Charleston is an unforgiving city. Her arms embrace only those with the fortune to be born into families of the founding days. She is a proud Carolina who remembers her Victorian culture and does not forget, nor extend mercy, to those who will not live within her confines.
Of this, Emma was well aware as she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Weeks of disappointment flooded her face as she dabbed her eyes with Mother’s monogrammed handkerchief. She imagined she heard the four poster bed where she had been born seventeen years ago whisper.
“Don’t go, child. You will miss this stately mansion on Tradd Street and I will miss your nightly prayers beneath my covers.”
Emma thought her sadness had turned to insanity because she felt compelled to speak back.
“I must do what is necessary to escape an existence where I will feel as numb as being dead in the grave.”
Earlier, Emma had winced at the tangles caught in the brush as her mother stroked through her mass of chocolate curls.
“Mama, I cannot agree to live the entirety of my life with a man twice my age that I do not love. I beg you to make Papa send him away.”
Mother placed the brush on the vanity. “Your father arranged this marriage in good confidence and it is settled. You will grow to love him, as I did your father … in time.”
Alone with her misery, Emma remembered William’s promise. Confederate guns had fired shots from Fort Sumter and pushed the Civil War out of quiet conversations and into reality. She’d stood on the Battery and prayed William would not go forward with plans to enlist.
“I promise, sweet Emma, I’ll come back and when I do, I’ll ask your hand in marriage. It’s my duty to protect our great South.”
William was gone and Emma faced a prearranged life of serving tea from silver services into bone china cups with exactly two lumps of cane sugar to a man who expected her to bear his namesake and hostess his rice plantation. She quickly made her decision. She would leave Charleston. She knew a woman alone could not survive. Emma found the blue satin sewing box, then stood in front of her mirror and held scissors to her hair.
William Buford, relieved that the physical requirements were minimal, volunteered for service in the Confederate army. The exam consisted of checking for strong teeth to bite off a cartridge packet and a good hand to pull a trigger. Buford was a young man with a slight frame.
“Now don’t you worry, son, you’ll put some meat on those bones and soon be a man,” shouted his army buddies. Though teased mercilessly, Buford was respected for courage and sharp shooting. Praise came from General Beauregard.
“You’re the slightest of boys, but you kill them Yankees better than most men.”
The General ordered Buford’s troops to the main Rebel line. Fighting had raged since early morning at Bull Run. As the main line charged, they yelped a shrill call that was to become known as the “Rebel Yell.” The onslaught forced exhausted Union troops back. Buford hid tears as he sorted the wounded from the dead.
Despaired by the war, Buford prayed for an end to the slaughter of good men, both the Greys and the Blues.
Days later, a bullet pierced Buford’s worn grey jacket and entered near the heart. Medics peeled the bloody uniform from the wound. The war ended as William was lifted onto a makeshift gurney.
Emma Jane Pringle, forced to reveal her secret identity of William Buford, returned to Charleston. There, nursed by her mother, she recovered from the near fatal wound. Papa never spoke to her again. A young woman who had hidden her identity to become a soldier was not a desirable prospect for marriage and Emma remained single.
She stayed inside her home until dusk. Only then did she venture an evening walk from Tradd to King Street and back again, the stigma of an unacceptable act clinging to her.
Charleston is an unforgiving city.
The narrow tree lined streets of the city and the polished brass gates of the homes on the Battery remind tourists of more genteel days. Yet, as they walk along the cobblestones from Tradd to King Street in the evening, the shadows of trees turn into ghostly soldiers standing at attention.
During the civil War, women were not allowed to serve in the military. However, thousands of women disguised themselves as men and joined the troops of the North and the South for many reasons: a strong feeling of duty and honor; freedom from the restrictive Victorian existence of women; to follow an enlisted husband or fiancé.
They fought as men and were on guard at all times to conceal their true identity for fear of jail, negative stigma and ostracism by society.
Biography Channel: Full Metal Corset
First Battle of Bull Runhttp://www.us-civilwar.com
Mary’s World, Love, War and Families Ties in Nineteen Century Charleston,
Richard N. Cole
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