Swift, blazing flag of the regiment, Eagle with crest of red and gold, These men were born to drill and die. Point for them the virtue of slaughter, Make plain to them the excellence of killing And a field where a thousand corpses lie. --Stephen Crane, "War is Kind"
The table was covered in blood from other men who had been examined, then moved. Thus far, all the wounds had been flesh, muscle, or gut wounds in no need of amputation, but now, a man hobbled over to the table, pushed himself onto it, and lay down. Dr. Hill looked quickly at the young man’s shattered shin bone, then at Dr. Stephen James Young and said, “His shin bone is shattered. Took a direct hit.” Then, he looked at the soldier.
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Private Gray, sir.”
“Private Gray, this leg needs to come off below your knee.”
“I figured so, sir.”
“The chloroform, Dr. Young,” said Dr. Hill.
Stephen grabbed the funnel. He sniffed it quickly–the scent was still strong. “Hold still, Private Gray,” he said, and he placed the sponge-stuffed funnel over Private Gray’s mouth and nose.
They waited a few moments to have the fumes take effect, and as they did, Stephen tried to pull his mind back from the details he was attending to, tried to see the totality of the picture and what it meant. He could visualize the scene as though he were watching from across the room.
Now it was not an operating table, but in fact, an altar. An altar covered in blood. This was what people did not understand about worshipping Jesus–it was not easy or convenient or beautiful or simple. It was, in fact, a bloody mess. The key was the blood. “The life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”
He gazed down at the young man’s eyes, saw his eyelids get heavy. When they closed, they would start to cut–Stephen’s first ever amputation. Private Gray might yet live, but he would indeed leave his blood upon this altar, lose his leg, and have that buried. What would that atone for? The blood of all these young men . . . what would that atone for? Human blood could not pay the price of sin, but here was Private Gray, just outside Fort Donelson paying for something.
The air reeked of blood, dirt, and sweat. Dr. Hill had warned him that the air in these field hospitals made the men sick, especially the wounded. But the smell and the blood and the moans of the wounded made the air holy, filled Stephen with the sense that he was approaching the throne of the master physician, that he was about to learn the secrets to life and death and how to hold power over them.
“We’re going to start with the scalpel,” said Dr. Hill.
This was why Dr. Young was here–an assistant surgeon, he could think of no better way to escape the medical school lectures and get real experience. He could learn to walk in the Master’s shoes, to stand between life and death like He had, to minister healing to the least among mankind.
“Let’s be quick, Dr. Young,” said Dr. Hill. “There are more coming in.”
The wounded at Fort Donelson had numbered in the thousands, and when General Buckner had surrendered, the Confederate wounded had become the Union doctors’ charges as well. Stephen had learned amputation under Dr. Hill, then had gradually taken on more and more of the steps on his own. He had stood by as Dr. Hill and Dr. Goslin had evaluated any number of injuries, determined whether they were lost causes or required immediate surgery or could wait while more urgent cases were attended to. Sometimes, Dr. Goslin would look at the pallor of a man and whisper, “See to it that the nurses make him comfortable. He will not live till morning.” Inevitably, Dr. Goslin had been right.
What had made him so certain? How could he look at a man’s face, know something of the man’s wound, and declare that he was as good as dead? The night after the worst of the fighting, when the men had all been situated and Dr. Goslin had told them to get some sleep, he had walked back with Dr. Hill to their tents. Snow had been falling, and across the landscape, they had seen the frozen shapes of fallen men.
“How does Dr. Goslin know who lives and who dies?” Stephen had asked Dr. Hill.
Dr. Hill had shrugged. “It will not be much longer before you know, too.” They had paused in the snow together for several quiet moments, heard the snow sprinkling against the leaves and the tents, watched it covering the bodies of the dead and the wounded who had not been retrieved.
“We are destroying ourselves, Dr. Young, and the God of nature has not given it one thought,” said Dr. Hill.
“Has this not all been seen before?” Stephen said.
“How do you mean?”
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence,” Stephen said.
“You are a student of the good book, then,” said Dr. Hill. “Does it not worry you that the violent take it by force?”
“The prophecies all foresaw the violence,” said Stephen. “This is all part of the plan, is it not?”
Dr. Hill smirked. “Is it, Dr. Young?”
Stephen stared out over the field, thought how strange it was to see stiff arms sticking out of the snow, other men slumped in half and not fully flat. “All the violence is expected for the end of days. The Lord warned of this.”
Dr. Hill grunted. “To me, it looks like unnatural selection.”
“Like what?” said Stephen.
“Are you familiar with Charles Darwin, the scientist?”
“Some,” said Stephen.
“Read his latest. In a decade, there will be no God,” said Dr. Hill.
“Even denial of God is foretold,” said Stephen.
Dr. Hill patted Stephen’s arm and smiled ruefully. “There is one god out here, but the world doesn’t know it yet.”
“What do you mean?” said Stephen.
“He rides a short horse, wears a scruffy uniform, has a dark beard, and smokes a cigar.”
“I don’t follow,” said Stephen.
“You will understand when you’ve seen him,” said Dr. Hill. “Come now. Let’s get some sleep. More to do tomorrow.”
Soon enough, the most seriously wounded were headed north on trains for hospitals and home. The medical tents returned to being the infirmaries of those suffering dysentery and other illnesses. They moved with the army as they headed deeper into Tennessee toward Mississippi. Soon, they were camped around Pittsburgh Landing, and rumors ran through the ranks about the enemy being near and in force. The word was that they would fight for Corinth.
