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.

July 3, 2012

The Cruel Side of War - Katherine Prescott Wormeley

“Wilson Small,” Harrison’s Landing,
July 3.

Dear A., — As I write I glance from time to time at the Army of the Potomac, massed on the plain before me, —- an army driven from its position because it could not get reinforcements to render that position tenable; forced every day of its retreat to turn and give battle; an army just one third less than it was: and yet it comes in from seven days’ fighting, marching, fasting, in gallant spirits, and making the proud boast for itself and its commander that it has not only marched with its face backward to the enemy, but has inflicted three times the loss it has borne, and that the little spot of its refuge rings with its cheers.

And yet the sad truth cannot be concealed: our position is very hazardous. What I hear said is such as this: “Unless we have reinforcements, what can we do? Must McClellan fight another bloody battle in a struggle for life, or surrender? Give us reinforcements, and all is well. We have got the right base now. We could not have it at first; we made another; that other the Government made it impossible for us to maintain. Day by day we saw it growing untenable. We now have the true base of operations against Richmond. The sacrifice? Yes! but who compelled it? The nation must see to that. The army and McClellan have done their part, and nobly have they done it. Let them now be strengthened, and all is well, or better than before.” This is the one tone. No wonder that they feel in spirits, they have done their duty; and I look in their poor worn faces and feel that their deepest honor in life will be that they belonged to the beaten Army of the Potomac — and yet, not beaten ; everything that that is, except precisely the thing it is.

I am sitting on deck. Poor Miss Lowell, whose gallant brother was killed yesterday, is beside me. She belongs to the “Daniel Webster,” which is to load up this afternoon. We are lying a stone’s throw from a long wharf, and a little in-shore of it. My eye can follow the lines within which our army lies. The immediate prospect is a sandy shore, with a sandy slope behind it, up and down which the cavalry are ceaselessly passing to water and swim their horses in the river. At the head of the wharf are General Keyes’s- headquarters; to the right are General Franklin’s; and a little farther back, General Porter’s; while the eighth of a mile back upon the left, General Headquarters are said to be. The long wharf is a moving mass of human beings: on one side, a stream of men unloading the commissariat and other stores; on the other, a sad procession of wounded, feebly crawling down from the Harrison House and along the beach and wharf to go on board the transports. The medical authorities are doing well by them. The Harrison House is made into a hospital, and the men are comfortable (so say our gentlemen, who have been among them); the slight cases are lying on the lawn and under the trees. To-day — thank God for the great mercy! —is cloudy, without rain. I know nothing of them personally. We women are not yet permitted to go ashore, and I try to believe, as I am told, that it is impossible we should.

A new Medical Director of the army has been appointed, for which we are deeply thankful. He is now on board the “Small,” and has just stood near me for a few moments, talking to some one, so that I could observe him, —- one looks into faces so much here! His gave me a sad calmness. Such a worn face, — worn in the cause of suffering; full, it seemed to me, of a strong earnestness in his work. How much at this moment is fresbly laid upon him![1] I can’t tell you anything of my own knowledge about the wounded; but I judge from what I am told that there is not much suffering, and no privation among those who are here. They are chiefly slightly wounded and exhausted men. But where are the others? Alas! where? This is war, and there’s no more to be said about it.

But I was telling you what I see from the deck as I sit writing, — of course with countless interruptions and runnings below to give this poor surgeon or that poor chaplain as many comforts for their sick men as they can carry off in their saddle-bags, or tied up in pillow-cases. Now, suppose I tell you that I am seeing and hearing war at this moment in the shape of shells bursting within our lines directly in front of me! And there’s the wonderful little “Monitor” firing her great eleven-inch gun — there it goes, boom! and then the screwing, screaming, rushing sound of the great rifle-shell! Talk of wonders! there never was anything in that line like the “Monitor.” You don’t imagine what a little tray of a thing she is, — I did n’t. Why, the sides of her captain’s gig, which is towing aft, are higher than hers! She lay close by us for an hour this morning, and at first I conld not believe she was the real thing.

[1] Dr. Letterman. Soon after his appointment he reorganized his department, remodelled the medical corps, established a plan for division field-hospitals after a battle, and got an efficient ambulance system into good working order. Thus when the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, etc., occurred, the Medical Department, its surgeons and supplies, were well prepared, and nothing at all like the suffering after Fair Oaks occurred again.

Previous post:

Next post: