Tuesday, June 27, 2017

'Killed with kindness’: A journey with Union nurse Maria Hall

In 1886, Union nurse Maria Hall wrote about her war-time experiences for a newspaper.
 (The Foard Collection of Civil War Nursing)
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Philadelphia may have a less-than-brotherly reputation today, but nurse Maria Hall was impressed with the city’s embrace of Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“But was there ever a city that so warmly welcomed the boys to her gates,” she wrote in The Springfield (Mass.) Republican in 1886, "as did Philadelphia.” In Part 2 of the newspaper series about her experiences early in the war, Hall recalled the scene as she arrived at a wharf in the city aboard a steamer filled with wounded soldiers.

“Women wearing the lovely drab bonnets and gowns, and the lovelier faces of the Friends, came bringing baskets of bread, biscuits and cookies, pails of lemonade, pitchers of milk and bottles of wine,” she wrote, “knowing that the boys had come from a barren land, and so welcoming them to plenty and comfort. Our only fear for our patients now was lest they should be killed with kindness.”

In the account published in The Republican on Dec. 20, 1886, Hall – who married a man from Unionville, Conn., after the war – also recalled her experiences at the massive Union encampment at Harrison’s Landing, Va., in the summer of 1862; feeding famished soldiers; the perils of sailing down the James River under fire from Confederates and much more. (My thanks to Connecticut historian Clifford Alderman for transcribing this installment of Hall’s war-time remembrances. Click here and here for previous installments on my blog.)

Written for The Republican by Mrs. M.M.C, Richards of Unionville, Ct.

Entrance to Fort Monroe in 1864. The fort was also site of a major hospital during the Civil War.
(Library of Congress)
The head-quarters of the hospital transports in service was at Fortress Monroe. Here they were reported to the medical director, and received orders as to the destination of their wounded. The hasty and imperfect diary of this time relates that having taken a load of 350 men to Baltimore, we were once more at Fortress Monroe, and there ordered to receive passengers from the State of Maine which had become disabled by an accident to the machinery. We took on board 320 men, wounded in the seven days’ battles, and having had only the hasty care that could be given on the field; many were in sorrowful plight, tossing with fever or deranged in mind, and some were dying when we first saw them. They were laid wherever a blanket could be spread for a bed, after the steamer’s bunks and state-rooms were filled.

Nurse Almira Fales: "How these ravens do eat," 
she remarked about famished Union soldiers.
(The Foard Collection of Civil War Nursing)
Here as elsewhere, the right man was not always in the right place and the tallest man of the lot was laid across the narrow end of the cabin. He grimly complained of being “too long at both ends,” but as the trip was to be short, he concluded things would average about right. Among the names recorded as patients on these trips are Col. [Ebenezer] Pierce of Big Bethel fame, having lost an arm, Col. Morrison, Col. [Edward Winslow] Hinks of Massachusetts, Robert Way of a New York regiment, seriously wounded in the lungs, and Charles Smith of Boston or vicinity.

Drs. Davenport and Brown of Detroit were among the surgeons, and Mr. Harland from the Young Men’s Christian association of Philadelphia, a most tender and devoted agent in caring for the sufferers. I quote from a letter: “I have not time to tell of the many interesting cases we have cared for. Individuals are merged in the whole when the acquaintance is so short, the services rendered so hurried and divided among so many. Dressing wounds is a new business, but you should have seen me bandage an arm broken by a ball in two places, doing it up in a splint, and that before breakfast. I won’t spoil your appetite as I did my own by telling you in what condition the poor arm was when I first saw the soldier trying to help himself. Assisted Dr. B. two or three hours this morning, washing and dressing the wounds. Many of these boys are the zouaves, wounded in the arms and legs. Their scarlet uniforms must be fatally conspicuous marks for the enemy’s fire.”

Mrs. [Almira] Fales’s heart had been gladdened by new and generous supplies of comforts and delicacies for her “ravens.” She remarks occasionally, “How these ravens do eat,” at the same time finding it the joy of her heart to feed them to the full. Her supplies were all that we had for the comfort of the sufferers on these trips. Having carried two loads of the wounded to Baltimore, we were ordered to Philadelphia with the third.

