A historical novel based upon the author’s 2nd great grandfather’s privately held Civil War letter cache, FIGHTING FOR NELLIE demonstrates that life can change in an instant, war alters everything, and we must fight for what we love.
N.Y. Times Bestselling author, historian, History and National Geographic Channels host, Eleanor Herman, quotes “FIGHTING FOR NELLIE is a great story, with original documentation never before printed and readers love the Civil War. The author has absolute passion and dedication. I don’t know that I have seen any other new writer as deeply committed to getting her book published.”
FIGHTING FOR NELLIE will remind readers of Cold Mountain but from a Northerner’s perspective, a contemporary All Quiet on the Western Front, and March.
The true religion is that which sets you free.
Matilda Joselyn Gage
August 25, 1862
A throng of people, numbering in the thousands, flocked to the village of Fayetteville, New York to attend a rally for a regiment on the brink of heading to the Civil War. The volunteer company and their supporters included locals – proud of their settlement named for Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette – yet the majority had traveled miles from other villages, towns, and the city of Syracuse, all comprising the County of Onondaga.
At near the noon hour, voices chattered. Skirts sashayed. Bridles clicked and spoke wheels turned, swirling dust caused by a dry summer. Men dismounted horses, tying reins to hitching posts. Carriage doors popped opened. Men, women, and children stepped out. Others climbed down from stagecoaches, offering their hands for the next to descend. Farmers, who had ridden or walked, swiped grime from their overalls, dirt from their cheeks. Their wives, wearing field clothes or plain cotton dresses, guided children toward the square, their small shoes scuffing along in the gravel. Spouses of lawyers, bankers, and doctors wore the latest fashion. Hats of various styles and colors, topped with bird feathers, flapped, shading soft, white skin. Elderly men and women, walking slowly, hunched over, or limping made their way, some with the use of canes, others each other.
The square, outlined by a mix of stone and brick Greek Revival Style structures built on the slope of a hill beside Limestone Creek, filled to capacity. Shoulders bumped shoulders. Conversations carried, sounding like music, echoing and reverberating between the buildings. An overflow of people spread beyond, to the four side roads, porches of residents’ homes, cornfields, and pastures. The excitement, urgency and anxiousness of the moment mixed with the ninety-five degree temperature and humidity, stirring sultriness to the air.
Local businessmen, dressed in suit jackets, exited their establishments, stopping first beside the doorway of the general store to examine the list of the most recent dead, wounded, and captured, penned to paper, nailed to the plank siding. The bottom of the list, unfastened, fluttered in the bit of warm breeze there was and motion of the crowd hustling by to the square.
In the middle of the square stood 22-year-old Osgood Vose Tracy, his brown eyes twinkling, his heart full of patriotic enthusiasm. The heat and his wool uniform caused his brow to drip and from his pocket he took out a handkerchief, which his mother had washed, and swiped the perspiration from his forehead. Placing it back, he clasped the shoulders of his friends, Andy and Frank, who stood beside him, and beaming, pulled them in. Surrounding the three young men was their newly formed regiment, the 122ndNew York State Volunteers, scheduled to leave the next morning for several days training before heading to the front lines to fight for the North in the War of the Rebellion.
The organizer of the event – a well-known abolitionist, women’s suffragist and resident of town, 36-year-old Matilda Joslyn Gage, was situated on the top step of Beard Hall. She wore a fitted, long, black jacket, like a man might wear, unbuttoned from the waist down, open to her skirt. She had rolled its’ satiny cuffs back. The collar had a v-neck shape. Her brown hair was brushed high off her forehead, twisted on each side to the back, to a braided bun. The rest – extensions she had added – fell in long ringlets, past her shoulders. Her appearance was serious and stern, her eyes set on what she planned to accomplish. Looking out at the thousands, many still finding a place to stand, Mrs. Gage pounded a gavel on the podium, outstretched her arms, grabbing the attention of the crowd, and clearing her voice, began her speech.
“Soldiers and community, as many of you know, I was born with a hatred of oppression, trained in the anti-slavery ranks. My father’s home was a station on the Underground Railway, and a home of anti-slavery speakers. I well remember the wonder with which, when a young girl, I looked upon the wrongs of black women and men. I remember, before the Syracuse Round House railroad station was finished, a large and enthusiastic anti-slavery convention was held there, attended by thousands of people who all joined in singing William Lloyd Garrison’s song, “I’m an Abolitionist.” As they rang out that glorious defiance against wrong, it thrilled my very heart, and I feel it echoing to this very day.”
The crowd whistled and cheered in unison.
“Let it be known,” Mrs. Gage continued, “that there is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven; that word is Liberty. All that man hath will he give for his life but at the present time there are hundreds and thousands of men who willingly take their lives into their hands and march boldly forth into battle, for there are things dearer than life, there are things without which life would be valueless, there are things rather than lose which, we would lose life itself. And what is this for which men so willingly hazard their lives? It is not territory, nor power, nor the subjugation of a people, but it is to uphold liberty, and to maintain the government. And what caused this war?” Mrs. Gage asked, tugging at her high-necked lacy collar, then, slamming her fist on the podium, answered, “Slavery, and nothing else!”
