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A Hobson’s Choice, or not.

As discussed in the previous blog, The Home Guard opens when Carter Barnwell and his grandmother “Missma” escape to the family hunting lodge on November 7, 1861, the day of the “big gun shoot.” Missma, confident the Confederate forts on Hilton Head and Bay Point will be no match for Union firepower, had weeks to reach her decision to remain in Beaufort whereas Anna Barnwell, Carter’s mother and Missma’s daughter-in-law, has all of one hour to decide.

When describing Anna’s decision in Chapter 1, I assumed she was being presented with a classic Hobson’s Choice, but I was wrong. Wikipedia set me straight. According to that source, a Hobson’s Choice was named for Thomas Hobson of Cambridge, England. He owned a livery stable from which he rented the forty horses housed there. To keep customers from always selecting the best horse, thereby wearing out his best stock, they were given the choice of renting the horse in the stall closest to the stable door or none at all. So rather than being a choice between two or more bad alternatives, as I always assumed a Hobson’s Choice to be, it is an ultimatum, a “take it or leave it” proposition.

Anna could leave or she could stay, so a more accurate description of the predicament Missma foisted on her was a dilemma, a choice between undesirable alternatives. What were the factors influencing her decision? First was time. The steamer Cecilewas leaving at 5 p.m., the last boat out, and Anna and Carter learned of Missma’s determination to stay only an hour earlier. As far as Anna or anyone else knew, the Yankees could be arriving in downtown Beaufort that very night. The looming uncertainty of the Union’s movements added to the press of time produced panic, as Anna later realized.

Another factor was her medical condition. She had been experiencing pain that her neighbor, Dr. Gaffney, suspected of being related to her female organs. He recommended a Charleston specialist. Anna had been putting off a trip to Charleston in light of the upheaval caused by Fort Sumter, despite that fact that her pain is getting worse. Carter is not aware of this problem, but Missma is, and she is rightly concerned about Anna’s health.

There is also in Anna’s decision an element of a very temporary situation. As she tells Carter just before she departs, “As soon as I get to Charleston, I will think of something. I will be only sixty miles away. We will not abandon you.” She could not have known that once the Union occupation began, she would need a travel pass to return to Beaufort. Those were issued quite selectively by the U.S. Treasury Department, and the chances of Secretary Chase approving one for her hovered close to zero. Had Anna foreseen the difficulty of reunion and the long duration of the war, it almost certain she would have chosen to stay, but her crystal ball was no clearer than anyone else’s in that chaotic time and she had no time to think it through.

Readers may ask, “Couldn’t Anna have gone with Carter and Missma to the lodge?” Theoretically, yes. Perhaps, in hindsight, she will wish she had (and you can form your own opinion of that when you finish The Home Guard). But the lodge is small and Carter’s skiff even smaller. The food required to feed two would have been increased by 50%. She had to assume that she would have no way of communicating with her other son, Preston, off fighting in Virginia. Anna does what many of us have done in life: under the pressure of time and circumstance, she makes a decision she may come to regret.

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