Twenty-dollar Gold Pieces Lying in the Dust

Vacant chair on veranda

Sometimes on cold winter nights, Mama could be persuaded to tell the little ones there was fine Southern blood flowing in their veins. She would open the trunk in the corner and unpack her treasures: a tiny nosegay of dried flowers, a piece of lace that once belonged to some distant maiden aunt who died years before, a delicate collar that retained its beauty but no longer was fashionable.

Mama would set all those aside and take out what the little ones thought was the most valuable of all, the ambrotype of their grandfather, taken on his way to defend the South against Northern aggression.[1]

Resplendent in his woolen uniform, the young man’s face was solemn, befitting a soldier. In one hand was a fearsome Bowie knife, much larger than its namesake ever carried, and in the other, a musket.

He had stood to his state’s defense so early that the Confederacy had no uniforms. His captain had provided them out of his own pocket or the man had purchased them himself, often a dark blue coat and white trousers like his militia uniform, perfectly fitted by the loving fingers of his young wife.

Pvt. William J. Nichols
Private William J. Nichols, Company E, 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment, Confederate States of America, in his early Confederate uniform, thought to be styled after his militia uniform. He is the author’s great-grandfather.

Yet, he laid that uniform aside when experience taught Southerners they couldn’t wear blue on a battlefield and expect to come home in one piece. The defenders of the South hit what they aimed at, and they aimed at blue coats.

“My, what a handsome man,” Mama would say softly, turning the leather case so the little ones could see his solemn face.

If the man himself sat among them, he would wink slyly to make the little ones giggle.

If he no longer was part of the family circle, there might be a low sigh before Mama continued, saying, “He went on to that great bivouac of Southern heroes in eternity, where no cruel war will separate loved ones ever again” and she would give the year in which he left them.

“He wasn’t always a soldier. Our army was mostly made up of men who were ordinary citizens before the war – most of them just boys.”

It was comforting to the little ones to know there were genuine heroes in the family tree, especially in the hard years after the surrender. That heroism ennobled the soldiers’ sacrifice, for no one could say the men in gray were not formidable fighters.

Like an elegant woman in reduced circumstances, the refinement and culture, the personal worth were still there in the South after the soldiers stacked arms, even if not reflected in the outward appearance. A twenty-dollar gold piece lying in the dust was worth just as much as a twenty-dollar gold piece on a velvet cushion.

That truth made room for hope in young hearts, and hope made room for aspirations and dreams of a future that saw their beginning in the years before the war.


[1] Ambrotype: a positive image on glass. The process first came into use in the 1850s.



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