Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for The Cruel Side of War – Katherine Prescott Wormeley.

The Cruel Side of War – Katherine Prescott Wormeley.

June 20, 2012

The Cruel Side of War - Katherine Prescott Wormeley

In Our Tent, June 20.

Dear Mother, — For the first time I have neglected you, — and not from hard work either, but from a scattering sort of work, which has left us no time of absolutely needed rest in which to write. All your Newport cases have arrived; also four cases of brandy and one of beef stock, marked “F. Gordon Dexter;” four of sherry, from Mrs. J. Howland Shaw; one of lemons, marked “Mrs. Kuhn;” also a case of assorted liquors, and a box of lemon-squeezers, from the Honorable Ezra (can’t make out the name), of Walpole, Mass., who says he had seen a letter of mine somewhere, in which I told that I had squeezed eight hundred lemons on one occasion. The cases sent by the “St. Mark” are also in my possession; but for the last three days I have had no time to open them, and I won’t sacrifice my present hour of writing to do it now.

The Fourth Connecticut came down to-day for its siege-guns. We, who have seen the blackness of battles, rejoice, and trust it is a sign that there may be no more. God grant it may be so! How deluded the body of the Southern troops and people have been by their leaders! I go as much as I can among the prisoners, that I may judge for myself how they feel. I find surprise their chief emotion. “I never thought of this.” “I could change the feelings of half my county if I told them what I know now.” One man told me he had never fired his gun. They look shy, and are unwilling to meet your eye; but if you make any way with them, you are almost sure to see tears in theirs. I have written letters for several of them, which General Wool and General Dix have been very kind in forwarding from Fortress Monroe on the flag-of-truce boat. The men are eager to write, “because their friends are thinking them so badly treated, and they want to tell them how it is.” Of course there may be exceptions to this spirit; but I have, so far, met with none. Just now I asked a handsome young fellow, with a clear eye which at first he rather veiled, if he had all he wanted, — “All” he said; “more than I deserve to have.”

Wednesday, the ” Small” went down to coal, and Georgy and Dr. Ware and I spent the day in the tent, and dined with our old black aunty on the “Elizabeth,” — or the “Fiend,” as she is commonly called, from her habit of rushing up at all hours of the day and night, making unearthly noises with her steam-pipe. The usual number of men, about a hundred, came down. The process is this: I will describe it, and you can imagine it, once for all.

We have thirty-three Sibley tents along the line of the railroad on the other side of the track. On this side, and just at the head of the wharf, —an old scow and a few planks which we dignify by that name,—stands the tent, filled with stores, and the kitchen behind it. The “kitchen” is al fresco, and consists solely of two long trenches about a foot deep, with forked upright stakes at each end and a pole across, on which the camp-kettles are hooked over the fire built in the trench below. Alongside the tent we have two large wall-tents, where we put the worst cases, so as to have them close at hand; the others, which are mostly waiting for the hospital ambulances, are put in the Sibley tents. We take great pride and satisfaction in these arrangements. It is true that the tent is smoky and hot, not pleasantly odoriferous, and filled with flies; but when the smoke is very bad we make believe it kills the flies. In short, we admit nothing evil of our tent; and when Dr. Agnew, peeping round in the smoke, said in the kindness of his heart: “Oh, how uncomfortable for you!” we were seriously angry with him.[1]

A train arrives, and the principle on which we proceed is as follows: The wounded men are sent at once on board whichever transport lies at the wharf (the “Small,” the “Elizabeth,” and the “”Wicked Chicken ” always lie outside of the large vessel). As they pass our tent, we give them something refreshing or stimulating, as the case may need. The sick men are put into the tents, and we give them a meal. They ought to be moved promptly to the Shore hospital; but the surgeon-in-charge is not prompt, so they are often a day or a night in our hands. This gives us an average of a hundred men to feed and attend to daily; but they are constantly changing. Dr. Ware has the entire charge and responsibility of them and of the shipments upon our boats. As soon as a train comes in he selects the cases. Meantime we despatch, by our four orderlies, buckets of soup, or tea, or milk-porridge, and other food; then we follow Dr. Ware into the train with the inevitable brandy and beef-tea. The cars are large, double freight-cars. The worst cases lie upon the floor inside; the slight cases sit upon the roof. Dr. Ware is everything to us,—so sensible, so self-sacrificing, so prompt, so careful. We owe all the comfort of this tent to him, for he takes pains to keep it well supplied, and thus efficient. His fault is that he thinks too little of himself; and I fear it will always keep him back in life.

On Thursday we went down in the “Small” to Yorktown. Mr. Olmsted wished to inspect the “St. Mark” (it ought to be “St.Luke”),— a large clipper-ship sent down by the Sanitary Commission. The surgeons and ladies were ashore when we arrived, so we could go over the ship with an eye to her real merits. She is magnificent; but so wholly out of the pale of the necessities of our work that, though we heartily admired, we could not feel the intense pleasure and sympathy with which we hail some lesser good on the other vessels. She is not fit for transport service, drawing too much water to get up the rivers, and having no steam. She should be kept as a floating-hospital off Fortress Monroe; for that she is perfect, — giving noble accommodation for a few, say two hundred, men. Our work, on the other hand, requires us to give life and some comfort to the many.

The Quartermaster, an old friend, gave us many valuable things. Case after case rattled on to the “Small,” and tin pails almost in abundance. We dined on board. Dr. Draper is in charge, — his wife and Mrs. George T. Strong among the ladies. Soon after dinner a telegram arrived, recalling Mr. Olmsted to White House; and we had the sweetest run up the river by every light imaginable, — sunlight, sunset, twilight, moonlight.

Orders had come to send the “Webster” and the “Spaulding” to Fortress Monroe immediately, and empty the hospitals there as fast as possible. Mrs. Griffin went in the “Webster,” which sailed at eleven o’clock last night; so one of our four fingers is missing.

To-day the Chief and the “Small” have gone to Yorktown on “special business.” Mrs. H., Georgy, Dr. Ware, and I are waiting in the tent for one hundred and fifty men now due. Tomorrow, I fear, we shall have many wounded; heavy firing on our right has been going on all the afternoon, and a good deal of musketry.

This is a very rambling letter; but it is hard to keep any ideas in one’s head, being interrupted every tenth word by cooks, Zouaves, and obnoxious persons of many kinds, who persist in looking into the tent and asking questions. This afternoon, as I was attending to some men in the Sibley tents, I came upon one of the exhortative kind, who often afford us much amusement. He made a rapid survey of the history of the world, to prove that no women had ever done as we were doing, no men had ever been succored as they were succored. Whether he was out of his mind, or simply one of the irrepressible, I could not tell; but he looked so funny, declaiming in his hospital rig, that I slipped out of the tent, convulsed with laughter, — for which I felt sorry, and rather ashamed, a moment later, when I saw the tears in the eyes of a gentleman, new to the work, who was with me. But we must either laugh or cry; and this work teaches us that we had better laugh, if we mean to be good for anything. I hope I have not seemed to you heartless in the tone which I have taken; it is that which we all adopt, and, though perfectly genuine, it answers as a mental prophylactic.

Good-by! I mean to go to sleep. The train is not in, and may not be till morning. I have learned to sleep on my arm, and it is very “comfy.” As for Georgy, she curls herself up anywhere, like a little gray kitten, and is asleep in a minute.

[1] “It was not the vale of Cashmere,” as Dr. Ware wrote me in his last letter, just before his death, “but many dear associations cluster round it.”

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