“The Grey Boy” – End of the Day for September 25, 2014

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The Grey Boy

By Douglas E. Welch

The war had ended only months ago. 1865 would be a year of peace after four Aprils of war. The boys, made men, were riding the trains home.

Joshua Farmer sat at the rear of the passenger car. No one sat next to him, even though it was crowded. He was an island of grey in a sea of blue. His grey, Confederate uniform was tattered and dirty but his head was held high.

The other soldiers in the car had spent many hours murmuring and gesturing amongst themselves. Joshua could hear the anger in their whispering voices. He had faced many fights in his week-long journey home.

The fanfare at each station increased the further north they traveled. Bands of every shape and size played marches and the crowds cheered as each man disembarked from the train. Joshua hunkered down in his seat, wrapping a worn blanket around his shoulders to hide the grey uniform from the onlookers. He feared they might pull him from the train and harm him before he made it to his own hometown.

The train and its passengers were following the same route that President Lincoln’s body had traveled in his funeral train. They traveled in the opposite direction though, away from Illinois, “The Land of Lincoln” and into Ohio.

Joshua had begun to recognize the city names they passed in the last several hours. Several more and he, too, would finally be home. He held no expectations of cheering crowds for him, though. He had made plans to slip off the train quietly and make his way to his house as quickly as possible.

[Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform and snake belt buckle with Enfield rifle and saber bayonet]  (LOC)

Night was falling and that was to his advantage. He would be harder to spot in the lamp and torch light of the station crowd and the general commotion would cover his exit. There would be no one at the station to meet Joshua. He had warned his mother and sister to stay away in case there was any trouble at the station. They had suffered enough over the last four years.

The train followed the flat farm fields with their wooded fence rows. He saw buggies filled with torch bearers racing the train to the station. Shouts and whoops resounded to and from the windows of the train as they caught sight of familiar faces.

The train halted for long periods at the larger cities of Mansfield, Bucyrus and Crestline. Finally the train moved onto Joshua’s town, New London. He had seen much in the 5 years he had been gone but very little would he want to remember. Joshua only wanted to see home. The home he had dreamed of every night during the war.

The conductor called “New London. Next stop, New London.” A few men, maybe 10 or 20, gathered their haversacks and hats and looked out the windows for familiar faces. Final good-byes were exchanged with many promises to stay in touch. Joshua made his way slowly towards the rear of the train. He planned to exit at the door nearest the caboose to conceal himself as much as possible.

The train slowed to a stop. Its arrival shrouded in a cloud of steam. The local band struck up “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” How foreign it sounded to his ears after years of hearing little but the strains of “Dixie” played innumerable times by countless people. Many of them who no longer walked the earth.

As the crowd cheered and crushed toward the train, Joshua slung his blanket tighter around his shoulders and stepped off the car. The train was too long for the small station at New London. The platform did not reach its entire length. The last few cars were left to empty along the coarse rock of the rail bed.

This was to Joshua’s advantage as he quickly walked to the high weeds surrounding the tracks, slipped down the small embankment and began walking the dirt streets home. He left the main street, lined with lamps and clogged with traffic and made for the darkened side lanes toward his family house. A few noted his departure but to his relief no one followed or shouted.

The streets were much busier than normal. Buggies and wagons rolled by, packed to bursting with happy families. The one saloon in town roared with a noise like Satan himself was the proprietor.

Ahead, a substantial frame house appeared in his view. A lamp stood in the window, looking more welcoming than Joshua could have ever imagined, although he had thought of it a thousand times. He quickened his step and was soon passing through he small gate. He approached the door, knocked, placed his hand upon the latch…and entered.

Inside the door, to the left, in a small parlor, sat Joshua’s mother in a rocker by the fire. She did not rise to greet him but sat, quietly sobbing, with tears streaming down here face. He went to her kissed here tears and kneeled at her feet.

His sister, Julie, threw her arms around him from behind and cried against the scratchy coat of his uniform. They cried together, all three of them, for many minutes, his mother running her fingers through his long unruly hair.

The door opened and Joshua’s father appeared. He was a large man with a shocking head of white hair. His eyes met Joshua’s and burned with some deep anger or hurt. He grunted a greeting and went immediately into me kitchen. 

