At dawn the next morning, I could gradually see about me. We were in a large room with a high ceiling, the church, I remembered. I lay on a cot with other cots and men on either side of me. Women, nurses I supposed, were passing along the rows of injured, sometimes giving medicine, sometimes changing dressings, sometimes draining wounds, always giving encouraging words. The terrible pain had returned, so one of the nurses gave me some more medicine.
I realized that some men were being carried out on stretchers as others came in. One of those carried out had been just to my left, and I heard one of the nurses say that he had died during the night.
I wondered idly whether or not the battle had been resumed or was over. I hoped that Lee had had to retreat and got pinned between our army and the Potomac, but I later learned that that had not happened. Our army had won but failed to follow up the victory by pursuing the Confederates. Instead the soldiers spent the day aiding the wounded and burying the dead of both armies.
I worried about Billy, wondering if he had survived the battle. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll never know
A new soldier was brought to take the place of the one next to me who had died. He was a Reb, as I could tell by his threadbare clothing and lack of shoes. A man in the cot on the other side of him complained to the doctor about him being in a Union hospital, but the doctor retorted, “A man is a man, and if he’s injured he deserves help.” The complainer muttered some, but the injured man stayed. It mattered little as he died by the next morning.
The nurses came back with food — a gruel which they spooned into us. I wondered how they could keep up working with such terribly wounded men. I was surprised that they didn’t just faint or get sick. I decided that women were stronger than I grew up believing.
Meanwhile, doctors were examining all of us, sometimes speaking a kind word, sometimes just shaking their heads and moving on.
After I ate I once again went through a time of being in and out of consciousness. Later in the day, I awoke with a start. Where was my beloved rifle? I tried to look about but could move little. A nurse saw my distress and came to me, asking what was wrong.
“M’ rifle,” I blurted. “I’ve lost m’ rifle.”
“That’s all right,” she responded. “You won’t have need for it now.”
“But it was a gift from m’ Pa!” I protested, tears in my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s gone now. Mebbe it’s helpin’ another soldier out there.” She tried to comfort me but I was inconsolable. I simply lay and wept. Perhaps I was weeping for my rifle, but I think I was weeping for many other losses as well — my loss of innocence in the horror of yesterday, the loss of Theophilus and Tony, the loss of my arm, and perhaps I was also weeping just from the shock of it all, for there was nothing to take my mind off my pain and my losses.
The day and night passed fitfully. I have no idea how many times I got medicine or food or had my wound drained and dressed; I lost all track of time and could only tell the difference between day and night from the light which passed through the tall church windows.
The next day and night were very much the same. There was really nothing to do when I was awake except stare into space. More bodies were taken out but fewer wounded were brought in. I did learn that some of the men with very serious injuries were being taken to trains in Frederick which would transport them to Washington and the hospitals there.
A day or two later, a woman who was not a nurse but, I believe, one of the citizens of Boonsboro came to me and asked if I would like to dictate a letter home. At first I said I’d like to do two, but she said the second would have to wait for another time.
So she wrote as I dictated:
Dear Ma and Pa,
There was a huge battle at Sharpsburg a few days ago. It was terrible! I can’t really describe it right now. Maybe someday I will be able to, but it was so horrible and appalling I just can’t find words for it.
I was shot in my right arm, just above the elbow and the doctors had to amputate my arm. I guess they did a good job because the doctors here say it is beginning to heal well.
Tony was killed and probably Theophilus as well. If it hadn’t been for Billy’s help I would probably have died too. He managed somehow to get me to the field hospital. Then he disappeared and I have no idea where he is now.
I am in a church in Boonsboro that has been made into a hospital. I don’t know how long I will be here. The people here are doing their best for us in terrible circumstances.
I miss you both and Josiah so much. Will you please show him this letter as I can only dictate one for now?
Your loving son,
Because I didn’t want them to worry I didn’t tell them that I was in a lot of pain; I didn’t tell them I’d been crying a lot; I didn’t tell them I’d lost my rifle.
It seemed forever that I lay on that cot sad and in pain. Every once in a while something odd happened. I knew that the doctor had cut off my arm. In fact, I could see the stump, and yet sometimes I felt as though my whole arm was still there. I would look and see that it wasn’t, and yet it felt like it was. One day I asked the doctor about it and he said that I was experiencing a “phantom arm,” and that that was not unusual for people who had a limb amputated. He asked if it hurt and I said, “No more than usual.” He smiled and told me to tell one of the doctors if it hurt more.
More days passed; I have no idea how many. I guess I was getting better because sometimes a nurse or doctor helped me sit up for a time. The nights were the worst. Every night I was awakened with terrible dreams of guns and explosions and men being blown apart. Sometimes I woke up screaming. While the nurses said that the dreams would fade they didn’t the whole time I was there and for long afterwards.
