The Civil War began April 12, 1861, with the firing on Fort Sumter, Charleston, by Confederate troops. The war effectively ended April 9, 1865, with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to General Ulysses S. Grant. In the four years of fighting more than 700,000 soldiers died, about a third from battle wounds and two-thirds from disease.
Until near the end, a Union victory was not a sure thing. In the summer of 1864 President Lincoln thought he might lose the November election because of mounting battle losses. Then in September 1864, General William T. Sherman conquered Atlanta. With that victory northerners sensed the war’s end was, in fact, near and that the Union would prevail. Historians credit Sherman’s Atlanta campaign for turning sentiment in Lincoln’s favor, and he easily won re-election two months later.
In mid-November 1864 General Sherman began his infamous march from Atlanta through the heart of Georgia. On December 21 his troops entered Savannah, without opposition. The Confederate forces under General William J. Hardee, whose numbers were no match for Sherman’s 60,000 troops, had fled the city the night before.
Sherman stayed in Savannah until January 21, 1865, when he relocated to coastal South Carolina. Later that month, he led his army up the interior of South Carolina, with plans to eventually join General Grant’s army in Virginia.
Savannah was fortunate, having avoided fighting that destroyed large parts of Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia and Richmond. For its residents, however, both black and white, the old ante-bellum way of life was forever changed.
Part 1: 1864
— Savannah, Georgia – Tuesday, September 20
Around ten in the morning an envelope arrived to the townhouse at 27 Liberty Street, addressed to Mrs. Abigale Tate. Abigale, age twenty-four, was teaching at the Dayton Finishing School, so her negro servant Polly put it on a table in the front parlor.
Abigale’s mother, Mrs. Henrietta Gordon, saw the envelope and felt sure of its message. She had received a similar message the year before, announcing her husband’s death at Gettysburg. She retired to her bedroom and prayed.
Another daughter, Jane, age seventeen, was in her room reading a book about men and women and love.
Abigale came home for lunch.
“Mail be for you, Miss Abigale,” said Polly, pointing to the table.
“Oh?” Abigale opened the envelope to find a one-page letter.
Dear Mrs. Tate:
I regret to inform you…Capt. Franklin Tate was mortally wounded on Sept. the first, in Jonesborough, Ga. He fought bravely and succumbed from a bullet to his head. I do believe he passed without pain. We recovered the body and gave him a full military burial…
Abigale stared at the letter, then fell to the floor. Polly yelled upstairs: “Miss Henrietta, come quick! Miss Abigale sick!”
Mrs. Gordon ran down the stairs. “Oh, my God, she’s fainted!”
Jane appeared. “Mother, what happened? What’s going on?”
“The letter. The letter. Help me get her to the couch.”
The three women picked up Abigale and laid her on the couch. Jane and Polly rubbed her arms while Abigale’s mother read the letter. “I knew it,” she said in a low voice.
Abigale awoke, looked at her mother.
“Oh, Abigale, I’m so sorry,” said Mrs. Gordon. “I just read the letter. Are you all right?”
Abigale could only scream. “Let … me … die! LET ME DIE!”
— Friday, December 9
“Stop playing that funeral music!” yelled Jane.
“It’s Chopin. Piano Sonata No. 2,” retorted Abigale as she lightened her touch on the piano keys.
“I don’t care who wrote it. It’s driving me crazy.”
“Girls, girls,” admonished Mrs. Gordon, “must you always argue? Oh, if father were here, he would know what to do.”
Abigale stopped playing, turned around on the bench to face her mother. “But father’s not here. He’s dead. Just like my husband. And just like we’ll be soon, when General Sherman arrives.”
“Don’t say that,” said Mrs. Gordon. “Abigale, you’ve changed so. I don’t know what to do with you. You used to be a happy girl.”
“I’m not a girl anymore. I’m a grown woman. Without a husband. Without a father. And with a brother God knows where, fighting in this damn war.”
