The Day the Soldiers Came

By Madeline Keen

Print Share

    “Come on, Jennie. You’re an old slowpoke,” Tobie called good-naturedly to his little sister who ran to meet him every day after school. She could hardly wait to go to school with him and whenever Tobie declared that it wouldn’t be any time at all until she would be old enough, her eyes sparkled with anticipation.

    Most afternoons were so quiet that Jennie and Tobie could hear birds singing or wild geese honking overhead. But today there came a new and different sound. Tobie looked in the direction of the strange, rumbling noise and saw a group of men coming toward them, raising a cloud of dust as they traveled.

    Quickly Tobie pulled his sister back into the bushes and warned her not to make a sound. A crooked line of tired soldiers soon came into view, shuffling by slowly like the ragtag end of a beaten army. Several mules were pulling old, creaky wagons filled with injured men who moaned hoarsely every time the wheels jounced over stones in the road. As the strangers passed, Tobie noticed ragged and torn uniforms, bandage-wrapped heads, crutches made of broken tree limbs, and sallow, staring faces, some not much older than his own. The men who could walk were silent as they trudged along, their eyes fixed on the dusty road before them.

    When the last marcher disappeared around the bend, Tobie grabbed Jennie’s hand and they ran to their farmhouse among the trees. Mother was coming from the barnyard with a basket of eggs she had just gathered. “What’s wrong children?” she asked.

    They told her about the men, and when Father came home from the fields later for their evening meal he listened carefully to their news. The previous day, a neighbor had told him that British troops had taken over the nearby city of Philadelphia after a victorious battle near the Birmingham meetinghouse several days before.

    When Tobie described their woebegone appearance, Father knew the bedraggled men belonged to General Washington’s defeated army. Apparently the surviving soldiers were looking for a place to rest and care for their wounded companions.

    “I’m sure we have nothing to worry about,” Father said. However, when bedtime came the doors were bolted securely and his rifle was placed within easy reach.

    The next day was Saturday and Tobie got up early to help with the chores. Jennie stayed so close to her brother that he called her his “little shadow.” It was nearly noon when they saw a man approaching the garden where they were picking tomatoes. The boy pushed his sister behind him and grabbed a hoe that was lying on the ground. Trying to sound brave, he asked gruffly what the man wanted.

    The stranger looked sadly at the two children and, probably thinking of his family so far from Pennsylvania, sat down wearily on an old tree stump. “Don’t be frightened,” he said, “I just need a drink of water and a place to rest for a while.”

    Tobie put down the hoe and hurried to bring some water from a bucket near the pump. Looking more closely at the man’s ragged clothing, he could tell that the tall, thin figure was a soldier in the Continental army.

    Jennie ran to the kitchen for her mother. When they returned, the soldier tried to get up but the effort was too much. “Ma’am, I sure hope I didn’t scare the young’uns,” he said, motioning to Tobie and Jennie.

    Mother looked at the man’s tired, bearded face, and tears came to her eyes. “We’re glad you’re here,” she said. “We want to help you.” And within minutes she was busily cooking food for the hungry stranger.

    As they watched him eagerly eat every crumb of food from the plate, he told them about his children in Virginia. When he finished eating, the soldier talked of the men who had passed by the farm the day before. “There will be thousands like them,” he said, “coming to camp in the hills of Valley Forge. They have very little food and many are sick or wounded. A few stronger ones like myself have come searching for help from the surrounding farms. Others are cutting logs to build huts for shelter. There is no way of knowing how long we’ll have to stay, perhaps all winter.”

    Later when Father came home and heard about the suffering of the men in the army, he and the soldier rode toward the place where General Washington’s troops were struggling to build a camp, while Mother began searching for pieces of cloth that could be used for bandages for the wounded men. Tobie and Jennie laid clean straw on the barn floor and placed buckets of cool water inside the door.

    As dusk crept over the rolling Chester County hills, Father returned with some of the wounded men. Before long they were lying on the comfortable straw, eating hot soup and having their dirty bandages replaced with clean strips of cloth. As the tired and homesick soldiers thought of their own children so far away, they smiled at Jennie and Tobie.

    By nightfall all were cared for, quiet fell over the barn, and the weary family returned to the house. They were preparing for bed when suddenly they heard the sound of horses’ hooves followed by a knock. Cautiously, Father opened the door.

    A man stood in the doorway—a quite different-looking soldier than those in the barn. “May I come in?” he asked quietly.

    There was something about this man who walked so very straight and tall that thrilled Tobie. A long black cloak almost covered a threadbare officer’s uniform. An aide, holding the bridle of a beautiful white horse, stood outside while the stranger visited in the kitchen.

    “I understand that some of my men are sleeping in your barn,” he began. “Did you give them permission to stay there?”

    After he was told of the day’s events the tall soldier was quiet for several moments. Then he said, “For my men and myself, I am grateful to all of you. Thank God there are so many good people in this great land of ours.” And before anyone could answer he bowed to Mother, shook Father’s hand and left.

    It wasn’t until the next morning that the men in the barn learned of their commander’s visit the night before. They were grateful that in spite of his many concerns during this trying period he came himself to see after their well-being. But no one could have guessed then that the night visitor, Gen. George Washington, would soon become the first president of the United States.

    Illustrated by Saul Lambert