Monday, June 26, 2017

'You'll stay by me, won't you?' A Union nurse's life in 1861-62

War-time images of nurse Maria Hall, who served in the Eastern Theater. 
(Left: U.S. Army Military Heritage Institute | Right: The Foard Collection of Civil War Nursing)
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In December 1886, more than 21 years after the Civil War ended, Maria M.C Richards of Unionville, Conn., wrote a two-part series  for The Springfield (Mass.) Republican about her service as a nurse during the first two years of the conflict. Known as Maria Hall before her post-war marriage to a Unionville man, she observed heart-rending scenes in the Eastern Theater in the early days of the war.

Maria Hall (right) at Smoketown hospital,
near the Antietam battlefield. Read more

(Eli Collection, Edward G. Miner Library, 
Rochester, N.Y)
After a young man died at the U.S. Patent Office hospital in Washington -- the first military death Hall witnessed during the war -- a lock of the soldier's hair was cut as a memento for his mother. She also wrote of a soldier named Tyler from Michigan, who was accidentally shot through both knees and died after his leg was amputated. 

"... we could only sit by the poor fellow as his life ebbed away," Hall recalled, "and the day came for this soldier to die for his country without sight of battle or shout of victory."

My thanks to Connecticut historian Clifford T. Alderman, who transcribed the early-war installments and called to my attention Hall's remarkable, two-part series in the Springfield newspaper on her experiences at Antietam in 1862-63.  Supplemented by historical images as well as my own photographs and Google Street View, Hall's words appear here as they were published in the Springfield Republican on Dec. 13, 1886. Part 2 of Hall's remembrances may be found here.

Written for The Republican by Mrs. M. M. C. Richards of Unionville, Ct.

In these days of “war papers” it may not be out of order to offer some recollections of hospital life. To many of the boys this part of the service was prolonged and sorrowful; in it many, alas! were mustered out. To many women of the country hospital work in some form offered the only opportunity to do and dare for the Union. How gladly and bravely they used the opportunity I do not need to relate.

To be sure much zeal and linen were wasted in the early days of havelocks and lint-scraping, and many yards of cotton expended in fashioning shirts and drawers so large that no Yankee soldier could possibly fill one, except if he were measured by his courage and endurance. One pair fell into our hands measuring eight feet in length and wide in proportion. These were laid aside at the suggestion of a Boston surgeon for mush poultice bags into which the patient should be slipped and tied up.

But neither zeal nor patriotism were exhausted in those first efforts, and when the real need came in the summer of ’61 there were plenty of loyal women in Washington ready to respond to the call.

A 19th-century view of the U.S. Patent Office building, which was used as a hospital for
 soldiers during the Civil War. (Library of Congress collection)
            National Portrait Gallery in Washington, once home of  the U.S. Patent Office.                                                                              (Google Street View)

The First Volunteer Hospital

The first volunteer hospital was opened to the sick men of the 19th Indiana regiment, in the unfinished wing of the United States patent office, by the action of Caleb Smith, secretary of the interior. This was in its beginning a rude affair, and when we entered with Mrs. Almira Fales into the rough, comfortless wards we were dismayed. But her cheerful order to “Go to work, girls, wash their faces, comb their hair, do what you can,” — and her salutation to the men, “Now boys, I guess you’ll get well; I’ve brought some young ladies to see you” — lent an atmosphere of cheer to the scene, for the moment at least.

"Go to work, girls, wash their faces, comb their hair, do
what you can," Almira Fales told her nursing crew
at the Patent Office hospital in Washington.
(The Foard Collection of Civil War Nursing)
The sick boys in their gray state uniforms lie on rough boards, or on tiles placed against walls, with or without mattresses as it happens. Surgeons and hospital stewards and women work in a confused way without order or direction. But from the disorder and discomfort came gradually a well-ordered hospital which was opened to patients from various regiments, but called always the Indiana hospital. It was here that we watched the dying of our first young soldier boy; taking the loving message for the mother at home, and cutting off for her a lock of the fair hair she had so lately touched. And here too we waited for our first wounded men.

Arrival of the First Wounded.

Shall we ever forget the day when news of a battle was brought in, and orders given to prepare the ward for 24 wounded men? Were not the poor, sick fellows then considered as secondary, and routed out of all the most favorable positions? Were not the nurses rivals then for the “worst cases” for surgical treatment? And as the day wore on, and rumor brought conflicting reports of the number and variety of the cases, who can tell how the excitement grew! At last came the herald announcing the arrival of ambulances, and in the gathering twilight the procession entered the ward; first the surgeon, then the hospital steward   — the ward-master and  — the one wounded man having a flesh wound in his cheek.

Pathetic Scenes

Ah! But that was in the summer of ’61, and we could smile at the want of wounded men then. Later on came pathetic scenes at which we did not smile — one when Tyler of Michigan was brought in, accidently shot through both knees while gathering wood for a camp-fire. The surgeon trying to save both limbs waited too long till blood poisoning occurred, and one sorrowful day the nurse found the usually cheerful fellow crying like a child at the decision of the surgeon just made known to him.

Kalorama mansion in Washington after it was destroyed by fire
in December 1865. Confiscated by a Union regiment, it was used
as a hospital for small-pox patients during the Civil War.
“My leg has got to be amputated tomorrow, I wish it could be done to-day if it has got to come off,” — and then the thought of going home crippled — it was almost better not to go at all. “But you’ll stay by me, won’t you?” And on the promise given in response to this he relied.

