VICKSBURG(A ONE-ACT PLAY BY JRS)
Originally conceived of as a full-length movie script, this version of "Vicksburg" has been condensed and focused on its optimal moment of dramatic possibilities. Strangely enough, or not, it was first born as a response to Gone With The Wind.
Margaret Mitchellís powerful 1930ís classic, Gone With The Wind, later transformed into the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh as Rhett Butler and Scarlett OíHara, transfixed a generation with its vivid tale of romance and personal struggle set against the backdrop of a doomed world defended bravely against all odds. What proves the worth of a dream, this generation thought, more than the willingness of men to be utterly impractical on its behalf? As Margaret Mitchell put it in the opening moment of her book: "There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind."
With time, however, and the increasing development of historical consciousness, American society, as a whole, began to understand the depths of past injustices committed by the Deep South, of which it was reminded by the horrific resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, where bitter remnants of a culture that had once countenanced the existence of slavery remained. In the light of this new awakening, it became harder to share in the nostalgia for the vanished grandeur of the Old South which permeated the book and movie, and harder to identify with the romantic plight of the overmatched Confederacy, which until then had so well represented the beautiful spirit manifest in loyalty to a lost cause. And yet, though one part of us felt the need to distance ourselves from Margaret Mitchellís heartfelt tale, a novel into which she threw every ounce of her life and passion, another part felt regret to have to abandon such a magnificent epic because it was not enlightened. It was trapped, to some degree, in the perspective which made it possible in the first place, but which now threatened to kill it like the dinosaur. MMís close rapport with her theme allowed her to paint her story in vivid colors, but also limited the width of the view which she presented, which potentially made her work untenable to the politically sensitized readers of future eras.
In Alice Randallís The Wind Done Gone, an effort to provide balance to the perspective of Gone With The Wind was undertaken by retelling the chronicle from the point of view of the slaves; but this was not, exactly, a rescue, in fact, it was considered by some to be more of an exposť, or deconstruction. My own question was: Could the beautiful and poignant spirit inherent in MMís tale of a dying civilization gasping its last breaths be reconciled with the historical reality of slavery? Could a way be found to preserve the sense of loss and to honor the sorrow and the courage of those who had to face the destruction of their world when North conquered South, without glossing over the harsh truth of human bondage? Could romanticism and reality find a way to coexist, that was both honest and moving?
In Robbie Robertsonís 1969 hit, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", the nostalgia of the fallen South is rescued by skirting the issue of slavery altogether. The protagonist, Virgil Caine, is working-class: most likely a poor white man who never owned a slave himself, and got where he was in the world through the work of his own two hands. "I donít mind chopping woodÖ. Like my father before me, I will work the land." My desire, in Vicksburg, was to see if I could handle both the theme of the falling South, and the reality of slavery, and weave them together in such a way that fairness was not buried by the story, and yet, did not kill the story.
This work has very little to do with Gone With The Wind other than its treatment of these themes, and its use of a spirited female protagonist, which no great writer, from Sophocles to Tolstoy, has proved capable of resisting.
Following is a brief historical description of the fall of Vicksburg. It is not necessary in order to comprehend the play, which contains the necessary hints of the battleís significance. This section, therefore, may be skipped. However, for those interested in additional information, here it is.
Although the battle of Gettysburg (July 1863) is usually considered the turning point in the American Civil War (1861-1865), the truth is that it was the battle of Vicksburg which was the strategic deathblow to the pro-slavery, rebel Southís effort to secede from the federal government of the United States of America, whose integrity - "a house divided cannot stand" - was defended by the Yankee North. Gettysburg was surely a setback for the Confederate South, as it contributed to the wearing out of the less-populated Confederacy via the dynamics of attrition, and as it essentially ended General Robert E. Leeís ability to "carry the war to the North": an ability which, although it offered no hope of conquering the North, was believed to have the potential to bring the Yankees to the negotiating table and convince it to accept Southern independence sooner than later. Vicksburg, on the other hand, was far more than another chapter in the wearingĖout of the South, and far more than a mere dent in its morale. Although the North had already captured New Orleans, due to the efforts of the Navy, and gained much ground along the Mississippi River with the advance of its armies, an important stretch of the Mississippi River still remained in Southern hands, thanks to a defensive network centered on the town of Vicksburg. By means of this position, the eastern half of the Confederacy was still able to communicate with the western half (including Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas), and to draw upon its considerable resources. At the end of January 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant of the Northern Army arrived in the vicinity of the powerful river fortress of Vicksburg to begin operations against this vital Confederate lifeline. The objective was to take this town which controlled a crucial section of the Mississippi River with its well-placed batteries of artillery, positioned on high bluffs overlooking a bend in the waterway, and to finally split the South in half.
Vicksburg was by no means an easy target. Located on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, it was protected from the north by difficult terrain featuring steep bluffs and hills. Across the river, and in many places all around it, bayous and swamps made passage difficult. The best approach for operating against the river fortress was from the south, where the land was dry and the terrain more favorable for an advance; but Grantís army was coming from the north, and the shift of his base of operations to New Orleans so that he could approach Vicksburg from the south would have required a massive reorganization which the Northern government was not prepared to undertake, in the midst of the politically-tense environment which prevailed, demanding timely action and results. Grantís strategy therefore evolved into a daring and brilliant approach which has won him respect as "one of the great captains of military history."