“Do you think Johnny will be all right?” asked Mrs. Gordon, as if Abigale somehow had the information at hand.
“We don’t even know if he’s alive,” Abigale replied. “When was our last letter from him? Six months ago?”
“Mother, I’m going upstairs,” said Jane. “I can’t take this family much longer. My sister is a bag of melancholy, and you are in perpetual mourning. I feel as though I am growing up in a funeral home.” With that, Jane climbed the townhouse stairs to her second floor bedroom.
“Polly,” said Mrs. Gordon. “Go to the kitchen and fetch me some tea. Abigale, would you like some?”
“No thank you.”
Polly left the room to do as asked.
“Abigale, I’m worried about Jane. She’s only seventeen but puts on airs like a worldly woman. Do you know what I found in her room the other day?”
“I can only imagine.”
“A book, with just a brown paper cover. I looked inside. It’s called The Art of Making Love — For The Modern Woman. By some Frenchman, but it is our language. Where did she get such a thing?”
“Why didn’t you ask her?”
“And have her snap at me? Oh, if only your father was here. Would you ask her, when you get a chance? I am afraid it is an evil influence.”
“Did you read any of it?”
“Yes. To my dismay. It seems to convey a European viewpoint.”
“Tell me. Nothing will surprise me.”
“Well, he – this Frenchman – wrote that love between a man and a woman is all about physical attraction, that the woman wants the physical touch as much as the man, and that she won’t be satisfied otherwise. And that was just the first page.”
“Did you read more?”
“No, that was enough. I think the book is a manual for women seeking intimacy. Even, perhaps, before marriage. Only the French could write such a thing.”
“Mother, you want some advice?”
“Leave Jane to herself. She is feeling the full blush of womanhood and is affected by our family misfortunes. As am I. One difference is that I have had what she now wants, and am more mature for it.”
“What are you speaking of, I—”
“Tea is ready,” said Polly, entering the room with a cup on a plate. She handed the cup to Mrs. Gordon.
“Thank you, Polly,” said Mrs. Gordon. “Abigale, we can talk later, I am going upstairs to lie down. If you wish to resume playing Chopin, that is all right with me.”
“Thank you, mother.”
As soon as Mrs. Gordon left, Abigale lowered her head and sighed. Polly walked up to her, placed a hand on Abigale’s shoulder and said, “Is you hurtin’ Miss Abigale?”
Abigale looked up at her servant. “In ways I cannot express, Polly.” She repeated her answer, but in a low voice and slowly, as if speaking only to herself. “In ways I cannot express.”
“Sho’ is a bad time.”
“Polly, what are you going to do when General Sherman comes?”
“He’s coming soon. He’s marching from Atlanta, and when he gets here he’s going to free all the slaves. President Lincoln gave a proclamation to free all of you. General Sherman is coming to enforce it. If he doesn’t rob and kill us all first.”
“Ma’am, don’t you talk like that. You and Mrs. Gordon have treated me right well. And besides, I gots no place to go.”
“True enough, and I’ll tell you a secret,” said Abigale. “I have no place to go either. We are cut off, isolated here, surrounded by Yankees.”
“How you knows dis?”
“Oh, everyone knows. Sherman is just outside the city. Do you know what he did to Atlanta?”
“Don’t rightly know, Ma’am.”
“Burned it. Burned it to the ground. He may do that to Savannah.”
“Don’t know ‘bout that, Miss Abigale. But I see what I sees in da Gordon house, and I know what might help you,” said Polly.
“You need to come to church with me this Sunday, hear our Reverend Simms. His sermon will make you feel better. He’s got powerful speaking, he does.”
“A colored church? A black church? Is that where you go every Sunday, on your day off?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Ain’t no secret.”
“No, I suppose I knew that, just never thought much about it. This reverend, he’s
“Yes, ma’am. Rufus Simms, a free colored man. He’s got a nice-sized congregation. Third Ogeechee Colored Baptist. You heard of him?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You go with me, Miss Abigale. He’ll make you feel better.”
“I bet he’s happy Sherman is coming.”
“Don’t know ‘bout that. Maybe he’ll mention it in his sermon.”
Abigale was not partial to religion. Though raised Methodist, the war had left her disillusioned and disinterested in Sunday sermons. She had last been to church in August, when her mother dragged her.
“Do other white people go?”
“Usually a few shows up. You’ll sit in the back. You won’t be noticed or bothered with.”
A colored preacher, thought Abigale. The idea intrigued her. Why not go? I am willing to try anything to ease my despair.
— Sunday, December 11
Polly and Abigale walked the eight blocks to the Third Ogeechee Colored Baptist Church, in the section of Savannah known as Frogtown. The cool morning air and bright sunshine made the walk pleasant enough, except for trash strewn about the streets by local servants. Thankfully, there were no rotting animals. The negro work detail responsible for clearing the trash would show up Monday morning.
Abigale pondered what had become of her city. The war news was all bad. Atlanta had fallen in September, about the time Franklin was killed. In mid-November General Sherman began his huge army’s march in a southeast direction. Reports of the march, which included pillaging, arson and wanton destruction of property, grew more frightening day by day. Now he and his army were just outside the city. Any day he will take us over, thought Abigale. Then what?
She also thought of Polly, sure to be freed when Savannah surrenders. Abigale had an affection for the woman, now thirty and with the Gordon household fifteen years, and hoped legal freedom did not diminish her loyalty or induce her to leave. Polly did most of the house chores, including cooking. Unlike many of Savannah’s slaves Polly did not lack for nourishment. Big-boned and several inches shorter than Abigale, she was on the heavy side, with a full, round face.
Polly had married a decade earlier and initially she and her husband lived in the Gordon’s basement. She had had no children and after about two years they separated, and though never legally divorced they were fully estranged. He was owned by a prominent Savannah family, the Caseys. Abigale did not know if Polly had another man, but doubted it.
Despite her foreboding Abigale enjoyed the walk, a chance to get outside and exercise. She wore an old deeply-pleated skirt and blouse, with a head bonnet. No new clothes had entered the household since shortly after the war began, and the women repurposed and resewed what they had. Polly wore an old unformed smock with skirt, and a kerchief for head cover. Both women had on jackets, Abigale’s made of silk and trimmed with braid, Polly’s of cheap pre-war cotton.
Initially, Polly stayed a few steps behind her mistress, as per custom, but Abigale insisted she walk beside her. “I want to ask about your church.”
“You go to the same church every Sunday?”
“Yes’m. Although Reverend Simms is not always doin’ the preachin’. Sometimes others fill in for him.”
“What’s his regular job?” She knew that colored ministers, of which there were several in Savannah, had regular jobs to sustain themselves.
“He be a carpenter, I believe. He’s a free man, though, do what he want.”
“Yes, I understand.” Well she did. Out of a Savannah population of 22,000, an estimated 7700 were legally slaves, with free blacks counting for another 700. “Free” meant they were not owned by anyone, though each free black person had to have a white “guardian,” to represent them in legal matters. Still, they could move about, earn their own living and, if they had the means, even own slaves themselves.
“Does he own any slaves?” Abigale asked.
“Not as I knows, ma’am. He be a man of God.”
Abigale pondered the statement. “Owning slaves is not God’s way?”
“I don’t rightly know, ma’am.”
Abigale did not take offense, and let it go. If her servant had abolitionist ideas, they did not show in the household. Besides, everything would change in short order, when General Sherman arrived. Polly would be liberated in name, but Abigale and her mother and sister would still need her services and Polly would still need a job. So perhaps nothing would change for her family. Unless, she thought, Savannah is burned to the ground by that odious Yankee.
