild horses aplenty. Forests of elm, willow, hackberry, and sycamore for building. Five dollars gets you there by rail and cart. The government was practically giving away land.

  And so in the summer of 1877 the initial group of thirty struck out for Kansas, packing all they could—food, pans, clothing, chairs, blankets, tools—first onto the train, where the other passengers inspected them with a skeptical curiosity, and then onto the wagons that took them the last of the way across the arid plains of northwestern Kansas to their new home on the south fork of the Solomon River. It was flat and arid, so different from the wooded hills of central Kentucky, so different from what the white minister had claimed. And yet it was land, theirs for the taking, so they sent back word to Lexington with enough encouragement to spur a second group of three hundred, which included Talmen and his family. They arrived in September of that year, too late in the season to plant and harvest, and had to weather the tough winter in holes they’d burrowed into the hard ground. At night the men huddled in those dugouts with their families, using dried manure to coax a small fire, and stole out in the mornings to surrounding towns to look for work that might see them through to spring. There was nothing. The nearest mercantile center was thirty miles away, at the railhead in Ellis. The soil was parched, nary a horse to be seen, and the only tree for miles was the occasional cottonwood. Disillusioned, over sixty families returned to Kentucky. A posse formed, searching for that liar, W. R. Hill, who’d promised Eden and sold them a desert, and the fearful white man had to sneak out of town under a wagoner’s bed of hay.

  Things got so bad that winter they nearly starved and were saved only by a group of Osage Indians, returning from their winter hunt in the Rockies, who shared some of their meat with the settlers. At last the third and final group from Kentucky, a lot of almost 150, appeared on the horizon one evening in early March of 1878, looking to Talmen, who was sick and tired, like souls returning to claim their earthly vessels. But their fresh teams of mules and oxen, their new farming implements and provisions, proved to be their salvation.

  Even then, however, there were only five harnessed teams to share among their growing numbers, so Talmen broke an entire acre of that heavy soil for wheat-planting with a single spade, wearing it down to a nub. His only help was his eldest, Rawl, a lank boy who at thirteen was already two inches taller than his daddy. It was hard work, with the men in the fields till dark and the women at home with the children and elderly, cooking and gathering dried bones on the prairie to sell to dealers to grind into fertilizer, but there was satisfaction in their self-determined labor, in the emergence of their young town. And for Talmen nothing more spoke to that hard-won hope than after that long winter’s thaw when his wife, Eugenia, despite the inauspicious conditions, birthed their second son. One of Nicodemus’s firstborn, he was a handsome little boy. They named him after Talmen’s father, Isaiah.

  After coming across the circular, CK had worked hard to convince Mil they needed to leave, of the surety of his sign from God. He paced around their one-room shack, repeating the preacher’s words, talking calamity and exodus, and Mil resisted leaving what was her home too, but finally she relented. So that March of 1879, a year after the final group from Kentucky arrived in Nicodemus, when the ground had thawed and there was the first warmth in the air, when normally CK would have been preparing to seed his fields, they gathered up what little they could carry and made their way south out of Bolivar County. They were still young yet, barely twenty-two, with little weighing them down beyond Rachel. Mil carried the baby and CK shouldered a large pack—some bedding, clothing, a few pots, chipped plates, and of course his Bible—to Greenville. They arrived after two long d
ays of walking and set up camp on the banks of the Mississippi, where they would wait for a steamer that would take them north. They were not alone. Though some of the initial excitement had faded and many had decided to stay and try their luck with the Democrats, plenty of people were still looking to get out if they could, and more and more joined them on the river. Soon, as the days wore on with no boats yet to stop, what had started as a few solitary campsites had turned into a roiling tent town of fleeing colored families.

  Steamers coming north from Natchez and Vicksburg passed regularly and every time one neared, folks would run to the banks and shout and wave and watch as it went on its way. “Why you spose they ain’t stop for us?” CK said to Mil as he watched another steamer paddle past.

  “You know better than to ask after such foolishness,” Mil said from inside the tent, where she was feeding Rachel. “They think we got no money.”

  “Can’t fault them their intelligence, then,” he said, removing his hat and wiping at his brow. Mil laughed in that way of hers—as if it surprised and then embarrassed her—and CK squatted to peek into the tent. “How’s my little queen doing?” he said.

  “Rachel hungry, that I know.”

  “Yessum, sure is,” he said. “She need strength for the journey He set us on.”

  But as more and more boats passed, unwilling to pick them up, the mood on the banks turned grim. Their desperation grew as food dwindled, and soon some of the men were talking of taking a boat by force and others of giving up. At an impromptu meeting CK tried to urge caution, telling them to have faith, that soon enough one would stop.

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