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Vermont Civil War Hospital Notes

The Wounded from the Wilderness --
Charities of the Colored Poor. --
Sisters of Charity --

Was the whole of Grant's army being sent back wounded to Washington? It appeared so, in those early days of May, 1864. Ample hospitals had been provided for the wounded and disabled from a great battle. Many swift steamers were constantly plying between Aquia Creek and Washington. Mattresses spread side by side covered the decks and the cabin floor, on each of which, at the beginning of the voyage, lay a wounded man. As they neared its end, and came to the Sixth Street Landing, some of these were vacant. Their tenants lay in the bow of the steamer; their faces were covered, and they were very still. Attendants moved gently among them, for they were asleep. Many in that short voyage had fallen into the sleep that knows no waking.

At the landing the survivors were placed by careful hands in ambulances, which took their places in a procession constantly moving on one line out to the hospitals on the hills back of the city, and then returning by another route to the Sixth Street Landing. This procession of laden ambulances was more than three miles long, and the vehicles ran quite near each other; the return route was somewhat longer.

For three days and as many nights the procession had been moving up and down its course, never ceasing its progress, save when the breaking of a carriage caused a temporary delay. Was it never to stop? Was the entire army to be returned in this disabled condition?

The silent patience with which these soldiers endured their sufferings was most impressive. Wounded as many were unto death, tortured by the agony of thirst which always follows the loss of blood in gun-shot wounds, some with limbs amputated on the field, and the severed stumps still undressed, scarcely a sigh or a groan escaped their parched lips. It was discovered by those who lived along the route that water, or any liquid which would quench thirst, was the most grateful relief that could be afforded them. The colored people were the first to make the discovery. They built little stands by the roadside, and from these, little darkies, with vessels of every form and dimension, trotted along by the ambulances, and served out the contents to the suffering men. Soon tables were set out before many of the dwellings, and coffee, tea, and light eatables were given to all soldiers who would accept them. Almost every residence became a house of refreshments, managed by patriotic women. The gratitude which some could express only by a look was the only compensation demanded.

About midnight on May 10th, there suddenly gathered over the city one of those heavy rain clouds not uncommon in that locality. This cloud appeared to embrace the earth, the darkness was complete; its density was almost palpable to the sense of feeling. When the condensation began, the rain fell in torrents, like water from a cascade, bringing with it thunder, and lightning in flashes so frequent as to seem almost continuous. All objects were sharply illuminated and brought into bold relief. The thunder came in crashes rather than in reverberations.

The procession of the ambulances could not move in that storm and darkness, and had come to a halt. Looking down Eleventh from M Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, one could see by the lightning flashes for a distance of half a mile. Around every vehicle was a fringe of white objects, projecting outward. They were of irregular forms and sizes, and it puzzled the observer to know what they were. They proved to be the limbs and portions of the bodies of the wounded -- their legs, arms, shoulders, faces, heads, necks, every part which it was possible to expose to the falling shower of rain. It was a weird and curious picture, another of the myriad forms in which are exhibited the pains and miseries of war.

The war had its full complement of miseries; its scenes of suffering were very numerous, and painful beyond description. On the other hand, it developed some of the finer qualities of our humanity in a remarkable degree, from unexpected sources. There were occasions when everybody, the poor equally with the rich, seemed to be moved by a common impulse to works of benevolence and charity. This statement is especially true of the colored race, of which some proofs will be elsewhere given.

Bull Run, the first great battle of the war, had proved the miserable inadequacy of the hospital accommodations of the army. The churches, all the public buildings which could possibly be vacated, were filled with sick and wounded men. Citizens received their wounded friends into their own homes; tents were pitched upon the vacant squares, and yet there were hundreds who, for a day or two, lay upon the streets, exposed to the sun, the rain, the heat, the insects, and all the inconveniences of an unsheltered situation. Even when a great enlargement of hospital accommodations was undertaken, so little attention was paid to sanitary conditions that the hospitals were built wherever there was a vacant square. One of the largest was located near the Smithsonian Institution, along the border of the old canal, which, receiving the surface drainage of half the city, in the heat of summer became eventually little less than a noisome cesspool. It seems incredible that such negligence should have been permitted the inevitable result, as any one could have foreseen, was that this hospital became the slaughter-house of the soldier. death from blood-poisoning became so certain that the simplest incised wounds, and even scratches, were fatal, if the sufferer was sent to that hospital.