A few horse-drawn carriages passed by. The two women were careful to avoid any clouds of dust kicked up by the conveyances. Abigale’s family did not own a carriage or she would have taken it to the church, but she didn’t mind the walk; it felt good to get outside. She was thankful she had said yes to the invitation. It gave her an excuse to dress up a bit, to feel more like she did before death and destruction entered her life. For the first time in weeks she had an agenda, albeit unusual for a woman of her background. She imagined what others might think of her going to church with Polly, and then realized she didn’t care.
After about twenty minutes they crossed West Broad Street and reached the church. Abigale had seen the building before but never paid much attention. It was of the second category of Savannah structures, built of wood rather than masonry or brick. Abigale noted it to be in some disrepair, with its white paint peeling, several window shutters missing, and some wood planks needing replacement.
The two women climbed a few steps and entered the building. A single wood-burning stove adorned the stage, but the air remained cool inside, the stove simply unable to warm the whole interior. In wintertime, parishioners kept their coats on, making the services tolerable.
Abigale noted a similar seating arrangement as in white churches, with two long rows of wooden benches, starting near the entrance door and ending just before a raised stage. The benches could seat 300 people comfortably, and were now half full with negro parishioners. As more people entered behind them, Polly steered Abigale to the rearmost bench on the left, closest to the front doors. The bench was empty and Abigale sat on the end near the aisle. She felt a little awkward as the only white person present, man or woman, but her arrival didn’t seem to cause any notice.
“Other whites be coming, Miss Abigale,” said Polly, apparently sensing her mistress’s discomfort. “We always have a few.” The same could not be said of Abigale’s First Methodist church, where no blacks were permitted to sit with the congregation.
“I goes up front, Miss Abigale. You’ll see and hear fine from here. I’ll come for you after Reverend Simms done with his sermon. That’s when da service be over.”
“If I choose so, Polly, I may go out earlier, so if I’m not here I’ll see you back at the house.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Polly replied, and left Abigale to take her seat up front.
Abigale sat down and surveyed the room. The women mostly wore shawls, the men old jackets, some of them army issue. She wondered if they came from their dead masters.
After a few minutes a portly white gentleman entered the church and excused himself as he squeezed past Abigale to sit on the bench, leaving a space of two feet between them.
“How do you do?” he said, in a guttural German accent, and held out his hand. “I am Gustav Heinz.”
She shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Heinz. I’m Abigale Tate. Mrs. Abigale Tate.”
“Is this your first time, Mrs. Tate?”
“Here? At Ogeechee Colored Baptist?”
“Yes, I came at the urging of my negro servant. She lured me here, I’m afraid. Said I should come listen to her Reverend Simms.”
“Where do you live? On a plantation or in the city?” A fair question, since the city was surrounded by many rice plantations, run by women while their men were off fighting.
“Oh, close by, on Liberty Street,” she said.
“I see. I see.” He looked her up and down, nodding his head. This made her feel slightly uncomfortable. She turned away and tried to focus on the stage.
She was about to ask why he was staring at her, when he spoke. “You’ve suffered a loss.” It was not a question.
Abigale jerked her head toward him. “What do you mean?”
Now she looked more closely at this figure and noted that perhaps he was not a gentleman at all. She noted unpressed pants and a frayed coat, and he had at least a two day’s growth of facial stubble. She guessed his age in the late 40s, close to her father’s age if her father had lived. By reputation most German-speaking immigrants, of which there were many in Savannah, were hard working and prosperous, and perhaps Mr. Heinz was too, but something about him suggested a lower middle class background. She smelled a faint body odor, but could not discern if it was sweat or cologne.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I don’t mean to pry. But I notice these things.”
“Oh? What things?”
“For a beautiful woman, which you are, one whose life should be joyful, you do not show a smile. You introduce yourself as Mrs. Tate but wear no ring. And you came with no other family, at the entreaty of your negro servant. And alas, this is war time in America. Am I wrong?”
Though crude, his comment was somewhat reassuring. Even a ten-pound weight loss in recent weeks and a repressed smile did not dim Abigale’s beauty. At almost five and a half feet tall, she was well-proportioned with a full bosom which, unlike other curves of the female anatomy, was not hidden by dresses worn in public. Unblemished skin, golden-brown hair and sparkling blue eyes added to her appeal. Gloom in countenance certainly did not diminish her attractiveness to men.
