Mrs. Noland did not care much for the twelve apostles. Of course, she never told anyone that–how could you? But if you’re honest, you’d have to admit the apostles didn’t measure up too often. Here’s Peter sinking under the water because of his lack of faith. Here are James and John arguing over who gets to be on which hand of Jesus. There are all of them unable to cast out devils. And here we find them asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, blissfully unaware of all the prophecies. Of course, we have Peter denying the Lord thrice. But what really did it for her was the Resurrection.
Most of the men never understood it in Sunday School. In fact, they didn’t think even to try to understand it. What she wanted to say to all those men and preachers was, “Now, why do you suppose Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first? How is it that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the Lord’s mother came to be at the tomb to see the angels?”
Of course, a woman’s place was to be silent in church. So said that old fool, Paul. Of course, Paul hadn’t learned anything from the first apostles. When the women ran to tell them that the Lord was risen, those fishermen scoffed and said the women must have been telling “idle tales, and they believed them not.”
So Mrs. Noland had played her part. She had been silent in church. She had been part of society and hosted the luncheons and fundraisers for the different charities and causes over the years. She had raised six boys and two girls, and of course, she had managed the household that included at least ten house servants, while her husband, the boys, and the overseer had managed the more than one hundred black field hands. She never told Mr. Noland her thoughts, never said any of them to her sons or daughters. But she did tell the Gospel stories to Sarah. Sarah had grown up on the Galtney plantation in North Carolina, had learned there to be a ladies’ maid, and when Mr. Noland had married the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Galtney in Natchez, Mississippi, her father had given Sarah to them as a wedding present, along with two house girls and a field hand.
Mrs. Noland liked to talk to Sarah about the Gospels. She told her the Gospel stories, and at first, Sarah feigned ignorance, but Mrs. Noland knew better. She knew the Gospel stories were common among the servants, and she considered it her duty to help educate her servants in the faith. It was, after all, part of their responsibility to educate the lesser race, to bring them up from the ignorance they had come from in Africa and the islands.
Mrs. Noland had said to Sarah once, “Why do you suppose the Lord showed himself to the women first?”
“Now, Mrs. Noland, ma’am, we’s both knows the answer to that,” Sarah had said.
“Why, when you is sick, ma’am, whose you calls for?”
“You, of course,” Mrs. Noland had said.
“Mmm hmm, that’s right. Cuz I done been with you through youse growin up years and through youse maiden years and through youse babies and through all’s yo sickness. Mmm hmm. Youse goes to the people that was there for you. That’s what you do.”
“That’s right, Sarah,” Mrs. Noland had said. You see, even a Negro woman understood it whereas the wisest, wealthiest men in the South had no idea.
Mr. Noland went home to the Lord in 1857, and Pearce Jr. was running the plantation. Thomas, the headstrong second youngest, got swept up in secession talk, and after Manassas, he had joined the 21st Mississippi.
Tales of the War swept over the land, and Mrs. Noland sat at home with Sarah, throwing parties and raising money and making sure the house ran. And yet, it felt empty. Her boy could wind up bleeding somewhere on a battlefield while she was home sharing tea with old gossips and bemoaning the northern aggressors.
This is not what Jesus had said. He had said to give Him meat if He was hungry, drink if He was athirst; to visit Him in prison; to remember that when you do it to one of the least, you do it to Him. What could she do? Who could be the least? Why, all these young boys–from the best families and from the poorest–side by side on the battlefields being shot down in defense of their freedoms and their way of life! Like Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of the Lord, she could minister to them while they lay down their lives. Greater love had no man than this–to lay down his life for his friends! They were like the Lord; she had to be like the women who had ministered to the Lord.
Of course, her sons had not been happy. It was not a woman’s place. She might see things no lady should see. The doctors would never permit it. But she had looked Pearce, George, Avery, Henry, and Joseph in the eyes and said, “And if Thomas is injured, who would you like to have by his side? An overworked doctor or his mother?”
That had settled it–she had taken Sarah and old John with her. John had taken the luggage and helped her arrange wagons to and from the train stations. Sarah had helped her with all her normal duties, and now, Sarah helped prepare meals and wash laundry in the hospital while Mrs. Noland ministered to the men.
