Fall 2010 Advanced Writing Class Journal
Historical Fiction From the EIE Advanced Writing Class
by Beth Leehem.
The Civil War
1864 – I was helping little Sara get the remaining knots out of her hair from last night’s fitful sleep when my world came crashing down. When I heard the knock on our front door I told Sara to stay in our bedroom and walked out into the hallway just as Mother was opening the door. In front of her stood a man I did not recognize. He was tall with a shaggy beard and dressed in a blue uniform. My heart sunk just about the same time I saw Mother turn pale white. They exchanged greetings and Sara, ignoring my instructions, scurried out of our bedroom, hid behind me and hugged my leg.
The man introduced himself as Private Donahue and asked to speak to Father. When Mother told Private Donahue that Father was out of town, he said he had a telegram for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. As he handed her an envelope he said, “I regret, Ma’am, to have to be the bearer of this news – my deepest condolences.” And with that, he turned and left.
Mother closed the door and I saw that tears were already rolling down her cheek even though she had yet to open the letter. She took the sheet of paper out of the envelope and unfolded it as if it would explode if she handled it the wrong way. As her eyes scanned the paper, a strange gasping noise came out of her and she shook her head while she brought her hand up to cover her mouth.
Everything that happened after that was a big blur. But this I knew for sure: my life would never be the same again. Adam – my brother, my best friend, the substance that held our family together – was dead. I understand now that Adam’s death, along with many, many others, helped shape the future for our country, but at age fourteen the only thing that mattered to me was that Adam was gone forever.
A little part of us all died that day along with Adam.
Poor Mother tried to be strong for the sake of Sara and me, but I could still hear her muffled sobs at night when she thought we were asleep. She would tell me again and again, “Everything is going to be alright, Emily.” Though, I think she was trying to convince herself more than me. We tried explaining to Sara that Adam was not coming back, but, at age four, that was a hard thing to comprehend, so she continued to ask us where he was, when he was coming back and why he wasn’t there to tuck her in at night. We tried to get word to Father, but we were in the middle of winter, and harsh weather conditions prevented us from doing so.
I knew I still had Father, Mother and Sara, but I had never felt more alone in my entire life. Until one day, we got a letter…a letter from Adam. It was dated November 16, 1864. He had died on December 2, 1864. The letter had taken exactly forty-four days to reach us.
The letter said:
My dearest family,
AS I WRITE THIS LETTER, I CAN BARELY FEEL MY FINGERS BECAUSE OF THIS SEVERE WINTER WEATHER, SO I MUST APOLOGIZE FOR MY POOR PENMANSHIP. HOWEVER, I’M PLEASED TO LET YOU KNOW I HAVE YET TO LOSE ANY FINGERS OR TOES TO FROSTBITE UNLIKE MANY OF MY UNLUCKY FELLOW SOLDIERS.
LIFE IN THE SERVICE IS A HARD THING TO BEAR. I MISS YOU ALL SO MUCH AND OFTEN FIND MYSELF RELIVING PAST, JOYOUS MEMORIES HOPING YOU, TOO, ARE DOING THE SAME.
NOW, I HAVE MERRY NEWS TO DELIVER TO YOU. I HAVE SPENT MANY HOURS THINKING HOW I WILL TELL YOU ALL AND HAVE DECIDED THAT I SHOULD JUST COME FORTH AND SAY IT: I HAVE GOTTEN MARRIED. HER NAME IS ELIZABETH MCCLELLAN AND SHE IS THE MOST WONDERFUL PERSON I HAVE EVER MET. SHE IS A NURSE AND WE MET WHILE MY FRIEND BUCK WAS INJURED. SHE HAS A WAY OF ALWAYS LOOKING ON THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HORRIBLE SITUATIONS AND AFTER WE MET, I SOON REALIZED THAT IS ONE THING I HAD BEEN MISSING AND REALLY NEEDED. I KNOW YOU WILL ALL LOVE HER AND WELCOME HER INTO OUR FAMILY. I CANNOT WAIT FOR YOU TO MEET HER AND FOR US ALL TO BE TOGETHER AGAIN.
DO NOT WORRY FOR ME; I AM FIGHTING FOR A WORTHY CAUSE. I LOVE YOU ALL SO VERY MUCH. I WILL SEE YOU AGAIN SOON.
And so began my journey to find the woman who made my brother fall in love with her.
* * *
I knew Mother would disapprove and Sara would cry, begging me to stay, frightened of losing yet another sibling. The only one that would at least begin to understand the feelings and thoughts that were plunging into my body and head would be Father.
Even though Mother always meant well and was one of the sweetest ladies I had ever known, she had never fully understood me and I had never fully understood her. She was beautiful with long golden blonde hair, blue eyes and full red lips. She was always very proper and all the girls my age looked up to her. I was the exception.
