Monday, December 23, 2019

Civil War Christmas [1863]

Many hospital wards were overcrowded and ill equipped.
During the Civil War, Lindsley Hall, part of the 
University of Nashville was used as a hospital.

Let’s follow the diary of a young nurse, Elvira J. Powers, who served as a nurse in military hospitals in the Louisville area and Nashville. Here are her thoughts just prior to Christmas in 1863.
Friday, Dec. 9.
The first snow of the season. Winter has really come to the Ohio valley.
Much public excitement in Louisville. Men are being conscripted, and horses impressed. Several thousand soldiers have just been sent there, as they anticipate a cavalry raid from the rebels. Hood is threatening Nashville. He says he "… is ordered either to go into Nashville, or to " a certain very warm place. Our boys [Union soldiers] think he will get into the latter place first.

Yesterday was at work most of the day and evening on evergreen wreaths to trim the ward. Christmas is coming I have plenty of help from the ward-master, chief nurse and convalescents. How kind they all are. I receive nothing in my ward from the surgeon down, but the greatest respect and consideration.
Friday, Dec.16.

The first death in my ward, since my coming, occurred last night. It was that of Robert Burnett, of Kentucky. On Sunday morning, over a week since, I found him lying in bed and that he had not been out to breakfast, as he had done the two days previous, since entering the ward.

Upon conversing with him he told me he was going to die. I saw that he was excited and thought he was nervous and tried to quiet him. But he was sure, he said, that he should die, " he understood why I did not think so, and appreciated what I said, but he knew he was going to die, " and asked if I would stay by him whenever I could, and he begged for a promise that I would be by him and " watch his face when he died." These were his exact words, and though I did not think he was dangerous and told him so, yet he would not be pacified till I promised if he died at any hour when we were allowed in the ward, or if at any other, and he was conscious and would send for me, I would be with him. He was also concerned for the future, for he was not a Christian, he said. I read for him from the Bible, sang for him, and the chaplain's orderly came and prayed with him. He professed afterward to think himself prepared to die, and he gradually grew worse each day until he died. I remained with him until late last evening, but he was unconscious else I should have remained until his death. He died about twelve. I had written to his wife the first day, but the mails are interrupted by guerillas. He has two brother-in-laws here, who have started home with his body. At the funeral service we sang the appropriate hymn,

" Oh! watch my dying face,
When I am called to die."

Wednesday, Dec. 21.
Transfers and furloughs are the order of the day. Some twenty-five hundred have been transferred from Nashville to this hospital, this month. From fifty to two, three or four hundred are transferred from here at one time, to hospitals farther north. As we hear that those are pretty well filled, it seems just the time to give as many sick furloughs as possible, thus clearing the hospitals for those unable to go home.

Saturday, Dec. 24.
The second death in the ward. It was that of a young, noble-looking man—Prevo, of the 40th Indiana. He died of a gunshot wound, the ball entering the lungs. He was battling with the grim monster all day yesterday, and thought himself at one time on a forced march through the country of an enemy, and at another in the heat of battle, when he would cheer on the soldiers. A lock of hair and a few words of condolence will go to one more mourning family in place of the dear, noble boy.

Great preparations are being made for Christmas tomorrow ; thus death and feasting go hand in hand in this strange world of ours.

Another died last Sunday in Ward 23, who had been for a long time in this ward. He shed tears when he was transferred, and I interceded to have him remain, but there are wards to which an order obliges patients to be removed when suffering from chronic diarrhea or lung diseases, and he was one of the former. But at his request I visited him, and after his death, which came suddenly, procured a lock of his hair from the dead-house and sent it to his father.

Christmas Evening.
Our dinner was truly a success. It was given by the Sanitary Commission principally, and a portion from the hospital fund. Much less stir was made about it, and one soldier expressed the general feeling, who said he " enjoyed the. Christmas dinner the most, for there wasn't so much style about it." Very excellent oyster soup for the light diet was given each time. Twenty-one hundred pies were issued for dinner, seventy-one cans of oysters, with eighteen hundred pounds of beef a la mode, also four barrels of pickles.

Friday, Dec. 30.
Most of the wards are now radiant with evergreen, tissue paper and pictures. I am content that mine should rank third or fourth in its adornings, rather than neglect the weightier matter of attending to the sick men—of whom I had quite a number last week requiring much care. The last death, mentioned under date of the 24th, was the second only in the ward since my entrance—a period of over two months, and the fifth since being in the charge of the present Burgeon, which is eight months. But the mortality in the hospital is increasing very much in consequence of war's grim visage .approaching nearer to us. A week ago last Sunday there were eleven dead bodies in the dead-house, and fourteen deaths occurred in three days.

Source: Hospital Pencillings, Powers, 1866.
The full diary is available at HathiTrust: