In the pre-dawn darkness, Amy Ross stood barefooted and alone. Staring wide-eyed across the water and gripping the second floor porch rail of her home overlooking Charleston Harbor so tightly, her fingers throbbed. Abruptly awakened and curious at the thundering noises that had shaken her from a cozy, sound sleep, she’d tip-toed out of her room into the wide main hall, turned left and left again into the narrow, shared hallway and out onto the common, second floor porch.
Explosion after explosion lit the still dark sky as wood, rocks and bricks were thrown into the air from inside the fort on the island in the harbor. Amy’s blue eyes flashed, her heart pounded and tears slid down her cheeks. The bombs streaking the sky red, orange and yellow reminded her of Fourth of July or Christmas Day fireworks, but today the fireworks didn’t celebrate a country’s independence or the birth of a Savior. Today she was sure they were only a sign of bad things to come.
Amy Ross was eight years old.
The minutes stretched as the forts on the opposite banks of the harbor fired cannon after cannon into the single building in the middle of the harbor; Fort Sumter Papa had told her it was called.
Amy’s long, white cotton nightgown snapped in the April wind. She wiggled her toes and pushed her curly red hair out of her eyes so she could watch as more shells exploded inside the fort.
In the streets below and from nearby rooftops men and women cheered with each new explosion.
Down the hall—Amy’s mother cried. Amy heard her when she passed her mama’s room to come outside.
Through the open window behind her Amy heard the stomping of feet coming down the main hallway outside her room. She turned in time to see her father through her open bedroom door, charge down the hall, shouting and waving his arms in the air above his head. Portly Charles Ross, pinnacle of Charleston society and president of the South Carolina National Bank of Charleston, one of the oldest banks in the city, stomped back and forth swinging an imaginary sword, shouting, "Those Damn Yankees will know the bite of southern steel now!" He disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared—his imaginary sword with him.
Amy jumped at another explosion behind her and swung back toward the harbor, wondering why the men trapped inside didn’t shoot back. She remained alone a few more minutes until her mother, sniffling, carrying a soggy handkerchief, trudged barefoot through the French double doors and onto the porch, her own long, white nightgown flapping in the breeze around her ankles. She sat down in one of the two straight-backed chairs already outside and beckoned Amy to sit beside her.
Amy sat down and situated herself so she could still see the explosions between the rails. "What does it mean, Mama?" she asked without taking her eyes from the harbor and the continued bombing.
Elizabeth Ross, dark-haired and slender with bright green eyes, high cheekbones and a long, regal neck, sniffed, wiped her nose with the wet, wrinkled handkerchief and turned to her only child. A few moments later she said, "I’m a woman, Amy, and I’m not supposed to know about such things. I’m not supposed to even question, only blindly follow what I’m told to do. As you grow older, you’ll be expected to do the same, to blindly follow without questionin’. But I hope with all my heart you don’t. I hope you grow to learn about and question everythin’ around you. I hope you make what’s goin’ on around you important, regardless that men tell you you’re too empty-headed to understand politics or the world and that your only lot in life should be the rearin’ of babies and keepin’ a man’s home runnin’ smoothly." Elizabeth sucked in a deep breath and crunched the handkerchief in her hands on her lap. "Although I’m not supposed to, I do know things. I listen when men talk who think I’m too uninformed to understand what they’re sayin’. But I do understand—and usually disagree with them—although I must not say a word and betray the fact I have an opinion about things that will affect my life and yours." She paused again and looked out across the harbor where gray-black smoke billowed from inside the walls of the fort. "From all I’ve heard over the months, I believe what’s happenin’ today is the beginnin’ of a war, my darlin’. And I greatly fear what the comin’ years will bring."
Amy wriggled in her seat, feeling as though a great weight had just dropped on her from the sky, but not at all certain about everything her mother was saying.
She looked up. "What is a war, Mama?"
Elizabeth pursed her lips and Amy could see her mother was trying not to cry again. "A war, my darlin’, is when two sides fight each other with guns and cannon. Many men will be killed and injured. Many wives will be without husbands, many children without fathers."
