By the evening of July third, the guns were silent. The whole of the land seemed to bleed though, and the wounded came to the hospitals in droves, as if the battle had planted a crop and the wounded were its bountiful harvest. By ones and twos they came, sometimes by the half dozen and more. Some walked and found their own way, friends brought in others. Still more came by ambulance. However they came, they were a miserable lot.
Assistant Surgeon Tobias Ellis did his best to sort through them. He examined a butternut boy who said through the twisted lisp of a harelip that he was sixteen, from Georgia. He was shot through the pelvis and it took no time for Ellis to know nothing could be done. He gave the youth water and a little laudanum, but it was small comfort. Ellis moved on to others, but the memory of that harelipped boy stayed with him. When he asked about him a long time later he was told the boy had passed before morning and that they buried him a hundred and fifty feet behind the old mill, under a cherry tree that someone imagined would shade him in the hot days of summer. Nothing marked the spot because nobody knew who he was.
That’s how it was. The evening was a string of miserable minutes strung together in tiny clusters. Three minutes for a man shot through the shoulder; Ellis put first a finger in the entry wound and then another in the exit and when his fingers touched, he decided the man was only lightly injured and didn’t need a surgeon. Three minutes to set a broken wrist and splint it with a strip of cowhide and a piece of wood from a sycamore tree. Two minutes to tourniquet a leg, then extract a piece of wire deep in the meat of it. A minute to peek under a pink, saturated bandage several inches below a slender belly button; he saw thin, red water leaking from a hole and smelled urine, knew the ball had breached the bladder. It would either heal or it wouldn’t, but nothing to do about it so he set the soul aside, a case not to be operated upon. He turned a man’s head looking for the source of a trickle of blood and had ten terrible minutes trying to stop torrential bleeding from under his clavicle; frantic moments during which he could get neither a finger nor a clamp around the pulsating source. All bleeding stops eventually though, and the case did not violate the rule. He took two minutes to settle his own breathing, then four minutes sewing a torn scalp, and half a minute saying a prayer over a fat, cigar-shaped dead man. After awhile, he had the impression he wasn’t seeing men, but parts—an exploded chest, a blood swolled thigh, a busted jaw with its teeth spat to the wind or swallowed.
It was more than a man could take and a lot less than there was to be seen.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish