The Confederates retired victorious to Marye's Heights, the ridge of Virginia hills behind Fredericksburg. The routed Federals fled through the ruins of the town, hastening across the pontoon bridges to safety on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock River.
A flurry of snow powdered the dead and injured left on the battlefield at nightfall on the thirteenth of December 1862. Mercifully, it blanketed the dead. Cruelly, it brought greater suffering to the living who were too wounded to rise from the frozen ground.
Rebel and Yankee alike, nearly all had begun that winter day in greatcoats. Now those who could crawled over to wrest the warm garments from the twisted forms of the dead. Confederate gray or Federal blue - the color no longer mattered. Survivors bundled up in common humanity, hoping only that dawn might find them still alive.
One man in gray, who waited at the door of death, rose up weakly on his elbow when he saw a lantern sway.
"Annie!" he called out. "Over here! Oh, God, I prayed you'd come!"
The ponderous woman who bore the lantern lifted it high. Her gentle face, dark as the midnight sky, peered in the direction of the voice. Catching her breath, she made her way toward him. Layers of petticoats, marking her status as a slave of the household and not the fields, made her seem even more rotund than she actually was. Her muddied apron, once proudly white and stiff with starch, now clung in tatters to the torn remnants of a faded linsey-woolsey dress. Slung about her shoulders, the hand-me-down shawl hardly kept her warm. Drawn features attested to the vicissitudes of home-front war.
Gingerly, Annie picked her way among the corpses, the flickering lamp dappling their pitiful faces with patches of light. A tiny figure stumbled in her wake.
The stout lady stopped and turned. "Li'l Bart," she admonished, "we done found yo' poppa. You gots to be brave, boy, a Southern gentleman, good an' strong!"
Little Bart's eyes followed her pointing finger. Tearing loose from his mammy's grasp, he ran forward and flung himself on his wounded father's chest.
Wincing in pain, the dying man uttered not a word, but clasped his son to him with a grateful sigh.
"Oh, Pa," Little Bart cried, "I had to give you this!"
The five-year-old pulled a piece of wood from his pocket to thrust between his father's lips. "Blow on it, Pa! It's a whistle jes' like you taught me to make! I reckon you can use it next time we come lookin' for you. You won't be so hard to find!"
The Confederate officer puckered slightly and tried to blow. The sound he made was less a whistle than a wheeze.
"No, Pa!" grumbled the child, taking the toy into his own mouth.
A shrill, clear sound reverberated through the stillness of the night.
"That's the way to do it, Pa!" the lad declared in triumph. "Didn't I whittle it real good?"
His father nodded and managed a faint, proud smile. When he tried to speak, Annie fell to her knees. Setting the lantern aside, she softly stroked his brow.
"No talkin', Doctuh Will," she soothed. "Jes' rest awhile, an' den Annie tote you away from dis awful place."
The officer shook his head of dark, wavy hair. "I'll be leaving soon, Annie dear, but not on your back."
"No, no, Doctuh Will!" the woman cried, understanding the significance of his words. "You comin' back to de woods wif us! De whole town be livin' dere, waitin' foh de Yankees to git! Annie make you well! You be de doctuh. You kin tell me how!"
He shook his head again.
"Where you hurt?" Annie wept, unwrapping the knotted red kerchief that covered her hair. "I bind it tight! You be awright!"
The doctor motioned toward his stomach. She noticed then that Little Bart was drenched with his father's blood. Horrified, she snatched the lad up in her arms.
A strong voice rang out from the darkness beyond the lantern's small circle of light. "I heard a loud whistle. I've come to see if I can help."
A tall Union captain loomed before them. His face was clean-shaven beneath the brim of his Burnside hat. His blue uniform and dashing cape were spattered with blood. He wore a saber at his belt.
Seeing the fear on Annie's face, he offered a benevolent smile. "Don't be afraid, Ma'am. I won't hurt you or the child." Looking down at Doctor Will, he added, "Nor you, sir. We've come back for our wounded. You Rebs fought well today. I think that on the morrow Fredericksburg will be yours again."
Little Bart's father was grim. "I shan't see tomorrow, sir," he stated matter-of-factly. "I am a medical man. I know my time has come."
The Northerner removed his cape, and knelt. Lifting the wounded man's head gently, he fashioned a makeshift pillow of it.
"You will be more comfortable this way, Doctor," he murmured with compassion. "I'm a Marylander, sir, but my wife is a Georgia lady."
Annie loosened her protective hold on Little Bart. The boy whimpered and crawled to his father's side.
"Mah Li'l Bart's momma, she were Jawjun, too," she volunteered, less frightened of the stranger now. "I be wif her in Jawjuh practically since she got borned. I be de mammy foh de whole fambly."
"Annie speaks of my wife, Roma, sir. My darling was killed earlier today in your...uh...the Yankee bombardment of our sad city," explained the doctor in quick breaths. "I myself buried her pitiful remains in the ruins of our dear home when I found her there. I managed to get back, hoping to save my little family, but...it was too late. Annie had already fled with our son. Only now have we been reunited, thanks to Annie's precious guardianship of Little Bart. My wife brought Annie north...when we married. I am Virginian...born and bred...Doctor William Creel by name. All the family on both sides are gone. Oh, this terrible war!"