Joshua found his father sitting before the fire, holding a small photograph, his head hanging low. Joshua had feared this meeting but knew it had to be settled. “You must go,” said his Father. “You are still my son but I cannot look on you without seeing your brother. You must find your own lodgings tomorrow. You can no longer stay here.”

It was Joshua’s brother Jeremy, in the photo. He had been lost early in the war at the First Battle of Bull Run.” He had only found out himself a few weeks ago when he was able to receive letters from his mother. It was useless to argue. His father might eventually forgive him but the pain was still to strong.

Joshua prepared himself a bath and sat long in thought until the water was cold. He washed and shaved properly for the first time in months, slowly returning to some semblance of his former self. He had lost much weight during the war and looked sickly yet from the diseases he had suffered. Still, dressed in his old clothes again, he thought there was still something of the old Joshua left.

He had just settled down in his favorite chair before the parlor fire when he heard the rustling of people on the street in front of the house. He pulled aside the curtain and noticed several people gathered at the gate. His father was talking with them. He seemed agitated and his gestures became more and more angry.

Joshua stood in the front doorway  and  inquired what was the matter. As soon as he did he heard the men cry, “Johnny Reb, go home!” and “You’re not wanted here.” Joshua’s father told him to get back in the house and turned on the men. “Leave us be,” he said. “We want no trouble and you are drunk. Go home and sleep it off before someone gets hurt.” Some of the men carried torches and others still carried their rifles and side arms. Most were still dressed in their blue Union Army uniforms.

An officer, in a grand dress uniform, stepped forward and calmed the men around him. He talked in hushed tones to Joshua’s father who alternately shook his head and nodded. There seemed to be some negotiation happening although Joshua could not hear them talk above the noise of the men who still stood around, grumbling to themselves.

Eventually, the office turned to the men and shouted, “Let’s be off to more celebrations my good men. We have won a victory. Let us remember the celebration and forget the tragedies. Come along and I will buy the next round to your health, if you will drink to mine.” With that, the men gathered together and lifting the officer to their shoulders, carried him off towards the saloon.

Joshua’s father returned and said, “They were ready to take you off and lynch you tonight. I don’t know what you were thinking. You should have never come back. Thank goodness Major Johnson intervened. Otherwise we would have had a fight on our hands. You owe him your life. They might even have burned down the house. You have to leave soon. There will be others and we will not be so lucky next time.”

As the long night passed more people gathered outside the house. Dawn came and the former soldiers were joined by women and children who came to see “The Grey Boy” as they had come to call Joshua. They couldn’t imagine a rebel in their midst and thought of him like some circus curiosity.

More catcalls came and young boys peeked in the windows until chased away with a brandished cane. The town constable had been called but instead of dispersing the crowd he joined it. Hurling catcalls with the others. Joshua knew something had to be done. He had traveled all this way only for a chance to rest but now he saw that even that was impossible. He was putting everyone at risk.

As quickly as he could, Joshua began to gather his belongings. He had had a traveling trunk before but that was lost during the war. He had only an old, small suitcase and he filled it to bursting. His mother and Julie assisted him while still pleading for him to stay and crying his shoulder. He offered soothing words but was determined to go.

After an hour or so he was prepared. A bundle of food was added to his baggage and he moved towards the front door. As soon as he appeared the crowd sprang to life shouting hurtful things and flinging old fruit and other garbage at him. Fortunately, the trip to the train station was a short one as he was followed by the mob, growing stronger as they traveled through the center of town. He feared he might not make it and be hung from a tree, like he had seen done to slaves in the South.

Joshua had planned his departure to match the train schedule. Not long after he arrived the train appeared. He quickly boarded and tried to stay hidden from the crowd. Even though he was leaving, the crowd seemed to be placing the entire blame of war on his shoulders. Shouts of “murderer” came from those who lost sons in the war. The guilt he felt would never disappear and this made him feel it even more keenly.

At last, the train left the station, bound for Cleveland. There Joshua could become anonymous. He could hide from his history there, if not from himself. The cries and shouts slowly died and he moved to the window once he thought it safe. As they approached a crossing outside of town he saw a wagon waiting to pass. As he got closer he saw his mother, sister and yes, his father watching the train. He caught their eyes and raised a hand as the car passed, never knowing when he could see them again. Four years of war had ended but it would be many years before the wounds of war would heal.

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