Encounter at Cemetery Ridge (Part 1)


Nancy climbed up on the hard wagon seat, Papa clucked their aging chestnut mare into motion, and the trip to Gettysburg began. Carefully, Nancy placed the brown parcel on the seat between them, then smoothed the coarse paper with loving strokes. As her fingers touched the package and she thought of its contents, Nancy allowed herself to believe that at last the trip was a reality. She sighed deeply. No, she wasn’t dreaming, but was actually going to Gettysburg to see the president.

Two weeks ago, Papa rode home from the village with news that President Lincoln would come to dedicate the new cemetery on the battlefield where so many soldiers died last July. Nancy’s thirteen-year-old heart pounded in anticipation, and immediately she asked her father if he would take her there.

“It’s twelve miles to Gettysburg,” Papa said. “Take a whole day to go, hear the speeches, and come back, providing nobody talks too long. Don’t know if I can spare the time. But I do need supplies.” When Nancy saw the hard lines of his face soften and the glow that warmed his dark eyes, she knew they would go to Gettysburg.

Nancy had held a dream in her heart for months, turning it first this way in her mind then that, until it sparkled like a newly minted coin. She wanted to make a contribution to the war whose furious sounds had come so close to them last summer. She wasn’t a boy so she couldn’t volunteer as a soldier, but surely she could do something worthwhile. Then she remembered people telling about how President Lincoln worked alone through the night in the cold and drafty White House with only an old threadbare shawl draped over his shoulders for warmth.

It was then her idea took birth and her dream spun a web of hope. As she hoed among the vegetables and fed the clucking brown hens, she pictured herself dressed in a pale gown covered with pink rosebuds, knocking on the White House door and asking to see Mr. Lincoln. When he appeared, she presented him with the most beautiful woolen shawl in the world, one that she had knitted herself. Then the president would no longer look sad and lonely, and he would be warm when he worked through the night. It was a good dream and sometimes, as she stared at the darkened ceiling of her bedroom, she held it close to her, willing it to come true.

Now, bouncing along in the wagon, Nancy remembered how carefully she’d knitted during every free moment to finish the blue shawl so that she’d be prepared to give it to the president at the right moment. And soon now that moment would be here. It was the most important one of her life and she could hardly wait.

Why can’t we go faster? she wondered. She sighed deeply and tried to stop squirming on the wooden seat.

“Patience, Nancy, patience,” her father cautioned.

“Yes, Papa.”

“Look around you. Enjoy the day!”

“I’ll try,” Nancy said with a smile.

Early morning mist swirled in soiled, gray patches along the roadbed covered over with an umbrella of tangled oak and hickory, but the sun warmed clear patches of meadow just beyond, casting an occasional golden shaft of light in their path through the trees.

Could that be a hint of good things waiting to happen? She wondered if Papa’s almanac that told of weather signs and good crop-planting days had anything to say about this day. Grownups often looked for signs in nature to tell them about the future. Now that she was nearly grown up, with vague changes taking place in her body that sometimes mystified her, it was time to take on grown-up ways. Surely this gift she’d made for the president showed that she was growing up and making a contribution to the war. She wished she knew what it felt like to think grown-up thoughts. Then, maybe she’d know for sure.

Hoofbeats slowed to a trot behind them, then came alongside. Nancy turned to see their neighbor, Mr. Brooks, in his fading federal blues. He’d been an officer at Bull Run, his empty left sleeve a silent testimony of his contribution to the war.

“Howdy, Mr. Montgomery. Morning Nancy,” he greeted them. His black moustache curved upward into a bushy smile.

“Mr. Brooks,” Papa said, “You’re alone, then?”

“The child has a fever again so Martha’s home, but this is one trip I had to make.”

“You and Nancy.” Papa turned and smiled at her. “She has some mysterious reason to see the president. Wants to give him something.”

“Well, now, fancy that,” Mr. Brooks said. “I hope she’s going to give him the name of a general who knows how to fight a war and win. That he could surely use.”

“True,” Papa agreed, “although General Grant did himself proud at Vicksburg. Maybe he’ll finally be the one to bring an end to it all.”

Mr. Brooks nodded in agreement and then said, “I’ll be off now. We’ve a rare treat in store for us today and I don’t want to miss a word of Senator Everett’s speech.” He touched his horse’s flanks lightly and disappeared down the road. Nancy yearned for a horse with the speed of Mr. Brooks’ animal.

“Who’s Senator Everett?” she asked.

“He’s a fine speaker, Nancy, and he’s also been a governor and president of Harvard University.”

“All that?” she asked.

“And more,” Papa replied. “You’ll never forget what he says today. Mark my word.”

“But President Lincoln will be there, won’t he?” Nancy was suddenly anxious. “You said so.”

“Oh, yes, he’ll be there,” Papa assured her. “But I don’t know why. After Senator Everett gets through talking, there won’t be much left to say.”

They rode in silence for a few moments, then Nancy asked, “Papa?”

“Yes, Nancy?”

“Do you think I’ll really get to talk to President Lincoln? Can I really get that close?”

“Lots of people have,” Papa said. “They come to see him at the White House and he visits with soldiers in the field. He’ll talk to you too.”

Reassured, Nancy smoothed her dark green skirt, touched her blonde hair, and found that it was curling around her face again in spite of everything she’d done to make it stay back. Oh, well, she thought and leaned forward, eager for her first glimpse of Gettysburg.

Hours later, it seemed, Nancy began to wonder if they’d taken a wrong turn in the road when finally, on the horizon, the town popped into view. She shaded her eyes against the hazy sun and stood up to ease the tension that had held her taut as clean wash hanging outside on a winter’s day.

“The town looks deserted,” Papa said. “I hope we’re not too late.”

“Oh, Papa, hurry,” Nancy pleaded. “We can’t be too late after so many weeks of waiting and dreaming. It wouldn’t be fair.”

They entered town from the north on Harrisburg Road, clippety-clopping through empty streets, past silent wooden houses and churches and deserted brick stores and shops. A solitary figure stood at an intersection ahead.

“You missed the procession,” the hoop-skirted lady called to them.

Papa slowed the wagon. “Where’s the dedication ceremony being held?”

“Straight south,” she answered, “on Cemetery Ridge.”

Nancy dug her fingers into her skirt and twisted the material into a ball. “Can’t you make Dora go any faster?” she urged. She sat forward on the edge of the seat and held onto the rough sideboard of the wagon for support. Now she could see carriages and horses tied to scrub brush along the sides of the road.

Papa halted the mare, jumped down, and tied her fast. “Looks like we’ll have to walk the rest of the way, Nancy,” he said.

Nancy took her parcel and hopped down and started running toward the crowd. “I’ll meet you back here afterwards, Papa,” she called.

She heard Papa shouting to her, but she didn’t stop. No time for anything now but getting there. Hurriedly, Nancy picked her way over wagon ruts and past rail fences, still on the ground where they’d been toppled by advancing confederate troops last July. Out of breath after her hasty climb up the low ridge, Nancy leaned against a tree for support. As her hand touched something cold and metallic, she looked to see what it was. Slowly recognition came and, with it, a tingling revulsion that bunched her stomach into a knot. She jumped back and wiped her hands on her skirt. She’d been touching a bullet, a real bullet, partially imbedded into the tree! Did that bullet kill someone before the tree stopped it? she wondered and shuddered involuntarily. Shaken, she hurried on.

(To be concluded next month.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson