Elsie Singmaster was a local author. We will be selectively republishing some of her stories on the #15SouthBlog. You can learn more about Singmaster's work here.
THE SECOND DAY OF BATTLE
At the sound of the cannon shot, Private Christy, still sitting calmly on the step, looked up.
"No call to be—"
Another roar cut short Private Christy's speech. Emmeline fled into the kitchen, and Christy rose and followed her.
"No call to be skeered, sissy," he said, speaking loudly into her ear. "The shooting ain't here."
Emmeline covered her ears with her hands. Another fearful detonation shook the old farmhouse to its foundations. The windows trembled in their frames, the floor seemed to rock. Emmeline sank into a chair by the kitchen table, hid her face in her arms, and screamed hysterically.
"Sissy," cried Private Christy, "stop it! Don't ye dare to cry like that!" Private Christy's face was drawn. "It's an awful thing to have to hear a woman cry like that! Listen to me! The shooting ain't this way; it's that way. Them guns is half a mile off and pointing the other way. Noise can't hurt ye, don't ye know that? You've got to get used to it, for it's going to last some time. Do you hear me?" Private Christy bent his head until it was near Emmeline's. "You're the only one among all these thousands that's safe, sissy. Now stop it!"
Emmeline checked her sobs. "I can't stand it!" she cried.
"But you've got to stand it. Now dry your tears. You can sit here, or you can go down cellar, or up attic under the eaves, or you can come out on the porch and sit with me. It ain't everyone can watch troops going into battle. I wish I could hold a gun again!" he added, with longing in his voice.
Thus admonished and encouraged, Emmeline rose slowly and dried her tears. Private Christy put his hand on her shoulder, and they returned to the porch.
There was little confusion to be seen. The long morning's work had put all in readiness for the engagement. Round the farmhouse regiments waited in line. Other troops had moved from their posts farther to the south, across the ridge, and down into the valley between the ridge and the two Round Tops. In that direction, and hidden from the farmhouse, were the cannon from which issued the thunderous roar. Now the sharp crack of musketry and confused shouts and yells accompanied the deep boom of the cannon. Clouds of white smoke, growing thicker every moment, rose from the valley.
Near the farmhouse, regiments waited motionless beneath their banners. Officers were already in the saddle; men stood at attention. It was as if the great commotion were no concern of theirs. But suddenly a quiver passed through them. Swords flashed in the air, commands were shouted, bugles blew; to the music of fife and drum the troops mounted the slope toward the ridge.
"There they go!" cried Private Christy. "That's my company, and they're goin' without me!"
The troops topped the ridge and vanished under the white, thick blanket of smoke. As if fresh fuel had been added to a great flame, the smoke thickened, the cannonading grew heavier, the crack! crack! of musketry more incessant.
Emmeline stood with her arms clasped round the pillar of the porch. With each great detonation she grasped the pillar more tightly, as if she feared that the waves of sound might wash her away. Sometimes she closed her eyes and drew in deep breaths of air. Between her gasps of fright she stared, awed and fascinated. She saw the last troops cross the hill and the smoke clouds thicken. Presently she saw black missiles hurtle through the air and bright flashes from beyond the hill divide the low-lying cloud. Suddenly she screamed. A dark object, passing over the ridge with a shrill, whistling sound, had plunged into Grandfather Willing's potato patch. Private Christy took Emmeline by the arm and led her round the corner of the house.
"Nothing but a stray shot, sissy; but if I was you, I believe I'd stay here. Nothing can hurt you through these stone walls."
He led her to a seat on the grass close to the west wall of the house. There she sat dazed. Sometimes she blinked; sometimes she smoothed absently the wrinkled, soiled fabric of her blue and white dress; otherwise she did not move. She could not think or reason; she could only listen.
Private Christy went back to his seat on the porch. Presently he returned and smiled at Emmeline, and then went into the house. There in the hot kitchen, working slowly with his single hand, he made a fresh fire, and set upon the stove Grandmother Willing's washboiler and filled it with water. Then he went upstairs and looked round. Emmeline vaguely wondered again what his business was as a member of the army. Thus far he had done nothing.
Still Emmeline sat on the grassy bank by the house. Before her was the sloping field leading to Willoughby Run. Down that field she had often raced. Under the trees by the side of the stream horses were tethered, and near by were hundreds of wagons. The sun was getting low.
