Editor’s Note: This is the first of several chapters in an ongoing tale from Mr. Pontius.
WESTWARD WOMAN - BOOK I
By Birch Pontius
THE LADY OF ATHENIA
Pillaged and Plundered
Through tears of rage and helpless anguish, she watched the roaring flames consume everything she and her famous husband had possessed. She listened as the Federal blue-bellies celebrated her husband's recent death. Laughing at her misery, they toasted her with his last bottle of champagne as they torched Athenia plantation. "Make war now, Lady Asherton," they jeered. "We've even burned your outhouses. So learn to dig your own, Johnny Reb!"
Davida Julianna Seabrook Asherton was a tall, striking Southern belle. During the magnificent antebellum era, she had lived in a paradise of which most women only dreamed. The grounds of Athenia mansion were covered by noble oak trees festooned with Spanish moss, and the scent of gardenias and magnolias perfumed the air. Beyond the mansion, acres of fertile cotton fields stretched out in every direction, bringing wealth- -and with it, power and influence.
The Civil War and its consequences had come as a shock. After all, every Southerner was the equal of two or more "damn Yankees," and naturally everyone expected it to be a quick, decisive war. In weeks it would be over! Instead, over the next four years, the South's old ways had died slowly and died hard.
With growing fear, Davida had read about the mounting Southern casualties. Helplessly, she had listened to reports of the utter destruction being wrought by advancing Federal troops. Few Mississippi plantations escaped damage. Rebuilding, or abandonment, was the penalty for having lost the war.
For Davida Julianna Asherton, there was now nothing left to rebuild. The land was desolate. The towering oak stands had been reduced to charred stumps, and only rain-washed furrows remained where once vast cotton crops had thrived.
Now, Davida stood on the blackened stone steps that had once led upward a full story to the great entrance hall of her mansion. The steps now dropped like a cliff into an abyss of smoking timbers, shattered pieces of scorched crystal and china, and incinerated foundation walls. The Grecian showplace, Asherton Manor, was gone.
Major Ravenel Carleton Asherton and his new bride, Davida Julianna Seabrook, had made two errors. First, they built Athenia, the Grecian-columned showplace of southern aristocracy, just outside the city of Natchez on the Mississippi. Had Ravenel and Davida even imagined a War Between the States, they would probably have built their plantation elsewhere- -an exclusive, elusive, reclusive, and downright remote "elsewhere."
Athenia's lands were part of the fertile alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta. Over the centuries, floodwaters from rivers north of Natchez had spread enriched silt across a 35,000-square-mile triangle, making the Delta famous for its large cotton crop. The ancient, ever changing Mississippi flowed across the region, carrying the state's abundant commerce on shallow-drafted stern-wheelers and flat-bottomed barges. The Mississippi was the artery for shipping commerce to the West as well as the East and North. Even today, its worth, as a navigable waterway, is of inestimable value.
The consequences to the Ashertons? When war came, the prolific plantation angered Ulysses S. Grant and his northern generals. The gracious host and hostess successfully turned the beautiful Athenia Plantation into a highly productive source of King Cotton products such as sacking, rope, uniforms, tents, straps, gun-barrel patches, and other items urgently needed in the conduct of war. Ravenel also found on his lands a suitable red clay which was mined and kilned to make brick and foundation blocks. Once again, Athenia provided materials necessary to erect industries devoted to armament production.
Before he was called to active duty, Ravenel also discovered a usable, but odious, oily-waxy substance pooling beside a marsh adjoining the river. The liquid ooze, bubbling over several acres, would flame up around a lighted match. Filtered, the thick waxy substance became an acceptable grease for cannon, wagon wheels, and other machines of war. The oily liquid became a superior coal oil, often called kerosene, fueling the army's lamps, stoves, and field lanterns.
Obviously, Athenia Plantation was highly regarded by the South- -and even more highly respected by the North. It was a key location penned graphically in red on Union maps of Mississippi. The productive site was marked for future action.
The other error? While building his unforgettable Mississippi estate, Ravenel Carleton Asherton, with Davida's encouragement, became an officer in the state militia, rising rapidly in rank. Being a member was socially advantageous and the Ashertons underestimated the seriousness of the drumbeats of rebellion rising against the Union. Neither Davida or Ravenel thought the rank of officer in the state militia was anything but a title of honor. But when Mississippi followed South Carolina, and became the second state to secede from the Union on January 9, 1861, the now-Major Ravenel Asherton was immediately called to active duty.
