Sunday, April 9, 2006

A Letter From Virginia

We Make History combines dance and drama in a period ball bringing ladies and gentlemen together as a nation tears itself apart.

Richmond, 1861

My Dearest Family and Friends,

I write you at a time of great uncertainty, tinged with the sadness of what may yet befall us. I will soon leave my home with my fellow Virginians in the defense of our liberties. Though I am proud to serve, I hoped never to see the day when I might have to spill the blood of my own countrymen to protect that which is dear to us.

For many months, I have prayed for an amiable solution. But that hope is no more. My beloved country is tearing asunder as a flag left to flail in the fiercest winds. Yet I write to you on the heels of most joyous ball, sponsored by the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, a night of song and dance with the finest ladies and gentlemen of the state complemented by visitors from both north and south.

I attended in full uniform, the work of a harried seamstress in Williamsburg steeped at the foot of a mountain of work. She did not fail her task of creating a fine garment of yellow and gray with buttons shining brightly in the sun. But I do believe she overdid herself, as my first communications with Captain Scott revealed.

“Colonel Francis!” he greeted.

I ranked higher than I realized. But if I am called to a higher duty, so be it.
When the festivities began, the Belles of Virginia were presented to us, the finest young ladies of the state. One by one, a member of the 1st Virginia escorted them before the crowds. The line of elegance extended beyond my vision. Here, I noticed the gentlemen were most desirably outnumbered.

These charming women had the honor of selecting their first partner. All I could do was smile, hold my breath, and hope for the best while my heart cried out, chose me! Choose me!

A beautiful lady approached. We honored each other and the evening began with a promenade followed by a few ring and line dances.

But as we were enjoying the evening, some disturbing news arrived of deteriorating relations between the states of the north and south. Anger was consuming both sides. Yet my fair state of Virginia had elected to remain in the Union. Perhaps peace would not elude us.

With that hope, the dancing resumed with more sets and circles and a few waltzes here and there. You will forgive me if I cannot remember the grandiosity and yet simplicity of each one, but I am indebted to a young lady who taught me a box step. She led and I followed. “You are a quick learner,” she complimented.

I had many compliments myself for the dozens of ladies I encountered. I felt it my duty to always caution that I was not the greatest waltzer, honesty being something I hold dear, but my partners were all gracious and not put off at all by simple steps from someone who desired above all to be a gentleman.

More bad news arrived. Fort Sumter had been attacked. President Lincoln was demanding troops to quell the Confederacy. We were being asked to attack our brethren, to invade our own lands. The question of secession was inevitable now. We would have to make a choice.

Our host did his best to lift our spirits in the midst of this crisis, noting that even in the dark days of the Revolution, President Washington found time for diversion in dance.

“Enjoy yourselves, enjoy your company,” Captain Scott said.

The highlight of the occasion was upon us now: the Virginia Reel. I had danced it before but still felt uneasy. This could either be delight or disaster. But it was the latter, and I am much obliged to the Virginia Belle who clarified a confusing step for me with one sentence: “You’ll always swing on this side.” Stripping the Willow, as they say, was never easier.

So our musicians began to play and we reeled. And we reeled. And we reeled some more, again and again, around and around, swinging each other, swinging our partners, swinging through the sets, progressing through at least a dozen changes in the head couple before I stopped counting. The band kept at it, and lost in our enjoyment, we could have reeled all night. We could have reeled all the way across Virginia, across the Potomac into Maryland. Then we could reel into Pennsylvania and on to New England, all the way through New York, Massachusetts and Maine. We Virginians will show those Yankees how to dance!

A lady recounted for me the Drop Dead Reel -- one where the musicians keep playing as long as somebody can still stand. The number only ends when everybody’s either off the floor, or lying on it.

“I don’t know whether to call that pleasure or torture,” I responded in shock.

“I think it is a little of both,” she replied.

The talk turned to the fate of our nation and our worries as the hope for an amicable solution faded by the minute. She hoped the people of Virginia would make the right decision.

“I think they already have.

Not long after I uttered those words did we receive more news. The question of secession would be put to a public vote so Virginians could voice what their hearts were telling them. They were, as we were, learning of more animosities, blockades and aggression by the North.

Word of the rising tension was so unsettling I broke rank as I introduced myself to a new partner.

“Captain Francis, uh, Colonel Francis,” I stuttered. “Excuse me. The news has left me quite shaken.”

But as much as we worried, as much as we longed for another way out, we found the time for more merriment, more waltzes and more reels. One dance called “Chase The Squirrel” found me playfully pursuing a lady about the set only to find her chasing me back.

So much beauty surrounded me I did not know what to do when seeking out another partner for a waltz. Two ladies stood a few feet away, beautiful as Heaven would allow. The music began, and without a partner, I began to sway back and forth on my feet, unable to stand still even without a dancing partner. I sauntered toward the pair… whom would I ask?

