Blood oozed from the wound, soaking the wool uniform that encompassed it.
The round had punctured him hours before, throwing him to the ground with the others leveled by the opposing volley.
The bloodshed had been vast that day, the war finally claiming him as one of its victims. For hours, he laid on the field wracked by pain and covered in sweat, flies dancing on his face, uniform, and wound.
The blood seeped out of him, making him weaker as minutes turned into hours, and day had turned into evening. He couldn’t move on his own, other than to drag his damaged body across the stubble covered ground.
The wounded and dead littered the field and the war continued to rage all around him. Finally, he had been picked up, placed in an ambulance wagon, and taken to the field hospital.
Now, he lay among the other injured, his wound still untended. His ears filled with the moans of the suffering, the screams of, “No please! I don’t want to die!” and the hurried footsteps of those trying to save as many soldiers as possible, as yet another wagon full of wounded rolled up to the hospital tent.
He was just another soldier in a sea of wounded soldiers. He thought of his mother, and his girl, wishing he were home courting her, rather than here possibly dying in the stench of other wounded men.
Finally, a steward came over to him, looking him from head to toe. He quickly knelt in the narrow space between the pallets and pulled at his trouser leg to see the wound.
“How long ago were you wounded, soldier?”
“Hours sir,” he said through the pain as the steward put pressure on the wound. He tried to stay stoic, to rally his strength and fortitude for the cause, but it would not stop the pain.
He could bite back the cries of anguish, but could not stop the sweat that came unbidden. A frown crossed the steward’s face, and with it, fear entered his heart.
I don’t want to lose my leg.
Another wave of pain washed over him, and the nausea was almost more than he could take.
The steward took hold of his wrist, carefully assessing the pulsations under his fingertips, all the while studying his face.
“Who’s next?” a surgeon barked.
“Over here, sir!” the steward said, standing. The surgeon walked over, carefully assessing the wound. He could not pull his eyes away from the surgeon’s blood soaked apron, sleeves, and hands.
The surgeon stood. “Get him to the operating table.”
Relief and panic rolled through him in an instant. This was it. If he didn’t die under the surgeon’s knife, the next few minutes would determine the rest of his life.
Strong men picked him up, moved him across the room, and toward the operating table. Every movement hurt. Every motion made him sick.
“One, two, three…” they lifted him and placed him on the hard surface, only a sheet between him and the wooden table.
He couldn’t contain the groan, nor the contortion of his features as his face turned white and he grabbed for his wounded leg.
“Get him down,” the surgeon said, standing at the instrument table.
He tried to take stock of the surgeon, only to see his blood-covered instruments.
He propped himself on his elbow, the other hand holding above the wound.
His eyes widened as panic filled him.“Please. Please! I don’t want to lose my leg!”
His head spun as blood loss and dehydration took a greater hold.
“I’ll do my best, son,” the surgeon said gently. He didn’t have an unkind face, but rather one of determination and complete exhaustion.
“I need some light over here!” he called across the dimly lit tent. Looking from the stricken soldier on his operating table to the orderlies, the surgeon ordered, “I said get him down!”
Strong arms grabbed his shoulders and his feet, pressing him down to the table. “It’ll be alright, sir,” the man at his head said in sad, gentle tones.
He was thankful for the support of the table, something besides the dirt to hold his body and head for the first time since before being wounded.
He rolled his head from side to side, as the blood loss made his head spin. At least he wouldn’t die on the field, or unknown in a pile of men.
The surgeon turned to him, felt for a pulse at his foot, and a moment later pain ripped through his leg as the doctor probed the wound.
A scream erupted from his lips.
He fought against the pain, the hard table, and the hands that held him there. If it required amputation, he didn’t know how he would survive.
“I need some anesthesia over here!” the surgeon barked. “Where is that man?” he muttered under his breath.
“I believe he is tied up in another case, sir,” the orderly at his head replied.
Terror, pain, nausea, and faintness threatened to overtake him. Dear God no, I can’t do this alone.
“Can someone get me anesthesia over here!” The din in the tent was becoming a complete melding of tones ringing in his ears. He was not even sure he understood what the surgeon and staff were saying anymore.
“I have it, sir.” The sound of a woman’s voice and the gentle rustle of her skirts made the soldier open his eyes again.
She swam before his vision, pain, terror, and confusion a mix within him.
“Shhh there, you have no need to fear. You’ll be better in no time.” Fabric covered his nose and mouth, obscuring half of his view and threatening to smother him. A chemical smell filled his nostrils as it wafted up his nose. “Breathe deeply.”
The gentle singsong voice invited him to trust her, and enter some far-away place. He couldn’t help but obey. Another deep breath, and more of the chemical smell filled his nose.
He was falling, being drug down to some deep unknown place, yet not far away enough to avoid the pain as the doctor once again was pushing on his leg.
“That’s it soldier…”
She sounded farther and farther away, before darkness consumed him.
Something pulled at his consciousness, asking him to return to the world around him.
He resisted, the sleep and the soft bedding enveloping him, a welcome change.
His mind tried to make sense of the memories, and the sounds around him.
Then he remembered. The surgery, the pain, his leg… His leg! He tried to force his eyes open and make them focus.
“How is he doing?” The surgeon walked briskly down the row of cots, facing the nurse who stood near his.
“Better, doctor. He has slept well, the bleeding has stopped, and no fever so far.” His head began to swim again. He shook his head. He couldn’t have heard that right. That accent! Something must be wrong…
“Let’s have a look.” The surgeon looked at him. “How are you feeling, son?”
“Sir?” Something wasn’t adding up.
“Let’s have a look at your leg.” He was almost afraid to look.
Did he still have it? Would he walk again? Who was this nurse?
The surgeon loosened the bandages and pulled them back.
“It seems to be mending well. No signs of infection or pyemia thus far. It’s a good thing I was able to get that ball out.”
His eyes snapped open. He still had his leg?
He quickly looked toward the doctor, his head swimming a little, but he ignored it.
The doctor pulled back the sheet to expose his foot and felt for the pulse there. He still had his foot! He still had his leg! His head dropped to the pillow with a sigh of relief.
“Very good. Nurse, redress this, and keep his leg elevated. Notify me for any signs of concern.”
“Yes, Doctor.” Her Southern accent… He looked down the cots beside him. The soldiers still in uniform wore blue. It didn’t fit.
The surgeon stepped toward the head of the bed and clapped a hand on his shoulder with a reassuring look. “You’re going to be fine, soldier.” The look in his eye invited him to believe that.
He nodded. “Thank you, Doctor. Thank you…for saving my leg.”
“Well you still have a lot of recovery, but I think you’ll do fine.” He stepped to the foot of the bed. “I’ll leave him to you.”
She nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The surgeon rushed down the line to the next awaiting patient. She leaned toward him. “I’ll be right back,” she said before walking toward the entrance. Her voice was soothing, lilting with her Southern accent. Where was she?
She returned with a basket of bandages and supplies in her hand.
Taking a seat in the chair by the bed, she removed the old bandages as he studied her. Every detail seemed right. She was of nice appearance. She wore a work dress with a pinner apron.
Her hair was pulled back. Her hands were gentle and sure. She reached into the basket for supplies and began addressing the wound.
“You’re a Confederate?” She glanced toward him.
“I am a Southerner, if that’s what you mean,” she studied the wound as she dressed it, her hands gentle and skilled.
“Then why are you taking care of me?”
A look of compassion covered her face. “Because you are wounded.”
Confusion reigned. It didn’t make sense to him. He was a Yankee, she a Southerner. They were at war. Weren’t they? “But…” She glanced up at him. “Aren’t we enemies?”
“No man is my enemy,” she said kindly. He was still confused. He looked down as she gently wound the bandages around his leg, firmly securing them without causing any additional pain.
