Mary Bedinger Mitchell

Author of a Famous Civil War Essay

Civil War nurst at the Battle of Antietam, Mary Bedinger MitchellMary Bedinger Mitchell wrote an essay about her experiences in September 1862, before and after the Battle of Antietam, called A Woman's Recollections of Antietam. Beginning with the Battle of South Mountain and ending with the Battle of Shepherdstown, Virginia (now West Virginia), Mitchell describes in vivid detail the incredible events of one week when the Civil War came to her hometown.

Mary Bedinger was born August 3, 1850. After serving as America's first ambassador to Denmark, Mary's father Henry Bedinger returned to his hometown of Shepherdstown. Shortly thereafter he contracted pneumonia after giving a speech to a cheering crowd before a bonfire in November 1858; he died two weeks later.

Mary and her family lived for a while with her father's sister, Henrietta Bedinger Lee and her husband Edmund Jennings Lee, first cousin of Robert E. Lee. In 1859, Mary's mother bought a farm called "Poplar Grove," near Shepherdstown and had an addition built onto the house. She also hired a tutor to teach her children at home. Twelve-year-old Mary Bedinger was living there with her widowed mother and younger brother and sister in September 1862.

Mary Bedinger Mitchell's essay was published in 1887 in Volume II of the excellent Civil War reference, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. This post includes excerpts from that piece:

We had passed an exciting summer... we had been in the Confederacy and out of it again, and were now waiting for the next move in the great game... hearing first that our men were coming, and then that they were not coming, when suddenly, on Saturday, the 13th of September, early in the morning, we found ourselves surrounded by a hungry horde of lean and dusty tatterdemalions [men wearing worn or tattered clothing], who seemed to rise from the ground at our feet. All day they crowded to the doors of our houses, begging for food...

I know nothing of numbers, nor what force was or was not engaged in any battle, but I saw the troops march past us every summer for four years, and I know something of the appearance of a marching army, both Union and Southern. There are always stragglers, of course, but never before or after did I see anything comparable to the demoralized state of the Confederates at this time. Never were want and exhaustion more visibly put before my eyes, and that they could march or fight at all seemed incredible.

Battle of South Mountain
On Sunday, September 14, 1862, the Battle of South Mountain was fought for possession of three South Mountain passes which General George B. McClellan needed to pass through in his pursuit of General Robert E. Lee. Despite being significantly outnumbered, Lee's army delayed McClellan's advance for a day before withdrawing, but suffered heavy losses in the process.

As I remember the next morning - it was Sunday, September 14th - we were awakened by heavy firing at two points on the mountains. We knew almost nothing except that there was fighting, that it must be very heavy, and that our friends were surely in it somewhere, but whether at South Mountain or Harper's Ferry we had no means of discovering... how we staid at the windows until we could not endure the suspense; how we walked about and came back to them; and how finally, when night fell, it seemed cruel and preposterous to go to bed still ignorant of the result.

Jackson Takes Harpers Ferry
On Monday, September 15, 1862, only ten miles south of the Bedinger home, Confederate forces under General Stonewall Jackson surrounded, bombarded and captured the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, a major victory at relatively minor cost. Thus began the flow of wounded toward Shepherdstown. By early afternoon, Jackson received an urgent message from General Lee to get his troops to Sharpsburg, Maryland as quickly as possible.

Mary's tale of the carnage begins:

Monday afternoon [the 15th], about 2 or 3 o'clock, when we were sitting about in disconsolate fashion, distracted by the contradictory rumors, our Negro cook rushed into the room with eyes shining and face working with excitement. She had been down in "de ten-acre lot to pick a few years of cawn," and she had seen a long train of wagons coming up from the ford, and "dey is full of wounded men, and de blood running outen dem dat deep," measuring on her outstretched arm to the shoulder.

This horrible picture sent us flying to town, where we found the streets already crowded, the people all astir, and the foremost wagons, of what seemed an endless line, discharging their piteous burdens... The first thing was to find roofs to cover them. Men ran for keys and opened the shops long empty, and the unused rooms; other people got brooms and stirred up the dust of ages; then swarms of children began to appear with bundles of hay and straw, taken from anybody's stable. These were hastily disposed in heaps, and covered with blankets... On these improvised beds the sufferers were placed, and the next question was how properly to dress their wounds. No surgeons were to be seen.

A few men, detailed as nurses, had come, but they were incompetent, of course. Our women set bravely to work and washed away the blood or stanched it as well as they could, where the jolting of the long rough ride had disarranged the hasty binding done upon the battlefield. But what did they know of wounds beyond a cut finger, or a boil? Yet they bandaged and bathed, with a devotion that went far to make up for their inexperience.

