As Christmas approached in 1864, the news was bad for those who loved Georgia. General Sherman's march toward Savannah from the ruins of Atlanta unreeled a ribbon of destruction thirty to sixty miles wide. He wrote to his wife, "They regard us just as the Romans did the Goths, and the parallel is not unjust."
His observation was only correct when speaking of white Georgians.
Most blacks, anxious to shed the hateful yoke of slavery, held another opinion. One wrote, "Thank the Almighty God...Sherman has come at last...Sherman has come with his company."
Yet there were many black people who clung to the only world they knew, in which they had been born to the service of whites.
One such was Sarah, daughter of Bessie who had been taken to Baltimore with Nelle. A shy little girl of eleven at the time Bessie went North in 1856, she had begged to stay behind with "Miz Ruth." Bessie, frightened herself by the first venture from home, gave in easily on the promise that Sarah might be allowed to go to Baltimore later.
Ruth Ardmore believed in education. Never keeping more in service than the house or her farm absolutely required, the blacks she maintained were all taught to read and write and to develop such skills as would enable them to make their way "outside" when the time came.
Ruth was a stern Christian who believed to her core that slavery was an abomination. Still, as a Southerner her culture triumphed over her character and she bought, although never sold, human beings. When her slaves reached twenty-five, an age at which she believed people to be fully responsible for themselves, she granted them freedom, along with their families, with the option of continuing in her service at reasonable pay.
Few left her. They had been treated as family members and were better off in many ways than most of their kind in Savannah.
A widow, Bessie had come from the farm to work as Nelle's personal maid. She brought her small daughter with her.
Little Sarah was allowed to enjoy a childhood free of responsibilities and to grow up speaking and dressing like a white child of the upper middle class. Her complexion was light. She had been a pretty child and had now blossomed into young womanhood, a raven-haired beauty of nineteen.
Along with her physical attributes, she possessed a fine intelligence which Ruth had honed by exposure to the classics and the Bible. Her loyalty to and love for her mistress were, in a way, even deeper than she felt toward her mother Bessie, perhaps because Ruth had been Sarah's surrogate mother for so many years.
It was to Sarah that Ruth Ardmore entrusted her home when she sailed for the Bahamas. Other servants of riper years remained in the house as well, but Ruth had the greatest respect for Sarah's judgment, as did Sam. Philo likened Sarah to her mother Bessie, to whose care he had entrusted his own Nelle.
After Ruth made her decision to leave on the tenth of December, Philo had lingered until nightfall so that he would not be seen leaving the house. Sam had taken his mother to the Belle earlier and now waited anxiously in the closed carriage he had driven back to take Philo to the dock.
Although covered from shoulders to boots by a voluminous double cape, Philo still wore his Federal uniform underneath. To be captured in the mufti Sam had offered him for disguise would qualify him without trial as a spy, whereas to be captured in uniform would qualify him as a prisoner of war less likely to be hanged. "And more likely to be shot!" Sam had joked morbidly at the time.
On the night of the tenth, Philo stood in the front hall with Sarah, ready to leave.
"If there is any danger to you or to the others when the Yankees come, abandon the house," he instructed her. "I did not want to say this in front of Miz Ruth, but Captain Sam and I agree that your personal safety comes first. It's not likely they would harm you, Sarah, because you are of the race President Lincoln has set free. However, you are a pretty girl, and a soldier...well....."
"I understand, Cap'n," she smiled shyly, "but I s'pose if I take after him with a frying pan, he won't stay around too long!"
Philo bowed in a courtly manner from the waist, sweeping back his cape. "I salute you, brave Miss Sarah, and I thank you for all you are doing for Miz Ruth. You know that you always have a second home in Baltimore. We are ever your family."
Returning the honor with a curtsy, she opened the door for him to go.
A Confederate officer stood on the porch, agape at sight of the enemy uniform revealed by Philo's parted mantle.
With a little cry of "Oh!", Sarah drew back in surprise, but recovered her composure quickly.
Addressing the visitor with remarkable presence of mind, she said: "Lieutenant LeMay, I would like to introduce you to Miz Ruth's son-in-law, Cap'n Duncan of the United States Navy. He and Cap'n Sam, whom you have met, have come to take her to safety on the Belle of Savannah. You can understand that, can you not?"
The officer nodded, his face a study in surprise.
She gestured behind him to where Sam stood at the foot of the veranda steps, his hand on the butt of a revolver in his belt, ready to draw.
Noticing the gun, the officer shook his head. "Violence will not be necessary, Captain Sam. I have too much respect for your mother to dispute your right or Captain Duncan's to carry her away. I came to inform the ladies that General Sherman's army has arrived outside Savannah. I wanted them to know that I intend to do all I can to protect them from harm."
"Thank you, Tom," said Sarah, "but, you see, Miz Ruth has gone."
"You will still be here, Miss Sarah. I shall not abandon you. Goodnight, and I...I promise you...I will not tell what I have seen."
He bowed to Philo and Sam and walked away.
The two captains breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank you again, courageous lady!" exclaimed Philo. "And now, Sam, we had better go!"
They left as Sarah went inside.
Scion of a prominent family in New Orleans, Tom LeMay was a graduate of the Citadel, a military academy in Charleston. He had been among its cadets famous for firing on the Federal ship Star of the West in January 1861. "It all began with me," he liked to say, "this great war of ours!"
Tom was a man of two hearts, each in conflict with the other. In one, he believed in the Confederate cause. In the depths of the other, he was passionately in love with Sarah, a slave.
His reconciliation of the two would have been possible only in someone like him - a Louisianan from a quasi-French city respectful of beautiful women of mixed race. His father, a wealthy planter, owned a thousand slaves and loved the wife who bore him seven children. Tom's mother lived at the manor house in the country.
His father also loved a mistress whom he kept in high style at the fashionable St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. She was of the racial mélange known as quadroon, meaning one-quarter black.
This relationship was no secret to Tom. He despised his father for it - not for the miscegenation, but for the betrayal of his mother. He had vowed within the heart that belonged to Sarah that under no circumstances would Sarah ever become his mistress. She would, despite all obstacles, become his wife even though this dream might remain hopeless per the laws, written and cultural, of his land.
In consequence, he demonstrated himself to be so accomplished a master of discretion in his courting of Sarah that even she had not guessed the depth of his feelings toward her.
It was his habit to call at the mansion on Oglethorpe Street on Sunday afternoons for tea and conversation with Ruth, a longtime friend of his mother's. She was convinced he found her wit a welcome relief from the tedium of garrison life. He did nothing to deter her from this belief, artfully chuckling at her stories of youthful days when she visited New Orleans for the "pleasure of your mother's company."
He had discovered Sarah early on, as it was she who served the tea. Testing the waters of Ruth's sensibilities had been his first discreet move toward a relationship with the girl whom he considered the prettiest he had ever seen.
"I greatly admire, Ma'am, your democratic approach to the household," he had complimented Ruth. "It is not unlike my mother's. As a matter of fact, it is not beyond her to take tea with select members of the staff in the parlor sometimes. I have been taught that one may do this in the privacy of the family. This young lady - Miss Sarah? - my, but she does comport herself like a daughter toward you!"
"Why, Tom, how perceptive you are!" Ruth had fluttered in response. "Yes, Sarah is almost like one of my own. Come, Sarah dear, sit down with us. No, no, not over there. Come sit by me!"
Thus it had begun.
Conversations blossomed. Books were discussed, and philosophies of life. Tom was amazed that Sarah did not think of herself as black, but spoke as a woman of the white world would and of what she might do in the future, such as travel to Baltimore alone to see Bessie and Nelle. It took only awhile for Tom to become her spiritual slave. He came to know quickly that he would never want another woman as long as he lived.
His visits with Ruth Ardmore had assumed another character after the fall of New Orleans. Admiral David Farragut took the city for the Union in the spring of 1862. Cut off from his family and knowing nothing of their condition, Tom seemed to turn to Ruth for solace, but it was being in the presence of Sarah that really consoled him.
Although he communicated his sorrow and apprehension to the older woman, they were meant for sharing with Sarah. It was enough for him that she knew, and commiserated with him. Sarah's sympathetic sighs as she listened were balm to his soul, and the occasional touch of her hand, laid charitably over his when he expressed his worst fears, became the stuff of his dreams.