Emmeline rose stiffly. It seemed to her that the roar of cannon had grown a little less thunderous. She would go round the house and out to Private Christy. Private Christy, although an enemy, was comforting. As night drew near, her longing for home grew keener, but she had begun to realize that she could not return now.
Emmeline did not find Private Christy on the porch; he was apparently running away from her. She saw his long legs carrying him up the slope; presently he broke into a run. He was not going into the battle; he was meeting those who were returning. That is, he was meeting a few—those who, although wounded, could still drag themselves along. They had left behind them thousands of their comrades, who could not join even such a halting, pitiful procession as theirs. Hundreds who had started with the procession had fallen by the way.
In the forefront of the straggling line was Private Mallon, who had carried Emmeline up to bed. His arm hung limp and his hair was clotted with blood; he fell heavily against Private Christy as they met.
Again Emmeline's arm encircled the porch pillar. In some dim, long-past existence Emmeline had dreamed of binding wounds, of smoothing fevered brows, of lifting her voice in song for the comfort of the suffering! Now Emmeline wished that the earth would open and swallow her.
While she stood with her arm clasping the pillar, Private Christy and Private Mallon entered the gate. Private Christy's work was now before him; for this task had he remained with the army, while in Georgia his little Bessie grew beyond his recollection.
"Leetle Emmyline," he shouted, "you get some warm water in a basin and some old cloths, will you, Emmyline?"
Emmeline grew paler and paler; the first shocking sight of wounds seemed to paralyze her. Private Mallon, tottering in upon the arm of his comrade, fixed apologetic, tortured eyes upon her.
"It ain't no place for a leetle gal!" he muttered.
Then Emmeline took another great step toward womanhood.
"I will try," she said, weeping.
When she had filled her basin with water, and had gathered the worn fragments of homespun linen that Grandmother Willing had laid away for emergencies, she took them with trembling hands into the parlor. Other wounded, blackened forms had crept in and had lain themselves down on the parlor carpet—the treasured carpet that was the pride of Grandmother Willing's life.
"Put wood in the stove, Emmyline," commanded Private Christy cheerfully, "and bring more of these rags. You'll make a fine nurse, Emmyline!"
As she turned to obey, Emmeline glanced out of the door. Creeping and crawling, the procession continued to arrive. They came through the gate one by one; they crossed the yard and the porch. A man fell heavily on the steps, and involuntarily Emmeline took her enemy by the arm and helped him up.
"I'm looking for Christy," he said in a dazed voice.
Private Christy and his work were evidently well known.
"I am to keep the boiler filled," repeated Emmeline, as she went back to the kitchen. "I am to bring warm water and towels and cloths. I am not to cry or scream. I am not to cry or scream!"
Into the house still came the wounded, into Grandmother Willing's parlor, and into Grandmother Willing's sitting-room, and up the stairs into the bedchambers, and out to the kitchen.
"Keep the kitchen clear!" commanded Private Christy. "Keep the room above clear! Nobody in there!"
Some one answered roughly that the room above was to be filled.
Private Christy's voice did not always drawl; he raised it now so that it could be heard above the slackening crash of musketry:—
"There's a leetle gal in this house, gentlemen. That is her room above the kitchen."
"A little girl!" repeated a weary voice somewhere. "I'd like to see a little girl!"
Moving about deftly, Private Christy helped this man to lie down and that one to find a more comfortable position. He seemed like a mother getting her brood together for the night; they looked up to him like children who found in him their only hope.
"Emmyline," he said gently, when she brought him the things for which he had asked, "do you suppose you could help me?"
"I could try," said Emmeline.
Private Christy passed her the end of one of the long strips of cloth.
"There, Emmyline, you take that and wind it round and round."
With a gasp, Emmeline obeyed; together she and Private Christy bound the wounded arm of Private Mallon.
The sun had vanished behind the woodland and the fleecy clouds above were golden; the cooler air of evening had begun to breathe through the old farmhouse. The sound of firing near by had ceased entirely. The battle was surely over; surely, thought Emmeline, these men would go away and Gettysburg could have peace. Perhaps she could still go home to-night! There were many wagons standing idle down by Willoughby Run; perhaps one could be spared to take her. If she could only go home and see her mother she would ask for nothing more in the world. Perhaps Henry had come back. If Henry were wounded like these men, her mother could not take care of him and Bertha, too. She must go home. Then Emmeline gave a great cry. Deliverance had come! She sprang to the window and began to call to some one outside. Private Christy, who was on his knees near the window, turned and looked out quickly.
