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.
PRIVATE CHRISTY SAYS FAREWELL
On the morning of July 3, Emmeline got up earlier than she had on the morning of July 2. Disturbed by dreams and oppressed by the heat, she had slept restlessly. She had waked once in the night, and had gone to the window to look down upon the woods into which the Union prisoners had vanished. There, except for the stamping of restless horses, all was quiet; but beyond, toward the west, there was incessant movement. Fresh troops were arriving and were settling down for a few hours of heavy sleep. Emmeline could hear Private Christy making his rounds in the farmhouse. Now he was in the kitchen; now he brought fresh water from the pump; now he spoke soothingly to one of his comrades.
When Emmeline woke again, daylight had come, and the great host was already astir. Men laughed; even in this house of pain the soldiers were merry. Downstairs Private Christy had built a fire in the stove; Emmeline could hear the crackling flames. Stiff and sore, she rose, and, after braiding her long hair and contemplating the stained untidiness of her limp ruffles, she went down the steps. She was very tired; her mouth drooped and her eyelids seemed to have weights upon them.
Downstairs the wounded soldiers were trying to sit up; some even tried to stand. One man proclaimed his intention of joining his company as soon as he had eaten. Almost immediately, as if in answer to his boasting, his knees gave way and he sank to the floor.
Private Christy greeted Emmeline cheerfully:—
"Here's hot coffee for you. You look a leetle droopy. Drink this and you'll feel like a two-year-old."
Choking back her tears, which seemed to flow without any excuse, Emmeline took the cup of coffee and sat down. She lifted the cup to her lips, and then put it back into the saucer.
"I hear a noise!" she cried. "They are shooting again!"
"That's way off," answered Private Christy. "That's miles off."
"It's near Gettysburg!" Emmeline now wept outright. "I have so many troubles I can't count them all. My mother is in danger and my brother is a prisoner—I am sure it was my brother! Perhaps my home is destroyed!"
"Oh, no, sissy!"
"Can I go down to the woods to find my brother?"
"I ain't in charge of that woods, Emmyline."
"Will they take him away?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know anything!" stormed Emmeline.
Private Christy's gray eyes twinkled. It was much better to hear Emmeline storm than to have to watch her cry.
Again Emmeline made biscuit and spread apple butter and carried her tray about the house; again she brought water and bathed hot faces. There was nothing else for her to do. If she cast a longing glance toward the woodland, Private Christy was beside her with his "Now, Emmyline!" In the middle of the morning Private Christy called her to the door and pointed to the ridge.
"Can you see up there some mounted officers?"
"Do you see the white horse?"
"That's General Lee, Emmyline." Private Christy spoke in a solemn tone. "That's something for you to remember all your life."
"I'd rather see General Meade," said Emmeline defiantly.
"But you don't mind lookin' at my general," answered Private Christy good-naturedly.
Presently there began again another general movement of the troops about Grandfather Willing's house. They marched forward toward the ridge and passed over it, and disappeared into the valley where yesterday the cannon had roared. Now, except for the distant rumble, there was no sound.
"Where have they gone?" asked Emmeline.
"Over there," Private Christy replied noncommittally.
"What are they doing?"
"Just waiting. Now, Emmyline, you get some water for them poor souls upstairs. I have an errand to do."
When Emmeline was out of sight, Private Christy went down across the fields to the woodland and looked about. On the far side near the open land were the Union prisoners, well guarded. Many of them were wounded, and lay about on the ground or sat propped against the trees. In their direction Private Christy made his way. War brought about strange meetings. It was improbable but not impossible that the little girl's brother was among the prisoners.
"Goin' to pull out?" he asked a guard.
"No orders yet. I think we move with the army."
"Got a man here by the name of Willing?"
"I don't know their names."
"Can I ask?"
"Well, you find out for me, will you, Sam? His leetle sister's up here, and she thought she saw him. I suppose she couldn't come down and talk to him?"
"No, she couldn't."
Until eleven o'clock the distant roar continued; then followed complete silence; but the silence did not rest the ear or ease the heart. The heavy, hot atmosphere was weighted with mystery. Emmeline, moving about nervously, asked a hundred questions of Private Christy. The wounded soldiers dragged themselves to windows; from there they could see nothing except the scattered remnants of the command, the trampled fields, the ridge with its bristling cannon and its barricades. From the troops who had gone over the hill, nothing had been heard; it seemed as if they had been swallowed up. Emmeline made biscuit and coffee, and went to the front door and then to the attic window, and looked first toward Gettysburg and then toward Willoughby Run. She grew more and more nervous and excited.
"If it is not over, I don't understand why they don't begin! If it is over, I don't see why I cannot go home! I don't see why I have to be kept here! I don't—"
Two clear, distinct shots ended the mysterious silence. Emmeline lifted her head like a startled rabbit. It seemed that no matter how much cannonading she had heard, she could never grow accustomed to the hideous sound.
