Left, right, left, right. Jeffrey stared at the ground, his vision blurring a little as tears of hunger came to his eyes. Beside him, his friend Albert made a choking sound. “We’ve been marching for days. When are we going to reach food?”
Jeffrey sighed and shifted his rifle, the mere mention of something to eat making his stomach ache. “We’ll get there soon enough, I expect.”
Albert spat savagely at the dusty ground. “ ‘Soon enough’ indeed! At the pace we’re going we should have been there days ago!”
Closing his eyes for a moment, Jeffrey drew in a lungful of air. The inhaling hurt and he coughed. “General Lee is going what is best,” he wheezed, forcing his weary legs to keep moving. “He wouldn’t make us march so hard and so quickly if he didn’t think there would be food waiting at Amelia Courthouse.”
“Think? I can’t live on that man’s thoughts!” Albert hissed. “We’re starving already and our general isn’t even sure our supplies will be at our destination!”
Jeffrey clutched at his gun. “He ordered the supplies to Amelia Courthouse, so they must be there waiting for us! General Lee is a fine man, Albert. My family is good friends with his. He is a born leader. Look how far he’s gotten us!”
Albert looked sarcastically around. The bedraggled Confederate troops stretched before and behind them; tired men struggling to keep upright as they moved along the trail. “It seems to me that he’s taken us too far, and we’re about to go off the end of our line! We’re done for, Jeff. If we meet up with Yanks we’ll all be killed. We’re at the end of the road and Lee’s trying to shove us off the cliff!”
If he hadn’t been carrying a gun and pack, Jeffrey would have clipped Albert on the head. Cumbered as he was, he contented himself with kicking the man, and staring straight ahead. “I have faith in General Lee, Albert. He’ll get us through.”
Albert muttered under his breath, then looked at Jeffrey. “Maybe so. But I don’t feel like sticking around to see him ‘get us through.’ ” He lowered his voice and leaned towards the boy. “If I get the chance, I can slip away and go home.”
Jeffrey tensed. “Don’t, Al! Don’t desert; you’ll be caught and shot. Think of the shame you’d bring to your wife, even if you weren’t caught. She’d have a deserter for a husband.”
“The Yanks are destroying our homeland. You heard yourself what that Sherman is doing to Georgia! If I don’t go to her, she could die. I think I’d rather have her ashamed of me than dead.”
Jeffrey said nothing, but his eyes pleaded with Albert until the man looked away. Staring ahead once more, Jeffrey thought back to his own home. How big had Mary gotten? She had been only seven when he’d left home as a twelve year old going to be a drummer. Jeffrey smiled a little, thinking of himself as that scrawny kid with a drum, marching with the ranks of men carrying rifles and muskets. His smile faded as he remembered pa, riding straight and tall in the Confederate cavalry, only to be shot down at Manassas at the start of the war,
Jeffrey shivered, remembering the feeling of utter and complete loneliness that had surrounded him as he sat alone that first dark night without a father. His forlornness hadn’t lasted long, though. He had swiftly become the camp’s pet, a favorite with the officers and common soldiers alike.
Grinning, Jeffrey pushed his cap back on his head as he remembered the day he had laid down his drum and taken up arms, just before the horrible three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. So many of Jeffrey’s friends had died during those blood-soaked days, especially during the charge up Cemetery Ridge on the third day of battle. It had been a miracle he had come out alive. He had watched in numb horror as dozens of men fell to the brutal killing. His closest friend, Gabriel, had fallen by a bayonet thrust from his own brother, who had sided with the Union. Jeffrey had been utterly sickened by the whole experience, war taking on a new light and meaning that he had been blind to as a drummer.
Jeffrey coughed into his sleeve. I wonder how Gil... but no, he would not think of his twin brother. It was too painful. Please, God, let us reach food and a resting place soon!
He knew they would make it in time. He was sure of it! Gilbert jammed his cap to the back of his head and smiled up at the sun. Soon they would catch up with the rebels as they fled towards the west, and then there would be a battle, perhaps one that would end the war! He clutched his rifle tighter and lifted his chin. The end was in sight, and then he could go... home.
His jaunty spirit left him with a sickening bound and his shoulders slumped. Home.
“Gil, old boy, what’s wrong?” Lanky Edwin knocked his friend cheerfully with his elbow. “Why the long face? Are you tired? Don’t worry; we’ll catch up with those Rebs and whup ‘em good! Then the war will be over and we can all go home!”
“That’s the problem, Ed,” Gilbert frowned. “What if I’m not welcome at home?”
Edwin’s jovial look faded. “Oh. That’s right; you’re Southern.”
