In August 1862 during the darkest days of the American Civil War, Osgood Tracy volunteers to fight for the North, leaving behind his love, Nellie Sedgwick, for the front lines. There, the twenty-two year old idealistic young man discovers a baptism of fire and alongside comrades he’d give his life for, endures a physical and emotional journey back, all the while hoping Nellie, whose photograph and love he carries, embraces him at the end.
On the home front, though, Nellie fights her own battles. Fraught with calamity and courtships she turns to dutifully representing the Union, first at home in Syracuse, New York then Washington, D.C., yet all the while struggles with a decision that may haunt her forever.
A historical novel based upon one of the largest private letter caches in the country, written by a direct descendant, FIGHTING FOR NELLIE is a page-turning story swirling with passion and jealousy, abolitionists and slave owners, politicians and rebels, war heroes and villains, and the quest for undying love. A story demonstrating that life can change in an instant, war alters everything, and we must fight for what we love, FIGHTING FOR NELLIE will remind readers of Cold Mountain but from a Northerner’s perspective and a contemporary All Quiet on the Western Front.
The true religion is that which sets you free.
Matilda Joselyn Gage
Fayetteville, New York
August 25, 1862
Twenty two year old Osgood Vose Tracy, of taller than average height and wavy, brown hair, stood at the war rally dressed in his crisp, new uniform, flanked arm in arm by friends, Andy and Frank, swarmed by one thousand men clothed the same – the 122nd New York State Volunteers.
Surrounding the regiment, packed in the small town square, was a mass of cheering spectators, some wearing the highest fashion of the day, others their field clothes. The 122nd, raised in the County of Onondaga, was scheduled to leave the next morning for several days training before heading to the front lines in Virginia to fight for the North in the War of the Rebellion. To date, it was the darkest period of the war.
The organizer of the event and resident of town, a well known women’s suffragist and abolitionist, Matilda Joselyn Gage, whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, was situated above the top step of Beard Hall, closing her speech. Her long hair drawn up into a circle, braided into a bun at the back of her head, Matilda tugged at her high necked lacy collar as if it annoyed her, then pronounced, “Let it be known that there can be no permanent peace until the cause of the war is destroyed. And what caused this war?” she asked, pausing a moment before slamming her fist on the podium. “Slavery, and nothing else!”
The crowd – the majority of which wanted more than President Lincoln’s call to save the Union – went wild, hooting and hollering in agreement, with hats and hands waving in the air.
Matilda, raising her voice to be heard, continued, “Soldiers, let Liberty be your watch word and your war cry alike. Until liberty is attained – the broadest, the deepest, the highest liberty for all, there can be no permanent peace. Each one of you should feel the fate of the world to be upon your shoulders. Fight not one for one set alone, one clique alone, but for all men and women, black and white – Irish, Germans, Americans and Negroes – for yourselves, for us, for the future and you will return a band of heroes!”
Osgood squeezed his friends’ shoulders and looking to each other, they smiled. The multitude cheered again, a ten-horn band struck up ‘America,’ and the troop flag, the funds for which were raised by Matilda and the flag itself sewn by the ladies of Fayetteville, was presented to the colonel of the regiment, Silas Titus. Everyone sang along with the chorus and the sweet music of it all echoed and reverberated between the brick buildings, seeming to rise up the sultry air and clear the hazy sky.
Beneath his wool jacket, Osgood’s heart pounded with anticipation, like the beat of Onondaga County for human freedom. Adrenaline raced through his veins. He felt as if nothing could stop him. Suddenly releasing the embrace from his friends’ Osgood gave a quick pat to his breast pocket, checking for something he’d placed there earlier.
“See you in the morning, guys,” he blurted, leaving Andy and Frank looking baffled as he hurried off, weaving his way through the throngs of people.
Outside the square, the young officer headed toward his horse, finding him grazing where he’d left him, tied to an old oak tree lining East Genesee Street. Upon his master’s return the animal raised his head, munching grass between his teeth, and snorted. Osgood untied the reins then stroked his black muzzle.
“It’s a big day, Freedom,” Osgood pronounced, the animal’s ears twitching at the sound of his voice.
Osgood reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet box. Curious, Freedom nudged it. Osgood took a deep breath and opened the box. Peering inside, he exhaled quick.
It’s perfect, just what I envisioned.
Beaming, he snapped the box closed, replaced it, and mounted, turning Freedom’s head in a familiar direction.
The mob from the rally had started for the streets, dispersing all around. An excitement filled the air. Skirts sashayed. Men placed their hats on. Voices chattered, bridles clicked, and spoke wheels turned, swirling dust. Osgood trotted Freedom through the crowd, acknowledging those he knew but did not stop, for there were ten miles to travel from Fayetteville to Syracuse and he was in a hurry.
Near the banks of Butternut Creek the crowd thinned and country widened out. Osgood’s heart beat fast. He spurred Freedom on. The trees moved above them and green grass beneath, with Osgood’s jacket snapping in the wind. Freedom’s sleek muscles glistened and hooves beat the ground.
