Sept. 2003 Book Review
September 2003 Book Review
Confederates by Thomas Keneally
Copyright, 1979 First U.S. Edition
In the Second Year of the war, Mrs. Ephephtha Bumpass saw her
husband Usaph unexpectedly one cold March night. This happened
way over in the great Valley of Virginia on a night of bitter frost.
Usaph had come knocking on the door of the Bumpass family farm
near the fine town of Strasburg and, when the door opened, he saw
the last person she expected to see.
At the time, she was sitting at the kitchen hearth with the old slave
Lisa and the fourteen-year-old boy of a neighbour called Travis. mr.
Travis had lent her the boy to do chores for her and to keep her
company. Ephie Bumpass had been married some sixteen months
up to that point and had lived all those sixteen months on this
highland farm in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain. But Bumpass
had met and wooed her in a very different country from this. She'd
been raised down in the Carolinas, in the torpid swamps round the
mouth of the Combahee River. Her father had been a drum fisherman
there and it was all the world she knew till Usaph brought her up
here to Virginia.
On that March night in the second year of the war, before Usaph got
to the door and knocked on it, Ephie had been finding the sight of the
Travis boy there by the fire distressing. It reminded her of what Travis, neighbour to the Bumpasses, had said to her when he assigned her
the boy. 'I'll send my boy to chop the wood an' keep you company.
For whatever else you need you can call on me.' Saying it he'd
touched her wrist in a way you couldn't misunderstand. 'You are a
rose, Mrs. Bumpass. You are a red rose up here in this valley of
lilies. Are you perhaps one of them Creoles or some such?'
Travis's hints weren't any comfort to her. She knew men wanted her,
men always had, bargemen and fishermen and parties of gentry her
daddy used to take out drum fishing in his boat. Usaph's own uncle, overseer on the Kearsage place down in the Carolinas, while
sickening for his death, had desired and had her-in spite of the state
of his health-before she ever met Usaph. That fact and others stung
her sould like a tumour. It would be hard to say where she got the
idea that to be wanted was to be the bearer of a disease. Her daddy
had sometimes taken river wives who all talked as if to be desired
was the best and only fate a woman could wish. Up to that night in
the second year of the war, the only man who had ever wanted her
without making her feel accursed was Usaph Bumpass. The war
she saw as a case of God making her pay for the sweetness and redemption that came to her in Usaph's presence-as simple as
that. There wasn't anything in her life history to put that idea in her
head either, the idea about having to pay. She was just born with it.
And so she sat by the fire of the Bumpass family farm which she'd
only known these sixteen months since she'd wed Bumpass, and
all she had to sit with was deaf old Lisa and the boy, and out in a
corner of a nearby meadow Usaph's father, Mr. Noah Bumpass,
dead a year, slept under the frosted earth. And her womb, as on
each quiet evening, wept for Bumpass.
When Usaph Bumpass knocked on the door that night it sounded
such a flat neighbourly knocking that she didn't expect anything of it,
and so sent the fourteen-year-old to answer it. There was Bumpass standing in the doorway. He wore a waterproof blanket over his
shoulders, and his long musket hit sharply against the door jamb.
Both his hair and his skin looked like the smoke of all the fires he'd
sat at these past few months had changed them for good.
She couldn't believe this gift that had turned up on her doorstep.
Old Lisa, who still had a clear head at that stage, recognised the
boy she'd known from babyhood and began to laugh and praise
God in a withered voice. 'Why I jest knew the Lord would give these
poor ole bones one sight more of the boy,' she sang. And in the
doorway Usaph and Ephie crushed each other and chewed at each
other's lips for a full minute. The fourteen-year-old thought it was a
fine thing to watch.
'Well,' Ephie said in the end, with snatches of breath, 'Well...how
come you here, Usaph?' She ran a finger down the fraying edge of
his jacket and over the coarse-stitched blue patches on his collar.
'It's cos of Winchester, Ephie.'
'Winchester's gone, Ephie.'
'Winchester?' she repeated. It was but a morning's ride north of
'When we left this morning,' said Usaph, 'there was people weeping
in the streets. But there ain't no avoiding it. Them Yankees are over
to Berryville and they're over the Ridge as well.'
Ephie looked about the kitchen as if the enemy could be expected to
turn up here at any moment.
'No, no,' Usaph said, laughing at her. 'Them Lincoln boys has a need
to rest at night, same as us mortals.'
Jackson's army, he told her, was settled down for the night some three
or four miles up the road, in the cold meadows astride the Valley
turnpike. Usaph had just gone up and had a talk to his officer, a
pleasant dentist called Guess, and had explained how his wife was
on her own at Strasbury, no male slave to help her out, no Bumpass
senior, only a sick old slave woman. He'd said he wanted to help
her put the horse in the dray and to set her travelling southwards
towards his Aunt Sarrie Muswell's in Bath County.
So Guess had let him go, but said he had to take a reliable man
with him. That was pretty wise of Guess. A husband might decide
to stay with his wife and ride with her all the way south. But the
husband's friend would say, no you can't do that, you must get back
'Why,' said Usaph, remembering, 'I fetched my friend Mr. Gus
Ramseur along with me.' He pointed out into the dark by the
'Good evening, Mrs. Bumpass,' called Gus in his half-Dutchy accent.
She saw Gus's quiet grin, and his greeting steamed up into the cold
air. She could tell he was a gentleman and scholar, like Usaph said
in his letters.
'Why, come in, Mr. Ramseur. Usaph's told me a heap about your cleverness.'
Gus entered the kitchen, walking dainty as a dancer past the couple
in the doorway. And now Usaph came in properly, setting his musket against the butter churn so that the door could be closed and the
perilous night kept out.
Ephie surveyed Gus Ramseur, who even in his dirty clothes and his
stained state moved and stood like a man who was used to working
indoors. Orderly little steps. Ephie thought he was a fine friend for
her spouse, the sort of friend Usaph deserved.
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