As dusk drew near, a distraught Federal private wandered somewhat aimlessly between the campfires. Finally, he came up behind a sergeant as he stirred his pot of cabbage soup.
Drawing his breath in, the private uttered, “Sir, may I talk with you.”
The young sergeant turned and motioned for the teenager to sit on the pine log before the fire. “Hungry?” He asked.
“Yes, Sir. Haven’t eaten all day.”
The sergeant gave him a tin cup of soup with some aging sour dough bread. “Eat.”
After a few minutes and a second helping of soup and bread, the sergeant asked, “What can I do for you, private?”
“I need a letter written to my wife. I have been told that you do that for the men if they ask.”
“Can’t read or write?”
“No, Sir. I worked on the farm from sunrise to sunset as a boy.”
The word “boy” caused a smile to cross the sergeant’s bearded face. The person before him was still much a boy, not barely seventeen.
“How did you find time to take a wife?” He laughed.
“Oh! Sunday meeting. Jayne was in the choir and so was I. She sang like an angel.”
“Angel! You have heard many angels sing, private?”
“Oh! No, Sir. I have never heard an actual angel sing. I don’t believe. I have helped gather up the dead and wounded after a battle, and last week, there was this lieutenant who was dying and he asked me if I heard the singing. I told him that I did. You know to comfort him in his last moments. Perhaps, one does hear the singing as the angel of death comes for you,” he stated sadly.
“Perhaps, private. Tell me about your Jayne.”
The private scratched his head for a few moments, long moments. The sergeant could tell that he was perplexed by his question.
“Private, you said that your wife sings like an angel. Is she as pretty as an angel?”
“She’s as pretty as the trout pond on the family farm.”
The sergeant laughed. “Trout pond? Explain that to me, solider.”
“Well, Sir, around the western edge of the pond are these blueberries bushes – seven feet tall give an inch or two. When the sun sets, the rays filter through the branches onto the water and they kinda dance on the air bubbles from the trout. It’s an awful pretty sight. Does that make sense?”
“Beautiful metaphor, solider. Describe her hair.”
“Uhhuh!” He paused a long time. “Kinda like maple leaves in late October. As they fall from the trees, the wind catches them and they dance in the air. Gracefully, they fall to earth with this soft crush. Red maple leaves.”
“She’s Irish, private?”
“Yes, Sir, my Jayne is Scott-Irish.”
“Her eyes. What do they remind you of?”
“Oh! Her eyes,” he sighed longingly.
“How long has it been since you saw her?”
“Five months. Seems like a year. Well, her eyes are like these plants for butterflies.”
The sergeant looked at him for a long time. “Milk weed?”
“Yes, Sir. Milkweed. I couldn’t remember the name.”
“Green eyes and red hair. Good cook?”
“Yes, Sir. She’s the best cook in the county. Her blueberry pie is always grand champion at the fair. “
“What do you want to say to her in this letter?”
“Well! I miss her greatly, and one day soon I hope to be home. Sergeant, this war can’t last much longer can it?”
“War has a life of its own. The more it takes, the more it wants. Your Jayne could not bake enough blueberry pies to keep it fed. There isn’t enough blood to cover its ugly face.”
“I am getting so tired of digging holes, Sir. To bury these men so far from home and loved ones. I hope if I die in battle that someone will make sure to tell my Jayne where I am in case she wants to come to visit me someday.”
“You think about dying much, private?”
“Only when I do burial detail.”
“Remember, you have a wife waiting for you. Don’t get yourself killed.”
“I don’t plan so, Sir.”
“Come back tomorrow about this time and I will have the letter ready for you.”
The private jumped up and grabbed the sergeant’s hand. “Thank you, Sir,” he said as he shook the hand.
The sergeant watched as he disappeared into the sea of yellow fires and dingy white tents. He smiled. He drank another cup of soup and tossed a pine branch onto his fire. He sensed that it was going to be a cold night. A light fog was rolling across the meadows. Night shadows hovered above as someone nearby played a fiddle. The tune was Derry Air.
The next day went slowly for the private. He thought that dusk would never come.
When he reached the sergeant’s tent, some turnips were roasting over the fire. He stood there looking at those greens. His mouth watered.
“Let me put some seasoning on those little fellows and we can sit and eat,” the sergeant stated as he came up behind him. The sergeant bent down and poured some herbs and other items into a cup. He took the cup from the water bucket and poured about a half a cup into the herbs. He stirred them for a minute or so with his knife. After this, he poured the mixture over the turnips. As the liquid dripped from the vegetables onto the fire, smoke blanketed them.
“Now, they are ready.” He poked one with his knife and tossed it to the private. He caught it and tossed it about for several seconds to cool it down. He sat down and bit into it.
“Good rutabaga, sergeant. My Jayne would be envious.”
He thought about correcting the private about the subtle differences between turnips and rutabagas, but instead, he asked, “I thought she was a good cook, private?”
“She doesn’t cook rutabagas. She won’t allow them in the house.”
“The army Commissary can’t be picky in the field about food, private. You have a job when you get back home to teach her about army food.”
“Yes, Sir.” After he finished the first one, the sergeant gave him a second.
The sergeant watched as the poor boy ate. The private reminded him of his younger brother at home. He wondered how his family was faring. It had been almost a year, a long, endless year.
“Thank you, sergeant.”
“Welcome.” The sergeant replied as he got up and went into his tent and returned shortly with the letter. He handed the letter to the private.
The private’s eyes got big as he held the letter. He thought about Jayne.
“How much do I owe you, Sir?”
“A Sunday supper, son.”
“Sunday supper?” The private looked perplexed.
“After the war, I plan to come visit the places that you men have related to me. All I ask is a Sunday supper.”
“You’re more than welcome to a bunch of Sunday fixings. My Jayne can cook a meal for a king,” he smiled.
The sergeant laughed. “ A king? Thankfully not in this country! A hungry man is a different story for a culinary queen.”
“Yes, Sir. Jayne is a queen.”
“You better get that to the postmaster today. We move out in the morning, private.”
“I have been hearing the men talk. There are Johnny Rebs massing to the south of us. Is that true?”
“Yes, private, it’s true. There’s a battle coming. There are Southern gentlemen waiting our coming.” The sergeant declared as he looked at the southern sky. The sable clouds seemed ominous.
“You seemed troubled in spirit, Sir?”
“Aye! I sense a great battle before us. I have not had this feeling before in this war.”
“Guess, I will have plenty of men to bury in the next few days.”
The sergeant gave him a pitiful look. “I’m afraid so.” He glanced about the fires and wondered for a moment how many of these fine youngsters would be gone a week from now. It sent a cold shudder down his spine.
“Where are we heading, sergeant?”
“A hamlet. Its only fame is the Lutheran Seminary on a hill.”
“Never been to a seminary town. What’s its name, sergeant?”
“Gettysburg,” he said slowly.
The sergeant watched the young solider disappear beyond the night campfires. He uttered a prayer, “Please keep him safe for his Jayne. Please keep them all safe.”
G. D. Williams © 2011
On this 3th of July, I salute all the veterans who have fallen in battle either on the battlefield or at home. To you who are alive we owe a debt of gratitude for which we are unable to pay for your devotion and sacrifice for your country.
Since this short story is about the Civil War, I have listed below some videos about the great American conflict in which over 620,000 died during those bloody years. As Johnny Cash sings, it war was a family war.
Gettysburg Main Theme
Battle Hymn of The Republic
Johnny Cash Ride This Train
Civil War Songs
Civil War Music Video featuring Travis Tritt-The Day The Sun Stood Still