Mrs Fanny Ricketts
No page in the history of the bloody war which has just now come to an end is so brilliant as that illuminated by a record of the noble sacrifices and exploits of heroic women.
The historian of other wars can point to affecting though isolated cases of courage and devotion, but no annals are so rich as ours in those deliberate acts of unquestioning self-sacrifice, which at once ennoble our estimate of human nature, and increase the homage we pay to the virtues of woman.
American mothers, with more than Spartan patriotism, sent forth their sons to fall by rebel bullets, or to languish in rebel prisons. Many loyal women along the vexed border, and within the lines of the enemy, exhibited a more than human courage for the Union and its glorious banner, in the face of persecution and danger. In the hospital, and amid the stormy scenes of war, they displayed a heroism as brilliant as that of Grace Darling, surpassed the charity of Florence Nightingale, and repeated the humility and gentle sacrifices recorded of Mary in the sacred Scriptures.
Every one, thoughtful and true, must admire and appreciate the memorable conduct of the young wife Gertrude, of medieval times, who knelt at the foot of the wheel upon which her unfortunate husband hung in excruciating torture, praying for the wretched sufferer, whispering words of consolation, and sustaining him with exhortations to look at the joys beyond. "He had ceased to try to send her away," says the historian, and still she watched when morning came again, and noon passed over her, and it was verging to evening when for the last time he moved his head, and she raised herself so as to be close to him. With a smile, he murmured, ‘Gertrude, this is faithfulness till death,’ and died.”
Mrs. Hemans, in her exquisite way, has given utterance to this elevated sentiment of self-sacrifice in the beautiful lines, — “I have been with thee in thine hour
Of glory and of bliss;
Doubt not its memory’s living power
To strengthen me through this.
And thou, mine honored love and true,
Bear on, bear nobly on; -
We have the blessed heaven in view,
Whose rest shall soon be won.”
Similar in intensity and fortitude was the spirit manifested by the lady whose name heads this chapter. More than once was her husband mangled under the iron wheel of battle.
Once he was reported dead, and his dying words and his sword were brought to the agonized wife. But she overcame all obstacles, penetrated the hostile lines, reached the side of his bloody stretcher, went into captivity with him, and made his spared life and recovered health the monument of her unwavering and heroic devotion.
The father of Mrs. Ricketts, Mr. J. Sharpe Lawrence, was an Englishman of wealth, possessing large estates in the Island of Jamaica, where be met Miss Ricketts, the youngest daughter of Captain Ricketts, of the British army, and Sarah Livingston, whose American connections have been celebrated in our history from colonial times.
The father and mother of Mrs. Ricketts were married at Elizabeth, New Jersey, where, after some years of migratory life between England and the West Indies, they decided to remain, and where their third daughter, Fanny Lawrence, was born.
Her education was principally conducted by that best of all teachers, her mother, who brought to the delightful and sacred task not merely the love of a mother, but a mind of uncommon clearness, which had been admirably trained and stored by life-long habits of close observation and wise reading.
In January, 1856, Miss Lawrence was married to a distant relative on her mother’s side, James B. Ricketts, then a captain in the First artillery U. S. A., and immediately went with him to the distant south-western frontier of the republic, on the Rio Grande, where his company was stationed.
Here she remained with him for more than three years, till that grand mustering of all the powers of the republic to the long-contested battle-grounds along the Potomac. Their life on the Mexican frontier was full of interest, novelty, and adventure. The First artillery was often engaged in repulsing the irregular and roving bands of Cortinas, who rode over the narrow boundary river in frequent raids and stealing expeditions into Texas. When in camp, Mrs. Ricketts greatly endeared herself to the men in her husband’s company by constant acts of kindness to the sick, and by showing a cheerful and lively disposition amid all the hardships and annoyances of garrison life at such a distance from home, and from the comforts and refinements of our American civilization.
She was a spirit of mercy as well as good cheer; and many a poor fellow knew that, if he could but get her ear, his penance in the guard-house for some violation of the regulations would be far less severe on account of her gentle and womanly plea.
In the spring of 1861 the first artillery was ordered to Fortress Monroe, and her husband, together with the gallant and accomplished Greble, who fell a few weeks after at Bethel, carried on an artillery school of practice, where the future heroes of the Chickahominy, and Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg were taught to handle, with fatal skill, the engines of warlike art. A few weeks before the first advance under McDowell, Captain Ricketts was ordered to Alexandria, to command a battery of light artillery. Mrs. Ricketts was constantly with him, both here and while on the Peninsula. The brave boys were so accustomed to her presence at headquarters, and had so many cheerful and grateful reminiscences of her graceful charities away on the distant Rio Grande, that she remained with them until the eve of the grand advance in the middle of July, 1861, when she was, for the first time, separated from her husband by military rules, and while he and the company moved on to Centreville, and thence to battle’s magnificently stern array” on the plains of Manassas, she returned, crushed with a nameless foreboding, to her temporary home in Washington, to do all that woman can when she sends her chosen one, and her other self, into the untold and innumerable dangers of war. She could only do what thousands of others did - watch, and hope, and pray, listening with heavy hearts to the far-off roar, and grasping with wild avidity at every fragment of news from the hotly-contested field.
On the evening of the 21st, rumors, and then messengers came hurrying to her room, confirming the very worst fears of an agonized wife. Persons hitherto unknown to her called to give her the most harrowing details of the wounds her husband had suffered, and then his death was announced. All these accounts she persistently refused to credit, clinging to the mighty hope that nothing but absolute conviction can quench in the loving heart. At last what seemed to be fatal evidence was adduced. Lieutenant E. D. Baker, then aid-de-camp to General Franklin, brought her the captain’s sword, and repeated in her ears his dying words – “Give this to my wife; tell her I have done my duty to my country, and my last words are of her and our child.”
This was soon afterwards confirmed by the tearful sympathy of Captain Ricketts’ junior lieutenant, the gallant Kirby, who recited the story of his long but fruitless search for the captain’s body. At this the agonized wife was plunged into an abyss of despair, and of painful clinging to hope against hope, almost as heavy as desperation; and this dreadful state lasted through two nights, when the lingering flame of hope was roused into a mighty and controlling motive, by a telegram from General Wadsworth, stating that an officer, who met his flag of truce, informed him that Captain Ricketts was alive, but dangerously wounded and a prisoner.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she determined, at all hazards and despite all obstacles, to reach his side. Repairing at once to Captain (now General) Beckwith, of the subsistence department, he procured for her a light carriage, drawn by two horses, and a driver, whose southern sympathies were such as to make him more than willing to pass within the rebel lines. General Scott gave her a pass valid to the extent of the Union lines, and thus equipped, and wholly unattended, she started on the search for her wounded and perhaps dying husband. She drove on, without material delay, till halted by the rebel pickets; and she was obliged to remain lingering in an agony of suspense and doubt, till a note, written by her to the cavalry leader, Stuart, whom she had known in sunnier days on the Rio Grande, had been carried to him, and was returned with the permission indorsed to advance within the southern lines as far as Fairfax.
Here, on learning the nature of her errand, he demanded her signature to a written parole of honor that she would not act the part of a spy. Notwithstanding her extreme anxiety to avoid detention, she indignantly tore the paper in pieces before his eyes, replying, I am no spy, but the wife of a wounded officer, and will go as your prisoner, but never sign a parole”.
Ex-Senator Wigfall, of Texas, here remonstrated, and some discussion followed, when Stuart rudely told her to drive on at once. But she knew too well the difficulties into which she would be plunged if she drove on as ordered on a road crowded with rebel soldiers, or through a country swarming with exultant and straggling cavalry.