“You are very observant, Mr. Heinz. I am in fact a widow.” Why, she wondered, is she even responding to him? Out of courtesy? Curiosity? Loneliness in a sea of black faces? Perhaps all these reasons. “My husband was killed just this year, near Atlanta. And what brings you here to this church, and to Savannah in war time?”
“Ah, before the war, long before the war,” replied Gustav. “I came from Frankfurt, in Hesse.”
“Ah, part of a loose German-speaking Confederation. One day we will all be united. Like your country, it seems.” He gave out a short and sardonic laugh, as if responding to a private joke.
Abigale did not share his amusement, but remained polite. It was well known among educated Southern whites that Europe had long ago given up slavery, and that the South’s adherence to the institution partly explained why no European country came to its aid. Had France or Britain entered for the South, the war would likely be over by now, and General Sherman would not be at Savannah’s doorstep.
“I have been here since fifty-six,” said Gustav. “Now proprietor of Savannah Gardens, boarding house on Broughton. You’ve heard? Fine establishment.”
She had heard. Savannah Gardens was a boarding house in name only, a brothel for soldiers being its main function. There was even rumor that he employed one or two young black girls, a premium for white soldiers seeking forbidden fruit. So Gustav is the proprietor!
“Yes, I know where it is,” she said, showing no surprise. She was careful not to say “what it is.”
“Yah,” he replied. “This war is terrible. Bad for business. Bad for the economy. Reverend Simms is a free black man. He speaks the truth and when I have time I come to listen.”
At that point a tall skinny male negro came on the stage and bellowed out “Children of God, let us stand and pray.”
“Is that him?” asked Abigale.
“No,” said Gustav. “He is the choirmaster. First we have the singing. Then comes the Reverend.”
Abigale and Gustav stood with the others. Just then an elderly white couple came in and entered their bench. As they squeezed past first Abigale and then Gustav, the Hessian moved closer to her, to give the couple more sitting room, a totally unnecessary maneuver considering the bench was long enough to accommodate eight people. After the opening prayer, with everyone seated, she found him a foot closer than before.
Abigale pondered the irony of being made to feel uncomfortable by a white man in a black church. Should she just leave? For a minute she vacillated over what to do: stay or walk out.
Just then a group of men and women came on stage, hymnals in hand, and the singing began.
No. I’ll stay. I’m too damn curious about this Reverend Simms.
Across the rows of people Abigale saw Reverend Simms stride to the pulpit, attired in a flowing black robe fringed with a white collar that dipped down below his neckline. From the back of the hall he appeared light-skinned, though clearly negro from his dark, thickly-curled hair and general facial features. He was short and stocky, with broad shoulders, and clean shaven except for a small chin beard. Before speaking he stared left and right, then straight ahead. The first words he spoke surprised Abigale. They were not standard English.
“Our Fadduh awt’n Hebb’n, all-duh-weh be dy holy ‘n uh rightschus name. Dy kingdom com.’ Oh lawd leh yo’ holy ‘n rightschus woud be done, on dis ert’ as-‘e tis dun een yo’ grayt Hebb’n. ‘N ghee we oh Lawd dis day our day-ly bread. “N f’gib we oh Lawd our trus-passes, as we also f’gib doohs who com’ sin ‘n truspass uhghens us. ‘N need-us-snot oh konkuhrin’ King een tuh no moh ting like uh sin ‘n eeb’l. Fuh dyne oh dyne is duh kingdom, ‘n duh kingdom prommus fuh be we ebbuh las’n glory. Amen.”
There followed a chorus of “Amens” from the audience, along with stamping of feet.