Gilbert nodded. “You know where my loyalty lies, Ed, but my family...” He trailed off and stared at his boots.
Edwin switched his musket to his other shoulder and patted Gilbert’s arm. “Aww, your folks will still welcome you home, old boy, despite your differences. Surely your own ma wouldn’t turn you away. And your pa--”
“My pa’s in the Rebel troops,” Gilbert interrupted, his words sounding almost angry. “I don’t know where he is, or if he’s even alive.”
Edwin ducked his head. “I’m sorry, Gil.”
Gilbert managed a clumsy-feeling smile “That’s all right. Perhaps when I get home, pa’ll be there waiting for me.” He chuckled a little. “Maybe ready to whip me good for running off.”
“I keep forgetting you ran away.”
“Yes. I expect he was real mad. Pa, I mean. But I couldn’t go with him and Jeff to join the Rebels, I just couldn’t. No matter how angry he got.” Gilbert could still see his father’s face when he had refused to join up as a Confederate drummer boy with Jeffrey...
“Gilbert Scott Coles, you will either sign up with Jeffrey, or you’ll stay at home. Those are your only choices. I will hear no more of your preference to join the Union. We are strictly Southern, not Northern, and don’t you forget it. I will not sign papers giving my allowance for you to join the Yanks”
Gilbert clenched his teeth. “Pa, you don’t seem to understand. I don’t want to fight against you. But I can’t and won’t join up with Confederates. It’s wrong, and nothing you can say will make me change my mind.”
Pa’s face had gone a little red. “Listen to me, young man. The Confederacy is a fine thing, and I won't have you speaking ill of it.”
Gilbert felt his own face flush. “Then I won't say anything at all.”
His father looked at him angrily for a moment, then turned on his heel and stalked inside, leaving Gilbert alone with Jeffrey.
“Gil, why don’t you come?” Jeffrey asked softly, creeping closer to his twin brother.
Gilbert folded his arms. “I won’t go against the government. Pa can yell and threaten all he likes. He won’t change my mind.”
Jeffrey drew in a deep breath. “He wants you to come, not just because he and I are going, but because he loves you, and wants you to be safe, and near to him.”
Gilbert snorted. “Like I’m going to believe that. Get lost, Jeff. It’s as plain as day he likes you better, no matter how hard I try to please him. You needn’t try to make me think otherwise. I know better. You're his favorite and I don’t matter.”
The words were bitter, laced with venom and Jeffrey shrank back, his eyes clouded over with hurt and a little anger. “Very well. If all you want to do is pity yourself, than I’m going in. But you’re wrong, Gil. You’re wrong.”
“How do you know, little pet?” Gilbert jumped to his feet. You’re so spoiled and loved, what would you know of suffering? You can’t imagine what I’ve been through”
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself!” Jeffrey raged, getting up as well. “You are the worst kind of baby I ever met! If you want pa to love and admire and be proud of you, then do something to win that love and admiration! You really think he’s gonna feel sorry for you because all you do is pout and say he loves me more?
“Oh, and I do know what suffering is! How dare you say I don’t understand! Know what? You don’t understand!”
Gilbert felt his heart sting. He reached out a hand to touch his brother’s arm. “Jeff, listen, I’m...” But Jeffrey pulled away and ran into the house, the door slamming behind him. Gilbert stared after him, feeling horrible. Then, creeping to the window, he peered in.
Pa was sitting by the fire cleaning his gun, Mary and Jeffrey beside him. Ma was in her rocking chair, knitting one last pair of socks for her Confederate boys to take with them. Gilbert watched the little family circle with a clench in his stomach that rose and gripped his heart as well. For a moment he stood watching, but before his eyes rose an image of the American flag.
Duty was calling. Taking one last look at his home, he slipped away northward through the trees. He never looked back....
Gilbert started, pulling out his memories and staring at Edwin. “Huh?”
“You look like you’re about to fall asleep.”
“Oh... no, I’m awake.” He gave a small grin and kept marching, but the light had gone out of the day.
Just keep marching, Jeffrey thought doggedly, just keep marching. One foot, then the other. Just keep marching.
Jeffrey licked his lips. Sweat trickled down his nose, despite the cool weather. The gnawing in his stomach was growing bigger. Pressing the butt of his rifle to his stomach to hold off the pain, he gnawed on his lower lip, trying to pretend he was chewing meat.
He needed something better to chew on. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled the slip of paper that was pinned to his shirt into view. The paper was tattered and worn, stained slightly with blood, and on it was scratched his name.
Jeffrey H. Coles
Pa had made him write it out and pin it on before their first battle....
“It’s just in case,” Pa said gruffly. His dark eyes looked deeply at Jeffrey and there was a flash of pain in them that made the boy shudder. “Just in case something happens...”
He gripped Jeffrey’s shoulders, his fingers strong. “Let me be perfectly clear, Jeff. You're twelve; I think you can bear it. If you should be killed, I want people to know who you are. I do not want my son to be buried in an unmarked grave.”
Jeffrey pinned the paper securely to his shirt and nodded firmly. “Now you, pa.”
Pa’s eyes softened and he penned his own slip, then allowed Jeffrey to pin it on his red shirt. The red shirt had been a present from ma. Pa had had a blue one that had been his favorite, but he had not packed it to go to war because of its color....
Jeffrey sighed. It had only been a day later that the slip of paper on pa’s shirt had been needed. Pa lay in a marked grave back in a field in Manassas, Virginia, thanks to that paper. Jeffrey’s heart ached and he looked at his own name slip. Tearing off a part of the paper that didn’t have any writing on it, he stuffed it into his mouth. It tasted awful, but this was something better to chew on than his lip.
Beside him, Albert groaned. “We’d better get there soon or...” He trailed off as an officer on horseback approached them, and only shook his head grimly.
“We’re almost there, men,” the officer said briskly. “Keep up the pace, lads; our destination is in view!”
Jeffrey’s heart leapt. They were almost at Amelia Courthouse! Soon they could rest and eat before they would have to go to battle.
The exhausted troops seemed to pick themselves up from the dust and move forward with a weak burst of renewed energy. Even Albert stopped complaining long enough to make a good pace. Jeffrey felt energy, albeit a small amount, coursing through his veins. Food! Supplies! The thought that these things were nearly in their grasp tickled his stomach and made his aching head clear.
For a few minutes the men marched swiftly, eagerly. Then they were ordered to halt. They had reached Amelia Courthouse. Jeffrey strained to see the town, but soldiers in front of him blocked his view. It took all of his willpower to keep in line and not bolt crazily toward the town.
Why aren’t we ordered to fall out of line? he wondered, shifting from one foot to the other. The scrap of paper in his mouth was stuck to his teeth and he tried to dislodge it.
Then suddenly, a groan rippled through the lines of soldiers and the army seemed to slump its tired shoulders.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Jeffrey asked to anyone around who might know. A burning sensation of dread was gathering in his throat. He swallowed the paper in a gulp.
General Lee rode up on his horse, Traveller. Jeffrey straightened his shoulders and tried to look as brave as possible. “Men,” the general said slowly, as if the words pained him, “I bring sad news.” His words rang over the silent men and Jeffrey held his breath. “I had ordered supplies to be sent here ahead of us, but, to my great sorrow, they have not arrived.”
Jeffrey felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. No.
“I will send out foragers to search for food,” Lee continued, his voice sounding heavy. “But then we must march on. We must keep going to join General Johnston.”
The general paused and gazed out over the assembled men. "I know that I ask an arduous thing of you; you who have already been through so much. But, for the sake of our Confederacy, I must ask you to press on."
Jeffrey had tears in his eyes. For a moment all was quiet. Then, in one movement, the ranks of dusty, tired, starving men pumped their fists in the air and let out their blood-curdling Rebel howl, screaming their loyalty to their great leader.
His throat hurting from his shriek, Jeffrey waved his rifle in the air. He thought he saw tears glistening in the general's eyes as Lee bowed his head in thanks and rode away.
As their leader disappeared from view, the men shuffled, sighed, and waited to see who would be chosen to hunt for food. Jeffrey slid his bedroll off and rubbed his tired shoulders. He had faith in General Lee, but his spirits were low. How much harder would it be to march now? Would they ever get food?
Trying to ignore the questions that pounded his brain and the largening gap of hunger in his stomach, he squatted down and waited to see what would happen next.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing he could see that would be remotely edible. Jeffrey kicked at the hard ground. Perhaps they could eat treebark? But no. Eating bark would only make him lose what little he still had in his stomach.
After searching desperately for a little longer, Jeffrey gave up and headed back towards the makeshift camp. He had searched for food with some of the other men for nearly two hours and all he had to show for his labours was a handkerchief of measly berries and five ears of old corn. Hardly a feast. Their supper would be meager tonight.
Arriving back at the camp, he looked for Albert, who had also been sent out to forage. The man was nowhere to be seen and Jeffrey’s heart plummeted to his boots. Albert... he couldn’t have deserted, could he? For the rest of the day, Jeffrey kept a sharp eye out for the grumpy man, but with no success. Albert was gone.