“I don’t understand, Miss. We are at war. Don’t you hate me? How come you are caring for me?”
Her hands stilled and her eyes were distant for a moment before tying the last knot in the bandage. She placed her supplies on the small table beside the cot, propping his leg carefully on the pillow with a look to him to make sure it was okay.
Then she sat back in the chair, placing her hands in her lap, and studied him for a moment, just long enough that he began feeling uncomfortable.
“In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.”
“Ma’am?” he asked, his brow furrowed.
“The words of our Savior.” Why was she speaking them to him?
“Yes Ma’am, I know that, but I don’t understand.”
She studied him for a minute, as though carefully choosing her words. “Well,” she looked out the window. “Out there, carrying a musket, going to kill, you would be the enemy. But not in here.”
“Why?” She looked back toward him.
“Because each and every one of us was made in God’s image. Each man, woman, and child is precious to Him. Precious enough for the blood of His own Son to be poured out for each one of us to give us life… including you.” He stared at her, and she did not look away, her eyes locked with his for a long moment. “You see, in here, the color of that coat means little. In fact, I don’t even see it anymore.”
He furrowed his brow in question. How could she not see sides in a time of war?
She shrugged her shoulders, a slight tilt to her head.
“I only see broken boys in pain and needing my help.”
She had to be an anomaly!
Taking a deep breath, she quietly sighed. “I wasn’t always this way. But now, thanks to the grace of God, I can see past the color of the uniform, and through to the man underneath. The one who needs my help.”
There was clearly a story behind that. “What happened?” She stood and adjusted his pillows and covers, making him more comfortable before returning to her seat.
“My brother died in a Union hospital because no one there would help ‘a dirty Reb.’ I came to nurse the Confederates so that no more of our boys would die in pain and alone.
Then one day, the fighting was near. They brought in a boy who had been hit by canister shot. I couldn’t believe he was still alive. It was as if his body had been shredded. He was moaning, screaming, and begging for his life. He was bleeding so much we couldn’t make out which uniform he had, or even his age. My heart broke as we tried to save him. The doctors worked, but he bled out under our hands.
I remember wondering if he knew Jesus as I looked at my blood-stained hands. Tears filled my eyes as my heart broke for this boy who had been fighting so hard for life.
Moments later, part of his company came looking for him- all Yankees. I looked from them to this dead boy beside me, and I felt no hatred, just sadness. I felt the spirit of the Lord speak to me in that moment.
“Bless those who curse you…blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy… in as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto Me.
“I knew then that His point was the person, not the color of their skin or the uniform they wore. No amount of hatred or unforgiveness on my part would reverse Jesus’ love for them. My heart changed. I looked around the room, and it was as if I could see each person through God’s eyes.”
“That’s why no man is your enemy?”
He let his head rest back deeply into the pillow processing what he had heard. She stood, picked up his water and handed it to him, helping him raise up enough to drink.
Her hands were cool, compassionate, and merciful. He drank slowly and deeply, as if drawing from the waters of life. She eased him back to the bed and arranged his covers.
“Nurse Rebecca? You are needed.”
“I’ll be right there.” The other nurse nodded and stepped back around the corner. “Rest easy, soldier.” He nodded and watched after her as she followed the other nurse to the next person who needed a special touch to heal their body, or their heart.
This piece is written in honor of the nurses on both sides who saw beyond the color of uniform or skin and to the person in need.
A lot of the dialogue is based off content from journals and other primary documents.
I also wanted to provide a taste of what these soldiers endured and may have experienced, not only being wounded, but also being cared for by the other side. Could they overcome their prejudice and hatred in response to someone offering help without conditions?
Some of this is based on my experience in the medical field. More of it is based on primary sources, and a little bit from my imagination.
In a world today that continues to build in unrest, perhaps there are things we can learn from these amazing nurses who saw past everything, and into the hearts of others.
-By Rachel Holland