Gateway to the Classics: In Story-land by Elizabeth Harrison
In Story-land by  Elizabeth Harrison

A Story of Decoration Day for the Little Children of To-Day

I want you to listen to a sad, sweet story to-day, and yet one that ought to make you glad,—glad that such men have lived as those of whom I am going to tell you. It all happened a good many years ago, in fact so long ago that your fathers and mothers were little boys and girls in kilts and pinafores, some of them mere babies in long clothes.

One bright Sunday morning in April the telegraph wires could be heard repeating the same things all over the land, "Tic, tic; tictic; t-i-c; tic, tictic;—tic, t-i-c, tic; t-i-c; tic, t-i-c; t-i-c, t-i-c, tic," they called out, and the drowsy telegraph operators sat up in their chairs as if startled by the words the wires were saying.

"Tic, t-i-c, tic; tictic; tic, tictic; tic; t-i-c, tictic;—tic, tic; t-i-c, tic," continued the wires and the faces of the telegraph operators grew pale. Any looker-on could have seen that something dreadful was being told by the wires.

"Tic, t-i-c, tic; tictic; tic, tictic; tic; t-i-c, tictic;—tic, tic; t-i-c, tic," again repeated the wires. There was no mistaking the message this time. Alas, alas, it was true! The terrible news was true! Even the bravest among the operators trembled.

Then came the rapid writing out of the fearful words that the slender wires had uttered, the hurrying to and fro; and messenger boys were seen flying to the great newspaper offices, and the homes of the mayors of the cities, and to the churches where already the people were beginning to assemble. For the deep-toned Sabbath church bells high up in the steeples had been ringing out their welcome to all, even the strangers in their midst—"Bim! Baum! Bim!" they sang, which everybody knew meant, "Come to church, dear people! Come! Come! Come!" And the people strolled leisurely along toward the churches,—fathers and mothers and little ones, and even grandfathers and grandmothers. It was such a bright, pleasant day that it seemed a joy to go to the house of God and thank Him for all His love and care. So one family after another filed into their pews while the organist played such soft, sweet music that everybody felt soothed and quieted by it.

Little did they dream of the awful words which the telegraph wires were at that very moment calling out with their "Tic, t-i-c, tic; t-i-c; tic, t-i-c; t-i-c, t-i-c, tic;—Tic, t-i-c, tic, tictic, tic, tictic; tic; t-i-c; tictic."

The clergymen came in and took their places in the pulpits. In each church the organ ceased its wordless song of praise. The congregation bowed and silently joined with all their hearts in the petitions which the clergyman was offering to the dear Lord, Father of all mankind, Ruler of heaven and earth. Some of them softly whispered "Amen" as he asked protection for their homes and their beloved country. Did they know anything about the danger which even then hung over them? Perhaps they did.

In many of the churches the prayer was over, the morning hymn had been sung, when a stir and bustle at the door might have been noticed, as the messenger boys, excited and out of breath, handed their yellow envelopes to the ushers who stood near the door ready to show the late comers to unoccupied seats. First one and then the other ushers read the message, and from some one of them escaped in a hushed whisper, the words, "Oh God! Has it come to this!"

And all looked white and awe-struck. The head usher hurried tremblingly down the aisle, and without waiting for the clergyman to finish reading the announcements of the week, laid the telegram upon the pulpit desk.

The clergyman, somewhat surprised at such an interruption, glanced at the paper, stopped, gasped, picked it up, and re-read the words written upon it, as though he could not believe his own eyes. Then he advanced a step forward, holding on to the desk, as if he had been struck a blow by some unseen hand. The congregation knew that something terrible had happened, and their hearts seemed to stop beating as they leaned forward to catch his words.

"My people," said he in a slow, deliberate tone, as if it were an effort to steady his voice, "I hold in my hand a message from the President of the United States." Then his eyes dropped to the paper which he still held, and now his voice rang out clear and loud as he read, "Our Flag has been fired upon! Seventy-five thousand troops wanted at once.  Abraham Lincoln."