Gustav leaned over to Abigale. “Gullah,” he said. She nodded in agreement. By the time Simms had reached “N f’gib oh Lawd” she surmised it was the low country dialect of slaves imported from Africa. If this was to be Reverend Simms’ choice of language, she saw little point in staying. Another reason to walk out of here.
“That’s just to warm up the audience,” Gustav chuckled. “Most of them know Gullah somewhat, especially those who spent time on the Sea Islands. He likes to start out that way.”
“Loses me,” said Abigale. “Will he speak in English?”
Before Gustav could respond Simms continued, his voice from the pulpit clear throughout the room. “My friends, what a glorious moment we are in. It’s been a long hard road, it has. We have lost many brethren in the rice fields, to the plague and to the fevers and, yes, to the taskmaster. And our white folk have lost many of their own, to war and disease and more war. These have been difficult times. Is that right?”
“Difficult times!” the flock yelled in unison.
“Who among us has not suffered some loss, some pain, some hurt?”
“No one among us,” they all responded, again in unison. This was not the first time Simms had asked these questions.
“But we see a light now. Yes, we do.” He pointed to a man in the first row. “Do you see the light?”
“I do,” said the first-row parishioner.
Pointing to a woman in the second row, Simms called out: “And do you see the light?”
“Almighty lawd, yes!”
Simms walked about twenty feet stage left and called on another woman, a middle-aged negro in the first row. “Do YOU see the light?”
“Hallelujah!” she yelled, and began gesticulating and making strange sounds with her tongue. At this the audience chanted “Amen! Amen! Amen!” The tongue-speaking woman had to be restrained by her neighbors, until she finally quieted down.
Simms strode back to the podium and turned to face the assembly. “WE ALL SEE THE LIGHT” he exclaimed. “The Lord is a comin’ to deliver us, He is.”
Abigale felt uneasy. She did not want to hear any more and stood to leave. Gustav reached for her forearm with one hand and raised his other hand to indicate ‘wait a minute’. She was about to pull away and bolt for the door when Simms spoke again.
“And white folks see the light, including war widows and war mothers and war sisters. We have all suffered together, and now we can all see the light. White folk, dark folk. Don’t matter. We are all children of God. Is that not so?”
“That is so! That is so!”
Simms smiled and lifted his eyes beyond the sea of black faces to the very rear of the hall. The reverend’s gaze and the Hessian’s gentle hand persuaded Abigale to sit back down. Gustav let go of her arm.
Abigale was thankful no heads turned in her direction. She would find another moment to make her escape. Why did he mention ‘war widows’?
The sermon continued. “God has a purpose, he does. We must believe in God to make sense of the last four years. Why would God allow white folks to kill each other in such high numbers? So many deaths. The women folk left behind—those who’ve lost a father, a brother, a son or a husband, they may feel deep down that God is evil. But is God evil?”
“No!” roared the audience.
“Why would God allow black folks to suffer so, under the yolk of repression? Why would God allow our brethren to be shackled and whipped and torn asunder from their families? Must be an evil God. Is God evil?”
“No!” came the reply, from 300 souls.
Simms raised his voice to seek a louder response. “I say, IS GOD EVIL?”
“No, WHAT?” screamed Simms.
“God is not evil!”
“That’s right! God is not evil. He has a purpose. This war has a purpose, as horrible as it is. It will free us. Our savior is coming!”
Abigale wondered how Simms could get away with such blasphemy. My father and husband didn’t fight to free the slaves! If Father was alive and heard this—he wouldn’t stand for it, that’s for sure. I bet this isn’t the first time Simms has spoken such inflammatory rhetoric. Why didn’t the authorities stop him? Where are the men in this city? Mayor Arnold and his aldermen? General Hardee and his army? How come only a few white people are hearing this? Can free blacks speak in public this way? In Savannah?
She glanced over toward the elderly white couple. They seemed unfazed by the speech. Perhaps this is what they came to hear. She did not recognize them and wondered if they were visiting from up north. Then she realized no one was visiting from up north, at least not within the past two years or so.