I tried, though. I tried my hardest to look and act like her. I remember days when all I would do was sit in a chair and study her movements as she walked around the house doing daily chores. I would make mental notes on how her lips always looked somewhat puckered, how she never slouched, how she always took quiet and rather small steps for my taste and the way she would raise her head, her chin always being slightly pointed up toward the ceiling.
I would sit in my room, in front of my mirror and pucker my lips, throw my shoulders back and tilt my head backward, but I never looked beautiful or graceful the way Mother always did. It made me look self-centered, conceited and also a bit deformed! Then again, I didn’t have naturally flowing blonde hair, blue eyes or red lips.
I had brunette hair, but not the kind with shining curls; I had the kind with straight, lifeless strands of hair poking out in various directions. I had brown eyes and pale, thin lips. I had even overheard Mother and her friend Susan talking one time after Sunday morning church. “Such a shame poor little Emily didn’t inherit your looks,” Susan had said. “With that lively personality of hers, she could have been such a beauty. Sara, on the other hand, is as pretty as they come.”
From that day on, I gave up trying to act like Mother. I knew it was getting me absolutely nowhere. Well, at least I had a “lively personality.” Though, unfortunately, Mother often disapproved of it. For instance, when it would start to rain, Mother would seek shelter, while I, on the other hand, would run outside to play in the mud. The other girls in town would look at me with disgust written plainly across their faces, while the boys in town would come out to join me.
My sister Sara, on the other hand, was, just as Susan had said, as pretty as they come. She had gotten Mother’s thick golden hair, her eyes were the color of honey and her lips were like pink roses on a warm spring day. Because she was only four years old, she delighted in playing silly little games, but for the most part, she was growing up to be as proper as Mother. Not that it was a bad thing, it was just that I found myself constantly annoyed by her manner for the simple reason that she was able to please Mother without even trying, while I was never able to even when I was trying my hardest.
Both Mother and Sara were fragile when it came to their feelings, which is why I decided not to tell them what I was planning to do. I knew they cared for me and didn’t want to see me get hurt and the last thing I wanted to do was give them something more to worry about, but I had made up my mind. I had a mission to complete and I was determined to get it done. Elizabeth McClellan was my destination. But in order to find her, I would be needing help and I knew I could find assistance in Father. Thus, the first stop on the road to Elizabeth McClellan was Father.
* * *
I had beaten the sun by getting up early in the morning while fog lay settled on the ground and the moon was still out. Without making it look obvious that several things were missing, I had packed everything I could muster the previous day. I knew getting a good night’s sleep would be vital, but I hadn’t gotten any sleep at all that night thinking about what was to come the following day and also for fear of oversleeping. I thought I would have been immensely tired from lack of sleep, but I was wide awake – though I knew the consequences of sleep deprivation would hit me full force sooner or later!
As I was stuffing my quilt in the bag that held everything else I had packed, I heard Sara start to stir in bed. I froze and hoped with everything I had that she wouldn’t wake up. My hoping didn’t work.
Sara sat up in bed, balled up her hands and rubbed her tired, pretty eyes. She squinted at me with confusion on her face.”Emily?What’s wrong, Emily?”
I didn’t want her to worry.”Nothing’s wrong, Sara. Everything is going to be fine.”
“What are you doing?Are we going somewhere?”Sara asked.
Her use of the word “we” just about killed me. I took a deep breath, crossed the room and sat on the edge of her bed.”No, chickadee, your place is here with Mother.”The chickadee was Sara’s favorite bird and therefore my nickname for her.”I’m going to be gone for a little while, but I’ll be back soon.”
Shock crossed her face for a moment, and then a look of pleading appeared in her eyes.”Where are you going, Emily?Oh, please let me come with you!”
“Oh, Sara. I’m afraid I have to make this trip on my own. But don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.”By the look on her face I knew that despite what I had said, she was still worried and I didn’t want to leave her like that, so what I said next was not a lie – I just made it sound more like a fairy tale for Sara’s sake.”I’m going on an adventure, chickadee. I’m going to go find a princess…a princess that just might be able to help us all.”
My words had just the effect I had hoped for.
“A princess!Is she in trouble? Are you going to go rescue her, Emily?”
I thought about that for a moment. I’m hoping she’ll be able to rescue us…I thought.”Well, I hope she’s not in trouble, but she just lost her prince.”I paused to choke back my tears.”I’m going to go find her so that maybe we’ll all be able to help each other.”
“Oh my goodness. Poor princess. You have to go help her, Emily. And bring her back home to us.”Sara took my hand in both of hers.”But be careful, Emily.”
I nodded and hugged her as tight as I could. A tear fell down my cheek, but I wiped it away before Sara could see.”I love you so much, chickadee.”
“I love you, too, Emily.”
“Go back to sleep now, sleepyhead.”
As she lay back down and I tucked her in, she asked, “Promise you’ll be back soon?”
“I promise, I promise, I promise,” I said and I kissed her forehead before grabbing my bag and heading out our bedroom door.
Before I closed the door completely, I looked back once more to find that Sara had resumed her peaceful sleep. Oh, if only we could all live in the carefree world where children reside. What a world that would be.
I walked down the stairs to the kitchen, grabbed some food and stuck it in my bag. As I walked into the living room, I approached a little round table that I had been avoiding since that blasted soldier had appeared at our door. There was a small lamp on it, but the significance of this little table in this little corner of the room, was the small photograph in the silver photo frame. It was a picture of all of us: Father, Mother, Sara, Adam and me – and we were happy. The photo had been taken by a professional photographer at a park and had cost Father a large amount of money. He had always said it was worth the money, but I had never agreed. We all loved each other, and seeing somebody happy was better in person than seeing it in a photo, I had always thought. And when Adam had passed away, the photo had just seemed like a horrible reminder. But looking at it on that first morning of my “adventure,” it gave me a warm feeling inside. It gave me a feeling of joy, but even more importantly, it gave me motivation. I really needed a push of motivation.
So with my new found confidence, I pushed open the front door and stepped out into the unknown.
* * *
First thing I had to do: go talk to Father. It had been four months since we received the terrible news of our beloved Adam, so we had managed to get word to Father. The dreadful winter was over and all the snow had melted away, but only to be replaced by spring showers.
As I walked down the street and said farewell to our small, quaint house, I noticed the fog on the ground begin to recede and a streak or two of light in the sky. I guessed it was about six o’clock as I saw that a few households were bidding the morning hello.
At the time, Father was in City Point, Virginia. He was doctor and when he found out that Depot Field Hospital was being built for Union soldiers in City Point, he couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
When he found out what had happened to Adam, he was allowed to come home. When he came home, he stayed only for a short while. He had said the only way to keep his mind occupied was to work. He said that he had to go back to save wounded soldiers’ lives so that their families would not have to bear the same heartache our family had been burdened with. And so he did.
City Point was not far from our home by carriage or train, but on foot, I knew it going to be quite a trek.
* * *
I walked for what seemed a lifetime, constantly asking for directions. The clouds in the sky looked just about ready to burst and let out bucketfuls of water on top of me, but I made a deal with the clouds. As I started on my journey and noticed the very gray sky, I had pleaded with them, “Oh, please don’t start to rain now, dear clouds,” I had shouted to the sky (I must say any passerby that heard me must have thought I belonged in a mental facility). “You just can’t start raining now.” As if in response, thunder sounded in the distance. I sighed then said, “Okay, I’ll make a deal with you: just let me get to Father and then you can rain as long and as hard as you want. I just need to get to Father.” And to my great surprise, no rain came down. I was eternally grateful.
I managed not to dig into the little food I had, but around noon I couldn’t resist. I had been walking for about six hours already, and by the time I sat down to eat, it felt as though my stomach was eating itself up. I ate half a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese. My stomach still longed for more, but I knew this was enough to keep me going and that I had to ration it. So I stood up and started a search to quench my thirst.
I had fortunately packed a canteen, though at the moment it was empty. I walked into a store and asked the man behind the counter where I might find water to fill it. Pointing out the window, he said, “There’s a water pump just down this here street, young lady.” I thanked the man and walked down the road. Just as the man had said, there was a water pump at the end. I pumped the handle a few times before the water started to flow. When the water came out I filled my canteen and gulped down the refreshing water, letting it soothe the back of my throat and feeling the coolness of it run all the way down to my stomach. When my thirst was satisfied, I refilled my canteen and resumed my long quest.
* * *
By seven o’clock the light was failing and by eight o’clock the moon was high in the sky. After asking a local woman how far City Point was, I found out it was only about three and a half miles away. Though I wanted desperately to run the rest of the way just to be in Father’s arms, I knew I couldn’t continue walking around in the dark by myself. I had to find a place to spend the night…but where? I had very little money – definitely not enough to rent a room for the night.
Thankfully, after getting turned down by four others, a store owner was kind enough to let me spend the night in her gardening store. Whether the nice lady let me spend the night only because she felt pity for me, I didn’t know, but at that moment I didn’t really care. I had found a place to sleep for the night and, to me, that was all that mattered.
I took out my quilt, lay down and used my pack as a pillow. The lady, whose name I found out was Mary Weed (I loved the fact that she owned a gardening store and her last name was Weed – I found it a bit humorous), lived above the store on the second story of that small building. When she saw me lay down on the hard floor, she said, “Oh! No, no, no dear. That just won’t do. Come upstairs with me and you can spend the night on the couch.” When she saw me hesitate, she added, “I won’t bite,” and smiled.
