Ministering to the Wounded at Gettysburg
On July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, the terrible and decisive battle of Gettysburg was fought. On Monday following, I was leaving home for a preachers’ meeting, or some gathering analogous to that, in which I was to take a part, to be held in Kingston. I met some gentlemen of Saugerties who, having received the news of this great battle, and noticing the names of friends among the slain and wounded, were starting for the field of gore to render such assistance as was possible in looking after the dead and wounded. I decided to accompany them, and sent word back home that I had gone in this company.
With many delays, caused mainly by the difficulties of continued travel, occasioned by the necessities of the war and the transportation of the hundreds and thousands of suffering men being moved to Northern hospitals, we reached Gettysburg on Friday, July 10th; nearly as soon as any of the visitors who rushed to this now noted spot in the history of our dearly bought victory. I was specially favored in having a note of introduction to one of the principal residents, who furnished me a place to sleep in her open house, where were sheltered all that could be accommodated in rooms and halls and stoops. The whole place was turned into a hospital for the victims of the bloody strife; the evidences of which were everywhere. Dwellings, churches, and other buildings were all appropriated to the sufferers, and in some of these places no distinction was recognized between Union men and Confederates. Soldiers from both armies lay side by side as brothers, receiving the ministrations of the “Angels of mercy.” A sickening odor filled the air, and the real nature of war appeared in all its repulsiveness. A tour of the battlefield was enough to fill the mind and heart with the deepest aversion to everything that could result in such a conflict as was then raging. The armies had left, one in retreat, and the other in pursuit, but the distant firing gave evidence that more deadly work was being performed.
Among the least visible results of the fiery contest that had so recently swept over all this section, were the shattered houses, prostrate fences, and numerous trees destroyed, intentionally, and by being cut off with flying missiles. Horses in multitudes lay stretched in death and, worse than that, in some cases in dying groans and struggles. I saw one group of dead horses, perhaps numbering eight or ten, and remarked to one accompanying me: “That it was strange that these animals should be left exposed to be shot down one after another.” His answer was: “That probably they had all been slain by a single shell.” The destructive nature of these flying engines of death I never conceived until told by eye-witnesses of the wholesale execution sometimes accomplished, when just one of them would do its work along the line of soldiers it was sent to kill.
The “field hospitals” contained the most dreadfully mangled, who had not been removed because of the severe nature of their injuries, demanding immediate attention. Armless and legless men were there found in scores, bearing their pangs as it would seem impossible that they could, if the evidence were not so positive as to be undoubted. In the hospital tents containing the wounded Union men, the joys of victory mounted above the groans of anguish. Songs and shouts were the expressions of their delight that they had been successful.
The rebel field hospitals, as the places were called, where lay the Confederate officers and soldiers that had been severely wounded and left behind, beggars all description. One of these was a barnyard. Its surroundings contained more human misery than I ever expected to see; and I pray most earnestly that I may never witness the like again. The dead and dying lay intermingled. Nearby, in an open field, were the dead who had been separated from the dying. And in the midst of the unattended sufferers on the ground outside and on the barn floor, were those who had breathed their last, but no hand had been found as yet to lift the mangled corpse away from those still living. Wretchedness was stamped on the countenances of both the dead and the living. A stack of arms and legs were thrown on a heap where they had been left when they had been roughly severed from their bodies, with only a board for the surgeon’s table. Among this pity-demanding brotherhood I picked my way carefully and rendered such assistance as I could, changing the position of some shattered limb, when requested by its owner, and administering of what I had.
When I asked in kindly words how these men came to enlist in this unnatural war, there was a moment or two of silence, when one said, “Led into it, sir!” and another responded, “Yes, led into it, sir!” Poor fellows, they were undoubtedly led into it; and many of them were, without doubt, as sincere in their devotion to their cause, as was any Union soldier to his. They thought they had been wronged, and that they were only acting upon the defensive against oppressors. As a further illustration of this I heard a prisoner, who had just been brought into Gettysburg, asked: “Were you one who thought for yourself, with reference to the cause which originated this war, or did you just believe what others told you?” I listened for the answer, and it was: “Of course I believed what I was told, or I would not have been here.”
There was something strangely fascinating in wandering over this battlefield. Dead men were buried (as soldiers are buried in haste) all about the plains, and even along the roadsides. Buried, at best, so as just to be fairly covered, and often not even so much as that. Many bodies had not yet been discovered among the knolls and dells, where they lay bloating in the sunshine and rain.
One of my Kingston parishioners, with whom I had held a close correspondence, was reported among the wounded in the accounts first received. I ascertained that he died on the field, and I succeeded in finding the grave where his body had been buried, and his name marked on a board. The best I could do was to make a sketch of the spot so that it could be found by his friends. They, with this aid, soon afterward removed his remains. By invitation, I preached a memorial service in the church in Kingston, from which he had gone forth to do battle for the salvation of the nation. The service was on Sabbath afternoon, August 2, 1863, and the text, II Samuel, first chapter, nineteenth verse: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places; how are the mighty fallen!”
The lesser calamities accompanying the carrying on of this war for the Union were partially shown by the hundreds and thousands of broken guns, hats, coats, cartridge boxes, bayonets, and other implements, as well as wasted provisions, that strewed the ground. The temptation to gather some of these things as relics was very strong, and not always resisted. The military regulations, however, were against so doing, and many a visitor found himself in the guard-house for presuming to disobey.
I spent one night in camp, and slept with Chaplain Gilder in his tent. Brother Gilder went to the seat of war with a regiment from Yonkers, and afterward died from disease contracted in the army. With some messages to friends of the soldiers I had met, and having in charge for bereaved ones some tokens that the departed had left to be conveyed to those who would never witness the return of the givers, I turned my face homeward again.
Rev. William Garritson Browning
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