Nursing the Wounded and Dying

In the midst of the conflict, the heroes, I stood,
Or pass’d with slow step through the wounded and dying—
The collections of maimed and broken-down men,
The sad legacy bequeathed by those vast armies and sanguinary battles—
And I resign’d myself to sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

I saw the wounded and the dead, and never forget them,
I recall the experience sweet and sad,
I send my love sincerely to each and all,
For every sick and wounded soldier is dear to me as a son or brother.
Ever since have they been with me,
They have fused ever since in my poems,
They are here forever in my poems—
No poem proud, I chanting bring to thee,
But a cluster containing night’s darkness and blood-dripping wounds,
And psalms of the dead.

You ought to see the scene of the wounded arriving,
A sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,
I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all.
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms,
Varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity,
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers,

Some of them dead, some in the death-spasm sweating,
Old men leaning on young men’s shoulders—
Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.

Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, the mighty and cumbrous armies, the bloody battles, the interminable campaigns, and an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans—the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those army hospitals. It seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest of the land was one vast central hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges.

In those boarded hospital barracks, whitewashed outside and in,
There were about 100 in one long room,
Eight or ten or twelve such wards in the hospital,

(The yard outside also fill’d.)
Then there are some 38 more hospitals here in Washington, some of them much larger.

Now, after great and terrible experiences, here in their barracks they lie,
Each case has its peculiarities, and needs some new adaptation,
I have learnt to thus conform—learnt a good deal of hospital wisdom.

Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Gazing desperate on the torn bodies,
I go from bedside to bedside
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint.

These and more I dress with impassive hand,
Yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame,
a pervading Christ-like benevolence, tenderness, and sympathy.
Some of the poor young chaps, away from home for the first time in their lives, hunger and thirst for affection; this is sometimes the only thing that will reach their condition.
In the simple matter of personal presence, emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism, I succeeded and help’d more than by medical nursing, or delicacies, or gifts of money, or anything else;
This arm, this hand, this voice, have nourish’d, rais’d, restored,
To life recalling many a prostrate 

I am more than nurse, more than parent or neighbor,
I sit quietly by, I remain faithful, I do not give out.
By the cot in the hospital reaching lemonade to a feverish patient.
With dear or critical cases I generally sit by the restless all the dark night,
Some are so young, some suffer so much.
I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and the most restless,
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them;
I find deep things, unreckoned by current print or 
It is perhaps the greatest interchange of magnetism human relations are capable of.

Many of the cases are bad ones, lingering wounds, and old sickness,
The amputation, the blue face, the groan, the clotted rag,
The odor of wounds and blood, the glassy eye of the dying,
The look of despair on the countenances of many of the men—
Hope has left them.
The wrecks of so many dear young men are terrible, and make one’s heart ache,
I thought I was cooler and more used to it,
But the sight of some cases brought tears into my eyes.
O you regiments so piteous, with your mortal diarrhoea, with your fever,
O my land’s maim’d darlings, with the plenteous bloody bandage and the crutch.

There ruled agony with bitter scourge, yet seldom brought a cry—
Sounds of unendurable suffering from two or three of the cots, an occasional scream or cry,
But in the main there is quiet—almost a painful absence of demonstration;
The pallid face, the dull’d eye, and the moisture on the lip, are demonstration enough,
Faces so pale with wondrous eyes, very dear.

I get very much attached to some of them, and many of them have come to depend on seeing me, and having me sit by them a few minutes, as if for their lives,
Often they seem very near to me, even as my own children or younger brothers. I make no bones of petting them just as if they were—have long given up formalities and reserves in my treatment of them.
Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.

Lewy Brown, so good, so affectionate—when I came away, he reached up his face, I put my arm around him, and we gave each other a long kiss, half a minute long.
(Dear child, remember you me? Remember you who kissed you while you lay so pale and lonesome in your cot?)

