Working in a Civil War hospital must have been as difficult as health workers under the current Covid pandemic.
Walt Whitman talks about those who he worked with in the Washington DC Hospitals. His statement, “Some live and some die” fits the current situation in America.
Approximately 2.1 million Northerners and 880,000 Southerners were involved in the war between 1861 and 1865. Many of the hospital workers heard or were dictated last words to share with the living from their family.
Looking at the prose that is left to us, some of it is flowery, some are humorous or flippant, and others are apologetic of their past behavior towards someone that they knew well. Many talked of seeing their loved one in the future. Most also expressed the writer’s love to someone whether it was a wife, mother, children, or current friend.
This comes from a book of the period, “The Gates Ajar” in which the author feels that there is but a thin veil between the living and the dead. Perhaps that is why spiritualism became so popular during both the Civil War and World War I.
Those who had lost someone on a faraway battlefield still wanted to have that last contact with their loved one.
These last words were important in that they were thought to be truths from the person. As they were dying, there was no reason to lie about anything or “bear false witness.” Soldiers, chaplains, nurses, hospital stewards, and doctors all felt the weighty responsibility to report the last words to the family or a facsimile of words that they expected the person said to give those left comfort.
Some soldiers managed to write home or have others write for them as they were dying.
The pen spoke the words that they wanted others to hear. Some soldiers even promised each other that if they were killed, that their friends would report their words and their death to their family.
Many Confederate letters ended with, “(He)…had died a glorious death in defense of his country.”
A letter (one of three) discovered in the National Archives was written by Walt Whitman as the behest of a Nelson Jabo in a Washington D.C. hospital. Mr. Jabo knows that he is dying and Whitman takes up the pen for him.
Washington, January 1865
My Dear Wife,
You must excuse me for not having written to you before. I have not been very well & did not feel much like writing – but I feel considerably better now- my complaint is an affliction of the lungs…I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this & let me know how you all are, how things are going on- let me know how it is with mother. I write by means of a friend who is sitting by my side & I hope it will be God’s will that we shall yet meet again. Well I send you all of my love & must close now.
Your affectionate husband
Written by Walt Whitman
Dying Generals words were reported as much more profound that enlisted men. Union General Robert McCook’s words while he lay dying of a gunshot wound was, “I am done with life.”
Far more profound were the words of both General Stonewall Jackson and Robeet E. Lee. General Jackson is said to mutter poetically, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
General Lee is to have returned to the War and stated, “Tell Hill he must come up” and “Strike the Tent” as his final words over the two-week period after suffering a stroke in September, 1870.
The most poetic we have is General John Sedgwick’s at the Battle of Spotsylvania when he says about the distant sharpshooters that, “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” He was proven wrong as the bullet hit his face below his left eye, killing him.
General Albert Sidney Johnson stated during the Battle of Shiloh when asked if he was injured, “Yes and I fear seriously.”
Brigadier General Stephen Weed, when shot on Little Round Top, went to the classics as he stated, “I’m as dead a man as Julius Caesar.” Brigadier Gen. William Barksdale from Mississippi, who was morally wounded on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, is to have stated “Tell my wife I fought like a man and will die like one.” Major Gen. Jesse Reno, at the Battle of South Mountain (pre-Antietam), is to have said “Yes, yes I’m dead. Tell the boys if I can’t be with them in body, I shall be with them in sprit.” Finally, there is Major Gen. J.E.B. Stuart who states after the Battle of Yellow Tavern, “I am going fast now; I am resigned; God’s will be done.”
With enlisted men, many times Mother was the focus of the dying man. Jeremiah Gage of the 11th Mississippi, on July 3, 1863 stated, “My Dear mother, this is the last you may ever hear from me. I have time to tell you that I died like a man. Private W.F. Ramsey of the 1st North Carolina Artillery stated, “Tell my wife I died at my post.” Sergeant George Washington Buck 20th Maine told the boys “Tell my mother I did not die like a coward.” Private John Lynch of the 3rd Alabama died at Camp Letterman on August 1, 1863. His dying words were: ”Mother, you and I will meet in heaven.”
Others died after the Battle of Gettysburg. “Tell her I forgive her.” After the sweetheart of a New York soldier broke off their pledge upon learning that he was no longer a whole man, (he had lost a leg), according to reports, he buried his head in his pillow, wept and died two days later. Colonel Hugh R. Miller of the 42nd Mississippi said to his captors, “I am very much obliged to you, but give it to those around, who are worse, and need it more.” He died 14 days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Personal possessions were especially cherished by the surviving relatives when returned to the family, with or without the body. Burnes Newman of the 7th Wisconsin sent to Micheal Shotell’s father “some trinkets taken from his person” upon his death. He stated to the father that, “(I)...think you will prize them as keepsakes.” He sent his bible, watch, a diary, and a lock of hair. Sometimes in a macabre matter, even the bullet that killed the soldier was sent home to the relatives.
The prose of the Civil War reflected the loss of these soldiers and officers. No Letter published in the Macon Daily Telegraph & Confederate of January 21, 1865 states this in the poem.
“No letter!” poor mother! Oh well might thou weep,
For thy noble and manly first born
Is now sleeping peacefully death’s dreamless sleep;
He shall never again see the morn.
In a Soldier’s Letter, from the New York Evangelical of April, 1863 the poem sums up the importance of the last words when it states:
So when he found that he must go, he called me to his bed,
And said, ”You’ll not forget to write when you hear that I am dead,
And you’ll tell them how I loved them, and bid them all good-bye!”
Walt Whitman today retains his role as a voice for the common soldiers in his writings. Whitman said it best in his poem Camps of Green after the war and after the horrors of the hospitals that he worked at in Washington, D.C. The poem is for all the soldiers of the Civil War who would eventually meet in the Camps of the Green.
Lo! The camps of the tents of green,
Which the days of peace keep filling, and the days of
War keep filling.
With a mystic army, (is it too ordered forward? Is it too
Only halting awhile,
Till night and sleep pass over?)
For presently, O soldiers, we too camp in our place
In the bivouac-camps of green
But we need not provide for outposts, nor wood for
Nor drummer to beat the morning drum.
Until next time….
Your Obt. Servant,
Surgeon Trevor Steinbach
17th Corps Field Hospital