What should I do? I can’t turn my friend in by telling an officer that’s he probably deserted, Jeffrey thought agonizedly. I just can’t! How could I betray him like that?
“Jeff, have you seen Albert anywhere?”
Jeffrey started and turned to his friend Warren, who had just spoken to him. His face went hot, then cold, and he swallowed. “Um, no sir. Not recently. Not since General Lee told us our circumstances.”
Warren frowned and rubbed at his bearded chin. “You don’t suppose he deserted, do you?”
Jeffrey looked away, but Warren took him by the shoulders and turned the boy towards him. “Do you know, Jeff?”
“I don’t know for certain, sir. He was thinking about it.”
The lieutenant bit his lip. “I’d better go talk to the colonel.”
Jeffrey jumped and caught the man’s sleeve as he moved away. “Warren-- Lieutenant Curtis-- please don’t let them shoot him! If they find him, I mean. He’s got a wife and two-- no, three young children at home!”
Warren looked keenly at Jeffrey, his brown eyes sad. “I’ll do my best, Jeff, but deserting is a terrible thing, especially now when we need all the men we can get.” Abruptly, he turned and walked away, leaving Jeffrey to worry and wait.
It was nearing evening when the searchers found Albert. The man was dragged back into camp, and Jeffrey caught a glimpse of the man’s haggard, angry expression before he was hauled off to stand before his commanding officers.
Jeffrey looked down at the pitiful amount of food he had been rationed out for supper. What he had already chewed stuck to his throat and he coughed, forcing it down. Dear Lord, please don’t let them kill Albert!
A few minutes later the soldiers were called to line up. Years of war had hardened Jeffrey’s nerves, but his heart was racing wildly at the thought of what was about to happen. As he stepped into line, his eyes took in the scene at a glance.
Albert, his hands tied, standing in front of a shallow grave. A row of men with loaded rifles. An officer standing by, ready to give the fateful order. Jeffrey had seen the sight many times, and each time had been horrible, but this time was worse. He knew Albert well.
“Aim,” came the brisk call, and the soldiers in the line lifted their rifles to shoulder height. Albert’s eyes were on the sky.
The rifles went off in a crash of noise, Albert gave a cry, and Jeffrey lunged forward all at the same time. Warren grabbed the boy by his collar and hauled him back against his chest as Albert crumpled into his grave.
His whole body shaking, Jeffrey let Warren give him a hug of support. “It’s my fault, sir,” he whispered as Albert was quickly buried and the men began to get in line to march. “I told on him. I got him killed.”
Warren held Jeffrey by the shoulders and shook him gently. “No, Jeff. It wasn’t your fault. Another man had already reported his desertion. Before you told me. I found out when I went to report. It’s not your fault, boy. Now come on. It’s time to get on the move.”
Jeffrey saluted, blinking back tears. “Yes, sir.” He moved to get in line, but his heart was heavy, pulling at him painfully. Albert was dead. As the army moved along the darkening road, he gazed at the ground, not lifting his eyes.
The Rebels would be here soon. Gilbert shifted from one foot to the other. The Union army had successfully reached Appomattox Courthouse before the Rebels, having first cut off the Confederates’ route to join General Johnston. And now they were waiting, ready for battle.
“D’ya think they’ll get here soon?” Gilbert asked Edwin, who was standing beside him, his musket cradled in his arms.
Edwin shrugged. “I hope so. I’m plain sick of just standing here.”
Gilbert chuckled. “We’ve only been waiting half a day. Patience will always win out. That’s what my pa would say to me and Jeff.”
“You really miss them, don’t you?” Edwin asked, then winced. “That was a stupid thing to say. Sorry.”
“It’s all right. I never imagined I would miss them this badly. Perhaps... perhaps they’ll be in this battle.”
“You wouldn’t shoot them, would you?”
Gilbert’s face went hot. “Never!”
“Well,” Edwin said, “if you see them, point ‘em out to me and I won’t either; for your sake.”
“Thanks Ed,” Gilbert said, slapping his friend on the back.
“They’re coming!” The words ran excitedly through the ranks as a hasty order to ready arms was given. The sun was going down, and there was not much chance there would be a battle that day, but Gilbert guessed the officers wanted the troops to be ready, just in case.
After their guns were loaded, Edwin hoisted Gilbert up so he was able to see clearly past his fellow soldiers and the cavalry out in front. At first, he saw no troops, but then, simply dragging themselves along, came the enervated Rebels. Gilbert felt a stab of pity, followed by one of fear. Surely, with such exhaustion showing, the men must be hungry as well as tired. Many might have fallen in their march to Appomattox Courthouse. If Jeffrey was in those ranks.... Gilbert pictured the stick-thin figure of his twin. Jeffrey might be already dead; fallen prey to starvation and fatigue.
