The pile of boots grew higher. Dusty. Worn. Crusted with blood. A boot-hungry group of men rooted through the pile, desperately looking for something that fit their swollen, sorry feet. An adjacent pile grew apace. Amputated limbs, some legs severed at the knee; some mid-thigh. All belonging to young soldiers who may or may not have left this place alive. An army of flies swarmed the gory mound, staking their claim to the discarded appendages. The flies droned so loudly they could have summoned buzzards.
“This ‘uns mine,” one soldier snarled, grabbing a boot from a smaller man. Joshua Barnett, company surgeon, shook his head as he watched, reminded of stray dogs he had seen growling and snarling over a bone in a Boston alley. “Well, those boys in there won’t need them anymore,” he muttered to himself.
Wiping bloody hands on a rag, Joshua had stepped outside the hospital tent for some air. He scratched at his thick red beard, shedding flecks of dried skin and blood onto his apron. After yesterday’s battle, he had worked all night. Even when the cannon roar stopped, the screams inside the tent continued. He, along with the two surgeons and three nurses under his command, created that mountain of extremities.
Every battle ended the same. Feet blown off. Knees shattered. Arms missing. And those were just the ones that stood a chance. It was easier when a boy came to him unconscious. Awake and screaming, none chose a limb over life. You cannot explain gangrene to a hysterical boy. Amputation was often the only chance he could give them.
Today, fighting began late afternoon and thundered well into the evening. Though surrounded by pretty countryside, Joshua hated this Pennsylvania burg. Not sure what I expected when I signed up as a surgeon for this godawful war, he mused. The Union matters, but surely these boys’ lives matter more.
“That’s my leg and I want it!” he heard Sickle yelling at a nurse inside. Joshua sympathized with the man, but General Daniel Sickle had made a nuisance of himself since they brought him in.
Joshua wearily returned to the tent. “Give him his damn leg,” he ordered his staff. “He can keep it as a souvenir if he wants it.”
Inside the brown canvas tent, wounded soldiers lay side by side on long rows of army regulation cots. Joshua closed the tent flap after him to keep the flies from laying claim to what was left of these boys.
Teams of soldiers rushed more and more wounded in from the field on litters. Today’s batch suffered worse than blasted limbs.
“Corporal?” Joshua looked questioningly at an older man as he helped move a soldier to his table. Blood poured from a large gash in the boy’s abdomen.
“Those southern boys charged the hill with bayonets out, sir. Chopped down our whole first line before we shot ‘em.”
Joshua leaned over the table. “This boy can’t be more than fifteen and I doubt even that.”
“Young Joe,” the corporal nodded toward his fallen comrade, “we know’d he weren’t the sixteen he claimed. Good ‘nuf soldier, even for one so small. Did his part, Joe did.”
“Well, he’s not dead yet, so let’s see if we can give him a sixteenth birthday.” Joshua touched the corporal’s bleeding arm. “Get that looked at, soldier.”
Drawing aside the wounded boy’s jacket, Joshua saw that the wound penetrated the bowel. “Sarah,” he called to his head nurse. Sarah Hawes hurried over and quickly cut away the boy’s clothes to give Joshua room to work.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. Joshua looked up at her stunned face. “Our patient is a girl,” she whispered. Joshua’s mouth dropped open in surprise, but he kept working.
“I’m sewing up what I can,” he complained. “But I don’t know if it’ll hold.”
Leaving his nurse to close the wound, Joshua turned to the next boy and the next. Boys came in, speaking of battlegrounds soon to be sacred: Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill. The pile of boots grew higher.
Dawn broke on the third day; the air, foggy, damp, and smelling of rain. Rain would be a relief, Joshua thought, but another scorcher was on its way. Sarah brought him some coffee. Gratefully, he drank away the heavy pull of sleep.
“Sir… sir,” a low voice called to him. Young Joe, or whoever this lass was, had awakened. Joshua knelt beside her. “Lie quietly. You’ve been through a rough one.” He answered the soldier’s questioning look, “Yes, we know your secret.”
“I had to, sir.” Tears spilled across her downy cheeks.
When she tried to sit up, Joshua pushed her gently back on the cot. “Too soon. You need to rest.”
“My brother died ‘cause of me,” she said in a faint voice.
“Shush. Just rest.”
“He signed up, but died before his company left.” Unable to quiet the child, Joshua
listened. “Was taking milk from our farm to town. I wanted to drive the team.” A spike of pain silenced her momentarily. “Matt told me to slow down. Fallen rocks on the road. Horses stumbled. Wagon spilled over.” Sobbing softly, “Threw Matt. Pinned him ‘neath the cart.”
Joshua took her hand, “What’s your name soldier?” “Josephine Deming,” she whispered.
“Where you from Josephine? Where do your folks live?”
Wincing, she replied in a weak voice, “Granville, Massachusetts, sir. Father owns a dairy farm.”
“Does your father know you’re here?”
“No, sir, Father wouldn’t approve. Please don’t tell him.”
Noting the bright flush on her face and neck, Joshua feared a fever rising in the small, tortured body.
“He sent me to my aunt up in Maine. Said I shouldn’t be so hard on myself after I killed Matt.”
“Sounds like an accident to me, Jo,” Joshua gently patted her hand. “I’m sure your father knows that, too.”
A glint of light sparked in her eyes as she squeezed Joshua’s hand. “Had to take Matt’s place, sir. Fight for the Union. Father says we’re fighting for our country’s soul.” She looked intently at Joshua’s face. “Sir, some things… Some things worth dying for.”
Joshua smiled at her, “Of course, soldier. I understand. I have to tend the others now, Jo, but I’ll be back.” He stood up on unsteady feet. Yes, the nation’s soul. At the cost of how many souls?
Artillery fire started again. Within a short time, litter bearers carried in the wounded. Faces blurred. Joshua saw only bloody gashes, shredded limbs. By late afternoon, he could barely stand. A sea of boys in blue jackets streaked with blood lay just outside the tent. He continued on and on…
“Joshua!” Sarah shook him. “You can stop now.” A boy lay dead on his table. “You’ve done what you could. Let God hold him now.”
Twilight eased the heat and softened the light. The flood of wounded boys had subsided. Joshua sat down beside Sarah and drank the coffee she offered him. I must have tended over a thousand soldiers in these last three days.
“How’s our lass?” he asked Sarah.
“I’m sorry, Joshua. She passed on not long ago.”
Sobs silently shook his body. He had hoped… he had let himself hope.
Sarah handed him a tintype. “I took this from her jacket.” Chipped, smeared with dirt, the photograph showed three people — a somber man and two adolescents. Instead of the usual stoic faces staring ahead, the boy was smiling and the girl, Josephine, wore a pretty bonnet and gazed adoringly up at her brother. Joshua placed the photograph in his pocket and wished Sarah a good night.
Day four, the artillery remained quiet. Soldiers left for the battlefield early in the morning, yet silence reigned. Within the hospital tent, most of the boys slept in fits and starts. Their moans melded into a low continuous chorus, punctuated by outbursts of agony.
“Lee’s turned back!” a young soldier shouted as he passed the tent. Chattering voices, even laughter, filled the air as soldiers straggled back to camp.
Joshua, though grateful for a respite, sadly began a letter addressed to Mr. Deming, Granville, Massachusetts.
Dear Mr. Deming,
I’m sorry to inform you that your loving daughter, Josephine, died yesterday. She
served with honor as a nurse in the Army of the Potomac, 20th Regiment, Maine Volunteers. I, as Company Surgeon, along with the staff at this field hospital, will miss her greatly.
The battle drew too close to our hospital tent. While she worked fearlessly and tirelessly to aid our patients, she succumbed to the devastations of war.
I am enclosing a photograph that she always held dear and know you surely would want as a token of her love for her family.
Major Joshua Barnett.”
Surely God would forgive him this small lie to ease a father’s grief. He gravely doubted God would forgive the senseless carnage he had witnessed these first three days of July 1863.
For over 25 years, Clay Gish worked as an exhibit designer, developing the vision, educational goals, and scripts for museums around the world. As a historian and educator, she taught American history and government and published several scholarly articles about child labor during the industrial revolution. Since retirement, Clay has written the award-winning travel blog, This Thursday’s Child (www.thisthursdayschild.com). Recently, she turned her hand to fiction with an emphasis on historical narrative.