John A. Holmes had not had any medical attention since he was brought there, so I sent for the doctor. He seemed to have entirely give up and lost heart, had not a cent of money, not a soul here he knew or cared about, except me. He said he would like to buy a drink of milk, when the woman came through with milk. I gave him a little change I had. Trifling as this was, he was overcome and began to cry.
I saw as I looked that it was a case for ministering to the affection first, and other nourishment and medicines afterward. I sat down by him without any fuss; talked a little; soon saw that it did him good; led him to talk a little himself; got him somewhat interested.
Holmes told me I had saved his life. It was one of those things that repays a soldiers’ hospital missionary a thousandfold—one of the hours he never forgets.

I am welcomed by the surgeons as by the soldiers, very grateful to me.
I sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife—
The doctor’s shouted orders or calls,

Limbs are tied to the surgeon’s table,
Surgeons operating, odor of blood,
The glisten of the little steel instruments,
The hiss of the surgeon’s knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw,
Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild scream, and long, dull, tapering groan,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
These so, these irretrievable.

Meantime the ordinary chat and business of the ward goes on indifferently. Some of the inmates are laughing and joking, others are playing checkers or cards, others are reading.

And there stalk’d death by day and night along the narrow aisles between the rows of cots, or by the blankets on the ground,
The great crop reaped by the mighty  reapers—typhoid, dysentery, and inflammations—
Death there up and down the aisle, tapping lightly by night or day here and there many a poor young sufferer,
Often with blessed, welcome, relieving touch—

Come sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death! in mercy come quickly!

Many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away untended there, (for the crowd of the badly hurt was great, and much for nurse to do, and much for surgeon.)
I have nourish’d the wounded and sooth’d many a dying soldier,
Upon this breast has many a dying soldier lean’d to breathe his last.

Tread the bare board floor lightly here, for the pain and panting of death are in this cot,
Some soldier’s life is flickering there, hard the breathing rattles, suspended between recovery and death.
I bend to the dying lad, his great bright eyes open, a half-smile gives he me,
It is useless to talk to him, as with his sad hurt—has to be constantly dosed with morphine—and the utter strangeness of every object, face, etc., the poor fellow is like some frighten’d, shy animal;
When I ask him how he feels, he is able just to articulate, “I feel pretty bad yet, old man.”

He felt the struggle to keep up any longer to be useless,
God, the world, humanity—all had abandoned him,
It would feel so good to shut his eyes forever on the cruel things around him,
Quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard.
Poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

Then the eyes close, calmly close—
Welcome oblivion, painlessness, death;
He seem’d quite willing to die—he had become very weak and had suffer’d a good deal, and was perfectly resign’d, poor boy.
The limpsy head falls down, the arms are softly placed by the side, all composed, all still,
And the broad white sheet is thrown over everything.

This pure souled creature died as a flower might wilt of a chilly evening, silently, and without complaint,
His fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious and royal ones.
This dear young man close at hand—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, and what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to—
Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick and dying there.

I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys.
To me, I found (and still, on recollection, find) the points illustrating the latent personal character of these millions of young men embodied in those armies—and especially the number stricken by wounds or disease—of more significance even than the political interests involved. (As so much of a race depends on how it faces death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness.)

Here in these ranks of sick and dying young men, the best expression of character I have ever seen or conceived—never vulgar, ever calm, without greediness, no flummery, no frivolity, responding electric and without fail to affection.
I have seen many wounded soldiers die,
After dread suffering—have seen their lives pass off with smiles,
Always meeting their death with steady composure, and often with curious readiness;
Of the many I have seen die, or known of, I have not seen or heard of one who met death with any terror.

What a volume of meaning, what a tragic poem there is in every one of those sick wards! Yes in every individual cot.
These thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, etc., open a new world somehow to me.

Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction, (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights,) and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life—
It arous’d and brought out and decided undream’d-of depths of emotion, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity, tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, the living soul’s, the body’s tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art.
To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest?
Really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.

Here I see, not at intervals, but quite always, how certain, man, how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations,
It is immense, the best thing of all.
This then, what frightened us all so long!
Why it is put to flight with ignominy, a mere stuffed scarecrow of the fields.
0 death where is thy sting?
0 grave where is thy victory?

NEXT: Peace