This story is based on the Battle of Chickamauga Creek which took place between Union and Confederate forces on September 19-20, 1863.
Annie Mae felt she would burst with hope and optimism as she opened the door to the little one-room schoolhouse made of logs. It was October 1, 1863, the first day of a new school term in the western Appalachian mountains of northern Georgia. The school wasn’t exactly in the deep mountains, rather the foothills at the west end of the mountain range. Annie Mae, known as Miss Norris to local children, began to sweep the dusty floor of the schoolhouse with a broom in the early light of dawn. She felt quite modern to have a wood floor in this log structure. Annie Mae had arrived in Georgia the year before, right after the previous school teacher had resigned because she didn’t like to be paid in Confederate scrip. Annie Mae had agreed to teach there in exchange for room and board with her older sister, Sarah.
Sarah and Annie Mae were Northerners. Their parents owned a dairy farm just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Their family of origin was Quaker. Their parents were abolitionists. Sarah’s and Annie Mae’s grandparents and parents networked in the Underground Railroad that secretly transported runaway slaves to Canada. When eighteen year old Sarah returned home from a trip to Philadelphia saying that she wanted to marry Jeremy, a Southerner from Georgia, her parents’ first concern was whether he owned or would own slaves. Jeremy’s family of origin wasn’t a slave-owning entity. His parents had staked a claim to land previously occupied by the Chickamauga Cherokee and distributed in Georgia’s 1832 Land Lottery after the U.S. Indian Removal Act was passed into law. Jeremy’s family didn’t farm crops for export even though they had eighty acres. Subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing comprised their livelihood. Jeremy had learned everything his parents knew plus some carpentry skills as an apprentice. Since Jeremy didn’t plan to own slaves in the future, he and his wife would need lots of children for labor in their domestic economy.
Sarah married Jeremy in 1853 and then settled in to live with him in Georgia. Afterwards, she started having babies. Sarah was six years older than Annie Mae. Now, Sarah had five children: Rebecca 9, Samuel 8, Matthew 7, William 6, and Trudy 4. Annie Mae remembered when all those children came in the wagon with Sarah to meet her the previous year at the Chattanooga train depot. She could hardly believe how much each child had changed in just one year’s time. She finished sweeping the floor of the schoolhouse and leaned the broom against the wall next to the door leading to the back porch. She climbed up on a stool to reach a rifle that was mounted on pegs sticking out of the wall, too high for children to reach. Neither she nor Sarah was against the use of force and rifles like traditional Quakers. Especially with Jeremy off fighting with a Georgian infantry regiment, they believed that a rifle was a necessity since they lived near bears, mountain lions, and some renegade Cherokee that didn’t remove themselves to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Annie Mae had learned to handle a rifle since she arrived in Georgia, but they had no spare ammunition to practice shooting because of the war. Since their Northern background aroused distrust in the Confederacy, they’d also changed their dialect and ceased the “thee” and “thou” of Quaker talk.
Once Annie Mae had the rifle, she grabbed the broom and pushed open the door to the back porch which was also a storage area. There, she let go of the broom in exchange for a bucket. She exited the schoolhouse through the back porch door and traipsed downhill through trees to a stream about a half a mile away. Both the rifle and a full bucket of water were going to become burdensome when she climbed uphill on her return, but Annie Mae wanted to start the new school term with a clean tables, benches, and slates. She might have nine to fifteen pupils today. She interrupted her own thoughts to laugh at a possum that scuttled before her in the early morning light. If Jeremy’s hunting dog Barley were with her, they’d spend the whole morning giving chase and treeing that possum.
Upon reaching the brook, Annie Mae washed her face with water from the stream. Then, she filled the pail as full as she dare. She didn’t dawdle much at the stream, but turned right around to start her ascent to the schoolhouse. About one-third of the way up the hill, she heard a deep snore nearby. She set down the bucket of water and tiptoed toward the sound coming out of the grass in the vicinity. First, she saw a dirty black boot with a hole in the toe. Annie Mae’s eyes grew large when her eyes landed on the gray leggings of the Confederate uniform. The soldier was asleep. He appeared to be wounded with some kind of sling around his right arm and over his left shoulder. He was lying on the grass kind of like he fell over from a sitting position. Annie Mae grabbed up the musket and bayonet that was lying beside him. She took the musket over to where the bucket of water was and laid it in the grass. Then she carried the bucket of water up the hill and inside the school- house. She returned to where she had previously rested the water on the hill. The Reb was still snoring. She marched over and aimed her rifle at him. Then, she kicked the sole of that black boot, saying, “Wake up soldier.”
