A Bible Goes Home
ABIBLE is my earliest boyhood memory. It was much the largest book in our house, with black binding, and on the cover in gilt were the words: —
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH WILMINGTON, N. C.
The type was very big, but Grandma couldn’t read it any more. My father had bought it for her when her eyesight began to fail.
‘That Bible ought to go back to Wilmington,’ my father and mother would often say, and when I was old enough to understand they told me the story — how he had bought it. early in 1865 when in charge of the parole camp at Annapolis, with two thousand men who, like himself, had been sent there from Southern prisons under promise not to fight against the Confederacy until they were exchanged. A Union soldier came into the camp one day with the Wilmington Bible, and my father bought it for sixteen dollars and took it home to his mother.
Yes, it ought to go back, and at one period in his life my father, Sidney Granger Cooke, was in Washington frequently, but there was always some reason why he couldn’t go on down to Wilmington. An errand like that can be put off a lifetime, and for twenty-five years before he passed away the Bible had been ready to go.
One spring I told my mother that my wife and I were going on a trip to Augusta, Georgia, and if she liked we would come back by way of Wilmington and leave the old Bible. Member of a First Presbyterian Church herself, at Leavenworth, Kansas, she said: ‘Yes, I want you to do now what your father wanted so long to do.’
A letter addressed simply to ‘The Pastor,’ Wilmington, N. C., prepared the way, and we fared forth with the book, not sure what our reception would be. But we need have had no misgiving. Our welcome was cordial. The grandmother of Dr. Gilmour, the pastor, was a first cousin of General Robert E. Lee. Mrs. Gilmour was a Northern girl who had spent most of her life in the South. The church is one whose pastor for eleven years was Woodrow Wilson’s father, and by the manse is a tall white crape myrtle set out by Wilson’s mother.
When I apologized to the Gilmours for being some sixty-two years late with the Bible, they told me they were glad that I hadn’t been earlier, because they had lost their church by fire the last day of 1925 and the Bible would have gone with it.
Mrs. Gilmour exclaimed at the beautiful condition of the book —just two small scratches on the cover were its only harm in all those years of war and peace. She turned the pages and came across the pulpit notices of more than sixty years before: the funeral of a boy who had been taken sick in the Confederate Army and had come home to die; the Thursday and Saturday evening prayer meetings — they were praying often in those days — thereafter to be held at six o’clock instead of five; Mr. McQueen, a ruling elder of the church, reading a notice asking the ladies of the congregation to attend a meeting of the sewing society at the residence of Colonel John Taylor (he had lost an arm in the war).
Dr. Gilmour kept us over Sunday, and in his beautiful new church I presented the congregation with their own Bible. Curiously, they had no tradition of ever having lost it; it was a minor incident in those awful years. For the Scripture lesson Dr. Gilmour, impressive in voice and bearing, used a page of verses we found in the Bible, written out by the pastor of 1864 or 1865. One of them was Hosea VI. 1: ‘Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up.’ And other verses were like it. As Dr. Gilmour intoned those old cries of woe and chastisement, it came to me that his predecessor of the sixties might have set them down to the accompaniment of the gunfire down the river at Fort Fisher, where the Federals were storming the works and closing the Confederacy’s last seaport. Oldsters told me how the people gathered in the church, windows rattling with the concussions and children crying in the terror of those hours. Undoubtedly it was when the Federal troops came up to Wilmington a month later that the Bible was taken.
Then I told them how it was that my father had happened to be where that Bible was offered for sale; how, like many a Southern boy, he ran away to enlist when he was fifteen but was caught by his father and taken back; how the next year, when both of his brothers were already in the army, his father let him go into the 147th New York Infantry; how he was at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg, where his regiment was in action all three days with terrific losses.
That winter, seventeen years old, he was placed in charge of a segment of picket line on the Rappahannock River.
