Based on actual events occurring December 5th, 1856 in Dover, Tennessee.
The following portrayals would have been very hard to photograph.
“Turn with me in your Bibles, if you will, to Isaiah 1:15 and follow in the scripture.”
“And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; And yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: Your hands are full of blood.”
“Brethren,” the Preacher continued, “the Lord has a message for you here. Are you listening to Him? Do you understand what He is saying? Do you hear the warning He is giving you? You can’t keep on with your back door sinning, you can’t keep on hurting your neighbor, and you can’t keep on denying the presence of the Lord because when you’ve committed too much sin and you’ve gone too far with the Devil, your begging won’t do you any good. Your pleading won’t do you any good. The Lord won’t even look at you. He’ll turn his eyes away from you. He won’t listen to your prayers. He has no place in Heaven for you when your hands are full of blood. So, confess your sins, Brothers and Sisters. I pray today that you will seek the mercy of the Lord before it is too late. On this fine April morning that our God has seen fit to share with us, where His sun is shining and His birds are singing, don’t tarry any longer. Our Father is calling you now. Will you answer Him? Will you come to Him, serve Him, and will you reconfirm your love for the Christ Jesus? If you will, come now around this altar for the Lord, seek His forgiveness, and thank Him for His everlasting, saving grace. Come now as we all stand and sing.”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Everyone sang in a loud and proud voice. Our Preacher had us all stirred up with his sermon and even though nobody took him up on his offer of salvation, we were all still happily singing right in the middle of it. I sang while my little brother Drew, hummed. After the hymn, the Pastor asked the Deacons to take up an offering. They passed the twig woven collection baskets up and down the wooden church pews, picking up coins and an occasional dollar. I gave a Confederate dollar once but, Mama said it wasn’t any good to the church anymore. That’s when I knew all my Rebel money was bad. If the church couldn’t find a use for it then nobody could. Confederate money wasn’t worth a horse’s hair after 1865. It was just a pretty picture on a piece of paper. I traded with it when I could, mostly just with my friends, and sometimes at ten times less its value. Federal dollars were awfully hard to come by, even if you wanted them.
This Sunday, as always, Mama gave me and Drew a nickel’s worth of pennies to split up and we put them in the basket as it passed by. Today, I got to throw in two pennies and he dropped three. We switched up every week. Next week, Lord willing, I would give three and him, two. It was a ritual we’d been practicing for going on six years. Ever since that War of Northern Aggression ended and we were able to start going back to church regular, we did this. I was born 7 years before Drew so, as I remember, when we first started putting our pennies in I got to give four and he was happy just to put one in. Now that he is older and bigger, he wants to be more equal. That’s fair. Pretty soon I hope to be working for real wages raising my own sacred tobacco. Then, Lord willing, I’ll have my own money to give. I guess he’ll get to give the whole nickel then and be proud. He’ll feel bigger like I used to.
After the offering, we took Communion. “Go slow with the tray, Comer,” Mama said. She still remembered the Sunday morning when I spilled the Blood of Christ all over the brand new suit Drew was wearing and then, being afraid of my mistake, I ran outside leaving her with the unenviable task of picking up the thimble glasses and wiping down Drew.
Our mother threw her head back sharply as she accepted her holy elixir of life and the blood of Jesus raced, uninhibited, down her throat to purify her sins. Even so, if she had any sins we didn’t know about them. She always sat with her back straight and erect, much like her way. Her hands were folded nicely and rested gently in her lap as she sat. The collar on her dress stretched to the tip of her chin. She was a proper person. Her long black hair was streaked with gray but unless you looked closely you couldn’t really tell. She kept it braided, wound up, and in a tight bun pinned to the back of her head. Drew and me used to squeeze it like a sunflower whenever she sat in her rocker at home. On Sunday mornings, her hair was always covered with a white lace cap. The gray hair hidden by the cap revealed an age that had come quickly into her life. At 32, most women her age had less gray hair. She accepted hers with grace. She accepted it with dignity.
The paned, stained glass windows were open in the church and a warm breeze blew through them from side to side. It was a comfort to us all and kept most of our Resurrection Sunday hand fans tucked away in the handsome pockets that were fashioned on the back of each pew.