The next day stretched upon the rude amputating table, he looked about for the nurse, and taking her hand said he was ready, saying, “Now let me go to sleep,” and so seemed content till the blessed chloroform deadened all thought or care. Though the operation was “successful,” and all the first conditions good, a secondary hemorrhage occurred after the first dressing, and then we could only sit by the poor fellow as his life ebbed away, and the day came for this soldier to die for his country without sight of battle or shout of victory. These first instances are so vivid, and stand forth distinctively, while the years that follow seem filled with shadowy forms going on to death, with here and there individual cases, whose experiences were marked.

 In the winter, small-pox appeared among us, and many of the boys were sent to Kalorama, the place chosen as the government pest-house. The first case I remember to have been was a red-headed man who begged to have his hair brushed to ease the pain in his head. He presently remarked that he guessed that “brush would take the hide off.” The surgeon passing by stopped to examine the pustules that appeared under the manipulations of the nurse, and hastily advised no more brushing. The man was at once removed to an outer hall, and presently the ambulance carried him away.

To the Front

Union wounded at a field hospital at Savage Station, Va., on June 27, 1862.  (Library of Congress)
In the summer of ’62 Washington had been better furnished with hospital accommodations for the army, and the Indiana hospital was closed, and its workers scattered to other points. Now came a chance to go “to the front.” All the world was crying “on to Richmond,” and on to Richmond we essayed to go, following [George] McClellan’s grand Army of the Potomac. Mrs. Almira Fales, known to so many of the army boys, had already made an expedition to the army at Savage Station, and there distributed to the necessities of the soldiers bountiful supplies furnished so generously from the North.

Onboard the hospital ship Daniel Webster,
Maria Hall slept on a bunk with
no mattress and an improvised pillow.
(Photo courtesy Hall descendants)
She had near the end of June returned to Washington to replenish her stores, and now proposed to make a second journey. She remarked that “those boys had been fed on lint and bandages long enough, I’m going to take them some goodies.” The writer was to her own great delight allowed to accompany Mrs. Fales as her assistant, and armed with passes from the secretary of war we went to Fortress Monroe, only to learn that no farther could we go at present.

A letter of June 29, ’62, dated “Hospital ship, Daniel Webster” is before me, and I quote as follows: –

“We found we could not go in the direction we expected; for either the army has been repulsed, or the plan of operations materially changed. All sorts of rumors abound, and nothing seems reliable. We have come aboard this hospital transport, and here we find two surgeons, some young men nurses of the Christian commission, and they expect to go to Yorktown for the wounded. We have decided to go with them, using our stores and ourselves as circumstances dictate. A boat has just come in from White House [Va.] bringing the news that the left wing of our army is in Richmond, the right wing turned, and the center firm — very likely we shall be in Richmond before we can hear from you — (!) We are lying off Fortress Monroe, in sight of the Rip Raps, a prison for mutinous soldiers, and nearby are the black gun-boats with their ‘peace-makers’ grinning from the port-holes; and off there in the distance the scene of action between the Merrimac and the Monitor. We find no luxuries and few conveniences onboard for sick or well. I sleep on a bunk with no mattress, but a pike of hospital shirts for a pillow.”

The next day we were ordered to proceed to the James River, casting anchor about dark alongside the gun-boat Port Royal. A little boat’s crew came to visit us and the crowd on deck are electrified by the news we hear from them.

“McClellan cut to pieces, the left wing 23 miles back, and the whole army on the skedaddle.”

The captain of the Port Royal gives the parting advice to Capt. Woods of the Daniel Webster to hurry up in the morning as soon as it is light, keep all the ladies below, and don’t be surprised to see a shot across your bows any time.

War-time sketch of Harrison's Landing in Harper's Weekly. James River appears in background.
                PANORAMA: Present-day view of Harrison's Landing, site of massive
       Union presence during Civil War.  (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Nursing the Wounded at Harrison’s Landing

The diary of July 1 says: Wake early to find ourselves steaming rapidly up the James River. Reach Harrison’s Landing at 7 o’clock. Find crowds of sick, wounded and worn-out men engaged in the recent battles. It is not long before Mrs. Fales and I are among them feeding and questioning. None of these were very seriously wounded, but all were seriously hungry and demolished the rations with skill of veterans.

We are at the Landing several hours receiving many to be examined and have wounds dressed, and then to be sent to another boat. Our load numbers finally about 300. Mrs. Fales’s supplies all the provisions we have for the sick, and she deals them out lavishly all day long, forgetting even to eat any dinner herself. For my own part I am busy all day helping here and there. Some wounds I wash and bandage. One shattered finger I wash and leave covered till a surgeon comes. He takes out his knife and before I know it the finger is left there for me to pick up and throw away!

Berkeley Plantation mansion at Harrison's Landing, Va., where
Maria Hall served as a nurse in July 1862.
One man was struggling in vain to dress a wound on his shoulder. Offering to help him I found him so much in need of cleaning up generally that I proposed to him that he should wash his face first. “Wash my face,” said he, as if the idea were new to him, “why I haven’t washed my face since the 24th of June!”

 “Well,” said I, “Would you like to try it for a change?”

“I guess so,” he answered; “you see we hadn’t any water to spare for our face down on the Chickahominy; we drank water that we wouldn’t give to a dog at home.”

I brought him a basin of water, soap, towel and a clean shirt and left him to these luxuries. You should have heard him laugh when I came again to find him. “Don’t know me now I’m so clean, do you?”

This story is good to tell to those who are fond of quoting that other story of the young lady who went one morning into a city hospital and proposed to bathe the head of a sick soldier. The soldier declined her offer with thanks, but she insisted saying, “Let me bathe your head, I want so much to be useful.”

“Well,” he sighed, “you can if you want to so bad, but you are the 14th one who has done it this morning.”

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