BY: REX BURNS
Young, but newly widowed, Lydia Sensabaugh struggles to make a living on her farm. Her husband had attempted to revitalize the worn-out soil with new chemicals. But he died of swamp fever before his experiment could be proven. Now, in 1861, the farm’s quiet isolation is invaded—first by mysterious lights and nighttime trespassers then by rumors of secession and war. When the Union Army occupies the Delmarva Peninsula, Lydia finds herself drawn into the conflict between Rebel and Loyalist neighbors. Adding to the social complexity and tangle of emotions, she finds herself attracted to a Union officer who has classified her as “the enemy,” but with whom she develops a deepening epistolary courtship. She learns hard lessons of war by following news of the bloody fighting on the Mainland, by participating in the dangerous activity of smuggling supplies to Lee’s army, and by witnessing the war’s effects on hospitalized soldiers in the Federal City of Washington. As the war grinds on, her world reflects the age’s philosophical shift from Emerson to Social Darwinism, and promises outcomes that are both unclear and terrifying…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Into Enemy Arms by Rex Burns, Lydia Sensabaugh is a young widow in Virginia in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War. Struggling to survive on a worn-out farm her husband was hoping to revitalize with chemical fertilizer before he died of swamp fever, Lydia eeks out a living with the help of two hired workers—a young house girl and a male farm hand. When war comes to Virginia, Lydia’s life become immensely more difficult as Union soldiers conscript her one plow horse and beat her farm hand. Now Lydia is left with only the house girl to try and raise enough food to get her through the winter. As the war drags on, Lydia forms an unlikely relationship with a Union officer. Lonely, isolated, and struggling for survival, Lydia is torn between the Southern sympathies of her neighbors and the northern man she has fallen in love with.
Well written and incredibly detailed, the story paints a poignant picture of the hard life women of that era lived, even when there wasn’t the added complication of war. A compelling read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Into Enemy Arms by Rex Burns is the story of one woman’s courage in the face greed, corruption, and war. The year is 1861 and Lydia Sensabaugh is newly widowed and left to work a farm in the marshlands of Virginia. Her husband had hoped to bring the farm back to life with brand new chemical fertilizers from DuPont that he was sure would make the land productive again. But he died before he could accomplish his mission, leaving his young wife to fend for herself. With the threat of war looming on the horizon, Lydia struggles to raise enough produce for her household and to sell for cash to obtain other necessities. Her lot in life worsens when the Union army “conquers” Virginia and starts “requisitioning” food and livestock the people need to survive. When they take her only horse, Lydia must plow her fields by hand with a shovel and a hoe, back-breaking work even for a man. Lonely for affection and compassion, Lydia is drawn to a young Union officer, and their courtship makes Lydia a traitor in the eyes of her Confederate neighbors, who make her life a living hell.
A compelling and touching story, Into Enemy Arms has a ring of truth that is rare in historical novels. Burns’s knowledge of the past and his vivid descriptions pull you right into the story and make you feel like you are there in the scene. This is one you will want to read again and again.
Virginia, March 1861:
In the chill, moonless night, a thick mist glided up Fowler Inlet from Chesapeake Bay toward the isolated farmhouse. Star-lit, gray tendrils slid between the spears of marsh grass, then over the old pier, and low across the lawn to reach for the shadowed porch. But that wasn’t what the two women stared at through the dark parlor window. Somewhere beyond the two bare masts of the Lydia rising out of the blanket of mist, a pair of yellow lights hung motionless where none should be. Against the dark, wooded shore of Fowler Creek, they flickered steadily side-by-side. Then suddenly they were gone, to leave only icy stars and the pale layer of damp mist moving even closer to Marshfield Farm.
Two mornings later, the lights haunted Lydia Sensabaugh’s thoughts as she labored in her kitchen garden.
Her maid, before leaving on her annual long visit home, had assured Lydia that the lights must have come from a fishing boat or coon hunters. “Maybe it was some yahoos trying to frighten a widow because of all that war talk and such,” she had sniffed before walking down the sandy lane that led inland through the woods. “There’s some think that kind of thing’s funny.”
Lydia accepted that possibility, too, but nonetheless she did mention the lights to her hired hand, Roger Bradshaw, and last night she had watched again. But no more lights appeared—just mist gliding shoreward through stalks of cordgrass.