Drew fanned the air with one of them as he rested on Mama’s lap and I watched Mr. Lemuel Stimpson nodding off to sleep two rows in front of us. I counted the seconds between the time his head would drop. First eight, then six, now back to seven again. Both Mr. Lemuel and the Preacher seemed to move together in tempo and time. The cadence of the Preacher’s oration, tuned well with his natural spiritual power and strong force of delivery, was punctuated again and again with a thunderous Bible slapping or a foundation shaking foot stomping that would quickly snap ‘ol man Lemuel’s head up, at least for a second or two, in honest, intended attention. Then, without fail, his aged softness would lure and release him, again, to his impending inner sanctuary. It was a peaceful, silent, and undisturbed sanctuary that he surely must have spent a lifetime cultivating for himself. He could drift in and out of it most comfortably now. Whether he was in church or on his own front porch, he already understood the peace that passes all understanding. I looked forward to this kind of old age.
Today, the Preacher preached on redemption. How many times had Mr. Lemuel heard this particular sermon? Enough, I guess, that he could recite it in his sleep. I figured he must have heard them all many times over because he slept every Sunday. Nobody seemed to mind. At 82 years old he surely had, at least, one foot already inside the Pearly Gates and was just waiting to step on in with the other. There was no sin upon him now. He was sanctified holy. As for his sleeping, Mrs. Stimpson always stopped him if he started to make loud noises. Her dignified devotion to her husband was classical. His respect for her? Absolute.
Each and every Sunday our Pastor wore the same long black coat. On its front were sewn seven carefully placed, bone carved, white buttons. The fastening straps for these buttons were tanned leather and when coupled together they formed to make the shape of a holy cross. Five buttons straight up and down and one over each of his breasts brought that cross to life and left no doubt in people’s minds as to his profession. With his coat on, he walked behind the Lord with every step he took. This pitch black as night long coat contrasted sharply against the plain white, high-collared shirt he wore but, altogether they seemed to emphasize a certain sincere character in his presentation. His white eyebrows were thick, like those on men of wisdom, and they pointed like God’s own fingers to the Heavens. His hair was long, white, and wavy and Moses, himself, could not have looked more Godly. The man of God wore silver buckled boots that were polished shiny black and when he stomped one of them on that Trinity United Church of God floor men, and women alike, took notice. His hat, wide, tall, and also black, had a history of being waved around his head, thrown up into the air, and slammed down onto the ground all within the first five minutes of an inspiring outdoor revival.
Preacher continued with his sermon on redemption and he paid no attention to the sounds of a baby whimpering softly in the back pew. He knew he would soon have its consideration. He made no particular observance to the increasing sounds of hoof beats that were being made from the many horses now heard charging down through the narrow road that led to our church.
Drew and I both sat up when we heard the commotion and we looked at each other for the longest with confused expressions. The horses came closer, still, and we waited for them to pass by but they didn’t. We listened as a wagon was rolled up to the church’s side and its brake was applied. We heard men dismount their horses and start up the steps. The rattle of spurs and the kicking of boot heels on the lined, wooden planks of the Trinity’s front porch easily chased away, with their dominating sound, any God sent message that we may have been studying.
I knew the boots were coming in. Drew knew they were coming in. It wasn’t the kind of Sunday saunter that would just stop outside your door, but the Preacher must have thought so because he kept on spewing out that fire and brimstone like there would be no tomorrow. He kept on talking like he couldn’t be stopped. He wouldn’t be stopped. He was charged by the Lord to get his message out before any mortal man could halt him.
“Isaiah 29:15 says, Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, who sees us? And who knows us? The Lord knows,” he said quietly.
The doors of the church flew open! The bright sunshine slipped across the altar and held it in an eerie glow. No one was scared. These men weren’t robbers, they were lawmen. United States Marshals. They strode forcefully into the church carried, it seemed, on rays of sunshine that cascaded across the floor in long, bright illuminating sheets of light. They blinded you if you tried to look directly at them. Only if the men blocked out the sun with their big hats could you hope to see their faces. As long as I live I will never forget those hats. They were wide and banded, high dollar chapeaus. They were not like a weather-beaten trail hat that you might slap against your thigh to knock the dust off. These were put up hats that were only worn on special occasions. It only took a few, brief seconds for all of the men to enter the church but once inside everything they did seemed to move at a slower pace. Simple steps, simple actions, and simple movements all took for eternity to complete. I could hear them talking to each other and to the congregation and telling everyone to stay seated and be calm. They all had big guns and badges to go with their big hats and I remember thinking that these men were going to get what they came for.
At first, nobody knew what that was. They just stood there, two by the door, two by the Preacher, and four looking over the flock like an eagle getting ready to snatch a snake from its nest. I looked for daddy where he always sat. His place in the church was always on the second to the front left pew but at first, I didn’t see him there. I strained again to see him riding low in his seat. He saw me looking at him and we looked into each other’s eyes for a moment that will last forever in my mind. I could see deep into his eyes. I saw deeper than I had ever seen before. He didn’t show a scared or pitiful look on his face but more of a shocked look. He was like a squirrel that heard the click of the gun but could only escape the shot for so long. That one missed. He wondered if he would hear the next click. He sat there like that squirrel, waiting to be hit. Too shocked to move, he didn’t know which way to run. It was then that one of the men in big hats spotted my father and reached for him. He slumped back even deeper in his pew when the man, alone, grabbed him but when eight big hands were laid upon him he came up quick.
“Daddy!” I yelled and jumped up, but Mama held on tight to my jacket. I had to speak from where I stood. “Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s happening, Mama? What do they want with daddy?”
Mama didn’t say anything, she just held on tight to me.
“Take your hands off of me, Sir. Who are you,” my father demanded. “This is my church. We’re having church here. Have you no decency? Unhand me you, you Yankee! You wretched Yankees! Release me, I say.” Daddy screamed and fought with the Marshals all the way out the door. He kicked and struggled until they finally chained him down on that wagon.
He wasn’t used to being treated that way. He was the one in the habit of giving out the orders to have men placed in chains. When he spoke most people reacted to his words with patronizing respect. I knew my daddy liked people to show this type of discipline towards him. He expected it. He didn’t like being the hunted prey in the cage. Not after he had played the hunter for so long.
The biggest of the men in big hats walked over to the Preacher and apologized for the disturbance. He explained that he was dispatched directly from the Governor in Nashville to return my daddy to Clarksville where he would be held on Federal charges. He said my father would be in the Montgomery County Court on the day after tomorrow and we could see him then. The local, County Constable was also there but, he didn’t say anything until after the US Marshals were gone. Only then did he speak. He told us that we could finish with our sermon now that all the excitement was over. Upon delivering this message, he walked down the aisle cradling his shotgun in his arms. He exited through the church doors much the very same way he came in but, those doors didn’t look the same after he was gone. The light wasn’t quite so bright. The air was not as crisp. Nothing looked the same anymore.
The elders huddled together with the Preacher by the altar and I walked to the window to see my daddy carried up the hollow on that big flat wagon. Stripped of his honor and put on public display for crimes unbeknownst to Drew or me, he hung his head in shame.
Drew was crying and asked Mama why they took him away like that.
“I don’t know, child. We’ll have to wait and see.” Mama was crying, too. Not like if it were Drew kicking and screaming and losing his breath but hers were little tears that welled up big in her eyes and, at once, flowed in one big drop down her cheek. These tears came from deep inside Mama. I knew that something was bad wrong. I had a feeling that she knew what it was but wasn’t telling.
Everyone in the church was stunned by the events. So much so, that the Preacher dismissed us early. His sermon on redemption was cut short by the interruption, he explained. He added that he hoped he had hit his mark. As we filed outside nobody said much of anything. Almost everyone simply got up on their wagons and left.
As we walked to our team of mules, two of Mama’s friends came by and told her they would come sit with her if she wanted them to. Their sincerity was genuine. I could tell. It was not like the bravado that was expected of men from other men. The women had only their dignity to maintain. This they did very well in the face of a world ruled by tyrants that they also called husbands. Mama told each of them that we would be alright and thanked them for their kindness. On the way home the only sound heard from the woods was Drew’s sniffling and a mule team pulling a wagon down an old country road.
End of Chapter 1.
Potneckers, you’ve just read Chapter 1 of The Excitement. It is a story based on fact from Dover’s history. If you liked it you can read Chapter 2 here next week. Thank you.