Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
Letters From A Civil War Soldier
I was never a soldier but I helped one once. The how and the why of it I still do not understand.
There was a church down the road from the farm on which I grew up. Membership therein had declined to the point where the few remaining churchgoers agreed to disband and go the other Presbyterian church nearby. They voted to give the church ground and cemetery, consisting of two acres with a dilapidated hundred plus year old church and a likewise old manse to the township. This way the township would be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery and not the disbanding members. The township agreed to do so provided however that the old church and manse were torn down first.
That’s how I became involved in all this. Mr. McMinn, the richest church member had graciously agreed to tear everything down for all the lumber that he could salvage and agreed to clean up the mess. He hired me, since I lived just down the road, to help him salvage all the “good sticks” (the good lumber) therein and anything else of value.
I sometimes worked by myself after school and weekends but Mr. McMinn would randomly stop and check on me telling me what to save, how and where to stack it, what not to bother with, what to throw out, what to burn, and generally boss me around.
He thought a lot of himself as he farmed a substantial amount of ground and a had a couple of small businesses on the side. Money was everything to him.
He gave me precise instructions on how to remove the wainscoting in the house.
“Antique people pay big money for old wainscoting,” he informed me.
And that’s when it happened. As I removed some wainscoting I saw what appeared to be two
letters stuck to the wall that must have fallen in the a crack between the wall and the wainscoting years ago. They were very old looking, yellowed, wrinkled and appeared somewhat water stained. Just then I heard Mr. McMinn grind his old stick shift to a halt. Before he get out and to the manse I impulsively jammed the letters in the inside pocket of my farmer’s jacket and quickly zipped it shut. I knew that if he saw them, he would demand that I hand them over to him and probably say, “People pay big money for old letters. Give them to me.” I don’t know why I did what I had just done but somehow I felt those letters were meant for me, not him.
“How’s it going?”
“Looks like you’re doing a good job on this wainscoting. I should get big bucks for these pieces. Let’s load these in the truck and I’ll drop you off at home. It’s getting cold and late.”
That night in the privacy of my own room and unbeknownst to anyone I examined the letters.
One had been opened. The letter was inside. The envelope was addressed to Mary McQuaid, Orion, Illinois. The return address was unreadable, but it looked like it might be an army address
of some kind. A penny postage had been cancelled and a date of 1860 something was stamped
through it. I gently removed the letter as though it were an ancient sacred document of some unknown origin waiting to be discovered and interpreted. The ink had run and faded but it was readable in that elaborate cursive style of the 1800’s. The paper, yellowed and wrinkled, made those little crinkling noises as I ever so carefully straightened it out. I remembered that there’s a Mary McQuaid and a George McQuaid buried right here in the cemetery and that there’s still McQuaids in the area. In fact the Frank McQuaid family had lived in the old manse right up to a couple of weeks before we started tearing it down. They moved to Sherrard a few miles from here. I wondered if I should give it to them. But I decided no and began to read.
I know that you didn’t want me to join the army. I know that you think this war is senseless and stupid and a waste of life. I know that you grew up in Kentucky, that your family owned slaves and saw nothing wrong with slavery. But after Pa died you married Reverend George, surely you knew you would have to leave Kentucky and go north with him to his people and church in
Illinois. You knew he was a man of God and an abolitionist. I’m sorry if I agree with him and not you but this is a wrong that must be righted. Slavery is an abomination, a crime against one’s fellow man. It can not be permitted.
Mother I’m a man now but I realize to you that I will always be your little boy. After Tommy died I’m all you have left and I know that you don’t want to lose me, that you couldn’t bear the loss of your only remaining child, but if you could find it in your heart to forgive me it would bring me great comfort and relief for we will be going into battle soon and I want all to be patched up and made right between us if I should meet with a terrible fate.
I stopped. I was starting to cry. A couple of my tears now dotted the letter and mingled with the tear spots of his mother. I read on.
I have made a new friend, Henry Fielding from Ohio. We have made a pact. If either of us should die in battle, the other is to write the survivor’s family and relate how we died a brave heroic death for the cause of freedom for all. We march, we stop, we muster, we fall in, we fall out. I don’t even know where we are. We just follow orders and wait. I’ll be so glad when the fighting starts and we can get our first battle under our belts. I so desperately need to test myself.
Please mother I beg of you. You don’t have to agree with me but would you please acknowledge my right to make my own decisions. I am not your little boy anymore but your young man.
Please let all be forgiven between us.
Your loving son, David.
I wiped my tears and thought to myself, I should not have read this. It’s personal, very personal. I had no business intruding into this family’s life no matter how old the letter.
The other letter laid before me. It was unopened. It was addressed to Pvt. David Brown, obviously her son. A smeared address appeared with numbers of an army unit and some post
office box in Washington D.C., the stamp was on it but it was never mailed. No way would I open this. Her unknown response was sealed forever. But why didn’t she mail it? What if it was
her letter of forgiveness? The letter that would have made everything right. I had to make up for
my intrusion, my transgression somehow. I would mail it even though I knew it would accomplish nothing except for me to redeem myself and remove the temptation to open it.
Of course I couldn’t put this letter in our RFD mailbox for Mr. Burgess our mailman to pick up.
He would want to know what this was all about. I would mail it tomorrow from Orion in a communal box when I went to the library on a school project. And I did.
Then a about a week later on a Saturday morning I was working alone at the manse. I saw
Mr. Burgess pull up to the McQuaid mailbox that was still there. He honked and signaled me
“Do you know where the McQuaids moved? I’ve got this really old looking letter for a Mary
McQuaid. At least that’s what it looks like it's says,” he said as he handed me the letter for my
perusal. It looked old and exactly in the same condition as the first two that I had found. Is this a
third letter? Another letter from son to mother?
“They moved to Sherrard.”
“Well I’ll have to forward it. Take another week to get there.”
“I should see the McQuaids at Beulah Church tomorrow. I could give it to them,” I stammered. I wanted that letter.
Mr. Burgess hesitated and then said. “ Well alright, I know that I shouldn’t do this but you deliver it, what the heck, after all you’re a Boy Scout and scout is trustworthy,”
Mr.Burgess was my scoutmaster and I was almost an eagle.
But I wasn’t trustworthy. I couldn’t resist. Why give it to the McQuaids, even if these Civil War McQuaids were the ancestors of the now Sherrard McQuaids. They wouldn’t understand what
was going on. They wouldn’t care about this like I did.They’d probably want to know more and I
didn’t want to explain. They’d probably just throw it away anyway. This was my doing. I started it. I was entitled to finish it. This letter was meant for me I rationalized, not them. So I, the trustworthy scout, opened it that night and read it.
Dearest Mother: Got your letter yesterday! What a relief! It means so much to me that we have
patched up all our differences and that all is forgiven between us, and especially so now that we have gone into battle today for the first time. Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that this is not my
handwriting. I am dictating to Henry for you see today I have fallen in battle. I have been shot in a couple of places and poked through to the hollow with a bayonet. Do not bring my body home for burial as part of this battlefield is to be dedicated as a national cemetery and I wish to rest here with my fallen comrades. I love you so much mother. I could not have had a better mother.
Thank you for your blessing and forgiveness. Tell George I love him, to keep up his work and that I have not died in vain. Give my meager worldly possessions to the church. I …..
Mrs. McQuaid it's me Henry. Your son has just passed. You raised a fine young man. He was so proud of you and always spoke highly of you. You should be proud to have a son who was willing to stand up and fight for and die for his principles. I know that I am honored and proud to have had him as my best friend. Today he saved my life, twice. I will see that he is buried in this
hallowed ground and send you his few possessions. You have my deepest sympathies.
I looked down at the letter. Like the first one now the last one was also tear stained.
Like I said the how and why of it I do not understand.