Union generals never forgave Ravenel for his very effective leadership as a Confederate soldier. Primarily, they understood he was a cunning Confederate who had a home to protect, and who furnished precious supplies to his countrymen. They could not, and would not, forgive his natural ability to lead. He was an amazing tactician, and his strategy cost the Union dearly at Brice's Cross Roads, east of Jackson. Colonel Asherton led his infantry while under the command of Mississippi's "Fighting General," Nathan Bedford Forrest. At this little-known location, in June, 1864, Ravenel was instrumental in the shocking defeat of a much larger force of well-equipped Union troops.
Although the South had lost control of the Mississippi River when Vicksburg fell the previous year, blockade runners out of Natchez still provided desperately needed supplies to the Confederacy. These isolated supply lines grew in importance as the war continued. Late in l864, the crucial assignment of holding the lines open fell to Bird Colonel Asherton and his cavalry.
Asherton met a unit of Union cavalry in a skirmish midway between Vicksburg and Natchez. As usual, his disciplined troops were winning until a fourteen-year-old boy turned the tide of battle.
The lad had been issued a badly worn 1863 Confederate Richmond Carbine. The youth could ride a horse, had volunteered, and been pressed into service without the colonel's knowledge or approval. Proud to be in Asherton's regiment, the boy had, unfortunately, never trained, nor even fired a rifle in anger. In the Confederate charge against the Union horsemen, the youngster saw blue uniforms converging on his colonel. Bouncing gamely on his charging mount, he pointed the carbine at a "blue-belly" and pulled the trigger. The .58-caliber lead slug struck R. C. Asherton instead, killing him instantly.
Such unforeseen occurrences convinced the Union General Staff that Grant was destined to neutralize Natchez just as he had Vicksburg. The exhausted General, Nathan Bedford Forrest, crippled by Asherton's loss, was compelled to retreat- - as was General Lee, who had also lost his right hand man, Stonewall Jackson, by one of his own soldiers.
The scorched-earth policy of Sherman's Legions in Georgia also continued in Mississippi. Grant persevered against all odds and he demanded the same from his generals. Railroad tracks were heated and softened in tremendous bonfires, then curled around sturdy oaks and other hardwoods throughout the South. Even today, in some Southern areas, tourists gawk at rusty rails wrapped around large trees that have almost overgrown the iron ribbons that once guided train wheels.
Athenia Plantation fell to the torch only months after Colonel Asherton was killed in action. Union officers touched the red inking on their Mississippi maps and gave their orders. Every plant, tree, or building on the plantation was chopped down, burned, dug out, or buried. Utter desolation, smoke rising to the sky, marked the grave of Asherton Manor. Even the petroleum pools were set afire and burned for a year until local order was restored and reconstruction begun. Union field-grade officers, Majors to Generals, had little sympathy for Davida Julianna Seabrook Asherton.
"War is hell, ma'am. You're now getting what your husband and his plantation have given us. How do you like a dose of your own medicine?"
Davida Asherton, composed like the true lady she was, quietly answered, "My husband fought for his country as you did for yours. I never knew him to personally hurt your officers or your troops. Please show me where our Southern boys destroyed your homes and lands and left you only ashes. Perhaps that's the reason we Southerners hold you victorious Yankees in such contempt?"
There were no replies. A few high-ranking commanders glared at Davida. She returned their stares with composure and strength. They finally turned away, avoiding her eyes.
Lesser-ranked front line combat officers stared at their boots, their lips pursed in disgust. Many who were veterans of fighting against Ravenel Asherton later told her, "We're sorry, and we're ashamed. This retaliation against you is not victory. This is vengeance."
Davida Julianna lived a repetition of age-old history: The "have-nots" confiscate everything possessed by the "haves," taking all property and with it the last vestiges of hope for the defeated. Union General Sherman, famous for his march through Georgia, only practiced what the Union Army Commander, Ulysses S. Grant allowed. Grant and his Corps pounded Mississippi into rubble. Sherman was quoted as saying, "War is hell!" It took Grant and Sherman's own men to prove he was right.
Davida Asherton believed her husband was in the thick of the fighting. She learned of his death after Federal troops occupied Natchez under martial law. High-echelon officers smirked as they told Davida of Ravenel's demise. After Appomattox Davida knew her lifestyle was gone forever. She lived in makeshift tents with friends and then finally procured a small storeroom where an ex-slave had lived. She had salvaged only a few clothes from Athenia Manor's firestorm. Sometimes her outfits were threadbare, but Davida was ever the lady. She still remained more desirable than any other woman to the Union officers.
