Antietam Aftermath Series – Post 9
Just about every possible place – homes, schools, churches, barns – were used as hospital locations in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. My series of posts describing these days continues with another excerpt from the pen of George F. Noyes:
The little village of Sharpsburg still bore striking evidences of the fearful nature of the late cannonading. At one period in the battle it must have been a target for both armies, and there was hardly a single house in the whole town, no matter how humble, whose roof, walls, or doors were not pierced and torn with shot and shell. And yet quite a number of its residents remained in their cellars during the whole raging of this iron storm. I can imagine few situations more trying to the nerves than to be thus pent up in gloom while that tempest howled and shrieked through the air, or came hurtling in the rooms overhead. < I do not think that there were many, if any, Confederate canon shots landing in Sharpsburg. But the overshot of Union cannonading most surely afflicted the village throughout the entirety of contest. Stories of the local families either hiding in basements – as in this account – or of evacuating to caves along the Potomac, are many. >
A good Union lady, who visited our head-quarters, gave us a description of this season of horror which greatly interested us. How they made their little preparations of food and clothing, and went down, children and all, as soon as the first shell burst over the village; how they listened, expecting every moment to hear some of the shrieking fiends burst through their own walls, perhaps to penetrate into their retreat; how her husband was forced to rush up and put out the fire caught from a shell which exploded in the second story; how hours lengthened out into seeming days of suspense and fear; how they all mutually sustained each other, she narrated as only a woman can. After hearing her story, I felt that a far pleasanter position would have been the very front of the battle. It was pleasant to converse with these true Union women, of whom I met several in this vicinity. Some of them were slaveholders, but declared that they preferred the Constitution of our fathers even to slavery. Well and faithfully did they do their duty also in the hospitals, with which this whole region was now filled.
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.
Most of the rebel wounded lay in the barns and other buildings near the river and inside their former lines, these localities having been selected by their brigade surgeons during the battle. Miserably deficient at first, they gradually put on an air of comparative comfort; every one had in a day or two his own bed and a plentiful supply of food; but the rebel surgeons, who had been left behind in charge, did not, in general, impress me either with their ability or their tenderness. Nor was I particularly impressed with the average appearance of the rebel wounded, the rank and file lacking, to some extent, that look of intelligence and self-reliance which their general want of education and the social despotism of the slaveocracy of the South had not tended to awaken. < How’s that for a sort of elitist Northern perspective? Noyes was indeed a highly educated lawyer, and also obviously, a passionate abolitionist. >
Occasionally, however, an interesting face attracted me, while the fact that they were sufferers invested all of them with a certain dignity. Lying among rough, common-place-looking men, I saw here and there a boy, too young for war, doubtless the darling of some Southern home, lying pale and weak after the loss of a leg or an arm, yet still full of pluck and courage. Some were only lingering for a moment on the shore of the Great Ocean, with hardly a breath of life fluttering through their rent canvas; some moaned despairingly in their agony; some lay still and motionless in the borderland between sleeping and waking; but most of them were not severely wounded, and responded in pleasant terms to every kindly utterance. Had there been any personal repulsion in the atmosphere of those rebel hospitals I should have discovered it; but after these visits I always felt like asking myself what devil it was that had made these men my enemies.