Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.
My great grandmother, Jemima Byrd, marries two men named Wilson.
She has five children—four of them daughters—with Lorenzo Wilson, who fights with Company C, 8th Mississippi, and later dies on New Year’s Eve in 1864 as a prisoner of war at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.
One of the Crane boys was in the war with Lorenzo and all Jemima ever knew was the message he brought back. Crane told her, said along around Vicksburg somewhere, Lorenzo sat down and Crane told him come on let’s go. Lorenzo said I’m sick, can’t go no further. Crane said the Yankees gonna git you. And Lorenzo said I can’t help it if they do. I can’t make it no further. That was the last she ever heard about her husband. She never did again ever know anything about what happened to him. In the later years after all the grandchildren were grown and gone, Jessie Wilson, the youngest one of Uncle Frank’s boys, got interested in knowing something about his granddaddy and he wrote to the war department and it wasn’t long until he found out where he was at. I guess he was captured and carried to Illinois and buried there. ---Jimmy Wilson, age 82.
My mother’s brother, Uncle Jimmy, in relating the story of Lorenzo on a hot summer afternoon in 1980 on the back patio in Walker, Louisiana, has it wrong about where the capture of Lorenzo takes place. Civil War records say he is taken prisoner on Missionary Ridge, Tennessee, on November 25th, 1863, a sunny afternoon when the Army of the Cumberland is ordered to take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. After capturing the rifle pits as ordered, the advance turns into a rampage without orders that does not stop until the rugged terrain ends at the top of the ridge. It is reported that Grant, watching the charge, says something to the effect, Who the fuck ordered those troops up the ridge? The Confederate troops retreat in panic amid confusing orders; of the 2,000 or so troops that are captured that day, Lorenzo must be one of them, sitting down at one point and telling his buddy, Crane, that he just can’t go on.
From Missionary Ridge, Lorenzo is transported to Louisville, Kentucky, then in early December to Rock Island, Illinois, where he dies a year later.
Meanwhile, James A. Wilson, my great grandfather, is married to a woman named Sarah J. Hubbard and they have six children. Not having been captured or killed during the Civil War, little is known about his soldiering days except that he isn’t paid very often. In the only letter to survive the years, dated December 18th, 1864, about the time Lorenzo is on his deathbed in Illinois, my great grandfather tells his son Thomas to be kind to his siblings and obey his mother and never vote for a man who was in favor of the war.
Later, after Lorenzo dies in prison and Sarah dies however, the hills of Mississippi alive with all those Wilson children, Jemima Byrd Wilson marries James A. Wilson and they have two children: Syrentha, a daughter, born in 1870, and Wiley Jackson, my grandfather, born three years later in 1873.
Jemima is 19 years younger than James when she marries him after the war. How they meet, if they knew each other before, what kind of hard-scrabble life they have together, most is unknown. Perhaps the difference in ages is an attraction. Or Jemima being drawn to a man named Wilson who survives the war. A marriage of convenience (maybe) because a hard life is better shared. It’s whatever we want it to be, as if looking at shadows imagined into patterns might explain who we are and why we feel the way we do.