In the Moment
Battle of Malvern Hill, Henrico County, Virginia
July 1, 1862
"Promise me, Lemuel Shaw!"
Any of the Virginia air that Elisha Cutler could manage to breathe in was becoming increasingly rancid – thick with gunpowder and the deafening noises of shots being fired and men being killed. He should be there, in the midst of that battle with his brothers in the blue Union uniform, but instead he was sitting on the chest of a young Confederate soldier, trying to extract a promise that made Elisha look every ounce a hypocrite.
"You're seventeen and too young to be enlisted, Lemuel. Promise me that if I let you go you will go to your commanding office once this battle is over and turn yourself in."
Why do you care? Elisha wondered to himself. Yes, he and Lemuel had grown up in the same town, but they hadn't been close, quite the opposite. Lemuel had been a merciless bully as they'd grown up, and had they been anywhere but here, Elisha wondered if perhaps he wouldn't have gladly killed the other boy. It probably was what he should do; they were, after all, on opposite sides of the war, despite the fact that their uniforms were so muddied you could hardly tell the blue from the gray.
But Elisha did not harm him – did not even want to harm him – not here, not this way, not when he was the first familiar face he'd seen since enlisting in August. Not when he saw the wide-eyed terror in Lemuel's eyes that had to match what was in Elisha's own expression.
"What about you?" Lemuel spit out, still struggling to get out from under Elisha. "You're only sixteen! I don't have to turn myself in if you don't!"
"Why do you want this?" Elisha asked, head jerking towards the war that was still raging behind them, barely apart from the place to which he had chased Lemuel.
"I thought it would be different than this," Lemuel confessed after a pause. "I thought I could return home a hero."
"Aren't you terrified?" Elisha whispered, having, like Lemuel, long realized the error of his similar, foolish way of thinking.
The two boys stared at one another for a long moment while Elisha let Lemuel think through this. The colors – blue and gray – the foul air and the animosity that had always existed between the two boys had faded away in that moment. Just then they were nothing but two boys, terrified and in the middle of something far bigger than themselves. They weren't friends, but they were familiar to one another, and that was something for which they were willing to put aside their differences.
"If I turn myself in," Lemuel said at length. "You must promise me you will do the same thing."
Elisha paused, but then nodded slowly, suddenly relieved at the idea of it. If he revealed his true age, he would be discharged and could go home. No word had ever held such sweetness as the mere thought of "home."
"Alright," Elisha agreed, and for a moment the boys very nearly smiled at one another. "Only a few days more, and then we will be given leave to start back home."
And so they did, meeting up in Richmond on July Fourth, once the Seven Days' Battle was over.
"Happy Independence Day, Lemuel," Elisha offered swinging the pack that held his meager belongings over a shoulder as he approached the other teenager.
Lemuel didn't respond beyond a roll of his eyes, but Elisha smiled anyway as they started walking northwest, towards their shared faraway hometown of Augusta, Maine. It was to be long trip, but Elisha really didn't mind in the least bit.
Today was his favorite holiday, celebrating America's independence from the British, and Elisha himself was free to go home. The Civil War might not have been over yet, and he might not agree with his travel companion about which side of the war was correct, but in this particular moment, it didn't matter. He was happy.
He was happy to be going home, and he was even happy for that moment a few days ago when he had looked Lemuel Shaw of all people in the eye and not harmed him. At the very least, he had spared a life and gained a travel companion. Considering that had led him to this moment – and eventually back home – that was more than enough for Elisha.