He jumped up, looked at Annie Mae and then reached for his gun which was no longer on the ground where he had placed it. He looked quizzically at Annie Mae.
“Are you alone or are there going to be hostilities with the Union in this area? Annie Mae inquired. Then she continued, “I teach children. I’m going to close the school if there’s risk of a battle anywhere near here. We heard cannon a couple of weeks ago.”
“There was a battle over by Chickamauga Creek then. I’m a casualty from that fight, but I left my regiment after the surgeon sewed me up. The regiment and General Bragg were headed toward Chattanooga.”
“Are you hurt? Do you need help?
The Reb thought for a minute or two before he answered Annie Mae. Then he replied, “This sling just holds my arm in place because my collarbone is busted up pretty bad. I was hit with a musket ball. I also took a bayonet in my right side. I think the dressing for my wounds need to be changed. Would you help me with that?”
Annie Mae affirmed that she would if the Reb would wait until after school. School was from 9am until 3pm. Her older sister would come to pick up her kids at the end of the day and could possibly bring him home in the wagon.
“I’m going back to sleep then,” he answered..
“I’m taking your musket into the schoolhouse until the end of the day,” declared Annie May. “Promise you won’t do anything to scare the children?”
“That musket is almost useless with no gun powder. I promise I’ll try not to scare the children. Do they often come this a way during the day?”
“No, when they play outside it’s in front of the school, not in the back which is where you are.” Annie Mae then walked over and picked up the Reb’s musket. The bayonet was affixed on end of the rifle and had dried blood and a little bit of rabbit pelt stuck on it. She took the musket into the schoolhouse and put both rifles on the wall-mounted pegs way above the reach of the pupils. Then she began to wash the two tables and eight benches. She still needed to get her lesson plans in order before the children arrived.
All was quiet for a spell except for occasional bird calls outside while the sun climbed in the sky. She was done with her plans for the day when Sarah’s wagon pulled up outside. Annie Mae went outside to greet them. The youngest child, Trudy, was with the older four children in the wagon but she was too young to attend school.
“Hi, Annie Mae!” Samuel called to the teacher, “We’re here for our learning.”
“Hi, Auntie Annie,” William chirped.
“Now, what did I say that you were to call her at school?” asked their mother, Sarah.
“Miss Norris,” answered Matthew.
“Aw, Ma, there’s no one here yet but us,” was Samuel’s rebuttal.
“Good morning, students,” greeted Annie Mae. “I need to talk with your ma for a minute so I want you all to go inside the school and show Trudy the classroom. Then, hang up your hats and lunch pails where you see the pegs sticking out of the wall. Trudy, you know it’s going to be a long day so you aren’t going to stay here with the big kids all day, right? Just go inside with them for a few minutes and take a look around, okay? Then you’re going home with your mother.”
Trudy smiled and Sarah lifted her down from the wagon. The older kids jumped out and moved toward the schoolhouse. When the children were out of earshot, Annie Mae told Sarah about the wounded Reb back of the schoolhouse.
Sarah asked, “What do you mean that he just left the regiment? Did he have permission to leave?”
“I don’t know,” answered Annie Mae. “I took his unloaded musket away from him and promised that we would help with a clean dressing for his wounds at the end of the day when you would come with a wagon.”
Sarah grimaced, “He’s probably a deserter. My kids are going to ask if their pa will come home. Should we just make it sound like this Reb could leave because of his injuries? I have to teach morals and duty to my young sons, you know. My kids see our family as Southern supporters and Georgia as our government.”
“If he did desert his regiment, I want to keep him off-duty so he doesn’t kill anymore Union men in this godforsaken war. We should help with his transition back to a civilian life. Your kids won’t understand the wrong of it,” responded Annie Mae.
“If he intends to stay overnight on my property, he’s going to sleep in the barn and not in the house with us. He can eat dinner with us tonight and bathe and dress his wounds. That’s all I will agree to for right now,” Sarah decided.
