Woman's Work in the Civil War:

Published to celebrate the work of women during the Civil War, Woman's Work in the Civil War features the efforts of nurses, reformers, fund-raisers, and wives and mothers. In the section excerpted below, Miss Brayton of Ohio vividly describes the interior of a hospital train and recounts her experiences on one.

We depart from our usual practice of excluding the writings of those who are the subjects of our narratives, to give the following sprightly description of one of the hospital trains of the Sanitary Commission, communicated by Miss Brayton to the Cleveland Herald, not so much to give our readers a specimen of her abilities as a writer, as to illustrate the thorough devotion to their patriotic work which has characterized her and her associates.


"Riding on a rail in the 'Sunny South,' is not the most agreeable pastime in the world. Don't understand me to refer to that favorite argumentum ad hominem which a true Southerner applies to all who have the misfortune to differ from him, especially to Northern abolitionists; I simply mean that mode of traveling that Saxe in his funny little poem, calls so 'pleasant.' And no wonder! To be whirled along at the rate of forty miles an hour, over a smooth road, reposing on velvet-cushioned seats, with backs just at the proper angle to rest a tired head,-ice-water,-the last novel or periodical-all that can tempt your fastidious taste, or help to while away the time, offered at your elbow, is indeed pleasant; but wo to the fond imagination that pictures to itself such luxuries on a United States Military Railroad. Be thankful if in the crowd of tobacco-chewing soldiers you are able to get a seat, and grumble not if the pine boards are hard and narrow. Lay in a good stock of patience, for six miles an hour is probably the highest rate of speed you will attain, and even then you shudder to see on either hand strewn along the road, wrecks of cars and locomotives smashed in every conceivable manner, telling of some fearful accident or some guerrilla fight. These are discomforts hard to bear even when one is well and strong; how much worse for a sick or wounded man. But thanks to the United States Sanitary Commission and to those gentlemen belonging to it, whose genius and benevolence originated, planned, and carried it out, a hospital-train is now running on almost all the roads over which it is necessary to transport sick or wounded men. These trains are now under the control of Government, but the Sanitary Commission continues to furnish a great part of the stores that are used in them. My first experience of them was a sad one. A week before, the army had moved forward and concentrated near Tunnel Hill. The dull, monotonous rumble of army wagons as they rolled in long trains through the dusty street; the measured tramp of thousands of bronzed and war-worn veterans; the rattle and roar of the guns and caissons as they thundered on their mission of death; the glittering sheen reflected from a thousand sabres, had all passed by and left us in the desolated town. We lived, as it were, with bated breath and eager ears, our nerves tensely strung with anxiety and suspense waiting to catch the first sound of that coming strife, where we knew so many of our bravest and best must fall. At last came the news of that terrible fight at Buzzard's Roost or Rocky Face Ridge, and the evening after, in came Dr. S. -- straight from the front, and said, 'The hospital-train is at the depot, wouldn't you like to see it?' 'Of course we would,' chorused Mrs. Dr. S. -- and myself, and forthwith we rushed for our hats and cloaks, filled two large baskets with soft crackers and oranges, and started off. A walk of a mile brought us to the depot, and down in the further corner of the depot-yard we saw a train of seven or eight cars standing, apparently unoccupied. 'There it is,' said Dr. S. --. 'Why, it looks like any ordinary train,' I innocently remarked, but I was soon to find out the difference. We chanced to see Dr. Meyers, the Surgeon-in-charge, on the first car into which we went, and he made us welcome to do and to give whatever we had for the men, and so, armed with authority from the 'powers that be,' we went forward with confidence.

"Imagine a car a little wider than the ordinary one, placed on springs, and having on each side three tiers of berths or cots, suspended by rubber bands. These cots are so arranged as to yield to the motion of the car, thereby avoiding that jolting experienced even on the smoothest and best kept road. I didn't stop to investigate the plan of the car then, for I saw before me, on either hand, a long line of soldiers, shot in almost every conceivable manner, their wounds fresh from the battle-field, and all were patient and quiet; not a groan or complaint escaped them, though I saw some faces twisted into strange contortions with the agony of their wounds. I commenced distributing my oranges right and left, but soon realized the smallness of my basket and the largeness of the demand, and sadly passed by all but the worst cases. In the third car that we entered we found the Colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel, and Adjutant of the Twenty-ninth Ohio, all severely wounded. We stopped and talked awhile. Mindful of the motto of my Commission, to give 'aid and comfort,' I trickled a little sympathy on them. 'Poor fellows!' said I. 'No, indeed,' said they. 'We did suffer riding twenty miles'-it couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen, but a shattered limb or a ball in one's side lengthens the miles astonishingly-in those horrid ambulances to the cars. 'We cried last night like children, some of us,' said a Lieutenant,'but we're all right now. This Hospital Train is a jolly thing. It goes like a cradle.' Seeing my sympathy wasted, I tried another tack. 'Did you know that Sherman was in Dalton?' 'No!' cried the Colonel and all the men who could, raised themselves up and stared at me with eager, questioning eyes. 'Is that so?' 'Yes,' I replied, 'It is true.' 'Then, I don't care for this little wound,' said one fellow, slapping his right leg, which was pierced and torn by a minie ball. Brave men! How I longed to take our whole North, and pour out its wealth and luxury at their feet.

"A little farther on in the car, I chanced to look down, and there at my feet lay a young man, not more than eighteen or nineteen years old; hair tossed back from his noble white brow; long brown lashes lying on his cheek; face as delicate and refined as a girl's. I spoke to him and he opened his eyes, but could not answer me. I held an orange before him, and he looked a Yes; so I cut a hole in it and squeezed some of the juice into his mouth. It seemed to revive him a little, and after sitting a short time I left him. Soon after, they carried him out on a stretcher-poor fellow! He was dying when I saw him, and I could but think of his mother and sisters who would have given worlds to stand beside him as I did. By this time it was growing dark, my oranges had given out, and we were sadly in the way; so we left, to be haunted for many a day by the terrible pictures we had seen on our first visit to a Hospital Train.

"My next experience was much pleasanter. I had the privilege of a ride on one from Chattanooga to Nashville, and an opportunity of seeing the plan of arrangement of the train. There were three hundred and fourteen sick and wounded men on board, occupying nine or ten cars, with the surgeon's car in the middle of the train. This car is divided into three compartments; at one end is the store-room where are kept the eatables and bedding, at the other, the kitchen; and between the two the surgeon's room, containing his bed, secretary, and shelves and pigeon holes for instruments, medicines, etc. A narrow hall connects the store-room and kitchen, and great windows or openings in the opposite sides of the car give a pleasant draft of air. Sitting in a comfortable arm-chair, one would not wish a pleasanter mode of traveling, especially through the glorious mountains of East Tennessee, and further on, over the fragrant, fertile meadows, and the rolling hills and plains of Northern Alabama and middle Tennessee, clothed in their fresh green garments of new cotton and corn. This is all charming for a passenger, but a hospital train is a busy place for the surgeons and nurses.

"The men come on at evening, selected from the different hospitals, according to their ability to be moved, and after having had their tea, the wounds have to be freshly dressed. This takes till midnight, perhaps longer, and the surgeon must be on the watch continually, for on him falls the responsibility, not only of the welfare of the men, but of the safety of the train. There is a conductor and brakeman, and for them, too, there is no rest. Each finds enough to do as nurse or assistant. In the morning, after a breakfast of delicious coffee or tea, dried beef, dried peaches, soft bread, cheese, etc., the wounds have to be dressed a second time, and again in the afternoon, a third.

"In the intervals the surgeon finds time to examine individual cases, and prescribe especially for them, and perhaps to take a little rest. To fulfil the duties of surgeon in charge of such a train, or endure the terrible strain on brain and nerves and muscles, requires great skill, an iron will, and a mind undaunted by the shadow of any responsibility or danger. All this and more has Dr. J. P. Barnum, who has charge of the train formerly running between Louisville and Nashville, but now transferred to the road between Nashville and Chattanooga. With a touch gentle as a woman, yet with manly strength and firmness, and untiring watchfulness and thoughtful care, he seems wholly devoted to the work of benefiting our sick and wounded soldiers. All on board the train gave him the warmest thanks. As I walked through the car, I heard the men say, 'we hav'n't lived so well since we joined the army. We are better treated than we ever were before. This is the nicest place we were ever in,' etc. Should the Doctor chance to see this, he will be shocked, for modesty, I notice, goes hand in hand with true nobility and generosity; but I risk his wrath for the selfish pleasure that one has in doing justice to a good man.

"After breakfast, in the morning, when the wounds were all dressed, I had the pleasure of carrying into one car a pitcher of delicious blackberry wine that came from the Soldiers' Aid Society[552] of Northern Ohio, and with the advice of Dr. Yates, the assistant surgeon, giving it to the men. The car into which I went had only one tier of berths, supported like the others on rubber bands. Several times during the day I had an opportunity of giving some little assistance in taking care of wounded men, and it was very pleasant. My journey lasted a night and a day, and I think I can never again pass another twenty-four hours so fraught with sweet and sad memories as are connected with my second and last experience on a hospital train."

About this Document

  • Source: Woman's Work in the Civil War
  • Author: L. P. Brockett and Mrs. Mary C.Vaughn
  • Publisher: Zeigler, McCurdy & Co.
  • Citation: pages 547-552
  • Date: 1867