Of the roughly one hundred and twenty men comprising Cass Masters’s company in the Union Army who proceeded into the Wilderness, only seventy were left standing when the battle teetered to a halt. For it is so recorded in my great, great, great, great grandfather’s war-time diaries. They obsessed me and when I finally found the key to the roll-top desk, I started reading them as soon as I could, reading them non-stop, until I finished two days later. The pages of his diary, the cramped writing penciled in after the battle ended some days afterward, were scribbled in long-hand with both pen and pencil, whatever he could find to write his thoughts regarding the August conflagration, the battle that saw Grant assume the command of the Potomac Army, marching his battalions into the forest primeval where the Confederate forces were, in his clipped notes, meant for posterity. Prior to the engagement, he even witnessed Grant ride past, gamboling by on his bay horse, looking no more imperial than a second lieutenant, except for his epaulets. And so he commits to paper his feeling as his company forged forward into the forest of smoke, for all the musket fire set the Wilderness ablaze. The soldiers on both sides fired blankly at apparitions in the smoky haze. No more than a standstill when it ended, the Northern newspapers that were passed around by the exhausted survivors of the engagement, claimed a Union victory. Grant finally made the Union soldiers stand and fight.
Growing up in Bradford, a more northwesterly hovel in the Pennsylvania Appalachian forest, his father was sharecropper. Growing potatoes, about the only skill that the Nichols tribe brought with them from Ireland, scarcely ten years before the Civil War, the family lived thinly from harvest to harvest. Only sixteen years of age when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumpter, Cass was the youngest son of Nick and Susan Masters, who had two other boys. Nick, Jr., the oldest in the family at nineteen, Cyrus, one year Cass’s senior, and Cass, all joined the Union Army when the war came. Over their father’s objections the three were inducted into the Army of the Potomac, hardly giving the upcoming conflagration the least thought in their minds. They all wanted off the farm, their father’s profession seeming to each and every one of them as a suffocating a confinement that their voyage across the Atlantic could bind them forever to the earth. Never thinking he would not give them his blessing, he surprised all by hugging them before they left.
In the Army of the Potomac, they were all relegated to separate divisions. He never saw the two brothers alive again. Nick, he later learned, fell at Petersberg, and Cyrus was slain at an inconsequential skirmish northeast of Richmond in a reckless encounter with the Southern Army that was so minor no name was given to it. Though always in the front line of the withering engagements with their Southern brothers, Cass never suffered more than a flesh wound to his left upper arm, as the North grappled and fought with the Confederate forces in their fierce pas-de-deux that led all the way to Richmond. According himself bravely and tenaciously, Cass was a sergeant when Lee surrendered his command at the Appomattox courthouse.
By the time he returned from the war, he was bereft not only of his brothers, but also of his mother who had died of old age. His sisters, married and moved away from Bradford, left him with his father and four hundred acres of fields that had been in fallow. Much as his father, he put his shoulder to the plough. Including the horses, hogs, and chickens, he rested little through the unending days. Inheriting the farm, he never complained, for the farm was his birthright and sole possession on this earth. But Cass had bigger ambitions—he also wanted to be a country lawyer. Just how he’d reconcile the two vocations, he wasn’t sure. To read the law, he simply had to pass the State Bar Association test. To do so, he studied from books a mail-order Law School sent him every month. Every night, when the chores were done, while the stars were wheeling overhead, he studied sitting at the kitchen table, digging into the books just as hard as he dug into the earth in the fields, reading them by the light of a kerosene lamp. He kept up with one habit he adopted from the conflict, he continued his diary, writing and never missing a day.
Perhaps it was because of the severe brutality of the war, but he kept his own counsel, seldom socializing with his neighbor or visiting the community. Though not caring just what the adjacent farmers thought of him, they evidently held him in some esteem, for when it came to their own troubles they frequently sought him out for advice.
Time passed. Just when he was coming up on the fourth anniversary of the South’s concession, he was in town to buy boards and nails for a shed he was building when he beheld the loveliest creature he’d ever seen come out of Bradford. Her name was Colleen Wilkerson, the local schoolmarm. From that day forward, he found excuses to come into the mud-spattered small town. At the Harvest Moon Dance that year, he cornered and coaxed her, not letting her slip away. By the fifth reel he danced with here, he knew he had her hooked. Cass didn’t know what he was attracted to the most, her light brown hair, that fell in curls over her shoulders, her eyes, as blue as a frieze of Columbine flowers, or her enticing smile. It was a whirlwind romance, and the day after school let out, four months later, they were married.
Not long after they were married, just months before he was to sit for the bar exam, there was a knock on the door. When Cass opened the door, there was a straggler of the Southern forces. After the man introduced himself as Peter Howe. “I just need to replenish my stores and find a roof over my head for a couple of days.” A moment of clarity must have struck Cass, for he wrote down much of the conversation word-for-word in his diary. He even described Howe in meticulously. According to Cass, he looked like any one of the stragglers from the fields of battle that passed through. Howe was above average in height, and was dark and swarthy as if he were a pirate, his manners coarse. From the calluses on his hands, Cass could see he was no stranger to hard work. But there was something ominous to the man, like there was to too many of those returning from the fields of battle.
Cass said nothing. “Honey, you know you could use the help clearing that patch of dog-wood down by the creek, and you were going to paint the barn.”
“I’ll go to town to get the paint for the barn. Figure you could paint the barn and house in two or three weeks?”
“Just give me a brush.”
While Colleen made breakfast for the man, Cass rode off on his Appaloosa to collect the paint and other construction material. Here, the diary grows terse. A sudden premonition caused him to turn back halfway to town. When he found her, she was in a state of dishabille, crying hysterically. Ensuring she was not hurt, urging her to get cleaned up, he grabbed his gun and found himself a mile in the woods, on some game trail, when he caught the man. In the diary, the notes fade, and Cass describes less and less, naming all involved parties simply by their initials. He found P. H. hiding behind a cottonwood tree about a half-mile from the trail. Just as Howe turned around, Cass pulled out his Colt revolver, shooting the hapless rapist in the chest three times, though not diminishing his despair.
In the twilight, just as the stars were beginning to show, he buried the malefactor in the black loam beside the river, Colleen holding a kerosene lamp under a patch of dogwood. Neither was the sheriff informed nor involved. Nine months later a baby was born. Never was the episode again mentioned in the diaries. So that was how I found out I was descended from a bastard. Knowing no one would understand, I buried the diaries in a soapbox beneath the Cottonwood behind the house, all of them except for Cass’s Civil War notes. No one else need know.
By Joseph Dylan