Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What is Missing

[posted by Callimachus]

The object of the Sanitary Commission was to do what the Government could not. The Government undertook, of course, to provide all that was necessary for the soldier, ... but, from the very nature of things, this was not possible .... The methods of the commission were so elastic, and so arranged to meet every emergency, that it was able to make provision for any need, seeking always to supplement, and never to supplant, the Government. [Mary A. Livermore, "My Story of the War"]

"[T]o do what the government could not" is judiciously worded. "Would not" would have been better.

We, the people, are missing in action. When we see the government falter, now, we demand the government do more. As if we had forgotten why we so disliked governments. It wasn't always so.

We went on board; and such a scene as we entered and lived in for two days I trust never to see again. Men in every condition of horror, shattered and shrieking, were being brought in on stretchers borne by "contrabands," who dumped them anywhere, banged the stretchers against pillars and posts, and walked over the men without compassion. There was no one to direct what ward or what bed they were to go into. Men shattered in the thigh, and even cases of amputation, were shovelled into top berths without thought or mercy. The men had mostly been without food for three days. but there was nothing on board either boat for them; and if there had been, the cooks were only engaged to cook for the ship, and not for the hospital.

We began to do what we could. The first thing wanted by wounded men is something to drink (with the sick, stimulants are the first thing). Fortunately we had plenty of lemons, ice, and sherry on board the Small, and these were available at once. Dr. Ware discovered a barrel of molasses, which, with vinegar, ice, and water, made a most refreshing drink. After that we gave them crackers and milk, or tea and bread. It was hopeless to try to get them into bed; indeed, there were no mattresses on the Vanderbilt. All we could do at first was to try to calm the confusion, to stop some agony, to revive the fainting lives, to snatch, if possible, from immediate death with food and stimulants.

Imagine a great river or Sound steamer filled on every deck,-every berth and every square inch of room covered with wounded men; even the stairs and gangways and guards filled with those who are less badly wounded; and then imagine fifty well men, on every kind of errand, rushing to and fro over them, every touch bringing agony to the poor fellows, while stretcher after stretcher came along, hoping to find an empty place; and then imagine what it was to keep calm ourselves, and make sure that every man on both those boats was properly refreshed and fed. We got through about 1 A.M., Mrs. M. and Georgy having come off other duty and reinforced us.

We were sitting for a few moments, resting and talking it over, and bitterly asking why a Government so lavish and perfect in its other arrangements should leave its wounded almost literally to take care of themselves, when a message came that one hundred and fifty men were just arriving by the cars. It was raining in torrents, and both boats were full.

We went on shore again: the same scene repeated. The wretched Vanderbilt was slipped out, the Kennebec brought up, and the hundred and fifty men carried across the Daniel Webster No. 2 to her, with the exception of some fearfully wounded ones, who could not be touched in the darkness and rain, and were therefore made as comfortable as they could be in the cars. We gave refreshment and food to all, Miss Whetten and a detail of young men from the Spaulding coming up in time to I assist, and the officers of the Sebagoj who had seen how hard pressed we were in the afternoon, volunteering for the nightwatch. Add to this sundry Members of Congress, who, if they talked much, at least worked well. One of them, the Hon. Moses F. Odell, proposed to Mr. Olmsted that on his return to Washington he should move that the thanks of Congress be returned to us! Mr. Olmsted, mindful of our feelings, promptly declined.

[letter dated 5 June, 1862]

What would Walt Whitman be doing now? Marching against the war? Giving to Spirit of America? Volunteering in Iraq? All three?