Prompt: Write a story featuring one of your ancestors
“Over here!” The soldier called out. A groan from the muck of the riverbank punctuated the Union soldier’s alert.
“What have you got, Private?” A gruff voice replied.
The private nudged the man with the toe of his boot. “Wounded greyback.” He answered.
“Drag him out and let’s see what he’s got.” The other soldier instructed.
“Ugh! He smells even worse than the last one.” The private exclaimed.
“Probably pissed himself. Take his gear and then dunk him in the river. Can’t take him to the Captain smelling like that.”
“Captain, we found a rebel down by the river. Looks like a deserter.”
“Bring him over, Corporal.” The captain commanded.
A few minutes later, a young, weatherbeaten, scrap of a man was brought forward. He had the emaciated look of a typical Confederate infantryman and the ragged, bloodstained, sort of hand-me-down uniform that was common amongst the lower ranking conscripted. He was the sorriest, non-mortally wounded soldier the captain had ever laid eyes on. He seemed to favor one hip, likely he had been branded for desertion.
“What’s your name, rebel?” The captain barked out.
“Ben Pruitt, Sir.” The man automatically replied.
“Where are you from?”
“When did you abandon your company?”
“Three days ago, Sir.”
Each response was that of a man resigned to his fate, whatever it may be. The questioning continued in this vein for a while, with Ben replying succinctly, almost too quickly, the captain thought.
“Why did you desert, Ben?”
Ben finally glanced up at the old captain, making eye contact with those calculating blue eyes. This was the first time the captain had addressed him by name, acknowledging Ben’s humanity. “No point in it, Sir.”
The captain narrowed his eyes at Ben. “No point?”
“My wife, Sir, and my children. They-” Ben paused to compose himself. “They’re dead.” He finally choked out.
The next morning, Ben awoke in an unfamiliar patch of woods, with nothing more than a dull knife, a small bit of rope, and his filthy long drawers. He remembered just bits of his meeting with the Union Captain and the Oath of Allegiance he swore in exchange for his pathetic freedom.
“I, Benjamin Franklin Pruitt…, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of States…”
In addition to swearing the oath, he agreed to go north and stay for a time. After a few rough years of mourning his lost family and piecing some semblance of a life together, he moved to Tennessee, where he met Fanny. Fanny was a pretty enough girl, but at nineteen years old, with no suitors and the war still raging on, her mother feared she would never wed. Despite the challenges of moving on, Ben had finally decided to settle down and try to start a family with Fanny. They wed in a small, unremarkable ceremony in 1864. Then, as the war came to an end, they welcomed their first child, a daughter, into the world. Three years later, a second daughter came along.
They led a simple life, taking comfort in each other and the calm, predictability of post-war life. Ben was a quiet, serious sort of man. Fanny often wondered about her husband’s past. She knew he was a Confederate deserter, his scarred hip told her that much, but he rarely spoke of the war and never of his life before. Anytime the war was mentioned he would repeat the old saying, “A rich man’s battle but a poor man’s war.”
She knew he had a woman before. She would often wake in the middle of the night to him sobbing in his sleep and calling out, “Mary!” Fanny often felt that Ben was disappointed in her, that she didn’t measure up to his past wife. She figured Mary must have been beautiful, more beautiful than Fanny, and a better cook, better seamstress, better wife than Fanny could ever hope to be. Despite all of these thoughts, Fanny knew she was fortunate. She had seen how the war affected other men and it terrified her. At least Ben treated her and the girls well enough. He provided for them and never hit them. All in all, her parents had made a decent match for her. Little did she know that it would soon all turn horribly wrong.
It was a typical Sunday morning, Fanny and her two small girls walked over to the small church they regularly attended. Ben hadn’t slept well due to a recurring nightmare that seemed to be getting worse, so Fanny had left him a note and let him sleep.
The pastor delivered a beautiful sermon that morning on the bonds of marriage that resonated heavily with Fanny. She wished Ben had been next to her in the pew, holding her hand as she often wished he would. Once the service was over, she hurried her daughters out of the church and down the road towards home and her awaiting husband. Fanny practically ran through the doorway, her heart aching for her husband’s embrace, no matter how cold it might be, but he was gone. There was no note, no explanation, but somehow Fanny knew she would never see him again.
Several days and one hundred fifty miles away, in Choctaw County, Mississippi, a young boy came rushing into a small cabin with a dirt floor. Out of breath, he gasped out, “Mama! There’s a man coming up the way!”
As his mother looked up from the vegetables she was chopping, her son grabbed the old rifle by the door and ran back outside. She cautiously stepped over to the doorway, still holding her knife, and peered outside. With a gasp, she dropped the knife and stood transfixed by the sight in front of her.
“Don’t come any closer, Mister, or I’ll shoot!” Her boy called out in warning, startling her into action. Her heart beat wildly, her breath hiccuped with dry sobs of shock, and her feet flew over the summer dirt and weeds towards the man, past her protective boy.
“Ben!” She finally choked out in a desperate cry of disbelief. Ben stopped and held his arms wide open, tears streaming through the dirt on his traveler’s scruff. She threw herself into his embrace.
“Mary,” he fairly whispered, as if afraid she would vanish.
Benjamin and Mary, his first wife, went on to live many more years together, bringing five more children into the world. He never spoke of Fanny or the two daughters they had together. Years later, his two illegitimate daughters found him, and he accepted them as his children. It is unknown what happened to poor Fanny.
Through a twist of misinformation, my third great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Pruitt, engaged in bigamy unknowingly. That first daughter of Benjamin and Martha Francis “Fanny” Huddleston was my grandmother’s grandmother. Perhaps it was in honor of his first wife, but they named that daughter Mary. It is rather poetic that this Mary would later marry into the Chance family. As the name suggests, it’s by chance that any of Benjamin and Fanny’s descendants exist.
Prompt is from Love in Ink’s “A Year of Creative Writing Prompts”