History Friday – The Care of an Army

I’ve been going deep in the weeds in research for the current work in progress, the long-put-aside Civil War novel, concerning the experiences of a spinster of independent means, who is active as an abolitionist lecturer in the 1840-1850 time frame, and a battlefield nurse during the war years. Frankly, the research is fascinating in and of itself; the matter of the existence of slavery in the United States was a contentious and hard-fought-over issue in the antebellum years. It’s been quite the antidote to the current 1619 historical fantasy, reading through memoirs and accounts of and by notable abolitionist crusaders of the time. Not only did the existence of the ‘peculiar institution’ in the pre-war South retard economic progress there (as industry and immigration favored the North) but the fight against it was sustained and uncompromising. The first half of the book is just about complete – it’s the second half, concerning the war and most particularly the operation of field hospitals that has me deep in another field of weeds now, discovering some extraordinary stories and some extraordinary women.
One of the reasons that I love writing historical fiction – I very rarely need to create anything of whole cloth and imagination; generally, the honest-n-truth version of events often surpasses anything I could possibly make up. So it is with the epic of a little-recalled national volunteer relief organization called, most prosaically, the United States Sanitary Commission, which mobilized women for the war effort to an extraordinary degree – as nurses, administrators, counselors and organizers of countless benefits to raise funds for military support, the care and healing of the wounded, and later, for the welfare of veterans.

The existing pre-Civil War US Army was a small one as national armies of the times counted, with a correspondingly tiny medical corps. Hospitals at various forts and camps were minimal, usually no more than thirty or forty beds. There was no large centralized military general hospital; medical care of the sick or injured normally fell to orderlies or those soldiers who themselves were convalescent. All of that went out the window when recruiting surged, upon secession of Confederate states and the fall of Fort Sumter. Almost the moment that the newly-formed companies and regiments marched away, the wives, sisters and mothers of those new soldiers went home and ransacked their cupboards and pantries for home comforts – food, clothing, blankets, bits of this or that, writing materials, bandages and medicines for the lads recruited for a regional unit. Some of these first efforts were either ridiculously useless or went astray in transit – inexpertly canned items rotted, jars broke, and the contents of such ruined whatever else they had been packed with. It was all a muddle, at first – but in the middle of June, 1861 Congress authorized the creation of the Sanitary Commission, and it took off with a roar, mostly because many smaller regional and local relief groups eagerly joined their considerable efforts to the national Commission.

Although the national leadership of the Commission at the upper levels were male, women made up an extraordinarily large number of mid-level workers, fund-raisers, administrators, nurses and general support personnel. Being also proud of their contribution, many of those women contributed memoirs written after the war, and those accounts make for stirring reading. (There was a lot of overlap between abolitionists, temperance activists and women’s rights advocates during that period, and many of the best-known women campaigners were active on all three fronts, as well as being friends and associates.)
One of the best and most readable accounts that I am exploring was by Mary Ashton Livermore, who also served as reporter and editor for a newspaper which her Universalist husband owned. Mary Livermore was co-head of the Chicago branch of the Sanitary Commission and penned a particularly vivid description of what a day at work at “the office” involved – the sounds, the bustle of draymen delivering and dispatching boxes, the sights, the and the smells. (An account almost unique for a lack of florid Victorian purple prose, thickets of which must be metaphorically hacked through in other contemporary accounts.) Donations and items of all sorts arrived from all over the state and the mid-west, to be unpacked, sorted, inventoried, re-packed according to commodity, and sent out to those hospitals which had urgently requested them. That was on the first floor of the building housing the Chicago branch -the second floor was given over to sewing machines and volunteer seamstresses producing shirts, necessary linens, and hospital garments. The Commission office also served as a communications hub – for families wanting news of their soldiers, and for dispatching parties of nurses to hospitals where they were needed – especially following on a battle or a military advance.

One of those notable nurses was the formidable widow Mary Jane Bickerdyke. A curious thing that perhaps we do not consider today was how large a porportion of a woman’s domestic duties then involved caring for the sick and invalid. Mary Bickerdyke had cared for her invalid husband for years before he passed away. It must have been much the same for other women volunteer nurses – they had already done a lot of practical nursing, without the benefit of any formal medical training as such. And so, they followed the armies, to tend their boys, their sons and brothers.

(To be continued – the adventures of Mary Jane Bickerdyke in the Union Army of the West. The story is that one of General Grant’s juniors fumed to the General about ‘that damned bossy woman, and couldn’t the General do something about her?’ To which General Grant is supposed to have replied long the lines of, ‘I can’t – she ranks me.)