The kids came back outside and said their goodbyes to Sarah and Trudy who promptly rode away from the schoolhouse. Annie Mae then gave the children instructions that they were only to play outside in front of the schoolhouse and within the teacher’s eyesight. They all agreed and sat in front until other local children arrived for school to begin. Annie Mae did have 15 pupils between the ages of 6 and 15 which kept her busy with a full day of learning in groups and at different levels. The curriculum was a lot for her to orchestrate in one room.
It was mid-afternoon when Sarah and Trudy returned with the wagon to pick up Rebecca, Samuel, Matthew, and William. The wagon was pulled by two young mules, Bessie and Bertha. The Confederacy had taken their horses and a lot of their livestock when they mobilized for war, so Sara had only these two mules and their mother, an older mule named Magnolia. Magnolia had come with Annie Mae early in the morning. She was tied under a shade tree with a lot of rope to graze on the abundant grass in the area. Annie Mae finished school and waited for the children to disperse. Some walked in a group as they left the school and a few were picked up by their families. Annie Mae walked over to the wagon and told Sarah she was going to see if their visitor was still in back of the school. Then, she walked around back and down the hill where sure enough, the Reb was sitting on a big rock.
“My sister says you can bathe, get some fresh dressing for your injuries, and maybe have dinner with us and her five kids. Her husband is away fighting with a Southern regiment. She says if you want to stay overnight, you’ll have to sleep outside the cabin. You could sleep in the barn if the weather turns bad or if you’d just rather sleep under a roof.
“I’m obliged,” the Reb replied.
“We don’t want to know if you’re a deserter. Sarah doesn’t want her sons to know that you’re leaving your regiment was criminal. She hasto teach her sons duty and wants them to think that you could leave just because of your injuries. They will probably ask her if their pa can come home too. Do you agree to these terms?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier arose and began walking with Annie Mae toward the front of the school.
Annie Mae said, “Sarah put fresh hay in her wagon bed. Please lie down in it. We don’t want people to see us bringing you home if we can help it. If you’re leaving the infantry for good, you need different clothes and maybe a different identity. I’m not riding home with you. I have my own mule to get home on, and I usually walk with the mule so I’m slower reaching the homestead. The boys will probably ride in the wagon bed with you. They’re 6, 7, and 8 years old. Rebecca is 9 years old and Trudy is 4.”
They made quite a sight as they approached the wagon.
“Where did you get him from, Annie Mae,?” Samuel inquired.
“I found back of the school this morning. He’s waited all day for the learning to be finished. He’s going home with you. I’m going to get his musket from inside. He don’t have any powder to shoot it. See if he needs help getting into the wagon bed. He’s going to lie down in that hay.” Annie Mae went toward the school and the boys climbed into the wagon. Samuel and Matthew each reached out a helping hand toward the Reb. He stepped up on the wheel spoke and extended his good arm to them. They pulled him over the side and into the hay.
Annie Mae came back with the musket and bayonet. She handed it to Samuel and said, “No rough play in the wagon on the way home. Not today.”
Trudy and Rebecca sat up in front with Sarah.
“See y’all at home,” Annie Mae dismissed them. Trudy waved at Annie Mae. Bessie and Bertha clipped out in step with one another. They wouldn’t slow down until they reached home. Annie Mae went into the school to get her rifle and saddle bags. She locked the school door and walked over to Magnolia’s tree. Magnolia had grazed in a circle and gotten her rope looped around another tree where she seemed a bit stuck. Annie Mae untied the rope and freed the old mule. She placed the saddle bag across Magnolia’s back. One side had Noah Webster’s Speller and a writing pad. The other side was empty. Annie Mae unknotted her shoe laces and removed her shoes. She put them in the other saddle bag. She laid the rifle across her shoulders like her yoke to carry and led Magnolia out to the dirt road. She enjoyed the ramble toward home in the late afternoon sunshine. It felt so good to not have any responsibility for anyone but herself and Magnolia. The walk home was only 3 or 4 miles.
Once the wagon had pulled out into the road, away from the school, the soldier settled into the hay. The sky above was blue, and the sun was still hot. The girls and Sarah didn’t pay them any mind, the passengers riding in the wagon bed. The soldiers could feel three pairs of eyes examining him. He began to speculate about how he must look with two weeks of whisker growth on his face and all the dirt that had clung to him. Sam had laid down the soldier’s musket along the side of the wagon bed.
Not being shy, Sam ventured to ask, “Where are you from? Are you from Georgia?”
The soldier answered, “No, I’m from Al’bama, from Mobile.”