"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
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.
“Oh, why, thank you, sir, but I don’ partake of spirits,” she smiled at him as she slid a steaming plate in front of him. She also put down a pewter fork, knife, and spoon as well as a white napkin. She served Billy then turned again to the fire.
“You gentleman, please start eatin’ while it’s hot; don’t wait for me,” she called over her shoulder.
When she sat down herself, across the table from them, Billy’s plate stood half empty. Phillips remained full. Only when she started, did he touch a utensil.
After a few mouthfuls, Phillips praised the meal. “This is wonderful beef stew, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Sarah felt the heat of a blush rising on her cheeks.
Their guest continued, “Though, if I may say so, I am a bit surprised. I expected fish. After all, don’t you Catholics eat fish on Fridays?”
Billy paused in the midst of finishing off his plate. “I ain’t no Cat’lic!” he scowled. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“The missus is wearing a Saint Barbara medal,” Phillips nodded toward Sarah.
She looked down at her bosom and snatched up the pewter pendant that hung from a cord around her neck.
“Oh, this?” she held it up. “I didn’t know it was Cat’lic. I just thought it was pretty.”
Eyes narrowed, Billy regarded Phillips over his right shoulder. “Are you a Cat’lic, Cap’n?”
“No, of course not, but I recognize that medal because, early in the war, a stray Catholic chaplain stopped by the battery and gave these out to all the boys.”
Noting the emphasis in Phillips’ voice on the last word, Sarah paused in mid-chew, her cheeks burning even more brightly.
Billy, oblivious to her discomfiture, frowned, “Why would a Papist do such a thing?”
“Because Saint Barbara’s the patron saint of artillerymen,” Phillips explained with apparent nonchalance, but Sarah squirmed in her chair as she heard the way he leaned on the last word. The former artillerist continued, “and that medal looks exactly like the ones he handed out. Where did you get it, ma’am, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Don’ rightly recall,” Sarah shrugged, feigning nonchalance as well. “Been in my family a while, I suppose.” Anxious to change the subject, Sarah asked, “So what brings a fine gentleman such as yourself, Cap’n, up from Salem, Massachusetts, to the wilds of New Hampshire?”
“I’m an attorney, ma’am, currently engaged by the Boston and Maine Railroad to help clear up some land title and right-of-way issues in this part of the country, but,” here, Phillips’ brow wrinkled, “how did you know I’m from Salem? Most people around here assume I’m from Boston.”
“Oh, well,” Sarah tittered, her cheeks reddening again. “I must have misheard Billy. I thought he said you was from Salem.”
Billy regarded Sarah with a scowl. “No, like everybody else, I figured the Cap’n was from Boston, you bein’
so sophisticated an’ all.” He grinned at Phillips.
Sarah laughed. “Another one of my silly mistakes.”
As the meal proceeded, Billy progressed in his usual manner from slightly inebriated to mildly drunk. The meal over, he got up, staggering slightly, and seized a triangular bayonet from the mantle. He waved it about, pointing out the snapped-off tip. “See this, Cap’n? Wanna know how it busted?” Without waiting for an answer, he launched into his story. “You see, I joined the 4th Massachusetts Infantry early on, right after the news of Sumter, and, while we may have been a 90-day regiment, we saw our share of action. I’m sure you heard of the Battle of Big Bethel.”
Phillips nodded. “My battery marched past that battlefield in ’62 at the start of the Peninsula Campaign.”
“Tha’s the spot all right,” Billy waved a trembling finger at Phillips. “’Cept we fought there in ’61.”
Sighing silently as Billy began his now-familiar recitation, Sarah rose and bused the dishes. She allowed the story to fade in and out her consciousness as she washed up. By the time she returned to the table, Billy finally neared the climax.
Standing next to the seated Phillips, he slurred out, “And then, under cover of dark, we crept up to the Rebel cannon, and, to spike it, I jammed the tip of this here bayonet—this very one that I hold right here in my hand—into the touch hole.”
“You mean ‘vent.’” Sarah corrected flatly.
Billy rounded on her, “Woman, what do you know about it? It’s a ‘touch hole.’”
Phillips spoke up with quiet authority. “She’s right. The technical term is ‘vent,’ but,” here he looked sympathetically up at Billy, “of course, I can understand why a foot soldier like you might make a trivial mistake like that.” Phillips turned his gaze back to Sarah. “How is it, ma’am, for a woman who knows nothing about the military, you know the nomenclature of the piece?”
Sarah blushed again but fought gamely to make up for it by winking at Phillips. “As you can imagine, sir, this ain’t the first time I heard this story. Other veteran red legs have had this very same conversation with Billy.”
Phillips shook his head, still unsatisfied. “Red legs? For someone who doesn’t know much about the army, you’ve picked up a lot of slang.”
She rolled her eyes at Billy, who stood, uncertain in his increasing inebriation, slightly mystified but clearly impatient to resume his mini epic. “As you can appreciate, Cap’n, I do a lot of listening these days,” Sarah chortled.
His triumphant tale of heroics at the Battle of Big Bethel at an end, Billy signaled his final descent into drunkenness by sagging into the chair next to Phillips and starting into politics as his subject. “My name may be Bragg,” he began, “jes’ like the Rebel Genr’l Braxton Bragg, but he’s no relation, I assure you. In fact, I was a War Democrat, a true Union man, couldn’t ask for one truer, but I didn’t fight and bleed so some God-damned uppity nigger would get the vote like a white man.”
Phillips finally sipped at his tankard, having barely touched it in the last half-hour. “Colored regiments served next to my battery in the lines at Petersburg,” he observed mildly. “Those men fought as well as any white soldiers I ever saw. They suffered and bled like you. By that criterion, they certainly earned the vote.”
Sitting across the table from the two men, Sarah tensed, fearing the effect of Phillips’ words on the drunken Billy.
Fortunately, Billy opted for sarcasm rather than outright confrontation. “Well, I suppose it’s a good thing that women didn’t fight in the war because then you’d be saying that they should vote, too!” he snorted.
Having manhandled the stupefied Billy into bed, Sarah and Phillips staggered back to the kitchen themselves. As they both sagged into chairs across the table from each other, Sarah panted, “Thank you kindly for your help, Cap’n, but I coulda managed by myself. Lord knows, I’ve done this enough times on my own.”
“I imagine so,” Phillips admitted. “But I couldn’t very well sit by and let you struggle with him all by yourself. By the way,” he tossed off casually as he finished another sip of his beer, “You can call me ‘Charles.’”
Sarah sat bolt upright at this, attempting as much dignity as possible. “No respectable lady calls a man, other than her husband, by his first name.”
Phillips shrugged and countered, “And no respectable lady wears trousers and serves an artillery piece.”
Sarah gulped. “I don’ know what you’re talkin’ about, sir.”
Phillips continued mildly, “Last time I saw you, you were going by John Wakeman.”
Sarah swallowed and fought to clear her throat.
“Perhaps you’d care for some spirits now?” Phillips asked, grabbing the jug and pouring beer in Sarah’s empty glass.
She took a long pull. “Had you known my true nature, sir,” she eventually managed to choke out, “you’d have sent me away in shame.”
Phillips nodded and shrugged. “I don’t know about the shame part, but, I admit, I would have followed orders and sent you home. I’d have had no choice in the matter.”
“Tha’s why I kep’ who I am secret, sir. I’m sorry about that. I truly am, but I didn’ have no other choice neither, but, tell me,” here, she leaned forward. “All those years we was together every day campin’, marchin’, fightin’ the Rebs, and you didn’ once suspect?”
“No,” Phillips shook his head and took another pull on his beer. “You know how dreadfully deficient and negligent our surgeons were. I’m not surprised that, in their cursory induction examinations, they overlooked something as minor as sex organs.” He grinned at his own sarcasm.
Sarah sat bolt upright at this. “I’d have never let ‘em look at my privates, sir, and you can rest assured I used the latrines only when no one was lookin’. But that ain’t all, of course; didn’ you every wonder why I didn’ grow no beard?”
Phillips tossed off the last of his tankard. “As you may recall, we had plenty of beardless boys in our ranks. I suppose I should have inquired about their ages more rigorously myself, but we needed every man, uh,” here Phillips stopped himself and corrected, “body we could get.”
“Tha’s good to know, sir. I figgered that baggy uniform hid a world of sins, so to speak,” here she looked at Phillips over her tankard and her eyes smiled. “But I couldn’ do nothing about my voice nor my face.”
Phillips leaned back and stroked his own, neatly trimmed beard. “Though I did wonder about you once.”
“Really?” Sarah looked up, anxious. “Wha’d I do?”
“It was what you didn’t do,” Phillips corrected and, leaning forward, shook a finger at Sarah. “You didn’t accept that promotion to corporal. I couldn’t account for it. In my experience, no one ever turned down a promotion.”
Sarah shrugged and looked down at the incidental gouges and grooves on the tabletop. “I figgered the less I said, the better. Hard for a gunner to keep quiet when you gotta bellow orders.”
“True enough,” Phillips admitted.
“But, sir, there’s one thing I gotta make clear to you.” She looked directly into Phillips’ eyes with an urgency that rivetted him. “I didn’ once to doin’ with no man. I mean, sir, I didn’t make the beast with two backs, whatever you wanna call it. I was a virgin when I mustered in and when I mustered out.”
Phillips nodded. “I believe you. If you’d have done something like that, your secret would have been over all the camp in seconds, and, speaking of such things, now that I know it, your secret is safe with me, Mrs. Bragg.”
Sarah nodded and sighed with appreciation. “Thank you kindly, sir. I do my best to be a respectable lady now, and, as you said, no respectable lady fought in the Rebellion.” Sarah paused and leaned forward.
“Though there is one thing more I need to tell you. I ain’t Sarah Bragg. I’m Sarah Wakeman.”
Phillips furrowed his brow. “So Billy Bragg’s not your husband?”
Sarah shrugged. “Well, he’s a common law husband, I s’pose. We didn’t bother with a minister nor justice of the peace.”
Phillips sighed in his turn. “If you don’t mind my saying, he’s not much of a husband at any rate. Talk around the tavern in Warner center is that about all he’s good for is eating, drinking, and talking, not much of a farmhand.”
“He’s a man. That’s all I need to be respectable.”