At first he sought to bypass Southern control of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg by means of engineering. His men sought to develop an alternative water route, by utilizing bayous west of the Mississippi and building canals, which would allow them to bring supplies, on barges and boats, past Vicksburg, out of the range of its guns which controlled the river. This would allow them to consolidate a base south of Vicksburg, so that the army could then advance, with a secure supply line, against the weakest point in the enemyís defenses. However, the obstacles to the engineering projects were enormous, and in the end, this phase of the campaign, which lasted through April, was fruitless, except as a diversion.
At this point, Grant determined to march his army past Vicksburg, down the western side of the Mississippi River, and then, to attempt to cross the river south of Vicksburg and set up a base of operations below it. He used stealth to run boats past the batteries of Vicksburg in the night, which he first used to carry supplies and establish a depot south of Vicksburg (in April) Ė first at Bruinsburg and then at Grand Gulf - and later used to carry his troops across the river (in May). He then advanced, not against Vicksburg itself, but against the rail junction of Jackson, Mississippi, 45 miles to the east. The rail line from Jackson was crucial since it was by means of this line that Vicksburg was supplied: without it, the garrison would be cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, unable to receive reinforcements, ammunition, or food. It was Grantís hope, by threatening a point so critical to the defense of Vicksburg, to draw the Southern garrison out of Vicksburg, which was heavily fortified, and to defeat it in the open once it had emerged from its trenches to protect the rail line; then, to advance upon the weakened town and to take it by storm. He also hoped to draw in any forces capable of advancing against him from the east, and to defeat them as well, so that should he fail to take Vicksburg by storm, he could invest it and lay siege to it without fear of any powerful rescue force descending upon his rear.
Southern General Joseph E. Johnston was the rescue threat, but he was promptly driven out of Jackson. Afterwards, he continued to hover in the vicinity, constantly searching for an opportunity to relieve the garrison of Vicksburg or to help it break out, but never acquiring the force needed to accomplish that task.
Meanwhile General Pemberton, in command of the garrison of Vicksburg, sought to compel Grant to give up his advance against Jackson, by advancing against Grantís supply lines, which were exposed as Grant advanced from his base at Grand Gulf on the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg, towards Jackson. In other words, Pemberton felt he could protect his own supply lines by threatening Grantís. However, Grant had anticipated this, and to counter it, he had, in effect, eliminated his supply lines. Instead, he had his men carry several days of rations on their persons, brought as many additional supplies as he could behind them in wagons and carriages, and besides that, oriented his operation towards living off of the land, which meant confiscating livestock and crops from the local farms and plantations which lay about. The end result was that instead of attempting desperately to link up with Johnston and combine forces to oppose Grant as he moved against Jackson, Pemberton wasted precious time attempting to cut Grantís "imaginary" supply lines to compel him to abandon his advance ; by the time he discovered that this was having no effect, and that Grant was operating without supply lines, Johnston had already been driven back. Pemberton was then forced to follow Grantís script, by marching out of Vicksburg with his main force in the vital effort to recover Jackson and reopen Vicksburgís communications with the rest of the South. In the battle of Championís Hill which followed, on May 16, Pembertonís army was finally defeated after a day of fierce fighting in rugged terrain, and driven back in tremendous confusion towards Vicksburg.
Grant attempted to follow up this decisive victory with two separate efforts to take the town by storm. However, the Southern army, routed on Championís Hill, recovered its fighting spirit once it made it back to the defenses of Vicksburg, and in spite of its losses out in the open, stood fast in the trenches, inflicted heavy casualties on the charging Yankees who sought to take the town by storm, and prevented Grant from bringing a quick end to the campaign. Grant had secured the strategic space he needed to operate successfully against Vicksburg, but not yet captured it. With Johnston looking on, but not finding a way to reverse the tide of events, Grant proceeded to build a line of trenches all around the city and to lay siege to it, seeking to reduce it by hunger and pure attrition.
At the same time, the war took a terrible new turn. Before this, it had largely been a contest of armies fighting in the field, bloody and heartbreaking, but never intentionally targeting civilians or adding them to the equation of destruction by which the effects of wars are calculated. At Vicksburg, however, not only was hunger used as a weapon, driving the people to eat mules, but fearsome artillery bombardments were also kept up which destroyed many homes and killed large numbers of civilians; some, unable to bear the strain of not knowing when an artillery shell might come crashing through their roof, took refuge in caves in cliff sides that lay within the defensive perimeter of the town; while a Confederate officer, noting the devastating effects of the stress on peopleís mental health, wrote that if the battle did not end soon "a building will have to be arranged for the accommodation of maniacs."  In every sense, the siege of Vicksburg was a foreshadowing of Shermanís ruthless "march to the sea" to come, the burning of Atlanta, the razing of the Southern fields, the teaching of the lesson that civilians who support and sympathize with an army are not to be spared any more than the soldiers who carry guns in their hands: a lesson which has been expressed over and over again since those times, at Dresden and at Hiroshima, by aircraft, and by death squads. The Union Army did not invent this cruel idea, which was wielded by Joshua at Jericho, by Genghis Khan in China, and by Tamerlane in India, and yet, it was thought by many that this idea might finally have been transcended and left behind by history. Those who thought the idea dead were wrong. Vicksburg brought it back to life.
In the end, after a long and torturous struggle, Pemberton saw that there was no hope of relief and that the town had no future except starvation. He surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863, formalizing the fall of Vicksburg, which historians agree, and even the people of the day could see, was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
Hand-in-hand with the ferocity of the Old-Testament-style assault on the South, walked the great, impending triumphs of the preservation of the Union (the salvation of the potential of a united country), and the end of the abomination that was human slavery. In September 1862 (effective January 1, 1863), Northern President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in all the states currently in rebellion against the United States. However, the freeing of the slaves in states which he did not control - in states which were still under the power of the Confederate army and police, and beholden to the slave-holding class - was more a statement of principle than a real act of liberation. The Southern slaves remained in bondage, with their liberation depending upon the outcome of the war and the victory of Yankee troops. Only as the Northern armies reached them and swept Southern political power aside, could the proclamation of Lincoln take effect and the slaves actually experience the reality of freedom.
The defeat of the Confederacy was thus, within the South, a time of both anguish and rejoicing, humiliation and the recovery of dignity, a fall and an attainment. It was a complex and intense moment of irrevocable change. It was historyís next stepÖ
 Fuller, Military History, p. 63
 Catton, p. 195-196
Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat.
Fuller, JFC. The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant.A Military History of the Western World, vol. 3
VICKSBURG: THE PLAY
Karen Lee Chase: Owner of a small plantation
Mr. Corey: An old male slave
Nathan: A young male slave, in his physical prime (the 20s or 30s)
Miriam: Miss Karenís housekeeper slave
Francis Lamont: An older white southern male
Jimmy: A southern soldier
Vicksburg, the southern river fortress on the Mississippi River, under Yankee siege. The characters are all penned up in a cave inside the city limits, for shelter. Occasionally, one hears the sound of artillery shells crashing down on the city.
Karen Lee: What a terrible heat there is here. As if God hadnít sent us enough trials.
Mr. Lamont: Hot as hell, itself - youíre right Miss Karen Lee. A taste of the world to come.
Karen Lee: Itís not over yet, is it Jimmy? Weíre still in it.
Jimmy: (Nodding, but without much conviction.) Thatís right, Miss Chase, weíre still in it.
Karen Lee: Johnston will break through. Mr. Davis knows the importance of Vicksburg, why without it, the Confederacy is doomed. He will send every man, every resource at his disposal to break through the Yankee lines and lift the siege. Johnston is a good man, a stalwart fighter, isnít that right, Mr. Lamont? Grant has nothing on him.
Mr. Lamont: Oh yes, Miss Karen Lee, Joe is quite a fighter. (He is just saying it to appease her.) Quite a fighter.
Miriam gets up, at last, and standing over Karen Lee, begins to fan her.
Karen Lee: Oh yes. Fighting Joe. Grant is nothing but a big old bear, our boysíve grown up shooting bear. Weíre too important to let go of. (Thinking.) I remember once when dear daddy, bless his soul, gave me motherís bag to carry when we were traveling. It was our big trip to Atlanta, in fact, it was at the station here, at Jackson, donít you remember it, Mr. Corey?
Corey: Oh surely, dear. We were loaded like wagons, like our backs were wagons, and like our arms were the holds of ships.
Karen Lee: And daddy said, "Whatever you do, darling, donít let go of that bag, itís got all your motherís valuables in it." And I was so proud that I was entrusted with that precious bag, but it weighed what must have been a ton, or maybe it was only because I was a child that it felt so heavy. At any rate, it had motherís jewelry in it, and I think it had the family Bible in it as well, and maybe all the stones from the toppled walls of Jericho besides! And my arm started shaking, so badly that I had to switch arms; but then the other arm started shaking, so that I had to switch the bag back to my other arm, and on it went, me switching the bag from one arm to the other and trying to keep up with them, [looking at Mr. Corey] with all of you. I didnít dare to rest the bag on the ground, Mr. Corey, not even for a minute, out of fear that I would fall too far behind the rest of you as you were running for the train, and we were already so late, but my arm felt like it was going to break, and my grip was beginning to weaken, my hands were beginning to open up, just like clam shells when you pry them open Ė such a long time since Iíve had something good to eat - since any of us have had something good to eat Ė and I didnít think I could go on. I didnít. But I didnít let go of the bag, Mr. Corey, I did just as daddy said: I held onto it. I didnít let go of the bag because daddy had impressed upon me the importance of its contents. And I feel certain that now, [turning to Mr. Lamont] Mr. Lamont, our president must feel the same way about us here, in Vicksburg, as I did, then, about that bag!
Mr. Lamont: Jackson is in Yankee hands.
Karen Lee: Weíll get it back. I have such fond memories of that station. All the beautiful trains. All the places we used to go. Weíll get it back.
