Silent Night

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Silent Night

By Lea Sheryn


“Cold,” Private Matthew Payton muttered unnecessarily as he propped himself against the nearest tree and stared out into the night.  “This is no way to spend Christmas Eve, Elias.” 


Silently Pvt. Elias Bynum agreed.  The year was 1863; the United States of America was in the midst of a conflict that tore the country in two.  Endlessly, it seemed to drag on with no end in sight.  All had hoped it would be over by Christmas; no one had believe it would.  After the Battle of Bean’s Station—a part of the Knoxville Campaign--the two men found themselves hunkered down in the Great Smokey Mountains.  Volunteering for first watch on Christmas Eve, they had settled in with their backs against a sturdy white pine with a small fire crackling at their feet.  Across the ravine came the sounds of the opposing patrol making their own arrangements for the night. 


Who would have thought, only a few years ago, that the country would fall apart the way it had?  Life had been good for young Eli Bynum.  At age eighteen, his school days had ended and were about to begin again.  From schoolboy to teacher, his prospects were good.  Not only did he have his first school lined up, but he had announced his engagement to the irrepressible Rebecca Mills.  It occurred on another Christmas Eve with the nuptials to take place in early May.  Then the war had struck.  Doing his duty toward what he believed Elias was one of the first to volunteer to join the fray.


Becky had disagreed with his decision…most vehemently.  She was young and frivolous, full of the enjoyment of life.  It didn’t occur to her to be concerned about the conflicts that beset the country.  Her thoughts were all about her white dress, her flower arrangements and who to invite to the wedding of the year.  When Elias sat her down to explain where his heart lay in the situation, she poo-poo’d him and attempted to turn his attention to the décor of the little house she wanted him to purchase on the edge of town. 


Elias marched off to war with a heavy heart.  The night before he left, Becky had implored him to give up the idea of soldiering.  Wheedling and crying with her arms flung ‘round his neck, she used all her wiles to keep him home.  His country needed him, he patiently explained as he took her into his arms and gazed seriously into her tear-filled blue eyes.  When it was all over—in a couple of months—he would come home and continue with their plans for the future. 


Without saying good-bye, he joined his regiment the next day.  That was over two years ago.  The war dragged on.  Battle after bloody battle ensued with no peace in sight.  Battle-worn comrades disappeared into the fray—some killed, some wounded, others taken prisoner.  Still they continued on, fighting a war with no end. 


“American against American,” Elias muttered, standing to warm his hands before the small fire.  “Ain’t natural.” 


“Ain’t natural,” Matt Payton drowsily repeated as he gave his legs a stretch before drawing them up again beneath his worn blanket.  “Brr.  Too cold for man or beast.”


“Ain’t natural on Christmas Eve, Matt.”  Elias returned to his place beside the white oak.  “I have a little gal waiting for me back home.  Least I think she’s still waiting on me.  Wasn’t for this war, I’d be home with my darling, couple kiddies at my knee awaiting Santa’s visit.”


“Wife and couple of kids of my own back home, Elias,” Matt responded with his eyes focused into the forest.  “Expect they’re busy decorating the tree and hanging their stockings.  Often wonder if they even remember their old dad—it’s been so long.  Matt Jr was just two years old; Annie a babe in arms.  Too young to recall, I ‘spect.” 


Both men sighed in unison.


“Cold,” Matt reiterated, again unnecessarily. 


Silence settled between the two young Privates as snow began to drift down amongst the Great Smokeys.  The minutes ticked past bringing Christmas Day a little bit closer.  American against American, Elias thought to himself.  Where did those peaceful days go when the country was young, and people seemed to be striving for the same goals?  Now they had chosen sides: North against South.  Were we all really so different? the young man philosophically wondered as he glance strayed toward the other side of the ravine.  He thought not; he hoped not. 


“Tis a long night,” Matthew spoke into the silence. 


“Tis a silent night,” Elias commented, hoping it would remain a silent night.  There was still a chance the troops across the way were planning a surprise attack.  Ambushes, perpetrated by either side, had occurred before on the quietest of quiet nights.  He had to struggle to keep his senses alert even though cold and the weariness of the day were in conflict with his ability to stay awake.  Glancing toward his companion, he could see Matthew was having the same trouble.  Using his elbow, he jabbed the Private just beneath the ribs. 


