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 TERROR PAST
Although Emmeline Willing's grandparents were well on in years, they were young in spirit. They liked to make excursions in their old-fashioned buggy pulled by their faithful Dandy. They had not intentionally deserted their home on the eve of battle. Grandmother Willing would have been as little likely to fly from excitement as Emmeline.
A few days before the battle Grandfather and Grandmother Willing had gone on a visit to their daughter Sally, who lived on an isolated farm to the west. Grandmother Willing had taken Tiger, the cat, with her in a basket, and Rover had trotted beneath the buggy. Before they had started they had driven their two cows, Molly and Betsy, over to the Hollingers', who had promised to care for them. When the enemy had approached, the Hollingers had fled, driving their own cattle and Molly and Betsy before them.
Early on the morning of July 1 the two elder Willings bade their daughter farewell, and with no thought of what awaited them, started to return home. When Emmeline and Mrs. Schmidt were startled by the first crack of musketry, Grandfather and Grandmother Willing were even more amazed and frightened as they approached from the other direction. Suddenly soldiers appeared—it seemed to Mrs. Willing—from the ground itself, and sprang to Dandy's bridle. The soldiers turned the horse and the buggy sharply round, and Dandy dashed for the shelter of the stable he had recently left. "A battle, after all!" cried Grandfather Willing, his ruddy face paling. "A battle in Gettysburg!"
Grandmother Willing said nothing for a long time. She grasped Tiger's basket tightly with one hand and with the other clutched the side of the carriage. Tears ran down her cheeks and she drew long, gasping breaths.
"A battle in Gettysburg!" she repeated at last. "Mary is there, and Emmeline is there, and that poor young woman of Henry's is there! Like as not poor Henry is dead. What shall we do?"
"There is only one thing we can do, mother; that is go back to Sally's. The town will be protected."
"I want to go home!" sobbed Grandmother Willing, much as Emmeline had sobbed. "They might get out as far as our house, and they might do damage."
"The fighting is three miles from our house, mother."
When they reached their daughter's farm, Sally came running to meet them.
"Oh, I have been so worried about you! Get down, mother. Come in. Oh, this dreadful noise! Look, father!"
Old Mr. Willing's eyes followed her pointing finger. On the main road, a few rods from the farmhouse, thousands of soldiers were marching rapidly toward Gettysburg. Their line extended back for at least a mile. From the porch and windows of the farmhouse terrified faces watched them.
Grandmother Willing wept again.
"Perhaps our dear Henry is among them!"
"Henry, mother! Why, these are the rebels!"
"Oh, dear, Oh, dear!" wailed Grandmother Willing. "What shall we do?"
"We will do two things, mother," answered Grandfather Willing solemnly. "We will wait and we will pray."
A hill shut out from the farmhouse a view of the first day's battlefield. When Grandfather Willing and his son-in-law proposed to make their way to higher ground, such a loud outcry rose from the women and children that they abandoned the plan. Gathering the family about him, Grandfather Willing prayed that the engagement might be short and victorious for the arms of righteousness. When toward evening the noise of battle ceased, grandfather hoped that his prayers had been answered.
On Wednesday morning Grandmother Willing rose early from her bed. Toward the southwest she could see the Round Tops; before her the plain was clear and beautiful. Her heart rejoiced.
"Look, father, now we can go home!"
Grandfather Willing came to the window and looked out. He saw the clear, beautiful plain, but he saw also another and a startling sight. From the west approached fresh troops. The main road, where it left the woodland, was crowded. Rapidly the throng drew near; officers shouted, drivers urged their horses, wagons rattled.
"Is there going to be more?" asked Grandmother Willing.
All morning the family in the farmhouse watched the road and the distant plain. The troops vanished from sight as they approached Gettysburg. When by noon there had been no further sound of shooting, Grandmother Willing suggested that they start.
"We can surely go now, father!"
Just then a boy came from a farm a mile across the fields with news that made Grandmother Willing change her mind. There had been yesterday, he said, a terrible battle; Gettysburg was now in the possession of the Confederates. Troops were gathering from all directions; there was going to be worse fighting before the day was over.
It was not until late afternoon that the firing on the second day began. Then it was that Emmeline, in her grandmother's kitchen, had first screamed and whirled round and that Private Christy had told her to be still. To the watchers at the farmhouse on the hillside the time passed more slowly than it did to Emmeline. From the upper windows they could see the clouds of smoke, and could tell exactly where the cannon stood; it was clear to the Willings that the battle raged near their house.
On Friday, the third day of battle, Grandmother Willing made no request to be taken home. She woke to the sound of cannon, dull and distant; she listened with blanched face until noon. At one o'clock, when it began once more in its final and most terrible fury, Grandmother Willing covered her ears, so that she might hear less and pray more. From hundreds of terrified hearts in Gettysburg and round Gettysburg rose petitions for relief from the torture of the sound.
When silence finally came, the family on the hillside did not dare to rejoice, but waited fearfully for another roar.
