The short story begins with Private Edward Smith traveling home in a group of fellow soldiers. The group is depleted of energy, has almost no money, and rallies together to keep their hopes up on the journey. Smith is sicker than the rest, with a fever he can't shake. He tells the group that he can't afford a hotel, because money is tight and he has to save every cent to support his wife and three children.
After spending a night sleeping on makeshift mats outdoors, the men chew some hardtack and manage to find some coffee before beginning the last leg of their journey. As they get closer to their homes, they grow increasingly excited about the scene they each hope to find when they arrive and first see those whom they love best. A fork in the road leads to separate paths they each must take to get home, so they all say their goodbyes and part ways. The third-person narration then shifts to Emma Smith, Edward's wife.
Emma is waiting at home on Sunday, preparing for dinner. She thinks about how long it has been since she's heard from her husband and notes that other people have received news from their soldiers; however, she doesn't know when Edward might return. She helps a neighbor with dinner preparations, and they exchange pleasant conversation about her husband, raising children, and the general news of soldiers coming home. She considers with a tone of slight resentment how Edward had purchased this huge farm, toiled on it endlessly, and then left her with it and their three children to go fight for "an idea," but she doesn't share these reflections with her neighbor.
The women decide to tell fortunes by reading tea leaves, and Emma Smith's foretell of a man coming with a musket on his back. At just this moment, they spy Edward coming over the hill, but he has changed so much that they aren't sure it is him. Nonetheless, they all run to greet him, and the older two children greet their father. The youngest no longer recognizes him, and Edward is visibly hurt as he tries to win over his own child's trust.
Emma and Edward go inside to rest, and Edward soaks up his comfortable surroundings, happy to no longer be a soldier fighting a war. He soaks up the farm animals, their noises, and the serene mood of his farm.
The story ends with a broad statement that "the American soldier" has returned home at this point, and he must now continue to fight nature and the men in his daily life, extending the story of Edward Smith to a more general population of soldiers everywhere and across time periods.
“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 entire section is 1,398 words.)