Then there was the hunt for bandages. Every housekeeper ransacked her stores and brought forth things new and old. I saw one girl, in despair for a strip of cloth, look about helplessly, and then rip off the hem of her white petticoat. The doctors came up, by and by, or I suppose they did, for some amputating was done - rough surgery, you may be sure. The women helped, holding the instruments and the basins, and trying to soothe or strengthen. They stood to their work nobly; the emergency brought out all their strength to meet it...

It became a grave question how to feed so many unexpected guests. The news spread rapidly, and the people from the country neighborhoods came pouring in to help, expecting to stay with friends who had already given up every spare bed and every inch of room where beds could be put up. Virginia houses are very elastic, but ours were strained to their utmost. Fortunately some of the farmers' wives had been thoughtful enough to bring supplies of linen, and some bread and fruit, and when our wants became better known other contributions flowed in; but when all was done it was not enough.

Meanwhile, just across the Potomac River, near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, General Lee was deploying his army along Antietam Creek. While it was an effective defensive position, it was also a precarious position because the Confederate rear was blocked by the river with only a single crossing point nearby - Boteler's Ford at Shepherdstown - should retreat be necessary.

The work of nursing the wounded continued on Tuesday:

We worked far into the night that Monday, went to bed late, and rose early next morning. Tuesday, the 16th, brought fresh wagon-loads of wounded... Some doctors also arrived, who - with a few honorable exceptions - might as well have staid away. The remembrance of that worthless body of officials stirs me to wrath. Two or three worked conscientiously and hard, and they did all the medical work, except what was done by our own town physicians.

In strong contrast was the conduct of the common men detailed as nurses. They were as gentle as they knew how to be, and very obliging and untiring. Of course they were uncouth and often rough, but with the wounded dying about us every day, and with the necessity that we were under for the first few days, of removing those who died at once that others not yet quite dead might take their places, there was no time to be fastidious; it required all our efforts to be simply decent, and we sometimes failed in that.

As night drew nearer, whispers of a great battle to be fought the next day grew louder, and we shuddered at the prospect, for battles had come to mean to us, as they never had before, blood, wounds and death.

As if Shepherdstown was not already overrun with wounded soldiers, there would soon be more, many more. On September 17, 1862 Generals Lee and Jackson clashed with Union Generals McClellan and Ambrose Burnsideat the Battle of Antietam, the first major conflict of the Civil War on Union soil and the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 3,600 killed and 17,000 wounded.

Mary wrote:

On the 17th of September [Wednesday], cloudy skies looked down upon the two armies facing each other on the fields of Maryland. It seems to me now that the roar of that day began with the light, and all through its long and dragging hours its thunder formed a background to our pain and terror. If we had been in doubt as to our friends' whereabouts on Sunday, there was no room for doubt now.

We went about our work with pale faces and trembling hands, yet trying to appear composed for the sake of our patients, who were much excited. We could hear the incessant explosions of artillery, the shrieking whistles of the shells, and the sharper, deadlier, more thrilling roll of musketry; while every now and then the echo of some charging cheer would come, borne by the wind, and as the human voice pierced that demoniacal clangor we would catch our breath and listen, and try not to sob, and turn back to the forlorn hospitals, to the suffering at our feet and before our eyes, while imagination fainted at thought of those other scenes hidden from us beyond the Potomac.

On our side of the river there were noise, confusion, dust; throngs of stragglers; horsemen galloping about; wagons blocking each other, and teamsters wrangling; and a continued din of shouting, swearing and rumbling, in the midst of which men were dying, fresh wounded arriving, surgeons amputating limbs and dressing wounds, women going in and out with bandages, lint, medicines, food. An ever-present sense of anguish, dream, pity, and, I fear, hatred - these are my recollections of Antietam.

When night came we could still hear the sullen guns and hoarse, indefinite murmurs that succeeded the day's turmoil. That night was dark and lowering and the air heavy and dull. Across the river innumerable campfires were blazing, and we could but too well imagine the scenes that they were lighting. We sat in silence, looking into each other's tired faces. There were no impatient words, few tears; only silence, and a drawing close together, as if for comfort. We were almost hopeless, yet clung with desperation to the thought that we were hoping. But in our hearts we could not believe that anything human could have escaped from that appalling fire.

September 18, 1862:

On Thursday [the 18th], the two armies lay idly facing each other, but we could not be idle. The wounded continued to arrive until the town was quite unable to hold all the disabled and suffering. They filled every building and overflowed into the country round, into farmhouses, barns, corn-cribs, cabins - wherever four walls and a roof were found together. Those able to travel were sent on to Winchester and other towns back from the river, but their departure seemed to make no appreciable difference.

Battle of Shepherdstown
After an improvised truce for both sides to recover and exchange their wounded, Lee's forces withdrew across the Potomac River at Boteler's Ford at Shepherdstown on the evening of September 18, leaving behind a rear guard of two infantry brigades and 45 guns to hold the ford. Union sharpshooters under General Fitz John Porter began picking off the Confederate gunners.

