The Heat of the Moment
Campfire flames lick upward, creating airborne sparks that sputter and fade into the lingering sunset. I recline against a fallen nurse log while the spurs behind my ankles anchor my legs. Hopefully the fire will warm the soggy, worn soles of my boots.
I stare blankly, as if in a trance. My body and soul seem frozen, the result of combined weariness and longing.
The saber I so proudly wear at my side every day rests beneath my hand on the ground beside me. The engraved grip, bearing an eagle with outspread wings and “E Pluribus Unum,” glints in the firelight. Images of thrashing bodies and slashing swords flash through my memory. How many men felled by this sword had wives and children waiting anxiously at home?
It’s been too long since I last held a shuddering Emily in my arms before leaving her to support the cause of the northern states. We both knew encounters with southerners might take my life – and yet I felt I had no choice but to voluntarily enlist.
“Letter for you, Sir,” the young soldier says as he hands me an envelope.
I reach for the paper inscribed with my name – Peter Kennedy. Might it contain good news from home? My eager fingers fumble; I recklessly tear the enclosed letter and my eyes devour the scrawling words.
I am writing to share the news you have been waiting to hear. This morning Emily delivered the baby – your new son, Seth. All are doing well and my Elizabeth is very helpful as a wet nurse and nanny. Seth is a handsome boy, and Emily is so very proud of him. She sends her love and hopes you will soon be able to return home.
Your friend always,
I fold the letter with trembling hands and carefully tuck it underneath the saber so it doesn’t blow away in the evening breeze. Even so, the edges of the paper rustle beneath the blade as if to speak of the incongruity of the moment. How can these two symbols of life and death pose together, and both under my own hand? I feel a knot fill my throat as silent tears wash the dusty brass buttons on my double-vested uniform.
Our baby - our son - how my empty arms ache with desire to hold him! I look at my hands and can hardly imagine such stained, weathered fingers stroking his tiny, new face. I try to envision Emily tending the baby, singing to him with her soft alto voice. However, my mental image of her face has grown fuzzy and indistinct - except perhaps for her eyes. Those clear, deep eyes branded my soul years before. I could never forget them.
The first stars peek from a now-inky sky while the fire roars with celebratory zeal. If I compose a letter while illumined by its flames, perhaps tomorrow my reply can be sent on its way.
There are still several sheets of paper in my knapsack. I position one on my thigh, and with the help of my quill and the memory of Emily’s eyes, I steady my hand enough to write.
Albert has written to inform me of our new son’s birth. I am glad you both are well, and am also happy to report that I should be able to be home soon if all continues well here.
Albert mentioned the boy’s name: Seth. Emily, if you can agree I would like to name the baby after my commanding officer – a man of character and influence, a man whom I honor and respect very much. His name is Colonel Ebenezer Dumont, and it would please me very much if our boy’s given name could be Dumont.
Take care of yourself and the baby, and share my hope that I’ll join you both at home before long.
With a sigh I sign my name with the traditional flourish and lean back against the nurse log covered with newly sprouted seedlings. My hand slips down to stroke the sword by my side … the agent of change bringing freedom and opportunity to those in bondage … the legend that will someday share stories of risk and valor with little Dumont and his heirs even long after my death.
Author’s note: This essay reflects a true story. While serving in the Civil War my great-grandfather, Peter S. Kennedy, was notified by a letter from a friend that my grandfather had been born. Peter immediately wrote his wife, Emily, congratulating her and suggesting their new son be named after his commanding officer whose last name was Dumont. Peter survived the war and returned home to raise my grandfather, Dumont Kennedy, who grew up to become a respected lawyer, historian, politician, and man of influence in his community. My family still owns Peter’s sword and the letters (much more detailed than the above) announcing Dumont's birth and discussing his name.
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