Experience and the newspapers soon brought about a reform. the Sanitary Commission made its voice heard and its influence felt. Instead of erecting hospitals in the heart of the city, the authorities began to locate them upon the hills surrounding it, where there was pure air and abundant room for the tents, which were more healthy than enclosed structures. Upon these hills were the forts which defended the capital. By the autumn of 1864 there was a succession of hospitals in a circle just outside the city limits, with large accommodations, and a greater number of tenants than were comprised in all these forts and their outworks.

Our Sunday afternoons were generally devoted to visiting these hospitals. The occasions were infrequent when there were not sufferers from the green hills of Vermont in some of them, to whom the sight of a friendly face seemed to be the best of medicines. The grateful looks of these wounded boys always well repaid the trouble of a visit we often found the p0or fellows craving, or rather intensely suffering, for the want of something which the service did not furnish, but which a few cents and a friendly hand could supply. The gift of diamonds and sapphires would not have elicited the gratitude I have seen drawn out by the contents of a hand-basket. We saw much suffering in these visits, but we also saw much that illustrated the better side of human nature.

On one occasion I was visiting a Vermont cavalry-man, who lay in a large hospital near Columbia College, on the continuation of Fourteenth Street. He had a splendid record for bravery in the field, and now in the hospital he was fighting death with equal courage and fortitude. He was in a ward filled with the wounded from a battle in the valley some weeks before. Only those whose wounds were particularly severe had been brought there, and at the time of my visit most of those who remained had been there some three or four weeks, slowly recovering from what seemed to me terrible injuries.

I was writing at the dictation of the Vermonter a litter to his wife, when, from my camp-stool at his bedside, I saw a colored woman enter the ward. She was old, decrepit, and poorly clad, so lame that she could scarcely walk, but managed to hobble along by the aid of a staff. Except a basket, covered by a clean white cloth, which hung upon her arm, everything about her indicated extreme poverty.

The entrance of this unattractive person produced a commotion. A dozen men, my cavalry-man included, shouted their welcome, and even the faces of those too weak to raise their heads from their pillow were lighted up with joy. "Here's mammy!" "Come here first, mammy!" "Don't forget me, mammy!"--these and similar expressions came from all parts of the war. I have seen the wife of a President enter a ward without exciting any such expressions of interest.

"Yes! ole mammy's heah, chilluns, jes' as I tole you. She's got two apiece for ebery one of ye! I had to borry some from a fren'. It's been offul dry, an' de new vines ha'n't come on like as I 'spected. But dey's doin' well now. Nex' Sunday I 'spect I'll have three a piece, an' a big one for doctor. Now you all jes' be quiet; I won't forgit one of ye!"

She hobbled up to a bed. It was vacant. "Why, where's Mass' Frank?" she exclaimed, with unmistakable surprise. "Why don't you tell me? Where's Mass' Frank, I say?"

"Poor Frank had gone home, mammy! He got his discharge yesterday," said one who lay near by, in a voice which trembled a little in spite of himself.

"I was afeerd on't! I was afeerd on't. He tole me he was goin' away!" And the poor old creature sobbed as if she had a heart as tender as one of white skin. "Poor Mass' Frank! I reckon he's better now. He read me his mammy's letter. Poor mammy! She's done got a heap o' trouble. She lose her boy. Poor mammy! Poor Mass' Frank! He was a brave one! His hurt was offul! Seemed like you could jes' see his heart in dat great red hole!"

She dried her tears, took up her basket, and went from cot to cot, making her distribution of its contents. The weakest of the wounded boys put out his thin hand eagerly, as if what she gave was very precious. The very last was my cavalryman, who was just as eager as the rest. And then I saw that she had been distributing small cucumbers pickled in vinegar!

"Dat's all to-day, my chilluns! Nex' Lord's-day I'll be here, shore! De weather's done been good, and I 'spect I'll have more an' bigger uns. Yes, I'll come, shore!"

"Bring your basket here, mammy," said one, "I have something that the boys want to put into it, which you must not look at nor open until you get home. Will you promise?"

"No, Mass' George! You can't fool ole mammy dat way. I can't make dat promise. I know yo' tricks. Dat's money, dat is. Mass' George, I'm ole, an' all broke up wid rheumatiz, workin' in de rice-field. I've got jes' one boy left. He takes good care o' his ole mammy. All de rest is sold--all gone Souf to de cane-fields or de cotton-fields! I 'spect I shall never see 'em again. But, Mass' George" (here a joyful light flashed over her wrinkled face), "I'se free now, bress de Lord an' Mass' Linkum! I reckon all I'se good for is to raise pickles for de boys. But I can't sell 'em for money! No, no!"

She shook her head in the most decided manner and went out of the war, followed by shouts of "Good-bye, mammy!" "God bless you!" "Come again!"

