"The Last Letter"--- from "Raisins and Almonds---A Civil War Story" --- This is the final chapter, just as I wrote it some two years ago.
And as you read this excerpt, keep in mind that what separates one writer from another is whether the writer of choice can express the emotions of the moment then taking place in his/her story...and do so by choice of words alone. It's not an easy task, and not all writers are the same in doing what they do. And for those who can express such emotions as these, they get published, while others post excerpts on the Internet for any who would care to read them. So, will I ever get published? Well, at the present time I'm not yet in a position to even attempt to sell my wares in the marketplace, for like the poet of our time, Robert Frost, once wrote--- "I have miles to go before I sleep."
Raisins and Almonds
Emily Ellen Clarke Whitehead
(1833-1897) pictured here long after
this day of
Emily Ellen Clarke Whitehead (1833-1897)
pictured here long after this day of
"The Last Letter"
It was three weeks to the day after John's death, and Emily was still very much a grieving widow. Emily had not yet left the house at Number 62 Anderson Street--- not since the day of the funeral. She seemed consumed by her private thoughts, for in all that intervening time she hardly acknowledged the presence of her parents, or even her own son, Willie. It was about 10 a.m. on that morning of Thursday, August 24th, 1865. Emily and her mother were together in the front parlor, but as usual it was Emily's mother, Catherine, who led the conversation, for Emily was never all that responsive to what she or anyone else had to say--- at least not during these past few weeks. Emily never seemed to speak unless she was spoken to, and even then no one was quite sure whether she heard you or not. And this day was no different--- not yet anyway--- for, as was their daily custom, Emily and her mother were quietly having their morning coffee in the front parlor. But then on this day, Willie suddenly burst into the room, announcing that a contingent of Union Cavalry was at the front gate asking for either his Mother, by name--- Emily Ellen Clarke Whitehead--- or his Grandfather, Robert C. Clarke.
Willie's Grandmother told Willie where his Grandfather was and told Willie to go fetch him, whereupon Willie left the room on the fly, just as he had entered. A few minutes later, Willie reappeared, once again out of breath from all his running, followed shortly thereafter by his Grandfather who clarified the whole situation by saying, "I had to sign for this special delivery letter carried directly by military escort all the way from New York City. It's really addressed to you, Emily." And with that, Emily's father walked the letter across the room and handed it to Emily. Emily fingered the letter reluctantly, for it reminded her of the letter she received just 14 months earlier concerning John's capture as a Confederate prisoner following what came to be known as 'The First Battle of the Weldon Railroad' in June of 1864. Emily's father sensed Emily's reluctance to open this latest letter, so he offered to do so--- "There's sealing wax on the back of this letter so I'll have to get my letter opener before we can see what this is all about" ---at which point Willie volunteered to run and get the letter opener from where he knew it to be--- the desk in his Grandfather's Study. Hardly a minute went by before Willie returned with the letter opener, which he then handed to his Grandfather. Emily's father broke the seal, but did not remove the contents from its envelope, once again suggesting, "Here, Emily, you open it, for the letter is addressed to you."
Emily took the now unsealed envelope and carefully began to remove its contents. As she slowly unfolded the letter she began reading it to herself, seemingly without display of any emotion, at least none visible to the others present in the room. And once she had finished her reading of it, Emily knew she wanted to be alone. But she could not do so because her mother, her father, and her son, Willie, were all still very much in her presence, each anxiously awaiting any special news that the letter might contain. So she did the next best thing. Emily said not a word as she laid the letter down and rose from her chair, making her way to the front parlor window to secure at least some degree of privacy. Once safely within the confines of that small alcove, she knew that at least her back would then be towards the other family members still in the room. Her own private world was now in front of her, and beside her--- a world she knew belonged only to her, for there was no one in sight on the expanse of lawn that she saw before her. Emily needed her own private moment, and this curved front parlor window became her sanctuary for as long as she wanted it to be so.
Emily's mother attempted to break the silence of Emily's private thoughts by asking about what the letter had to say? But Emily's attention remained focused on the pathway, and so she did not acknowledge her mother's question. Emily's fixation on the path at river's edge was eventually broken when she thought she heard her father asking if it would be alright if he read the letter aloud for all to hear? Emily, with her back still towards them all, only sub-consciously agreed by slowly nodding her head affirmatively. Having secured Emily's permission, her father began by first motioning for Willie to take a seat beside his Grandmother. Then, as Emily began hearing the letter being read for what for her was to be the second time, tears swelled up in her eyes and began trickling down her face. But this time she didn't try holding back her emotions. For this time she knew that no one could possibly see the pain she felt in her heart. And this time she could let her tears come as they may, for she was once again alone with her sorrow, and in her own sanctuary.
This then was the letter that Emily's father began reading aloud, word-for-word, and from beginning to end---
Army of the Potomac
New York, New York
Mrs. Emily Ellen Clarke Whitehead
C/o Robert C. Clarke
62 Anderson Street
Dear Mrs. Whitehead:
It is with great sadness that I only recently learned of the death of your husband, the Rev. John Whitehead, a Chaplain in the Army of the Potomac. Reports of what John meant to the men of Libby Prison have been coming across my desk ever since war's end just a scant few months ago. For the men of Libby Prison, where there was despair, John brought them hope. Where there was weariness, John brought them strength. Where there was sickness, John brought them comfort. And where there was death, John brought them the assurance of life everlasting.
In the midst of the worst of human conditions, John's dedication to his country, and to those who served with him, was nothing short of extraordinary. John exemplified humanity at its best, lighting the way for his comrades under the most desperate of circumstances. John's devotion to his countrymen was second only to his devotion to his Creator. In short, the Rev. John Whitehead, a Chaplain in the Army of the Potomac, was an American hero, not as a combatant on the battlefields of war, but as a non-combatant serving the needs of so many in the dungeons of Libby Prison.
Accordingly, as an expression of the gratitude of his country, the United States of America, I have this day placed in nomination the name of the Rev. John Whitehead, a Chaplain in the Army of the Potomac, as a candidate for the highest award this nation can bestow upon its countrymen---the Congressional Medal of Honor---to be awarded posthumously. Should the U.S. Congress act favorably upon my recommendation, John would become the first non-combatant in the history of the United States to receive this prestigious award.
In remembering your husband, the Rev. John Whitehead, a Chaplain in the Army of the Potomac, and his distinguished service to the United States of America, I humbly remain your faithful servant,
General-in-Chief, U.S. Army
Tuesday, August, 22, 1865
When Emily's father finished reading General Grant's letter aloud, he refolded it, being ever so careful so as to give it its due respect, and then he placed it back upon the table beside Emily's vacated chair. And without saying a word, Willie got up from his seat beside his Grandmother and ran across the room to be at his Mother's side, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist. They stood there for awhile, the two of them--- a Mother with her child--- sharing their moment together as they looked wistfully through the window at the beauty of the day that lay silently before them. As were his Mother's already, Willie's eyes soon focused on the same walking path down by the riverside, for like his Mother, Willie too had walked that same path alongside his Father. Then, as Emily reached down to return Willie's ever tightening embrace, she knelt beside him so as to come face-to-face with his. And as she wiped away the last of her tears with her one hand, she searched for one of Willie's with her other, and when she found it, Emily softly whispered in his ear, "C'mon Willie, let's go for a walk."