So here on the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, I am a bit predisposed. I’m not at the Battlefield – as I was last year, lecturing at the east side of the Burnside Bridge at the very moment the Union made a first successful charge across that 12-foot arch. I am, myself, sitting in a hospital bed in Hagerstown as I write these words – thankful to have survived a double pulmonary emboli three days ago.
So my thoughts right now drift to the imagined experiences of thousands of boys in blue and gray, far from home, being wounded and taken to various “hospitals.” I’m mindful of the story told by George F. Noyes – a Maine lawyer who served in Doubleday’s supply command structure : The army of the wounded, numbering at least ten thousand, occupied more than seventy of these impromptu hospitals, stretching from the Potomac out over the battlefield, through Sharpsburg, Keadysville, and Boonesborough, even to Frederick and Hagerstown, while miles of ambulances bore daily northward their precious freights of patriotic pain. Over the river, also, we could see the red flag waving from many a dwelling, the hospital of the wounded rebels, whom the enemy had carried with them in their late escape. In barns, and sheds, and farm-houses; in churches, halls, and residences; in colonies of hospital marquees; in yards and gardens crowded with shelter-tents; wherever, in a word, there was space for the narrow hospital bed, there lay a soldier chained to his couch by a wound more or less severe. No matter what flag he followed into battle, an equal surgical aid surrounded him, an equal kindness soothed his agony. Once within the hospital, the distinction between the patriot and the rebel was forgotten; and I was touched in noticing that, in some of the little graveyards which sprang up, ah! so rapidly, near the different hospitals, the men of the North and the men of the South slept side by side together.
I’m thinking of the story I tell so much of Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. – declared a goner on the field from a shot through the neck, only to end up being cared for in a home here in Hagerstown.
And then there are the stories of the Connecticut guys – so many of their wounded going to the Henry Rohrbach farm. These stories are wonderfully told in my friend’s new book “Connecticut Yankees at Antietam” by John Banks. He and I were able to visit the site one day last year – notice the big “HR” for Henry Rohrbach in the bricks of the barn, high on the gable end.
So, hospital food is indeed everything I was told it would be! But it is certainly beyond anything the 127,000 soldiers were getting 151 years ago today!