Tragedy and Triumph: Elmira, New York, 1835-65

Tragedy and Triumph: Elmira, New York, 1835-65

by Kathrin Rudland


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Truman Haden is just ten years old the night his childhood disappears forever. After he is sent to live with his grandfather to escape the ravages of yellow fever that has overtaken his home, Truman learns all his family members have died and receives a letter penned by his father in his final days. The letter holds an important message for Truman: to protect his heritage and honor laws for the good of the southern people. Although Truman is too young to completely understand the words, he knows the message must not be forgotten.

In the midst the Civil War and the events that precede it, Truman grows to adulthood and becomes a lawyer who must learn to honor the promise to his father without surrendering his principles. As Truman quietly makes his presence known in Elmira, New York, he is changed forever by those he encounters: an abolitionist woman whose humanity is tested by her commitment to end slavery; an evangelist who teaches him how to forgive; a young, abandoned slave who values freedom; an older former slave who teaches him dignity; and the many young POWs who live and die for their noble cause.

Based on actual events, this sweeping historical epic tells the tale of the remarkable town of Elmira, New York, one of the most compelling and timeless stories of our country's crucible years.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475921700
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/16/2012
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)

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Tragedy and Triumph

Elmira, New York, 1835-65
By Kathrin Rudland

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Kathrin Rudland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-2170-0

Chapter One


Growing Up in Antebellum South, 1814–35

Truman Haden was ten years old the night his childhood died.

A vivid memory o f that moment was the ashen face of his father as he stood in front of his family unable to speak, shaking his head back and forth. The man bit his lower lip, swallowed hard, and then shuddered out words. "A few cases of the fever ... from a shipping vessel with rotting green timbers ... possibly an island slave ship. Please, don't worry." He looked at them with a glint of uncertainty in his eyes. "Not an epidemic as before ... no sign of fever in town. I stayed there long enough to complete my business ... decided to return home early just in case."

Then he made a gesture with his hands as though to scatter his next words in the air. "But I must tell you that I did suffer some this afternoon riding home, a light fever ... nausea on the way, but I feel safe to say that I am quite well now. Yes, I am well." He grimaced at the memory. "My God, yellow fever ..."

Truman had never seen his father cry, but this time the man wept openly against Truman's mother's shoulder, sobbed until he sank into a chair with his palms pressed deep into his eyes and his splayed fingers tangled into his hair.

"Thank God I have escaped its wrath this time." He quivered. "Thank God."

The following morning he suffered a relapse of the yellow fever in full force. A doctor, summoned in haste, examined, purged, and bled him several times in an effort to control the illness before it worsened. But the unmistakable fever symptoms intensified: jaundiced skin, a high temperature, black vomit, and bloody discharge from his nose and mouth. The house was quarantined from all visitors at once, and Truman's mother, the self-appointed caretaker, was the only one allowed to remain in the sickroom to nurse her husband. Everyone—family and servants—needed to move away as soon as possible until the sick man was well once more.

Truman crept upstairs—departure preparations were underway—and opened the sickroom door. The hot room smelled rank, like the meat cellar where the deer and turkeys were dressed and bled after the autumn hunt. His mother stood by the fireplace, throwing bundles of herbs on the embers as the smoke curled about the room and clouded the writhing shape in the four-poster bed. The figure thrashed back and forth on the bedding, shouting and ranting hoarse gibberish that made no sense. Where was his sick father?

"Mother," Truman whispered. "Where's father? I've come to say good- bye."

She made a slow turn and walked over to where he stood by the door. She looked shrunken and weary, but her voice was very clear. "Truman, you must not remember him like this. It's not safe for you to be near him, either. You must be brave. You and your baby brother are to travel to Richmond in a few hours with Bell and Rosie. Stay with your grandfather until life returns to normal. We will follow shortly after your father recovers and is well once more."