When we got upstairs, Mrs. Weed asked me my name. I told her my name and she gave me a glass of milk – which tasted just like a piece of heaven – bid me goodnight and went off to her bedroom to go to sleep. The couch in her very small living room was a hundred times more comfortable than the floor downstairs and I knew my back would be very grateful tomorrow.
Snuggling up with my quilt and a real pillow from Mrs. Weed’s couch, I fell asleep within seconds from an exhausting day.
When I awoke the next morning, there were beams of light shining through the single window in the living room. Tiny dust particles entered a beam of light and danced all around. I could practically see the smiles on their faces. They took their turn in the spotlight and then slowly drifted and disappeared from the light and from my sight. I felt very alone. It was time to go find Father.
I walked downstairs and found Mrs. Weed reorganizing some tiny packets of flower seeds. When she saw me she said, “Oh, you’ve woken up. It’s about half past eight o’clock, but you looked very, very tired last night so I thought I should let you sleep. Would you like some breakfast, dear?”
Mrs. Weed didn’t have much food, but she spared what she could. She gave me some more milk, and a little bit of bread, cheese and turkey. I savored every bite.
I asked her if she knew which way City Point was and to my great surprise, she said she was headed there to make a delivery that day. “I ordered a carriage to take me there today! Someone ordered fifty pounds of soil to be delivered to City Point and I can’t walk there dragging fifty pounds of soil at this age. I’ll break my back! You’re completely welcome to come along; I’m sure there’s room for one more,” she said with a smile.
The carriage arrived about an hour later. The driver loaded the soil into the carriage for Mrs. Weed; we got in and started toward City Point.
After a few minutes of silently watching the scenery go by, Mrs. Weed asked me why City Point was my destination. I intended only on saying Father was there, but I found myself pouring out my whole story to her. I told her about Adam. I told her about the letter we had received from him after his death. I told her about how Sara broke my heart the day I left. I told her how I never even gave Mother a proper goodbye. I told her how Father became absorbed with his work when he found out the news. And I told her how desperately I was longing for Adam’s arms to wrap around me once more.
When I finished my story, Mrs. Weed had a very sympathetic look on her face. She was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Oh, dear, I’m terribly sorry. I know that nothing I say can make things any better, but when my husband passed away, my dearest Walter, I was certain that I would not be able to go on. I felt as though I had lost my motivation to live. Then, one night I had a dream and Walter talked to me. He told me he didn’t want me to be sad. He said he wanted me to find joy in life again. And he said he would always love me. It was hard not to be sad the following days, but I tried as hard as I could. Eventually, I found gardening. Gardening was my salvation.
“I’m sure Adam doesn’t want to see you sad, dear Emily. He will always love you and your family. And your family will always love you.”
Her words brought me to tears, and she put her arms around me. We rode the rest of the way in peaceful silence.
When we arrived at City Point, Mrs. Weed told the driver to go to Depot Field Hospital. When I started to object to say that wasn’t necessary, she said, “Nonsense, it’s perfectly fine, dear Emily.” I didn’t know what I had done to deserve to meet a woman as wonderful as Mary Weed.
We arrived at Depot Field Hospital and just knowing that Father was so close made my knees go weak. I thanked Mrs. Weed dearly for everything she had done for me. She made me promise to come and visit her sometime. I gathered up my belongings, gave Mrs. Weed a tight hug, thanked her once more and walked up to the hospital grounds.
I knew Depot Field Hospital was big, but I never imagined its enormity. There were dozens of different buildings and a vast amount of tents. I walked into the one of the larger buildings hoping someone would be able to help me. There was a lady behind a desk and as I approached, she asked, “May I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for Doctor Leander Johnson. Might you know where he is?” I asked the lady.
She pulled out a sheet of paper and looked it over. “Yes, Doctor Johnson has the day off today. Most doctors stay in their rooms on their days off in case of emergency situations. Doctor Johnson’s room is number 246. If you turn to the left outside of this building and walk for about half a mile, you should come to the doctor’s quarters.”
I thanked the woman and did as she said. That was the longest half a mile of my life. I finally reached the doctor’s quarters and looked for room 246. As I came to room 230, I picked up my pace. By room 240, I was running. Room 244, room 245…and then there was room 246. I paused just outside the door to catch my breath, walked up the two steps and knocked on the door. I heard someone shuffling inside, the door swung open and suddenly there he was right in front of me. Different emotions passed across his face in a very short amount of time. He had a blank expression at first, and then I saw confusion flicker across, then shock, then something that might have been sorrow, then happiness. “Emily? Emily!”
“Hello Father,” I said breathlessly and with a smile.
He just about tackled me and gave me a gigantic hug while saying, “Oh, my dear, sweet Emily!”
And for the first time since Adam’s death, I felt whole again.
* * *
“Emily, what on earth are you doing here?” Father still had me in a tight embrace. It seemed very unlikely to me that he ever intended on letting go.