Mr. Lamont: Without it, we die a slow death. Pemberton and our boys here are ghosts, they canít do a thing. Without the station, we starve. The Yankees have the river blocked, the railroads. JacksonÖ
Karen Lee: Weíll get it back. Do you remember the time Lucy Mallory was so desperately ill, and Mr. Mallory told the pastor who came to comfort him to go away, that she wasnít going to die, because nobody who was loved that much could die? And though the doctors said Lucy was as good as dead, she revived, and just the fact of Mr. Mallory sitting by her bed and entreating her not to abandon him, with tears in his eyes, was stronger than any medicine in the world? And the doctors said that finding her alive and sitting up in the morning and eating breakfast was like finding a rose in the middle of December? I love that station, Mr. Lamont. And I love my property. Damn the Yankees, even if they burn it, even if they pillage it, it will come back to me. Theyíll go, and it will come back to me. You canít lose what you love that much!
Jimmy: [After a while] I lost my brother at Championís Hill. I held him in my arms, I tried to stop the bleeding. Right in the throat they hit him. Right in the throat. Almost like theyíd finally learned how to use their guns. Bobby and me used to play all sorts of games together, when we were kids. I canít tell you how many times I shot him and he shot me. But whichever one of us was shot always got back up. Wasnít no blood, only some dirt in our hair. This time, Bobby didnít get back up.
Karen Lee: Iím Ė Iím so sorry, Jimmy! Iím so sorry!
Jimmy is not all there anymore, he is distant, a shell of his former self. No one can reach him any longer.
Mr. Lamont: Iím sorry Jimmy. I didnít know. [Thinking] I lost a nephew. [Choked up] God, what a good young man!
Karen Lee: Iím sorry, Mr. Lamont! - Damn those Yankee sons of bitches!
Mr. Corey: Miss Karen LeeÖ
Karen Lee: Nobody to wash my mouth out with soap any longer, Mr. Corey. Mamma and Papa are gone and buried. Thank God, they didnít live to see this. Ė Damn Yankees! Look at what theyíve done to us! Excuse my mouth, but look at what theyíve done to us! I was a good girl, wasnít I, always a good girl, Mr. Corey, but look at what theyíve done! Run us off of the farm, bottled us up here in Vicksburg, and now that they werenít men enough to take it by storm, they just pound us every day with cannons from the land, and mortars from the river, like we were all soldiers, not caring if they blow up women and children.
The sound of shells flying through the air and landing somewhere.
Karen Lee: Barbarians! They dare to treat us as though we were Canaanites.
Mr. Lamont: "Kill every man, woman, child, donkey and ox."
Karen Lee: As though Jesus had never lived! As though savagery had never been transcended! Itís for this our savior hung on the cross?, that cannons might blast through the roofs of homes to kill babies; that god-fearing people like us might be forced to hide in caves?
Jimmy: [Screams] I canít stand it! I canít stand it any longer! It just wonít stop! [He gets up and hobbles about in agitation, it is obvious that he is physically as well as mentally damaged] Tell the Yankees to stop, god damn it! Isnít it true, Miss Chase, that you have a Yankee boyfriend? Well, tell him to stop! Tell him to stop the noise! How long can you listen to your own death looking for you, looking in every nook, in every cranny trying to find you, before you finally just jump out into the open and shout, "Here I am, get it over with!" Get it over with!
Mr. Lamont: [Physically trying to restrain the soldier] Calm down, son! Calm down!
Jimmy: Stop it! You god-damned Yankees, with your long-range guns! Cowards! Cowards! God damn it, Iíd rather just blow my brains out!
Mr. Lamont takes away Jimmyís gun.
Mr. Lamont: Calm down, son. Calm down.
Jimmy: I canít stand it! Miss Karen Lee, write a letter to your boyfriend. Tell him to stopÖ [He begins to cry]
Mr. Lamont: Calm down.
It takes a moment for her to compose herself.
Karen Lee: Heís not my boyfriend anymore, Jimmy. I detest him. The days we used to waltz... He was a good dancer for a Chicagoan. He went with his state. Artillery Corps. Imagine, firing his cannon into the city. I wonder if he thinks of me now Ė if he ever wonders if one of the shells he is firing might hit the home in which Iím staying, might crash through the roof of the woman he loves and kill her. Is this what war does to men? What is duty that it matters more than a kiss, than the firm grip of a hand which represents a heart, than the sincere look of eyes in the dark, a vow made under the blooming sycamore trees? No, I detest him Jimmy. He is a traitor to love and honor; just one more part of the Yankee war machine. I thought him gallant in his uniform, but now I see the work his kind do.
Jimmy: [Sobbing] Tell him to stopÖ
Mr. Lamont: Heís just another soldier, boy, he canít stop nothing. You couldnít stop Grant, and he canít either. They tell him, "Shoot a cannon," and thatís what heíll do. Doesnít matter if the woman he loves is in the city heís destroying, he just sees roofs, and tries to pierce them with his shells. He doesnít see whatís inside the homes heís destroying. And itís better that way. To make sure he wasnít killing his fiancťe, heíd have to look at all the people he was killing, just to make sure she wasnít among them. Do you think he could live with all that blood on his hands? Itís better to see nothing, and to blow up Miss Karen Lee without knowing it. When she doesnít turn up after the war, he can just imagine she went away somewhere Ė maybe sailed on a boat to England, and married someone else. - Damn Yankee killers, no one can stop them now! Theyíre as ruthless as their industry! Break the bones of the Irish, then turn them into soldiers. If one dies, send two more! Now sit down, son, and get a grip on yourself! Miss Karen Leeís ex-fiancťe is as heartless as the rest of them!
Karen Lee: More so. Their guns arenít pointed at the ones they love.
Mr. Corey: You never know, Miss Karen Lee. Maybe your beau is dying every time he lights the fuse. Maybe heís loving you more than ever, and saying a prayer with every shot he fires. "Please donít hit the one I love." Do you know, once, when Millieís boy was carried away by the flood? It was before your time but Iím sure you heard about it. The boy just kept on yelling, "Mamma!" as the flood bore him away. Maybe your Mr. Brandon is crying out your name, Miss Karen Lee, in the same way, as the flood of war sweeps him away from the life he wanted for you both. Thereís no man in the world whoís stronger than the river of history.
Karen Lee: Even if heís suffering, Mr. Corey, I donít care. Heís not suffering more, on my account, than all of us are on his. I could never marry a man capable of such cruelty. [She is upset now] How I hate dances!
There is a long lull in the talking.
Nathan: [To Miriam, as she fans Karen Lee.] Why are you doing that? [Miriam seems not to listen, and keeps on going. Some more time passes.] Miriam Ė why are you fanning her?
Everyone seems stunned by the question. Miriam stops for a moment, then continues.
Nathan: Itís over. [Everyone is still shocked] Itís over. This city canít hold on but for another week or two, if that. Then Pemberton will have to lower the stars and bars. The Yankees will be here. You know, what Mr. Lincoln said. All of us is free, it was in his proclamation, as soon as the rebel army isnít here to restrain us anymore. As soon as the Yankees reach us, well, then, the law reaches us, too. Weíre free, sister. Look around you, look at these people, pale, shaking, crapping in their pants, crazy. Theyíre going to beat the Yankees back from Vicksburg? Theyíre going to stop the hands of time? Theyíve lost, Miriam. Weíve won. You can stop fanning her now. Let her fan herself. Youíll be doing her a favor. Sheís going to have to get used to it. [Miriam stops, but mainly because she is surprised by his openness]
Mr. Lamont: Donít get uppity with us, boy. The Yankees arenít here yet. [He pushes Jimmy away from him, allowing Jimmy to have his musket again, and draws from his own person a revolver, without pointing it] She can keep on fanning Miss Karen Lee.
Karen Lee: Oh, honest to God, Mr. Lamont, please! Miriam, you donít have to fan me if you donít want to.
Mr. Lamont: I wonít allow you to be disrespected, Miss Karen Lee. Youíve been through too much! You donít deserve it. Sit down, boy, and shut your mouth. There arenít any Yankees here yet!
Nathan is smiling fiercely, rebelliously. Mr. Corey gets up and goes over to him.
Mr. Corey: Easy, Nathan, easy. Bide your time. Freedom will be a lot sweeter without a bullet in your heart.
Nathan: Go on, wave your pistol around! Itís all coming to an end. But you can pretend you still have the power youíve already lost. You can kill me, and that will feel good for a few days, wonít it?, until the Yankee army comes marching in.
Mr. Lamont: No, you donít deserve a bullet, boy, thatís for a man: for a Yankee soldier, not a negro like you. Miss Karen Lee, do you have a whip in your possession?
Karen Lee: Good lord, Mr. Lamont, I never whip my slaves!
Mr. Lamont: It shows.
Nathan: But your daddy sure did. He beat my daddy near to death. In fact, Iím sure he took years off the old manís life. His piss was pure red for days afterwards, and he could never lift weights the same. Your daddyís whip was meant for bulls, Miss. And when he got angry, I swear the Devil rode him like a racehorse.
Karen Lee: Donít mention my father in that way, Nathan. He made our farm everything it is.
Nathan: Not "our" farm, Miss. Your farm. We picked the cotton, but you were the ones who lived in the nice house. We were just like your horses, your cows, and your dogs.
Karen Lee: What do you mean? We put a roof above your head.
Nathan: Your daddy beat my daddy to death.
Mr. Lamont: Miss Karen Lee, I donít mean to criticize, but this negro here should have been whipped till he knew his place. Your daddy was right. How did you ever manage without beating them?
Karen Lee: I just turned to Mr. Corey. Mr. Corey, he was better than a whip. He talked to them and they listened. Isnít that right, Mr. Corey, whenever there was a problem, you could talk sense into your peopleís heads? No one had to get hurt. It was all so easy.
Mr. Corey: Not so easy as you think, Miss Karen Lee. Being a slave isnít easy. But I did my best. I cared for you since you were a child, Miss, I carried on after Betty died.
Karen Lee: [Dreamily] BettyÖ Mamma was so busy. Iím sorry about your wife, Mr. Corey, I know how much you miss her.
Mr. Corey: She loved you, Miss Karen Lee, she said you had something beautiful in your eyes, some kind of love and brightness that she couldnít resist.
Mr. Lamont: Brightness? How would a negro know? Of course, itís true, but how would a negro know?
Mr. Corey: So I carried on after she was gone. Her last words, in fact, were: "Donít give up on the little Miss. She spends a lot of time alone. That makes people hard. Be kind to her, and stay around, because the souls of angels can be dragged to hell. Once, there was clay wanted to be made into a pitcher to water flowers, it kept on saying, Ďmake me into a pitcherí, but hands didnít listen. They made it into something else, and the flowers died. I want you to listen to that clay, Corey, and give it the shape its soul is crying out to have.í And then she told me, "I love you, Corey" and "one day Jeremy and Zipporah is going to be free." And thatís it. Then she died.