Then one day as I was dozing, I heard a familiar voice ask, “D’ya think we should wake him?”
I opened my eyes and there were Ma and Pa and Josiah. I could see tears in their eyes but they were trying to be brave so I tried too. Pa told me how the farm was doing and Ma told me how well her garden had done. Fortunately, our farm was just north enough from Middletown that it hadn’t been raided by soldiers looking for food except for some Confederate cavalry troops who were very polite. They watered their horses and only took what food they really needed. I wondered if our men would have been as polite.
Josiah told me about how his farm was doing and then said that Tad and Eddie were worried about me and they wanted to know if I had killed anybody.
“I don’t rightly know,” I replied. “I must’ve fired sixty or seventy rounds at the Rebs but I’ve no idea if any of ’em hit anybody. I guess I kinda hope they didn’t, but I’ll never know.”
Finally I got up the courage to tell Pa about the rifle. His response was, “That’s all right, I’d much rather have ya come home without the rifle than to have the rifle come home without you.”
By then I was very weary, so I told them I thought I needed to rest. Ma gave me a kiss and Pa shook my hand. Then Josiah bent over and kissed me full on the mouth. The kiss was warm and sweet but I was too tired to respond very much.
Pa said that when I was ready to go home he would come and get me. He said there were wounded soldiers on the roads walking home but he didn’t want me to do that. I agreed.
In the following days the nurses sometimes got me up to walk short distances. At first I felt very dizzy and couldn’t keep my balance, but they held me and helped me and each day I walked a little farther. They had slowly stopped giving me the pain medicine and my arm still hurt a lot. The doctors said that it was healing well and would hurt less in time. They never said it would stop hurting altogether, and, in fact, it never has. And the “phantom arm” still appears sometimes, although not painfully.
Nearly every day when I could find somebody to write for me I sent letters off to my parents and Josiah, but I really had little to tell them. I also sent a letter to Billy, hoping he would get it wherever he was. Sometimes on nice days the nurses helped me walk outside and let me sit for a time. Remarkably I still had the pipe Josiah had made for me and a passerby gave me some tobacco, so I sat smoking and watching the life of Boonsboro pass by. Some people stopped and spoke, thanking me for my sacrifice; others looked away as though they couldn’t really face me. I suppose I understood that. I could look at my fellow wounded soldiers because we held something deeply in common. But some people who didn’t have our experience could not deal with the sight of broken men.
One day as I sat in the sun smoking, I began to wonder about what my life would be like when I went home. It was the first time I had really thought about leaving the hospital. I didn’t see how I could be any use on the farm with just one arm. I thought about trying to go back to school, but I felt as though I had outgrown that. It worried me. I knew I couldn’t just sit around doing nothing and depending on Ma and Pa for everything, and yet, that was just how I felt. I really didn’t want to do anything. I wondered too about me and Josiah. I knew I had changed a great deal. I no longer felt cheerful and happy. I was sad a good part of the time and sometimes I cried for no reason at all. And then there were the nightly bad dreams. Would I ever get back to who I was before? I had to admit that I really didn’t think so. Too much had happened to me since I left the farm for me to ever be the person I was before.
Finally the doctors told me I could go home, so I had one of the women write a letter to Pa telling him I was ready to go back to the farm.
A few days later he and Ma and Josiah all arrived with the wagon. Josiah and Pa helped me up on the bed of the wagon where they had put some quilts to cushion my ride. Nevertheless, I was pretty uncomfortable and the jarring hurt my arm something fierce. Josiah rode beside me and tried to keep up small talk, but I didn’t really say much and a few times I dozed off.
The ride seemed endless, but we finally arrived home and Josiah and Pa helped me into the kitchen where I dropped into a chair. Ma of course had food ready although I really wasn’t hungry. I just wanted to lie down and rest. I tried to eat a little so as not to disappoint her, but then I said I had to rest.
Pa and Josiah helped me up the stairs, Josiah going behind me so I wouldn’t fall backwards. I was a little shaky, but it went better than I had feared. I think as soon as my head hit the pillow I was asleep. I never heard Pa or Josiah leave.
That night, Pa helped me sit up in bed and Ma brought me something to eat, some of her wonderful fried chicken and her bread, which I had last tasted in Baltimore after I had first arrived. Now that seemed like a lifetime ago, although it was really only a few months.
In the night I awoke screaming again. Pa came running up the stairs and sat on the side of my bed while I told him that this happened every night and then I told him about my dreams. He sat quietly and listened, then, reassuring me that he and Ma were right there whenever I needed them, he helped my lie down again and slowly I dropped off to sleep.