Bucklin’s Hospital & Camp: “On the 19th of November the dedication took place” (Part 8)

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 8 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 15 and 16.

Chapter 15

Nurse Bucklin opened this chapter with details about the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, now called Gettysburg National Cemetery. In the battle’s aftermath and as the armies left the community, the local citizens tried to figure out were to bury or rebury the fallen soldiers. Many units had attempted to bury their dead in trench graves, but heavy summer rains quickly reopened the shallow graves. A committee formed to address the problem and decided that one large cemetery would be the best solution. Supported by Pennsylvania’s governor and working with a renowned architect, the committee acquired land on Cemetery Hill (previously named from Evergreen Cemetery).

Burials in the Gettysburg’s military cemetery started on October 27, 1863. The bodies were disinterred or removed from the battle areas and buried by state. Gory investigations were performed on the corpses in an attempt to ensure that only Federal soldiers were buried in the national cemetery. Confederate graves were left untouched or those corpses reburied; in the 1870’s several thousand Confederate dead were disinterred, moved to the south, and reburied in prominent cemeteries, like Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

Gettysburg National Cemetery, 1940. National Park Service.

In the days and weeks immediately after the Battle of Gettysburg, some people in the north had a great curiosity to “see a battlefield” and an early form of tourism began. It was very different than historic tourism of the modern era, especially since relics and war equipment still scattered over the area, along with grisly evidence of the conflict. Bucklin seems to have been quite a battlefield trekker, though her reasons were probably more for exercise and to get away from Camp Letterman.

We went to Round Top one day to plant a flag, and listen to a little speech from one of our surgeons. We clambered over rocks, up steep, mossy ledges, till the height was attained, and there, standing on the top of shelving, out-cropping stone of huge dimensions, Dr. May planted the American flag, its folds floating out over the heads of the little group of nurses, who sat on the rocks at his feet. It waved there till we were far away, and wintry winds tore it into shreds.

Chapter 16

In her battlefield wanderings, Bucklin noted the ruins of a battle, including “relics.” She cataloged “unexploded shells.” These projectiles brought tragedy to the Gettysburg community in the weeks and months after the battle. Little boys and teenagers thought it was great fun to collect relics of war from the battlefield, and unexploded shells were prized finds. Why? Because they could still be exploded. It was like Fourth of July firecrackers, but on a much grander scale. However, the results could be deadly. Several boys were injured and at least one lost his life after messing with these live artillery shells.

Nurse Bucklin described the scenes she found on the battlefield in the late summer:

Every advantageous position was marked with torn turf, lopped tree boughs, and the graves of the slain. Indeed, our whole way was lined with the narrow strips of earth, which rested over forms gashed with the implements of carnage. It was heart-sickening to think of the deep agony which those few dreadful days spread abroad among the little groups at the firesides of fond homes all over the land. In fancy I saw the long procession of widows, and orphans, and kindred, who mourned for the slaughtered heroes. Every grave had its history, and thousands were there.

Gettysburg suffered three waves of “invasion” in 1863. First, the military came through and battled in the community. Second, the relief workers arrived to take care of the thousands of wounded left behind. Third, thousands arrived or returned to witness the National Cemetery dedication in November. Each invasion had different effects and reasons, but all put an enormous strain on the community and local resources.

Lincoln (center and sitting down) just after delivering the Gettysburg Address. Nurse Bucklin witnessed the historic event.

Nurse Bucklin witnessed one of the most famous speeches in U.S. History. Camp Letterman closed in November 1863, but some of the medical staff stayed to pack and went to see the ceremonies.

On the 19th of November the dedication took place. It was a clear autumn day, and the last leaves of summer were fluttering down upon the newly broken sod, and over the dense crowds of thousands, who seemed packed like fishes in a barrel. We stood, almost suffocated, for an hour and three-quarters, listening to the masterly oration of the lamented Everett. The calm, honest face of the President at once exhibited a pride of country, and an affection for her fallen sons unusual among those high in authority. His soul was unconscious that he himself, ere the consummation of the great sacrifice, should be given up to the death by which martyred soldiers die.

Her Gettysburg writing ends with this chapter since she reported to Washington and got ten days to rest before her next assignment.

To be continued next weekend.

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