“I came to see you, Father,” I responded.
“Well, I believe I could have figured that much out on my own,” and at last he seemed to realize that we were still standing in his doorway. He let go, but kept his hands on my shoulders and took a good look at me. “My, you’ve done some growing up. Come in, come in,” and he led me inside.
As I looked around, I noticed how small his room was. There was a bed tucked into a corner, and in another corner, underneath piles and piles of paperwork, was a small round wooden table in another corner. The kitchen was in the same room; the stove, oven and sink made up one of the four walls. At first glance, what I thought was a closet door turned out to be the restroom.
“Sorry it’s such a mess,” Father said as he tried to tidy up a bit. “I was assured this is one of the better rooms. This room has a kitchen!” He said proudly. “Most of the other rooms don’t have a kitchen and those without them have to go to the public hospital kitchen or the dining hall to eat.”
“It’s very nice, Father.” In reality, I wasn’t concerned about the room. I was just glad to finally be with Father again.
“Sit down, sit down,” Father said motioning to the wooden chair next to the table. I sat down in the chair and Father sat on the edge of the bed. We remained silent for a moment, neither of us knowing what to say when Father finally spoke up. “I’m so sorry, Emily.”
His words confused me. “Sorry about what, Father? You have nothing to be sorry about.”
“I haven’t been there for you and Sara and Mother when you’ve needed me most. I kept telling myself that I’d go back home to you, but some emergency here at the hospital would come up. And then, when I’d be free to leave, I’d find that I’d make excuses for myself. I just couldn’t handle going back – at least, not so soon. I’ve been a horrible husband and father.” He rested his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands.
I agreed with some of his words. We had needed Father and he hadn’t been there for us. He was the solid rock in our family, and he had left us sinking in an ocean of despair. But I also knew what he meant when he said he couldn’t get himself to come back. There were days when I wanted to run away with no specific destination in mind, just to get away and never look back. I had wondered if that might be a solution, but I soon realized that I’d be running away from my family and my house, not the memories and heartache. The memories and heartache would haunt me wherever I went, and that’s what I really wanted to get away from. So I settled on the conclusion that I could not run away. I would endure it all and I would not be alone. I had Sara and Mother – but not Father.
I had thought I’d never be able to forgive him for leaving us in our time of need, but I found myself feeling sorry for him. I understood everything he said and I realized that he had wanted to come back – he really had – and he hated that he wasn’t emotionally strong enough to do so. So I found myself forgiving him. “Oh, Father, you haven’t been a horrible husband and father. You’ve been here at the hospital saving lives.” He still kept his head in his hands. I got up, sat next to him and put my arm around him. “I understand, Father. We all feel the exact same way.”
“Which is precisely why I should have been there for you,” he said. His hands muffled his words.
I sighed. I knew he was hurting and I hated seeing him like that. I wanted to say something to make him feel better, but I was afraid of saying something and making him feel worse. I chose my words carefully. “Father, everyone handles…” I didn’t want to say loss or death, “everyone handles hard situations differently. Your way of dealing with it is devoting yourself to your work, and Sara, Mother and I don’t blame you for it.” I paused to see if he had anything to say, but he remained silent. “A friend told me that she didn’t think Adam would want to see us sad. He will always, always love us.”
Father started to cry. His body jerked with each of the oncoming sobs and his hands muted the noise a little.
He had been bottling up his feelings and he needed to let them out, so I let him cry while I kept my arm around him. It was not a happy time, but I had never felt closer to Father in my entire life. I selfishly savored the moment.
* * *
The clouds did not go back on their end of our deal. Minutes after Father and I had gone inside, the sky started pouring and we were forced to spend the day indoors.
As we ate lunch, Father wrote a letter to Mother to let her know that I was safe. Afterward, I told Father about my journey to find him. He soaked up every word. When I finished, he grinned and shook his head in disbelief. Then it looked like he was thinking about something. “I still don’t understand something,” he said, obviously still trying to figure out whatever it was he didn’t understand.
“What don’t you understand?” I asked even though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer. I had yet to tell him why I had sought him out in the first place: for help to find Elizabeth McClellan.
He gave up trying to figure out the answer and asked, “What motivated you to come find me in the first place?”
I knew the time had come to let him know my plans. “Father, do you remember the letter we showed you when you came back home for a few days? The one that Adam sent before…” I didn’t finish my sentence, but Father nodded anyway.
“Yes, I remember.”
“I’m going to find her. The woman that Adam married. Elizabeth McClellan. I have to find
He kept silent for several moments while he was deep in thought. “And what do you expect to find? What is it that you think she can do for us?”
“I’m not sure,” and it was the truth. I didn’t know what I expected to gain from Elizabeth McClellan, but I knew if I had made it as far as I had, there had to be a reason for finding her.
Father nodded and seemed to understand.
“I came here because I thought you might be able to help me. I don’t expect you to join me, but perhaps you can give me some advice. How do I find her, Father?”
He thought then asked, “The letter said she was a nurse, did it not?”
“Perhaps Depot Field Hospital has a record on her. Tomorrow I will go to the office and find out what I can. As for now, we will simply enjoy each other’s company, because of this blasted weather.”
I smiled and said, “I’m sorry, I think the weather might be my fault.”
“Oh, really? And why is that?”
So I told him my story. We laughed and talked some more about anything and everything for the rest of the day and I felt happy, safe and at peace without a worry on my mind.
* * *
I awoke to find that Father was not in the room. As I looked out the window, I noticed the sun was high in the sky and assumed it must be nearly noon. How could it be noon already? I wondered. I guess I must not have realized how tired I was! I stretched and become conscious how rested I felt.
Assuming it was almost twelve ‘o clock, I figured Father must be at work. I dug through the small bag that accompanied me on my journey and pulled out a change of clothes. I got dressed and looked through the cabinets in the kitchen to see what food there was to eat. I was sure Father wouldn’t mind if I ate some of his food. I took an orange, bread and jam. I turned on the stove and set the bread on top to make toast and squeezed myself some orange juice thanks to the orange. When the bread was brown and crispy, I spread some jam on it. It was a sufficient enough breakfast, if you ask me – or rather, considering it was nearly noon, a sufficient enough lunch.
I cleared off the little table, neatly piling the paperwork on the floor near its leg, sat down and ate my food. Though most people I knew hated silence, I was quite content in it. It gave me time to think. So I ate my food quietly and peacefully, absorbing and reliving the events of the last few days.
Just as I was cleaning up, someone knocked on the front door and came in without waiting for an answer. Of course, it was Father. “Hello Father.”
“Emily! You’ll never believe the news I have discovered!” He exclaimed as he hung up his raincoat. He was not wet so I knew it had stopped raining.
“What is it?”
“It’s about Elizabeth McClellan. I found out that she’s a nurse at a hospital in Port Royal. The USMRR railroad runs straight there.”
“That’s perfect!” Then I realized something, “But isn’t the railroad only for military use?”
“Doctors and nurses may use it for transportation. The count of soldiers being received here at Depot Field Hospital has never been higher – mostly coming from battles taking place at Petersburg – so I mustn’t leave now, but I have arranged for a friend of mine to accompany you. His name is William Anderson and he is a nurse here. His mother is a nurse in the same hospital Elizabeth is working in, so he has been planning to go to Port Royal for some time now. When I asked him if he would be so kind as to accompany you, he was delighted. I’m willing to bet he would have been jumping up and down if he could!” Father said chuckling.
“If he could? What do you mean?”
Father took a deep breath and said, “William has served his time in the war. He was a wounded soldier when he arrived here. I was the doctor who worked on him and I did everything I could to save his leg. Unbelievably, the wound was not infected yet and he was able to keep his leg, but he has a limp and it still sometimes pains him to this day.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Yes.” After a short pause, the smile returned to Father’s face and he said, “But that doesn’t stop him from getting around or doing what he wants. He’s a tough lad. He gets things done. When he was well again, he came to me and asked if there was any way he could help. Because his mother is a nurse, he was familiar with some procedures already. Mostly he comforts the patients and changes the linens and pillows, but he never complains.” Father was silent for a few moments then staring off into the distance said, barely audible, “He reminds me so much of Adam.” Coming out of his daze, looking at me again, Father asked, “Would you like to meet William?”
* * *
The first thing I thought about William was simply that he looked so young. He couldn’t have been over twenty years old. Father introduced us and I saw that William was very polite and had a very pleasant personality. Father gave me some money and sent us on our way that very day. Parting with Father was difficult for me, but I knew we’d be seeing each other again soon.
Sitting in that little boxcar, making simple conversation, I found out some facts about William: he was nineteen years old. He had a sister only two years older than me who wanted desperately to become a nurse just like her mother and was in training to do so. He had lost his father to a fever when William was only eight. His mother had wanted to be a nurse since she was a young girl and was now fulfilling her dream. He missed his dog that he had had as a boy. He had been working at Depot Field Hospital for almost four months now.
“How long were you in the Union?” I asked him.
“No more than a year. Though, it felt much longer.”
I nodded. “I can only imagine…” I replied. But I really couldn’t imagine. I thought about what it must have been like for Adam. “My brother served in the Union.”
“Yes, your father told me.” He stopped talking and thought about what to say next. “I’m so sorry.”
So he knew. I nodded, looked down and played with a loose string on the end of my shirt sleeve. Genuinely curious, I asked, “What else did Father tell you?”
“I don’t know anymore than that. Your father never talked of it much. Whenever the subject would come up it seemed as if he would concentrate even harder on whatever task he was doing. He never even told me his name.”
