In Walk by Faith, Eli takes off as a war correspondent, following the New Jersey 15th Volunteer Infantry (part of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac). His decision causes a rift between him and his wife, Maggie because he is unable to explain adequately why a man who despises war would want to cover battles for his newspaper. But he figures Maggie is a mother and a wife who fears that her love will be wounded or killed, just like every woman with a man on the battlefield. So, he goes, anyway.
After seeing what was left behind after the battle at Antietam, Eli is haunted by nightmares. It is then that he finally is able to explain to his brother-in-law why he covers the very thing he hates:
“…what of the common soldiers who fought for any number of reasons and were dying by the thousands? Who tells their story? And you know what? They don’t just die on the battlefield. They also die from illnesses: smallpox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, fevers, pneumonia, typhoid fever – even consumption….
“And then there are innocent men, women, and children who get caught in the crossfire. War isn’t about glory, Andrew; it’s about loss and sacrifice. If Carson and I can tell these stories and tell them well, maybe it’ll cause people to think twice about getting into another war – although what we say probably won’t matter one dern lick.”
Andrew smiled knowingly at his brother-in-law. “Ah, Eli. I sense thee are still a Friend at heart.”
Maybe Andrew is right. Maybe in his heart, Eli is still a Friend. But Eli’s heart contains an intense anger at his father and by proxy his father's faith. One night describes his parents to Maggie. His mother was “kind and loving” and his father “judgmental”: “He owned a prosperous dry goods store in town. As the only son, I was expected to learn the trade. Maggie, can you imagine me as the proprietor of a dry goods store?”
And there is the nut of the problem. The boy who loved reading books and newspapers, who saw the power of words and loved to write, who idolized Horace Greeley was supposed to give up his dreams and become a shopkeeper. His father called writing “a worthless pursuit and a waste of time.” He told Eli that he would never succeed in the field. Frustrated and angry, Eli ran away from home at the age of fifteen.
What happened next was an act of revenge that cut Eli to the quick:
“…Father was furious. Then he went one step beyond furious and disowned me. Then he went one step beyond that and had me read out of our Friends Meeting. He was a big bug in the Meeting, you see. It meant something to him, even though he wasn’t supposed to be prideful. I figured if religion was all about power and manipulation, then I could do without it…. And I figured I could do without him, too.”
Later after sustaining a head injury during the retreat at the Rappahannock River near Bank’s Ford (Virginia), a shell lands beside Eli, throwing him into the air. When he lands, he hits his head and falls unconscious.
Once he comes to, Eli finds himself at the field hospital in White Oak Church. The hospital is a nightmare of men crying and calling out, of blood and anguish. Patrick, who works in the hospital, tells Eli to rest, but returns later and takes Eli to see Edgar, who has been seriously wounded. Eli then sits and watches as his son-in-law's life seeps away in the blood from his belly wound. Eli is broken by Edgar's death.
“I’m going outside,” Eli abruptly said. “I need air.”
He wanted to run out of the church but his leg forbade it. Instead, he was forced to thread his way painstakingly around the endless men who lay groaning, crying out, and weeping. The whole thing took forever because his throbbing leg barely would hold him. He gritted his teeth, thinking angrily that he needed a crutch rather than a cane. Get me the hell out of here, he asked whatever or whoever might be called God, if there even was a God. Just get me the hell out of here.
Finally, he stepped out the door and took in a big gulp of clean, crisp air. His lungs felt filthy from the stench in the church. It was good to breathe without wanting to gag. In the light of the moon, he could see other men strewn over the ground. They were not critical enough to be inside the church or the hospital tent behind it.
As he swept his gaze over the grounds, Eli’s heart crumbled. What a waste. What a waste of talent, skill, strength and…love. Yes, love. Fathers and husbands and sons and friends would come home changed by the war or dead and gone. The pain was and would be terrible.
Eli lifted his eyes to the heavens. It was a beautiful night overhead. Stars sparked sharp and white against a deep, endless black sky.
“Damn,” he whispered. “Damn!” And suddenly he was furious. Jutting his jaw defiantly, Eli shook his fist at the uncaring night sky as he shouted, “You saved my damn eye glasses! Why couldn’t you save Edgar? You’re not God at all! You hear that? You’re no God at all! You’re useless! Useless!”
“Damn!” Flopping down onto a bench by one of the front doors, Eli put a hand over his face. “Damn!!” And he began to weep bitterly.
Why wouldn’t God act? Why didn’t God deign to come down from heaven and do something to stop the misery, to save Edgar?
As far as Eli can tell, God did and would do nothing. God, he concludes, does not care, does not exist.
Eli is a man angry at his father and angry at God.
His Quaker faith says he should sit, listen, and wait for Light. But Eli has left those things behind. He is not willing to listen. Not yet.
I’m leaving you on a downer, I know. But there is Light at the end of the tunnel for Eli. See you tomorrow.