The cavalryman informed me, and the statement has since been confirmed by surgeons, that there was nothing so much craved by the wounded, especially those who had lost much blood, as sharp, pickled cucumbers. He had seen the time when his longing for them was intolerable, when he would have given a month's pay for even one small pickle. I have no idea why more of them were not provided, when such complete provision was made for all hospital supplies. My informant said that one of the highest ladies in the land had visited that ward, and asked what the boys most wanted. The answer was, picked cucumbers. She immediately told them that she would supply that want, and would order a whole barrel of the coveted delicacies from a whole-sale grocery-house. The pickles never came, and the boys were cruelly disappointed. The lady probably forgot her promise, or found it inconvenient to keep it. "Old mammy isn't much on promises," said the cavalryman, "but she always fetches the pickles!"

Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. I never knew whence they came, or what was the name of their order. They wore the ordinary plain black dress of some worsted stuff, but not the white band about the forehead. One instance illustrates the value of these volunteer nurses. In one of the wards was a gigantic soldier, severely wounded in the head. He had suddenly become delirious, and was raging up and down the war, furious against those who had robbed him, of what I could not make out. He cast off the attendants who attempted to seize him as if they had been children. The surgeon was called in, and with several officers was consulting how they should seize and bind him, when a small figure in black entered the room. with a shout of joyous recognition the soldier rushed to his cot, and drew the blanket over him, as if ashamed of his half-dressed appearance. the sister seated herself at his bedside, and placed her white hand upon the soldier's heated brow. his chest was heaving with excitement, but the sight of her face had restored his reason. "I must have dreamed it," he said, "but it was so real! I thought they had taken you away, and said I should never see you again. Oh, I could have killed them all!"

"You must sleep now," she said, very gently. "I shall stay if you are good, and you have been so excited--"

"Yes," he murmured, "I will sleep. I will do anything for you if they will not take you away. I could not bear that, you know."

He closed his eyes, holding one of her hands clasped in both of his, and, while we were looking on, slept as peacefully as a child.

Late in that terrible battle summer, when Grant was forcing his resistless march towards Richmond, the hospitals were not only overcrowded, but for a time there was no proper separation of the wounded from those sick from other causes. In a single ward were men with freshly amputated limbs, and gunshot wounds of very kind, and men burning with many fevers. Erysipelas was silently sapping the vital forces of one, consumption undermining the lungs of another, an angry cutaneous disease absorbing the surface moisture of a third--all stretched upon cots so close together that there was scarcely room to pass between them. what seemed especially horrible to me were the surgical operations carried on in the wards, because the operating-rooms were so constantly in use. For these suffering men, in addition to their own ills, to see one of their number stretched upon a table, where the surgeon's knife severed the living muscle and the resisting bone, with a display of all the suggestive machinery of the surgeon's profession, seemed too much for weak humanity to endure.

These scenes, altogether the most painful I have ever witnessed, have nevertheless in my memory a beautiful side. More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art, so long devoted to illustrations of love, mercy, and charity, are the pictures that remain of those modest sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying. Gentle and womanly, yet with the courage of soldiers leading a forlorn hope, to sustain them in contact with such horrors. As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed, or administering the cooling, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable angels of mercy. Their words were suited to every sufferer. One they incited and encouraged, another they calmed and soothed. With every soldier they conversed about his home, his wife, his children, all the loved ones he was soon to see again if he was obedient and patient. How many times have I seen them exorcise pain by their presence or their words! How often has the hot forehead of the soldier grown cool as one of these sisters bathed it! How often has he been refreshed, encouraged, and assisted along the road to convalescence, when he would otherwise have fallen by the way, by the home memories with which these unpaid nurses filled his heart!

"Are there any means by which I can overcome the unpleasant sensations which I always feel on my visits to your hospital-wards?" I asked of an experienced surgeon. "It is a duty to make them, as long as I can be of any use to the boys, but I am made sick every time. I have a feeling of nausea which continues for hours."

"It is the effect of your imagination," he responded. "You are unused to wounds. You exaggerate their symptoms. These men do not suffer as you imagine; if they did, we should relieve them. wounded men endure great suffering on the field, and on their way to the hospital, but very little after they come under our hands. They suffer more from thirst than any other cause. Loss of blood makes the whole machinery of life dry and thirsty. After they reach the hospital, relief is speedy."

"Yes, it must be," I said, ironically. "Relief by being hacked and cut and sawn in sections must be painless!"