But no roar came. Twilight faded to dusk, dusk to night, and silence persisted. From the direction of Gettysburg came no sound. If troops moved on the Cashtown Road, the Willing family did not know. They slept heavily and woke later than was their custom. When they rose, the bright sun of other mornings was not shining. The day was cloudy, the air heavy. In the direction of Gettysburg all was dim and hazy.
"And now," said Grandmother Willing, "we can go home."
Grandfather was as patient as Private Christy. He shook his head with a gentle "No, mother." Between them and home lay thousands of troops; until they departed silence signified nothing.
All the morning the clouds thickened and the air grew heavier. At noon horsemen, riding toward the west, appeared on the main road. At the first crossroad they turned toward the south. They rode slowly, with bent heads, on tired horses. Presently wagons followed. Then to the ears of the little family on the hillside there rose from that unending line of rough ambulances a strange sound. The women and children could not understand it, but their cheeks grew still whiter and tears gathered in their eyes.
"What is it?" they cried. "What can it be?"
"The wounded are being taken away," explained Grandfather Willing solemnly. "Hark how the drivers hurry the horses! They are afraid! They are retreating! Thank God! Thank God!"
The storm drove the Willings indoors, but the sound followed them. Through the long afternoon, through the long night, the Willings heard those wailing cries and those anguished commands to hasten.
When Sunday morning dawned, those cries were startling other farmhouses and villages miles away. They never faded entirely from the recollection of those who heard them.
Soon the boy from the next farmhouse crossed the fields again. The battle was over, the Northern arms were victorious, Gettysburg was safe.
"Now," said Grandmother Willing, "I want to go home."
Grandfather Willing pondered. He had been studying a route that he thought they could safely follow. He knew all the byroads and all the farmers' lanes across the fields.
"You stay here, mother. I wish you would stay here."
Grandmother Willing gave her husband one look, and then lifted her cat, Tiger, into his basket.
In the mysterious dusky light of the Willing farmhouse, Emmeline and her brother Henry had stood for a long moment in one another's arms. They dared not accept with too much enthusiasm this sudden joy. The rain was beating on the roof and the windows. The delirious mutterings of the other inhabitants of the house had died away.
"O Emmeline!" said Henry again. "Little Emmeline, is it you?"
"Yes," said Emmeline, with a long sigh, "it is."
"How are they at home?"
"Mother is well, but Sister Bertha is sick."
"When did you come out here?"
"Where,"—Henry looked about, startled,—"where are grandfather and grandmother?"
"I imagine they went to Aunt Sally's."
"And you have been here alone!"
"No." Emmeline laughed feebly. "No, not alone."
Henry started again. Over his sister's shoulder he saw a man lying on the floor in the parlor.
"There are wounded men in this house!"
"Oh, yes!" said Emmeline.
"You have been taking care of these men!"
"I gave them water and biscuit, and I talked to them."
Henry went a step nearer the parlor door.
"That man is—is dead, Emmeline! And you've been here alone!"
"I wasn't alone," protested Emmeline. Between her and yesterday, even between her and this morning, there was falling a haze, gray and concealing as the low-lying clouds outside. She began to weep. "There was some one here to take care of me. I have been safe all the time. And he is gone away forever!"
Henry looked into the parlor and the sitting-room, and then went upstairs. Emmeline heard him exclaim. When he came down again, he went to the kitchen door and looked out. The trampled fields were already sodden. At the foot of the garden was a trench, begun for a well and abandoned. It was not deep, but it was deep enough. There, shrouded in Grandmother Willing's comforters, were laid those who in this house had given their lives for their convictions. One of the Watson boys, coming to see how his neighbors had fared, saved Emmeline a share in the last sad ceremony of battle.
Presently night fell upon the little farmhouse. Henry and Emmeline slept side by side on Grandmother Willing's kitchen floor. Often Henry rose and went about the house to minister to the wounded in Grandmother Willing's beds. When he returned, he laid a protecting arm across his little sister and so fell asleep once more. The mystery of his release was now clear to him. The humanity of the act, the helplessness of his enemy, combined to create in his heart a bitter hatred of war, a hatred felt by all who had anything to do with that sad battlefield.
The broadening light of Sunday morning wakened brother and sister. Across the wide valley between the two battle lines, great wagons were traveling swiftly. For friend and foe alike doctors and nurses of the victorious army had begun their work of mercy. To the door of the Willing farmhouse came at noon an ambulance. Some houses the attendants had found deserted except for their suffering guests. In others were women who had performed incredible and uncounted deeds of mercy. Each house had its epic of heroism and danger and sorrow. A charm seemed to have been laid upon these heroic ministers; it was as if an angel standing before them had protected them in their ways. Of them all, only one had perished.
In the Willing house there was little for doctors or nurses to do. The house was orderly once more; the surviving soldiers asked feebly about the result of the battle, and when they heard, turned their faces away even from Emmeline.