“What was that for?” Matt grumbled, glaring at his friend with half closed eyes. 


“Stay awake,” Eli gently commanded.  “Don’t fall asleep.  I don’t want to try to wake a dead man.”  A man could easily freeze to death on such a night if he allowed the sandman to take him.  


“I’m awake, all right.” 


“Maybe we should try to sing.  Give us something to do; keep our minds off the cold and the snow; the war,” the young man suggested as he took off his gloves to rub his hands together for warmth. 


“Sing your heart out all you want,” the other man wearily responded, “but, if you do, you’ll give away our position.”


“Oh,” was all Elias could say.  He hadn’t thought of that.  The Bynums had always been a singing family.  Even in the hardest times, they came together in harmony to deflect their troubles.  Casting his idea aside, he replaced his gloves and drew his blanket across his knees.  “Should be nigh upon midnight by now,” he ventured into the silence. 


“You talk to much, Eli,” Matt stated as he threw another branch on the fire. 


Silence prevailed again as the young men sank into their own thoughts.  Elias filled his mind with thoughts of Becky standing beside him in their pew on a spring Sunday morning.  It was the day she wore her new white dress with the purple sash tied in a large bow in back; her hat adorned with violets.  Their scent filled his nostrils as her head bent toward his over the hymnal.  A long blond ringlet brushed his fingers right before he turned the page.  In that moment, he knew he loved her; he knew he wanted to spend his life with her.  Did she feel the same way about him?  The question hung in his dream as he was suddenly shaken awake. 


“I don’t want to try to wake a dead man either,” Matthew Payton announced as soon as Eli’s eyes sprung opened.  


“Did I?” Elias questioned. 


“You did.” Matt answered.  “Merry Christmas, old friend.”


“Merry Christmas!” Eli exclaimed, jumping to his feet.  When his companion joined him, he grabbed his hand to shake vigorously.  “Merry Christmas!” 


The short festivities ended the two men became alert in the commission of their watch.  All remained quiet amongst the Great Smokeys on either side of the ravine.  If it continued that way, it would make for a nice holiday.  Let the fighting continue the next day; just let Christmas be a day of peace and goodwill toward man, Elias thought as he allowed his gaze to take in the mountains and the snow covered trees that surrounded them.  Without the war raging around them, the enclosing area could truly be a winter wonderland.


Despite the ravages of war, there was a beauty to the world around them.  A little cabin in the hills surrounded by the woods would be a dandy place to raise a family, Eli decided.  Perhaps a patch of land cleared for farming and a barn painted red for their cows and horses.  Snow on a Christmas Eve and children riding their sleds past the gaping door as a well contented man stood in the opening.  It would suit him just fine.  If and when this terrible war ended…  If and when the country ever came to its senses…


As Eli thought of the hopeless condition of the country, he began to hear the strains of a voice echoing ‘round the mountain enclosure.  Steadily it became stronger until the words rang clearer:

“Silent Night

Holy Night

All is Calm

All is Bright…”

After a moment, another voice picked up the refrain…

Then another and another…


Slowly figures began to appear amongst the trees surrounding the ravine.  Men clad in grey; men clad in blue stood out, one by one, as they all raised their voices in song.  Beside him, Matthew was on his feet joining in with gusto.  Elias rose to bring forth his own strong tenor. 


When the song ended, a voice called out, “Merry Christmas”.  Followed by another until everyone had hollered out their greeting.  Slowly the men faded back into the woods, out of sight, as a stillness enveloped the Smokeys.  The horrors of war continued on until April 9th, 1865 with the ceasefire agreement signed by Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse but, for that one moment, on Christmas Eve 1863, both sides had come together for a moment of peace and good cheer. 


Author’s Notes: 


On Christmas Eve, 1944 in Belgium, the war ceased for some five to ten minutes as both American and German troops joined together in singing the carol Silent Night.  Similar stories have been told of this occurring during WWI also.  My story, creating such an incident in the Great Smokeys during the year 1863 during the American Civil War, is strictly a work of fiction. 


Privates Elias Bynum and Matthew Payton are not definitively described as soldiers of either the Union or the Confederacy in this story.  The author has chosen not to affiliate them with either side; they are simply soldiers of war. 

Submitted: December 19, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Lea Sheryn. All rights reserved.

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