The multitude went wild – clapping, hooting, hollering, and whistling. Hats and hands flew up in the air. Osgood, his friends and the 122ndcelebrated.
“Soldiers, let Liberty be your watchword and your war cry alike. Until liberty is attained – the broadest, deepest, 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 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, and for the future.”
The crowd exploded again as Mrs. Gage turned to present the troop flag, the funds for which she raised and the ladies of Fayetteville sewed, to the man who would lead the regiment.
“Colonel Silas Titus, we have made for you the ‘Flag of the Free.’ When this war is over, may none but freemen under it dwell. We shall watch the flag with pride in your success, your honor will be ourhonor, your success our joy, and when you return in peace, the Union restored, slavery forever blasted, and Liberty triumphant over this continent, we will welcome you home a band of heroes.”
Colonel Titus, who in appearance resembled President Lincoln, thanked Mrs. Gage and turning to the men said, “Thanks to the heroism of this town – named for Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette – and Onondaga County, we are a thousand warm hearts, two thousand strong hands — a thousand bright bayonets – and shall rally around this banner – bear it bravely to the field—stand by it and see it torn to a thousand shreds before we will surrender it to rebel hands, and carry it from rampart to rampart until the eagle it bears shall be the beacon light proclaiming to the deluded South the return of her liberties.” With his voice near cracking, he added, “I shall remember this scene wherever I go and say to the youth of my command and the men of riper years ever stand ready to defend this banner with your lives.”
Three roars erupted, the flag was raised, and the band struck up “America.” Osgood’s heart pounded, like the beat of his hometown county for human freedom. Adrenaline raced through his veins. He clapped Andy and Frank’s backs, then, releasing his embrace from them, patted his inside breast pocket for a small velvet box he’d placed there that morning.
“See you tomorrow, boys,” he blurted with excitement and speeded off, leaving his friends baffled as he weaved his way through the regiment.
Outside the square, Osgood headed toward his horse, a quarter mile away, tied to an old oak tree at the corners of East Genesee and Chapel Streets. Upon Osgood’s return the animal raised his head from grazing, munching grass between his teeth, and snorted. Osgood pet his dark neck and untying the reins pronounced, “It’s a big day, Tip.”
At the sound of his name, the animal’s ears twitched. Osgood reached into his pocket, pulling out the box. Curious, Tip nudged it with his snout. His whiskers tickled Osgood’s hand and laughing, Osgood took one step back, a deep breath, and opened it. Peering inside, looking at its contents, he exhaled quickly, and smiled.
“It’s just what I envisioned,” Osgood said, pleased.
He snapped the box closed, replaced it, and mounted, turning Tip’s head in a familiar direction. The mob from the rally had started for the streets and was dispersing all about. Osgood trotted Tip through the crowd, acknowledging people he knew with a nod but didn’t 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 faster. He spurred Tip on with the trees moving above them and green grass beneath, his jacket snapping in the wind and Tip’s muscles glistening and hooves beating the ground.
“You’ll make a great warhorse,” Osgood told Tip, lowering himself closer to his horse.
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. Tip’s flanks heaved. He shook his head – his halter jingling – forcing breath through his nostrils. 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 at its center. Syracuse 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 and gathered in the city, at City Hall, the post office, Western Union, and Riley’s General Store.
Along the grassy edges of the Erie Canal, harnessed mules, most driven by children of families who owned boats or orphans put to work by captains, pulled barges and boats carrying goods of all kinds – such as lumber, crates of food, and war supplies – to the paddock docks. Farmers parked their wagons on the north side, setting up their scales in front of Greenway’s Brewery. The waterway strengthened economic, social and political ties between the Eastern Seaboard and the Mid-western states, allowing the North to stop trading with the South, thereby aiding the Union cause. If the canal hadn’t been built, the Midwest might have traded down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
The Onondaga County Savings Bank, where Osgood worked, often collecting canal tolls, stood tall and impressive, of fine architecture, like other buildings surrounding it. To the east was the rising slope of James Street and The Hill, where Osgood was raised, and in the distance, Onondaga Lake. Looking out on the entire scene reminded Osgood how much he loved home and why he was willing to go to war. Straightening his stance on the pommel and putting boots to Tip’s flanks he said, “Let’s go see Nellie, boy.”
The two raced down east, to 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 new officer replied, smiling, clenching his fist in the air.
With his floral arrangement, Reverend May gestured back and Tip, sensing Osgood’s charge, started galloping up The Hill, passing 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 childhood 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. Clouds of dust and dirt filled the road as the boys signaled back, raising their drinks, 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 and woods sprawled and there was the Sedgwick homestead. Osgood slowed and dismounted, hitching Tip 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 wavy brown hair and entered the picket fence, walking with a brisk step up the winding walk. In the yard on the left stood a tall, old Elm. A woodpecker worked at a hole it had started in the wide, gray trunk, split like the shape of a vase. The top weeping branches of the tree and their leaves canopied the yard and from a sturdy branch hung a swing.
