(This is a fragment, out of sequence in the current W-I-P, That Fateful Lightning, a novel of the Civil War that I intend to finish by summer. Minnie Vining, having served as a field nurse all during the War, never knows that the patient that she and Surgeon-Major MacNelly are tending is her nephew, Peter Vining – who returns from the war in the opening chapters of Adelsverein: The Harvesting.)

At the End of the Fight – April, 1865

The last Confederate armies were dissolving, as they fell back from Petersburg, falling back west into the gently-folded hills, wet with April rain. Everyone said so. Richmond had fallen, came the word among the teamsters; the traitor Jeff Davis had fled, no one knew where he and his fellow secessionists had gone to earth. The Negro contrabands who did the hard labor of setting up a hospital in the muddy fields did so with a cheerful air that day. Still, Minnie heard the distant crackle of rifle fire, as she and the other volunteer nurses set up the wards for a hospital near a small town at the crossroads, west of Petersburg. There was no particular reason to set up in this place, save that a half-wrecked barn looked to have served as a shelter and surgery for the retreating Confederates. Most of those injured left behind were still alive, although verminous, half-starving, and very, very ill – from wound fever, malaria, semi-starvation, and camp-fever or perhaps all four in combination.

There had been a stack of putrid amputated arms, legs and blood-soaked garments left in a pile seething with flies on the far side of the barn. Minnie, holding folds of her apron over her nose and mouth, had instructed the orderlies to start a bonfire – and if the wood was too wet to burn, to dig out a trench and bury the reeking pile.

The war seemed to have dissolved into sporadic running skirmishes, as the last of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fell back towards the west, towards the high green ridges that ran like a spine down the length of Virginia. Those men who fancied themselves tacticians said that Lee was trying to break south, to join up the General Johnstons’ force in Tennessee, but that ‘Little Phil’ Sheridan kept leapfrogging ahead of him, blocking escape of what was left of the largest Confederate army. Looking out from the cluster of cream-colored canvas Army tents and pavilions which made up the hospital, she could see the wet countryside, the muddy and rutted road over which an army had lately passed, see where planks had been laid down in those spots where the mud was deepest. Rumors flew that General Lee was on the point of surrendering – but rumors always flew thick and fast, among the marching armies.

“Dr. McNelly says that we are not all that far away from Richmond,” she remarked to Lavinia Dillard, as the two women stood under the shelter of a large wall tent, the front flaps turned back to admit light and air, “I visited there, once. Years ago – to visit close kin. Alas, we parted ways over the matter of abolition – my cousins’ folk were all for slave power, and I couldn’t not countenance remaining silent. I suppose that the war will be over soon. I wonder if I should venture a visit there, now.”

She wondered increasingly of late, how the war had treated Susan and Ambrose – and the husbands of Susan’s daughters, all of whom would have been expected to join the Confederate brigades. She counted back the years since that momentious visit, enshrined in her memory like amber. Yes, even Lydia and Charlotte’s first-born sons would have been old enough to serve as soldiers; if not when Fort Sumpter was fired on, then at least in the last few years.

Maybe one of those sons lay on a cot in her hospital at this very moment; wounded and sick nearly to death.

“I don’t suppose that you would be received with any more courtesy,” Lavinia replied. She fidgeted with a corner of the apron tied over her work-dress. “After all the blood and the misery, and the hatred … it will be almost impossible to put it out of mind and go back to being one country again.”

Minnie nodded in agreement. “We’re doing at least something to make up for it, in tending their wounded; resolving at that moment, that she and the nurses would do everything possible to see that no more soldiers died under their care.


Certain word of General Lee’s surrender came more than a week later – at mid-morning. As if in acknowledging that miracle, the sun came out from behind the lowering grey clouds. The trees around had put out fresh green leaves – and even the bare-shorn fields where the hospital had been set up were furred with new growth. Minnie went to find Surgeon Major McNelly, the chief of the hospital and senior surgeon. She had worked with Surgeon McNelly for some months and liked him very much for his grasp of practicalities – and that he was a very good surgeon; adept and above all, swift with his bone saw and his needles. He was an older man, somewhat fat, who had served in the regular Army medical service, well before the war began. He had a wife living in Baltimore – that she knew, as he received occasional letters from her, and two sons – one in the Army, Surgeon McNelly said, vaguely, the other still in school, engaged also in learning the practice of medicine, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps.

She found him in the main ward – two big wall tents joined together, the ends open for the fresh air that it admitted. Forty cots it held, twenty to a side – all of them occupied by patients. At least half of them were those who had been left behind by the retreating Army of Northern Virginia, too sick or unconscious to be moved. Surgeon-Major McNelly sat on a folding camp stool next to the one nearest the open end, placidly puffing on his pipe. Suddenly worried, Minnie touched the back of her hand on the patient’s forehead and turned back the covers on him. This was a Confederate soldier with his left arm gone below the elbow, in a hurried surgery which had every indication of having gone in a bad way, when those survivors of a crude Confederate hospital way-station had been collected up from where they had lain in fouled coverings or none at all, in the dirty straw of the wrecked barn and put to clean cots and fresh dressings in a properly-organized hospital. With relief, Minnie saw that the black horsehair stitches over the stump where a lower arm and hand for this poor young man had once been, were no longer oozing – no blood, no evidence of putrid discharge.

“Doctor, is there something wrong with this patient?” Minnie demanded.

Surgeon-Major McNelly took out his pipe from his mouth and replied, “No … he is merely one of those whom I am glad to see that rough surgery and neglect didn’t carry off, in spite of every invitation to do so. His appearance just reminds me of my son.”

“Your son?” Minnie replaced the coverings on the unconscious patient, noting that his temperature was normal – the hectic flush of a high fever was gone. He was a tall young man, almost too tall for the standard hospital cot, with fair lank hair falling across his pale forehead, a young man gaunt with deprivation and hardship. There was a scar across one cheek and brow of that slack and unconscious face, pulling one eyebrow upwards – an otherwise pleasant and even handsome countenance. “The lad who is presently in school?”

“No,” Surgeon-Major McNelly replied, with an indefinable expression of sorrow. “My older son. Edward. He would have been … twenty-six this year. But we received word last year that he was killed during the Gettysburg fight. With the First Marylanders in Steuart’s brigade, attacking Union positions on Culp Hill. He was a believer in the rights of states to determine their own, you see. And so he went with the Confederacy, when it all began. His choice, although it grieved his mother and I no end, almost more than hearing that he had died in the slaughter there.”

“I am so sorry,” Minnie replied, shocked down to the soles of her feet in sensible boots. “I didn’t know … although I can see now…”

Surgeon-Major McNelly sighed. “The things that this war has done to us. Rending brother from brother, father from son – family against family, just as it was with your Richmond kinfolk. I had always believed – as I think that you also believe, Miss Vining – that the peculiar institution was a poisonous boil, one which might eventually have caused the death of the nation, just as such a boil would have proved fatal to one of our patients. Such a boil would have to be lanced and drained of pustulent matter, for healing to truly begin … as painful as that process might be. I wonder, though – if we had any notion of how awful a slaughter that it turned out to be, and five years of it, from here to the Mississippi and beyond! Would we all have gone to war so eagerly, as if it were all a game for boys … boys like this one, like Edward, my son? What difference might it have made, if any at all.”

“Over a quarrel that should have been resolved sensibly.” Minnie replied, stoutly. Surgeon-Major McNelly shook his head, somberly. “No. The matter was not one which could have been resolved peaceably, not when there was no intention of either side to compromise on a single iota. Not after so many poisonous words said, so many vile accusations thrown at each other. Was it all worth it, I wonder? Will it have made any difference in the end? Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when He blows upon them and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble…

Rather shaken, Minnie considered the quandary that Surgeon-Major McNelly suggested; all the lives that the war had cost – above all, the life of Richard Brewer, leaving Sophie a widow in deepest mourning, Richie and baby Sophie orphaned, the dead and dying in windrows of blue and gray, swept by a scythe of lead shot falling like hail had cut them down without mercy between one moment and the next. There must be millions of bereaved widows and children. Dying was cruel and brief, for the most part – but for those who had loved their soldiers, the living in grief would go on for years. She looked out beyond the trampled meadow, to a stream running close to the edge of the wood where the hospital laundry had been set up. Great cauldrons had been set up over fires to soak soiled bedding and clothes in hot cleansing water, and when scoured clean, to be hung from lines strung between trees. The camp-followers and laundresses, the men cutting and hauling wood to feed the fires – all of them Negros – and all now free men and women. Free to work where they wished, to marry whom they wanted, and now assured that their children, their husbands, wives, and parents would never be torn away from them, sold to another owner, never to see their loved ones again. She remembered what Miss Van Lew had said, after Pres Devereaux had successfully bid for the club-footed girl with her infant boy– what was her name? Lizetta, and the other little girl, who was all but white and now living the life of a respectable ministers’ wife in Illinois, burying her slave past as if it had never happened. ‘It is little enough, in the face of the numbers … but this little means everything in the world to Lizetta and Josephine.’

“So much to us,” Minnie replied at last, looking across at the laundresses hard at work. “But it will mean ever so much more to them.”

Surgeon-Major McNelly grunted, cynically. “A great price we paid for their freedom,” he said. “I hope they’re grateful for it.” He looked down at the sleeping patient, the Confederate soldier who reminded him of his dead son. “It’s cost this lad his hand and half an arm. I wonder if he will grudge that price?”

Minnie looked at the tall, fair young soldier, now maimed for the rest of his natural life, be it a long or a short one. “Might he be one of your sons’ comrades, do you think?”

“I doubt it,” Surgeon-Major McNelly replied. “One of the other lads says they were about the last left of Hood’s Fourth Texas Infantry.”

At that moment, there was a sudden murmuration in the camp, a murmur like a disturbed beehive, punctuated by shouts and grief-stricken wailing. Something was wrong, something had happened.

“He’s dead!” a voice cried from the margin of the trampled road. “Father Abraham is dead! Murdered!” There was a crowd gathered by a lathered horse – a courier had come and gone, leaving consternation in his wake, spreading like ripples in a pond into which a heavy stone had been thrown. Surgeon-Major McNelly sprang to his feet, moving faster than one might have thought an older, fatter man capable of moving.

Minnie followed the surgeon, running in an attempt to keep up with him. The center of a weeping crowd of black and white, soldiers and civilians, woman and men, lamenting together. Surgeon-Major McNelly reached the crowd well ahead of Minnie, spoke to a sergeant with many stripes on his blue sleeve, a man with tears running down his grizzled cheeks. It was bad news, Minnie knew, as if she had been there. When she caught up, gasping from her own haste, Surgeon-Major McNelly turned toward her, his own countenance already grief-stricken.

“The president is dead,” he said, plainly. “He was attacked two nights ago by an assassin and passed away the next morning.”

Minnie gasped in horror, grief piercing to her heart – this was even worse than when Richard died before Petersburg not even a year ago. Dear Mr. Lincoln, his bony countenance alive with humor that never quite erased the somber look in his eyes.


  1. “First Marylanders in Steuart’s brigade”

    typo? Stuart’s

  2. Sorry Celia, it’s a pet peeve of mine. The name of the fort was “Sumter”, not “Sumpter”.