Those two clear shots were answered by all the thunders of heaven. From the ridge that Emmeline watched sped forth the fiery charge. She saw the puff of white smoke, the blinding flash, heard the great detonation. From the opposite ridge came back an equally furious answer. Then thunder and roar and blast filled the world.
Again, as yesterday, Emmeline screamed, and then at once was silent. There was no use in screaming when Private Christy across the room could not hear her, when, indeed, she could not hear herself! For hours to come Emmeline forgot her home, her mother, Sister Bertha, Henry. The terrible sound dulled her senses and paralyzed her mind.
Standing at the kitchen table, she could look through the hall and out of the front door. There, framed as in a picture, she saw a strange sight. A dark missile descended upon the ridge. That was no chance, stray shot, as yesterday's missile had been; it was well aimed, and it struck its mark—a caisson filled with explosives. At once caisson, horses, men, were lifted into the air. Then, a little distance away, another caisson was struck.
Soon yesterday's sad spectacle was repeated. Once more the procession of wounded crept down the slope. From the ridge to the farmhouse, and to all other farmhouses and places of refuge,—and few and scattered they were,—proceeded the wounded. No longer was the Willing farmhouse the refuge of those only who were able to walk. Thither hastened the lumbering ambulances; thither stretchers were carried; thither the wounded, supporting each other, crept inch by inch. Emmeline watched them come; Private Christy ran to help them in. In distraction Emmeline began once more to heat water and to make coffee and biscuit. That she could do! It was well that she had had yesterday's experience before to-day's!
Wounds from fragments of shell are worse than wounds from bullets; the advancing throng, alas! were wounded as terribly as they could be wounded and still live. For some, Private Christy did nothing except to help them to lie down and to cover them with one of Grandmother Willing's blankets. A doctor and a nurse, who had been assigned to the Willing house, tried to do the work of twenty doctors and nurses. They put Emmeline to work. They gave her hard and terrible tasks, but she accomplished them bravely, receiving an immediate reward in many blessings from those she tended. She wrote down addresses and messages, and comforted the men as best she could, and wept.
"It will make them take it easier, little girl, if you write them about me."
"Perhaps you would go to see them sometime, when the war is over."
It was amazing to hear how many had daughters or little sisters like Emmeline. As she listened to one after the other, and tried to fix their requests in her mind, her dark eyes grew wider and her face paler. Still the two hundred cannon roared. That sound unnerved even the hardened soldier and the general trained by long experience in battles, who began to ask themselves whether human spirit could endure more. The like of that sound the world had till then never heard.
In mid-afternoon came peace. As suddenly as it had begun, it seemed to Emmeline, the thunder stopped. Emmeline burst into tears, and then, not knowing that she had cried, went on with her work.
"It is over," Emmeline assured herself. "Now it is certainly over."
But Emmeline knew nothing of the tactics of war. There were still those thousands of infantry who had marched over the hill and who had as yet given no account of themselves. Where were they? They still had work to do. A few minutes they waited, until the last echo had died away, and then, in magnificent array, they marched forward across the fields to the opposite ridge, marched straight in the face of the enemy's cannon, which they supposed had run short of ammunition. Of those brave thousands, few returned whole across the wide fields; many did not return at all. Emmeline, watching them in the morning, had thought them wonderful; but Emmeline could not judge how glorious they were. Now they would march no more. If Emmeline had listened, she could have heard, borne upon the wind, rapturous shouts from that opposite ridge; but she heard only the broken words and gasps of the men about her. Private Christy heard with haggard, white face; the generals heard—those who survived. The greatest general of all, whom Emmeline had watched upon his white horse, listened with a breaking heart.
Gradually the clouds of smoke lifted, gradually the odor of smoke was carried away. The sun set in a stormy sky, and once more the air cooled. The battle was over; upon the wide field peace descended, but it was the peace of death and woe. From Round Top to Gettysburg and far beyond lay strewn those who a few hours before had moved in strength and pride.
Gettysburg, hearing the result of the battle, breathed a long sigh of great relief. Citizens appeared from the places where they had taken shelter; women and children came out upon the streets again, and stared at house walls torn by shells and at barricades thrown across streets. At Emmeline Willing's house men and women and children gazed in awe. The house had been strangely protected; it stood among its fellows unharmed. There, to Emmeline's Sister Bertha, had been sent a little child. There Bertha herself lay sleeping in the bed to which she had been restored. One by one men and women and children tiptoed into the kitchen to behold with their own eyes the little baby lying in his cradle.
Mrs. Willing moved quietly about her house and attended to her charges. All the cruelty and horror of war weighed upon Mrs. Willing. No word had come from her boy. And where was Emmeline, her darling, her little girl, whom she had un-wittingly sent into greater danger? Where were the elder Willings?
Meanwhile Emmeline worked on. She had ceased to be partisan; she asked no question either about victory or defeat. As night advanced, a great uneasiness seemed to spread. Troops were moved, trees were felled, and new breastworks erected. Emmeline's room was occupied now; a young officer lay upon the bed, and less important patients upon the floor. With his single arm, Private Christy continued to accomplish wonders.
