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

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The Cruel Side of War – Katherine Prescott Wormeley.

June 18, 2012

The Cruel Side of War - Katherine Prescott Wormeley

In Our Tent, June 18.

Dear A.,—All my delightful cases and letters are received. You have just no idea of the pleasure they give. I wrote last on the 14th. Sunday was a very distressing day. Our sick men were still with us, for Mr. Olmsted could neither get permission to put them on the “Elm City,” nor induce the surgeon of the Shore hospital to send his ambulances for them. Expecting every hour to move them, we were unable to put them into hospital clothing; and as they were very restless and crazy, this made our work less satisfactory than usual. In all other respects they were well cared for.

The painfulness of the day was greatly increased by a visit from a Sunday picnic of Congressmen and ladies. One of the former went to Mr. Olmsted and complained to him of what he saw on our boat. He said the men were in “an awful state. I saw — I saw with my own eyes — flies settling on them and biting them!” This gentleman came into the ward with a rose held to his nose; and when told they were all typhoid-fever cases (“That one by you is the worst case I ever saw,” Georgy said maliciously), he went abruptly away. Had he stopped to examine the condition of things, he would have seen that every man who could not brush the flies away had a mosquito-netting over him, and all the others had fans. The thermometer is at 90°, and the flies are an Egyptian plague; but all was done that could be done to alleviate it. I could see that this affair pained Mr. Olmsted exceedingly. It was essentially unjust; but the outward circumstances of the case, as I have stated them, did not permit that ample refutation which a mere glance into one of the wards would usually afford. I think he felt it the more as it was our very own castle thus invaded by reproach. But a few hours later a thing occurred which must have wiped from his mind the sting of reproach from such a quarter. Colonel ——, who was on the “Elm City,” very ill with typhoid fever, was madly anxious to get home. He knew he must die, and he craved to see his wife. The gentlemen of the excursion-party were asked to take him back on their boat. They refused; alleging that they were “a select party,” and “not prepared to incur infection:” they made the ladies the ground of their excuse. So Mrs. Griffin went at midnight to the ladies and begged them to consent to take him; and of course they did so. I could enlarge upon this, but the subject is hateful.

Sunday evening we moved our men to the “Elm City,” where I found them all comfortably placed on Monday, when I went through the wards with a member of the New England Women’s Association, who had come down on the “Webster” to make up her mind as to whether we were doing our duty. She went back with them on the “Elm City” yesterday.

Dr. Henry J. Bigelow arrived early in the week. He came on a private mission from the Secretary of War to see and report upon the state of the Medical Department, and find out where the hitch really is. I wish he had come from the Surgeon-General instead. The Secretary of War is apt to send missions of private inquiry by which he forgets to profit; so that the best man for the work of inspection is likely to go back from here and have his observations disregarded. Mr. Olmsted has paid him all the attention in his power. Matters of importance are, however, pending at this moment between Mr. Olmsted and the Surgeon-General, and this throws some gêne into his intercourse with Dr. Bigelow. I gather that he cannot open himself freely to him. I do not know, of course, how matters are between Mr. Olmsted and the Medical Department, and if I did know I should not speak of them; but I may certainly say this: that the Department feels the greatest gratitude to Mr. Olmsted for what he has done, and would gladly give him much wider power, if that were what he is seeking. That is not his object, however; indeed, the object of the Commission itself is not sufficiently understood. Those who admire its wise and noble work naturally feel the wish that larger power should be given to it. But the object of the Commission itself is not this. It seeks to bring the Government to do what the Government should do for its sick and wounded. Until that object is accomplished, the Commission stands ready to throw itself into the breach, as it did during that dreadful battle-week, as it does more or less all the time. The thing it asks for is not the gift of power, but that the Government should take the work away from it by doing it thoroughly itself. A Medical Inspector is to be sent here immediately, at Mr. Olmsted’s earnest request, and we shall see what that will bring forth. But, after all, I fear the principle of active war is, and perhaps must be, — every marching man is precious; when he drops, he’s a dog. Ah! what would have become of him so far without the Sanitary Commission? I am not afraid to say that no enterprise ever deserved better of the people. Alive to the true state of things, ever aiming at the best thing to be done, and striving to bring everything to bear towards that, it has already fulfilled a great work, — let those who have reaped its benefits say how great and how indispensable.

I am sitting with Georgy in the tent, waiting for the arrival of a train of sick men, due notice of which is always telegraphed to us from Savage’s Station. The “Wilson Small” has dropped down the river to coal. Mrs. Griffin is, I grieve to say, knocked up, with curious symptoms of fainting and wandering. Dr. Ware says she must go home, and she leaves on the mail-boat to-morrow, — a most serious loss to us at any time, but especially if an emergency occurs.

Yesterday we did nothing special but dress in clean clothes (I mean the cleanest we had) and go down to the “Webster,” where we were received with all honors, and had a good dinner, — Georgy and I eating an incredible number of raspberry tartlets. Dr. Grymes drank to us in his happiest manner: “Ladies, I give you a welcome where you have a right!” The ship was dressed with magnolia, honeysuckle, and the lovely white fringe blossoms, in our honor. The “Webster” is a constant satisfaction to the Chief, being thoroughly all right, — thanks to Dr. Grymes and Mrs. Trotter and her good captain.[1]

[1] Dr. Gryrnes’s health was steadily giving way. As we looked at him, so full of energy and ardor in his work, we used to think he knew he was a dying man, and chose to alleviate death and suffering in others as long as life was in him. After the campaign was over, he became surgeon of the Sanitary Commission “Home” in Washington. His residence was a few paces off, and he resolutely came to his work, until it took him half an hour, supported on each side, to get over that short distance; then he died.

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