Nathan: Jeremy and Zipporah?
Mr. Corey: Our kids. The house economy was bad at that time, and they were sold to another master. Havenít seen them since.
Nathan holds Mr. Corey, in solidarity, for the pain he must feel. Then he steps back and regards him.
Nathan: Now theyíre going to be free, Mr. Corey, wherever they are. Itís inevitable. And you, too. Imagine Ė you, too.
Mr. Lamont: So Mr. Corey is the one who kept them in line? Well, Mr. Corey, you better keep this one in line, before thereís trouble.
Mr. Corey: I was a realist. Why get beat? Why force the Miss to call in the neighbors who would do what she couldnít? The whole system was against us. Men with whips, men with guns, miles and miles of country against us, woods and rivers and violent men on horses between us and freedom. Bend like the reed, donít break like the oak. Be an oak inside, but disguise yourself as a reed. Be a realist! Stay on your feet, people, keep on moving toward freedom. Just by staying on your feet. "Yes Sir, Yes Maíam, Yes Boss", keep on moving towards freedom by being alive, the chains will wear out. If God made giant canyons in the earth, if he cut through rocks with rivers, with time he can make a hole in this injustice, he can erode the shore of slavery with thoughts of liberty which are like a mighty ocean. If it doesnít happen in our own lifetime, it will happen in our childrenís. Meantime, donít get yourself killed for nothing. In a bad situation, the Miss is the best youíre going to get. Donít bash you head on stone. Just listen up and do things like she says, according to the ways she was taught we ought to. Sheís a captive, just like us. Chained to the thought that the world she inherited is right. She wonít be free till weíre free.
Mr. Lamont: How dare you talk like this! [He takes a step towards Mr. Corey]
Karen Lee quickly stops him.
Karen Lee: Mr. Lamont! Thank you, but Mr. Corey is precious to me! He has been so helpful and so kind! But Mr. Corey, what are you saying? Are you saying all the time you were against me?
Mr. Corey: God no, Miss Karen Lee, you know how I adore you. Youíre a good soul, but the world youíve lived from is wrong. You canít see that?
Mr. Lamont: Wrong, god damn it!? Excuse me, Miss Karen Lee. [He is apologizing for using profanity] And what about these damned Yankees, blowing us all to hell!?
More artillery rounds blow up.
Jimmy: [Screams incoherently like an animal] Stop it! Stop it! No sleep, they wonít even let us sleep! Weíre like rats, like drowning rats!
Mr. Lamont: What about the god-damned Yankees? Whatís slavery to this? Blowing up a city filled with women and children! And to those infernal factories they have up north, which they throw workers into like meat to be ground?
Jimmy: Tell Mr. Brandon to stop! Miss Chase, please tell your fiancťe to stop, at least for a few hours, so we can get some sleep! The knights always let their enemies put on their armor before they attacked. [Again, he screams incoherently]
Nathan: Hallelujah, praise the lord! Those exploding guns that are so terrible to all you white folks, standing around shaking and crapping in your pants, are like church bells ringing. Hallelujah, praise the lord! Weíre going to be free! The Yankee army is coming!
Jimmy suddenly wrestles his bayonet off his gun, and goes at Nathan.
Jimmy: My brother, god damn it! My brother, at Championís Hill! His dead eyes. I was looking at him and talking to him and his eyes were just staring nowhere, and I was covered with his warm blood, and youíre saying, "Hallelujah"? You god-damned negro son of a bitch! You were born a slave and Iíll make sure you die one! Freedom is for men!
Nathan is nearly slashed, thereís a scuffle, with Mr. Lamont, Mr. Corey, and Karen Lee trying to restrain Jimmy, yelling, "Stop! Please! Stop!", etc..
Jimmy: No, no, let me at him! My brother! My brother! This damned artillery! [He finally hears Karen Lee]
Karen Lee: Jimmy! Jimmy! Listen to me! Nathan is my slave. Heís my property. Donít destroy my property.
Nathan: Iím nobodyís property!
Mr. Corey: While heís got a knife in his hand, you are. Let the Miss talk. She knows what sheís doing.
Nathan: Iím nobodyís property! [He picks up a chair which they have in the cave] This is property! Iím not property! Iím a man!
Mr. Corey: Men have brains!
Nathan: Weíre free! Weíre free, Mr. Corey! Why are you still playing this game?
Mr. Corey: Heís got a knife, so youíre property. Kid, freedomís just around the corner! Donít miss out on it by being a fool!
Karen Lee: [To Jimmy] Heís my property, Jimmy. Donít damage my property. Donít damage my propertyÖ
Jimmy: Iím sorry, Miss Chase. I Ė I got carried away. I never meant to threaten your property. I Ė I was so upset the time I got ashes from my cigarette on your dress.
Karen Lee: It was all right, I just flicked them off.
Jimmy: I thought there might be embers. It could have burned a hole in it. Such a lovely dress. Remember how I upset I was?
Karen Lee: Yes. Itís all right. Nothing happened.
Jimmy: I would never damage your property, Miss Chase. Itís just that Ė just that- what he saidÖ My brother! He was valiant! How intolerable to praise the bastards who killed him! How intolerable to imply he died defending a sin!
Karen Lee: Your brother was valiant, Jimmy.
Jimmy: He was valiant.
Nathan: He drove a chariot for Pharaoh, and drowned beneath the tides.
Mr. Corey touches Nathan and indicates that he should be silent
Jimmy: He was valiant.
Karen Lee: Yes, he was valiant, Jimmy.
Jimmy: Mom was so proud of us in our gray uniforms.
Karen Lee: She must have been. She should have been.
Jimmy: Outnumbered so badly. We held our heads up high. Like all of the greatest heroes of history, we didnít surrender in spite of the odds. I remember one fight - it was just a skirmish, but men die in skirmishes which to them are as huge as the battles which decide history Ė there, by a stone wall that separated two kinds of trees in an orchard. There was some Yankees there firing at us, and after we hid ourselves in a ditch for a while, about twenty of us all told, Bobby told us, "Weíre not going to win the war like this!", and he got up and started running forward, using the trees as cover. I was scared, Miss Chase, I must admit, but I couldnít let my brother go all by himself, and so I followed him, because of love, and then the rest of the guys followed me because of pride, and by the time we were done, we had both the peach trees and the cherry trees. That was valor, Miss. My brother was a knight, as surely as any of the knights of the round table. A knight in gray. God bless him, Miss. I wonít hear any talk that denigrates his sacrifice.
Nathan: He was a pillar of slavery.
Mr. Corey: He was valiant.
Nathan: He was wrong.
Mr. Corey: He was a brave man, fighting for something that wasnít even being fought for. His war was another war than the one that sought to keep us in chains; but it was used by that war. He didnít know it.
Jimmy struggles to take something out of his bag, behind him.
Jimmy: See this? A daguerreotype.
Karen Lee: Thatís him? - Such beautiful, noble eyes.
Nathan: He fought on behalf of slavery.
Karen Lee: What a beautiful man!
Nathan: So that our backs could be scarred, and our lives spent bent over under the hot sun.
Mr. Corey: "Make me into a pitcher that can water the flowers."
More artillery explosions
Jimmy screams like an animal. Then, he takes the picture of his brother, and falls to his knees, looking at it.
Jimmy: Iím sorry! Iím sorry dear brother that Iím not like you! I need you right in front of me, if Iím to be like you! Why donít you come back?! Why donít you come back?! Come out of the picture! Come out of the picture! He collapses weeping, Karen Lee and Miriam seek to comfort him, then Mr. Lamont.
Nathan: Who could ever imagine, that our freedom could be so hard for them?
Mr. Corey: Itís a shame they couldnít see before.
Nathan: A man commits a crime, they hang him. Theyíve committed a crime, now history is hanging them. Weíve got scars on our backs, scars in our minds, maybe that will last forever. You lost your children, Mr. Corey, my father was murdered. Without one bone of the law being broken, his body was broken and not one of them shed a tear over it. Poor negro, like a dead animal on the side of the road. This is payback, Mr. Corey, God is taking them to task. I love the sound of those beautiful guns. I like it better than the songs we used to sing in the fields.
Mr. Corey: Nathan, those artillery shells could fall on us.
Nathan: Wouldnít be worse than being a slave.
Mr. Corey: Itís like being a bird in the middle of a storm. Weíre not flying to freedom, Nathan, weíre being blown to freedom. Losing a lot of feathers on the way. Maybe feathers from our wings.
Nathan: Mr. Corey, stop being such a Christian. Theyíre Christians one day a week, and only in the morning. Itís no sin to rejoice in their misfortune. The disasters of the wicked are blessings to mankind.
Mr. Corey: I know this girl [meaning Karen Lee], Nathan. Sheís good. Itís hard to imagine the places that good people can be taken to by their upbringing. The shapes they can be bent into. Like we got used to standing in the hot sun, Nathan, she got used to thinking that there was nothing wrong with that.
Nathan: I know youíre wise with age and all that, Mr. Corey, but maybe your strength is gone, too. Maybe the muscles of your spirit arenít the same as when you were young. Forgiveness is a way of giving up.
Mr. Corey: Nahhh. [He hugs Nathan] Nahh. Listen, Nathan, let me tell you a story, just a little one. Missy, here, stole some money that her mamma left lying around once, to buy something from a vendor who was passing through. Mamma found out that the money was gone and was mad as hell. Blamed it on one of the slaves, woman who used to wash the floors. They actually tied her up and got ready to lash her, and I knew the truth, cause Iíd seen Missy with the treats sheíd bought with the stolen money, and I looked her in the eye, and I could see her suffering. She looked away for a minute, but when she looked back and I was still looking at her, and just before they began to hit Mary, Missy finally came up and confessed.
Nathan: And what happened then?
Mr. Corey: She got hit by her mom, and then by her dad.
Nathan: Not like Mary would have got it.
Mr. Corey: Of course not. But donít you see?
Nathan: No I donít, Mr. Corey. Itís not a big deal.
Mr. Corey: Itís something. Like when Mr. Frederick Douglas gives a speech, the white people are amazed. You mean, those people can think? They donít just chatter like monkeys? Well, from our side, not all white people are as cold as lizards. I feel for Missy, cause sheís able to feel. She just never really knew what was going on.
