Bucklin’s Hospital & Camp: “All Had Been Transformed” (Part 12)

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 12 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 23 and 24.

Chapter 23

Both of these chapters take a closer look at the conditions of the II Corps field hospital after the Battle of Cold Harbor, including the death scenes of several soldiers whose names have been lost but their final moments recorded in a woman’s memoirs.

Nurse Bucklin wrote about treating wounded that she had seen in previous hospitals. Sick or injured soldiers who could return to the army usually rejoined their original units when possible. It’s also notable that many of these wounded that she recognized also recognized her and believed she would be able to solve all logistical problems, a testimony to how she had made a difference and saved lives.

One of the logistical problems at this field hospital was food supply, cooking, and getting meals to the wounded. Bucklin wrote about the hunger that her patients complained of; she attributed it to the toll of the injuries and loss of strength. Another thought might attribute it to either missing rations due to the battle or a faster-metabolism burning calories quickly after weeks of campaigning.

One of my former patients, learning that I was on the field, came a mile and a half on crutches to beg of me for something to eat. It was while we were living on charity ourselves, and I could neither deny him, nor promise him food with any degree’of certainty. Seating him in our tent, I ran over to Mrs. Spencer’s, where I procured baked pork and beans, and a dried apple pie— the last one she had. Hastening back, I sat it on a corner of the table, and bade him eat. I saw tears trickle down his cheeks, as he partook of the fare which he could not but regard as generous.

Bucklin mentioned having condensed milk and canned fruit in the supply boxes. War actually helped to push the science of canning for food preservation, starting in France during the Napoleonic Wars. By 1812, commercial canning methods had reached the United States and over the next decades companies experimented with seafood, meats, vegetables, and fruit. Canned or tinned (as it was sometimes called) foods were useful in the field hospital setting and were also often found in officer’s rations or purchased extra foods.

Several pages of this chapter describe USCT guarding Confederate prisoners and the response of the escaped enslaves or contraband with the army to the scene.

The day following we watched another crowd, which, coming on, revealed in the centre the gray uniforms of rebels. I was told they numbered six hundred, and had been captured a few days previous. They were under colored guard, and the ebony escorts walked proudly along with ?xed bayonets, ready to hurry on those who had been their former masters, if the ranks were not kept well closed up. . . . A gaping throng of contrabands followed at a respectful distance, old men and women, wrinkled and bent, hobbling along, eager to watch the progress of the crest-fallen foe.

Chapter 24

Scenes of fresh horror rose up before us each day. Tales of suffering were told, which elsewhere would have well nigh frozen the blood with horror.

Those two sentences summarize this chapter and continuation of details about a field hospital near White House Landing following the Battle of Cold Harbor.

One particularly unnerving account has grisly details about bugs in a large wound. This situation seems to have been more common than we want to think and carried the risk of either healing or infection. There are some accounts (not Bucklin’s) of surgeons intentionally leaving certain bugs in or around a wound since they could effectively remove dead flesh and actually help clean the wound. Other times—like the scenario Bucklin wrote about—harmful and dangerous insects got into the injuries and caused bad infections. It’s a gross reality that plagued many wounded during the Civil War, adding to their misery and fears.

But there could be lighter moments, though too. One soldier told Nurse Bucklin, “If you will get me a pie, I will give you five dollars.” (That’s about $81.65 in 2020 U.S. currency!) She refused to take his money, but did manage to bring him a pie which he shared with his comrades.

Wounds and their complications, hunger, exposure to the weather elements, and on top of all that: bad water. The water available at this field hospital was described as gritty and how soldiers would try to strain out the silt with their teeth. The wish for clean, spring water was one that Bucklin frequently heard but could not provide at this location.

Rumors started that the Confederates would attack the field hospital and landing, and the medical officers issued orders, striking tents, hurrying the wounded to the transport ships, and rushing the civilians to move and get ready to shift with the army to another field hospital location. Once the hurried evacuation and waiting for a ship had been completed, Bucklin looked back at the field that had been the hospital:

All had been transformed in the short time, since we first stepped upon the shore at the ragged landing. ‘The soft green was trampled into the earth, and beaten squares, planned in diamond shape, showed where the tented wards had been spread. Everywhere there was evidence of the great work that had been crowded into those two weeks of the hospital’s existence.  The souls which had gone up thence l—who could number them, or. who could measure the extent of agony which made that field henceforth a place of sorrow! I at times imagined, as I looked upon these grounds, that the spirits of brave men would ever move among the tall grass, and whisperingly commune over the little knolls of earth on which they breathed out their lives….

Read-along continues next weekend.

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