Amy thought about how sad her mother was about the shelling in the harbor and this possible war, while her father was running around the house happier than she’d ever seen him. He’d always been as stuffy as an ole starched shirt. He never smiled and always had other people around him to make him feel important, Amy decided after watching how he acted when she and Mama visited him at the bank. Amy’s mother was his complete opposite and always had a smile on her face. Amy laughed when she was with her mama, she made her happy. Elizabeth Ross made Amy’s world complete.
Amy looked back over the water, puzzling at her parents’ differing opinions about what was happening in the harbor and what it meant. "Is Papa happy about a war because now he can go and fight?" she asked.
Amy’s mama snorted most unladylike when she tried not to laugh out loud. "No darlin’,
your father doesn’t want to fight."
Amy twisted her neck to hear her mama mumbling under her breath and heard, "No, he’ll pay others to fight for him…"
Her mother became serious again then added, "Men are prideful creatures, Amy. They fight over the smallest insult and to prove who is the strongest and best in their endeavors—whatever that may be."
Amy scrunched her face and shook her head. "I don’t understand, Mama."
"Men fight to solve their differences. Accordin’ to the south we’re fightin’ for our States’ Rights and our way of life. Accordin’ to the north they’re fightin’ over slavery."
Amy’s lips puckered. "I still don’t understand, Mama."
Elizabeth sighed. "South Carolina, along with other southern states, believes they have the right to govern themselves; to make their own laws and enforce them without the government in Washington City tellin’ them what they can and cannot do." Elizabeth blew her nose. "After President Lincoln was elected in January, several states, led by South Carolina, seceded from the United States of America. They formed the Confederate States of America and a month later made their own constitution and laws."
"What does that mean, Mama?" Amy squirmed. She didn’t understand what her mother was talking about at all.
"When a state or states secede it means they’re no longer part of that government. It means we’re no longer part of the United States of America."
Amy jumped to her feet. "What do you mean we’re not part of the United States anymore? How can that be?"
Amy’s mama tried to calm her, but she wasn’t ready to be quieted. "Maybe I’m only eight, but I know we live in the United States of America. How can it be we just—don’t—anymore?" She paced one side of the porch, then the other, before her mother insisted she sit down again.
Amy mulled over everything she’d been told then finally asked, "What did the government in Washington City tell the states they couldn’t do?"
"Mostly, they tried to tell us we couldn’t make our own laws anymore, and by not bein’ able to make our own laws, they told us we couldn’t own our people any longer."
"You mean they told us to get rid of them? But, what would we do without our people? Where would they go?" Eyes wide Amy said, "Auntie Mae has been with us forever. She was your mammy and now she’s mine! She takes care of us, Mama. What would we do without her? And Uncle Henry? He’s taken care of the horses and gardens as long as I can remember. What about our other people? What would we do without them?" Amy stood up and stomped her foot. "I love Auntie Mae and Uncle Henry. I’d miss them somethin’ awful if they went away." Fat tears slid down her chubby cheeks again.
"There are lots of folks who don’t hold with slavery," her mama said. She paused and added slowly, "And…there are those slave holders who don’t treat their people kindly. In fact they treat them very badly."
"How?" Amy sniffed, ran an unladylike hand under her nose and plopped back into the chair.
Her mama gave her a sideways look at her horrible manners, but ignored them. "There are some slave holders whose people are very unhappy and would like to run away."
"So why don’t they? Run away? If they aren’t happy they shouldn’t have to stay." Amy crossed her arms over her chest. Very simple, she thought.
A slight smile curled her mama’s lips. "Perhaps that’s the way it should be, but that’s not how it is."
"Why not?" Amy cocked her head and waited for her mother’s response.
"Because slaves are property. We own them, just like we own our horses and cattle…"
"What!" Amy jumped to her feet again. "Auntie Mae isn’t like a horse or cow. She’s my friend and your friend, she takes care of us and we love her. Same with Uncle Henry. We don’t own them—do we?" she stuttered. Realizing what her mother’s words meant, she slumped back into her chair and took a deep breath.
