The steamer turned westward into Grant’s Pass. To southward lay Morgan and Gaines, floating the ensign of a saved Union. Close here on the right lay the ruins of Fort Powell. From the lower deck the boys, pressing to the starboard guards to see, singly or in pairs smiled up to Hilary’s smile. Among them was Sam Gibbs, secretly bearing home the battery’s colors wrapped round him next his scarred and cross-scarred body. And so, farewell Mobile. Hour by hour through the beautiful blue day, island after island, darkling green or glistering white, rose into view, drifted by between the steamer and the blue Gulf and sunk into the deep; Petit Bois, Horn Island, Ship Island, Cat Island. Now past Round Island, up Lake Borgne and through the Rigolets they swept into Pontchartrain, and near the day’s close saw the tide-low, sombre but blessed shore beyond which a scant half-hour’s railway ride lay the city they called home.
Across the waters westward, where the lake’s margin, black-rimmed with cypresses, lapsed into a watery horizon, and the sun was going down in melancholy splendor, ran unseen that northbound railway by which four years earlier they had set off for the war with ranks full and stately, with music in the air and with thousands waving them on. Now not a note, not a drum-tap, not a boast nor a jest illumined their return. In the last quarter-hour aboard, when every one was on the lower deck about the forward gangway, Hilary and Anna, having chanced to step up upon a coil of rope, found it easier, in the unconscious press, to stay there than to move on, and in keeping with his long habit as a leader he fell into a lively talk with those nearest him,—Sam and Charlie close in front, Bartleson and Mandeville just at his back,—to lighten the general heaviness. At every word his listeners multiplied, and presently, in a quiet but insistent tone, came calls for a “speech” and the “ladies’ man.”
“No,” he gaily replied, “oh, no, boys!” But his words went on and became something much like what they craved. As he ceased came the silent, ungreeted landing. Promptly followed the dingy train’s short run up the shore of the New Canal, and then its stop athwart St. Charles Street, under no roof, amid no throng, without one huzza or cry of welcome, and the prompt dispersal of the outwardly burdenless wanderers, in small knots afoot, up-town, down-town, many of them trying to say over again those last words from the chief hero of their four years’ trial by fire. The effort was but effort, no full text has come down; but their drift seems to have been that, though disarmed, unliveried, and disbanded, they could remain true soldiers: That the perfect soldier loves peace, loathes war: That no man can be such who cannot, whether alone or among thousands of his fellows, strive, suffer and wait with magnanimous patience, stake life and fortune, and, in extremity, fight like a whirlwind, for the victories of peace: That every setting sun will rise again if it is a true sun: That good-night was not good-by: and that, as for their old nickname, no one can ever be a whole true ladies’ man whose aim is not at some title far above and beyond it—which last he said not of himself, but in behalf and by request of the mother of the guns they had gone out with and of the furled but unsullied banner they had brought home.