She knew the usage to which, by the rules of honorable warfare, she was entitled, and insisted on being supplied with a pass and a guide to the headquarters of General Joseph E. Johnston This request was at length unwillingly acceded to, and she was soon face to face with the rebel hero of Bull Run, who, without much hesitation, allowed her to drive to a house situated on a part of the field still crimsoned with the streams of battle, where her husband had been carried. What fearful and ghastly scenery now surrounded this young and delicately-reared woman! The first vision of that terrible picture was stamped on her brain, to be effaced only by death. Corpses, swollen by incipient decomposition, stripped of every shred of clothing, were sweltering all around, under the heat of a July sun. In the court-yard of the house where she was informed that her husband could be found, lay rows of the wounded and the dead. On the door-step, as she entered, lay an arm, all mangled and bloody, which a surgeon had just amputated and tossed down there as carelessly as though it bad been a chicken’s leg; while under the window she glanced at a fearful pile of human limbs, the accumulation of two days’ amputation. The hall was narrow and nearly obstructed by a large mahogany dining-table, on which was lashed a wretched victim, who was writhing in almost mortal agony under the knife and saw of the operator. Blood was over the floor and on the walls, and had spirited from severed arteries, so that the very ceiling was spotted with scarlet.
Passing on up stairs, she found six wounded men in a small chamber, five ranged along the wall on the floor, and one, more pallid than the rest, very still, on a bloody stretcher. This was her husband!
At first he was unconscious, but at length feebly murmured in her ear, “I knew you would come.”
A Union surgeon who was in attendance, and whose unremitting and skilful care saved the limb and the life of Captain Ricketts, Dr. Lewis, of Michigan, urged upon her the importance of self-control, and the removal from the enfeebled sufferer of everything calculated to excite or alarm; and from that moment on, through all the anxieties and sufferings that followed, she armed herself in a fortitude that seemed almost stoical and unnatural.
Though her husband’s life was hanging as by a thread, so that a little neglect might be fatal to him, her woman’s heart could not resist the appeals that all night long came up from the different rooms of that house of suffering and of horror for water. She rose from the floor beside her husband, and taking a part of the small supply that a surgeon had brought for his hot and swollen leg, from a spring half a mile distant, she groped her way among the groaning and prostrate forms, moistening their parched lips. Once she was startled by the fearful announcement, made in a clear voice, that rose above the groaning, “He is gone, our brave corporal! The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.” This called her attention to the speaker, whom she learned to be Prescott, of the Fourteenth Brooklyn regiment. He, too, poor fellow, was “taken away,” but not without passing through a furnace of suffering so terrible that be had occasion to envy the earlier and less painful death of the brave corporal. His leg was hopelessly shattered, and was amputated above the knee three times within a week; and then he was transported to Richmond in a box-car, where the stump was so bruised that the artery was opened, and be bled to death at last.
For two weeks Mrs. Ricketts remained with her husband in the house where she found him. The means furnished for rendering the sufferers comfortable were of the lowest possible order, and that, too, in a country abounding in the luxuries of old civilization, and within a few hours’ ride of the national capital. No food was furnished but raw bacon and hard-tack, with some coffee and sugar, captured at Centreville; no cooks, or facilities for cooking, the surgeons, after their long toils with the wounded during the day, being obliged to bring water a half mile, and prepare the food as best they could.
The effluvium from the battle-field was such that the rebel camps were removed. Finally, the odor became so intolerable that the guards left. Then appeared that loathsome curse and epidemic of army hospitals, gangrene, and it was determined to break up the field hospitals, and remove all the wounded prisoners to Richmond; and an order to that effect was issued on the 3d of August.
Captain Ricketts’ wounds were more dangerous, and his situation more critical, in the early part of August, when he was removed to Richmond, than at any time since the battle. He had been hit in three places; but the wound which gave him the greatest pain, and which for weeks rendered his recovery doubtful, was from a ball that had entered his left leg, near the knee joint, shattering the bone, and followed by such pain and swelling, that mortification was constantly feared.
So great was the danger from this latter source, that twice Mrs. Ricketts had expostulated, with all the earnestness of woman, with the surgeons, who insisted that amputation was absolutely necessary. But considering the heat of the season, the discomforts and privations under which he was suffering, and the amount of corruption and the gangrene which abounded among all the wounded, she was satisfied that his chances of recovery would not be improved by the dreaded operation.
In the removal to Richmond Mrs. Ricketts was able to secure for him a hospital car, instead of the rude box cars, which gave fatal jolts to many a poor fellow who might otherwise have recovered.
In praiseworthy contrast to the rudeness and indifference generally manifested by the rebel officers, and the insults of rebel women heaped upon them at the different stations, the conduct of Wade Hampton, and of Stonewall Jackson, and of Major Webb, of North Carolina, was considerate and generous. Colonel Hampton brought ale and refreshments to the wounded officer and his heroic wife; and months after, Mrs. Ricketts was able to repay the civilities of Major Webb, by procuring his pardon and release from Johnson’s Island, where he was confined as a prisoner.
Notwithstanding the sea of horrors into which this devoted pair had been plunged by the results of the battle, and the ghastly surroundings of the battle-field, where they had remained for two weeks, they found their situation worse, if possible, in Richmond.
The wounded prisoners were taken to the city poorhouse. Crowded into those dreary and cheerless rooms, between bare brick walls and the roof unceiled, these sufferers lay on the dirty floors, and pined, and languished, and felt hope and life die out in their breasts, when comfortable surroundings might have saved most of them.
The fare was coarse and unpalatable to the last degree, even to persons in health, and utterly revolting to the patients, whose systems were reduced by loss of blood and by the nervous prostration of unceasing pain. Captain Ricketts grew worse, and the gloomiest forebodings pressed like lead upon the brave heart of the heroic wife. Again the surgeons consulted over his dreadfully swollen leg, and prescribed amputation; and again it was spared to the entreaties of his wife, who was certain that his now greatly enfeebled constitution would not survive the shock. Much of the time he lay unconscious, and for weeks his life depended entirely on the untiring patience and skill with which his wife soothed down the rudeness of his prisonhouse, cheering him and other prisoners who were so fortunate as to be in the room with him, and alleviating the slow misery that was settling like a pall upon them.
Yet none of the prisoners, at least in the daytime, had the luxury of being private in their sorrow. At all hours crowds of curious and listless gazers were permitted to come and feast upon this spectacle of suffering, as though these wounded officers and the solitary woman that was sharing their prison life were savages caught in the act of cannibalism in the Feejee Islands.
The daily papers of the city were constantly pandering to this savage taste, by suggesting greater cruelty and worse hardships as the proper desert of men who had “polluted the sacred soil of Virginia by the foot of the invader.”
To the credit, however, of some whose public acts were thoroughly disunion, it must be admitted that in private they discharged some of the duties of humanity towards these wounded prisoners. The wife of Adjutant-General Cooper and the sister of James M. Mason, both repeatedly sent Mrs. Ricketts and her husband baskets of delicate and palatable food; and both these ladies, in defiance of the bitter and vulgar prejudice which was nourished by the daily press, paid them visits of respect, and manifested a womanly kindness and regard.
There was also, in the lower walks of life, a touching instance of womanly sympathy which deserves respectful mention, even as the charity of Mary Magdalene has been forever rescued from oblivion by the pen of the sacred historian.
There was a woman who had formerly lived in New York, and at that time was living with a well-known gambler in Richmond, who daily and regularly ministered to these unfortunate prisoners, until at length her kindness came to the ears of the officials, who forbade her sending them any more food. But, with the wit and perseverance of a woman, she at length obtained such a modification of the order as would allow her once a week to send a basket to Mrs. Ricketts. This basket, which came each Sabbath morning, was packed with the most substantial viands, and gave Mrs. Ricketts the pleasure of providing her husband, who had now commenced slowly to recover, with food that he could relish, and, with the rest, broke, at least for one day, the dreary and tasteless monotony of prison fare.
But the abyss of wretchedness was not sounded yet. Nearly three months of imprisonment had elapsed while these suffering patriots were languishing, yet hoping that the great republic, in whose invincible might and perpetual integrity they never lost confidence, would turn upon her enemies, and burst their prison doors with a grand and decisive victory. But, in the last days of October, they heard the tramp of the prisoners taken at Ball’s Bluff passing through the streets of Richmond, and the jeers and taunts of the rebel mob that followed at their heels.
There now came an order breaking up the little group of fellow-sufferers, whose sorrows had united them in a deep, though sombre friendship. Colonel Willcox, who was now nearly well of a terrible wound in the arm, was sent to Charleston, and the other convalescents were to be confined in Libby Prison. Soon after this removal to that abode of nameless horror, that has since become famous in its infamy, Mrs. Ricketts was reclining at night upon the narrow cot beside her husband’s stretcher, when she heard the voice of a messenger beside her, who stood there in the darkness, and coolly announced that Captain Ricketts had been selected as one of the thirteen officers of highest rank in possession of the Confederate government, as hostages for the thirteen privateersmen held in New York. He was to go to the condemned cell, and be liable at any moment to execution, whenever the rebel government might learn of the execution of their imprisoned sailors. Conceive the mental suffering of that devoted wife during the long hours of that dreadful night!
After four months of untold suffering, and having much of the time hung insensible on the verge of life, he was now beginning to gain strength, and with fair treatment might live and be strong again. But on the morrow he was to be carried away from her, and beyond all her ministrations or visits, and locked in the felon’s cell - a dungeon reserved for prisoners convicted of infamous crimes, and liable any day to be dragged out to a cruel death.
But Mrs. Ricketts was not a woman to yield to a disaster so appalling without using every possible means to avert the blow. In Mrs. Cooper she thought she had a friend whose husband had influence at rebel headquarters, and as soon as daylight enabled her to trace the lines, she composed a letter, such as only such a wife could write in such a crisis. Mrs. Cooper was moved, and the rebel secretary, who on the 11th of November had issued the fearful order that included Captain Ricketts, on the 12th instructed General Winder that “all the wounded officers had been exempted as hostages.” The motive which Mrs. Cooper brought to bear upon his mind was not any suggestion of humanity, but the fear that such cruelty to wounded officers might damage the fair name of the Confederacy in the eyes of the people of Europe.
When the name of Captain Ricketts was first read, there occurred one of those instances of prompt and manly self-sacrifice, that elevate our estimate of human nature, and deserves record and perpetual remembrance. Captain Thomas Cox, of the first Kentucky volunteers, exclaimed at once, “What, that wounded man, attended by such a devoted wife? Let me go in his place!”
The constant draught upon the vital powers made by such a long series of watchings, sufferings, and by anxiety so acute and agonizing, at length began to appear in the shattered health of Mrs. Ricketts, and permission was asked, and, after long delay, granted, for her to drive out daily, and for a little while to breathe air purer than that of Libby Prison.
But before this little boon could be of any practical advantage, the exchanged officer arrived in Richmond, and the pallid but now convalescent invalid dragged his still painful limb across the threshold of Libby Prison, and with his heroic wife took the first train for Fairfax. It was now the last week of December, 1861. Some months elapsed before Mrs. Ricketts recovered her health; but Captain Ricketts recovered very rapidly, and had the satisfaction of knowing that government recognized his services and his sufferings; for in the spring of 1862 he received the commission of a brigadier-general, and was assigned to duty in McDowell’s corps, at Fredericksburg. Mrs. Ricketts remained with him for some months that followed, until, in the fall of 1862, when campaigning against Jackson in the Valley, General Ricketts commanded the second division first army corps, and the corps being constantly on the march or in battle, she was obliged to retire for a few weeks to her home in Washington.
