It was a frosty night when two weary soldiers stopped in the middle of a narrow, rutted lane leading deep into the Pennsylvania woods. The night was still, the bitter wind having died down and the tree branches frozen into stillness by the ice that hung from their limbs.
Just beyond a little wicket gate stood a small brown house nestled in the rural county. Past thinly-curtained windows glowed the golden home light that both instantly moved towards without a word to one another. It had been a hard year; no words were necessary to communicate both the pain and relief the brothers felt as they stepped into the warmth of the old house.
“Boys!” cried out a small woman wrapped in a large white apron. With eyes full of joyous tears, Mrs. Stanton gripped each of the boys’ arms and looked up into their wearied yet content faces.
“Yes, Mother, I got that turkey you were craving last Christmastide,” smiled twenty-year-old Josiah while he set a lumpy bundle on the table. “No need to be going hungry this year.”
“And you—you were able to go on leave?” Mrs. Stanton, still grasping her older, taller son’s arm, stared up into his face with bewilderment lining the many creases in her careworn face.
Nodding, Joseph smiled gently down at his mother and then lifted his clear blue eyes to the old, dear room about him. The familiar aroma of fresh bread baking and the homelike odor of vanilla hung about, such a reminiscence of the pre-war days.
“Come sit down, alright?” beckoned Mrs. Stanton eagerly, tugging at Josiah’s indigo-blue coat sleeve and leading the way into the small dining room alit with the unique, shadowy light cast by the dancing candles placed all about the room.
A hearty laugh suddenly erupted in the room as a presence suddenly filled it that was almost tangible. Upon looking up, both soldiers’ eyes fell upon their broad-shouldered father standing on the threshold to the kitchen, his face so full of love and joy that he seemed on the verge of exploding.
“Father!” both cried one after the other as they dove into the good man’s arms as if they were once again small boys.
“How is the business going? Have you sold much lately?”
“I’ve missed you so…wish I could come back more often—”
“Father, where is your moustache?” Josiah was laughing as he held his father’s shoulders and stared at the blank space where the man’s iconic moustache had once resided.
“Boys, boys, one question at a time!” Mr. Stanton roared while the tears ran down his cheeks and his sides heaved with his jovial laughter. “Don’t ask such a hungry man so many questions before he’s had a chance to have his supper! Mother, do you want us to all sit down now? ‘Siah, you should have seen her all day making those apple dumplings just because she knew you were coming home. And, Joseph, she creamed the potatoes just so to suit your fancy. Hope you both brought those famed camp appetites of your’n.”
Amidst all the talk and laughter, the family was finally seated in their customary places, Father and Mother seated across from one another, Joseph at the father’s right-hand side and Josiah on the other side beside his mother.
“Jesse isn’t coming?” Josiah questioned, his blue eyes searching his mother’s face as he forked a hand through his fair hair and didn’t even look at his plate.
Mr. and Mrs. Stanton exchanged glances.
It had been three months since they had last heard from their second-eldest son Jesse. Most recently, they had been told in his last letter that their boy had been wounded in the shoulder at Antietam, but then he had been well enough to write. They could tell that by the strong, bold handwriting scrawled across the page, but then there had been no more letters. The 11th Pennsylvania Infantry had been his home since the July of 1861, and the regiment was still following the Confederates’ every move.
“He is still fighting for the cause,” Father said quietly with a nod. “Some aren’t as blessed as you both were to be able to come back home for this day of thanks that our President has so wisely declared in our country.”
“Especially at such a time as this,” Joseph agreed in his thoughtful way, blue eyes studying the checkered tablecloth that looked as if it had seen the battlefield itself. Neither father nor mother had noticed it yet, but the twenty-three-year-old’s body bore the carnage of battle, from the limp that had made it nearly impossible for him to make the long walk back home to the bayonet slash mark in his back that had nearly severed his spinal cord.
“The boy has spunk, that’s what he has,” Josiah stated, him who had always admiringly declared his older brother as a “trump” for his seeming nerves of steel in battle. “Once I saw him heading up a flank attacking an arm of Rebs, and that man was as cool as a cucumber. You should’ve seen him, Father.”
The father nodded and stroked his bushy brown beard, blues wandering the table to each of his sons and to his wife seated at the other end.
“Let us say grace.”
All four of the Stantons bowed their heads, focusing intently on the father’s deep, resounding voice that filled the small dining room with so much strength and hope in his words.
“Dear Lord, we come here to this table to give thanks of what You have done in our lives and how You have supported us thus far in the war. We thank You for all the men who have risen up to protect us and fight for this country and for what they believe is right. I thank you that You have allowed Joseph and Josiah to be with us tonight for this supper that You have blessed us with. We are grateful for Your Son’s atonement for our sins and that we have the hope of eternal life with You when our time comes to leave this earth. Amen.”
Steaming dishes were passed around the oakwood table, savory turkey, sweet potatoes with a hint of rare brown sugar, roasted carrots, and creamed potatoes. It was heaven on a plate for the two boys, yet there was a certain hesitance before they finally sparingly filled their plates.
A silence fell over the table, and it seemed that all at once, everyone’s eyes had been drawn to the vacant chair down at the end in the old corner, a tattered blue coat hung over the back. Brass buttons glittered in the flickering light and reflected the room in a strange gold world, dark blood stains marring the homely Union jacket.
A place was set before the oak chair, a large and then a small plate with silverware on each side and a napkin folded neatly beneath.
Mr. Stanton blinked to clear his vision, yet a part of him wished that he could have just for a moment longer kept the image in his mind of the sixteen-year-old boy who had gone off to the war just more than two years since. Jedidiah, with his vivacious temperament and frank disposition, had been their youngest and almost the most determined to dutifully take his part in the fight that was tearing their nation in two.
“Father,” he had said one day as he walked into Mr. Stanton’s study with a letter in his hands and his blunt blue eyes focused intently on his father’s face, “they told me I was old enough—told me that I would be serving with the 9th Pennsylvania.”
So soon? Mr. Stanton had thought in near shock as he had lifted his own blue eyes to meet his son’s steady gaze. The small white hands were shaking, but the voice was clear and resolute. This had been something he had decided months since, the father had realized with another shock.
“Jed, this is war we’re talking about,” he had gently reminded the boy as he took the letter from his hands.
A mere sniffle jerked Mr. Stanton back to reality, and he once again met his wife’s eyes with a small shake of his head and a murmured excuse of being tired from the long week.
“This would’ve been his nineteenth Christmas in December,” Joseph whispered past a choked throat. He blinked past the tears stinging the corners of his eyes, not able to drag them away from the chair in the corner where he struggled to picture their youngest brother still sitting, “and he never will get to see it.”
“Joseph,” protested Mrs. Stanton with a desperate shake of her head. “Joseph, we don’t talk about it…”
“Mother, if I had been there, I could’ve stopped it from happening,” Joseph insisted fervently. He leaned forward in his chair and blinked his eyes several times in the dim light before swallowing hard and continuing. “It was my duty to be there for him, and I failed.”
“You didn’t fail,” sighed Father deeply, his voice husky and muffled as he reached up as if to wipe his mouth with his napkin. “Joseph, we’ve been over this before…”
“I saw it happen.” Joseph’s voice was shaking by now, it being visibly difficult for the young corporal to speak as he buried his head in his hands. The memories were coming back all too fresh, from the moment he had realized that the 9th was on the ridge the Rebels were rapidly surrounding to when he held his younger brother gasping for breath in his arms.
There had been so much blood, Joseph recalled, when he had looked down to find the life blood drowning the gash in Jed’s side where a Confederate soldier had struck true with the cruel bayonet. His hands had been covered with it, the sickening odor filling the air and making his stomach churn queasily. Jed’s face had been turning shades paler as each minute sped yet dragged by in a sort of conflicted time progression.
Joseph had never been one to lose his head in any situation, but it was the one time in his life that he had very nearly gone to pieces, pleading with his youngest brother to stay with him.
“Keep your eyes on my face, Jed,” he had begged as the tears blurred his eyes. “Please, Jed—”
“I-I—can’t—breathe,” Jed had rasped in panicky gasps as his lungs had begun to fill with blood. His eyes had been so wide and terrified, the glassy-eyed look of shock slowly coming over his face as he lay there with his head in Joseph’s lap.
“You’re going to be okay—you’re going to make it through this—you’re going to—” Finally breaking down into sobs as his fingers struggled to tighten a makeshift bandage around Jed’s middle, Joseph had tried so hard to lift prayers of intercession for his brother’s life that only ended up in mental confusion.
And there, in the midst of the din and carnage of battle, Joseph had lost the brother he had always looked out for, the brother he had always sworn to protect to his own hurt, the brother who had always known that his oldest brother would look out for him no matter what the circumstance.
Joseph was acutely aware of Josiah’s stare from across the table, the latter’s blue eyes penetrating and his lips twisted into an expression so complicated that all the older brother could do was to look away.
“He was my best friend, and the Johnny Rebs will never know what they took away from me when they killed him.” Josiah’s voice was flat and cold, his fingers gripping his fork so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. “He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t do anything to deserve getting killed for standing up for what is right.”
It had been exceedingly hard to cope with the anger that had persisted on welling up inside of himself every time he let himself think about it. Various commanding officers had noted that Private Josiah Stanton never volunteered to go with the others to gather the wounded, but it had, in reality, been a select few that had held the young Pennsylvania private back from ever entering the field of battle after the fight had been fought. After the typhoid had nearly taken the life out of Private Stanton, the officers had undeniably learned their lesson about ever allowing him out of their sight again.
It had been another night after a hard day of battle, and Josiah had struggled for sleep for so many nights on end that he lay there awake, listening to the calls of the dying from the field just over three miles away. It was inevitable. No matter what he did or how exhausted he could have been, he was physically unable to sleep.
“If you keep tossing and turning, we’re going to put you on picket duty, Stanton,” a half-asleep fellow soldier had growled.
Picket duty after he had had a minie ball wound to the thigh? Josiah thought in confusion. No, the man was daft. He sat up on the hard-packed ground, threw his blanket off, and stared into the dark woods where he thought he had caught a glimpse of a few lights. Yes, some of the men were still out searching for any survivors from the deadly skirmish that had happened two days since.
Getting to his feet and pulling on his indigo-blue coat, Josiah had set off into the woods with a small candleholder in his left hand and a borrowed medical satchel in his right.
“Jed!” he called over and over till he felt that his voice would be lost with the next scream out into the woods.
His feet stumbled over underbrush, roots, and objects unimaginable. The scene which had been in day a horror and a nightmare to the eyes had now turned all too grisly with the turn of night. The moon was bright through the branches overhead, the wind chill; the silence and then the breaking of silence with distant cries for help was slowly becoming more and more unnerving.
So he had searched night after night with the longing in his heart for his best friend too painful for such a young man to bear. Jed and him had been inseparable. They had done everything with each other, and it was at last the war that had made their comradeship only by letter and memory.
All the brief note from Father had said was that Jed had been killed, nothing more and nothing less.
Her eyes searching the table, Mrs. Stanton turned from Joseph’s tormented eyes to Josiah’s look of utter frustration and bewilderment. The mother rested her hands in her lap, her heart still hurting at the memories that she had tried so hard to keep from returning and had successfully done for so long. Of course, Jed was coming back. Of course, she would hear his light step in the hall and hear the cheery voice singing out that all was well and that he had returned for the national day of thanks recently proclaimed by the President.
“He is coming back,” she asserted with a gentle, hopeful look in her clear brown eyes. “Boys, we must not lose hope and give up on him. I left the candle—”
A small cry escaped from her lips as a sudden shock thrilled through her body, and she half-rose as if to go to the front window. It was dark, the candle that had stood there as a beacon of home and a symbol of hope.
“He is not coming back,” Father replied in a low tone, reaching out to catch her hand in his large ones. “Mary, Jed is never coming back.”
“But I set his place—I can feel that he is going to return to us!” Mother cried out as her voice trembled with sobs.
“No, Mary.” Father’s voice was final, though his eyes misty and face haggard and gray.
A hush fell over the table, a shadow of the day returning when the news had been fresh and overwhelming with grief.
“What if the same happens to Jesse? What if he never comes back?” Josiah said under his breath as he struggled past the tears. “I won’t be able to bear it—I won’t.”
“Even if he does, we will move on and be joyful,” Father nodded while a single tear coursed down his face. “This is the hardest thing for us to all go through, but we have so much to still be thankful for. Joe and ‘Siah—you’re here with us which is more than your mother and I could have ever hoped for.”
“I was able to see him before he died,” Joseph smiled through his own tears. “I still don’t know how I was able to get to that ridge.”
“We will never get to see him come home or grow up or-or marry,” Mother sobbed as she sank down into her chair and held her handkerchief to her eyes.
“No, but think of how much pain he is missing out on,” Joseph pointed out after he had taken a breath to still his voice. “No more battles, no more sickness or hurt…Mother, he is in a place far better than this.”
“And all the years we got with him,” Josiah grinned though his eyes were overflowing with tears. He shook his head, “I can remember all the scrapes we got ourselves into, all the fun times when we would help Father, and everything in between. I wouldn’t give those years up for anything.”
And, as the family longingly looked on at the chair sitting vacant in the corner, they realized just how much they had been given by the momentary joy that Jed had been in their lives.