The Return of a Private

by Hamlin Garland

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Last Updated on August 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

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.

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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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

“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 scene now shifts several miles up the road to the little valley, or coulee as it is called, where Emma Smith is beginning another Sunday morning worrying about her husband and their uncertain future. Six weeks before, Edward wrote that he would shortly be discharged but has sent no other word since. She thinks about the farm he had labored so diligently to keep up. It is a shambles. Before leaving for war, Edward had contracted with a man to take care of the farm, but the man ran away in the night, stealing some farm equipment in the process. The neighbor who is now renting the land is naturally harvesting his own crops first. Thinking about her three children, Emma looks around her and weeps. Rather than be overcome by despair, she hastily dresses nine-year-old Mary, six-year-old Tommy, and four-year-old Ted, and they go down the road to Mother Gray’s.

Widow Gray has a house full of children and a heart full of love. Worn down by constant labor, she is happiest when she is sharing what little she has. It is Sunday, and her girls are expecting their beaux; son Bill and his family arrive for dinner, and Widow Gray is beside herself with joy to see Emma and her little brood coming down the road. The Gray household is filled with a contagious conviviality that makes Emma momentarily forget her sadness. The dinner itself is a farmer’s feast, with platters of corn and potatoes and pies of various kinds. After the meal, the women linger at the table, and Widow Gray reads the tea leaves, producing shrieks and gales of laughter from her daughters as she predicts the coming of handsome callers. Turning to Emma, she says that a soldier is on his way to her. Just then, Widow Gray looks out the window and sees what appears to be a soldier walking up the road just beyond the house. Emma tries to get his attention, but he seems not to hear.

Running up the road toward her farm, Emma is not sure that the soldier standing by the rail fence is really her husband Edward. He is so thin and pale. They suddenly recognize each other, kiss, and reunion of husband and wife, father and children, begins. The reader is told that it is a sight that Tommy, the six-year-old, will always remember with affection. As Emma takes Edward inside and prepares some biscuits, he is overcome with joy and relief at being home with his beloved wife and children. Here is his life, his happiness, in this run-down little cabin.

The homecoming is presented in bittersweet terms to the reader. The familial affection is almost overpowering, and yet the trials and tribulations that await both Private Smith and Emma are everywhere lurking in the background. Private Smith knows the hardships that are before him, but “his heroic soul did not quail.” In prose that reaches poetic eloquence, the narrator relates that Private Smith fights a hopeless battle against injustice and the harshness of nature. Nevertheless, there is dignity in his struggle.

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