Her days were full of the horrors flowing back from The Battle of Shiloh to the Old Tishomingo Hotel in Corinth. Yes, she had been warned about these horrors, but she drew strength with each man she ministered to. With each look of pain she soothed, she imagined Thomas, somewhere in Virginia, finding relief from a Virginia mom. And she imagined that the Lord just might be one of these boys, testing her to see if she would really go down into the pit to minister to the least of these. She prayed with them as they neared the end; she dried tears and wrote letters home and held trembling hands; she washed off endless streams of blood, and she bandaged diseased and stinking wounds over and over and over. As she did, she imagined being next to that Garden Tomb, weeping, then hearing the Lord call her name. What a day that would be!
She served at the old hotel until the Yankee marauders were at the gates of the city. Finally, she agreed to move out of harm’s way with the hope that she could serve again later. As she planned to set out with Sarah and Old John, she felt a deep chest cough come on. Sick? Why of course she would get sick! The air in that old hotel barely circulated; it was full of foul odors and sickness. She had grown used to it, but that didn’t mean her body liked it.
So she, Sarah, and Old John stayed at the hotel across from the Tishomingo. She figured it would be a day or two and then they would get to the trains. She listened to periodic cannonading and occasional musket fire throughout two days. Her skin grew pale and clammy, the cough deepened, and she felt the telltale wheeze begin in her lungs.
In the morning of the third day of delay, she looked up at Sarah, feeling fever chills all over. “Sarah, come place your head against my chest and see if you hear the sickness in my lungs.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Sarah. She knelt beside the bed and leaned her ear against each side of Mrs. Noland’s ribs. She listened quietly, then pulled back and said, “Mrs. Noland, ma’am, I believe you have guessed right. But you such a good Christian lady, I think the Lord will bless you yet.”
Now Sarah was just saying things to be reassuring. She had to know better.
“No, Sarah. I verily believe that this will be it. I’m an old woman, and those dear boys have given me my death illness.”
“Oh, it can’t be, ma’am!” Sarah wailed. “Jesus got too much work for you, Mrs. Noland!”
Mrs. Noland shook her head. “No, the Lord has given me a great gift. He is going to allow me to die a martyr for the Cause. Me! A woman! A woman who has never seen a battlefield! Weep not for me, Sarah! I will go to the joy of my Lord knowing I gave my life for my family, my country, and my God!”
Tears streamed down Sarah’s face. “Why, Mrs. Noland, what will me and Ole John do? We is lost without you, ma’am!”
Mrs. Noland waved her off. “It doesn’t matter. The Lord will provide,” and she drifted off to sleep.
She lost all track of time, drifting in and out of sleep, fever wracking her body. At some point, she believed it was night. At another point, it seemed to be day. She struggled to breathe at times, coughed hard at other times, then settled into rumbling wheezes.
She couldn’t be sure how long she was in this transition state, but at one point, she awoke and knew the end was near. Old John was dozing on a rocking chair in the corner of the room. Sarah sat dutifully by her side holding a washcloth.
Mrs. Noland tilted her head toward Sarah. “I’m going now,” she said.
“Oh, not yet, Mrs. Noland,” said Sarah. Now, there were no tears. Sarah looked tired, the creases of age across her face, sweat trickling down the sides of her face.
“Tell my sons, my daughters,” said Mrs. Noland.
“Tell them what?” Sarah said.
What a stupid thing to say! Wasn’t it obvious?
“Tell them,” Mrs. Noland whispered.
“Tell them what, Elizabeth?” said Sarah.
Elizabeth? Sarah had never called her that her whole life. Her voice was strange–firm, cold. “I’m going,” Mrs. Noland said, rasping.
“You going where, Elizabeth?” said Sarah.
Mrs. Noland furrowed her brow. Why was this so hard? “The Lord. Tell them. The Lord. I’m going. The Lord.”
Sarah leaned close and looked into her eyes. “Tell them you going to the Lord?” she said, her voice tight, her face intense.
Mrs. Noland nodded. “Yes.”
Sarah leaned back. “I don’t know where you children are.”
How could this be? Mrs. Noland thought. Damn fool! Was she being impertinent? Now? After all these years?
“Home!” Mrs. Noland whispered.
“Where home?” said Sarah.
How could Sarah not know where home was? Was this a nightmare?