It was arranged. Bell and Rosie, elderly slaves, drove away with the children the following morning in a wagon loaded with blankets, clothing, and supplies. Truman looked back and tried to catch a glimpse of his mother standing in the entrance of their home, smiling and throwing him a kiss. She was not there. Home was suddenly no longer the same; a sign was now tacked on the front door with the word QUARANTINE in large block letters, and curtains were draped across closed windows like drooping eyelids, hiding the people inside.

The journey would take many days. Hours later, the baby, Henry, began to fuss and cry as the wagon wound its way westward. In an effort to soothe the child, Rosie held him against her shoulder and patted his back, coaxing him to suck on a cloth sugar "tit." She hummed and rocked him to the rhythm of the wagon's creaking wheels. Nothing helped. Toward evening, when his stomach became yellow and distended, Bell stopped by a streambed and dipped a cloth in cool water to bathe the baby's tiny face and body. The old slave shook his head as the baby cried in short bursts, flailing his arms and legs against the water.

"Nuthin' gonna help 'im now," Bell said to Rosie. "Can't go back neither 'cause Massa got the Black Vomit bad."

Truman was tired of the sick baby, tired of the hard seat, tired of the bumpy road that stretched ahead. He felt light-headed and leaned against Bell's shoulder to rest, startled when he woke up to vomit something that looked like black oatmeal all over his lap. The baby in Rosie's lap did not move; his cries and whimpers had stopped.

He heard Bell whisper, "Rosie, dat baby's dead, died a while back. Dat boy's got da fever now too. But dat baby needs to be put into da ground 'fore anybody knows he died wit da fever. We can't go to Richmond wit dat dead baby, makin' everyone sick. Baby needs buryin' right here. If anyone asks, tell 'em I's buryin' an old owl or sumthin'."

Bell wrapped the dead baby in sheets, folding the fabric around and around the still body as though it were a package. He dug a deep hole beside the road, buried the body inside, and covered it with dirt. Finally, he rolled a large stone over it. "I's gonna 'member dis place in my head, same as you, Rosie. Baby gone to da Lord, happy and sufferin' no more."

The last sound Truman heard was Rosie's low wailing as the wagon moved on. Everything turned into silence.

It was not until later in his grandfather's house in Richmond that Truman remembered the distant churning of wheels, cool rags on his body, and bitter liquid dripped into his mouth. The sounds changed when he left the wagon and lay in a feather-stuffed bed, its shape compressed into a valley with his body. A man's deep voice near his head said words hour after hour, pausing only as the sound of pages were turned. He felt cool hands twist and turn him to change the soiled bedding, wash his body, or spoon broth down his throat. The hands had a woman's voice that sometimes hummed or sang snatches of song. After a long time he opened his eyes into narrow slits and saw the reading voice belonged to an old white man and the singing voice belonged to Rosie.

One afternoon the old man sat on the edge of his bed and said, "Truman, you're well enough to hear what I am going to say. I'm certain that you've surmised that I'm your grandfather, Thomas Haden. You are in Richmond with me now."

Truman waited.

A slant of light from the window fell across the room on the side of the heavy curtains, and Truman watched the old man study it for some time. Finally, he spoke and his voice had a hard quality to it, as though he needed to control himself. "Truman, you've had the yellow fever but you are recovering. I must tell you that your mother and father, as well as your baby brother, died from the fever. It's a sad thing, a terrible thing, the deaths of your father, your mother, everyone in your family. All gone, all ..."

Truman listened to the words fade into the darkened room. At that moment, Truman hated him. He had sensed that his brother died of the fever on the road, but the words, the finality of his parents' passing, shocked him into a long silence. It was true: they were all dead. He began to cry, his mouth open without any sound coming out, his head against his chest.

His grandfather pushed back his shoulders, blew air through his nose, and frowned. "Now that's enough crying, young man. It's not going to bring back the dead no matter how hard you cry." He left the room.

Truman lay on the bed and listened to the steady beating of his heart, his eyes closed. He thought about what his grandfather had said, but nothing seemed to be important anymore. His only comfort was to remain in his bed with the shades drawn shut, talking little. He wanted to stay hidden under the covers and block out the words his grandfather had said. How could that old man be so certain that they were dead? Maybe he had misunderstood, made a mistake, and his family would walk through the bedroom door at any moment, just as his mother had promised.

