“We began the dress on the last evening in October.” For three sisters, it will become a banner of hope, spun from delicate memories of genteel tradition and woven with threads of possibility. Through the desolate landscape of winter, it will act as a beacon of unexpected fortune and faith in a world void of promise. It will inspire the noble heart that lies dormant beneath layers of grief. Together, the stalwart ladies of Oak Creek, Virginia will fashion their impossible dreams into . . .
THE WEDDING DRESS
Virginia Renfro Ellis’s extraordinary work of historical fiction evokes the tattered essence of the post-Civil War South, where widows, children, and scarred veterans were left to reconstruct a country. There is little to wish for in the lives of the Atwater women. Julia and Victoria were barely brides before their husbands marched off with the doomed Confederate army. Now alone, with scarcely enough money to see them through until spring, they embark on an impetuous mission to bring a sparkle of joy back into their youngest sister’s eyes. Seventeen-year-old Claire has always wanted to be married. And though she has no intended groom, her sisters decide to sew her a wedding gown.
As the dress takes shape, the gates of their meager plantation home welcome the arrival of Sergeant Monroe Tacy. He has come to fulfill a dying man’s last request, but his presence begins a series of remarkable events that will transform the Atwater sisters forever.
The Wedding Dress is an unforgettable lesson in hope, written with the natural simplicity and beauty of a born storyteller.
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Award-winning author Virginia Renfro Ellis has written a dozen romance novels under the name of Lyn Ellis, and her literary short stories have been included in collections of modern southern writers. Her books have been translated into ten languages. She is also a founding partner of BelleBooks, a small press devoted to publishing the unique voices of southern women.
Like most native southerners, Virginia has a deep and abiding interest in the Civil War and, like women everywhere, she is fascinated by the war’s effect on the wives and families who were left behind. As Virginia herself notes: “As a writer, and as a war widow (my husband died in Vietnam), I am inherently drawn to the quiet tragedies and triumphs of women who lost their men forever. The result is The Wedding Dress.”
The war has been over for six months, yet the dream came again last night. I’d thought it left me, after plaguing me for two years without mercy, then inexplicably stopping. But as I lay motionless in the darkness, alone, eyes wide open, held prisoner by the familiar overwhelming sadness, I remember.
It is my wedding day. And in the dream William stands tall and handsome at my side proudly wearing his lieutenant’s uniform of the 24th Virginia. In this welcome glimpse of the past, my William, my husband to be, looks fearsome and beautiful, so alive and in a fever to claim me as wife before going to war. The beloved vision of him breaks my heart. Because I know what comes next. I remember the weary path of this dream well. What comes next is that as I stand there, in front of family and friends—half of Patrick County—on the happiest day of my life, I look down at my beautiful, heirloom wedding dress, the same gown my mother wore to pledge her life to my father, and see that it is covered in blood.
The blood of war and mortal men. Of broken dreams and severed vows.
You see, I am the middle child of three, all of us girls. Our duty, and the best we could do for ourselves and our family was to marry well, have fine, healthy children, be obedient wives, and good Christians. So far, my sisters and I had failed on every count beyond marriage. My elder sister, Victoria, should have married first, but when I met William and fell heels over head in love, my father thought it circumspect to marry us before our passion got out of hand. William’s family agreed. So, I was the first to take the vows, to become Lieutenant Mrs. William Lovejoy, wearing my mother’s dress.
So much has happened since then.
Victoria did marry, six months after me. My parents were still with us then and even though our fortunes were slimmer, I believe they were proud of her choice. My sister’s husband, James Whitmore, touched our lives only briefly. Of good family, but little wealth, he, too, marched off to defend the South from the Unionists. Very few months after his departure he was reported missing and presumed dead following the battle of Chickamauga. We never heard from him again.
In a way I was luckier than Victoria. I knew what had happened to my William. He’d made arrangements with his men that they should get word to me if something unfortunate occurred and his men honored him by keeping their promise. I received a letter from a Sergeant Tacy saying that William had died on the third of July in Pennsylvania at a place called Gettysburg, serving bravely under General Longstreet. The names and places meant little to me then—Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. What meant more was that Sergeant Tacy had written to say my husband’s last words had been of me.
And now the dream was back. Why? I had come to terms with fate and the past the best I could through prayer, hard work, and sacrifice. Lying in the dark listening to the mockers and the house sparrows beginning to stir, I couldn’t fathom the reason.
Then, I heard a woman weeping.
For one silly moment I thought the sound had originated from me, or was a spectral echo of the nights I had cried myself to sleep. Rising and turning my head, however, helped me find the source. The mournful sobs were coming through the wall, from my younger sister, Claire’s room. I lit a lamp and went to investigate.
“What is it, Sweet?” I lowered myself onto the side of Claire’s bed and pushed the damp hair out of her eyes. At seventeen years, Claire was already a beauty like our mother, with fair hair and china blue eyes, blooming even in so spare a garden as our small, out-of-the-way plantation, Oak Creek.
Claire pulled away from my comfort and sobbed louder.
“Are you ill?” I was beginning to worry. We were far from any doctor and had precious little money to pay one.
She shook her head and drew in a long steadying breath.
“What is it then?”
“I can’t say,” she mumbled. “It’s too ungrateful. You and Victoria have lost—”
Still in the dark, I persisted. “Victoria and I have what?”
Claire carried on louder then, and I heard the door hinges squeak. Looking up, Victoria met my gaze with a question in her eyes. I shrugged my shoulders as a signal that I didn’t know yet. Victoria nodded and closed the door. As we had always done with Claire, I would reason with her first. If I failed, then Victoria would step in. We did the best we could without our mother. After all, we were grown women. Women who would have had children of our own to handle if not for the intervention of the war. And Claire was hardly a child. She herself should have been married by now.
“I’ll never marry,” Claire practically wailed.
The fact that her thoughts had been so close to my own startled me. “Of course you will,” I soothed, saying the obligatory words when the truth was, I had little hope. “You’ll meet a handsome gentleman who’ll melt your heart.” I thought of my own William and felt tears sting my eyes once more. Straightening my shoulders, I blathered on before both of us were wailing into the bedclothes. “Now that the war is over—”
“Now that the war is over, all the men are dead,” Claire interrupted angrily. Just as quickly her anger disappeared. She threw herself into my arms. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
It did hurt, but it wasn’t Claire’s doing. I’d learned in hard fashion that wars are fought by the men, but it was the women who must deal with the aftermath. “It’s all right, Sweeting. I know.” I stopped before telling her she was right, that she probably would become a spinster. In the past, before the war, there would have been formal dinners with dancing, or picnics on the church grounds, many opportunities to meet eligible young men of good family.
The memory of dancing with William under festive lanterns hung in the trees filled my mind and heart. I wanted to close my eyes and breathe deeply to find the sweet perfume of honeysuckle as I had that evening. But winter had come, and William would not dance with me ever again.
The war had changed everything.
The victors were calling it Reconstruction, but I could see little hope that the world we had lost would ever be restored. Good fortune had kept the fighting from our land. That and our utter lack of strategic value. Off the beaten track of the main movements of both armies, we’d only been relieved of some livestock and vegetables by foraging Con- federates. Even they had seen fit to leave us one milk cow that had since gone dry, one old horse, Jeremiah, one pregnant sow, and half our chickens. In deference to our men fighting for the cause, I suppose.
Now, however, with the war lost and President Lincoln dead by the hand of what the Federals called “a Southern sympathizer,” we had no idea what to expect. We’d be lucky to keep our family land, much less have families and a future of our own. But, just in that moment, I didn’t have the heart to crush Claire’s hopes. “Let me think on this. If you truly want to marry, I shall find a way.”
Claire was silent then and looked at me with all the hope and faith of a child whose sister had never failed her. I knew I had to find a way. I held her until she stopped sniffling and shaking. By that time, red streaks of morning sun lightened the sky and our two remaining roosters were crowing to herald the new day.
I waited until Claire had gone out to the barn to collect eggs before broaching the subject to Victoria. We were in the cookhouse making breakfast. We’d learned to cook for ourselves since we couldn’t afford any help these days, and since only the three of us sat down to any meal. The food wasn’t always pretty, like our mother had insisted upon, but it was serviceable. I will say, however, that it’s much more pleasant to watch someone churn butter than it is to handle the enterprise one’s self.
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