20 thoughts on “History Friday – The Care of an Army”

  1. ” . . . generally, the honest-n-truth version of events often surpasses anything I could possibly make up.” Indeed, but telling the truth is the kind of thing that will get you in trouble. Not “woke” enough.

    Subotai Bahadur

  2. SB – at this point, I welcome trouble in historic truth-telling wherever it will find me. ‘Woke’ can go p*ss up a rope, for all I care.

  3. Read “A Strange and Blighted Land”, about Gettysburg (a town of 2500 souls) after the battle (where 25,000 wounded, thousands of dead and 5000 dead horses were left to their care).

  4. I was fortunate in that early in my life I spent time with professional historians and I was able to learn something of their ways. Part of their ways was the various tools of historiography. Another was their humility in knowing that there was never “…and that’s the way it is” because we can never capture the full panalopy of human experience but instead of we can do is add out brick to the wall of human knowledge.

    One of their tools was, of course, to access first-hand sources. I spent more than one weekend that I thought was going to be a romantic getaway but was instead spent rummaging through the historical archives of various towns in Gila and southern Navajo County, but she was cute and I was dumb. Their point was that it is a normal human foible for us to disinter the dead and have them speak as if they were puppets, to fit the needs of our own time and to fit the structures of our own social vernacular. Accessing first-hand sources allows those of the past, in a sense, to speak for themselves.

    One of the projects I was able to follow, though from a distance, was the rush to capture the experiences of the WW II veterans, the Greatest Generation, before they passed away. One of the great products of that effort is that many of their experiences are now captured indelibly on tape and will resist (though not necessarily triumph over) efforts to co-opt them.

    I would imagine that one of the reasons we appreciate historical fiction is that it helps to bring that past to life through the eyes of its contemporaries. I think in looking at the past as such, we learn a lot of ourselves. That perhaps, despite our pretension, that we as humans are not like iPhones with each new version better than the last but that we have far more common with the past than we like to admit.

    To Anonymous’ point about the aftermath of Civil War battlefields, point well-taken. I had forgotten that particular aspect, of thousands of tons of rotting flesh. One of the times I was at Gettysburg I embarrassed the missus because I asked one of the park rangers how the armies dealt with all the excrement produced by those horses and men. Well it is a practical matter that had to be resolved; you can take the boy out of ops but you cannot take the ops out of the boy

  5. I knew about the Sanitary Commission from an odd source: Witold Rybczynski’s excellent biography, “A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmstead and America in the 19th Century.” Olmstead is far better known as the United States’ first and most pre-eminent landscape architect. He designed Central Park, the grounds of Biltmore Estate, and many other well-known gardens and landscapes.

    He also happened to have been Executive Secretary of the Sanitary Commission during the first part of the Civil War. And he had an anti-slavery connection as well. Before getting into landscape architecture Olmstead was a journalist and wrote a number of very popular books about the south (including Texas). Olmstead contended that in addition to its morally repellent qualities, slavery held back the south economically because it was so inefficient and benefitted so few people.

    Interesting fellow–but probably not that likeable in person.

  6. My great great grandfather was evacuated from Chickamauga back to Michigan (most of the survivors of his regiment went to Andersonville.
    Some surgeon decided to perform an experimental procedure on him, and instead of amputating his left arm grafted the ends above and below his wound. He ended up with one arm a couple inches shorter than the other, but he had both hands…
    Bruce Catton addresses the state sanitary commissions in one of his books on US Grant; on the one hand, they performed services that the Union army was not able to, but on the other hand lots of soldiers who may have been fit for some duty were recuperating back in Detroit, or Chicago, etc., even though they were still carried on the regimental rolls.
    Still, if not for the sanitary commissions, the Drang lineage would have ended a few generations ago, so my sympathy for whatever issues US Grant may have had with them is limited…

  7. Thanks for so much information and heartening at that. I wonder what the difference in survival rate was between the Civil War and ones beng fought in the 19th century in other places.

  8. Take a look at Agnes Elizabeth, Princess Salm-Salm (nee’ Agnes Leclerq of Philadelphia). Read her memoir years ago.

  9. ” the matter of the existence of slavery in the United States was a contentious and hard-fought-over issue in the antebellum years”

    The English writer Harriet Martineau, whose comments about Harvard as viewed in 1835 I cited in a recent post, was a strong abolitionist. She said she was subject to more hostility on that subject in Boston than in her travels throughout the South.

