War meant loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores at Newton; it meant men riding like kings, looking neither to the right nor the left, while lesser men in perfect lines strode along with guns across their shoulders, their heads held high like horses with short reins […] Jethro, forgetting the lecture to his mother on the inclination of people to select beliefs that bring them most satisfaction, never doubted that if Tom and Eb got their chance to go to war, they'd be back home when it was over, and that it would be shadowy men from distant parts who would die for the pages of future history books. (1.53)
Well aren't we romantic. These are the hopes and dreams of the idealist because um… real warfare tells quite the different tale, and one mostly filled with blood and guts and battlefields.
"Human nature ain't any better one side of a political line than on the other—we all know that—but human nature, the all-over picture of it, is better than it was a thousand—five hundred—even a hundred years ago. There is an awakenin' inside us of human decency and responsibility. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't grieve fer the children I've buried; I wouldn't look for'ard to the manhood of this youngest one." (2.26)
Matt's saying that he believes humanity as a whole is becoming more humane, and he brings up an interesting concept while doing so: if humanity isn't improving, then the dead wouldn't be missing out on anything so there would be no need to grieve for them.
"God bless old U. S. Grant," they shrieked. "Bless old Unconditional Surrender Grant." They laughed and cried, and nearly everybody thought that the war would be over in a matter of week. (4.5)
This is overly optimistic. The Union wins one battle and all of a sudden people think that the North has got this war in the bag. We'll chalk this up to a rookie mistake.
"I'm not eager for it either, Jeth, not by a long way. I've got a lot of plans for the next forty or fifty years of my life, and being a soldier is not part of any single one of them." (4.81)
The war put a big ol' wrench in Shad's life plan, but we have an inkling he's not alone in that feeling. At least he's got a lot of years left to revamp things.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we was to hear all of a sudden that the war was over, Jeth? Wouldn't it be pure pleasure to hev things like they used to be, with John and Bill close brothers agin, Tom and Eb carryin' on in their crazy boy ways, and Shad back a-teachin' and lookin' bashful at little Jenny?" (5.15)
Sounds more like Nancy wants to hop in a DeLorean and go back in time. Even if the war ends immediately, the chances of life returning to exactly how it was before the war are slim to none.
"I used to dream about the nice home Shad and me would have and how I'd keep it bright and pretty, how I'd wait of an evenin' to see him comin' down the road toward home. Nowadays I don't make any plans; I just don't dare to have any dreams for fear someday a soldier will come home and tell us that he was standin' beside Shad, the way Danny was standin' beside Tom—" (7.40)
Poor Jenny wakes up to the reality of how war could permanently take Shad away from her. That's not saying that at one point she didn't have those nice dreams of being happily ever after with him, but once she had the real life experience of being told the news of Tom's death, she realizes that it's quite possible that Shad could meet the same fate. Talk about a buzz kill.
<em>I think it wrong that I write to you with hope and optimism for our future; I think I must prepare you for the possibility—no, the probability—of heartbreak. When a man has looked upon such massive waste of life as I have witnessed in these three battles, the presumption to consider his own littler personal dreams becomes a matter of supreme egotism.</em> (10.6)
Shad is right on board with Jenny in thinking that planning for the future isn't the greatest option at this point. But he takes it, like, twenty steps further and pretty much tells her that it's unlikely he's coming home. Not exactly the route love letters usually take.
"Maybe I'll ask Nancy for soap and water; maybe she'll help me clean the place," he whispered to himself. "If Shad ever comes back, I'd like for this room to be clean and nice for him."
Then he shook his head at his own dreaming. He had heard Ross Milton warning Jenny the night before, "We must remember, girl, that there's only one chance in a hundred that this trip will have a happy ending. But we're going to concentrate on that one chance." (10.37-38)
Jethro has a shred of reality thrown into his dream—notice that he says if Shad comes back. It's not a certainty that Shad will, but Jethro's not completely giving in to the idea that he won't either. Plus Jeth remembers Ross Milton's words of advice to Jenny and he holds out home for that one chance.
Jethro had not liked to hear the editor talk like that. To him peace had been a shining dream, with Shad and Jenny back home, with John more of a brother now and a hero in Jethro's eyes, with Eb coming home in pride instead of degradation. No, of course, peace would not be a perfect pearl, not with young Tom never to return, not with the possibility of Bill's return only the most shadowy and remote of chances. Still, peace would mean a glorious sense of relief; in all his years Jethro had heard either the talk of war's imminence or its reality. He had wished that Ross Milton would not rip up his dream of peace. (12.45)
Finally things are looking somewhat up and there goes Ross Milton raining on Jethro's parade. All of Jeth's life has been war this, war that and now he simply wants to enjoy his peace in, well, peace. But voice-of-reason Ross Milton makes sure that Jethro's hopes don't get too high.
"You are their pride, Jeth. Those two want the very best for you. And they won't be alone. Eb will be back, and there's always John. He wants you to get an education and then later to help his own boys along the same road. It's going to work out, Jeth; you'll see." (12.102)
If we didn't know any better, we'd say this looks like some dreams a-coming true. Jethro is going to get a real education and return home with loads of knowledge to pass onto his nephews. Sounds like a good plan to us. All's well(ish) that ends well(ish)?