Miss Mary E. Shelton
The various scenes, movements, and charities of our great civil struggle can be divided into two grand enterprises, each having a widely separated, yet equally important object. The moral objective of the war was the capture of Richmond; the physical objective was to obtain and secure possession of the magnificent valley and river that occupy the centre of the revolted region.
Of course a result so important as either was not to be accomplished without labors, and bloodshed, and sufferings, whose sum no human method can ever express.
Though Vicksburg and the towns on the Lower Mississippi were more remote from the centres of supply than the Virginia towns, yet the directness of water communication nearly compensated for the difference in miles; and the western armies, led by Grant and Sherman, were represented at home by a population as warm in its loyalty, and as generous in the spirit of sacrifice, as those who stood behind the forces of McClellan, and Hooker, and Meade.
In the summer of 1863 the labors of Mrs. Anne Wittenmeyer had become so extensive, the field of her operations so wide, and her letters so numerous, that she needed a secretary to relieve her, in a portion at least, of her self-imposed duties.
It was in this capacity of secretary to Mrs. Wittenmeyer, in the fall of 1863, soon after the surrender of Vicksburg, that Miss Mary E. Shelton commenced her hospital experience.
On the 10th of August she left Keokuk, and on the way to St. Louis her time was fully occupied in answering a large number of letters, which Mrs. Wittenmeyer, as president of the Ladies' Aid Society of Iowa, had received from various parts of that and the adjacent states. From the number and tenor of these letters Miss Shelton was made more fully alive to the extent and the bitter results of the great war then at its height. Here was one from a heart-broken father, saying, "one of his sons had recently died in a southern hospital, and the only one remaining was very low with fever; would Mrs. Wittenmeyer see him, and ascertain his wants, and let them know?" A wife, with a family of little ones, almost destitute, wrote that her husband had consumption, and begged that he might spend his last days at home. A widowed mother had not heard from her sick son for many weeks; "would Mrs. Wittenmeyer inquire about him, and relieve the terrible suspense that was wearing her life away?" No other employment could have given her so wide an acquaintance with the sorrows by which the land was burdened.
At St. Louis they stopped a day or two, and visited the rooms of the Western Sanitary Commission, where they were cordially received, and made ample arrangements with the president, Mr. Yeatman, for receiving future supplies for their mission to the suffering soldiers down the river. On the 16th of August, just at sunset, they reached Helena Arkansas, and reported immediately to the office of the medical director, whom they found in great perplexity on account of the lack of nurses mid supplies for the sick and wounded. He greeted them with the utmost cordiality, telling Mrs. Wittenmeyer that he had not welcomed any one half so gladly since the war commenced as he did her, as he had never before been so sorely in need of help and supplies. A large number of regiments had been brought up from Vicksburg and the Yazoo River, and General Steele's division had moved on to Little Rock, leaving their sick men behind. So rapid had been the movement that the sick were left in the streets, with scarcely enough convalescents to erect tents to protect them from the heat of the day, or the damp, malarious air of the night. Thirteen had died the first night they were there, and unless some thing was done immediately the mortality would be very great. More than two thousand were destitute of both medical and sanitary supplies.
Mrs. Wittenmeyer immediately sent to St. Louis for the necessary supplies; and, early on Monday morning, she and Miss Shelton began their labors of love, visiting the hospitals, and ministering all in their power to the sufferers there. One poor soldier they found wasted almost to a skeleton, and wearing the same suit of clothes he had worn all through the siege of Vicksburg and the fever that had prostrated him. He seemed past all feeling, and said he was going to die with no one to care for or relieve him. But an allusion to his mother called the tears in streams to his eyes, and convulsed his whole frame with sobs. Before they left, the hospital steward had promised to clean every room, and held in his hand an order for every shirt and pair of drawers in the sanitary rooms. In the afternoon they visited the hospital tents, speaking words of sympathy and kindness to the brave sufferers, and from twilight to midnight they were both busy in writing letters to their friends at home.
The next day matters were materially improved. The rooms were thoroughly scrubbed, the men attired in new and fresh garments, and even the poor Vicksburg soldier, in his clean shirt and new suit of clothes, talked hopefully of health and home again. After leaving some lemons, and such other comforts as could be procured in Helena, they started for the convalescent camp, about a mile from Helena, the way thither leading directly across the battle field where so many brave men sealed their devotion to the Union with their blood. As they neared the first tent they heard the soldiers within singing, --
"So, let the cannon boom as it will,
We will be gay and happy still."
Then followed something the import of which was that the northern girls wouldn't marry Copperheads or cowards, but would wait till the soldiers got home. Thinking they were doing very well, the two ladies passed on to another tent, where were four sick men -- three on the ground, one, the sickest of the four, on a cot. There was a pan with ice water in it by the cot, but no one to apply it to the sick man's burning brow. Mrs. Wittenmeyer dipped the towel into the water, wrung it out, and placed it on his head. Slowly the tears rolled from the closed eyes, and in a feeble voice, the sufferer said, "O, how like my own mother it seemed when you put the cold cloth on my aching head!" That day they saw and talked with hundreds of men from Iowa and other states, and were received by them as angels of mercy. One man staggered from his cot to where his knapsack lay, to give them some peaches; another insisted on their sharing with him some ginger beer; and, as they left, they heard a soldier remark to his comrade, "It does my heart good to see that kind of ladies come to camp; they care something for the soldiers." In the evening they visited a hospital in a brick church, where were eighty men, most of them very sick, and not one bed in the building. But they were very patient, and praised their steward in the highest terms -- a very humane and kind-hearted man, who neither by day nor night would allow them to suffer for the cooling drink, or such other attention as was in his power to bestow. They talked of him as they would of a mother, and seemed glad to tell some one how kind he was. Tenderly he went from one to another, ministering to their wants; and when a soldier introduced to them "Liberty Hix," the ladies recognized him as a genuine Samaritan, of the New Testament type. One of the soldiers called Miss Shelton to him, and said, "I have something to tell you, that I want you to repeat when you return to Iowa. You may have heard of our sufferings at Milliken's Bend. We were in a hospital tent, and as no supplies could reach us, we became more and more feeble. Men that might have grown strong and well with proper nourishment, were daily sinking into the grave, and in each one that was carried out we read our fate. You can have little idea how a sick man loathes the coarse army rations. The only thing we could eat was bean soup; and this we had morning, noon, and night, week in and week out, I have seen men refuse it, saying, 'I will die before I will ever eat it again.' But a day came when unusual depression reigned throughout the hospital. The nurse came through with the soup; but it was steadily refused. When he came to me I covered my head in the bedclothes and wept. I thought of my good wife, with an abundance about her, and how gladly she would share with me. When I looked up, other men were weeping too; and, though it may seem very foolish to you, hunger and sickness take all the fortitude out of a man. In my distress I cried to God, and scarcely had the prayer passed my lips, when our nurse entered, and taking his stand near the centre of the hospital, where every man could hear, called out, 'Mrs. Wittenmeyer is coming with two loads of sanitary goods!' Just then we heard the rattle of the wagons, and my heart gave such a bound of joy as it never had done before. The men wept aloud for joy. An hour afterwards, amid laughter and tears, we greeted Mrs. Wittenmeyer, bringing us chicken, fruit, and other sanitary supplies, without which we should have died in a few days."
The two days following were spent in the same way, going from hospital to hospital, ascertaining what was needed, and supplying it as far as possible. But one sad feature of their situation it was beyond the power of the ladies to mitigate. None of the men hoped for speedy recovery unless they could be moved from Helena. The town is situated in what was once a cypress swamp, and in low places the stumps of the trees were still standing. Unless the sick could be inspired with courage and hope, it was useless to anticipate recovery. The commander of the post said he had no authority to send them up the river, and the medical director could do nothing without orders. After thoroughly canvassing the whole affair, Mrs. Wittenmeyer decided to go to Memphis, see General Hurlbut, and have arrangements made to make them, at least, more comfortable. On the morning of the second day she returned, and as she passed from one hospital to another, every man that was able raised himself on his elbow, and watched her till she was out of sight. Some wept, others laughed, -- all were in great agitation, for she had brought with her orders for the removal of every man to some northern hospital. That day supplies came from Memphis, which were distributed among the men, and which, together with the hope of a speedy removal to a more salubrious air, diffused great cheerfulness among them all.
Their labors at Helena thus pleasantly terminated, Miss Shelton accompanied Mrs. Wittenmeyer to Vicksburg. Leaving Helena on the morning of August 23, the next day, about noon, the bluffs of Vicksburg came in sight. They found that the city presented a much less dilapidated and more inviting appearance than they had anticipated there, where for weeks "Death held his carnival." The first hospital they visited was in the Prentiss mansion, a most beautiful place. Though the house was large, comparatively few of the patients could be accommodated in it, but were in tents, on the surrounding terraces, in the shade of the magnolia and cypress trees, hedged about with myrtle and beautiful flowers. The sick were all well cared for, and were never without sanitary supplies. The City Hospital they found in the best possible condition. Dr. Powell, of Chicago, chief surgeon, received them cordially, as messengers of mercy from the Sanitary Commission, and expressed himself as having more faith in the efficacy of nourishing food for the sick soldiers than in the most skilful practice, or the most potent medicines.
One of the most interesting places they found in the city was the Soldiers' Home -- a fine three-story brick structure, surrounded by cool verandas, on one of the pleasantest sites in the city, built by Senator Gwin for his town residence. This situation was selected by Mrs. Wittenmeyer, and there the tired soldier could find food and lodging, free of expense, furnished by the Sanitary Commission.
A few days after their arrival at Vicksburg, Mrs. Wittenmeyer and Miss Shelton went out to Big Black River, mid way between Vicksburg and Jackson, visiting a number of hospitals located there.
In the fall of the year, returning to Iowa with Mrs. Wittenmeyer, Miss Shelton labored, with her voice and pen, in vindicating the Sanitary Commission, and arousing the people of Iowa to renewed activity, and more abundant liberality towards the distant and often suffering soldier. During the year 1864, and all the early part of 1865, for some time after the war ended, Miss Shelton was constantly in the field, acting a portion of the time as secretary to Mrs. Wittenmeyer; at other times taking charge of special diet kitchens in the different hospitals.
The summer of 1864 was spent mostly in the Nashville hospitals. Afterwards she went to Wilmington, and remained for several months. Of fine sensibilities, and well cultivated intellect, to see such varied suffering was to sympathize with it. And she has not allowed these vivid and often tragic scenes to pass from her memory, and perish from the recollection of the world.
Many of the more touching incidents she has recorded in a series of hospital sketches, whose interest and pathos have not been surpassed by any of the journals of the numerous hospital nurses and lady superintendents who have made so noble a page in American history by their heroism and self-sacrifice. We quote from her journal some of the most interesting passages.
The articles "Little Willie" and "Hospital Scenes" contain entries from her journal.