"You are my other arm, Emmyline," he said in his drawling voice. "You mustn't forget me, Emmyline."
Emmeline looked up, startled.
"Are you going away?"
"We can't stay here."
"What shall I do, then?"
"Without me? Are you going to miss me?" said Private Christy in astonishment. "Why, you will go home, Emmyline."
"Home!" repeated Emmeline, as if the word were strange.
That night Emmeline slept on a chair by the kitchen table. Private Christy, who did not sleep at all, put a folded coat under her head and stood for a moment smoothing her dark hair; then he went on with his sad work.
Once or twice the moon showed for an instant, only to vanish; the sights upon which it looked were best shrouded in darkness. When morning dawned, troops were still massing behind the protecting breastworks. As soon as it was light, Private Christy made his way down the slope to Willoughby Run, and addressed himself once more to the soldier who guarded the prisoners:—
"Orders to be ready to move."
"Did you find Willing?"
"He's the man with his head tied up, there by the tree."
"Where's the colonel?"
Private Christy saluted the colonel and stood waiting. The colonel had a map spread out on his knee; on it he was tracing with his finger the path to the west which had been laid out for him. It was evident from the colonel's eyes that he, too, had passed a sleepless night. Presently he looked up at Private Christy, and with a nod gave him permission to speak.
"There's a prisoner in the woods, sir, by the name of Willing. This is his grandfather's place, and his leetle sister's up there in the house. She's worked bakin' and nursin' till she's almost dead on her feet. She's a sweet leetle gal, sir. Could you leave her brother here? She's far from home and alone."
The colonel looked absently at Private Christy. Private Christy seldom asked favors; moreover, if it had not been for his self-assigned work, Private Christy might long ago have been at his home in Georgia.
"I'll see, Christy," he said, and returned to his map.
Six o'clock passed, seven o'clock, eight o'clock, and now the great wounded army seemed to breathe deeply and to turn a little and to think about rising. It was beaten, sore, but it could not pause here. It was still in the country of its enemy; it must be up and away lest worse harm befall it. Opposite lay the victor, who, although wounded also, was better furnished with the munitions of war. The beaten army must set forth on the weary way by which it had come.
All the forenoon men were marching. From the woods near by, wagons, rough, springless and uncovered, drawn by thin, jaded horses, approached over the fields to the doors of farmhouses and barns. Into them were lifted the wounded from the houses and from the open fields. They were not lifted carefully; there was not time to be careful. Across the fields toward the west to the nearest road the wagons went and took their places in the great line.
The skies lowered more and more, and presently from the east a chilling wind began to blow. Standing in the doorway, Emmeline felt it on her bare arms and neck, and shivered. When a wagon stopped at Grandfather Willing's door and the bearers entered, Emmeline went weeping to bid farewell to these her enemies. Private Christy had lifted his knapsack to his shoulder and had taken in his hand a staff, as if he were preparing for a long journey.
The officer in charge of the wagon ordered all men who were wounded only in the arms or head or shoulders to walk beside it; others were lifted in upon the board floors of the wagon; others were left where they lay.
Emmeline clung to Private Christy's hand.
"Why don't they take them, too?" she asked.
"They're too sick, Emmyline."
"What will become of them?"
"I don't know, Emmyline. You give 'em water."
"Are you really going away from me?"
"I've got to go, Emmyline!" said Private Christy. "Marchin' orders are marchin' orders. You stay here in the house, mind! You write to me sometime, and when the war is over you've got to get acquainted with my Bessie."
"Does this end the war?" asked Emmeline.
"I don't know, sissy, but I'm afraid not. Emmyline, would you"—Private Christy blushed like a boy—"would you give me a kiss?"
"I will give you a dozen!" cried Emmeline.
Then, beside the lumbering wagon, Private Christy marched away. A soldier leaned on his arm before he left the porch; before he had left the gate he had given his staff to another. Bereft, Emmeline watched him go. Once he turned and nodded his head to her, and then marched on.
Private Christy looked up at the lowering sky. In a moment he felt on his cheek the first drop of the advancing torrent. Then the heavens opened on the great generals and the marching soldiers and the wounded in their open wagons.
Emmeline stood upon the step until the tall, gray figure with his wagon and his wounded had vanished in the mist. She was drenched, but she dared not go inside. She guessed why those sufferers had been left behind! And night was coming and all the world would be dark and dreadful. Emmeline could hear the ticking of Grandmother Willing's clock on the kitchen shelf and the sound of deep, anguished breathing.
Then she heard footsteps, and turned in fright. Not one of those sick men could even raise his head—who was it who came upon her so stealthily and suddenly? Through the kitchen approached a tall figure in a blue suit, with a bandaged head. Private Christy had not left his "arm" without protection.
"Henry!" cried Emmeline.
"Little Emmeline!" said Henry.
Into the outstretched arms flew Emmeline.
"I knew it was you! Oh, Henry, Henry, Henry!"