She pushed away the troubling thoughts about lights and, tucking an escaping strand of light brown hair under her sun bonnet, focused on this day’s chore. The corner of her hoe scraped gently around pale, fragile sprouts lifting to the early March warmth of a clear sky. The pitted blade, freshly filed by Roger, sliced at weeds stealing life from the seedlings and worked Mr. Dupont’s chemical fertilizer into the soil. Though her shoulders were tired and the small of her back ached, she found the work satisfying. It was good to be outside in the early spring air, and even better to see how well these cool-weather plants responded to the powder she had carefully measured from the kegs that Franklin, her husband, stored in the barn not long before his death. The success of this chemical would justify his faith in scientific agriculture as well as their dream of bringing new life to the old soil of this farm.
The rhythmic strokes of her hoe, the warmth of the sun, the drift of her thoughts so lulled her consciousness that she heard nothing until a near-by voice startled her: “Mrs. Sensabaugh?”
Jerking erect, she saw a horse and rider silhouetted in the glare. “Is that you, Mr. Carswell?”
“Your servant, ma’am.” Carswell lifted his broad straw hat. Sunlight glinted in the gold of his heavy eyebrows. Carefully trimmed mustaches of the same tint framed his mouth and narrow goatee. “Might I interrupt your chores for a few minutes? I was riding my property and thought to stop by.”
“It’s no interruption, sir, but a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is entirely mine.” He smiled as his eyes took in the hint of her figure beneath the faded black of the widow’s dress. Then he leaned forward, saddle creaking. “What’s that you’re putting into your garden?”
“A chemical from the Dupont mills. It brings good growth—if used judiciously.”
“Ah, yes—your husband’s famous chemical fertilizer! He used to speak of it often. Very often.” Carswell nodded toward Roger and Star plowing in the distant field. “Do you use it on your crops as well?”
“I intend to, yes.”
“Think it will keep your crop through a late frost? You’re planting mighty early.”
Slapping dust from her stained gardening apron, she tried to keep her voice pleasant as she leaned the hoe against a fence rail. “I believe it is worth a try.” She untied the strings of her bonnet, and her hair, streaked light by the sun, fell loose around her shoulders as if her mother had never taught her to braid. No doubt her dress had unseemly dark patches of perspiration as well, but she hoped that at least the dark cloth hid from the man’s eyes the fact that she wore no stays. “I’m sure you’re thirsty, sir—I certainly am.”
“You’re most kind.”
Polished boots swung down from the creaking saddle as the high-spirited horse danced under the motion. Parnell Carswell—”Nellie” to neighboring farmers who muttered behind his back—tucked his riding crop between saddle and blanket as Lydia led man and horse to the front of the house. Tying the animal to the hitching rail, he followed Lydia up worn brick steps to the wide porch that faced Fowler Creek and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.
“I hope you are well, ma’am, on this beautiful day.” Even in his riding boots the man was short—scarcely two inches taller than Lydia herself—and walked with a spine held unnaturally straight to gain a fraction of height.
“I am, thank you. And Mrs. Carswell and your family?” She held open the door to the front parlor.
His answer was a curt nod. Information about him and his family was not given just for the asking. “Mrs. Carswell sends her regards.”
If true, it would be the first time that Mrs. Carswell recognized Lydia’s existence since a formal expression of sympathy at Franklin’s funeral half a year ago. But Lydia nodded in return. “And mine to her, please.”
“Certainly. Of course.” He waited for her to sit in one of the two armchairs she had angled on her mother’s carpet to capture the view.
“Please, sir, sit down. I’ll be but a moment—Gretchen is with her family for a few days.”
“My apologies, ma’am. I assumed your servants were at hand. Kindly take no trouble for me.”
“It is no trouble, sir. Please be seated.”
She returned with a freshly wiped face, a clean apron, and her thick hair quickly gathered down her back by a black ribbon. A small Japan ware tray held a silver pitcher of water chilled in the icehouse crock, as well as the crystal whiskey decanter and glasses—freshly wiped of dust—that had been a wedding gift from Franklin’s parents. Setting the tray on the table between the chairs, she invited her guest to mix his drink to his own taste. He did—light on water, heavy on bourbon—and lifted his glass. “Your health, ma’am.”
She raised her glass of water. “And to yours, sir.”
He sipped and gazed through the window. The lawn, scythed last autumn and still brown from winter, led his eye to the short pier and the Lydia moored beside it. Its bow pointed to the creek’s channel that wound through a broad stretch of dark green cordgrass dotted here and there by white egrets. On the horizon, the open waters of Chesapeake Bay glinted in the sun. “A beautiful prospect, Mrs. Sensabaugh. I have always thought it the most valuable asset of this farm.”
She smiled wryly. “So far, it has been.”