Mrs. Noland wanted to rise up, clear her throat, make it clear. But she had no strength and almost no breath. “Home! Home!”
“Now, Mr. Johnson,” said Sarah.
Old John crossed the room and handed Sarah a pillow, then returned to his rocking chair. Sarah placed the pillow in her lap.
“I got no home, Mrs. Noland,” Sarah said. “I don’t know where my own kids are. Maybe you could remember where my kids went?”
Her kids? What was she talking about?
“I make you a deal,” said Sarah. “You tell me where you sent my kids, and I take yo wishes to yo kin.”
Was she bargaining? Now? After all these years? How dare she!
“Time’s short, ma’am,” said Sarah.
Mrs. Noland panted and struggled to understand. Her head ached, and she strained to live a few moments longer, to understand what was happening.
“Of course, you have to know why he kep Sarah Elizabeth,” Sarah said. “Yo husband. You know why he kep her, right?”
Mrs. Noland tried to shake her head but felt nearly paralyzed.
“Let’s not pretend no mo, ma’am. Not at the hour of yo death. The light-skinned girl. The one child he lef me. You must know why, right?”
Mrs. Noland tried to move her lips but no sound came.
“Sarah Elizabeth I call her,” Sarah said. “My name and yo name. She done grew up right in yo house. My name and yo name.”
The light in the room swirled, and darkness closed in on her. Then suddenly, Mrs. Noland was back on her plantation. The door to one of the tiny shacks was open. Her son and the overseer were in the doorway.
“The two boys,” said her son. “And the dark girl.”
The overseer stepped in and brought three children out, all somewhere between ages nine and thirteen.
“The light girl, too?” said the overseer.
George shook his head. “No. Pa says leave the light-skinned girl.”
The overseer chuckled. “Not a good idea.”
“Bring the other three,” said George, turning back to the wagon in front of the shack.
The overseer followed with the three. Mrs. Noland’s view moved inside the shack where Sarah slumped on her knees in the middle of the floor. Sarah grabbed a coarse pillow, placed it between her teeth, and screamed, the tears spilling out the sides of her eyes. In the corner, a dark-haired, fair-skinned girl with blue eyes and large cheekbones stared in silence. She could not have been more than five, and of course, Mrs. Nolan knew Sarah Elizabeth.
Mrs. Noland blinked fiercely, trying to bring the light of the room back. For a moment, it returned. Directly above her was the pillow from Sarah’s lap.
“I guess you never kep track where they went,” said Sarah. “I guess yo kin won’t know nothin about you neither.”
Mrs. Noland moved her lips but nothing came out.
“I could just let you go on yo own,” Sarah said. “But I want you to know it was me. Cuz I done lived my whole life knowing that you knew.”
The pillow suddenly covered Mrs. Noland’s nose and mouth. She was powerless. The last thing she heard was Sarah’s voice: “If youse in heaven after this, Elizabeth, there ain’t no hell.”
Like almost all women in Kate Cumming’s record, Mrs. Noland gets no first name. Kate notes that she is from Natchez, Mississippi, and she admires Mrs. Noland’s tender care for many wounded soldiers. They part ways after their service in Corinth, and later, Kate learns that Mrs. Noland died of illness shortly after her service. Kate speculates that Mrs. Noland acquired the illness through her service (probably accurate).
The best fit in the records is Elizabeth Jane (Galtney) Noland. She appears to have lived most of her adult life in Warren, Mississippi, near Vicksburg, though her marriage was in Adams County, the county of Natchez. The Nolands were upper class planters with household wealth of more than $20,000. They also held more than one hundred enslaved persons.
This story is entirely fictional. The practice of dividing enslaved families was both common and tragic. The tendency of masters to have mulatto children was also common. There is no documented evidence of this in the Noland family; the story is purely for literary effect. The Mrs. Noland I believe to be the best fit is listed in most genealogies as having died in 1858, though Find-a-Grave notes that the date is approximate. I think the case is fairly compelling that this Mrs. Noland lived into the Civil War time period and died as Kate Cumming stated. The chaos surrounding Shiloh plus the siege of her home area of Vicksburg may have made it difficult to tend to normal grieving processes like registering her death, carving her headstone, etc. It’s from this that I drew the idea of the story–wondering if she passed while in transit back to her home, thinking on who would have been with her, etc.