“Adam. His name was Adam.”
He leaned in closer as if he had heard wrong. “Adam? Adam…Johnson?” He asked, putting the pieces together in his head.
I nodded slowly, not knowing what to think of his strange reaction.
He released a quick breath of air as if he were holding it in, then asked, “Was your brother twenty three years old? He had brown hair, golden eyes, was slim and had a good sense of humor?” William was staring at me intently.
I nodded again, completely speechless.
William shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it. “Your brother and I were in the same regiment.”
It felt as though the floor had been swept out from under me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. If the world started to cave in at that moment, I wouldn’t have noticed. “What? You knew my brother?”
He didn’t answer right away. He looked around as if recalling a memory and finally took a deep breath and said, “Adam Johnson saved my life.”
I felt dizzy. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “He saved your life?” I asked slowly and so softly that I was surprised he even heard me.
He nodded slowly, looking me straight in the eye. Then he looked away and was taking deep breaths. “During battle, I was wounded in my left leg and I couldn’t walk – much less run. I tried dragging myself but couldn’t get far and the pain was just too unbearable. I was lying there on the floor – helpless, with war going on all around me. The Union started to retreat and I thought I was done for. And then Adam was there. He grabbed me and dragged me nearly the whole way to safety, but my weight slowed him down. We were lagging behind and then two rebels appeared out of nowhere, shooting anyone they could. The rebels were shot down by our men, but not before they could shoot Adam. I saw him go down and prayed that he’d get back up…but he didn’t. That’s when I blacked out. Next thing I knew, I was being treated by your father at Depot Field Hospital.”
By the time he was finished talking, tears were streaming uncontrollably down my face.
William looked at me and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I probably shouldn’t have -”
I interrupted him, saying, “No. No, it’s fine.”
He nodded and said, “Adam Johnson was the best friend I had and the greatest man I have ever known. He truly was a hero.”
William was right. I closed my eyes and remembered when Sara found a cat stuck in a tree and Adam got him down for her. When Mother, Sara and I all got the flu, Father was out of town, so Adam tended to our every need. When, after being warned not to, I still climbed up that tall tree, lost my footing, slipped and Adam caught me when I fell. Adam was a hero in so many ways.
I opened my eyes and looked at William again. “Yes. He was.” I gave him a half-hearted smile and he smiled back. The rest of the train ride was spent in a peaceful silence.
* * *
We arrived at Port Royal and William and I were both so eager to get to the hospital. Port Royal was a very small town, so it was not that far of a walk to the hospital. William and his leg were grateful for that.
The hospital was nothing compared to Depot Field Hospital. While Depot Field Hospital was laid out on 200 acres of land and could hold up to ten thousand patients, Port Royal’s hospital was laid out on only a few miles of land and could hold somewhere around one hundred patients. But I liked it. It felt very cozy; comfortable; homey.
Because it was rather small, William didn’t have a hard time finding his mother. It was a very happy reunion with laughter and tears of joy. William introduced me to his mother and told her why I had come. His mother was slightly heavy, but had a very jolly face with red cheeks and small, happy eyes. I asked Mrs. Anderson, William’s mother, if she knew Elizabeth McClellan. She said yes and that Elizabeth McClellan was now Elizabeth Johnson. I took a deep breath and grabbed hold of William’s arm to steady myself. Mrs. Anderson said she’d go get Elizabeth. My heart started to race, blood pounded in my ears and all of a sudden I couldn’t stand still. It felt like a lifetime, waiting for Mrs. Anderson. William noticed my anxiety, smiled and said, “It’s almost time, Emily.”
I smiled, laughed at myself and nodded. Then Mrs. Anderson returned with a woman at her side. The woman looked to be about twenty years old with a very pretty face. She had a few freckles and auburn hair.
Mrs. Anderson said, “Elizabeth, this is Emily. She’s a very sweet girl and she’s been looking for you.”
Elizabeth looked surprised. “Looking for me?”
Mrs. Anderson nodded and, addressing William, said, “Come. Let’s let them have their privacy. Elizabeth, I’ll let the head nurse know that you’re taking your break now.” William looked at me, gave me a smile and an encouraging nod and walked away with his mother.
Elizabeth stood in front of me, still looking surprised. “You’ve been looking for me?” She asked once more, to make sure she had heard correctly the first time.
“Yes, I have. Let’s sit.” And we sat underneath the shade of an oak tree. Once we were seated, I waited a few moments wondering how to phrase what I had to say. I figured I’d just say it. “My name is Emily Johnson.”
She took a deep slow breath and asked to clarify, “Johnson?”
I nodded my head and said, “Adam Johnson was my brother.”
