J. Fretz – Chicago, October 1862
Revolting! I’m ready to pitch the war effort entirely. The bloodiest day ever, September 17. Twenty-four thousand casualties on both sides in twelve hours’ time. How bad does it have to get? And to think, we despaired back in May over the destruction at Shiloh. That took two days’ time with 16,000 casualties on our side, compared with 9–10,000 from the South. Those numbers left me numb. Each man, a son or husband—a father! Not just a body added to the count.
But this September battle—a cornfield, known as Antietam. I must be losing my mind. I see myself creating a story problem for my nephew, J. Michael. On average, how many soldiers at Antietam died in an hour’s time? What a grisly thought for anyone, let alone a child!
Even Ross, an accountant at work, measures his words. “We mustn’t lose faith in our boys.”
“I’m glad my friends stayed near, not counting Shiloh,” I say. “One disaster after another in the East: Bull Run again. The same place for the second try with the same result. Now Antietam.”
“Pope was a mistake.” Ross rubs his temple, a gesture he’s adopted in the last several weeks. “No tactical skill, not able to command a large army. Better off, fighting Indians in Minnesota.”
“But more men lost from our side, just like the first time at Bull Run. Even with standardized uniforms this time: red trim for artillery; blue, the infantry; yellow for cavalry. But our Army of the Potomac, routed again by this Lee fellow. And at the end, the same dire message: ‘Lee, poised to invade Maryland and our capitol. Philadelphia’s safety in doubt, too.’ That’s what my brother wrote from back East. Now Bull Run seems only a prelude to Antietam.”
“Hold your righteous pants,” Ross says with a sly grin. “This isn’t over.”
The same pattern, back and forth. I provoke him and his optimism; he jabs at my indignation. We’ve worked together almost six months, but everything about him irritates. He eats the same thing every day for lunch: black bread, heavily buttered, and finishes with a red apple that he crunches, core and all.
“It’s been a difficult year for Lincoln,” he reminds me.
“I know, I know.”
“His boy, Willie—they say typhoid might be traced to smelly, standing water. Might have been excrement from troops camped along the Potomac, corrupted the water supply.” He puts a fist to his mouth, head down. “Our precious little ones. No one can bear to lose a child, or face the limitations that some are saddled with.”
I pause, eating my own apples Mary Ann has cooked and sent in a small jar—easier for my teeth. I take a quick glance; sometimes Ross turns sentimental. One minute, his usual confident self, only to get teary-eyed. I forget the names of his youngsters, except for Gabriel, the oldest. I slow myself. “A difficult year—no question. Lincoln’s wife, said to be at loose ends. And McClellan, no better the second time around.”
Ross dabs his eyes with his carefully folded handkerchief. “That man still waffles, lacks fire. A wasted opportunity. This Lee follows his instincts.”
My own emotions get the better of me when I read about it a second day at breakfast: Lincoln, furious with McClellan for not following Lee and crushing him. “Stupid men!” I say, spilling my coffee. Mary Ann hurries to wipe up my mess before it rolls off the table edge. “Could have been decisive,” I mumble. “That general called it victory to force Lee south again. His second chance—lost.”
Then I’m horrified. Am I cheering for a quick bath? What do I want— total obliteration of the South? If it’s a choice between sooner or later, maybe it’s better to go ahead and do it sooner. Shame fills me. I’m no better than a hard-nosed warmonger. I halfway support the war effort. My friends, out there somewhere; I can’t let them down. Does that make me half right? Or only an inconsistent fool? Why don’t I give Democrats in the North half credit? They accuse Lincoln of “tinkering” with slavery, saying he should care about making the war end more quickly.
But when I get to the office again, I follow the same pattern of disputation with Ross. “Finally! A proclamation from the president that makes the war worthy: All slaves in Rebel states to be freed by the first day of next year.”
Just as predictably, Ross repeats his favorite line: “Lincoln always wanted to abolish slavery as part of the rationale for going to war. Too divisive for him to say so directly.”
I throw up my hands. “If Lincoln can say McClellan has ‘the slows’ when it comes to readiness for battle, why can’t he see he’s guilty of the same malady when it comes to openly supporting abolition? Every time he moves toward emancipation, he follows with sideways steps. I don’t trust him.”
Praise for Loyalties
“Evie Yoder Miller’s Loyalties is a timely call for ethical responses to a world steeped in violence and leaders who encourage that violence. The novel brings history to life in a compelling way because of its vividly drawn characters. I could not put it down.”
—Daniel Shank Cruz, author of Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community
“I wished I had read Loyalties in college and seminary Mennonite-Anabaptist history classes. Evie Miller illustrates well the reality of the struggle about being loyal to values of peacemaking while living with the tensions of the Civil War. Tensions between North and South, of race, of loving those we disagree with, of keeping family and property safe, of being true to our understanding of what God asks of us. The historical foundations and life stories in Loyalties will help us all review the complexities of life and faith we face.”
—Firman Gingerich, retired Mennonite pastor
About the Author
Evie Yoder Miller is retired from teaching, most recently at UW-Whitewater in Wisconsin. Her new trilogy carries elements of her previous fiction: historical, Eyes at the Window (2003), and literary, Everyday Mercies (2014).