He’ll make a great warhorse.
They approached the city of Syracuse, stopping at the edge of a steep hill overlooking the valley, under the shade of a lone maple, thick with mature green leaves. Freedom’s flanks heaved as he shook his head and snorted. Osgood looked out at the panoramic sight before him—the green hills of the valley, which lay low and long, to the far horizon, and the city below. It was where Osgood was raised and always lived but it stunned him as if seeing it for the first time.
Men and women moved about City Hall, the Western Union, and Riley’s General Store. Along the edge of the Erie Canal, harnessed horses and mules worked to pull barges carrying goods of all kinds, while straight across the valley stood the rising slope of James Street Hill and in the distance, Onondaga Lake. Osgood straightened his stance on the pommel. The entire scene reminded him how much he loved home and why he was willing to go to war.
“Let’s go see Nellie, boy,” he said, putting boots to Freedom’s flanks.
The two raced downhill toward the canal where they met a bustle of activity, then trotted to the right onto James Street. Beside the stone Unitarian Church, Osgood spotted the Reverend Joseph May hunched over in the garden cutting wildflowers.
“Beautiful day, Reverend,” he called.
Startled, Joseph May stood up, holding a good-sized colorful bouquet, and fixing his small round glasses on his nose, he recognized Osgood.
“Indeed,” he smiled in his broad way. “Off to see Miss Nellie, Osgood?”
“Oh, yes,” the officer replied beaming, clenching his fist in the air.
Reverend May gestured back with his floral arrangement and Freedom, sensing Osgood’s charge, started galloping up The Hill, passing the large houses of varying styles dotting the way, the green valley and open sky growing more beautiful as they went.
Halfway up was Osgood’s home. His older brother, Jim, sat on the front step, surrounded by friends, roaring in laughter. Jim must have been telling his usual jokes. The boys held mugs, likely containing their mother’s java and knowing Jim, a good dose of whiskey. Osgood raced on, flapping his hat at them with such excitement it nearly flew out of his hand. Clouds of dust and dirt filled the road as the boys signaled back, raising their drinks but looking perplexed at his rush. The moment Osgood had been waiting for, though, wouldn’t be long now. Since as long as he could remember, he loved Nellie Sedgwick.
At the top of The Hill the land sprawled and there was the Sedgwick homestead. Osgood slowed and dismounted, hitching Freedom beneath the wooden pergola burdened with purple wisteria. Tucking his shirt into his trousers, Osgood cleaned off his jacket, trying to catch his breath and calm his nerves. Taking off his hat, he ran his fingers like a comb through his brown way hair and entered the picket fence, walking with a brisk step up the winding walk under the tall elms. At the large clapboard house he stepped up the porch stairs, which creaked beneath his feet in the familiar way. He smiled.
I love this home.
Osgood knocked on the front door and peered through the side panes. Nellie’s stepmother Deborah Gannett Sedgwick approached.
The door swept open and fanning herself with a Harper’s Weekly, she beckoned, “Osgood, dear, come in.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Sedgwick,” Osgood said, stepping into the hall.
The humidity had curled her black hair wilder than ever, sending long, wavy ringlets cascading over her slender shoulders and down her back.
Waving the magazine faster, she said, “Sure is hot today.”
“Yes, Ma’am, it is,” Osgood agreed, taking out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
The two chuckled while from the parlor, Nellie’s father, Charles Baldwin Sedgwick, of square jaw and stocky build, turned from pulling a book from the cherry shelves, filled end to end with books. He held one in his hand.
“Osgood, sorry to miss the rally, Son,” he boomed. “The office kept me away. I head back to Congress tomorrow.”
Mrs. Sedgwick rolled the magazine in a tight cylinder and grumbled, “Mmm. Washington.”
The congressman glanced at his wife then plowed ahead into the foyer, throwing out his hand, which Osgood met with a firm grip.
“How was it, the rally?” the elder man asked.
Trying to measure his reply, Osgood answered, “Well attended, sir. Mrs. Gage’s speech inspired our men.”
This seemed to please Mr. Sedgwick, for he nodded, saying, “Matilda is a true friend of freedom.”
This thought brought Mrs. Sedgwick back, and she smiled. “Your father would be proud, Osgood.”
Yes, he would be. How I wish he were here.
Osgood’s father, James Grant Tracy, had died of a heart attack twelve years before. He, like Mr. Sedgwick, had been a lawyer and land agent, and like Mr. and Mrs. Sedgwick and Matilda Joselyn Gage, immersed in supporting the Underground Railroad.
“Remember, Osgood,” Mr. Sedgwick, winked. “War is the only answer now. No compromises, no concessions.”
“Oh, yes sir,” Osgood concurred.
