George VanArsdale
Ithaca, New York
July 8, 1863 - Wednesday

It was hot outdoors, but it was even hotter in the blacksmith's shop. The smell of hot iron mingled with the smell of horses. Hiram Black thumped George's shoulder painfully. "You're sixteen today? Congratulations! Mr. Wilkinson's horse needs shoeing."

As the morning wore on, the usual hangers-on accumulated in the smithy. All were eager to talk of the latest breaking news: the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

"The war's as good as over now! Old Jeff Davis must be shakin' in his boots," said one, a fellow named Smith.

Another fellow, a Mr. Dawson, rejoined, "Lee's on the run. Meade's gonna cut him off at the Potomac and give him a good thrashing. And that'll be the end of that."

The third fellow, named Patton, said, "The Potomac? Lee'll never even make it to the Mason-Dixon line!"

Hiram weighed in. "The hell you say. The battle ended five days ago. Lee could be in Virginia, for all we know. When are we gonna hear some real news?"

"Hey, how about that fellow Grant, huh? Taking Vicksburg like he did."

"Now that's a general! He captured those forts last year too, didn't he?"

"And he beat Beauregard himself."

"Right! Shiloh."

"Between Grant and Meade, we've as good as won this damned war!"

Hiram noticed George had joined the group. "That horse shod, George?"

Hi was trying to keep George out of the man talk, but George had a strong opinion that needed to come out. "I hope the war doesn't end, not yet anyway."

This had the effect of making the men look at him. He continued, "Not before I can get in it. I want to fight. Slavery must be abolished, and I want to be a part of it!"

More than one good old boy chuckled at the audacity, the chutzpah of this young whippersnapper wanting to go defeat the entire Confederacy. Smith smiled, "War fever's gotcha, eh, boy? I don't blame you."

Dawson pointed out, "You'll likely get your chance. The Union Enrollment Act, you know. They're gonna start drawing names this week."

Hiram took a breath to point out that George was below draft age, but Smith joked, "That's right, that's right. Fever is one thing, but catching a draft, well, that's another thing entirely!" He slapped his thigh in case nobody got the joke. He got some polite chuckles, as men do so others will laugh at their own jokes.

But Patton wasn't joking. He had a bone to pick with George's assertion. He lectured, "The war isn't about slavery. These United States ain't fightin' fer niggers. Don't you read the newspapers? Lincoln's goal, our goal, is..."

George interrupted, "To preserve the Union? Yes. I have read the papers. The South is fighting for ‘States' Rights.’ The only reason the South wants their ‘States' Rights.’ is so they can keep their slaves."

Patton frowned. "The President isn't pushing this war to end slavery. He has been very clear on that. He wants the Union preserved, even if that means slavery remains in effect in some places."

George argued, "The only way the Union can be preserved is if slavery is abolished, for once and for all! Slavery cannot survive this war, if the Union wins."

Patton took a big breath, preparing to shout George down. Hiram didn't mind heated political discussions in the smithy, but George was overstepping -- a young apprentice talking back to Hiram's customers like that. Hiram spoke sharply. "George. The stalls need cleanin'." The way he said it told George to get back to work and, more importantly, to shut the hell up.

It was unusual for George to speak out confrontationally like that. He was usually very polite, even meek. But hanging around the smithy had educated him in the ways of men. And today he was sixteen! And he'd about had it with what his life in Ithaca had become.


A young blonde-haired fellow came into the smithy stable. "Livery horses all shod?"

George replied, "Yep, all ready for you."

The young fellow nodded at the black mare. "How 'bout that old gal? She's a feisty one--did she give you a hard time?"

George shook his head. "Nah, we came to an understanding."

The fellow reached out and patted the mare tentatively. She looked at the fellow placidly. "Well, I'll be!" He smiled, and George nodded back. The fellow took the horses' reins and led them out.

George went over to the church to tell Reverend Solomon Wyeth, his friend and mentor, his news. "Today's my sixteenth birthday."

Wyeth reacted enthusiastically. "Sixteenth? Capital! You shall have supper with us, to celebrate!"

"And I'm going to enlist. At the earliest opportunity."

The smile on Wyeth's face froze. "Then we shall have no shortage of conversational material."


By suppertime, Wyeth had something he wanted to say. "Pass the gravy." No, seriously. "My dear, George is sixteen today."

Jane Wyeth smiled at George. "My goodness! That is a milestone!"

"And that's not all. George told me that he plans to enlist."

Mrs. Wyeth's enthusiasm evaporated. "Oh, no! But you have to be eighteen!"

"Quite so. In theory, at least. Many a boy has simply misrepresented his age and been accepted into the ranks." Mrs. Wyeth drew breath, but Wyeth held out a hand to stop her, and turned back to George.

"Go on, you two, eat. I have been thinking about this for some hours, and I have something I must say.

"We have not been blessed with a child. Not yet, anyway." He grasped his wife's hand for a moment and smiled, then turned back to George. "You have been a sort of substitute son to us. When I first met you, you were fresh off the train, flushed with excitement to be on your own in the city, hopeful of finding your natural parents. We were happy to substitute for them while you conducted your search, happy for you that you found employment and domicile just across the street so we could continue to be part of your life. Pleased that you are such a faithful member of our flock."

He pushed his plate away and folded his hands on the table, leaning towards George. "Every man needs a purpose in this life. Your search for your parents is a right and natural quest, but you have a higher quest, a spark, a guiding star, beyond that quest, regardless of whether you find your natural parents. The circumstances of your life have shown to you, more deeply than to anyone I know, how unnatural and evil is the institution of bondage and its twin, slavery. It is evident by the look in your eye today that putting an end to this unholy state of affairs has become that spark for you.

"You have any of a number of choices at this juncture, but as I see it, the primary among them are these: One, finish out your apprenticeship, and become a blacksmith, and join the fight when you are of age, if there still be a fight. Two: return to Caton, to those folks who raised you, convince them to give you a letter of permission to enlist. Three: enlist, misrepresenting your age.

"In my opinion, George, you have chosen rightly. The third choice is the better of the three. I will pray that the Lord will forgive such a small transgression, for the greater good."

Mrs. Wyeth could remain silent no longer. "But surely there are other, better, choices. George could be killed, or maimed!"

Rev. Wyeth nodded. "He could. Such is war." To George, he said, "And you would probably have to kill."

George looked down. He touched his fork to the potatoes, then to the green beans.

Wyeth said, "Fighting to end slavery is right and just in the eyes of the Lord." They all ate for a while. Then Wyeth added, "If the Lord wills that you enlist, then we will pray for you."

July 9 - Thursday

As the forge warmed up, George told Hiram, "I am going to enlist."

"What, today?"

"No. Next time a regiment is recruiting. What do you think, Hi? I suppose you were expecting me to keep on working for you, here."

"If what you want is to go into the army, you should go ahead and do it. I suppose there's nothing to keep you here. Besides, if going to war doesn't kill you, it'll probably make you stronger. Ha ha ha!"

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© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.