Nathan: People with feelings would never be able to overlook something like slavery. Come on! Youíre a house negro, Mr. Corey, youíve had it too easy. Youíve been spoiled. You canít cut that much slack to the whites without throwing salt in the wounds of your own people. If sheíd been like the abolitionists, or like that white guy with the false-bottomed steamboat who helped Harriet Tubman. But she profited from our labor. Her whole life, she lived off of us. Donít matter if she learned it from daddy, donít matter if she wasnít the worst of them. She was one of them.
By now, Jimmy has been sat down, in a semi-comatose state, Karen Lee, Mr. Lamont, and Miriam are once more free.
Mr. Lamont: Mr. Corey, the Yankees arenít here yet, better tell that negro friend of yours to watch what he says. Thereís too much going on, here, and itís too hot a day. Something could happen to him.
Nathan: Careful, Mr. Lamont, you wouldnít want to make a scratch in Miss Karen Leeís chair, or make a hole in her pillow. [Points to himself] Property.
Mr. Lamont: [Furious for a moment, then walks away] God help us, theyíre going to give the South to Negroes. Civilization is over. The Yankee have shit over the entire earth. Excuse me, Miss Karen Lee, Iím so sorry. Itís hard to persist as the last gentleman in the world.
More guns exploding, nearby. Jimmy just starts crying again.
Nathan: Wedding bells. I will marry my dreams. Tomorrow. And this time, tomorrow really means tomorrow.
Karen Lee sits down, Miriam begins to fan her. After a whileÖ
Karen Lee: Mr. Corey, will you come here?
He approaches her. She extends her hand, and he holds hers.
Karen Lee: Mr. Corey, do you remember those nights when daddy was away on business, and mamma was busy. When I had such terrible nightmares?
Mr. Corey: I do, child.
Karen Lee: Remember how you used to tell me, then, that monsters were not real?
Mr. Corey: I do.
Karen Lee: Is it true?
Mr. Corey: Well, Miss Karen Lee, I believe it is true. But sometimes, people let themselves become monsters.
Karen Lee: Then itís not true. There are monsters.
Mr. Corey: No, child. There are people who act like monsters.
Karen Lee: Whatís the difference, then, Mr. Corey? If they both have sharp teeth and claws and hide under beds and eat little children?
Mr. Corey: The monsters that donít exist, the ones in your nightmares, canít change. The monsters that people let themselves become Ė they can change: back into being human beings, child.
Karen Lee: How, Mr. Corey? How?
Mr. Corey: By going back to who they were. To who God made them, before lies made them into something else.
Karen Lee: Mr. Corey: what shall I do? What shall become of me? Our farm is sure to have been burned to the ground, and ransacked by Yankee cavalry. I shall have nothing to return to. No farm, no world. Nothing that I know.
Nathan: Mr. Brandon, the Yankee artillery officer. Why not marry the herald of freedom? [More explosions] He who sounds the trumpets of liberty?
Karen Lee: He is no longer in my heart.
Nathan: Here, in Mississippi, he is freeing the slaves. He is breaking the chains of injustice with his righteous cannonades. He is Moses, himself! Miss Karen Lee, your Mr. Brandon is the liberator of thousands Ė let him be your liberator as well!
Karen Lee: If I have committed a sin by not opposing slavery, he has committed a sin by opposing it too savagely.
Nathan: No savagery could be too great to wield against such savagery. You can only abhor his violence because you have never been in chains.
Karen Lee: He is not a liberator, Nathan. He is a follower of orders. If you are freed by his guns, it will not be because he cares for you, it will be because he has been trained to aim his guns accurately; it will be because he is a perfectionist. As this city before me has been flattened into rubble, so my love for him has been destroyed. I wonít go back to him. I wonít take the hand he offers me into the new world. I wonít let him spread his coat over the puddle of what the Yankees have done to the South.
Mr. Lamont: [Musing] Maybe Johnston will break through, after all. To lose this way would be so tragic. I canít comprehend it. What will become of us all!?
Mr. Corey: Miss Karen Lee. You have money. You have title to the property. You are not lost, completely.
Karen Lee: Yes, property Ė but no slaves to work it.
Mr. Corey: Do you want slaves?
A long pause
Karen Lee: Reality is helping my soul, Mr. Corey. I donít know if I could have made the decision by myself.
They hug each other
Nathan: Lot of black folks are going to need a place to stay, Miss Karen Lee. As long as white folks got the deeds, itís either working for them down here, on their land, or going north to see whatís going on up there. But boatloads of Irishmen are coming in all the time, they say, and Germans, and God knows who? But black folks down here arenít going to work for nothing. Not anymore.
Mr. Corey: New worlds are always hard to figure out. When Columbus set foot in America for the very first time, he knew it just about as well as we know this world we knew like the palm of our hand until yesterday. None of us know where weíre headed next, Miss Karen Lee. Neither the losers nor the winners. I think the future begins with a soul, and thatís about it. Make sure you got your soul, and everything else will follow.
Nathan: Miss Karen Lee, do you have your soul?
Karen Lee: They have a saying, Nathan: ĎTalk is cheap.í Letís see.
Mr. Corey: Everythingís going to be just fine, Miss Karen Lee. Trust me, child. There is no monster under your bed. I just took a look, and thereís no monster under your bed.
They hug again.
Creative Safehouse Contents