The water was cold. The man tried to keep his teeth from chattering as he clung to the bottom of some driftwood, hoping against hope that they couldn’t hear him. It was dark and the Tennessee River was swift. He cringed as a body bumped against him and floated off into the darkness. If he could just hold out until they left. His ribs ached terrible from where the bullet had entered. At least the cold water would help with the bleeding.
Soon the men moved off, the bellowing of the cattle they took with them faded into the distance. He kicked a bit and was able to use the driftwood as a life preserver as he slowly traveled toward shore. All his friends were dead. Shot in cold blood and dumped into the river. He had to survive to tell the story or else no one what ever know what had happened.
He knew when Porter started to recite the gospel they were in trouble. He’d fled to this island in the middle of the Tennessee when he learned that General Ben was in the area. Everyone around these parts know about old Ben Harris. The man’s reputation struck fear into the hearts of the entire community. They say he lived up on the Paint Rock River near the town of Vienna, somewhere in Madison County. No one knew if he ever had really served in an actual military unit, only that his men wore Union cavalry uniforms. They roamed throughout North Alabama, imposing their own sense of justice as a cover for plain theft and murder. Maybe old Ben had allegiances to the Union that he didn’t know about or maybe he was just one of many who took advantage of the hardships caused by this never-ending damn war. All he knew for sure is that he needed to hide.
He’d come home on furlough from the Alabama infantry, hoping to see his family. Even doing something as seemingly innocent as that could be dangerous during these times. A man could be shot by his neighbor as a deserter or conscription dodger when he was legally home on furlough. When he started looking for a place to hide for a few days, he remembered the Rodens had a cabin out on Buck Island. He’d rowed himself across the river and found that some of the Roden men had the same thought. There was Porter, who’d enlisted in the Confederate infantry only to be injured in Mississippi and discharged for medical reasons in ’62; James and his son Felix; and their father, old man Ben Roden. Another brother, had been killed earlier in the summer up in Virginia. The Rodens had come across to Buck Island with their cattle to keep them from being taken.
They’d been at the cabin several days – all the way through Christmas, waiting for rumor to drift to them that Harris had moved on. It happened in the middle of the night. They’d been awakened by a loud knock at the door and a man telling them they were surrounded. The message was surrender and no harm would come to them as the men only wanted the cattle. Slowly, one by one they’d exited the cabin to find Ben Harris and his men in their faded cavalry blue. After securing the cattle and the boat, Harris ordered them to line up on the riverbank. Old man Roden tried to reason with Harris, as they’d known each other a long time. He talked with him alone to see if he could work them out of the situation, but to no avail. Harris wanted to witnesses to his theft.
When the time came, the men were shot 3 or 4 times at close range in the chest. The last man in line collapsed to the ground, somehow escaping any fatal wounds. He allowed himself to be lifted and thrown into the river along with his counterparts, hoping against hope the killers wouldn’t notice his heartbeat. Unfortunately as he hit the water, he strangled a bit and coughed. The killers, realizing he was alive tried in vain to stab him with their sabers, but he had floated too far from the bank. They then tried to shoot him, he sunk under the water holding his breath. The dark and cold of the night were in his favor as the killers didn’t linger, thinking they’d finally killed him.
Despite everything that happened that night, C.L. Hardcastle survived to tell the tale. He somehow dragged himself out of the river and made it a mile to his brother-in-law’s house. The shooting of the Rodens would become known as the Buck Island Massacre and their story would make it all the way to Harper’s Weekly. History has lost what happened to Benjamin Harris, but if you believe in poetic justice, he received his just punishment. His town Vienna was raised to the ground by Union troops about a year later – in December 1864. Vienna was reborn after the war and christened as New Hope – its name to this day.
In later years, rumors flew that Harris had been tipped off by one of the Roden family members. Charlotte Roden, wife to Andrew Roden who had been killed at Chancellorsville, was the primary suspect as she was known in the community as a Union sympathizer. Charlotte lived the rest of her long life in the Claysville area near Guntersville, dying in 1907.
Today, the landscape is much changed. Buck Island is now covered in million dollar lake houses instead of remote cabins. The river has been dammed to form a lake and thousands of families come here to spend their summers. Little of them know about a small cemetery, sitting on a hill, overlooking the lake and surrounded by trees. Here is the final resting place of Porter Roden, his father Ben, his brother James and his 19 year old nephew Felix.
Their graves and their story are reminders of a time when humanity lost its way for a little while.
Cover photo courtesy of Woodlands and Waters.