Union Soldiers Return Home

Various commitments this week make it difficult to produce the usual Heritage American essay. I will return to full-length postings next week. Meanwhile, I offer my readers a selection from a short story by Hamlin Garland, “The Return of a Private” (1891), also available on Google Books, which I enjoyed recently. 

Garland was famous as a “local color” author, and uses a stylized “Wisconsin dialect” in this story. Most Midwesterners probably feel that their speech lacks local flavor, but the fact is that well into the 20th century every part of America had a regional dialect, although the upper classes seem to have cultivated a standardized form with “r’s” dropped as in British English (observable in movies made before 1950 or so). 

Pronunciation differences remain, though they have been considerably ironed out. Here is a map of dialect areas of the United States. I grew up in the Midland region, which, amazingly, stretches all the way from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. I noticed a distinct change in vowels when I moved to Michigan. However, the children of immigrants often take on a different accent, which seems influenced by black, Hispanic, and other pronunciations. 

The soldiers in Garland’s story belong to a people whose existence has been condemned to death by our immigration policies. They are ordinary, uneducated American boys who have been through the carnage and tedium of war. Their crude expressions of love for each other, and for their families, touch the heart. They don’t seem interested in the black men whom they have freed from bondage, and they don’t have much to say about their former Southern foes, except to acknowledge their fierce fighting ability. 

They just want to go home. Our struggle now is to save that home, North or South, city or country. 

D’yeh see that peak?” He pointed at a beautiful symmetrical peak, rising like a slightly truncated cone, so high that it seemed the very highest of them all. It was lighted by the morning sun till it glowed like a beacon, and a light scarf of gray morning fog was rolling up its shadowed side.

“My farm’s just beyond that. Now, ef I can only ketch a ride, we’ll be home by dinnertime.”

“I’m talkin’ about breakfast,” said one of the others.

“I guess it’s one more meal o’ hardtack f’r me,” said Smith.

They foraged around, and finally found a restaurant with a sleepy old German behind the counter, and procured some coffee, which they drank to wash down their hardtack.

“Time’ll come,” said Smith, holding up a piece by the corner, ” when this’ll be a curiosity.”

“I hope to God it will! I bet I’ve chawed hardtack enough to shingle every house in the coulee. I’ve chawed it when my lampers was down, and when they wasn’t. I’ve took it dry, soaked, and mashed. I’ve had it wormy, musty, sour, and blue-moldy. I’ve had it in little bits and big bits; ‘fore coffee an’ after coffee. I’m ready f’r a change. I’d like t’ git hol’t jest about now o’ some of the hot biscuits my wife c’n make when she lays herself out f’r company.”

“Well, if you set there gablin’, you’ll never see yer wife.”

“Come on,” said Private Smith. “Wait a moment, boys; less take suthin’. It’s on me.” He led them to the rusty tin dipper which hung on a nail beside the wooden water pail, and they grinned and drank. (Things were primitive in La Crosse then.) Then, shouldering their blankets and muskets, which they were “taking home to the boys,” they struck out on their last march.

“They called that coffee ‘Jayvy,” grumbled one of them, “but it never went by the road where government Jayvy resides. I reckon I know coffee from peas.”

They kept together on the road along the turnpike, and up the winding road by the river, which they followed for some miles. The river was very lovely, curving down along its sandy beds, pausing now and then under broad basswood trees, or running in dark, swift, silent currents under tangles of wild grapevines, and drooping alders, and haw trees. At one of these lovely spots the three vets sat down on the thick green sward to rest, “on Smith’s account.” The leaves of the trees were as fresh and green as in June, the jays called cheery greetings to them, and kingflshers darted to and fro, with swooping, noiseless flight.

“I tell yeh, boys, this knocks the swamps of Loueesiana into kingdom come.”

“You bet. All they c’n raise down there is snakes, niggers, and p’rticler hell.”

“An’ fightin’ men,” put in the older man.

“An’ fightin’ men. If I had a good hook an’ line I’d sneak a pick’rel out o’ that pond. Say, remember that time I shot that alligator–“

“I guess we’d better be crawlin’ along,” interrupted Smith, rising and shouldering his knapsack, with considerable effort, which he tried to hide.

“Say, Smith, lemme give you a lift on that.”

“I guess I c’n manage,” said Smith grimly.

“‘Course. But, yeh see, I may not have a chance right off to pay yeh back for the times ye’ve carried my gun and hull caboodie. Say, now, gimme that gun, anyway.”

“All right, if yeh feel like it, Jim,” Smith replied, and they trudged along doggedly in the sun, which was getting higher and hotter each half mile.

“Ain’t it queer there ain’t no teams cornin’ along.”

“Well, no, seem’s it’s Sunday.”

“By jinks, that’s a fact! It is Sunday. I’ll git home in time fr dinner, sure. She don’t hev dinner usually till-about one on Sundays.” And he fell into a muse, in which he smiled.

“Well, I’ll git home jest about six o’clock, jest about when the boys are milkin’ the cows,” said old Jim Cranby. “I’ll step into the barn an’ then I’ll say, ‘Heah! why ain’t this milkin’ done before this time o’ day? An’ then won’t they yell!” he added, slapping his thigh in great glee.

Smith went on. “I’ll jest go up the path. Old Rover’ll come down the road to meet me. He won’t bark; he’ll know me, an’ he’ll come down waggin’ his tail an’ shonin’ his teeth. That’s his way of laughin’. An’ so I’ll walk up to the kitchen door, an’ I’ll say ‘Dinner f’r a hungry man!’ An’ then she’ll jump up, an’–“

He couldn’t go on. His voice choked at the thought of it. Saunders, the third man, hardly uttered a word. He walked silently behind the others. He had lost his wife the first year he was in the army. She died of pneumonia caught in the autumn rains, while working in the fields in his place.

They plodded along till at last they came to a parting of the ways. To the right the road continued up the main valley; to the left it went over the ridge.

“Well, boys,” began Smith as they grounded their muskets and looked away up the valley, “here’s where we shake hands. We’ve marched together a good many miles, an’ now I s’pose we’re done.”

“Yes, I don’t think we’ll do any more of it f’r a while. I don’t want to, I know.”

“I hope I’ll see yeh once in a while, boys, to taik over old times.”

“Of course,” said Saunders, whose voice trembled a little, too. “It ain’t exactly like dyin’.”

“But we’d ought’r go home with you,” said the younger man. “You never’ll climb that ridge with all them things on yer back.”

“Oh, I’m all right! Don’t worry about me. Every step takes me nearer home, yeh see. Well, goodbye, boys.”

They shook hands. “Goodbye. Good luck!”

“Same to you. Lemme know how you find things at home.”


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