I received a letter recently from a woman who had read my novel, THE ONES THEY LEFT BEHIND. In it, she thanked me for writing the book, in part because it spurred her to go back into her family history. This in itself was startling, as she is well into her 80s.
On her stairs, there is a photograph of an old man with white hair and whiskers standing on a porch with other grizzled old men. She knew little about the picture, but after reading my book she went back into whatever old letters, diaries and photos she could find. She shared this story.
Her great-grandmother was dusting out a rug on her porch in Lewisburg, PA. It was June of 1865. The woman heard a whistle announcing the arrival of a train. She could see the station and watched the train pull in. At first, no one got off. Finally a solitary soldier almost toppled onto the ground, then unsteadily raised himself up. He was clearly very drunk. Her great grandmother watched the soldier stagger down the street, but curiously didn’t pay him any mind. She had seen this many times before – soldiers returning home, either from leave during the war, or after they were mustered out once the war was over. They were often completely inebriated. She went back inside.
As she worked, she thought about the soldier and realized that the right thing to do was to offer him some water and possibly directions so he could find his way home in his drunken stupor. She went back outside with a glass of water. There before her in the street was the soldier standing in the sunlight. As she approached, she recognized her son.
That boy was the old man with the grizzled white beard and hair surrounded by his former soldiers, his band of brothers, looking out from a faded black-and-white photograph on her stairs.
This scene could just as easily have been played out in Clarksville, TN, Roswell, GA or Centerville, IA. And it did, in ten thousand other towns across America after Our War.