This is a short story, in 1395 words.
It was prompted the above photo, sent to me by Jeanne Owens.
I had watched them go for a long time. They marched past the house carrying the state flag, or the Stars and Bars. Seemed like there wasn’t a man left in the whole of Georgia. At first, people had turned out to watch, and a band played them off to the train, or walked in front of the wagons. I would run back inside and ask Momma, “When can I go, Momma? How soon?” She would wipe her hands on her apron, and stroke my hair. “It’ll all be over, time you’re growed up enough, James. Anyhow, who would help me with the chickens?”
Daddy had already gone, in sixty-one. Momma cried, but he had stood tall, and set his jaw. “Can’t anyone be thinking Ethan Holt is afeared of going, Grace. I gotta go, and you know that”. Tyler was next, soon as he turned sixteen. Oh, how Momma cried. She clung on to Priscilla, and my sister wept too. But I was watching from the gate, waving goodbye to my brother. Later, they came to the house and said he was killed some place in Tennessee. Reverend Cain called it Shiloh, said General Johnston got killed there too.
Sure, I had heard mention of a place called Tennessee, but had no notion where it was at the time.
The following year, Daddy came home. I hardly recognised him. He looked mighty old, more like Grandpa had looked before he died. He came walking down the dirt road using a crutch. At first, I thought it might just be a stranger, looking for food or water. But then I saw the man looked a lot like Daddy, and he had no leg on the right side. Momma and Priscilla cried a lot that night, and I listened to them talking. He had been in a big battle, at a place called Chancellorsville. They said after that General Bobby Lee had won that good. But it cost Daddy his leg, and most of his friends too.
Some old men came to the house, and Daddy sat with them on the porch, smoking pipes, and drinking whiskey. He told them his leg hurt awful bad still, and he wasn’t going to be able to manage the plough. Mr Deakins was looking sad. His two sons had both been killed alongside Tyler, and he never settled in himself after that. “They say this war’s about slaves. I don’t get it. We ain’t got no slaves, and most of us barely manage to get by. My boys and your Tyler went to fight the Yankees for Georgia, not for slaves. They went for the cause, nothing more. You didn’t leave your leg up in Virginia for no slaves, did you Ethan? Daddy puffed on his pipe. “Sure didn’t. That’s the plain truth”.
One day some riders came. They had a horse and cart too, with three boys sitting in back. They took out a paper, and asked Momma if James Jerome Holt was home. She tried to pretend I wasn’t there, but they could see me feeding the chickens. “Is that him, Ma’am?” Momma helped Daddy come out onto the porch.
“What do you want with my boy, Captain? He ain’t but twelve years old”. The elderly officer removed his hat. “Sir, your boy has to come with us, The Army needs him. We are taking all the able bodied young men we can get. It’s the law now, says so on this paper here”. Momma started crying, Priscilla came outside to see what was going on, and Daddy was holding on to the rail. “I already lost my oldest, in sixty-two. I left my best leg in Virginia, fighting for General Lee. Now if you take my boy, how I am I gonna manage this here farm?”
The officer looked at the shabby plot that Daddy called his farm, and put his hat back on. “Well sir, I reckon you and your wife and daughter will have to manage. There’s still a war to fight. Now why don’t someone get his things together, and let’s not have any ructions”.
I was excited, finally getting to go. I would fight for the cause, and one day would sit and tell stories about it to my own children. Before there was any more talking, I climbed up into the cart, smiling at George Harper, a local boy I knew. Momma brought Daddy’s old canvas bag, and handed it up to me, wiping away tears. “There’s a fresh shirt in there, son, and I put in six eggs and some of yesterday’s bread. Don’t squash them now”.
It wasn’t much of a send off, with Mom and Priscilla in tears, and Daddy leaning against the post, his head in his hands.
Maybe I was expecting to be sent to a camp. That seemed to me what would happen. I was definitely expecting to get a grey uniform, and my own rifle, then perhaps be on a train heading north, to see something of the country. When the cart got to town, we were sent to report to an officer. George didn’t even have shoes, and one of the other boys looked so sickly thin, the officer told him to go home. He called a man over to take us away, said we were in the artillery now. The man still wore an old uniform and cap, with a pistol stuffed in his belt. He pointed to the red patches on his sleeves. “See here boys, that’s artillery”. He walked us over to a small gun on wheels, and patted the barrel. “She’s old, but still shoots fine”.
The other men were wearing homespun clothes in a brown colour. They grinned at us as we stood around awkwardly. One yelled out “Hey, Virgil, you been home and got your kids to come and fight?” The man turned and yelled back. “Reckon you can still call me sergeant, William. War ain’t done yet”. I decided to ask something that was on my mind. “Sergeant, I ain’t never fired no cannon. Are you gonna show us how?” He put his hand on my shoulder, and shook his head. “Don’t worry, you’ll be learning on the job. You two boys won’t have to fire nothing, just bring the balls and charges when I tell you”. I was relieved to hear that, and smiled. “So are we going to the war on a train?”
I had never been on a train.
Taking off his cap, he ran a hand over his thinning hair. “Where you been boy, in a cave? There’s no trains, Sherman’s boys ripped up all the tracks. And we won’t have to go to the war, it’s coming here. The blue-bellies already got to Columbus. We have to wait up by the creek, in case we have to go help General Cobb.” I knew that was the biggest city close to home, but it was still a good long way from town.
Seemed funny to me, to be somewhere I knew. When we got down to the spot overlooking the river, I remembered swimming there with Daddy when I was very small. Besides our cannon, there were two others, spaced wide apart. In the shrubs and trees along the bank, infantry soldiers were lounging around, maybe less than ten dozen. The older men helped the sergeant set the gun so it was pointing where they wanted, across at the other bank. Then I remembered the eggs and bread, and a man cooked them on a metal tray over the fire. Only one had got cracked, so I said I would have that one. Late that afternoon, a cavalry trooper rode in. He was wearing a real smart grey uniform, and had a black feather in his cap band.
My sergeant went over to talk to him, along with another man they said was the major. When he got back, I thought he looked like he had been crying.
“It’s all over boys. Just got the news. Said Bobby Lee surrendered the army over a week ago, up in Virginia. We can all go home”. I was confused, and looked back at George, who was smiling and dancing a little jig. I spoke up. “Sergeant, what about the cannon?” He glanced over at his old gun.
“Reckon we’ll just leave it here boy”.