Philadelphia Hospitality to the Soldiers

Lithograph of citizens greeting Union soldiers in Philadelphia.
(National Archives)
There was little difference in the experiences on these short voyages. It was the same story of suffering bravely endured with a cheerful courage that always excited my wonder. But was there ever a city that so warmly welcomed the boys to her gates, as did Philadelphia. Our steamer had scarcely touched the wharf before we were taken captive by the wonderfully organized hospital agencies of the city. Policemen lifted the feeble ones in their arms, as if they were brothers, taking special care of the little ones. Women wearing the lovely drab bonnets and gowns, and the lovelier faces of the Friends, came bringing baskets of bread, biscuits and cookies, pails of lemonade, pitchers of milk and bottles of wine, knowing that the boys had come from a barren land, and so welcoming them to plenty and comfort.

Our only fear for our patients now was lest they should be killed with kindness. In later years of the war a soldier could not mention Philadelphia without a grateful apostrophe to the kindness of the people, and the “good meal of victuals” we got there. One little boy we saw lifted by a big policeman who said with tears in his eyes, “We’ll take you to a good place.” We had called him a drummer boy, but he resented the idea, and declared that he “carried a musket till — till — it — got so heavy.” He was taken to the Cooper shop, and recovered after a very serious illness.

Running a Rebel Battery

Confederate batteries at Fort Powhaton fire on the Union hospital ship Daniel Webster
 in the James River in this illustration in Harper's Weekly, a war-time newspaper.
On the 8th we left the city of Brotherly Love, and reached Fortress Monroe the next day. We were most bountifully supplied with stores for the sick by the ladies’ aid of the city, and Mrs. Fales anticipated great delight in feeding her next flock of ravens. At Fort Monroe we saw the Burnside fleet anchored; in the evening it started away up the James river, and next morning at 5 o’clock, we were following in its wake. At this time we were informed that the “rebs” were doing mischief firing upon our transports, mail boats, etc., and were soon assured by our own experiences of the correctness of this information.

About 8 or 10 miles below Harrison’s Landing we came alongside the gunboat Sebago. Our captain hailed the officer on deck inquiring if there were danger ahead. His reply was “keep well to the port side.” As we rounded a bend of the river at the eminence known as Fort Powhatan, whiz! went the bullets over our heads. A hurried retreat was made by all from the upper deck close by the pilot-house where we had gathered to enjoy the quiet resting time. The boat was skillfully managed by the captain, and as soon as we were out of range, the gun-boat swung round, and with a few forcible remarks shut up the little battery.

The Webster was pierced from side to side with four solid shot and two shells were found in its side. More than 100 musket balls were found, and two or three shells burst over our heads. We all had our tale of hair-breadth escapes and I still cherish one bullet which did not hit me as I looked out of the captain’s office to see how the fray was going. We reached Harrison’s Landing in safety, but the Webster was disabled for further use as a transport. After waiting orders and being thrown into great excitement by reports that we were to go to Richmond for our released prisoners, the boat is totally taken as head-quarters of the medical purveyor.

A war-time illustration of Harrison's Landing in Harper's Weekly.
          PANORAMA: James River at Harrison's Landing, where nurse Maria Hall served.
                                         (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Amidst Cities of Tents

On Tuesday we made our exit from the Webster, having accepted the invitation of Dr. Barnes and Col. Adams to make their regiment our base of operations (the 27th New York volunteers). We are in Bartlett’s brigade, Slocum’s division — on high ground in the edge of a pine grove. It is strange to think we are living so near the head-quarters of our grand army; within a short ride of Gen. McClellan’s tent, and in the midst of cities of tens, and within two miles of the outmost pickets we are told. The scene on the plain near the river is novel, indeed. Ambulances, horses, army wagons are constantly gathered about the landing, and the quartermaster’s tent; solitary horsemen galloping about in frantic haste, contrabands idling, orderly working and singing, guards pacing to and fro; cannon, freight, horses, mules and muskets mixed promiscuously together, now and then a [illegible] soldier carried by and buried near the hospital.

