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Excerpt from Answering Liberty’s Call

Anna Asbury Stone worries about her soldier husband, but she doesn't shrink from putting herself in danger as she strikes out alone on horseback to bring aid to him at Valley Forge.

Fauquier County, Virginia

January 5, 1778

My cousins Mollie and Nancy gathered around my aunt Jean at the pianoforte, and as the opening chords of the ballad “Turtle Dove” tore at my heart, I picked up baby William and dodged my mother’s restraining hand.

“Anna, stay and listen to the music.”

“He needs his napkin changed.”

“Do you forget we have servants for that?”

“Don’t trouble Phillis or Lynn, Mother. I’ll do it.” My cousins’ voices drifted after me as I hurried from the room.

Fare you well, my dear, I must be gone, and leave you for a while; if I roam far away, I’ll come back again, though I roam ten thousand miles, my love…

Upstairs, I shut my chamber door to muffle the rest of the song, hugged William close, and fought back tears. No letters, no word from Benjamin in two months. Most of the time I could bear his absence, but tonight I missed him so keenly I was terrible company. Time spent changing little William’s napkin would grant me a short respite from my family’s Twelfth Night celebration.

Our baby son’s dark hair and bright brown eyes resembled his father’s, and when he smiled, my warring feelings of joy and sadness threatened to overwhelm me. How I would have preferred to be at home, with just Benjamin and our children. Instead, he was somewhere in Pennsylvania with the army, and the children and I were in exile at my uncle’s house. Our young ones had no memory of fat turkeys, mistletoe, and simple, cozy holidays spent at our dear little home near the apple orchard. The house stood empty and forlorn for a second winter. My own memories were fading.

The baby chortled as I kissed his little feet in their knitted booties. “Your father will be so excited to meet you when he comes home, my sweet boy.” When that would be, I could not say. Though it was like picking a wound that wouldn’t heal, my eyes strayed to the ribbon-bound packet of letters on the escritoire. Better to stay in my chamber, where it was quiet, and re-read every one of Benjamin’s letters.

I had long been under the spell of my husband’s words. Most of our courtship was conducted by correspondence, and even now, after ten years of marriage, his writing and oratory skills kept their hold on me. In the pulpit, he had the power to lift a congregation. In an ordinary, he could raise a mug of ale and inflame the passions that drove men to seek political change. I often faded into the background of his public life, just as he let me tend to mine without interference. But at home, we treasured our intellectual discourse. It was one of the many facets of our marriage that bound us, one to the other. At home, we were equals.

I suppose that was why his decision not to consult me before arranging for me to live here, at Uncle’s, still hurt.

***

I hadn’t protested when Benjamin enlisted in the Culpeper Minute Men in the fall of 1775, for it was every able-bodied man’s duty to serve in the militia. He’d been delighted—far more than I, to be honest—when the Virginia Assembly called the Minute Men to defend the arsenal at Williamsburg just before Christmastide. When he’d returned three months later, I’d made it plain that I hoped he’d had his fill of soldiering. But he was restless, and a chasm formed between us that had not existed before. Even though Governor Dunmore’s expulsion from the colony had restored peace to Virginia, Benjamin would not be content until the unrest in all the colonies was resolved.

I had quailed with fear the previous spring when the main army attached his militia unit to one of the Virginia regiments. But months passed, and when his situation changed little despite the escalating conflict, my trepidation faded. Benjamin attended drill practices, as he had since the age of sixteen. When disaffected Loyalists from Virginia’s tidewater coast arrived in Fauquier County, he took his turn guarding the detainees.

Often, after long days spent in the fields or the orchards, he rode off after supper to spend a few hours at Edwards’ Ordinary in nearby Fauquier Court House. There, he and his fellows followed the news of the continuing rebellion in the north and rejoiced in the daring exploits of the Sons of Liberty.

Unsure how to make him understand my worry, I settled for pointing out it did not look well when a preacher spent more time in the ordinary than in church.

One October evening, Benjamin was unusually quiet as he cleaned his rifle. Even after the children were in bed, he continued to polish the barrel in silence. This was our time for conversation, and I waited for him to speak his mind. When he rose and hung the rifle on its pegs over the door, I could hold my tongue no longer. “What troubles you?”

“I’m not troubled—just trying to decide how to tell you.”

As it happened, I had news for him, too. At the children’s bedroom door, my keen mother’s ear discerned Rhoda and Elijah breathing in unison. I took my shawl off its peg. “Come for a walk with me.”

Outside, our shadows melted into the darkness between the rows of gnarled apple trees that marched across our orchard’s hills. When the climb to the ridge grew steep, he took my hand, steadying me until we stood together on high ground. Here the Blue Ridge Mountains rolled away to the east, the north, and the south. To the west, the last rays of the setting sun turned the horizon orange and pink. Silhouetted against the fading light, his profile put me in mind of a Roman emperor I’d seen in a book, and it tinged my surge of affection with foreboding. I’d married a farmer. A preacher. I had not expected him to become a warrior. “Do you remember the day you asked Uncle for my hand?”