At the large clapboard house Osgood stepped up the porch stairs, which creaked beneath his feet in the familiar way. He smiled. Osgoodloved this home.Knocking on the front door, he peered through the side panes, seeing Nellie’s stepmother, Deborah Gannett Sedgwick, approach.
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 use on his forehead.
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.
“Well attended, sir. Mrs. Gage’s speech inspired our men,” Osgood answered.
This pleased Mr. Sedgwick, for he nodded, saying, “Matilda is a true friend of freedom.”
This thought seemed to bring Mrs. Sedgwick back. She smiled. “Your father would be proud, Osgood.”
“Yes, he would be,” Osgood answered, wishing his father were alive.
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 their friends and neighbors – Mr. and Mrs. George Barnes and Mr. and Mrs. John Wilkinson – immersed in supporting the Underground Railroad. The trio led the local area effort, with the aid of Mrs. Gage and Reverend May.
“Remember, Osgood,” Mr. Sedgwick winked. “War is the only answer now. No compromises, no concessions.”
“Oh, yes sir,” Osgood concurred, bringing his boots together and standing up straighter.
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, looking 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.
“There’s my dear good child, my lovely Nell,” her father declared.
Osgood watched Mr. Sedgwick’s oldest child start to descend, the silky hem of her skirt over its crinoline dusting each step. Looking at Nellie, Osgood’s heart pounded faster beneath his blue jacket. All he wanted was to have her in his arms. When she reached the bottom Osgood stood gazing, forgetting what he’d planned to say. Nellie blushed.
“Shall we take a stroll?” she guided Osgood, who laughed, knowing she knew he’d been staring.
“Yes, I’d like that, and was going to suggest it,” he answered, trying to snap out of his daze and not fumble with his words.
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. 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, whispered, “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 this year,” she remarked, then grasping Osgood’s arm tighter, looked up at him. “Do you recall the time when the apple trees had flowered and the strong wind sent their sweet smell to the air and soft white petals floating down on us?”
“Yes,” Osgood murmured, looking at Nellie, “like confetti on a wedding day,” and with that thought pat his breast pocket again, suddenly fearful the box might have fallen out on his ride.
“What did you say?” Nellie asked, having not heard.
Feeling the box, his unease dismissed, Osgood smiled and said, “That I remember that well.”
When they reached the pergola, Nellie’s attention turned to Tip, 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. Tip had been a gift to Osgood from the Sedgwick’s when his father died. Mr. Sedgwick named him and together, Osgood and Nellie cared for the foal – feeding, brushing, and walking him. To Osgood at the moment, though, no one and nothing else existed in the world.
“Nellie,” he called.
Osgood put out his hands, inviting her to take them. She moved to him and placed hers in his. Osgood thought they felt soft and small and he rubbed the tops with his thumbs, gazing into her eyes, then shook his head in awe. He smiled in amazement and drew her close, feeling his chest throb against her from his ride and anticipation.
Osgood brought his lips beside her ear. “Nell, when I return from war,” he murmured, “I want to spend every day and night with you.”
With all the confidence and muster he knew, Osgood fell on one knee in the grass and beaming up at Nellie, pulled out the box. Nellie’s eyes widened and mouth fell open, her hands clasped the latter.
Opening the jewelry box, Osgood presented it. “Will you marry me, Ellen Amelia Sedgwick? Marry me before I leave.”
Looking at the ring, Nellie whispered in wonder, “It’s beautiful, Osgood.” Her breath quickened, chest rose and fell. She cupped Osgood’s cheek and locked eyes. “You’re a good man, Osgood Vose Tracy. Well-intentioned…faithful… considerate.”
Suddenly, a loud clap of thunder sounded, surprising the two, turning their attention down The Hill over the city, where a bolt of lightening crossed the darkening sky. Nellie jumped. A strong warm wind began to swirl, swaying the old Elm, setting strands of Nellie’s hair loose and their clothes blowing. Thunder cracked again, this time close to the Sedgwick property, followed by a streak of lightning. Tip neighed, pawing the ground and pulling at his reins, clanking them against the hitch. The air’s energy grew stronger, unharnessed. A feel of approaching rain impended.
Nellie turned back to Osgood, her eyes looking different than before. Pained. Distant. The color had drained from her cheeks, the smile from her face. She bit her lower lip and in distress, putting fingertips to her forehead corners, divulged, “Perhaps you should think of me now only as a friend.”
Osgood deflated. His body went weak. “Nell, please,” he pleaded, “You mean everything to me. I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Nellie apologized, tears running down her cheeks.
Then she gathered her skirt, turned 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, the blue hydrangeas and their large green leaves whipping in the sudden fury. The deep bark of the Sedgwick’s English Springer-Spaniel, Buz-Fuz, 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 drenched down.
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