“I assumed your husband bought Marshfield solely for this view. I did not realize he intended to farm it. Had he asked me, I would have advised him that this land is no good. Tobacco, ma’am—like so many farms on the Eastern Shore, this soil has been leached of life by tobacco.”
Again, she tried to keep defensiveness from her voice. “Mr. Sensabaugh believed the new chemical fertilizer would revivify the soil.”
“Yes, but—an unproven experiment.”
Lydia corrected him. “A yet-unproven experiment, Mr. Carswell.”
His eyebrows bobbed upward at her tone. Then he smiled politely. “I hope it proves successful. Truly, I do.”
“Thank you.” Lydia, too, smiled as she wondered if Carswell had come the long half-mile down her lane merely to insult her dead husband’s hopes as well as her attempts at husbandry. Seldom did anyone come to the end of her lane without a reason, even when Franklin was alive. The only regular visitor their entire first year had been the post rider, Mr. Henderson. Two Thursdays a month, the owner of Henderson’s Sundries Store had turned off the high road that linked the villages of New Church and Modest Town to follow the wagon track a mile or so across Carswell property, and then the final half-mile to Marshfield. Until Franklin decided to save the cost of delivery by going himself to Henderson’s store.
After that, visitors were occasional and rare, counted on one hand: Mr. Carswell, Mrs. Brown from her neighboring farm, the agricultural drummer Mr. Curtis.
The man freshened his drink. “We have missed you at church lately, Mrs. Sensabaugh.”
It would not do to say that her trips to Franklin’s grave were made in mid-week to avoid the Reverend Mr. Abbott’s fiery sermons against abolitionists. “I apologize for being derelict. But I will attend Easter ceremonies.” She spoke to what she assumed was the reason for his visit: “You may count on my subscription for the coming year—the same as last.”
Carswell’s grandfather had donated a quarter acre at Messongo Crossroads for the church when it had been Anglican and he had been a British subject. Carswell inherited his family’s position as lay leader of what, over time and through wars against the British and Awakenings against sin, had become a Methodist congregation. “I will note your subscription with pleasure, ma’am. But it’s your counsel we have missed. We debate whether to join Methodists in other Southern states in separation. The abolitionists have influence not only among Northern congregations, but also in our own corner of Accomack County.” He frowned, “We, of course, allow them their beliefs, but they deny us the same courtesy.”
“I trust you’ll not follow the Baptist Church in separation,” she murmured.
The troublesome words Separation, Division, Secession rumbled like distant thunder in conversations and appeared more and more frequently in the newspapers she found at Henderson’s.
“It becomes less and less honorable to accept insults from the North. If Virginia must choose between union and self-determination, what then? Our congregation, like Virginia herself, is divided on this matter. Tempers among the brethren are running high.”
Her parents’ denomination had been Protestant Episcopal, as Anglicanism came to be called after the first war against Britain. If such a congregation met near Marshfield, she would be a member still. But she did not want to insult Mr. Carswell by implying that, to her, any church could be an avenue toward God. “Perhaps tempers should be cooled by love between brethren—especially brethren in the Prince of Peace.”
Carswell tilted his head. “Spoken like the gentlewoman you are. But surely you have an opinion about where our congregation should stand on separation? This is a religious issue, after all, and not a thing that should be rendered unto Caesar.”
“Since we are children of one God, I hope it does not come to separation. Surely a God of love is not a God of war.”
The man studied her face for some hidden meaning. Then his eyes blinked. “Well said. But each must follow his own conscience.” He smiled again, lean cheeks creasing beside the wings of his mustaches. Apparently, his conscience was beyond further debate. He abruptly changed subjects. “But my purpose in visiting is less ecclesiastical than worldly.”
“Of this harsh and cold world, yes.” His hand waved at the pier and boat and slough. “I wonder if you have noticed anything out of the ordinary in your vicinity.”
“Out of the ordinary? No. Fishing boats occasionally coast along the shore, but the slough’s always deserted.”
“So you’ve seen nothing untoward?”
She hesitated. “I did see some lights.”
He leaned forward. “Recently?”
“Two nights past.”
“Two nights.” He sipped at his glass. “And you saw boats?”
“No. Just two lights. The mist over the water hid any boats.” She added, “We—Gretchen and I—assumed it was night fishermen.”
He frowned at the film of dust on the toe of his boot.
“Why are you so interested, Mr. Carswell?”
“Because these are interesting times, Mrs. Sensabaugh. And promise to be more so.”
She considered his meaning. “Do you suspect the presence of abolitionists?”
