"Veterans' Reunion" by Toni Artuso

CW/TW: Historical racism

In memory of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (AKA Lyons Wakeman) (1843-1864), who died in hospital while serving with the 153rd New York State Volunteers.

Warner, New Hampshire

September 1868

Sarah expected the door to her kitchen to slam open at suppertime. When it came to meals, as opposed to doing chores, she never doubted Billy’s prompt appearance. However, when she looked up from her stool by the fire where she stirred the stew, the tall man standing beside Billy at the door did surprise her. Flushed, she stood hastily, nearly knocking the stool over as she gathered her long skirts about her ankles. Fortunately, Billy spoke first—not surprising since Billy’s legendary loquacity matched his voracious appetite—sparing her the embarrassment of stuttering in shock.

“Here, let me introduce you to the Missus,” Billy announced grandly, turning to the man with him. “Honey, I’d like you to meet another of the Boys of ’61, like me.” Despite the way Billy equated himself with the newcomer, the two contrasted sharply, Billy slouching in his slovenly homespun and this well-dressed man standing at attention in an overcoat with a neat black frock beneath. “I brought home a genuine war hero to our humble hearth for supper,” Billy continued with his usual bombast. “He commanded a battery of artillery!”

Fighting to slow her breathing, Sarah curtsied awkwardly. “Pleased to meet you, Major,” she said, her voice surprisingly steady.

Billy scowled at this. “No, dear, captains command batteries, not majors.” Turning to his guest, Billy ushered him into the kitchen and closed the door. “This here is Cap’n Charles A. Phillips, late of the 5th Massachusetts Battery of Light Artillery. This here is Sarah,” he waved vaguely in her direction.

Phillips doffed his hat politely. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” he offered with a genteel bow then asked, “How did you know my brevet rank?”

Sarah cleared her throat. “Oh, sir, I didn’t. Like Billy says, I just don’ know nothin’ ‘bout soldiering, being a woman an’ all, so I mistook you for a Major when I suppose you was a Cap’n. My apologies.” She curtsied again.

“Sit down! Sit down!” Billy bustled about, pulling out a chair from the scarred table for Phillips. He took his guest’s overcoat and black broad-brimmed hat, a cross cannon patch on the front as well as gold braid, both faded, around its crown, and he thrust the items at Sarah, along with his own coat, to put away. “As you can see, Cap’n, we live a simple life up here in New Hampshire. We don’t have no fancy dining rooms like you folks in Boston. We just eat in our kitchen.”

“Thank you, kindly, Mr. Bragg. This suits me just fine, and I’m sure Sarah’s supper will be much better than anything I could have gotten in the tavern back in town where we met.”

“Oh, now, don’ go callin’ me Mister anythin’, Cap’n. I’m jest plain ole Billy. Say, lemme pour you a drink.” He seized a jug from the mantle as well as a pair of flagons and poured each of them a full glass. He plopped down beside Phillips and offered a toast. “To the Union!”

“Long may she stand!” Phillips replied, clinking his glass. “Will you be joining our toast, Mrs. Bragg?” he asked as Sarah bustled about the fire, ladling stew onto tin plates.