She took another breath and shook her head unbelievingly. “But, how…”
When she didn’t finish her sentence, I said, “About four months ago, my family and I received a letter from Adam letting us know that he had gotten married. He talked about you saying you were the most wonderful person he’d ever met.”
She closed her eyes and gave a very small, sad smile while tears rolled down her face.
“A few days before we got the letter we were informed of Adam’s passing. The moment I read your name in the letter I knew I had to find you. I didn’t know why…and I still don’t know why. But I’m so glad I did.” By this time, I was choking on my own words, trying to hold back tears.
Elizabeth stared at the ground for a few moments before looking up at me and asking, “Your name is Emily?”
“I’m very glad you found me, too, Emily,” she said with the same sad smile.
We hugged and cried and laughed and talked. She invited me back to her small house which was less than a mile away from the hospital. I sat in her living room and she offered me some tea. As we sipped our tea, we talked some more – mostly about Adam, but when the mood became to unbearably sad, we changed the subject. For the most part, though, the conversation remained surprisingly pleasant. Elizabeth told me about when they had first met while Adam’s friend Buck was injured and Adam would continuously visit Buck, but later she would learn it was mostly to see her. She told me about his unbelievable attempts to win her over. And she told me about their unusual wedding with only soldiers and nurses attending, though she didn’t care – she was side by side with Adam and, to her that was all that mattered.
“I loved your brother so much, Emily. I can’t even describe it in words. I still love him.”
“I know. He loved you, too.”
“He told me about you, you know. He told me about you, your little sister Sara, your mother and father. He loved you all very, very much.”
“And we loved him, too. We still do.”
“Well then, now that we have each other, we shall love him together.”
I nodded and smiled. I took a sip of my tea and as I was putting my cup back down, I heard an unmistakable noise coming from a room down the hallway. I wasn’t sure if I had heard correctly. “Is that…?”
Elizabeth nodded and asked, “Emily, would you like to meet your nephew?”
* * *
He was perfect – so, so perfect. Elizabeth and I had reached the room and he was still crying. Elizabeth picked him up and rocked him back a forth while humming, and the crying ceased. “Would you like to hold him?”
Completely mesmerized, I nodded. She put him in my arms and he looked up at me with little curious eyes. “He’s so beautiful. What’s his name?”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and smiled before answering. “His name is Adam.”
“Adam.” He looked like his dad so much. It was perfect.
When I started my journey, I had lost one of the most important people in my life. At the end of my journey, I learned that a piece of him still lived on. Nothing and nobody will ever be able to make up for the loss of my brother, but finding Elizabeth and baby Adam had gotten me a step closer to filling up the empty hole in my heart.
“Emily! I’m so glad to see your sweet face and so relieved to see that you’re safe! I knew you’d come visit me when you had the chance!” I was surprised to find that Mrs. Weed remembered me without a moment’s hesitation. She outstretched her arms and wrapped me in a warm embrace.
“It’s so great to see you again, too!” I said while she was squeezing me so tight that I thought my spine might snap. “Mrs. Weed, I’d like you to meet my family,” I said when she had finally let go. Gesturing to each person as I said their name, I said, “This is my sister Sara, my mother Clara, my father Leander, my nephew Adam and the reason for my journey: my new sister Elizabeth.”
I told my family how much help and how sweet Mrs. Weed was to me when I was trying to get to Father. They thanked her tremendously and started up in conversation. I listened to them talk, happy to be with the ones I love.
I watched Mother as she complemented Mrs. Weed on her gardening store and remembered how when I first saw Mother again, after finding Elizabeth and little Adam, she scolded me and told me never to do anything of the sort ever again. She then let out a breath of air and hugged me tightly telling me how worried I had made her. I told her I’d never leave again without talking to her first.
While the adults were all talking, my focus shifted to Sara and little Adam. I remembered how, when I arrived home, Sara had refused to let go of my hand for one hour straight. When she finally let go and was introduced to little Adam, she was stuck to his side. She loved that baby so much. I think she also loved the fact that she was now considered a big girl and wasn’t the baby of the family anymore.
Little Adam was growing so fast. Brown, curly locks of hair were sprouting on his head and his eyes were the same golden shade as my brother, Adam’s. He looked so much like his dad that it made me sad sometimes, but mostly it made me happy.
William had accompanied us on our trip back home to make sure we got there safely. Afterwards, he went back to stay with his mother at Port Royal and helped out at the hospital. We got to know each other better by keeping up a steady stream of letters and I came to realize he was a great friend that I could relate to and trust.
Father had faced his emotions and came back home to us not that long after I returned home. Things were so much better with Father around the house. Mother and Sara were immensely glad to have him back, too.
Elizabeth and I became as close as real sisters. She was such an amazing woman and I looked up to her greatly.
On April 9, 1865, the Confederacy surrendered. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. We were victorious. Adam had not fought and died for nothing. It was a brand new start for us all – for my family and for America.