Union artillery were also set up across the river and began shelling the retreating Confederates. Some shells crashed into Shepherdstown itself, causing chaos among the townspeople and the wounded Rebels left there. Mary describes the fear and panic in the town that day.

September 19, 1862:

It would have been ludicrous had it not produced so much suffering... McClellan, after all, was not bombarding the town, but the army, and most of the shells flew over us and exploded in the fields; but aim cannot be always sure, and enough shells fell short to convince the terrified citizens that their homes were about to be battered down over their ears...

The poorer classes... rushed from their houses with their families and household goods to make their way into the country. The road was thronged, the streets blocked; men were vociferating, women crying, children screaming; wagons, ambulances, guns, caissons' horsemen, footmen, all mingled and jammed together, in one struggling, shouting mass.

The Negroes were the worst, and with faces of a ghastly ash-color and staring eyes, they swarmed into the fields, carrying their babies, their clothes, their pots and kettles, fleeing from the wrath behind them. They fled widely and camped out of range, nor would they venture back for days.

Had this been all, we could afford to laugh now, but there was another side to the picture that lent it an intensely painful aspect. It was the hurrying crowds of wounded... When the firing commenced the hospitals began to empty. All who were able to pull one foot after another, or could bribe or beg comrades to carry them, left in haste. In vain we implored them to stay; in vain we showed them the folly, the suicide, of the attempt; in vain we argued, cajoled, threatened, ridiculed; pointed out that we were remaining and that there was less danger here than on the road.

There is no sense or reason in a panic. The cannon were bellowing upon Douglas' Hill, the shells whistling and shrieking, the air full of shouts and cries; we had to scream to make ourselves heard. The men replied that the Yankees were crossing; that the town was to be burned; that we could not be made prisoners, but they could; that, anyhow, they were going as far as they could walk, or be carried. And go they did.

Men with cloths about their heads went hatless in the sun, men with cloths about their feet limped shoeless on the stony road; men with arms in slings, without arms, with one leg, with bandaged sides and backs; men in ambulances, wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, men carried on stretchers or supported on the shoulder of some self-denying comrade - all who could crawl went, and went to almost certain death.

They could not go far; they dropped off into the country houses, where they were received with as much kindness as it was possible to ask; but their wounds had become inflamed, their frames were weakened by fright and overexertion: erysipelas, mortification, gangrene set in; and long rows of nameless graves still bear witness to the results.

Our hospitals did not remain empty. It was but a portion who could get off in any manner, and their places were soon taken by others, who had remained nearer the battlefield, had attempted to follow the retreat, but, having reached Shepherdstown, could go no farther. We had plenty to do, but all that day we went about with hearts bursting with rage and shame, and breaking with pity and grief for the needless, needless waste of life.

Just before dark, a Union attacking party of about 500 men waded across under the cover of a barrage of fire, and forced the Confederate infantry back. The Southerners managed to pull most of their cannon out, but the raiding party was able to capture five pieces. In the confusion and darkness, Lee was told that Union forces had captured the entire reserve artillery.

Lee directed General A. P. Hill to turn back and drive the pursuers back into Maryland. The Yankees pulled back to the east side of the river for the night. The following morning, three brigades from the Union 5th Corps crossed the ford at 7:00, but Hill's Division was closing in from the west.

If not already overwhelmed with thousands of Confederate dead and the wounded, Shepherdstown continued to receive even more of the poor injured souls until Saturday, September 20. With the large contingent of Confederates quickly approaching, General Porter then ordered all Union troops to return to Maryland.

Mary continues, September 21, 1862:

On Sunday we were able to have some short church services for our wounded, cut still shorter, I regret to say, by reports that the Yankees were crossing. Such reports continued to harass us, especially as we feared the capture of our friends, who would often ride down to see us during the day, but who seldom ventured to spend a night so near the river.

We presently passed into debatable land, when we were in the Confederacy in the morning, in the Union after dinner, and on neutral ground at night. We lived through a disturbed and eventful autumn, subject to continual alarms and excursions, but when this Saturday came to an end, the most trying and tempestuous week of the war for Shepherdstown was over.

Twenty-five years later, Mary Bedinger was married to a former Union officer, John Mitchell, and living in Flushing, New York, when she learned that General McClellan was writing an account of the Battle of Antietam for Century Magazine. Mary wrote to the editors and offered her "personal experiences" of the battle. The magazine accepted her submission, paying her a respectable sixty dollars.

Mary's article first appeared as In the Wake of Battle in the July 1886 Century Magazine under the pseudonym Maria Blunt, the name she also used to publish her works of short fiction in various other magazines. Her account of those harrowing days was also published in 1887 in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War entitled A Woman's Recollections of Antietam.

A Woman's Recollections of Antietam
Shepherdstown’s Wounded Thousands, September, 1862

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