Gilbert dropped back to the ground beside Edwin. No. Jeff has to be alive so we can home with pa when this dreadful war is over. Please, dear God, let him be alive.
The men waited. The Confederates had halted, and now all was quiet. Gilbert knew there would be no battle that night.
Wonder if General Lee will surrender soon? he thought to himself as he and Edwin finally bedded down for the night. Surely his troops are in no shape to fight! But maybe he still has a trick or two up his sleeve. When he used to visit us, he was always finding ways to fool Jeff and me in that dignified way of his. I wonder if he’s changed any in four years?
I hope General Grant is careful in case Lee does have a trick. We're so close to winning this whole war!
Morning came. Jeffrey got in line with an empty stomach but a heart full of devotion for his leader. This might turn out to be his last battle, but he would give it all he had just the same. He felt lonely without grumpy Albert and tried not to look at the space by his side that was now filled with a different soldier; a cheerful, dedicated one named Oswald Lite.
Slowly at first, but then more swiftly, the Rebel lines began to move. As when General Lee had asked them to keep going, back at Amelia Courthouse, Jeffrey felt a surge of power and energy flow through him. Taking a deep breath, he let out the best Rebel howl he had ever given and charged. Shrieks and howls echoing around him, the Confederates ran straight towards the Union cavalry, which fell back in surprise. For a few moments, Jeffrey’s heart filled with hope. Perhaps.... perhaps they could win after all!
But then, to his shock and horror, as the cavalry moved away, he saw row after row after row of strong, ready Union infantry. These tough, healthy men began to advance, their bayonets gleaming in the morning sun. Jeffrey felt his fingers tremble and he skidded to an abrupt halt. His companions and he were no match for these warriors.
Well, so be it. He would fight anyway. Jeffrey was about to move forward again when one of his commanding officers galloped his horse between the two lines, a white flag fluttering in his hand.
Jeffrey went numb. A white flag. This could mean only one thing; his great leader was about to surrender.
It was very quiet, as quiet as a hot evening in mid-summer. Gilbert stood at attention, his eyes following General Lee as the handsome and dignified man entered the house of a man by the name of McLean, in which the two leaders were to meet and discuss surrender terms.
Gilbert’s limbs were shaking with suppressed excitement. What was going on in that house? He would give anything to know what was happening. Beside him, Edwin was jiggling his knee, apparently not able to keep entirely still either.
Sitting down on the ground, Gilbert stuck a blade of grass in his mouth and chewed on it. Around him, soldiers stood or sat, talking quietly amongst themselves. Each man knew that in that humble parlor, the future of America was being decided. Lee was surrendering.
The minutes passed by. Gilbert stared at the sky, waiting, waiting. This is it. The war is ending. We’re about to be the victors. There was a movement among the men nearer to the house and Gilbert scrambled to his feet, looking fixedly at the door and pulling Edwin by the arm to get his friend to stand up.
A moment later, the door opened. General Grant came out first, followed by Lee. The Confederate general’s shoulders were slumped and his face was sad, tired, and very old-looking.
The two men shook hands and Lee mounted his horse. Edwin fired his gun into the air, followed by a few other men. In a flash, Grant turned on him and the other men. "The war is over; the Rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.” The guns fell silent.
Gilbert followed Lee with his eyes as the general rode past. When the horse had turned a bend in the road, the Union ranks exploded into cheers and shouts of joy. Men fell to their knees and thanked God, soldiers were hugging, jumping, kissing each other’s cheeks.
“It’s over! We’ve won! Oh Gil, we’re going home!!!!” Edwin grabbed Gilbert and crushed him into the biggest bear hug ever and Gilbert in return pounded his friend’s back and whooped for joy.
Gilbert looked around the camp, the smile on his face feeling so huge he felt that it might stretch right off his cheeks. To his amazement, he saw one man rush up and give General Grant a hug, the stammer an apology. But the general only laughed and returned the hug.
Gilbert took off along the field, his heart singing. The breeze kissed his hot face as he ran past tents and horses, cooling them and running over his body like a stream of water. Reaching the end of the camp, he rounded a corner and skidded to a halt. He had come upon General Lee, who was paused in his ride back to his defeated troops.
The general and the private looked at each other. Lee was the first to speak. “Private Jeffrey Coles? Have you joined the Union army so swiftly?”
Gilbert felt his heart buck and he took a step back. Jeffrey. Had General Lee seen his brother? He shook his head. “No, sir. I’’m Private Gilbert Coles. Jeffrey is my twin brother, remember? Have you seen him recently? Is he all right?”
