I had never been late for one of my own concerts before. But as my husband, Dan, and I followed one unmarked country road after another through Maury County, Tennessee, thirty-one miles south of Nashville, I began to fear we were lost. We passed fenced-in field after field, full of winter’s dried cornstalks and baled hay. We had seen no road signs at the crossroads as twilight turned to darkness.
The people who had hired me, the 19th Alabama Regiment, re-enactors themselves, were familiar with the location of every Civil War-era plantation in the area, including Rippavilla. Although it was the mid 1990’s, instead of directions to the site, they had sent me a copy of the actual 1864 Tennessee Civil War Campaign field map upon which Rippavilla was marked (a post-it with an arrow pointed to the spot). Perhaps by daylight this would have sufficed but not on this dark December night.
Dan fumed at the wheel of our 1988 Toyota Tercel wagon while I fidgeted, wedged spring-like in the back seat in my voluminous hoop skirt. I had made my beautiful ball gown (which was becoming hopelessly crumpled in the seat) from an authentic 19th century pattern, as well as my chemise, corset, corset cover, two petticoats, pantaloons and wool cape. In fact, any lady about to play Christmas music and sing at Rippavilla in the 1860s would have dressed similarly. Overheating in all these layers, I began worrying that the cold air of a drafty old mansion meant I needed more time than usual for tuning my harp. “Nothing I can do about that now,” I fretted; “At least I can warm up, vocally.” I began singing scales which came out a bit pinched due to the tightness of my corset.
“If we don’t find this place in the next five minutes, I’m going home,” Dan announced over his shoulder.
“Wait, stop the car!” I shouted. “I saw something on the right…a little sign by that gate.”
Backing up slowly, we came to an open gate in the fence. Sure enough, next to the gate was a white arrow painted on a small board that was stuck into the ground. The arrow pointed towards the unlit field; “It may be just an arrow but it’s the only sign we’ve seen in half an hour. Dan – let’s follow it.” Our car jostled up the grassy hill, passing large rectangular shapes in the darkness which I took to be cattle grazing on either side of us. As the treeless hill leveled off, we spotted a dirt lane lit by two rows of flickering candles, which led to the front of a mansion. The risen moon colored it a ghostly blue against the darkness of the sky.
We parked in the grass, and unloaded my four-foot-tall harp in its soft carrying case. Approaching the front door, I knocked tentatively as I became aware of the sounds of a party. The door swung open upon a gaily lit festive scene peopled with the Confederate soldiers of the 19th Alabama regiment and their ladies. They had apparently completed a meal as the ladies were sewing and chatting together while the soldiers partook of brandy and cigars. A folding parlor wall separated the sexes temporarily in the manner of the mid-nineteenth century.
After a few exchanges, it became clear that the people who had hired me to play and sing period music for their Christmas party were not a group of re-enactors simply interested in history – tonight, they were living it, in character, with the appropriate speech and customs of the old South. My carefully planned music program would not do. I put away my notes and adopted the personality and accent of a lady visitor from Virginia. Tuning my harp, I noted that Dan was nowhere to be found.
Presently the folding wall was opened and chairs were drawn up to hear me play. Rippavilla’s old wooden floors resonated with the watery sound of the harp strings. I got a good look at the men and women attentively leaning towards me. The ladies were neatly dressed in their best homespun gowns, hair pinned up under snoods. Several knitted as they listened to me, their needles ticking together quietly.
The young men of the 19th Alabama regiment had wool uniforms of butternut, gray or brown. Some wore homespun shirts, bandanas and shell jackets. The Medical Officer wore the easily-distinguished emerald green silk sash. Most, like the original Confederate troops, were bearded and wore their hair over their ears.
In-between songs I chatted about the pre-Christmas goings on at my own “plantation” and saw heads nod in recognition at the mention of excitement over the Yule log selection. Ladies smiled and murmured when I talked of the great quantity of pies, cakes and sweets carefully prepared and locked in the storeroom in the weeks prior to Christmas. I played tunes from antiquity, still known and played in the 1860s: “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Pat-a-pan,” “Lo How a Rose” and “The Virgin Mary Had One Son,” a tune which was composed and sung by slaves. At the hours’ end I asked everyone to join me in singing “Silent Night.” After a period of reflective quiet, my hosts applauded appreciatively. Then to my surprise, the soldiers gathered across the room from me.
“Ma’am,” said their captain, “We sure did enjoy your playin’; now we’d like to sing a song in your honor.” Quietly at first, then with more confidence, these young men sang Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy to the War is Gone:”
The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
‘Land of song,’ cried the warrior bard,
‘Tho all the world betrays thee
One sword, at least, thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!’
A second verse followed and then a verse which had been added during the Civil War:
The minstrel boy will return, we pray,
When we hear the news we all will cheer it.
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit,
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as Heaven has intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And every battle must be ended.
My eyes sparkling with tears, I thanked them and wished them Godspeed. I moved to the window. Outside, groups of soldiers gathered laughing and smoking pipes and cigars. Their swords and the buttons and buckles of their uniforms shone gently in the moonlight. I found myself imagining that the battle of Spring Hill, fought in these very fields on November 29th and 30th, 1864 was about to commence.
Reflecting upon the souls who had lived and perished here, I carried my harp into the hallway, where I was interrupted by the appearance of Dan, exiting what seemed to be a modern brightly-lit kitchen.
“Hey, they’ve got a refrigerator and a TV in there! I watched the Winter Olympics!” I smiled as he carried my harp outside where we loaded the car in silence. By the time we finished packing the car, the re-enactors had gone and Rippavilla’s interior was dark and empty. It was only as we drove away that I noticed we had parked in the family graveyard. The candles lining the drive had burnt out. Looking back as we drove into the crisp night, I saw nothing but the winter sky full of stars.
Bobbie Wayne has a BA (music) and an MFA (Art.) She was a painter (Abstract, Portrait, and sign), music therapist, singer/songwriter. She plays Celtic harp. She is often published in The RavensPerch online magazine. She is also published in Intrinsick online magazine, SLAB magazine, Blueline Literary Journal, and Colere Literary magazine.