He stared at the wooden door with its bright polished handle for long periods of time and thought he had seen it move side to side, but they did not appear. He walked over to the door, tested the handle to make certain that it was not locked, and returned to the bed and waited. His mother and father did not come that day or any of the days that followed. He knew then they never would.

They were all deep into the ground now, no longer walking about, laughing and talking. He tried to envision his father in a black suit and his mother in her white dress, buried inside wooden coffins in the dirt, their hands folded together in prayer like in church. He wondered if they still looked the same. Once he had found a dead deer, its body filled with hundreds of wiggling white maggots that made it look as though it were moving. He wanted to ask his grandfather if the coffins would keep out the white maggots or whether they could slither inside, moving everyone about like the deer. He knew such a question would probably irritate the man.

Slowly his life began to change into moments when his thoughts were grouped into "before" the yellow fever and "after" it.

When he was younger he had seen an illustration of Death in a book, a skeleton with a grinning face who rode in a rickety old carriage filled with stones, gleefully dropping off a stone each time he took someone's soul. Truman thought maybe the headstones in cemeteries had been left there in exchange for souls, leaving only the bodies to be buried underneath. Now he knew better; stones were everywhere.

* * *

"I have a letter for you, one your mother gave to Bell and Rosie along with several others. It's from your father."

Truman nodded, blinked hard to stop the tears from forming, and took a deep breath as the old man removed a white letter from his breast pocket:

Dearest Truman,

There is much to say to you, and I have little time. I am dictating this letter to your loving mother as I lay here suffering the effects of yellow fever. I've had little encouraging news from the doctor, and I fear that this illness will be my ultimate demise in a few days. I've tried to encourage your mother to leave home with you and your brother until it is safe to return, but she refuses to go. I pray that she will escape the fever in the coming weeks. Please take care of your brother. Bell and Rosie have been instructed to take you both to the home of my childhood and you will stay with your grandfather, who I know will give you both the same love, support, and advantages as he did me as I grew up. You are a fine young man. Always value family, land, and honor in your life. Work to protect your southern heritage, its independence and sovereignty; it is the way of life our family has cherished for generations. Help to create and honor laws for the good of our southern people, salus populi suprema est lex. It is in God's hands, as most things in life. I remain your loving father,

John Haden

It was confusing. The words that his grandfather read did not sound at all like something his father would say to him. Protect your southern heritage? Create and honor laws for the good of the people? Good of which people? And the foreign words, what did they mean? He did not want to ask the old man to explain the words; all he wanted was to hold the letter in his hands, press it against his cheek, and cling to it. It was the last fragment of his mother and father, the last of their life together.

"I must put this away in a safe place for you, so that you can read it when you're an adult. It will mean more to you then." Grandfather stood up and walked to the door of the bedroom and suddenly turned and stood still, his lips pressed together as though he wanted to say something more but found it difficult to say the words. After some time he took a deep breath and said, "Your father loved you and wanted you to understand what he valued in life, even at the end of his own. He had a useful life, something most people don't have. His greatest values were of family, land, and honor, the way they had always been."

Truman Haden knew what his grandfather said was true because he rolled the words around and around in his mouth as though they were very important. He began to sniffle, his shoulders hunched and his eyes downcast, wishing that the old man would go away and leave him alone. It was quiet in the room. He was suddenly aware that his grandfather was staring at him, his lips white with tension as though he wanted to hold in the words that he wanted to say. Had he done something wrong, disappointed his grandfather? It was so hard not to cry.

The grandfather sucked in a deep breath and barked in a hoarse voice as though to make certain that he could hear the words, "Truman, you must understand this: your father dedicated himself to laws that protected our way of life here in the South, kept the North from changing us, bullying us. He worked hard to keep the South as it is and always will be. 'Salus populi suprema est lex.' It's an important matter that you'll need to think about when you grow older."

"Father wrote those same words in his letter."

