Story of the One-armed
A soldier in the general hospital at Fredericksburg, a day or two after the battle in December, 1862, wrote as follows:–Having lost my right arm on last Saturday, on that fatal “Inclined plane” in front of Fredericksburg, I am obliged to employ an amanuensis to relieve my brain, which under the stimulus of some reactionary fever, must find legitimate work, or it will go off into all sorts of phantasies, or, perhaps, fall into a melancholy mood not at all productive of “healing by first intention,” as the doctors call a speedy cure. I don’t know what I can do better than to set down some of my experiences, which, I doubt not, are unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be, similar to those of hundreds of my fellow-victims. It matters not to what particular regiment I belong, seeing that it is a Philadelphia regiment, and not altogether unknown to fame. Strange as it may seem, my recollections of Saturday, until four o’clock in the afternoon, are confused and indistinct. I remember well enough of being roused before daylight, from a very profound sleep upon the sidewalk in Fredericksburg by the sudden boom of cannon, and that, at short intervals, the firing continued began to betoken close quarters, and the air seemed to groan in unison as in the agony of an elemental dissolution.
Column after column of marching men went past in all the buoyancy of high hope, courage in their hearts, and determination in every lineament of their faces. Following every regiment were the litter-bearers, with their ready stretchers jauntily slung upon their shoulders; and I remember well of calculating in my own mind the chances of each man for an exit from the front upon one of those humane inventions.
By and by the litter-bearers returned, burdened with mangled, bleeding men, and from the great numbers carried off I calculated the stubborness of the resistance to our advance to Richmond. I was not excited; I was not fearful; I was simply apathetic, while awaiting the order to advance. At last it came–clear and distinct, but not loud, the words came:–”Attention, Battalion!” Instantly the line closed with a steady straight front, and every man stood erect with suspended breath for the next command. Nor did we wait long. “Battalion right face, forward, quick, march!” and we were off.
Forward we went until we cleared the streets of the town and arrived opposite the batteries on the hill on our left, when at the command, “By the left flank, march!” we changed our direction to the front, and faced the fire before us, advanced to the lines of the brigade that preceded us from town; but soon the smoke obscured the view of everything, save the flashes of the batteries before us, and the sparkle of the musketry in the dim sulphurous twilight of the battle, until the receding lines, in falling back, produced a mingled mass of retreating and advancing men. “Steady men,–forward!” rang out the voice of our commander; and disentangled from the retreating fugitives, we steadily bore on until we neared the batteries, and with a cheer we sprang forward, but that instant a line of fire leaped out from behind a stone wall close in our front, and–I don’t remember anything more about it. My next recollections were of a confused and mixed character; one moment I would seem perfectly conscious of something, the next of nothing. Then I would imagine I was at home, and half asleep, while all the house was astir with some past or anticipated catastrophe with which I was in some way connected. All was dark, and a great load seemed to press me down and glue me to the ground in spite of all my efforts to rise.
I could hear voices, but none familiar and but one that seemed spoken by human kind, or had a human chord of sympathy in it. Then I felt something force open my jaws, and some fluid trickle into my throat, which I managed to swallow to prevent strangling, and it still trickled down, and I still painfully swallowed, hoping, praying that it would stop; but it did not until I recognized that it was some strong spirit that I was taking and that I was becoming more able to swallow it. All this time I could hear the kind voice encouraging me, also some cold unsympathizing voices; but I could not distinguish what they said. Only by the tone could I tell the sympathetic from the unsympathetic. At last I distinguished the words, in part, of one who said, “It’s no use working with him. He’s dying now.” Quietly, but ho, so earnestly and sympathizingly the kind voice replied, “No, doctor, he is not dying; he is coming to life; he will live if we don’t give him up; this hurt of his head wont amount to anything if we can get him warmed up; don’t you see he has been nearly frozen to death, while faint from loss of blood; but he is coming on finely, and by and by you can take off his arm, and the man may get well. Who knows but he has a mother or a sister to love him, and thank you or me some day for a son or brother saved.”
Yes, I was saved; I understood it all now; I remembered the battle and my state, its doubtless consequence, and, for the sake of that dear mother and sister so strangely invoked, with an effort I succeeded in opening my eyes once more to the light of the sun on earth. At first the light confused me, but soon I could distinguish three surgeons beside me, looking at me with some curiosity, if not interest. On the opposite side, as I lay on the ground, in a large tent, kneeled a woman, who, with her left hand, supported my head, while with her right she held a spoon, with which, at short intervals, she dipped the warm fluid from a cup held by a mere boy-soldier, who seemed her special attendant.