Her mother swallowed hard, pursed her lips and nodded her head. "I’m afraid we do own them, darlin’. Your father owns all our people here in Charleston."
"What about at Oakwood?" Amy puzzled about the people at their plantation on James Island. She thought about the old folks who had been with her mother since she was a little girl and the children newly born there since she could remember. There was Old Elijah and Old Jane, together for over fifty years and birthing at least fifteen children and their children having babies of their own. She’d played with their great grandchildren, Little Jubal and Little Sally since all three could walk, and their mommas and daddies had worked the cotton fields their whole lives.
"Your granddaddy owned our Oakwood people and now that he’s passed on, they’re mine." She turned away. "They can be bought and sold as I please."
Amy tried to speak, but the lump in her throat prevented her from doing so. They owned all their people! Owned Auntie Mae and Uncle Henry just like they owned the horses and cows. How could it be?
Her mother’s cold fingers wove into her smaller ones. "I might as well tell you everythin’. Some owners are very cruel to their people and treat them worse than an ole cur dog. Some even take children from their mommas and sell them far away."
Amy felt more tears rising behind her eyes. She didn’t believe it. She took a gulping breath as the reality of it struck her. Some masters beat their people the same way cruel owners beat their horses and mules—because they were property. A tear broke free and slipped down her face, but she made no move to wipe it away. She was frozen with dread and disbelief. She would never think of hurting Auntie Mae or Uncle Henry or any of their other people! And she’d never send their children away!
Her mother squeezed her hand. "Most slave holders don’t treat their people badly, Amy. Their folks are part of the family, just like Auntie Mae and Uncle Henry, but the owners that are cruel to their people are the ones bein’ held up to those who don’t keep slaves; mostly by the folks in the north."
Amy shook her head, her red curls swinging back and forth against her face. "But we don’t treat our people bad, Mama. Old Elijah and Old Jane have been with us forever and so have their children and their children. We love them and they love us back—don’t they?" Amy waited for her mother to confirm what she’d just said, but when her mama looked away instead, Amy’s lower lip began to quiver.
More explosions across the harbor drew Amy’s attention. "What will happen to us? When the war starts, I mean?"
"I’m afraid I don’t know the answer, my darlin’. In my heart I fear we will see the end of our way of life. There’ll be no more fancy balls, no more horse races and picnics, no more carefree days—and no more slavery. Many think this will be a short war, but I don’t believe that’s true. I’m afraid the comin’ years will be very long and very difficult."
"Is that why you were crying, Mama? Because you’re afraid?"
Elizabeth nodded and kissed Amy on the forehead.
"What will happen to Auntie May and Uncle Henry and the others? Will they go away?"
"I don’t know that either. The south fights to preserve its way of life, which for now includes slavery and the right to make its own laws and govern itself. And although we treat our people well, there are too many who don’t. Slavery is wrong and soon it will be no more." She paused then added on a sniff, "It’s the gettin’ there that frightens me more than anythin’."
The sun was almost up when the first responsive shots exploded from the walls of Fort Sumter.
Amy woke with a start, curled up between the two chairs, her head on her mother’s lap and covered by a thin shawl. She sat up, yawned and stretched. "What’s happenin’, Mama?"
"The men from the fort are finally firin’ back."
Amy watched and waited for another explosion from inside the fort, but nothing happened. "Is that it? Is that all they have?"
"I suspect not, but time will tell," Elizabeth said.
It was another ten minutes before the cannon from the fort sparked to life then lay quiet for another ten. The return fire was sporadic, at best, and Elizabeth explained the men had been inside the fort for months and probably had little ammunition and little food and water, so they were returning fire sparingly to ration what they had.
Amy felt sorry for the men inside and wished it would all just stop. The sun was up, she was bored now and wanted to go play with her dolls and ride her pony or swim in the pond. But something unknown held her to her spot on the porch.