The general dismounted. “Indeed I have, Gilbert. He is in my ranks at present, and is doing very well, though he’s very hungry, I am sure, as all my poor soldiers are.” He paused. “Do you remember when I used to visit your family?”
Gilbert flushed. “Yes, sir.” The man’s eyes were fixed on him and he bent his head.
“Why did you join against your father?” The words, though spoken kindly, did not hide their bluntness.
Gilbert lifted his head. “I didn’t want to fight against pa, or Jeff, or you, sir. But I knew my loyalty lay in the Union, and no one, not friends or family, could make me join the Confederates.” His eyes locked with General Lee’s. “Sir, I respect and admire you as one of the best men I have ever known. But not even our families’ friendship could get me to join your army. As your loyalty lay to Virginia, so mine lay to the Union. Even though it meant leaving home, father, and brother, I knew that I would join the Union. I am sorry if you blame me for joining against you and pa, but I am not sorry for the choice of side I made.”
General Lee looked at him for a long moment. “That was a fine and noble speech, Gilbert. Your father would have been proud of you. I know he was the last time I saw him. Saddened, but proud. He loved you.”
Gilbert’s throat closed. “Pa?” he whispered, feeling his face grow numb. “Is he... dead?”
General Lee bowed his head. “Yes. I’m sorry, Gilbert.”
Letting his own head sink down, Gilbert managed, “Thank you, sir, for telling me.” Pa. You’re gone. You’re gone and I didn’t get to say goodbye, or that I love you, or that I’m sorry for running. But you loved me. I joined against you, but you were proud of me all the same. Slowly, he raised his head, tears still clinging to his eyelashes.
Lee held out his hand. “I would be proud and honored to shake the hand of a loyal Union soldier, a friend, and a fellow countryman.”
Gilbert clasped the man’s hand with his own. “And I would be proud and honored to shake the hand of a noble and worthy leader, a friend, and a fellow countryman.”
They shook hands.
“Now,” Lee said, his eyes still sad, “get on back to your camp before Grant thinks you’ve deserted.” He mounted his horse.
“Yes, sir,” Gilbert said bravely. He saluted, and as the horse moved away, Lee saluted back.
“He’s coming back,” Jeffrey called, his ears catching the sound of Traveller’s hooves. The Confederate army heaved up from the ground and straightened out its rumpled edges as General Lee came into view. The men let out a rousing cheer for him, which died away when they saw their leader’s sad face.
Jeffrey’s shoulders slumped. General Lee had really surrendered. The war was over. They had lost. Tears welled in his eye, but he choked back the sob rising in his throat and went forward with the men to touch Lee as he rode slowly, oh so slowly past.
"I thank you, men, for the bravery, valor and unchecked enthusiasm for our cause. I could not have asked, nor never will ask, for a better and more dedicated army. My loyal soldiers, I thank you with all my heart. In three days, we will lay down our arms before the Union army, bravely, and like the men that we are, after which you may go home."
Jeffrey was crying now, and not the only one to do so. The men and boys pressed near to their beloved Lee, thanking him in broken voices for leading them so well. Reaching out, Jeffrey touched Lee’s leg.
The general looked down and gave a small smile. Halting Traveller, he said softly, “Private Coles, I have seen and spoken to your brother, Gilbert. He is well and strong.”
That was all. Lee moved on, but Jeffrey stood still, as if stuck to the ground. Gilbert. His brother was still alive.
The lines of Union soldiers stretched out in front of him, the men standing straight and at attention. The Confederates moved forward slowly, and the pile of surrendered weapons and flags grew steadily larger. Jeffrey gripped his gun with one hand and his cartridge box in the other. In a few minutes he would have to give them up. Beside him, Oswald grasped his flag. His eyes were full of tears, and one finger was gently stroking the tattered and bloody fabric.
As the brigade in front of him approached the pile, Jeffrey heard a Union general call out, “Carry arms!” With a clatter, the Union soldiers of the general’s command lifted their guns in a salute of honor to the defeated men.
Jeffrey did not look around to see if others would do the same as he. Touched deeply by the respect shown to the brigade of the deceased General Jackson, he carried arms himself, even though his own brigade had not been the one slauted. The clatters all around him said that the other Confederate soldiers were giving the salute as well. It was a quiet, solemn moment as each side honored the other.
Then the line was moving forward once again, and Jeffrey reached the pile. For a long moment, he stood still, clinging to his gun. Oswald, tears of sadness and perhaps anger running down his cheeks, kissed the folds of the banner he had carried bravely through so many battles, then laid it down, loving fingers straightening the battered cloth for the last time.
