Story type: Essay
The “old soldier” is beginning to outline himself upon the public mind as a distant character in American life. Literature has not yet got hold of him, and perhaps his evolution is not far enough advanced to make him as serviceable as the soldier of the Republic and the Empire, the relic of the Old Guard, was to Hugo and Balzac, the trooper of Italy and Egypt, the maimed hero of Borodino and Waterloo, who expected again the coming of the Little Corporal. It takes time to develop a character, and to throw the glamour of romance over what may be essentially commonplace. A quarter of a century has not sufficed to separate the great body of the surviving volunteers in the war for the Union from the body of American citizens, notwithstanding the organization of the Grand Army of the Republic, the encampments, the annual reunions, and the distinction of pensions, and the segregation in Soldiers’ Homes. The “old soldier” slowly eliminates himself from the mass, and begins to take, and to make us take, a romantic view of his career. There was one event in his life, and his personality in it looms larger and larger as he recedes from it. The heroic sacrifice of it does not diminish, as it should not, in our estimation, and he helps us to keep glowing a lively sense of it. The past centres about him and his great achievement, and the whole of life is seen in the light of it. In his retreat in the Home, and in his wandering from one Home to another, he ruminates on it, he talks of it; he separates himself from the rest of mankind by a broad distinction, and his point of view of life becomes as original as it is interesting. In the Homes the battered veterans speak mainly of one thing; and in the monotony of their spent lives develop whimseys and rights and wrongs, patriotic ardors and criticisms on their singular fate, which are original in their character in our society. It is in human nature to like rest but not restriction, bounty but not charity, and the tired heroes of the war grow restless, though every physical want is supplied. They have a fancy that they would like to see again the homes of their youth, the farmhouse in the hills, the cottage in the river valley, the lonesome house on the wide prairie, the street that ran down to the wharf where the fishing-smacks lay, to see again the friends whom they left there, and perhaps to take up the occupations that were laid down when they seized the musket in 1861. Alas! it is not their home anymore; the friends are no longer there; and what chance is there of occupation for a man who is now feeble in body and who has the habit of campaigning? This generation has passed on to other things. It looks upon the hero as an illustration in the story of the war, which it reads like history. The veteran starts out from the shelter of the Home. One evening, towards sunset, the comfortable citizen, taking the mild air on his piazza, sees an interesting figure approach. Its dress is half military, half that of the wanderer whose attention to his personal appearance is only spasmodic.
The veteran gives the military salute, he holds himself erect, almost too erect, and his speech is voluble and florid. It is a delightful evening; it seems to be a good growing-time; the country looks prosperous. He is sorry to be any trouble or interruption, but the fact is–yes, he is on his way to his old home in Vermont; it seems like he would like to taste some home cooking again, and sit in the old orchard, and perhaps lay his bones, what is left of them, in the burying-ground on the hill. He pulls out his well-worn papers as he talks; there is the honorable discharge, the permit of the Home, and the pension. Yes, Uncle Sam is generous; it is the most generous government God ever made, and he would willingly fight for it again. Thirty dollars a month, that is what he has; he is not a beggar; he wants for nothing. But the pension is not payable till the end of the month. It is entirely his own obligation, his own fault; he can fight, but he cannot lie, and nobody is to blame but himself; but last night he fell in with some old comrades at Southdown, and, well, you know how it is. He had plenty of money when he left the Home, and he is not asking for anything now, but if he had a few dollars for his railroad fare to the next city, he could walk the rest of the way. Wounded? Well, if I stood out here against the light you could just see through me, that’s all. Bullets? It’s no use to try to get ’em out. But, sir, I’m not complaining. It had to be done; the country had to be saved; and I’d do it again if it were necessary. Had any hot fights? Sir, I was at Gettysburg! The veteran straightens up, and his eyes flash as if he saw again that sanguinary field. Off goes the citizen’s hat. Children, come out here; here is one of the soldiers of Gettysburg! Yes, sir; and this knee–you see I can’t bend it much–got stiffened at Chickamauga; and this scratch here in the neck was from a bullet at Gaines Mill; and this here, sir–thumping his chest–you notice I don’t dare to cough much –after the explosion of a shell at Petersburg I found myself lying on my-back, and the only one of my squad who was not killed outright. Was it the imagination of the citizen or of the soldier that gave the impression that the hero had been in the forefront of every important action of the war? Well, it doesn’t matter much. The citizen was sitting there under his own vine, the comfortable citizen of a free republic, because of the wounds in this cheerful and imaginative old wanderer. There, that is enough, sir, quite enough. I am no beggar. I thought perhaps you had heard of the Ninth Vermont. Woods is my name–Sergeant Woods. I trust some time, sir, I shall be in a position to return the compliment. Good-evening, sir; God bless your honor! and accept the blessing of an old soldier. And the dear old hero goes down the darkening avenue, not so steady of bearing as when he withstood the charge of Pickett on Cemetery Hill, and with the independence of the American citizen who deserves well of his country, makes his way to the nearest hospitable tavern.