"It's strange to think we are living so near
the head-quarters of our grand army" and
George McClellan's tent, Maria Hall
wrote about her stay at Harrison's Landing.
Col. Adams and Dr. Barnes furnished us with every luxury at their command, including a carpet of hemlock boughs (or was it pine?) and stretchers for beds. These were swung on forked sticks driven into the ground, and proved luxurious conches, though it must be owned our slumbers were sometimes disturbed by the unaccustomed sounds of the camps, among these being the nightly concerts given by the army mules. Our kitchen was under the sky, the fire easily made as we had no smoky chimney, and our cooking readily done. We became veritable tramps and after ministering each day to the wants of those nearest to us would walk miles hunting up individuals, or to fill wants made known to us day by day.

Carrying Goodies to the Sick and Wounded

Our basket was furnished with a pocket-stove, tea-pot, condensed milk, cups, spoons, forks, knives, etc., so that in about five minutes after entering a tent Mrs. Fales was prepared to furnish a square meal to the sick ones. We were accompanied by an orderly detailed by the colonel and so easily three baskets of supplies could be carried.

One day we visited the hospital tent of a New York regiment. One poor fellow longed for some of the currant-jelly he saw but could not be prevailed on to touch it. After it had been given to others he discovered that it was given and not sold. He had refused because he had no money to buy it and the next day he received a tumbler of it much to his comfort; and his wonder that he could have it without pay was very touching.

Mrs. Fales’s coming into one of these tents had the effect of magic. Her cheery words were as ready and helpful as any part of her equipment. “Come, come.” She would say, “Cheer up. The secretary of war doesn’t want such long-faces here, he sent me down on purpose to make you stretch out your faces this way.” – at the same time giving a pair of thin, sunken cheeks a friendly pinch. By this time the tea was simmered, the boys were smiling, and the real needs of one and another were made known, so that the stores from the baskets could be judiciously applied.

A Visit to the Vermont Brigade

Berkeley Plantation mansion was used as headquarters for a Union hospital at Harrison's Landing.
On a certain Sunday we set out to visit the Vermont brigade not far away. We found Chaplain Mark of the 3d Vermont just about going to hold service in a quaint, old brick church in the Westover place. Of course, we were glad to accompany him, and attend the service. The building was crowded, and all who could not find room within were crowding about the door and windows. The service was heartily enjoyed, and afterward we joined a group of officers and privates about the little organ, singing the Gloria in Excelsis, and other chants of the dear old church we loved. We are called away from the singing and the talk of home which followed, to visit and extemporized hospital outside the church. Here were very sick men lying on benches of a sort of rustic summer house, sheltered from the sun by canvas and boughs.

We had not forgotten our big baskets when we came to church and now they were invaluable. A cup of tea was soon made for one, a bit of jelly tempted another to eat a little food, hot water served to prepare a mustard draught for one who was suffering for want of it. These were men on detailed duty, away from their regiments and without care or comforts. We visited them afterward and carried them such help as we could till they were removed to the general hospital at the landing.

"We had occasional salutes
 from our friends, 'the enemy.'"
 Hall wrote about her stay 
at Harrison's Landing.
(U.S. Military History Institute)

And to that point my own services were soon afterward transferred. Mrs. Fales being called home by some family cares I became assistant to Mrs. John Harris, agent of the ladies aid society of Philadelphia. The old family mansion of the Harrison plantation was located at the Landing, and this building was occupied as head-quarters of the hospital, and offices of various sorts, the cupola and upper rooms being used as a signal station. Here Mrs. Harris had a room, with tents for her stores close by. Here were brought the sick from the army all about, and here indeed was an army of sick men.