Jeffrey set down first his cartridge box, then his gun. As his fingers left the weapon, a wave of grief came over him, but also a wave of glad relief. The war was over. After four long years, years that had changed him deeply, he could go home.
He lifted his eyes from the stack. Somehow, as he gazed into the ranks of Union soldiers, his eyes found only one face. Gilbert, standing tall and strong, with eyes full of bright tears. Gilbert, the Yankee. Gilbert, his twin.
It could have seemed like a dream, but it was real enough, for Gilbert felt the tears in his eyes, sensed the joyous thrill of solace at the sight of Jeffrey, experienced the pang of anguish-filled longing in his heart for the father he would never see again.
The brothers did not move towards each other, they only looked, gazed, watched. Then other men were moving forward and Jeffrey was lost from Gilbert’s view.
All that day Gilbert hoped for a chance to see his brother, but none came. The next day the Union army was off to Washington D.C for a grand review, and Gilbert left the dispersing Confederate camp, and his brother, far behind.
The days that followed were whirlwind of excitement, cheers, speeches and parading. Two hundred thousand Union men marched on Pennsylvania Avenue before crowds of ecstatic people, and more importantly, the President himself. Gilbert never forgot that day. Younger boys whooped and jumped and waved, men tossed their hats in the air and shouted, women clapped and cried and waved their handkerchiefs. Some of the crowd went so far as to venture out onto the street and touch the soldiers, as if it were a miracle that they were there, safe and alive.
One face in particular Gilbert never forgot. President Lincoln’s wrinkled, tired but inexpressibly joyful face. As Gilbert marched past the Executive Mansion, his eyes rested on the kind features. The President looked at him. Gilbert looked at the President. They both saluted. And Gilbert marched on.
What should he do now? Jeffrey rolled his head from side to side. Gilbert was gone, the Confederate army was gone, the war was over. Now what? Perhaps he should head towards Washington D.C and look for Gil. But no, he might miss him and be stuck wandering around in a strange part of the North-- no, country. They were one nation again. He kept forgetting.
It had been a week since that surrender of arms. Jeffrey had stayed in the house of a kind lady, but today he had left, not wanting to impose upon her anymore. Now he stood in the middle of an empty road, with no food, no money, nothing but the tattered uniform he had worn the entire war.
Might as well start walking. Why should I wait for Gilbert? He’ll probably be all victorious and proud that his side won out. The beast. As he continued walking, more and more angry, bitter thoughts flooded Jeffrey’s mind.
Maybe he’ll try to comfort me. But what does he know of what I’ve been through? Nothing can compare. He and the rest of the Yanks had it easy. He’ll never understand. Good thing I’m not giving him a chance to try. By the time he gets back from Washington I’ll be home already. And by the time he gets home, I can have gone off to live somewhere else, where I won’t have to be with him....
Jeffrey shook his head. No, he couldn’t go away. Ma and Mary would need him. After not seeing them for four years, how could he bear to live away from them? He would have to stay and try to deal with Gilbert as he could.
Dear God, he prayed silently, how can I live with him now? More than a war has pulled us apart. There’s anger, hurt, bitterness, jealousy, hundreds of miles, blue and grey, loyalties, leaders. We’re so different now. How can we ever be brothers again?
Tears were coming to his eyes and he sank down on the ground. Lord, I wish things hadn’t changed, he prayed in his head. I wish this war had never happened. There’s just too much hurt and pain. Too many memories of horrible things that have happened, memories of people who aren’t coming home again.
The roads looked so familiar, so dear to his eyes. That was the only thing that brought happiness to Jeffrey as he stumbled along, Everything else was making him feel like crying. The Georgia town he had lived in his whole life was in shambles. The people who were still around stared at him quietly, dismally. A few raised their hands in greeting, but none moved from their crouches beside the ruins that were their homes. The rumors had been true. General Sherman had destroyed Georgia, or at least this part of it.
Jeffrey felt himself trembling as each step took him closer to home. What would he find there? The words from a song came to his mind, pounding over and over again.
When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah
We’ll give him a heart welcome then, hurrah, hurrah
The men will cheer and the boys will shout,
The ladies they will all turn out,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home...
One step, then another. Jeffrey had his eyes on the ground. The words from the song came to his lips and he began to sing them in a faltering whisper. His home was just around the clump of trees ahead, but he afraid to look, afraid to go near, afraid of what he would find. Or more like, not find. “When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah... hurrah... We’ll give him a hearty... welcome then, hurrah.... hu..”
He turned the corner. The sight that met his eyes made him stop as still as a summer night. His home was no longer a house. An empty, ruined shamble of boards and stone lay before him, all that was left of the home he had journeyed from four long, tiresome years before.
