(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
“Sit down by me and listen, child. The weather is nasty, and your Mother is well enough not to need you for a bit. So, sit with me awhile. I want you to know what I saw on a fall day just like this one. Someday it will be important that you know.” He was thinking of when he had been a young man, recently back from his war, and newly married to his Sally. His fingers rubbed the arm of his rocker where he now spent most of his days. He had worn the finish away and grooves were forming where his fingers kept traveling. He had heard this youngest grandchild tell her brother that he looked like Santa Claus. Well, all of his hair was white now, and his beard soft and hanging down his chest. So much had changed. He had had six children. His darling Sally had been gone more than twenty years now. He couldn’t do the farm chores any more so his son ran the farm for him.
“I’m going to start my story in November of 18 and 63, when I was 28, your grandmother and I had just married. It was after the harvest. First one I’d been home to help with after going to Mr. Lincoln’s War. We heard that the cemetery for the boys who had died at Gettysburg was to be dedicated on the 19th. Since we had family along the way, we decided to be there for the dedication. My sister, Sarah, and her husband and children lived in Rogues Harbor. We took the train to Ligonier where A.J. met us and drove us to their farm. Sarah always had a whip for a tongue. She told me I was uncaring for not having visited sooner. She had married five years earlier, moved southeast of Pittsburgh with A.J. and then President Lincoln’s War had come. I had joined the 134th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and been voted Sergeant, so kept the Company records. After my Company was disbanded and we had gone home, it was time I was married, and I didn’t know how much longer my Sally would wait. I did know that there would be time enough for visiting after the harvest and the wedding. We’d been married on Wednesday the fourth. Sister had not been able to come home for the wedding and was eager for news of our father. Her husband, A.J., was as fine a fellow as you could know. He kept telling me how I needed to stay a farmer. It would be a secure life for us and any family we might have. They were a good-looking couple, even though at thirty the hard work of being a farmer’s wife with three young daughters was beginning to wear on her. My Sally loved Sarah’s little girls and wanted a family of her own as soon as we could. We went to church with them on Sunday. Monday afternoon we got on the train and rode to Gettysburg. There we stayed with Aunt Meg, who had been recently widowed. Her mother had come to live with her and the children. They had taken in a boarder after Uncle Will died. He was one of the men helping with the reburials for the new cemetery. When Gen. Meade left after the battle at Gettysburg that July, he had not taken the time to see the dead buried. In the heat the bodies began to swell and rot. Aunt Meg said that the stink had been terrible. Young Will, then 8, said that he and some of his friends had gone to the battlefield and seen some of the bodies explode. Some in town began to sicken. The town’s folk hurriedly buried the bodies. Those on our side and Rebs, too, just to get them covered. Mr. David Wills, the biggest banker in all of Gettysburg, went up to Harrisburg to see Governor Curtin. After he understood how serious the problem was, Governor Curtin set up a commission to raise money to buy land for the cemetery and cleanse the bloody field. Body by body they took the dead from their graves to identify each of them so they could be reburied with others from the State from which they hailed. It was grim and dirty work. That is what Aunt Meg’s boarder had been doing. Mr. Wills had wanted it done by October so that the cemetery could be dedicated and open as a memorial before the freeze. He had asked Mr. Edward Everett, a scholar and well know orator to give the Dedication Address. Mr. Everett had a reputation as an impressive speaker with a fine and sonorous voice. He had told Mr. Wills that he would need more time to write a speech appropriate to such a solemn occasion. The date of 19th of November, a Thursday, had been chosen. President Lincoln had been asked if he could come and add a few words after Mr. Everett’s address.
“All week the weather was glorious. We had had a freeze, but the ground wasn’t solid yet. The trees had given up most of their leaves. Some of the oaks still held onto leaves that had gone all dry and brown. The air smelled clean. Our cousins told us it was much improved over the last several months. Sally and I were ever so glad that we could stay with family as more and more people kept arriving in town. Gettysburg was about as big as New Castle so had plenty of shops. On Wednesday, Sally said that she wanted to see them and Cousins Nan and Peggy thought it would be a lark to show them to her. I, of course, was to be their gentleman escort. The war was still going on and though there were no armies in the area, many dignitaries were coming in for the ceremony. Who knew whom the Rebs had sent to cause havoc during such an event. As we approached the shops the sidewalks became more and more crowded. Women of the town were doing the errands that were the day-in and day-out of their existence. There were many important looking carriages rushing through the streets. We saw a few soldiers and many policemen, mostly standing in small groups while they talked and watched. Then, there were the men and boys who had been to the war. You could pick them out by the way they walked and dressed, and many by their grievous wounds. That afternoon it began to rain lightly so we returned to the house.
“Thursday morning it was still very damp and warm enough to keep the fog hugging the fields and trees. The rain had stopped, but the sun was playing peek-a-boo from behind the clouds that lingered. Mr. Lincoln had arrived the evening before and a crowd was gathering in town to walk with him to the gathering. We did not wait for them, but found our way the field to pick a place where we would be able to seen the platform and hear all of the speakers. We heard the crowd before we saw them. Aunt Meg’s border was with us. Soon the crowd was all around us, like the tall wheat in the field just before harvest. Mr. Lincoln arrived on a horse and took his place on a chair at the center of the stage. He was a very tall man. Seemed to hang over his horse with his feet below the animal’s belly. He was still wearing a black ribbon around his hat for the death of his son. He did not seem very good himself, but looked pale and tired. Just as the band began to play to start the Ceremony the sun came out and began to warm us.
Mr. Everett began to speak with great dignity. His voice rolled over the crowd and his hands punctuated his words. For two hours he held us in his thrall. We all applauded and many cheered when he finished. Mr. Lincoln rose, they shook hands, Mr. Everett sat, but as Mr. Lincoln turned to the front the band began to play, so Mr. Lincoln sat again. After the hymn someone shouted: The President of the United States. You could hear a rustling in the crowd as we all prepared to hear another speech. Then there was a hush that fell over everyone and Mr. Lincoln put on his glasses then began. He had a high thin voice and sounded like he came from the back woods. His words, though, were clear and sounded as if he were a preacher. After all the years where people were arguing about why we should or should not fight, after all the pages of newsprint, after so many had been wounded or killed, Mr. Lincoln told us simply why we had fought, still fought this horrible war. We could all see that Mr. Lincoln suffered the same hurts this War had brought to all of us. He spoke of the heroism of the soldiers having made the ground we were on sacred. A few began to clap. Others hushed them so as not to interrupt the President. As he camp to his conclusion his voice became louder and more commanding:
we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
“Then he was done. He sat down. The crowd began to applaud. It had not been three minutes that he spoke, but we were all as moved by his words in that short time, as we had been by the whole two hours we had listened to Mr. Everett. We gave cheers for the president and for the Governor. As we began to quiet the choir sang the dirge and then a Benediction was said over the crowd and we went our ways speaking in hushed voices as if we had just left Church. It was about four in the afternoon.
“We spent another day with Aunt Meg and her family before returning home to begin our life here. The cemetery was not done when we left. Aunt Meg’s boarder told us that they were only about half way through unburying, identifying, and reburying the dead, but would soon stop until the spring. I hear that every once in awhile, even now more than sixty years later, a farmer will find more of those poor boys when he plows his fields in the spring. Then their bones will be taken to the cemetery to be with the others.
“No, I won’t be taken there. My battle was Fredericksburg in Virginia and Uncle John was at Vicksburg in Mississippi, which happened the same days as Gettysburg. We will both stay here, on the south corner of the farm, near the road where the sun shines. Yes, child, I am finished and you may go. But, someday, remember that I saw Mr. Lincoln.”
The last word:
Around 1560, an Italian couple Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti made the first modern wood-encased carpentry pencil. Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. But making pencils was painstakingly slow, and thus pencils were very expensive. However, by 1850 the manufacturing process was automated; erasers first appeared in 1858. By the start of the US Civil War (“Lincoln’s War”), pencils were cheap and common. With the high literacy rate in the US at the time, the Civil War became the first war were the common soldier could write letters, and the War Department and Post Office Department made sure that the mail got through to the soldiers, often in only weeks.
This story is fiction, but it is based on family stories and about three-dozen letters written in pencil from my Great Grandpa and his brothers in the Army to and from the family back in New Castle, Pennsylvania. We also have Great Grandpa’s Civil War Journal. Suzy spent many months transcribing 130 year-old letters written in pencil on, by then, crumbling paper. Spelling was not high on their priority list, with at least three different spellings of their last name. But it makes fascinating first person reading.
Oh, and the “youngest grandchild” was my Mother.
Keep your sense of humor.