I tried to speak, but could not, and she merely shook her head to discourage my efforts, and, turning to her attendant, said:–”Now, Johnny, the beef soup,” and in a minute the soup was substituted for the toddy, and I gradually felt life and the love of it returning. After further effort to look about me, I saw that there was a basin of water beside me, with a sponge in it, and from the blood on the lady’s hands, I inferred what I afterwards learned to be the truth, that she had been engaged in washing the blood from my head and face, when she discovered that what had seemed on a superficial view to be a most desperate wound of the head, including the skull, was but a mere scalp wound, which bled profusely, and doubtless made a most unpromising case for surgery at first view–a view very natural indeed, taking into consideration the state of my stupor. Gradually I recovered strength, until after sufficient reaction, my shattered arm was amputated, and I am doing as well as could be expected. I was, it seems, struck both in the head and arm by pieces of the same projectile, whatever it may have been, and lay senseless on the field till late in the night, when I was found by some humane litter-bearers, and carried to the city; and then, before being dressed, was put into an ambulance and carried over here, where, among the hundreds similarly brought, I was necessarily obliged to await my turn and thank God when my turn did come I fell into good hands–a woman’s hands at that. In that place even in the roar and din and carnage of battle, was found a woman with a heart to dare danger and sympathize with the battle-strucken, and sense and skill and experience enough to make her a treasure beyond all price. May the choicest blessings of Heaven be hers in all time to come! I have since observed her in her ministrations here, and she does indeed, seem gifted in a most wonderful degree for scenes like this, or else a hard school of suffering has made her the strange woman she is. To the wounded she is all sympathy and kindness, but let any one not a patient attempt familiarity, even in jest, and her black eyes flash such an indignant rebuke as is hardly equalled by her cool cutting rejoinder. More than one shoulder-strapped puppy has had occasion to rue the time he intruded his remarks upon her. I have learned that she has been in the army ever since the war broke out, nursing the sick and wounded, and “ever in front.” Hospitals in the rear are no place for her.
Dr. McDonald, of the Seventy-ninth New York Volunteers, the Surgeon in charge here, has placed her in charge of the supplies and stores, and most efficiently does she deal them out. Many a “poor wounded soldier” would lack his timely stimulant, soup or delicacies, if she did not pass through the tents at all hours of the day and night, for they say she seldom sleeps. Dr. McDonald has known her long as the matron of the One Hundredth Pennsylvania, or as it is better known the Roundhead Regiment which has been in South Carolina with the Seventy-ninth New York Regiment, and is still with it in the same division and he informs me that, on that fatal day of Gen. Benham’s defeat, on James Island, she performed incredible labors just as she does here. And yet she has never been a paid nurse. She is a member of her regiment,” she says, and it is only because it does not require her services that she works for others.
For all the labors, and privations, and sufferings of her campaigning life she receives no pay; she draws her rations as a private soldier, and the private soldiers who know her almost worship her.
I overheard one say to-day, that he would kill, as he would kill a dog, the man who would dare insult her, even in thought; and I believe it. War produces great developments of character, and Miss Nellie M. Chase is a most notable instance of it. She is not yet twenty-four years old, but in experience as a nurse or hospital matron, on the battle-field, I think she has no living equal. She may not thank me for this notice of her great services: I don’t think she will, for she dislikes notoriety, and never mingles in the “society of the army,” nor permits intimacies nor attentions from any but those who have adopted her and protected her. But the world has a right to know its heroines, as well as its heroes, and hers is a name that must at least be known as widely as that of the veteran regiment of which she is a member.
But gratitude for life preserved, has led me from my way, and I return to it to state my further experience of “wounded and in general hospital,” as the next tri-monthly report of my regiment will have me accounted for. We are placed in large “hospital tents,” in a secluded valley near Falmouth Station, and receive all the care and attention that such accommodations admit; but, without doubt a “cold snap” would soon “reduce the number of inmates” to less than a moiety of their present “muster.”
The brain that would work, or do mischief, an hour ago, grows weary now, and I must wait another time to tell the further story of the —