"You should see an operation," said the surgeon. "It would cure your nausea, and correct some of your erroneous ideas. I am perfectly serious. I am to do rather a difficult piece of work now, as soon as the operating-room is put in order. Come and see it, and judge for yourself."

"I know it will irritate every nerve in my body, like a shock of electricity! But it would be cowardly to decline. Surely, if the poor soldier can endure it, I ought to be able to stand the sight of it. Yes, I will come," I said.

I was shown into a small room adjoining the ward, with windows opening on two sides, through which the green fields and peach orchards, laden with young fruit, were visible. The room had just been scoured, and was fresh and odorless. On one side of the apartment were washing conveniences with a stream of running water. A plain, heavy table stood in the centre, covered by a rubber cloth which extended nearly to the floor on its four sides. The only suspicious objects visible were several large mahogany boxes, standing upon shelves in one corner, but these were closed. If the removal of the cover had disclosed a proper table, the room might have been as well suited to billiards as to surgical operations.

Four strong men now brought in a stretcher, on which was a bed with white linen sheets, containing a wounded soldier. The stretcher was laid upon the table. An attendant quickly applied a sponge, which he pressed to the mouth of the patient. I detected the odor of ether, and in less time than it has taken to write the account the soldier lay quietly unconscious and passive. His clothing, the bed, and everything under him was then quickly removed, so that his naked chest was in contact with the rubber covering. His torso was splendidly muscular as that of a gladiator. He was a Dane, apparently about twenty-five years of age, a blond, with blue eyes, fair hair, and a transparent skin, under which the strong muscles of his chest and right arm were plainly visible. The upper portion of his left arm and the entire left shoulder were of a deep purple color, angry and dark by contrast. Marching with his regiment through a rocky dell, far down the valley, below Luray, he had been shot by a bushwhacker ambushed in the rocks above him. A minie bullet had crashed through his shoulder at the joint, shattering the humerus to the elbow. He was far away from any hospital. Lying on the straw in any army wagon, he had been carted over the stony roads more than sixty miles to Harper's Ferry, where he had been placed with other wounded in a box freight-car on the railroad, and so had reached Washington and been carried to the hospital. It was now several days since he received his wound. The shoulder and arm were swollen, an angry circle of dark purple surrounding the opening where the ball had entered. It was a terrible wound, rendered fatal, to all appearance, by the long fatigue, neglect, and exposure.

The surgeon, with a small-bladed knife, laid open the arm from the shoulder to the elbow-joint, and began to separate the muscle from the shattered bone. Piece after piece of bone was taken out until the entire length, in six fragments, lay upon the table. The muscle was then turned out like the finger of a glove, exposing the shoulder-joint, also badly fractured. The pieces were removed, and the projecting points cut off. The whole mass of muscle was then cleansed from blood, washed with some lotion of an antiseptic nature, and the entire cut, from elbow to shoulder, carefully stitched together. The remains of the arm were then laid along the side of the chest, and firmly fastened to it with bandages. The operation occupied nearly an hour .All the boxes and blood were removed, the table again washed, and clean linen placed upon the soldier. He was laid between the clean white sheets, the ether was taken away, and he was restored to consciousness.

During all this horrible operation the patient appeared to be living in a pleasant dream of the farm in Iowa, where he had made his home. He was driving his oxen at the plough, reproving the awkwardness of his farm hands, playing with his children, and consulting with his wife about their schools, and other domestic matters. He talked and laughed and sang. He had been mercifully spared all pain and suffering, so that when he recovered consciousness it was a considerable time before he could be convinced that he had been subjected to any surgical operation.

He was removed to his cot. I gave him my address, and asked him to write to me if he wanted anything which the hospital could not provide. We subsequently furnished him with a few delicacies; new cases engrossed our attention, and the Dane was forgotten.

Four or five months later, a stout, rugged man, in the uniform of a soldier, called at my office in the Treasury. I did not recognize him, though his face impressed me as one that I had seen somewhere. "I am B---, from the 4th Iowa, to whom your lady was so kind in the hospital," he said. "I have just got my discharge, and am on my way home." Upon my inquiry whether his arm was at all useful to him, he took hold of a large scuttle filled with coal, and carried it across the room. He made a fair signature with a pen, and showed that he could make good use of his arm, except that he could not raise it above the level of his shoulder. I have since heard of him as a respected farmer in easy circumstances in Iowa.

The pain and suffering spared to the soldier by the intelligent use of anæsthetics during the war was beyond measure. although the history belongs to the profession of those who used them, I saw so much of their blessed influence that I could not forbear giving this testimony to their value.

Source: Chapter XXXI of L. E. Chittenden's Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1891), pp. 251-264.