Chapter Twenty-Three

The nights grew cooler. The fall was slipping away. With remarkable suddenness, election day arrived. The speeches were finally done, though banners were still everywhere and the flags were out. With his friends, John went to vote, walking up the street in the just brisk, new November air. He thought of the men from the Army of the Potomac who had paraded so smartly on their way to Vicksburg. General McClellan had been the one to polish them to a sheen and now, as a candidate, McClellan claimed he had a plan to end the war and to put the Union back together, but without doing anything radical. And, too, he was a Democrat and so not in league with the moneyed Northeasterners who would like nothing more than to use a Republican victory to run roughshod over a workingman’s rights.

John thought all that, rehearsing it to himself as he got ready to pick up his ballot. Yet there was another voice in his head, and it was Kate’s. The evening before, he’d come home and found her sitting in their parents’ kitchen, her cloak still on and her bonnet pushed back and hanging by its strings. She was pulling a splinter from her finger, but she’d clearly come on a mission.

“I’d like it if, when you vote, John, you’d vote for me,” she said. “Not for me personally, but for how I’d vote if I could. If General McClellan wins, it’s as though the war stands for nothing when I think that it does. Mr. Lincoln could always be wrong, but if there’s anyone I trust to be thoughtful and right, it’s him. He’s like you, John. He thinks down to the very bottom of things.”

And so he had this dialogue—the point, counterpoint—in his head as he stood with the other men waiting to choose their ballots. He let himself drift farther to the back of the line, surprised that he was still uncertain. He thought of the pictures he’d seen of the men he was choosing between. Kate was wrong about him, he decided. It was often not his thinking that settled him on what he would do, but his instinct. At the moment, he imagined the tens of thousands of Union fires dotting campsites in a great arc from the South to the North and the men around them who might mock Mr. Lincoln and yet, as a group, sense his pull at the center with his brooding eyes and lifting words: the language he spoke that honored their dead and, through everything, stayed fiercely hopeful that life as they wished it to be, would not perish even if they did.

Finally, John had to step forward and choose his ballot. When he’d entered beneath the polling place bunting and his name was called, he crossed the room. Still, he hesitated. He looked at the printed name at the top of the strip, considering once more, and it wasn’t his own voice or Kate’s that he heard now, but his Grandfather Given’s just as though he were standing beside him and talking quietly into his ear: You can vote, John?  You can vote for freedom for a man?  Then do it, lad. What are you waiting for?

Yet he still wasn’t sure. It was only a guess when he folded the ballot with Mr. Lincoln’s name on it and slipped it into the box.


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