"Miss Elizabeth? You out there?" Auntie Mae’s voice thundered through the open window from the main hallway.
"We’re out here, Auntie Mae," Elizabeth called back.
Auntie Mae stepped through the double doors and onto the porch with a tray full of eggs, fruit and orange juice in her hands. "Y’all still watchin’ them blow that fort to bits?" The loud voice came from a slightly plump woman with skin the color of lightly creamed coffee, with huge charcoal eyes, sharp cheeks, full lips and a wide, warm smile that went with her good nature. Jet black hair, shot with gray, poked out from under the white cap that covered her head in winter, spring, summer or fall.
Auntie Mae placed the tray on a small table beside Amy’s chair, closest to the doors. "Y’all needs to eat." Auntie Mae’s voice was stern. "You been watchin’ them blow that fort to smithereens fo’ too long without food." She filled two plates with eggs and fruit, filled two glasses with juice and handed them to Amy and Elizabeth.
"Thank you, Auntie Mae."
Amy also thanked Auntie Mae then dug in, realizing only then how hungry she was. Watching bombs explode was hard work!
Auntie Mae turned, curled her fingers around the rail and watched the bombs still exploding across the harbor. It was several moments before she stepped back, clucking her tongue, crushing her apron in her hands, and strode from the porch mumbling, "Lawd, we’s in fo’ it now. We’s sho in fo’ it now."
Throughout the day the Union soldiers returned fire, although slow and sparingly, while Confederate Forts Johnson and Moultrie continued their attack on Fort Sumter.
Amy and Elizabeth dragged themselves from the porch long enough to eat a noon meal and nap in the afternoon between barrages. That night, they took their seats on the porch and watched bomb after bomb hit the fort until fires erupted, the flames reaching toward the sky like long, red, snapping fingers. Amy was sure the fort was done for, the fires burning bright until a loud, deafening clap of thunder split the night. The sky opened and rain fell drenching the fires and sparing the fort—for now.
The rain came down harder and Amy and Elizabeth hurried inside their warm, dry home, the shelling forgotten for the night.
Amy woke the next morning to more explosions. Snuggled deep beneath her warm covers she forced herself out of bed and went back outside. Dodging puddles in her bare feet from the rain the night before, she stood at the railing scanning the horizon through the fog that hung over the harbor. She expected the fort to be gone, but to her amazement it was still there.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon Amy and her mama watched as cannon fire was traded back and forth between the Union fort in the harbor and the southern forts, starting one fire after another inside the crumbling walls. Late that afternoon the tall pole flying the Stars and Stripes—the symbol of the Union and the United States of America, Mama told Amy—exploded in a thunderous roar. It swayed and fell, disappearing behind what was left of Fort Sumter’s walls. Minutes later another flagpole was hoisted in its place and the Union flag flew again.
It was only a few minutes later when Amy jumped to her feet, pointed at the fort and shouted, "Look, Mama! They’re takin’ it down!" Slowly, the recently hoisted Stars and Stripes disappeared, replaced by a white flag.
Amy’s mother sucked in a deep breath and stood up beside her, clutching her handkerchief to her chest.
"What does the white flag mean, Mama?" Amy took her mother’s free hand and watched the new flag snap in the breeze.
"It means the Yankees are surrenderin’ the fort. They’re givin’ up." Her mama sighed. "It’s over—for now."
Cheering erupted in the streets below, on rooftops and everywhere within hearing distance. People danced and sang, kissed and hugged. Charles Ross stomped up and down the hall in front of Amy’s room again. Back and forth, back and forth he went before he charged onto the porch shouting, "We’ve shown those Yanks! They’ll run home with their tails tucked between their legs and tell those jacklegs in Washington City the Confederacy will be reckoned with!" He turned and stomped back up the hall singing "I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times that are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land!" at the top of his lungs.
Amy buried her face in her mother’s belly. At eight years old Amy Ross knew her life was about to change—forever.