Bucklin’s Hospital & Camp: “I Give Him Into Your Special Charge” (Part 7)

Sophronia E. Bucklin

In Hospital and Camp, A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War by Sophronia E. Bucklin

It’s Week 7 of our read-along with extra historical notes and images. If you want to catch up on the chapter notes, just click here for the collection in the archive. This week we are looking at chapters 13 and 14.

Chapter 13

Bucklin’s disparaging lists of Confederate prisoner and wounded’s faults continues with an account of fighting over food. Another incident occurred at Camp Letterman along these lines; in the autumn, the nurses and local civilians had planned a thanksgiving style “picnic meal” for the recovering soldiers. But when the soldiers arrived to the homestyle tables, the Confederates commenced a stuffing match which caused disruption and apparently left little of “good food” for the Yankee boys. Much dismayed the civilians and nurses persevered and hosted another feast—at which ALL unruly, unmannerly soldiers were promptly escorted from the table!

Much of this chapter addresses the concept of “good death” from mid-19th century American perspective. Bucklin does not use this term, but she was influenced by the suffering she witnessed and how the wounded died. At one point, she draws this conclusion about what a good death would look like for a soldier: “Oh! more welcome instant death on the field of battle—with face to the furious foe—than this long lingering, which saps the fountain of life…”

Camp Letterman, August 1863

Later in the chapter, she continues with the good death theme, describing the death of a young soldier who had been influential to those around him for his religious faith. Professions of faith and resting in religion were part of the good death concept, so even though this soldier did not die instantly in battle, he had a “good” and influential passing:

“It was the brightest death bed scene that I ever witnessed—and it was the happiest moment of my life, when I saw my boy pass so sweetly away from suffering into the arms of his Redeemer. It is all one can desire in this world.” And I could not restrain the words of gladness that fell from my lips, that the poor agonized soul had furnished the sacrifice with such exceeding joy. As it was the duty of the women nurses to leave the ward at half-past eight o’clock, I was not beside him when death opened the gates of glory for his spirit to enter through.

Bucklin described specific treatments and operations for some injuries during this period at Camp Letterman. It’s significant to note that several of these were second or third operations. Infection had set in, and surgical intervention was a last resort to try to save life. However, most of her accounts reflect the reality that these continued operations were often too much trauma for the weakened bodies and often did not increase the chance of life in the Civil War medical setting.

So…what’s beef tea? If you read Civil War medical texts, sooner or later, everything circles back to mysterious beef tea. They saw it as this “magic cure all” (okay, they did actually believe it was magic…) that allowed an invalid to consume the nourishment of meat without having to actually digest a big, juicy steak! It was an interesting concept, but not exactly the perfect dietary answer they wanted it to be. Basically, it was a rich broth that had supposed pulled lots of nutrients and calories out of a piece of meat. According to one housekeeping book of the day: “Beef tea, for the sick, is made by broiling a tender steak nicely, seasoning it with pepper and salt, cutting it up and pouring water over it, not quite boiling. Put a little in water at a time, and let it stand to soak the goodness out.”

Chapter 14

Camp Letterman (see the last post for details about this hospital) was a field hospital, technically speaking, but it operated more like a base hospital with a structured schedule and steady routine for all nurses, doctors, and staff. Bucklin gave a detailed look at how the days were ordered.

Remember this infamous photograph of Civil War medicine:

Staged operation scene, photographed at Camp Letterman, Gettysburg

Well, Nurse Bucklin recorded a scene that just might be the background for the photograph. Here’s her description:

It was found‘necessary to take off‘ a section of the bone, and the operation was begun in full view of the other patients. After mangling him there for a time, partly holding him under the influence of chloroform, they removed him to the amputating room, where they paused awhile to have their photographs taken, the suffering patient lying in this critical condition. My blood boiled at the cruelty of the scene, but I could not avert the torture for a moment. For three hours he was kept under the knife and saw, and I was directed to hold my peace. He was brought back to his bed, as white as a dead man in his coffin, no semblance remaining of the ruddy-cheeked soldier who lay there three hours before, with strength in every part of his body, save the wounded shoulder. “I give him into your special charge, Miss Bucklin,” the doctor said, “and I shall be proud if you raise him.” And raise him’ I did; although it seemed impossible when I first saw him, lying quite white and helpless before me.

What’s a “Shaker bonnet”? It’s a plain, conservative bonnet style that someone decided was the suitable style for nurses at Camp Letterman. The name and style original came from the Shaker Community – a group of religious charismatics that gained popularity in pre-Civil War America. Their beliefs were similar to the Quakers with equality, personal faith, and nonviolence, but they believed in divine visions and manifestations which caused them to shake and worship with ecstatic gesturing or dancing. Their craftsmanship of furniture and folk art was highly prized and admired. From examples I was able to find online, it appears that “Shaker bonnet” refers to the shape (see image below) and tends to have a low brim and close, plain fit. Some appear to have been of straw and others of cloth, but all copy the style seen in this artwork.

The read-along continues next weekend…

1 Response to Bucklin’s Hospital & Camp: “I Give Him Into Your Special Charge” (Part 7)

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!