DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR.......I suppose I should begin my tale in the Andersonville museum. Andersonville was once a Civil War prison for Union soldiers called, at the time, Camp Sumter. Though open only a year, thousands of men met their tragic fate within the walls of the stockade. Now the area is a national park that greets visitors from miles around who come to hear the stories that can be told, see the sights that can be seen, and think of how life must have been for the men who died here.
My father is a volunteer at Andersonville, so I was there fairly often. This day was no different from the rest. I sat in the courtyard behind the museum and listened to the water falling from the beautifully positioned fountain; I felt calm and peaceful looking carefully at the stone statue that was part of the fountain. It had water trickling down through its hands and an expression of the purest gratefulness, as if the small amount of water in its palm were the greatest treasure the world could have offered.
The bright sun blinded me while the cold breeze of January tossed my hair and numbed my face. I walked in silence from the courtyard to the stockade and down the path that circled it. My first stop was to sit on the bench looking toward the few monuments that lay within the stockade. As I gazed, saddened at my surroundings, I had a peculiar feeling that I was being watched. I was sure I could here footfalls, but when I turned to seek their source, I found none. Finally, I decided to go to Providence Spring.
The story of the Spring was this: In August of 1864, during a time when one hundred men died daily, the prisoners witnessed a lightning bolt come down from the sky and hit the ground. There, where the bolt had struck, was a fresh water spring. A miracle, because they had little water that was not polluted in the Camp.
After a few moments at the Spring, I once again felt as if I were being watched. This time, when I looked about me, I heard my name being called. I saw a man standing upon the hill where a gate of the stockade had been rebuilt. He stood there, his eyes dead on mine. My first action was to walk toward the stranger, but as I made my way up the hill, he turned and fan inside the gate.
“Wait!” I called. I ran after him as a cat runs after a mouse. I finally made it to the wall and the gate where I had seen the man. I poked my head into the gate expecting to see whoever was calling me.
I gazed, open mouthed, at the completely empty space. But then I smiled to myself. I thought that perhaps it was one of the staff trying to scare my. I do not scare easily.
I returned, laughing, to the monument built around the Spring. It had been a long time since I had been able to just sit and absorb things there. I had always loved the Spring and the story behind it. It made me realize that God is performing miracles here and now, we just need to sit back and let ourselves find them.
The cry of a crow made me start. My heat beating fast, I glanced over my shoulder at the gate, my eyes turned slowly back to the shinning ripple of water. I screamed.
The liquid pouring out of the Spring and into the pool below was not the same as I had seen it seconds before. It was dark and thick, red as wine and staining the cement blocks upon which it streamed.
“What is it?” asked a voice. A hand fell upon my shoulder, making me jump up from my seat and stumbling about to see who had touched me. A man of about forty stood there, his face full of concern, his wife and daughter standing some feet behind him looking startled.
“The water…” I whispered.
“What about it?”
I looked back and saw, with a chill of dread that the water had again returned to its clear clean state. The blood was gone. The stones unstained.
“Nothing,” I said in a voice of forced calm, “Nothing, it was…my imagination.”
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I told him hurriedly, and I walked down to the road where I stood, trembling.
I walked toward the side of the stockade where a corner had been rebuilt, along with a few of the tent-like shelters the prisoners had built to protect themselves, as best they could, from the elements. I took slow steps as a way to slow my heat, which had been beating as fast and hard as if I had experienced a heart attack. I tried to explain the water changing. Perhaps it really was my imagination. Perhaps it was a trick of the light. Perhaps I had dosed off and dreamed the whole thing. Each reason seemed more unlikely than the last, but there was no way I had seen what my mind thought I had seen.
My feet found the stockade wall long before they had expected to. I had been so lost in thought that I did not realize quite where I was going.
Once again I heard a soft voice calling my name. My heart began to pound again, my blood ran cold, and my body stiffened. The voice called again. It was coming from under one of the tents. I approached it silently, expecting nothing, as I saw before, but there was a man there, underneath the tin cloth.
“Don’t cross the Deadline,” he said. His voice echoed strangely. He looked afraid, deathly afraid of something behind me.
“What did you say?” I whispered.
“Don’t cross the Deadline,” he repeated, “He will shoot you.”
I turned around to see who the man was referring to, and saw someone perched on the Pigeon Roost where the guards stood over the prisoners in Camp Sumter. The man had a gun …pointing straight at me.
I heard the blast and was thrown off my feet. * * * * * *
I awoke in the cemetery. After a few heavy breaths I realized I was lying just in front of the New Jersey monument.
“Death before Dishonor,” hissed a voice behind me. It was the same voice that had called me in the stockade and warned me not to cross the Deadline. I slowly got to my feet to face this stranger. But the face I saw was not one I did not know, for now that I was close to him, I recognized him as Father Whelan, a priest who had come to the aid of the prisoners of Camp Sumter. He looked at he with every expression of kindness. His hands found mine and held them; his hands felt surprisingly warm and gentle. He smiled.
“Yes,” I said, “Death before Dishonor.”
With a final smile, and a small wink, he vanished once more into the realm of the dead.