  10. I am pleased to see you found Mary (Mother) Bickerdyke. It was Sherman who replied that “she ranks me.” She joined his army, first as a volunteer who brought medical supplies from the Sanitary Commission. She later organized kitchens for his army and then organized the escaped slaves who flocked to his army in its march through the South. Initially, the slaves were a burden on the army but Mother Bickerdyke organized them for her kitchens and for nursing. She marched with Sherman all the way to South Carolina and, on the way, discovered that blackberries, common all through the South, prevented Scurvy. At the end of the war, the soldiers of Sherman’s army insisted she march with them through Washington City in the great parade. After the war, she set up a rooming house in Kansas which became the nucleus of the veterans’ care system she helped set up. She and Sherman filled in where Congress neglected the wounded on the war. Many of the healthy veterans worked on the transcontinental railroad and her rooming house in Kansas hosted a number of them.

    About 25 years ago, I prepared a lecture on the medical history of the Civil War. The title included “American Civil War” as it was delivered at the Royal Army Medical Corps center at Aldershot. Here is Episode 1 I think there are seven. They are the slides from the lecture, which I had the honor of presenting before David Baltimore at the Huntington Library at a medical history program.

  11. Yes, I found two near-contemporary biographies of Mary Bickerdyke – she first turned up with four boxcars of supplies to the Union Army at Cairo, Illinois, and everything else started from there. The escaped slaves, called ‘contrabands’ who began attaching themselves to her hospital also ran an enormous laundry operation, washing and repairing uniform clothing for re-use. The contrabands also operated a large portable brick oven, to bake loaves of bread – the bricks of it were numbered, so the oven could be taken apart, transported and reassembled. She also asked Illinois farmers for donations of milk cows and chickens, so that the hospital kitchen could have fresh milk and eggs for the invalids – at the end of the war, she parceled out the chickens and cows, giving them to the freed slaves who had worked for her hospital organization. I’m working all of that into the story.
    I hope to have it ready for publication around November, and a launch at Goliad’s Christmas market when I do Miss Ruby’s Author Corral, the first Saturday in December.

  12. I remember the ruckus that emerged when Time on the Cross was first published – it dealt with slavery as a much more complicated and nuanced issue (and on both sides, of owner and the owned) than people were accustomed to think/assume, then and even more now. There were all kinds of shadings and degrees – one of them being that a slave, especially a skilled one was a luxury good. I recall that some of the initial fury was that – while it didn’t paint a perfectly rosy picture of the situation, they used statistics and records to demonstrate that it wasn’t a perfect hell, either. The people who very much preferred to paint the institution as an unmitigated hell were furious.
    I plan on dealing with some of the nuances in the novel.

  13. As to the value of slaves to their masters, a friend of mine wound up as a professor of OBGYN at U of Alabama. While there he met another doc who was descended from a slave owning family pre-Civil War. They were talking about life in the antebellum South and the topic turned to getting cotton to market. Slaves drove wagons filled with cotton in bales to the river and pushed the bales of cotton over the edge of the bluff. Who was at the bottom of the bluff to catch the bales ? Not slaves; they were too valuable. Irishmen were used for that dangerous job. They were free.

  14. Mike K.,

    Marx considered in many ways that for the capitalist free labor was superior to.slavery. Not for.productivity and moral reasons. Slaves were property and as such were a capital expense they had to be housed, fed past their productive years and into their.old age. Free labor only cost the employer the daily wage and if the worker was no longer fit to.work (or crushed trying to catch a bale) they could be jettisoned

  15. Chernow’s biography of Washington points out that at Washington’s death, only about a third of the slaves on Mt. Vernon were productive. The rest were either too young, too old or disabled. All things considered, the prime productivity of a male slave were likely about 15 years at best and probably closer to 10. This was bounded, first by childhood, probably till around 15 years of age and then by decreasing strength of middle and old age compounded by disease and injury. Female slaves were, at most, about two thirds as productive as field hands as men, with the added complications of child bearing.

    While the slaves that weren’t capable of heavy work still made contributions, It was the field hands that were responsible for the cash flow and each one probably had to support three or four others partially. When added to the fact that they constituted a singularly unmotivated work force, the general backwardness of the Antebellum South compared to the North comes into focus.

    The Mississippi Delta plantations were notorious for having short life expectancy of slaves. Thus the expression; “sold down the river”. While rationality would seem to dictate the careful husbanding of expensive slaves, relations were never solely dictated by rationality and often enough by the opposite.

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