He reached for Annie's hand. "I set you free. Let this kind gentleman be our witness before God. I beg you, dear Annie...take care of my son. Little Bart has no one left...but you."
The mountainous black woman held back her tears and pressed the boy to her bosom again as her nodding head signaled her promise.
The Union officer saw that the doctor was fading rapidly now. "My friend, I'll see that no harm comes to Annie and the boy if you wish to entrust them to my care."
"Thank you...," Doctor Will began, then gazed up at the other questioningly.
"Philo Duncan is my name," the Yankee interjected.
"Thank you, Captain Duncan," continued the dying man. "Annie...stay with him. Do as he says. I... please...I want...my son..."
Quickly, the mammy passed Little Bart to his father. Doctor Will's last breath swept warmly across the orphaned child's cheek.
Respectfully, Philo stood and removed his hat.
Suddenly, radiant light consumed the lantern's timorous glow when an aurora borealis, uncommon in those latitudes, lit up the sky. Darkness vanished in rainbow colors sprayed like fireworks across the night.
Caught up in wonder, Philo raised Little Bart skyward. "Look! Look!" he cried. "The Northern Lights! Say goodbye to your father, boy. God has thrown open Heaven's gates! Your poppa has gone to Him!"
Annie was enraptured. The blaze of the cosmos, reflected in Philo's fair hair, crowned him with a nimbus she took for divine. Any doubts she might have nurtured about falling into a Yankee's care fled before this perception. He was an angel sent to them from above.
Scarcely comprehending the reality of Doctor Will's untimely passing, Little Bart chortled with delight. The magnificent display etched itself indelibly on his childish mind. As he grew older and began to understand the meaning of death, he would ever picture his father ascending into light, never lying bloodied and dead upon the ground.
Philo set him down. "Now we must get to our bivouac on the other side."
"Yes, Mastah Angel Hair, to de udder side," echoed Annie, ready to follow him anywhere without question. The Rappahannock had become her Jordan, and Falmouth her Promised Land.
Little Bart kissed his dead father on the lips. Annie closed the glazing eyes.
Philo took up his tiny charge again and set off briskly over the field of death. "Come, Annie. The Confederate burial detail will find the doctor in the morning," he promised. "It is fitting to leave him to their care."
She gasped in her efforts to match his lengthy stride. "I be comin', Mastah Angel Hair. Don' pay me no mind!"
"I'm not your master, Annie," he called back. "You're a free woman now."
She shook her head, gathering her skirts to leap over dead bodies as she ran. "De good Lawd done fetched you when Li'l Bart blow dat whistle," she panted, glancing reverently at the still fiery sky. "It be foh a sign dat we belongs to you!"
Her words struck a chord in Philo's mind: Am I only supposed to help this child and his mammy through the night? Was that whistle a summons from God? Was it, indeed, a sign that there is larger purpose here?
The freakish aurora shone brilliantly in the river. A shadowy army of stretcher bearers trotted eerily across shimmering bridges of pontoons, carrying wounded from Fredericksburg to the hospital bivouac on the Falmouth side.
Philo waited for the black woman to catch up before he put Little Bart down. He had decided what he felt he had to do.
"I want to ship you north to my wife in Baltimore," he told her. "We have a son about this boy's age, but Nelle is not constituted for bearing more children. Ardie needs a brother. I want a second son. Annie, will you accept this offer? May I welcome you into my family?"
At last Annie wept, shedding the tears she had held back. She plopped to her knees, sobbing in gratitude, but Philo grasped her by the shoulders and helped her struggle to her feet.
"No more tears," he said.
Wiping her eyes with the kerchief from her hair, she dipped the raggedy cotton cloth in the Rappahannock. With a deep breath, she took command of herself again and surveyed the boy with a proprietary air.
"Now, mah Southern gentleman," she pronounced severely, "we gots to make you look respeckable foh dem Yankees ober dere. Dat ain't goin' to be easy!"
With a vengeance she scrubbed his dirty, dimpled cheeks and wiped his runny button nose. Scrunching up his eyes in distaste for the operation, he tried to pull away. Annie would not give an inch. "When I say we done, we done! Not befo'!"
The lad blasted a stray chestnut curl from his forehead with an exasperated burst of breath, his lower lip projected to facilitate the effort.
Not to be put off, the mammy fluffed his tousled hair with her fingers and rebuttoned his tattered flannel coat. From his side pocket she extracted an ancient woolen scarf and wound it tightly round his neck. Giving up on the blood that soaked the coat and the mud that caked his oversize leather boots, she made one last gesture to the dignity of a young gentleman of the South by attempting to tug closed the holes in the knees of his pants.
Only then did she turn in thought to herself and dab river water on her own dusty cheeks and retie her red kerchief over her hair.
Ablutions accomplished, she studied him with an appraising eye. "All done," she decreed, "but I be sorry you went an' lost yo' cap!"
"That's a problem we can solve," Philo said, removing his debonair Burnside and placing it on Little Bart's head.
The hat came to rest squarely on the child's shoulders. With a yelp of delight, he pushed it back from his face. Determined to make it fit, he unwrapped the scarf Annie had tied around his throat and stuffed it into the crown.
Wearing the Burnside proudly, he strutted across the pontoons on the river.