A letter dated August 6 gives a glimpse of the work at this point: —

Every day is more or less occupied in preparing delicacies for the sick in the numerous hospital tents. Yesterday afternoon and this morning large numbers were brought in for whom the division were not prepared. Before breakfast I was passing through the hall of the mansion when a sick man called me; he proved to be an old patent office patient and very sick. He could not eat his breakfast and begged me to prepare him something. This I did, and had hardly finished breakfast when I was handed an order for a box to be prepared for an Ohio regiment.

Before this was finished a ward master came for Mrs. Harris; in her absence I went with him, and was requested by a surgeon to provide breakfast for a dozen men who had eaten nothing since the day before at noon. We made up a kettle of chocolate and spread bread and butter for them. While dealing this out other men came to the tent begging for something for their ward; there I found 25 more men with nothing to eat. Before we could feed them all it was dinner time but we went on feeding the hungry and doing the little deeds of kindness as the chances occurred until night came on finding us weary enough. Then Mr. Sloan was chaplain, Mrs. Harris, mother of our little family, Mrs. Lee and Mr. Alvord of the Boston tract society came into the tent as is our custom and held family prayers. We sang “Rise my soul.” And Mr. Alvord prayed , thanking God for the cares and toils and trials of the day and for any spirit of faith in which we had borne them, “for so we may assure ourselves that we are thy children and striving to do thy work.

Occasional Shots From the Enemy

                PANORAMA: Present-day view of Harrison's Landing, site of massive
        Union presence during Civil War.  (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

We had occasional salutes from our friends, “the enemy.” As we were one day engaged in the usual routine of bread and butter, we heard heavy firing from the opposite side of the river. But the signal officer soon gave such instructions to our gun-boats that they were glad enough to quit that. Again we were wakened once in the night by the screaming of the “Dutch ovens.” And presently we heard the order to “put out lights — no lights allowed.” So in the darkness a hasty consultation was held, we decided to put on the clean dress, secure all our hair-pins and so be ready for any emergency. Being dressed, we went out of the tent to find a general state of alarm in the camp. The firing, however, soon ceased, and we learned that no great harm had been done.

There seems to be scarce time to tell of a horseback ride on a McClellan saddle in a rainy day through the camps and to see the out-works. But I must not forget the beautiful camp of the Massachusetts regiment I saw one day; How clean the streets, and how nice everything was. No sickness or want here surely! One man sat in the door of his tent busily sewing on buttons. As we came near he looked up and gazing at us said: “Well, it does look scarce to see a woman around.” He looked too, as if he would like to put out his sewing, but we did not step in to take it in.

           Google Earth view of Harrison's Landing and Berkeley Plantation in Virginia.

About the middle of August an order was given to break up the hospital. Some sort of a move was on foot, and we were officially advised to go to New York with a load of the sick, by the Daniel Webster, No. 2. When the final order came to go I was carrying a plate of raw tomatoes to an officer, sick with the fever in one of the buildings. He ate nothing and longed for nothing but a raw tomato cut up in vinegar. I had hired a little negro boy to get me some, and had just time to prepare them and carry them to the sick man. I left him enjoying the tomato and the next summer on going into a hospital ward at Annapolis, I found the same lieutenant wounded and a paroled prisoner. As the news of our going became known, we had applications from some of the contrabands to join the party. One bright boy begged me to “ax de doctor for to let him go. I interceded for him and reported to Charley. “What he say, miss?”

“He thinks you can go.”

Said I. “Well, I guess he better had, or else I’d do like I done down to Williamsport.”

“How was that, Charles?”

“Oh I just borrowed a hoss to go, and I went and don’t forget to take de hoss back, too.” Aunt Rosie, an old family servant, also joined the party, leaving behind her a little flock of grandchildren. We took both these servants North, and heard afterward of their well-doing in new homes.

On a bright Sunday morning we wake to the sight of the beautiful shores of Staten Island. As we heard the church bells pealing over the waters, we fancied we had reached the gates of paradise, and begin to realize the desolation and sorrow from which we had come. At the New Jersey depot our party separated to meet no more, but all again became workers in hospital service till the close of the war.

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