Chapter One - The Battle of Carlisle
The Battle of Carlisle July 1, 1863
I was eight years old when a cannonball ripped Mother’s body in two, leaving her legs shoved under the kitchen table and flinging her upper body to nestle against the wood stove. With the golden Star of David dangling from her neck, she seemed to stare at me with her piercing blue eyes, even though her soul had already passed on.
This horror occurred because a Confederate cannon was fired through the front of our home. After it struck Mother, the errant projectile continued on until it found its way into the trunk of the old oak tree in our backyard. So began the Battle of Carlisle.
On that same fateful day, the infamous Battle of Gettysburg raged a mere thirty miles to the southwest. History barely mentions our own struggle in Pennsylvania, but I’ll never forget it.
Father, along with a few of the other men in town, had joined up with a local militia led by Baldy Smith and did their best to defend Carlisle against General Stuart and his cavalry. In fact, their courage prevented the Confederates from taking our city. As Father explained it, the militia knew the city, its streets, alleyways, and best places to stage ambushes, and could therefore repel the invading enemy. Eventually, General Stuart had no choice but to retreat and join up with General Lee’s army at Gettysburg.
The day following the battle, Father made his way home, weary, his face covered in gunpowder and dirt. I shared the news and showed him the coffin I’d built, where I placed Mother’s remains. Father embraced me, as tears cut pathways down his cheeks, and told me how proud he was. This display of affection surprised me, since he was not a man to express his emotions. Apparently, the atrocities of war, along with the violent death of his wife, cracked his stoic demeanor.
Father wanted to bury her in the backyard, but I insisted on the importance of bringing her body to the cemetery behind the Harrisburg synagogue that she and I attended during the Jewish holidays.
From that day forward, it was up to me to take care of Father. Good thing Mother taught me everything about cooking, cleaning, and praying to Hashem. Though Father didn’t much care for the Hebrew prayers, he liked to eat and appreciated my washing his clothes. That’s not to say he was a bad father; he just had difficulty sharing his feelings. After a bloody war, I was comforted knowing he was there to protect me.
Father fought with the local militia until May 13, 1865, the day the war against the South ended. That is when he began to teach me the one thing he was good at—carpentry, which came in handy, because after the war, with much of Carlisle destroyed, demand for Father’s woodworking services quickly rose. Soon enough he needed an assistant, and I was banging a hammer alongside him, learning the craft. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy the labor, I loved working alongside Father.
Six weeks later, when returning from picking up supplies in town, I noticed Father working on something in the front yard, fairly close to the road. Upon my approach, I saw he’d hung a sign, cut from a large piece of oak and carved with block letters that read Wolf & Son Woodworking.
“What’s this?” I asked, putting down the crate.
Father wrapped his muscular arm around my shoulder, pulled me in tight, and said, “This, Leo, is the new name of our business. From now on, we’re partners.”
Wolf and Son Woodworking prospered after the war, as homes and businesses rebuilt, then for many years afterward, as the city of Carlisle expanded. But when the economy turned sour in 1879, we were anxiously looking for work. So, on a summer morning when Captain Richard Henry Pratt knocked on our door and asked us to come work for him at his new school, we jumped at the opportunity.
On that sweltering day in July, while giving us a tour of an abandoned army facility, Captain Pratt told us that he planned to open the doors to the Carlisle Indian School in a few months. “These barracks will board hundreds of Indian children, both boys and girls, from across our great nation,” the captain proclaimed, spreading his arms wide as we followed him into one of the empty barracks. “As you can see, the army left us with nothing, so I will need you to build everything, including bed frames for mattresses and cubbies for the students to store their things. We’ll also need desks and chairs for the classrooms and long tables for the dining hall. Are you up to the task, Isaac?”
“Yes, sir,” Father replied with a vigorous nod.
“What about you, Leo?” the captain asked me.
“Yes, sir, I am up to it,” I said, mirroring Father’s enthusiasm.
“You’re a good boy, Leo,” he said, ruffling my hair.
“Excuse me, Captain. I’m twenty-four years old. I like to think of myself as a man,” I said, stroking my full red beard.
“Of course you are. It’s just that you look young for your age. My apologies,” he said.
I glanced briefly at Father’s pursed lips and furrowed brow—a common expression he wore when he was frustrated with me. Later that day, he would tell me I talked too much.
“Now, Isaac, you and your son should get started right away. Our first group of students will be arriving on the first of November. I’m expecting nearly one hundred and fifty Indian children.”
“Understood,” Father said and extended his hand to the captain to seal the deal.
Wolf and Son Woodworking looked as if it would have plenty of work for the foreseeable future, and we certainly did for the summer of 1879. Every day, including the Sabbath, we toiled. Mother would have frowned upon this if she were still alive.
With the extra money, we were able to buy new tools and expand our wood shop. Father took me to a supply house in Harrisburg where we bought interesting things, such as a socket chisel used for carving, a plumb rule to make sure things were level, a mortise chisel, a plow plane, which I learned was for making grooves in the wood, and a bradawl to start holes for nails.
I don’t remember a happier time than those summer months, working side by side with Father. We spent the bulk of our time renovating the old army barracks, which at first seemed an overwhelming task. After all, we were only two men and there were eight barracks. But Father prepared a daily work schedule and required us to complete certain tasks each day. Most times, these obligations kept us working well past sundown, though occasionally, when we finished early, Father would treat me to an ice cream in the city.
Much as I was involved in crafting every inch of those structures, what I didn’t know was how my life was going to change once the Carlisle Indian School opened its doors, and how my narrowed outlook on the world would cease to exist.