At once he walked down to the bank, waved his handkerchief at the boy who had the line on the other side, and said: ‘We aren’t, going to settle the war by sharpshooting at each other along here.’ ‘No, I reckon not,’ the Confederate lad said. ‘Well, what do you say if none of your men or mine shall fire unless there is a general advance?’ ‘That’s all right with me,’ the Southerner answered; and so all winter they lived along the river in peace and quiet. The Confederates had lots of tobacco but no coffee. The Union men had the coffee and wanted the tobacco. The soldiers would make little rafts on either side of the river and contrive to float them down to the other side, and swapping went on until May.
Then came the Battle of the Wilderness. My father, sent out in charge of a small detachment to find the enemy, came upon them very suddenly, turned to give a command, and was struck by a bullet just below the base of the brain. His men examined him and left him for dead within the Confederate lines.
John Fiske somewhere has spoken of the relative lack of vindictiveness in Civil War fighting. My father used to recall that as he lay, unable to move, he heard two Confederate soldiers coming by. One of them started to take off his new boots, and no doubt the Confederate needed them; but my father twitched slightly and the other one said: ‘Oh, come on, he ain’t dead yet.’ A little later he got the attention of a Confederate surgeon, who gave him first aid. My father said: ‘Thank you, Doctor; now just take my watch.’ ‘No, my boy,’ the surgeon said, ‘I can’t do that.’ ‘Well, if you don’t get it somebody wil,’ my father answered, and then very properly the surgeon did accept it.
Perhaps three weeks later, a Confederate major with a detachment of cavalry came into the prison camp there in the Wilderness. My father asked the major to get a letter to his mother through the lines. ‘ Well, that’s hard to do, Sergeant,’ the enemy major said, ‘but I’ll try.’ Two months later the letter did get through, but it wasn’t news to my grandmother. She had known all the time, she said, that Sidney wasn’t dead, and had refused to allow memorial services to be held for him.
Sidney Cooke was taken to Andersonville for six months, then to Millen, then to Savannah, where, seven months after he was shot (in the back of his neck), he sneezed the bullet out of his nose. From Savannah he was shipped to Annapolis, where he took charge of the men in the parole camp. After his exchange he was commissioned second lieutenant and was in command of his company when barely nineteen.
His life after the war, too, paralleled the lives of hundreds of young men, North and South. Wresting a university education late from reluctant circumstance, he became a superintendent of schools in New York State, then a lawyer, then engaged in the grain business in Chicago and finally became a banker in Kansas. Success came late, and I suppose that to him it seemed incomplete; but he did much to turn the agriculture of his region into economic ways. Grover Cleveland twice offered him posts in the diplomatic service. He became a member of the Board of Managers of the National Soldiers’ Homes and Governor of the Home at Leavenworth.
Then the no-firing agreement of the Confederate pickets on the Rappahannock, the decency of the soldiers who didn’t take his boots, the service of the Southern surgeon, the chivalry of the Confederate major who got his letter through two armies to his mother, paid dividends. Every now and then some old Confederate soldier would straggle into camp and be referred to Governor Cooke. Against the regulations and proud of it, he would order the man taken up ‘Temporarily at Post.’ So the old Confederate would get good square meals and a rest, and medical attention, too, if he needed it, until it became impossible to keep up longer the pretense that his eligibility was under investigation. In 1926 my father died and the chaplain of the Home said: ‘A man has passed this way. He is gone into the shadows, but there is no darkness.’
Will Henry Thompson, a Georgia soldier, wrote a poem called ‘High Tide at Gettysburg.’ My father said that this song of battle had in it the melody of peace, and because he loved it so I recited some of the stanzas to that congregation in what had been the last seaport of the Confederacy — how Pickett’s men charged the heights and set their battle flags
Before the awful face of Fate?
The tattered standards of the South
Were shrivelled at the cannon’s mouth,
And all her hopes were desolate.
Men saw a gray, gigantic ghost
Receding through the battle-cloud,
And heard across the tempest loud
The death-cry of a nation lost!
Love rules. Her gentler purpose runs.
A mighty mother turns in tears
The pages of her battle years,
Lamenting all her fallen sons!
They liked it, end so perhaps the recent Confederate recapture was, after all, a Union victory.