(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Return of a Private” begins on a train from New Orleans carrying Northern veterans back to the Midwest. They are among the last to leave the South; sickness and wounds delayed their departure until August. Only four or five are left to get off the train at LaCrosse. One of them, Private Edward Smith, still suffers from fever and ague. It is two o’clock in the morning, and rather than spend their money for a hotel room, Smith and two compatriots decide to bed down in the train station. The two other veterans arrange their blankets so that their sickly friend might be more comfortable, but Private Smith has trouble sleeping. The war has left him worn out and infirm and in no shape to care for his heavily mortgaged farm or to provide for his young wife and their three children.

As Sunday morning dawns, the three veterans look across the Mississippi River and to the hills beyond, invigorated by a familiar landscape that they have not seen for several years. They buy some coffee, eat their army hardtack, and then begin walking along the road toward the hills and home, stopping now and again to let Private Smith rest. Jim Cranby, the oldest of the three, expects that he will get home just in time to surprise his boys at evening milking. Private Smith muses aloud that Old Rover will no doubt be the first of his household to run out to meet him, but when he mentions Emma, his voice breaks and is silenced by emotion. Saunders, the youngest of the three, seldom says a word. His wife will not be waiting for him; she died the first year of the war, having caught pneumonia laboring in the autumn rains to bring in the harvest. The veterans know one another well; it is a friendship born in the hardships of war.

Coming to a fork in the road, Private Smith says farewell to his friends; they promise to keep in touch, and he reassures them that he will be all right walking alone. They stop and wave at a distance, and Private Smith thinks of the good times they have had in the midst of the terrible war. He also thinks about Billy Tripp, his best friend from home, and how Billy was laughing one minute and dead from a “minie” ball the next. Billy’s mother and sweetheart will want him to tell them all about the untimely death of handsome young Billy. Private Smith walks on slowly.


(The entire section is 943 words.)