“You say God is not evil, my friends,” Simms continued, “and once again you speak the truth. There is a purpose in all this, God’s purpose. We are all creatures of God, and I say this. Count your blessings. For whether you are enslaved by the white man’s shackles or you are a prisoner of your own inner demons, there is light coming. There is light coming! DO NOT DESPAIR!”
What does he mean, prisoner of your own inner demons? Do blacks have inner demons? Is he speaking to me? How would he know? Polly! She must have said something to him!
Just then Simms pivoted to New Testament scripture. “Jesus said, in Matthew, ‘Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.’ Our light is coming. It is coming.”
Simms continued with more biblical quotes, each one powerful yet opaque, allowing him to fit it to the times. He never once mentioned Sherman by name, but didn’t have to. Even the least literate among his flock knew, from countless conversations among their brothers and sisters and other kinfolk, that General Sherman was “the light,” or was “bringing the light,” and that when he arrived there would be a new order.
Simms’ sermonizing went on another half hour, as Abigale wrestled with it all. He was infuriating and soothing, treasonous toward her culture and understanding of it as well. He spoke in generalities, yet his words seemed to touch her inner soul. Whenever she decided to leave, the next moment she decided to stay.
The parishioners intrigued her as well, especially when compared with her own Methodist congregation. Apart from race, she noted a striking contrast. Savannah’s white Methodists sat in their pews dutifully, stoically, reciting scripture when called on, but without excitement or verve.
Here, when Simms swayed back and forth, so did all the negroes. When he threw up his hands to the Lord, they did as well. When he bellowed out a question, they yelled back the answer. And several times throughout the service, a man or woman would stand, call out “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord” and sit back down after the audience approved with a loud “Amen.” Such a thing was unthinkable at her church.
Yes, she thought, verve was the right word. Compared to Simms’ flock, the white congregation was sedate: no involvement, no verve. Her people attended Sunday service as obligation, lest they rot in Hell after death. Simms’ people came to be entertained and uplifted; they attended for the here and now, not for any promise of a better afterlife. Her white church was duty. This black one was joy.
So despite initial misgivings, and the obnoxious Hessian beside her, Abigale decided to stay. As soon as the service was over she would question Polly about what she had told the reverend.
After the last “Amen” the audience rose to exit. Polly rushed to the back bench and before Abigale could speak, pulled on her mistress’s arm and said, “Come, Miss Abigale, he wants to meet you.”
“Why? What did you tell him?”
“That you be the nicest mistress in Savannah. He a free colored. He likes to meet nice white folks.”
Abigale hesitated and Gustav chimed in. “Ah, you should go, Mrs. Tate. When General Sherman comes, will be helpful perhaps to have connections with the colored elite.” He flicked his hand toward her, indicating she should go with her servant.
She did not reply. Instead, she looked down the aisle at the stage, then the opposite way, toward the church doors. Should she now run home? If she left, would Gustav follow her? Going with Polly to the pulpit would be a way of getting rid of him, at least, so she acquiesced. There was another reason; she was curious to meet the reverend.
Polly and Abigale fought their way down the aisle, past the exiting crowd, and climbed a few stairs to the stage. Simms was at the pulpit, conversing with several followers. Abigale noted that Simms was only an inch or so taller than herself. She estimated his age around thirty-five to forty.
Polly made a quick introduction. “This be Miss Abigale, Reverend.”
He held out his hand and Abigale shook it.
“Nice to meet you,” she said. What am I doing?
“The pleasure is all mine,” he replied. “I hear nice things about you. Sadly, I have also learned of your losses. Please accept my deepest condolences.”
“Polly told you?”
“Yes. It is indeed unfortunate.”
She gave Polly a disapproving look but said nothing. Simms exchanged a few pleasantries with the remaining parishioners on stage and they dispersed.
He sounds intelligent, she thought. Cultivated, even.
“Thank you for coming to my church,” Simms said. “We welcome white folks who have an open mind. I see you sat with the Nelsons and Mr. Heinz.”