But Antietam gave him back to her society again, as Bull Run had the year before, though not under circumstances quite so painful. He was wounded in the same leg as in the former battle, by his horse being shot and rolling upon him. The injury thus occasioned confined him during the fall of 1862, and in the winter of 1862—’63 he was on duty at Washington, as president of the military commission.
When the battle at Chancellorsville was fought, in May, 1863, Lieutenant Kirby, who had been a brother officer with General Ricketts when both were in the First artillery, was brought to Washington in a very feeble state, having suffered the amputation of a limb. The poor fellow was carried to the general’s house in Washington, where Mrs. Ricketts took care of him with that patient kindness which is so unspeakably grateful to a sufferer. But care and skill could not save him. He did not live to read his commission as brigadier. Other officers and sufferers of every grade now claimed her attention, for Gettysburg soon followed; and during all that summer and fall she continued her labors among those who seemed most to require her attentions, her husband having recovered his health and returned to participate in all the battles in which his corps was engaged.
In the summer of 1864, when Grant advanced on Richmond, General Ricketts distinguished himself greatly in the battle of Cold ilarbor, and received the public thanks of General Meade, and, a few weeks after, his division fought the battle of Monocacy, the effect of which was to delay the last rebel invasion, and give the Union troops time to concentrate for the final repulse of Ewell from Maryland.
Soon after, in September, 1864, the Sixth corps went up the Shenandoah Valley with Sheridan, and in October the battle of Cedar Run was fought, and there General Ricketts received his third serious wound, which came nearer being fatal than any former injury A ball pierced his right breast, and the report came to Washington that his wound was mortal. His wife’s fidelity, and the story of her sufferings at Richmond, had become known to government, and she obtained not only a pass, but a mounted escort, who went with her up the valley, to protect her from the attacks of Mosby’s guerrillas, who were swarming everywhere in the rear of the battle-field. She found General Ricketts far more comfortably situated than on that memorable occasion three years before. The ball had been extracted; but the nature and situation of the wound rendered his recovery a long time doubtful, and for four anxious and weary months she was hanging over his couch, and doing every -thing that love and skill could suggest to save a life that had now become doubly precious to her for the sufferings and the anxieties which had been devolved upon both by stern demands of the country. At length, as spring opened in 1865, and when Sherman had wheeled, in the magnificent curve of his grand march, from Atlanta to Savannah, and northward to the rear of the long-beleaguered city, the generals knew the gigantic game was nearly ended, and General Ricketts was among those who, having suffered so long and so much, desired to “be in at the death.” The wish was not denied him. In April he was with his old corps, and chased the routed and crumbling rebel column to Danville, where the effect of cold and exposure made both his wounds very painful, and he was obliged to quit the field. Again, and now for the last time, the devoted wife hurries along the familiar roads, and presses forward to where the suffering hero needs her cheerful presence and her skilful care.
The war is now over. The great events of April crowd in quick succession— the capture of Richmond, the surrender of Lee, and the murder of Lincoln; but General Ricketts and his wife still linger in camp, for his wounds are still painful. But at length the Sixth corps, that had marched, and suffered, and fought so many hard battles on the soil of Virginia, moves off northward, crosses the Potomac; and then, but not till then, the duties of the heroic general and his no less heroic wife are ended.
With the first boom of the deadly thunder at Manassas, she had been called away from her life of joyous ease and peaceful love, and so long as the noise of that long war lasted, she had known no rest nor intermission in her labors of womanly care and devotion.
It was not until she had left the soil of Virginia, peaceful now, but all scarred with battles and drenched in blood, that she could fully realize that that precious life was now no longer at hazard in the fierce storms of battle.
Does not every reader join in the prayer that years of deep calm and blessed union may reward fidelity so heroic and suffering so great? May we not apply to her the dying words of the Suabian nobleman to his wife, “Gertrude, this is faithfulness to the end,” and the wish of the English poet for his friend, whom he compares to “that fair Syrian shepherdess,” –
“After this thy travel sore
Sweet rest seize thee evermore”?