“And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching... home.” The words left his lips in a sob and Jeffrey sat down on the road and cried.
Jeffrey jumped to his feet and whirled around, and his eyes landed on a Gilbert, standing quite still on the road.
They stood for a moment, looking at each other. Each still wore the tatters of his old uniform, blue and grey facing each other in silence. A whirlwind of thoughts were catapulting themselves through Jeffrey’s head. He’s already here. I don’t have time to prepare myself, to talk to ma. Ma’s not even here. What if she’s dead too? And Mary? What if she was killed? What if Gil and I are the only ones left?
Jeffrey bit his lip. A rift of angered jealousy, a war, and opposing sides all stood between them. Did he want break down this barrier so they could be as they had been four long years before? From the emotion on Gilbert’s face, Jeffrey knew his brother was thinking and wondering along the same lines.
Jeffrey turned his face towards the ground. “How did you get here so fast?” The words were careful, icy, edged with broken glass.
“I took a train.”
A train. While he had walked so many long, weary miles, his twin had taken a luxurious train ride. “How did you pay for it?”
“My salary from the army.” Gilbert came forward and touched Jeffrey’s arm. “Can’t we be friends again, Jeff? I’ve missed you and pa. Now that he’s gone... we’ll need each other. Can’t you see that?”
Jeffrey turned away. “I have to look for ma and Mary,” he said abruptly. “They might be dead. I have to find them.”
“I already did,”Gilbert said softly, and Jeffrey stopped. “They’re staying a neighbor’s house about a mile up the road. They’re fine.”
Jeffrey turned on his brother. “So. Not only do you get home first, but you get to see ma and Mary first.”
Gilbert blinked at him. “Is that a crime? The’re my family just as much as yours.”
“No, it isn’t a crime.” Jeffrey blinked himself, trying to keep frustrated tears from coming. “Well, then, I have to find Albert’s wife.”
“Albert? Albert Stoner, that grumpy farmer who was our neighbor before the war?” Gilbert raised his eyebrows.
“Yes!” Jeffrey choked back a sob. “Don’t you understand? He’s dead, and I have to tell his wife. I’m not going over for a friendly chat. I have to tell her that her husband deserted, was caught, and shot, right before my eyes! That my friend and companion for the entire war was killed. That friend is her husband! He’s dead, and he isn't coming back! Why can’t you understand?” He was shouting and crying at the same time, shaking hard.
Gilbert took his arm. “Jeff, I do understand.”
“Why should I believe you? What would you know of suffering? You can’t imagine what I’ve been through!” Jeffrey shouted.
Suddenly they were both very quiet. Like a thunderbolt, Jeffrey realized he had just said what Gilbert had shouted four long years before. His brother had thought he didn’t understand suffering and pain was. And now he didn’t think Gilbert knew. Their places had been switched. And now he suddenly understood.
“You know now,” Gilbert said softly.
Jeffrey nodded, unable to say anything.
“I wanted to say that I was sorry when we had that fight all those years ago,” his brother continued. “I know it’s a bit late, but I think we’re both still hurt from it. Jeff, I was wrong to say the things I did. You were right; pa did love me. I probably knew it all along, but so many doubts and so much hurt and fear was in the way I couldn’t see it clearly.” He coughed and shifted from one foot to the other. “What I mean is, I’m sorry. I think we both understand each other better now. I’d like to move past what had happened to both of us and be brothers, be friends again.”
Jeffrey hugged himself, his fingers digging into his side. All his anger was gone, and only a tired hurt was left. For a long moment he stared at the ground. Gilbert was right. They needed to move on. Gilbert might not know physically what he had been through, but all the same, his brother understood. His brother wanted to move on.
Jeffrey raised his head and met his brother’s eyes. He was not going to harbor the hurt and pain of the past any longer. Gilbert was his brother, no matter what. Slowly, he held out his hand.
They shook, and in that clasp was wiped away the blood and pain, the anger and bitterness of a four year war, and a lifetime of striving to be the best and be loved the most by pa. Suddenly, like a cool rain on parched earth, all the hurtful feelings washed away, leaving two sixteen year olds standing on the dirt road, hands clasped. They were aged by war, strengthened by sorrow, pain and loss, but infinitely happy.
“I’m sorry,” Jeffrey whispered “I know you understand.” Gilbert’s arms went around him then, and they were laughing, crying, regaining the love that had been pulled taut over the years, not just by the war, but by strife and sadness at home. Pulled taut, but not broken. The war was over. After four long years, they were at home. Together.
The Surrender of Appomattox Court House was on April 9, 1865.