"It means 'the welfare of the people is the supreme law.' Those very words apply to us today. We create laws here in Virginia for the welfare of our people."

Truman looked away from his grandfather's face. "The welfare of which people?"

"Why, you and me, the people in our church, our neighbors. Laws are made for our good."

"What about Bell and Rosie?"

"They are our property, but our state has created laws for their welfare to make us take care of the things that we own, make us keep them in good condition. You wouldn't find me abusing our fine horses, would you? What benefit would they be then? Abused, they could bolt and run over someone."

"I don't think Bell and Rosie could run over anyone."

It was one of the few times Truman saw his grandfather smile.

"No, of course not." The man seemed somewhere else, silent, searching for words to say, and finally spoke in a voice that conveyed his concern to Truman. "I am responsible for the good care of my servants. It's not just that they work for me to make my life better; in return, I make their lives better."


"Well, they are fed well, properly clothed, and live in decent surroundings. They are taught virtues and manners. They have become Christians as well, no longer heathens and savages in some far-off place in Africa. As a matter of fact, workers who live in the slums of London live in conditions that are worse than our slaves do. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, wrote in Politics that slaves were property with souls. "

The grandfather began to say something more. He stared at his grandson and sighed. "He also wrote that there are people who have the right to command and others born to obey them."

Truman shrugged.

"You must understand this: there are few people who are your equal. Yes, you. Our Declaration of Independence misled most people to think we are all the same, all equal in all things. The Founding Fathers never intended all individuals, in particular slaves, women, and uneducated men, to govern and make responsible decisions for others. Rabble would overwhelm laws and destroy our existing social order."

He placed his hand on Truman's shoulder as though it were a conduit to flow understanding into the boy's mind of what he was going to say next. "When you are older, you will have the responsibility to maintain laws that keep our traditions and customs intact. You will have to support our good Virginia laws first, the laws of the Union next."

Truman wiggled under the pressure of the old man's hand.

"Promise me you will defend the South, keep the South the way it was and is now, and support our beloved traditions and customs, our valuable laws. Promise me and your poor, dead father." He pressed down harder on the boy's shoulder. "Promise!"

The boy thought about the last time he had seen his father, thrashing about on his bed, his life draining out of him. If he made any promises, it would be for him and his last thoughts dictated in a letter, not for the grandfather. "I promise. Yes, I promise."

* * *

In the months that followed Truman remained in his room, hunched over in bed and in a chair, reading books from his grandfather's large library. He read Carthaginian, Greek, and Roman histories, medieval writings, and philosophy. He devoured the novels of Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett, fascinated by the interplay of the characters' minds with their circumstances. The rhythm of words, sentences, and paragraphs blocked out Truman's sense of loss, and the sadness lingered less and less as the years moved on. Truman learned to live in the solitude of books, where memories of his own past could not find their way.

He began to keep a commonplace book, a journal of sorts, where he copied quotations from readings or comments that he had heard, and he sometimes wrote his reactions to them. Gradually he began to write down his own intimate thoughts, impressions, and opinions, watched the letters and words form on the narrow-lined paper, reread them out loud, and heard his voice say them. Then he could understand what had happened, and everything became real.


Excerpted from Tragedy and Triumph by Kathrin Rudland Copyright © 2012 by Kathrin Rudland. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................VII Growing Up in Antebellum South, 1814–35....................1
The Beginning of the Divide, Elmira, New York, 1835....................10
The Divide Narrows, Elmira, New York, 1835....................19
Aunt Binah, 1837–43....................31
John W. Jones, 1844....................45
Naamah, 1844–54....................52
Simon Denby, 1849....................64
Elizabeth, 1849....................72
Adam and Elizabeth, 1851....................84
Naamah and Simon Denby, 1855....................96
The Meeting of Truman and Elizabeth, 1855....................109
The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5, 1864....................120
Look to the Light, July 13–15, 1864....................130
Riding toward Death, July 15, 1864....................144
Adjustment, 1864....................156
Longing for Home, 1864....................169
Survival, 1864-65....................185
Darkness, 1865....................204
Confessions 1865....................216

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