One young colonel, enjoying his imperious position among a defeated enemy, invited Davida to Union Headquarters. He did not mince words.
"Mrs. Asherton, I have a sumptuous house, servants, a food pantry groaning with delicacies, fashionable bedrooms, and a lonely heart that commands I share my wealth. Why don't you move into my home? You will have the highest protection the military can give you."
Davida Julianna Seabrook Asherton smiled at the young boy wonder. Probably only twenty-five and a full colonel, he was surprised when Davida answered him with questions:
"Does being away from home convince you that you can get away with things that you wouldn't dare try in your hometown? Since you know my husband is dead, are you proposing marriage to me, or are you propositioning me?"
"Why, I. . .I. . .We. . .we don't know each other well enough to consider marriage! Why, I. . ." The redheaded colonel stammered.
Davida continued, "Do we share a bed of my choice, or one of yours? Perhaps you prefer us on a thick-rugged floor where we can roll, twist, and even cartwheel, colonel? Then can we get married?"
The youthful soldier reacted with shock. "You, Mrs. Asherton, are a low-caste hussy! And you are no lady!"
Davida laughed. "And you, my young colonel, are no gentleman. Were you back home your mother would wash out your mouth with soap. Do you agree?"
With a snarl, the colonel stomped from the room. But, Davida had the last laugh. "Colonel, I'll leave. This headquarters belongs to you- -unless you want me to move here, so all your staff can be witnesses."
The response, a yell of anger, preceded the slam of the ornate entrance door. Colonel Peabody headed for the officers' bar. He was most unhappy.
"Mrs. Asherton?" came a voice from the hallway. Into the waiting room stepped a two-star general with a handsome wide mustache. He was twirling it between his fingers because he knew he was irresistible to a beautiful bereaved widow. He clicked his heels and saluted.
"Madame, may I present myself. General- -"
Davida interrupted, "Of course, Captain. Your bed or mine?"
At the mention of "bed," the staff members present began lining up like guests at a cotillion, all trying to fill Davida's dance card.
At that moment the boss of the Natchez Occupation Army, a three-star general, quietly slipped into the room. All he heard were enthusiastic discussions of available beds, canopy beds, and earthy suggestions that would have embarrassed a gynecologist.
The three-star roared, "What in the hell is going on here?"
There followed a furious stomping of calvary boots, and the staff members disappeared like a bevy of frightened quail. Thoroughly enjoying herself for the first time since the occupation troops arrived, Davida Julianna smiled at the general.
"Ah, it's you! Obviously, I've gone to the highest bidder. I'm yours, general."
Nearing apoplexy, the red-faced commander yelled, "You're my WHAT, Madame? And just who are you?"
"Your young red-headed colonel said I was a low caste hussy. Then we discussed beds- -or should I say where I was to be bedded?"
The general's bellow paralleled that of a maddened lion. Although he had no swishing tail, his booming cannon-like voice startled the crews of Federal gunboats down below on the Mississippi.
"PEABODY? COME HERE!"
Davida flew out the front door and glided swiftly downtown humming merrily between chuckles.
"At least I know what the commanding general will be eating for lunch. And so will Peabody!" Davida's laughter could be heard back at headquarters.
Yet barely a week later, Davida lost the lease on her small room. That afternoon, during her daily walk, a concerned and friendly Union officer strolled near Davida without seeming to speak directly to her.
"Mrs. Asherton? You know, of course, it was no accident you were evicted. Our redheaded Colonel Peabody is a vicious, vengeful, officer. Do you have relatives elsewhere beside here? If you do, by all means go. Peabody will hound you to your grave. Good luck, ma'am. I'm gone."
Sleeping in friends' crowded tents again, Lady Asherton discovered there were no jobs available. Yet the propositions continued. Widows with hungry children had little choice but to submit. A starving child compromises the best of morals. Officers and top non-commissioned officers were making the most of things. Some even delayed their furloughs. Here was better than back home.
Continually, the hungry Lady of Athenia was told she could join the soup lines feeding the hungry populace. Then, always the innuendoes: She could easily receive much more if she were favorably acquiescent to the amorous suggestions of certain high-ranking Union officers. Mrs. Asherton made her decision:
"Davida Julianna Seabrook Asherton, there's a clean new world awaiting you out there. And it has to be better than this. You are going West!"