Nellie, her family, and Congress, for that matter, had heard Mr. Sedgwick say this before. He hoped to leave the heritage of a free government, wholly absolved from connection with and responsibility for slavery. Osgood believed the congressman would stop at nothing to obtain that goal.
Suddenly, however, Osgood’s thoughts were brought back to the moment, for Nellie appeared at the top of the stairs. She looked radiant. Her eyes, which often changed shades, lit up, at the moment a sparkling greenish-brown. Her sleek brown hair with red highlights was combed into a bun on the nape of her neck, her petite womanly figure highlighted by a fitted black bodice.
Looking at Nellie, Osgood’s heart pounded faster beneath his jacket. All he wanted was to have her in his arms.
“Ah,” her father declared, “there’s my dear good child, my lovely Nell.”
Osgood watched Mr. Sedgwick’s oldest child start to descend, the silky hem of her skirt over its crinoline dusting each step. When she reached the bottom Osgood stood gazing, forgetting what he’d planned to say.
Guiding Osgood, she suggested, “Shall we take a stroll?”
Osgood laughed, knowing she knew he’d been staring. “Yes, I’d like that,” he answered, snapping himself out of his daze.
He donned his hat and turned to the Sedgwick’s. “Ma’am, Sir, good day.”
Heading out the door and down the porch steps, Osgood offered his arm to Nellie, which she took and he drew her close. The Sedgwick’s stood at the doorway watching.
Mr. Sedgwick nuzzled his wife’s ear and enfolding her shoulder with his arm, said “What do you think of that, my cat?”
Osgood and Nellie moved down the path, weaving through the front yard. All the while Osgood’s stomach turned butterflies while Nellie pointed out the garden, containing ripe tomatoes, green beans, and yellow squash.
“Wilson Gardens did a good job planting again this year, don’t you think?” she remarked then recalled the time when the apple trees had just flowered and the breeze sent their sweet smell filling the air and their soft white petals floating down on them.
Yes, like confetti on a wedding day.
With that thought, Osgood ran a hand over his pocket to ensure that the ring box was still there. When they reached the pergola, Nellie’s attention turned to Freedom, busy swishing horseflies from his hindquarters. She stroked his neck, and as she did, Osgood couldn’t help but think how much Nellie loved the horse, a colt of her favorite mare, Jeannie. Freedom had been a gift to Osgood from Nellie’s parents when his father died. Mr. Sedgwick had named him, and together, Osgood and Nellie cared for Freedom as a foal. To Osgood at that moment, though, no one and nothing else existed in the world.
“Nellie,” he said.
Osgood beckoned for her hands and she gave them. They felt small and soft in his. He gazed into her eyes and shook his head in awe, amazed by her. He smiled and drew her close, feeling his chest throb against her from his ride and anticipation.
Bringing his lips beside Nellie’s ear, Osgood murmured, “When I return from war, Nell, I want to spend every day and every night with you.”
Then, with all the anticipation and confidence he could summon, he fell on one knee in the grass and, beaming up at Nellie, pulled out the box. Opening it, he presented it.
“Will you marry me, Ellen Amelia Sedgwick? Marry me before I leave?”
Nellie’s eyes widened. She looked at the ring. Then she cupped Osgood’s cheek with her hand.
“It’s beautiful, Osgood Vose Tracy,” she whispered, her breath quickening, her chest rising and falling.
“You’re a good man. Well-intentioned…faithful… considerate.”
Suddenly a loud clap of thunder sounded, surprising the two. Nellie jumped, and Freedom neighed, pawing the ground and pulling at his reins, clanking them against the hitch. They turned to look down The Hill over the city, where lightning tore across the dark sky. A warm wind began to swirl, swaying the Elms, and set strands of Nellie’s hair loose. She turned back to Osgood, her face looking different than before, distressed. The color had drained from her cheeks.
Shifting her feet and biting her lower lip, Nellie blurted, “Perhaps you should think of me now only as a friend.”
Osgood’s expression deflated. He shook his head in disbelief.
“I’m sorry,” Nellie apologized, as tears ran down her cheeks.
Osgood pleaded, “Nell, please, you mean everything to me. I don’t understand.”
But Nellie looked away and turned, gathering her skirt, and ran toward the house. Osgood watched the girl he long loved dash past the porch where the bench-swing swung and squeaked striking the side of the house while the blue hydrangeas and their large green leaves whipped in the sudden fury.
The deep bark of Buz-Fuz, the Sedgwick’s English Springer-Spaniel, announced Nellie’s arrival in the backyard to her beloved grove. Still standing in the doorway were Mr. and Mrs. Sedgwick, peering at Osgood, and though he thought they loved him like a son, they closed the door. Osgood was left alone, still on his knee, holding the precious jewel. His head fell, cupped in his hands.
The rain poured down in buckets.
Oh! How proud you stood before me, in your suit of blue,
When you vow’d to me and country, ever to be true.
Weeping Sad and Lonely Lyrics, When This Cruel War is Over
Charles C. Sawyer