“Colonel Francis!” Capt. Scott called to me. “Why are you waltzing by yourself when such beautiful ladies are before you?”

My feet halted. “Sir, they are so beautiful, I am filled with indecision.”

“Close your eyes!” he ordered.

He twirled me around a couple of times and directed me to point.

“Open your eyes!”

Before the tip of my finger was my choice: a charming lady and a better dancer than she gave herself credit for.

Our host relayed another dispatch. The votes were tallied. Virginia would secede. In some counties, the vote was unanimous. We had made our choice, but now came the challenge. We learned the first Virginia blood of this conflict had already been shed. Peace had failed, but a new nation may yet thrive, one honored with a song.

“Then here’s to our Confederacy,
Strong we are and brave,
Like patriots of old we’ll fight, our heritage to save.
Rather than submit to shame,
To fight we would prefer
So cheer for the Bonnie Blue flag
That bears a single star.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star.”

My thoughts return once more to the duty before me. I know not all of you will agree with the choice I have made, but I hope you at least recognize the circumstances. I believe with all my heart we are a nation of undeniable liberty. Those who seek to deny us our rights as citizens, as human beings, do not understand the foundations of this great land. Did not we choose freedom over tyranny one hundred years ago? Did we not resolve to build a nation grounded in justice and guided by those rights given to us by our Creator?

But in the sum of all events, I find the most peculiar irony and a thread of hope. Whatever happens in these next few months, I will never forget the friendship and fellowship of this evening’s celebration, filled with many more memories than I can mention here. A slice of my heart tells me we could patch a great many conflicts with more occasions such as this. Happiness should chase anger away, making room for reason, which if left to blossom shall yield a harvest of reconciliation.

It is an absurd thought, I know, for some of you. But I must keep hope alive. We have passed beyond the crossroads. The road we have chosen will lead us to either redemption or suffering. And I can only pray God will give us the strength to carry out our duties as soldiers and as patriots. My future may be undetermined, but my heart is resolute.

Yours truly,
Col. Christopher Francis

A Postscript From Mesa

We entered in costume, in character, 145 years later, near the stroke of midnight. The scattered patches of diners at the In-N-Out perked up. They may have hesitated to swallow for an instant. One snickered while others smiled.

“Arizona just seceded from the Union,” one person explained to a puzzled stranger on the way out.

“We’re from a Civil War ball,” another said to the young man behind the counter as he stared at all the Confederate uniforms and hoopskirts.

I always love it when present meets past, especially when I’m still submerged in my historic persona. The ball may have ended half an hour ago, but I couldn’t drop my southern accent.

“Could I have a number one, please, sir?” I drawled out.

At one point during a waltz, my partner asked me if that accent was real.

“I’ll leave that to you to decide,” I grinned. Why spoil any illusion? If you want to believe it’s real, by all means believe!

Our conversation put us back in the present day, but in a nation still divided -- this time by illegal immigration. We talked about the upcoming march in Phoenix. We talked about immigrant rights. We talked about solutions.

Should we grant amnesty or deport them all? Should we implement a guest worker program? Should we go after the businesses that hire them? Should we put pressure on Mexico to eliminate the corruption and poverty at the root of the problem?

I don’t think we found a sure cure. Everybody could at least agree on that.

In another time, this talk could have lit the fuse of war. But at our table, you couldn't even light a match as we talked thoughtfully and amiably about the issues.

As I write this, our Arizona Attorney General and a U.S. Attorney are asking the Federal Communications Commission to investigate a comment by a Phoenix radio talk show host. That host suggested one way to solve the illegal immigration problem was to randomly shoot illegal immigrants on one night every week. Such “rabble,” as it might have been called in another time, can only lead to violence, the attorneys say. I fear we’ve been down this road before.

Click here for more photos and reflections of this amazing evening!

Yes, you too can take part! Click here for more about We Make History.

LIFE & TIMELINES -- more of my journeys:
If You Can Walk...
Both Sides Then: Caught In The Middle Of "The Battle Of Winchester"
Come, Let's Be Merry!
"You Look A Little Too Happy To Be Here."


Anonymous said...

As a descendant of an impeccable Yankee, General McClellan, who made the famous march through the south with General Sherman, I still enjoyed the riveting tale of a fine southern gentleman, Colonel Christopher Francis. Whether Yankee or Confederate, we can all agree it was a terrible time that took a devastating toll on both sides. But it's stories like yours that bring it back to life and keep it alive for us Civil War buffs! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Charming, Col. Francis. Very charming writing, and a real pleasure to meet you the other night... I'm only sorry I was unable to partake in the politics at IN-N-OUT later that evening! Usually my favorite part of the day is the "after the ball" company... ah, well. :)

Take care, and may God keep you in His hand until we meet again,

a sister in the Cause,

Martha Barton