"They are Union soldiers!" cried Emmeline. "We have won! They will take me home! Here I am! Here I am!" She waved her arms as she called.
Private Christy looked down at the company of blue-coated soldiers. He saw what Emmeline did not see: that their progress was directed and hastened by soldiers in gray who carried muskets.
"They are prisoners, Emmyline."
"Prisoners!" cried Emmeline.
"Didn't we win?"
"Not exactly, Emmyline."
"What will they do with them?"
"They'll take 'em down to that woods and guard 'em."
Leaning suddenly out of the window, Emmeline began to scream. Among the prisoners was a slender soldier to whom she called.
"There is my brother! Henry, Henry, dear, dear Henry! Here I am, Henry, here I am!"
"Be quiet, sissy!" commanded Private Christy.
Emmeline stepped across a soldier on the floor, and then across another. In frantic excitement she sought the door.
Private Christy caught and held her. "Where are you going, Emmyline?" he asked.
"I'm going to my brother."
"You don't know if it was your brother. It was too dark to see."
"It was my brother! I'm going to find him!"
"What will they do to him?"
"I haven't seen him for months and months. He is my only brother. He had a bandage round his head. Oh, please, please let me go!"
"No," said Private Christy. "Come, Emmyline, I need you."
Emmeline went back to her work, and her tears dropped on the face of the soldier by whom she knelt.
"It's too bad, sissy," said he weakly. "I wish I could help you."
Emmeline gulped back her tears. It was Henry; of that she was certain. Where had they taken him? Was he lying wounded, bleeding, alone? But Emmeline had mercifully no time for speculation. She continued to help with the bandaging and to run up and down the stairs.
About the house confusion thickened. Troops returned, powder-blackened, exhausted, famished. Many of the soldiers bound up their own wounds, or let their comrades perform that service for them. From the dark fields rose again the aroma of boiling coffee and frying bacon. The troops in the fields near at hand seemed to have moved closer together, but Emmeline did not understand the significance of the maneuver. Every few minutes she went to the window and strained her eyes into the dusk. Even in the brightening moonlight her gaze could not penetrate into the woodland where the prisoners had vanished.
Presently, when she turned from the window with a sob, Private Christy was looking down upon her. "Emmyline," said he, in his pleasant drawl, "how about them biscuit?"
"I could bake some!" answered Emmeline, suddenly realizing that perhaps hunger was one of the causes of her own misery.
"Biscuits, boys!" cried one pale soldier to another. "She's going to bake biscuits!"
Feeble cheers answered.
"You won't go out of the kitchen, will you, sissy?"
"No," Emmeline promised, and went wearily down the stairs.
The joy with which her first batch of biscuits was received roused her once more. There were many who could not eat, and who called only for water. As the time passed, those cries grew louder and more frequent.
Presently, lantern in hand, a doctor entered and made his way from patient to patient. His clothes had dark stains upon them, and in the dim light he looked white and worn; he moved quickly from one patient to the next, as if other work awaited him. Several quiet forms he turned over, and those were presently taken away.
Emmeline baked her biscuits and spread them with apple butter from her grandmother's crocks, and carried them from room to room. There were by this time dark stains also on her striped dress. Private Christy, saying a word here, changing a position there, moved about the house like a great gray ghost.
A little later, when Private Christy found his assistant asleep by the kitchen table, he took her last pans from the oven and sat down opposite her. The night was quiet, and again there came to the ear of the listener the strange, half-defined suggestion of men marching. Private Christy ate quickly; once he interrupted his feast to go upstairs in answer to a groan. His return woke Emmeline, who lifted her head from the table and looked at him sleepily from blinking, dark-rimmed eyes.
"We've got 'em all fixed up pretty comfortable," said Private Christy softly, as if he and Emmeline had succeeded in some common task. "Now, Emmyline, it's time for you to go to bed."
"Is the battle over?" asked Emmeline.
Emmeline's mouth quivered. "Do men like to fight?" she asked, blinking drowsily.
"Like to fight?" repeated Private Christy. "Like to fight, Emmyline? Like layin' up there with arms and legs ruined? Like livin' their days without half a body? Of course they don't like it!"
"Will there be more wounds to-morrow?" asked Emmeline stupidly.
"Where there's fighting, there's wounds."
"Will it last after to-morrow?"
"God help us, no!" said Private Christy.