The homeward journey of Grandmother and Grandfather Willing ended in the middle of Sunday afternoon. It had been much more round-about than Grandfather Willing had planned, more awful than he had dreamed. As they drew near the scene of battle and beheld on every side its sad destruction, their hearts failed them utterly. Where was Mary? How was poor Bertha? Where was Emmeline, Emmeline who was forever getting into mischief of some kind? Above all, where was Henry?
Grandmother Willing was thinking of him as they drew near the farmhouse. Then looking up, she saw him standing on the porch, and behind him, in the doorway, Emmeline. Grandmother Willing made no motion to alight from the wagon. She sat still with Tiger on her lap.
"How did you get here?" she asked in a trembling voice.
"We have been here all the time," said Emmeline. There came into the eyes of Emmeline a sudden sparkle. What a tale she had to tell Eliza Batterson!
Grandmother Willing allowed herself to be helped out of the carriage. She came rapidly through the gate and across the dooryard, which was now trampled into a muddy slough. From the doorway she could see into her parlor with its stained carpet. She looked from it to the stains of the same color on her granddaughter's dress. In spite of all that Grandmother Willing had seen, she did not yet realize the full meaning of a battle.
"Has blood been shed here?" she asked in an awed tone.
With an arm round her, Henry said, "Yes, grandmother."
Grandmother Willing's gaze still rested upon Emmeline.
"Did you see this?" she demanded, as if Emmeline were to blame for having got herself once more into mischief. "Were you in the battle, Emmeline?"
"Did you have wounded rebels here?"
"Yes. There are some upstairs now!" cried Emmeline.
"In my house!" exclaimed Grandmother Willing. "In my beds!" Grandmother Willing's youthfulness was apparent in the speed with which she started up the stairs. "I'll 'rebel' them!"
Those below waited. They could trust her to do nothing violent.
"Oh, you poor, poor souls!" cried Grandmother Willing above stairs.
An ambulance driver who was making a journey to Gettysburg now offered to take Henry and Emmeline home. Henry must join his company as soon as possible, and the best way to find them was to go to Gettysburg, where he could doubtless get information about their position. He was heavily oppressed by anxiety and alarm, and could hardly wait until the driver received his orders to start.
Along the wooded ridge the ambulance traveled; Henry sat in the seat with the driver, Emmeline in the body of the wagon. There was no road; they made their way round shattered cannon, wrecked caissons, and far sadder remnants of the great battle. They passed close by the seminary building, where the Union soldiers had first camped. It was five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the most peaceful hour of the week; but Gettysburg's streets were thronged with soldiers, mounted and on foot. Citizens were on their doorsteps. This Sunday was a day not of rest, but of rejoicing.
Suddenly Emmeline saw twinkling in the breeze before her a bit of color, and her pale cheeks flushed. From windows and doorposts floated once more Gettysburg's flag—the stars of white on a field of blue, the stripes of red and white.
Unobserved, Henry and Emmeline passed down the street. In the back of the wagon, Emmeline could not be seen, and as for Henry—no one looked twice at a Union soldier with a bandaged head. No one noticed them, in fact, until Mr. Bannon, who was sitting on his porch with his pipe, saw them; he lifted his arms with a shout and hurried forward in his lame way to greet them. He shouted some wild sentence at them, but they could not wait to be greeted by lame Mr. Bannon. Hand in hand they went along the house and to the kitchen porch. There, at the open door, they paused.
"Well, mother," said Henry.
Mrs. Willing did not move. She was sitting by the opposite window shelling peas that had been planted, it seemed to her, a generation ago. She sat with a half-opened pod between her fingers and looked at her children. Mrs. Schmidt's brother, driving into town an hour ago from his farm beyond the battlefield, had reported the safety of his sister and her brood, but had brought no news of Emmeline. Mrs. Willing could not at first quite believe that here, in flesh and blood, were the two children who lay so heavily upon her heart.
"Is Bertha safe, mother?" asked Henry. Still Henry and Emmeline did not move, and Mrs. Willing did not rise to meet them.
"Yes," answered Mrs. Willing. "Bertha is asleep upstairs."
"Is—" began Henry, and then he repeated that single meaningless word. "Is—"
Now Emmeline had begun to move. She pursued, however, a strange course. She took a step toward her mother, then a step toward the corner of the room, then a step toward her mother, then another away from her mother. Mrs. Willing rose; the peas and their pods rolled in all directions.
"Mother!" cried Emmeline. "Mother! Mother!"
The first exclamation shocked Mrs. Willing. It was hoarse, and in its sharp tones was all the misery through which Emmeline had lived. The second "Mother!" expressed pure astonishment and nothing else. But in the third was all Emmeline's youth restored.
Henry had seen the object toward which his sister's erratic steps were turned and had finished his sentence, "Is it mine, mother?" He now took his mother into his arms and put his head on her shoulder as if he himself were not a very long way from the cradle in which his son reposed.
But for Emmeline, tears were past. She knelt upon the floor, enchanted, enslaved, a happy servitor of the sister who, sleeping in her quiet bed, knew nothing of the new joy that awaited her.
"O mother!" cried Emmeline. "It is a baby!"