Poem about Civil War Nurses, 1866
The massive casualty rates of the Civil War meant that nurses were always needed. Women, North and South, left the comforts of home to care for the wounded. Hospital conditions were often so bad that many volunteer nurses quit soon after beginning. After the war, Kate Cumming, a nurse who traveled with the Army of Tennessee, published an account of her experience. She included a poem, written by an unknown author about nursing in the war.
Fold away all your bright-tinted dresses,
Turn the key on your jewels today,
And the wealth of your tendril-like tresses
Braid back in a serious way;
No more delicate gloves, no more laces,
No more trifling in boudoir or blower,
But come with your souls in your faces
To meet the stern wants of the hour.
Looks around. By the torchlight unsteady
The dead and the dying seem one—
What! Trembling and paling already,
Before your dear mission’s begun?
These wounds are more precious than ghastly—
Time presses her lips to each scar,
While she chants of that glory which vastly
Transcends all the horrors of war.
Pause here by this bedside. How mellow
The light showers down on that brow!
Such a brave, brawny visage, poor fellow!
Some homestead is missing him now.
Some wife shades her eyes in the clearing,
Some mother sits moaning distressed,
While the loved one lies faint but unfearing,
With the enemy’s ball in his breast.
Here’s another—a lad—a mere stripling,
Picked up in the field almost dead,
With the blood through his sunny hair rippling
From the horrible gash in the head.
They say he was first in the action:
Gay-hearted, quick-headed, and witty:
He fought till he dropped with exhaustion.
At the gates of our fair southern city.
Fought and fell ‘neath the guns of that city,
With a spirit transcending his years—
Lift him up in your large-hearted pity,
And wet his pale lips with your tears.
Touch him gently; most sacred the duty
Of dressing the poor shattered hand!
God spare him to rise in his beauty,
And battle once more for his land!
Pass on! It is useless to linger
While others are calling your care;
There is need for your delicate finger,
For your womanly sympathy there.
There are sick ones athirst for caressing,
There are dying ones raving at home,
There are wounds to be bound with a blessing,
And shrouds to make ready for some.
They have gathered about you the harvest
Of death in its ghastliest view;
The nearest as well as the furthest
Is there with the traitor and true.
And crowned with your beautiful patience,
Made sunny with love at the heart,
You must balsam the wounds of the nations,
Nor falter nor shrink from your part.
And the lips of the mother will bless you,
And angels, sweet-visaged and pale,
And the little ones run to caress you,
And the wives and the sisters cry hail!
But e’en if you drop down unheeded,
What matter? God’s ways are the best:
You have poured out your life where ‘twas needed,
And he will take care of the rest.
Unknown author, “A Call to the Hospital,” in Kate Cumming, A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee (Louisville: 1866), pp. 104-105