George was in the back of the smithy, grooming the horses. He had finished grooming the customers' horses and had begun working on Hiram Black's team. He heard Hiram's voice calling. "George!"
George went to the front. "Yeah, Hi?"
"Mr. Johnson's carriage is done. Hitch his horse to it and drive it back to his house."
"Up Cayuga Heights way?"
As George drove Mr. Johnson's carriage back to its owner, he heard a stirring bugle call. Turning his head to follow the sound, he saw a big Union flag flying over some gleaming white tents up on the hill. George had been looking for a sign from God as to what he should do. He took this as the sign. He finished delivering the carriage, and walking back, he took a detour up the hill.
At the tents, he joined a crowd of men, a few in uniform but most in civilian clothes. There were a few men in band uniforms, with fancy light blue piping on their dark blue coats. Their instruments were nearby, the brass gleaming in the sun, the drums brightly painted with the American eagle. George guessed he had missed a stirring performance of military songs.
The men, both military and civilian, were chatting and joking, relaxing on camp chairs, drinking coffee and enjoying the bright sunny day. The breeze coming off Cayuga Lake caused the flag to flap merrily and made for a most pleasant day. The commanding view of Ithaca, the lake, and the countryside was stunning. George's arrival was greeted by an officer in a resplendent blue uniform. His brass buttons positively blinded George, and the sun gleamed on his shoulder insignia and gold braided sleeves. Even his French kepi had gold braid trim on it. The red sash and the sword scabbard set the whole ensemble off, conveying a sense of the grandeur and glory of American military might.
"Welcome, young man. Won't you join us? Corporal, get some coffee for our friend, Mr...?"
"George VanArsdale, sir."
"Mr. VanArsdale. Have a seat, won't you? It's a grand day to meet new people. Several of your neighbors are here, enjoying this fine day with us."
As he sat, George accepted a cup from the man with two stripes on his sleeve. The coffee tasted funny. He smelled it. Was that alcohol in the coffee? He suddenly didn't feel like drinking it. The thirtysomething fellow in the neighboring chair raised his coffee cup to George with a drunken grin. "Best coffee I ever had! Drink up, young fella!"
A younger fellow commented, "What's the matter, don't like 'coffee'? Maybe you're underage?" George put the cup to his lips and took a small sip, making sure to let it go down so the fellow could see his Adam's apple move. The strong alcohol burned his throat and made his head spin. The other fellow laughed and kept watching. George again put the cup to his lips, dry-swallowing to give the impression he was drinking more.
"I was just telling everyone," the officer continued, waving a piece of paper, "about the telegraphic dispatch I received from regimental headquarters this very day. We are on the march, in Maryland. Lee is bottled up at the Potomac1. The river is running high and they are waiting for it to go down before they can cross. Our army is gathering to strike."
Several of the men expressed approval at the prospect of dealing a withering blow to the army that had invaded so far north. The officer pulled out another paper and waved it high. The bandsmen went to their instruments.
"Colonel Parker wrote me immediately after the battle at Gettysburg, a week ago today. They'd been right in the center of the Union line, with General Hancock, on the second and third days of the great battle. They were in the thick of the cannon barrage and the charge of Pickett's Virginians. So there were many losses. ‘Get me more men,’ he said. And that's why I'm here. Gentlemen, the Sixty-Fourth New York Volunteers needs you. Are you willing, and able? Who among you will enlist today? With your help, we can defeat the Rebel Army!"
The band struck up "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," playing it with a jaunty rollicking beat. That young fellow who had goaded George into drinking marched in place in time with the music, raising his knees high and stomping on the downbeats, grinning widely all the while. The officer gestured to the table, where the clerk had enlistment papers ready to be filled out.
One twentysomething fellow said, "The draft is starting today. I'm not waiting for my name to be called. Sign me up." He walked to the table. The clerk at the table asked questions and began filling out a form as other men in civilian clothes lined up. George got in line, and his turn came soon enough.
"What county were you born in?"
"This one. I was born here in Ithaca."
"Tompkins County. Age?"
"Um, I am eighteen."
The clerk looked at him over his spectacles. "Occupation?"
The clerk had a few more questions: eye color, hair color, and height. Gray, brown, and five foot eight respectively. The clerk filled in some more blanks on both sides of the paper, then turned the sheet around and presented George with a pen. "Sign here."
The clerk had his finger pointing to where George should sign. So George signed. Then the clerk flipped the paper over. "And here."
There were a few other formalities. A fellow who was supposedly a surgeon poked and thumped George, then he and the recruiting officer signed George's form, and hands were shaken. George was instructed to be at the train station three days hence. When the soldiers saluted, George saluted back with a huge grin.
When George returned to the smithy, there were a couple of the usual hangers-on there. Hiram demanded, "Where've you been, George? What took you so long?"
"I enlisted. You are looking at a new member of the Sixty-Fourth New York Volunteers!"
Approval erupted from the hangers-on. "Well, how about that!"
"Good for you!"
"There's a fine young fellow!" George got thumped on the shoulders and slapped on the back, grinning all the while.
George went to the church and informed Solomon and Jane Wyeth. Mrs. Wyeth looked saddened at the news.
* * *
1 Although cousin Charles Miller and the other Gettysburg POWs had been sent across the river on pontoon boats on July 9, the mass of Lee's army was indeed still bottled up at Williamsport on the 11th. Source: One Continuous Fight, The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia (Wittenberg, Petruzzi, & Nugent), page 235.
© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.