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I could not make you understand all that took place the next week or two any more than the little children who heard what the telegram said, understood it. Men came home, hurried and excited, to hunt up law papers, or to straighten out deeds, saying in constrained tones to the pale-faced women, "I will try to leave all business matters straight before I go." There were solemn consultations between husbands and wives, which usually ended in the father's going out, stern-faced and silent, and the mother, dry-eyed but with quivering lips, seeking her own room, locking herself in for an hour, then coming out to the wondering children with a quiet face, but with eyes that showed she had been weeping. There were gatherings in the town halls and in the churches and school houses all over the land. The newspapers were read hurriedly and anxiously.

And when little Robert looked up earnestly into his Grandmamma's face and asked, "Why does Mamma not eat her breakfast?" Grandmamma replied, "Your Papa is going away, my dear;" and when little Robert persisted, by saying, "But Papa goes to New York every year, and Mamma does not sit and stare out of the window, and forget to eat her breakfast." Then Mamma would turn solemnly around and say, "Robert, my boy, Papa is going to the war, and may never come back to us. But you and I must be brave about it, and help him get ready." And if Robert answered, "Why is he going to the war? Why does he not stay at home with us? Doesn't he love us any more?" then Mamma would draw her boy to her and putting her arms around him, and looking into his eyes, she would say, "Yes, my darling, he loves us, but he must  go. Our country needs him, and you and I must be proud that he is ready to do his duty." Then Robert would go away to his play, wondering what it all meant, just as you would have wondered if you had been there.

Soon the Papas and Uncles, and even some of the Grandfathers, put on soldiers' uniforms, and drilled in the streets with guns over their shoulders, and bands of music played military music, and the drums beat, and crowds of people collected on the street corners, and there were more speeches, and more flags, and banners, and stir, and excitement. And nothing else was talked of but the war, the war, the terrible war.

Then came the marching away of the soldiers to the railway stations, and then the farewells and cheers and waving of handkerchiefs and the playing of patriotic airs by the bands of music, and much more confusion and excitement and good-bye kisses and tears than I could tell you of.

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Then came the long, long days of waiting and praying in the homes to which fathers and brothers no longer came, and silent watching for letters, and anxious opening of the newspapers, and oftentimes the little children felt their Mamma's tears drop on their faces as she kissed them good-night,—their dear Mamma who so often had sung them to sleep with her gay, happy songs,—what did it all mean? They could not tell.

And all this time the fathers, brave men as they were, had been marching down to the war. Oftentimes they slept on the hard ground with only their army blankets wrapped around them, and the stars to keep watch over them, and many a day they had nothing to eat but dry bread and black coffee, because they had not time to cook more, and sometimes they had no breakfast at all because they must be up by day-break and march on, even if the rain poured down, as it sometimes did, wetting them through and through. What were such hardships when their country was in danger?

Then came the terrible, terrible battles, more awful than anything you ever dreamed of. Men were shot down by the thousands, and many who did not lose their lives had a leg shot off, or an arm so crushed that it had to be cut off. Still they bravely struggled on. It was for their beloved country they were fighting, and for it they must be willing to suffer, or to die.

Then a hundred thousand more soldiers were called for, and then another hundred thousand, and still the bloody war continued. For four long years it lasted, and the whole world looked on, amazed at such courage and endurance.

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Then the men who had not been killed, or who had not died of their sufferings came marching home again, many, alas, on crutches, and many who knew that they were disabled for life. But they had saved their country!  And that was reward enough for their heroic hearts. Though many a widow turned her sad face away when the crowd welcomed the returning soldiers, for she knew that her loved one was not with them, and many little children learned in time that their dear fathers would never return to them.

War is such a terrible thing that it makes one's heart ache to think of it.

Then by and by the people said, "our children must grow up loving and honoring the heroic men who gave their lives for their country." So in villages and towns, and cities, monuments were built in honor of the men who died fighting for their country. And one day each year was set apart to keep fresh and green the memory of the brave soldiers, and it has been named "Decoration Day," because on this day all the children, all over the land, are permitted to go to the graves of the dead soldiers and place flowers upon them.

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