Bucklin’s Hospital & Camp: “Go home! Not while strength lasted” (Part 10)

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 10 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 19 and 20.

Chapter 19

This chapter begins with details about Nurse Bucklin’s illness. At first, doctors believed she had contracted small-pox, but later diagnosed it as a severe case of typhoid fever. Both dangerous illnesses, she feared that she would not be taken care and die of neglect. However, recognizing her concerns and that there were not female nurses that could be designated to look after her, one of the surgeons responded: “He no doubt saw the anxiety portrayed in my countenance ; was moved ‘ by the pleading tone of an invalid nurse for the right to live; beheld a woman far from home, and friends, and the comforts of civilization, and, although so coarse in his nature, he manifested some generosity of heart, and replied, “ You shall stay here, and you shall be taken care of too, if the d—l stands at the door.”

After days of delirium, fever, and ensuing weakness, Bucklin realized she would survive. From her metal framed hospital bed, she started noticing the scenes outside her window and mending stockings. She was unable to get up, but she was still finding something useful to do in the hospital, while she was still a patient.

From the window, she watched cavalry units drilling and training new horses. This prompted a retelling of a story about a stampede at the cavalry depot earlier. Hundreds of galloping horses tore through the camp area, even knocking over hospital tents and narrowly avoiding trampling medical staff and patients.

Like many other nurses, Bucklin received letters from home during and after her illness, urging her to resign and come back home. Her feelings and response were emphatic:

But home and all its attractions paled in the light of my duty to my country, and my devotion to her braves. I could endure sickness, pain, and privation to be allowed to assist, in the humblest way, the cause of universal liberty….

Go home! Not while strength lasted; not while cannon-smoke darkened the air, and the hail of death rained over a trodden battle ?eld; not while‘the wounds of our brave fathers, husbands, and sons demanded attention! Others might sit at home, regardless of our soldiers or even scrape the lint, sew at hospital garments, and prepare luxuries for us to dispense—it was a noble work, but not for me. My hands were used to rougher toil; they had ceased to tremble when hundreds of worms feasted upon the rank battle wounds; they were no more timid when the death-damp bathed the soldier’s face with its cold moisture. I had learned to look upon every dead man as a part of the inevitable sacri?ce which was not yet ?nished.

Chapter 20

Nurse Bucklin did not notify Dorothea Dix about her illness since she had originally thought it was smallpox and knew that another nurse would probably not be sent to aid her. However, finding her recovering, Dix made arrangements for her to spend a little time a home set up by the U.S. Sanitary Commission for ill nurses.

As a testimony to Bucklin’s kindness and skill, she received letters from the hospital at the cavalry depot asking her to return. When she did, she found 300 stockings waiting for her mending skills! Part of the problem was that a new volunteer nurse felt that mending was “beneath” her role and dignity as a nurse. Fortunately, Bucklin made a new friend—a doctor’s wife—and together, these ladies tackled the baskets of repairs.

The rest of the chapter has several cases of soldiers and post-traumatic stress. Bucklin did not use that term or the Civil War era phrase “soldier’s heart.” Her examples included soldiers dying of homesickness and what she termed “cowardice” and a fear of battle that prompted a few soldiers to fake illness in an attempt to avoid the spring campaign of 1864. Another soldier, allowed guard duty at the hospital instead of immediately returning to his unit, claimed that he saw ghosts when he patrolled near the morgue. Even his stories did bring much sympathy or understanding from Bucklin, reflecting the typical attitude in that era toward mental trauma caused by war.

To be continued next weekend…

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!