A while ago Diane in New York (PhabPhanNYC) asked about doing some tidbits on women serving in the fighting units. I thought it might be a good time to talk a little about them for the next several weeks. We know women served in different ways and we probably think of them mostly as nurses. But there were also women, considered daughters of the regiment, who wore colorful uniforms, led the units in parades and in time of battle served as nurses. In addition, vivandieres, laundresses, cooks and often officers' wives followed the camps. Vivandieres were camp followers much like the sutlers, selling goods to the soldiers. These women went to war declaring themselves openly as women, they did nothing to hide the fact that they were female. On the other hand there were women who went to battle disguising themselves as men in order to be treated as men and to fight as men. We will talk about two of those who disguised themselves, Sarah Emma Edmonds, who fought for the Union and Loreta Janeta Velasquez who fought for the Confederacy. But today we'll begin our journey with a discussion of the "half-soldier heroines." (Hall, p3)
These women oftentimes followed their husbands or sweethearts and they along with laundresses, cooks, water carriers, and even nurses didn't go to war for the adventure. They went mainly because they felt they were supporting the cause, no matter whether it was northern or southern. The officers' wives often became mother figures to the soldiers (if you think about it a vast number of the soldiers were still young boys), pitched in as nurses and helped with camp chores.
Vivandieres, daughters of the regiment and wives, however, served as half-soldiers and half-nurses, following the soldiers onto the battlefield. Belle Reynolds, one such lady, was commissioned a major by the governor of Illinois after her bravery at the battle at Shiloh. In August of 1861, Belle joined her husband, who had enlisted in the 17th Illinois Infantry, at Bird's Point, Missouri. From then until the end of the war she kept a journal detailing her life with the army and her adventures.
Through fall and winter of 1861-1862, Belle traveled with her husband's regiment, sometimes riding in an ambulance or wagon and sometimes on a mule, and sometimes she walked with the soldiers carrying a musketoon (a short, large-bore musket). (Hall, p 8)
General Grant opened middle Tennessee to Union invasion when he captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February, 1862, and on the 4th of April, Belle wrote in her journal:
"The long roll has called the regiment out, and we know not what an hour may bring forth. Pickets have been driven in, and skirmishing is going on at the front. Distant musketry and the rumbling of artillery past my tent give the situation a look of reality which I had not dreamed of an hour ago. Although so near the enemy's lines, we feel no fear. Mrs. N. and myself are the only ladies in camp, and our tents are adjoining."
On April 6th, the full force Confederate attack on the Union camp at Shiloh, Tennessee led to two days of fierce fighting. On 7 April, after an overnight lull in fighting, Union soldiers wakened to another full force attack which caused them to flee camp. In her next journal entry on 17 April, Belle wrote,
"At sunrise we heard the roll of distant musketry".[About an hour later] while preparing brefast [sic] over the campfire, which Mrs. N. and I used in common, we were startled by cannonballs howling over our heads. [The soldiers were ordered to fall in.] Knowing my husband must go, I kept my place before the fire, that he might have his breakfast before leaving; but there was no time for eating, and though shells were flying faster, and musketry coming nearer, compelling me involuntarily to dodge as the missiles shrieked through the air, I still fried my cakes, and rolling them in a napkin, placed them in his haversack, and gave it to him just as he was mounting his horse to assist in forming the regiment."
Belle's husband asked what she would do but the barrage of shells, tearing the tents to pieces and the sight of the enemy coming over the hill gave her no time to reply. As she and Mrs. N fled they watched cavalry soldiers forming on the parade ground amidst the incoming balls and shells.
Belle and Mrs. N. hadn't gone far when they stopped to help the wounded brought by ambulance and placed on the ground. In the frenzy, an orderly raced up giving orders to move the wounded to the river. The rebels were closing in and the place was not safe. Belle and Mrs. N. reached the river and boarded the Emerald, one of the steamers, lying at anchor. Soon the wounded came pouring in and caring for them kept them busy for the next thirty-six hours.
The thunderous artillery continued through the day and bullets fell like rain on the Emerald's deck. Shells meant for the ammunition ship flew by overhead. Near sunset retreating Union soldiers appeared, some seeking shelter on the already overloaded boats and some swimming to the opposite shore. The gunboats, Lexington and Tyler steamed upriver just in time and sent a deadly fire on the Confederates. In the mayhem, officers tried to rally the dispirited soldiers into a counterattack.
Belle's entry in her journal reads:
"At the Landing it was a scene of terror. Rations, forage, and ammunition were trampled into the mud by an excited and infuriated crowd". Trains [wagons] were huddled together on the brow of the hill and in sheltered places. Ambulances were conveying their bleeding loads to the different boats and joined to form a Babel of confusion indescribable. None were calm, and free from distracting anxiety and pain, save the long ranks of dead, ranged for recognition or burial, at the hospital on the hill-side."
By nightfall the Emerald held 350 wounded and Belle fearful of the answer didn't question any of them as to her husband's safety. She dreaded the thought that he may be one of the poor souls being brought aboard. Infantry clashes halted for the night but the gunboat cannonade continued in torrential rain. Toward morning the Emerald slipped out and down to Savannah depositing the wounded
Meanwhile, Belle woke to find more wounded being brought for care. She still didn't hear anything about her husband The rain continued but news came that Union reinforcements arrived and the tide of the battle was turned.
At dusk, an officer brought news from her husband that while his horse had been shot out from under him he was safe. Belle felt such an elation that only one who has experienced the same thing would know what it was like. Greatly relieved, she filled the soldier's saddlebags with loaves of bread for the regiment.
Belle wrote, the next morning, "the sun came forth upon a scene of blood and carnage such as our fair land had never known." Belle and her friends left for the hospital, a small cabin, where the wounded were brought. In her journal she noted "Outside lay the bodies of more than a hundred, brought in for recognition and burial--a sight so ghastly that it haunts me now."
One room held the wounded and the other held surgeons performing amputations. Belle began to help right away and soldiers greeted her with "God bless you!" before she had even done anything. Just the sight of a woman cheered them. It didn't matter that the wounded were both Union and Confederate. Belle saw a northern soldier with a severe chest wound lying next to a rebel soldier with both legs missing below the knees, the result of a wound from a cannonball. She watched one after another brought in and given chloroform. She wrote that often before the patient was fully sedated:
"the operation would begin, and in the midst of shrieks, curses, and wild laughs, the surgeon would wield over his wretched victim the glittering knife and saw; and soon the severed and ghastly limb, white as snow and spattered with blood, would fall upon the floor--one more added to the terrible pile."
When in the afternoon she could stand no more she felt someone touch her shoulder and turned to see her husband. She wrote, "I hardly knew him--blackened with powder, begrimed with dust, his clothes in disorder, and his face pale. We thought it must have been years since we parted. It was no time for many words; he told me I must go. There was a silent pressure of hands. I passed on to the boat."
As would be expected, Belle had trouble sleeping that night. Many a time she bolted upright in bed as she pictured the day's events, images of dying soldiers and the amputating table. She often had to remind herself that she wasn't still in the hospital. Needing a rest she found space on the steamer, Black Hawk, going to Illinois. Passengers included a delegation of visitors and about twenty of her husband's regiment.
She wrote about saying goodbye to her husband, who had to return to camp.
"Each parting seemed harder than the last for I knew now the dangers and uncertainties to which he was exposed. But my health had been failing " and I felt I must recruit now, or I might not be able to spend the summer with him."
I don't know which is worse not knowing what faces our loved ones or actually knowing. Our minds can play nasty games with us.
Since Belle was an eyewitness to the events of the battle, she was the center of attraction on board and was bombarded with questions. The passengers, impressed with her story, suggested to the governor that she deserved a commission. The governor in turn presented Belle with a formally signed and sealed document giving her the rank of major.
After a brief rest, Belle returned to her husband and continued to share the hardships of camp life. She saw service in Mississippi and watched the duel between the Union gunboats and Confederate shore batteries at Vicksburg in July, 1863. When Lieutenant Reynolds' term of duty expired in the spring of 1864, both he and Belle gratefully returned to Illinois.
Belle supported the Union cause but there were southern ladies who did the same for the Confederacy. Betsy Sullivan was one such lady. Betsy joined her husband in Company K of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment, a Confederate unit, and soon was recognized as "Mother Sullivan" by the sick and wounded. She went with the regiment to West Virginia, and then to north Virginia before going to Shiloh in Tennessee. "She marched on foot with her knapsack on her back through the mountains of West Virginia, slept on the frozen ground, under the cold skies, a blanket her only covering, her knapsack, her pillow." (Hall, p13) At Shiloh Betsy didn't stay back from the battleground at the hospital, she was right there in the middle of the fighting carrying water to the soldiers, trying to stop the flow of blood from wounds and often closing the eyes of a dead soldier.
In October, 1862, during a ferocious fight at Perryville, Kentucky Betsy's husband sustained a severe wound to the head. The Confederates retreated leaving the wounded to be captured. Betsey stayed with her husband and went with him to the prison camp, caring for him and others of his unit.
Here's an interesting note on the Shiloh battlefield. Some seventy years after the battle, in 1934, a homeowner on the battlefield uncovered the remains of nine Union soldiers while digging a flower garden. After further study of the bones it was found that one of them was a woman dressed in uniform who under the circumstances of the battle may have been killed by a minie ball found near her remains. The nine bodies were reburied in the Shiloh National Cemetery. According to author Fred Brooks, "The identity of the woman and why she was dressed in uniform will never be known, but it is probable she was one of the many, yes many, members of her sex who donned uniform and posed as a man in order to fight for the cause she believed in."
Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and here were women willing to ignore their own safety in order to care for others. I wonder how many of them were killed along with the soldiers they tended. I wonder how many of us would do the same!
If you're interested in reading more about Shiloh, Shelby Foote wrote an excellent historical novel called "Shiloh." I highly recommend it.
Hall, Richard. "Patriots in Disguise Women Warriors of the Civil War" New York, Paragon House,1993.
Belle Reynolds Journal quoted from Richard Hall.