“Run-away slaves do come over from the western shore. They go up the peninsula to Philadelphia or to Delaware Bay and cross into Jersey. My overseer has seized several in our region, and where some have been caught, others must have escaped.” He added grimly, “Misguided sympathizers in our county provide them assistance.”
“I’m sure if they were escapees, there would have been no lights at all.”
“Yes. Of course.” He gazed out the window. “Well, the lights you speak of must have been used to lure fish into a boat’s nets.”
Lydia, too, studied the distant gleam of the Bay. Talk of the lights stirred the memory of another disquieting issue. “I’ve heard you think to raise a company of soldiers, Mr. Carswell.”
“Cavalry, not infantry—and only if necessary. Should the burghers withdraw Virginia from the Union, we must be ready to defend our sacred soil. I’m proud to say that Carswells have supported Virginia in wars against the French as well as the British. Several of my immediate family served with Lighthorse Harry Lee.”
“Does Sheriff Hope sanction your action?”
“We have a Constitutional guarantee of the right to assemble as well as the right to bear arms! Sheriff Hope has no authority over those actions. Moreover, since his support of abolition is well known, he will no doubt be turned out of office—either in the next election or when Virginia secedes.”
“I pray that will not occur, sir.”
“I truly hope Virginia will not join the secession. However, the North does not realize that a state’s rights precede federal rights. This Lincoln talks of a war to preserve the Union. But he has rejected the Crittenden Compromise, and his party has derided all efforts at fair and equable conciliation. Massachusetts herself, madam, spoke in favor of secession not twenty years past! Now they hypocritically condemn it. The fact is, each state has a God-given right to take back its sovereignty just as they individually declared independence from the British crown. Just as they individually contributed their sons to the struggle. Just as they individually elected to join the Union!”
“And the issue of slavery?” She should not have said that—Mr. Carswell was a guest.
“Abolitionists have made that an issue! You, madam, are too young to remember that twenty-five years ago, the Virginia legislature considered an emancipation bill. But because it called for gradual and not immediate emancipation, militant and intrusive Yankee abolitionists stirred up so much antagonism to the bill that the vote was never called! With me, however, slavery is not an issue. It is an historical fact. If radicals such as William Lloyd Garrison would stop thumping their Bibles long enough to read them, they would discover that slavery is ordained by God! The Kings of Israel had their slaves awarded by God Himself!” He caught the anger building in his voice and stopped abruptly to cool his tongue with a long drink and a deep breath. “I do apologize, Mrs. Sensabaugh, for my intemperate tone. Ladies should not be subjected to fulminous speech nor to explosive topics—especially when their sentiments may be opposed to the speaker’s. I hope you will accept my apology.”
“An apology for speaking the truth as you see it is not needed.” She could not help but add, “You, of course, own a number of slaves, and I understand that abolition would cost you dearly.”
He slowly drained his glass then stood, hat slapping his thigh. “I do have responsibility for twenty servants. But the issue is one of personal belief, not mere lucre. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in a free people’s self-determination. And I believe Nigras are ordained by the Almighty to be slaves for their own good. One need only look at the poor condition of the freedmen in Jack Town—not three miles from this very room—to see their need for guidance.” He paused on the porch. “You choose not to own slaves, perhaps because you do not believe in the institution.” He waited to see if she would respond. “Or simply cannot afford them.” Letting that barb sink in, he went on. “However, I trust that neighbors can respect each other’s beliefs.” His voice hardened, “as well as each other’s property.” And then it softened: “Certainly, I remain a friend to one who is a neighbor and a recent widow. And whose youth has limited her understanding of the world.”
The best she could manage was to speak mildly and hold out her hand. “We can agree to disagree.”
The coldness in his eyes told her it was not enough. But not to be outdone in manners, he accepted her gesture and forced a smile. “That’s what makes horse races and politics.” Squaring his hat, he tugged his steed away from the hitching rail. In the saddle, he looked at the farmhouse, the vegetable garden, the barn and outbuildings, and beyond toward Roger plowing the field, before turning back to her. “It is best to be cautious in times as restless as these, Mrs. Sensabaugh. Should abolitionists be active in the Pocomoke estuary, they could well be tempted by this landing and its isolation. Certainly you would not wish to risk loss of your farm by abetting their illegal actions, either through ignorance—or through misguided willingness. Good day.”
© 2017 by Rex Burns
NY Literary Magazine:
“Burns does an excellent job of telling a truly engrossing story and vividly capturing the sounds, sights, and smells of nineteenth-century Virginia. Strong characterization, deep world-building, and believable dialogue make this book stand out. Brilliantly written, this gripping page-turner will keep readers enthralled until the last page.” ~ NY Literary Magazine