He chuckled. “If I recall, you tried to put me off. You said that you had but a small measure of liberty, which you’d lose as soon as you expressed tender feelings for someone.”

“You argued I needn’t fear losing my liberty and promised our marriage would be an equal partnership.”

“I was so smitten I’d have promised you anything. But have I not kept my word?”

“Since we wed, I’ve wanted for nothing and feared nothing as long as you were beside me.”

“And have I not encouraged you to use your skills as a healer?”

“Yes, just as we agreed, we tend to the spiritual and the physical health of our community.”

He paused and sighed before he continued. “The Department of Safety has dissolved my unit out of the Continental Line and back into the militia.”

My heart leapt at this turn of fate. “So—”

He cut me off, speaking in a rush. “I enlisted as a regular.”

“No!” My heart plummeted like a bird shot out of the air.

“It would mean payment and a pension, not just volunteering.”

“How could you make such a decision without asking me?”

“The army needs men skilled with rifles and artillery. Many of my fellows from the Minute Men have also joined the Line.”

“Then let them go. You’re needed here, at home.” Swallowing did nothing to force down the lump in my throat. “I didn’t object when you joined the Minute Men, but now I cannot help but believe you prefer soldiering above everything else—including me and the children. Do you prefer it above your calling, too?”

He put his hands on my shoulders, holding me at arm’s length. Though I couldn’t see his face in the darkness, the hurt in his voice was clear. “I soldier to win liberty and the freedom to worship as we choose. I can’t ask the men of my flock to do what I refuse to do myself. How can I abandon a course of action that will make it possible to realize all my other dreams? When I promised I wouldn’t seek to own you or hobble you, I believed you’d grant me the same concession.”

“I do, but I am still a wife who fears losing her husband.”

He pulled me against his chest, and his lips brushed my hair as he spoke. “I vow you shan’t lose me, Anna.”

“You cannot make such a vow, for you can’t know what comes on the morrow.”

“I daresay I do. We’ve been assigned to Stirling’s Brigade in the Third Virginia Regiment. They’ll be calling us up in a few days.”

A sob escaped my lips. “The last time, you left when Elijah was a babe. This time, you’ll leave while I’m with child—and you’ll be gone for a year or more.”

His hand sought my still-flat stomach. “Really? When do you expect?”

“In the spring. April.”

His whoop rang out across the hills. He swung me around and smothered me with kisses until I forgot everything I’d planned to say. When he took me to bed later, it was with a passion that recalled a night the previous summer, after he’d read the newly signed Declaration of Independence aloud to the congregation. That, I suspected, was the night he’d gotten this child on me. No doubt he was as well pleased about the pregnancy as I, but it was foolish to hope the news would alter his course.

I’d assumed we’d take the matter up again the next day, but Benjamin left early. When he returned in the afternoon, he was driving a borrowed wagon. I came out on the porch, Elijah on my hip.

“What’s this about?”

He jumped down. “I paid a visit to your uncle and expressed my worry about leaving you alone with two little ones while you expect. He offered to have you return to live with them while I’m away. We can move your things and the stock over tomorrow.”

I put my hand over my belly, my trembling voice conveying my hurt. “You didn’t think to discuss this with me either? We decide about the children—and our lives—together.”

“It’s best for you and the babe.”

“Nay, Benjamin. I shall stay here, near Betsy and Thomas. I’ll want Betsy when my travail comes, and between your brothers and your father, the chores—”

“You cannot. Thomas is planning to enlist, and Baylis is too—so there will be no able-bodied men about. My father’s too feeble to help, and you know everything’s just going to get more difficult as your time approaches. Noah is old enough to handle Thomas’s chores, but it’s too much to expect a twelve-year-old lad to tend to his father’s farm and then do for his aunt and grandfather, too.”

He was only trying to see to my comfort, and I cast about for the right words to express my dismay. “But we’ve had so little contact with my family since we married. I know I must set aside old disagreements, but to live under their roof is out of the question. I warrant Aunt Jean still does not think us properly wed.”

“Your aunt’s opinion about the legitimacy of our Baptist practices didn’t matter when we married, and it doesn’t matter now. Your mother seemed pleased and bade me tell you everyone is looking forward to seeing you and the little ones.”

But I sighed at the thought of living with my relatives.

And so, the presence of my extended family diluted the remaining time with Benjamin. We spent our last night together in the large four-poster bed in the chamber I now shared with the children. Though I longed to receive him with an ardor that would bind us to one another even as the miles between us increased, our lovemaking felt furtive and restrained. We were not used to having the children asleep at the foot of the bed and all the rest of the family within earshot.

Long after he fell asleep, sated, I lay watching the flicker of the dying flames on the hearth. Already, I missed him and the liberty I had enjoyed as mistress of my own, albeit modest, home.

***

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