Civil War nurse’s muddy trek through York County enroute to Gettysburg
This photograph, likely taken in the late summer of 1863, shows the U.S. Sanitary Commission’s tents at Camp Letterman near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Starting in early July, hundreds of volunteer doctors and nurses traveled to the small Adams County town to minister to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers left behind when the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac withdrew.
Among the earliest volunteers was Charlotte Elizabeth McKay, a Massachusetts woman who in early 1862 had left her home and ventured down to Frederick, Maryland, to work in the army hospital there. In January 1863 she went to the front lines and served as a nurse in the field hospitals of the Army of the Potomac. Her efforts to tend to the wounded following the Battle of Chancellorsville are described in her 1876 book Stories of Hospital and Camp.
That memoir recounts her efforts to travel from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg in early July.
That trek included a significant amount of York County mud.
Mrs. McKay later recalled the problems with transportation. She had little trouble in journeying by rail from Washington to Baltimore, and then on the Northern Central Railway northward into southern Pennsylvania’s York County. Here the twin issues of Confederate cavalry raiders and poor weather conjoined to make the next leg of her trek wearisome.
Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, had destroyed several railroad bridges on the Hanover Branch Railroad leading from Hanover Junction to Hanover and the Gettysburg Railroad from there to Gettysburg. They had not all yet been rebuilt, so further rail transportation was not an option.
Here are Charlotte’s words, which indicate that the people of that region of York County expected further trouble from the Rebel raiders and they had taken their remaining horses into hiding.
“When our army left its base at Aquia Creek, their second attempt on Pennsylvania, the field hospitals in Virginia were all broken up, and the wounded sent to Washington. Thither I followed, to remain in Washington until we should see where the next blow should fall.
The Washington journals of the 4th of July announced that there had been fighting on the 1st, 2d, and 3d, near Gettysburg, and I immediately went to Baltimore, and thence to Hanover Junction, the point nearest Gettysburg that could be reached by rail. From this point, about thirty miles distant, the railroad had been torn up, and there was no conveyance, either public or private, to be obtained.
The horses had all been sent into places of concealment, in case of a rebel raid, which was hourly expected. Heavy rains had made the roads so muddy that it was impossible for pedestrians to cross the street at the station where I had stopped. I would probably have been obliged to return to Washington, but for the kind and persevering efforts of Mr. Montford, military agent of the State of Indiana, who, seeing my dilemma, invited me to join a party for whom he was seeking transportation to Gettysburg.
I gladly availed myself of his offer, and, after having waited nearly a day, we found ourselves seated, or rather reclining, on bags of forage, very near the canvas covering of a huge Government wagon, one of a train going to the front–a conveyance which we thought ourselves fortunate to obtain. When the train halted for the night, we found lodgings at a farm-house, and the next day I found my division hospital near the battle-field, five miles from Gettysburg.
There, lying along a little stream, and spread out over the adjacent fields and hills, were our wounded men, their sufferings increased by want of food and clothing. Agents of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, men and women who had come for the emergency, medical officers and soldiers detailed for hospital duty, were all hard at work. My programme for a day at Gettysburg was to rise as early as possible in the morning, and send out everything that was available in the way of food to the wounded. An item for one morning was a barrel of eggs, and as it was impossible to cook them all, they were distributed raw, the men who had the use of their hands making little fires in front of their tents, and boiling them in tincups, for themselves and their disabled comrades.
Breakfast being over, I would ride to the town, and gather up everything in the way of sanitary supplies that I could get, from the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, the large and generously filled storehouse of Adams Express Co., or any quarter where they could be obtained. I would take butter, eggs, and crackers by the barrel, dried fish by the half kentle, and fresh meat in any quantity, and, having seen them loaded on an army wagon, would return in my ambulance, which was well filled with lighter articles, in time to give some attention to dinner. The remainder of the day would be devoted to the distribution of such stimulants as eggnog and milk punch, — which would be prepared in large buckets, and served to the patients in little tin-cups,– or supplying them with clothing, pocket handkerchiefs, cologne, bay rum, anything that could be had to alleviate their sufferings.
The way to Gettysburg, from our hospital was through the country which had so lately been a broad battle-field,– over which our army had been repulsed, and, in their turn, had driven the rebels with great slaughter. All along the way were mementos of the fight–torn garments, haversacks and canteens that had fallen away from their owners, dead horses from which the stench was intolerable, lines of breastworks sometimes coming close to the road on each side, mounds where batteries had been planted, heaps of fence rails or stones, from behind which sharp-shooters, singling out the most conspicuous of the enemy, and taking deliberate aim, had picked off their victims without danger to themselves; near the town, on our left, the cemetery, torn and ploughed up with heavy missiles, still lying around in the midst of broken monuments. Farther on our left, Round Top, the pivot on which the fate of the battle had turned.
Thus passed nearly six weeks at Gettysburg, with little variation in the daily routine, save that which came from urgent claims of special cases of suffering, which, indeed, were many. Men with both hands amputated or disabled, who would eat nothing unless I gave the food with my own hands; men discouraged and desponding from loss of limbs, and painfulness of wounds, to whom a few cheerful or playful words would do good like a medicine; men dying, to whom a few words of sympathy and encouragement as to the future were so precious.”
Source: Mrs. C. E. McKay, Stories of Hospital and Camp (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger,1876), 50-52.