Stephen gobbled up all the experience he could get, ranging from battle wounds to illness. They were deployed behind the lines out on the Union’s right flank. Late March and early April, cold and rain afflicted all of them and turned the ground to black mush.
The morning of April 6 was cold and humid, the air thick with moisture from rains the previous few days. Just after 5 am, Stephen heard musket fire at the outer edges of camp. He listened carefully–there had been on-again, off-again skirmishes with Confederate patrols over the last few days, but this . . . this sounded more sustained.
He proceeded with his morning duties, checking in on the sick and ensuring that meals were being delivered. But the musketry seemed to be growing, and soon after, he heard the booming of artillery. Dr. Goslin wandered in from another medical tent.
“Dr. Young, I believe we are about to be busy.”
“Sounds that way, sir,” Stephen said.
Sure enough, within the hour, the first of the wounded came staggering in, followed by other men on ambulance wagons. Now, everything was a bustle–clearing the sick out of the way to make way for the wounded and immobile.
Dr. Goslin directed the wounded to different areas, and by now the nurses were used to it—the urgents but savable over here, the busted limbs over there, the hopeless outside, the tough calls in that other corner.
“Dr. Hill, go to the toughest, please,” he directed. “Dr. Young, amputations please.”
“Who with me, sir?” Stephen said.
Dr. Goslin half-smiled. “Just listen for a moment.” The cannons were booming constantly now from all sides, and the musketry rolled continuously.
“Sir?” Stephen said.
“You’re on your own, Dr. Young,” said Dr. Goslin. “A flood is coming. Pay attention to the leg wounds first, especially the bleeders. Get to it.”
Stephen strode to an operating table. He spotted a man using his gun as a crutch, a tourniquet tied around his mid thigh, his pant leg drenched in blood. Stephen said to a nurse, “Him first.”
She motioned the man to the table and helped him up. The man was pale—a lot of blood lost. He lay down and said, “It got the bone, Doc. Just take the leg.”
Stephen cut away the man’s pant leg. “Thank you, Sergeant.” He looked at the nurse. “Chloroform, please.” He saw her crack open the bottle, drench a sponge in it, stuff the sponge into a funnel. “What’s your name, ma’am?” he asked.
“Dolores,” she said. How ironic, he thought. Latin for pains.
He placed the funnel over the man’s face. With the man relaxed, Stephen began cutting. He was almost to the bone when Dolores said, “Doctor?”
He didn’t look up. “Yes?”
“He’s gone, Doctor.”
Stephen looked up. “What?”
“He’s not breathing anymore.”
Stephen looked at the man’s chest—she was right. Had he done something wrong? Was the sergeant feeling the cutting? Did the pain kill him?
“Your orders, sir?”
“I, uh, well, …”
“Would you like him removed and the next one brought?”
He felt frozen in time. Had he killed the sergeant? Could he do another?
“Sir, he’s dead, and the longer you stand there, the more other men we’ll lose.”
“Uh, yes. Sorry. Yes, move him out. Bring a new man. Carry on.”
The nurse motioned to an assistant to help move the body. Just before she lifted him, she said, “His femoral artery had been bisected and his femur was shattered. He had maybe a thirty percent chance if he got through the surgery.”
“Of course,” Stephen said.
A minute later, another man was on the table, his entire lower leg missing from an artillery shell, the wound a jagged mess. There was little blood, and about twenty minutes later, Dolores helped the man away to lie on a floor to recover.
Another leg followed, this a deep thigh wound. This man lived through the procedure but was dead a half hour later.
Five surgeries deep, and three of Stephen’s patients were dead. A dreadful rate, he thought. Worse, he knew those men had wives and sweethearts, mothers and fathers, and he wasn’t good enough to save them. But there was so little time. “The closer we are to their wounding when we do surgery,” Dr. Hill had told him, “the more likely they are to live.” And besides that, Dolores wouldn’t let him stop. She moved like a machine: “Shall I move him, Doctor?” she said each time he was wrapping up.
Once, he looked around to see that all the doctors were doing amputations—the head wounds and gut shots were all now being placed with the hopeless. Around him, he heard shouts, bullets, cannons, cursing, but it was background to him. He focused hard on handling and clamping the arteries and veins once the cuts were done.
He was in the middle of stitching an artery when Dr. Goslin approached him.
“Dr. Young, we’re being overrun.”
“Uh huh,” said Stephen without looking up.
“We’ve been ordered to fall back.”
“Ok, sir,” he said as he pulled a stitch through the artery. “I’m going to need a few minutes.”
“That’s the thing,” said Dr. Gosling. “We are to leave some of our hospital staff here to attend to our men that can’t be moved.”
Stephen glanced up. “Understood, sir.”
He hardly noticed when his first gray-clad patient pushed up to the blood-soaked table. It was the accent that stopped him.
“I reckon y’all gonna take my leg,” said the boy. “Ain’t got much of a chance of gettin me a girl now, huh, Doc?”
Stephen looked at him but Dolores spoke before he could: “You have less of a chance if you’re dead.”
“I reckon you’re right,” said the boy.
Stephen was halfway through the cut when the boy began seizing. Stephen pulled back and watched as the boy shook the funnel off his face and spewed bloody foam from his mouth.
Dolores grimaced and watched until the seizing stopped and his eyes went still. She rolled the boy onto his side, pulled his shirt up, then put her finger on a shrapnel wound through his left lung.
“With the wrong group,” she said. “Shoulda been with the gut wounds. Never had a chance.”
“Did he not know?”
“Poor fool probably never felt that one. Bet he got it after the leg wound.” She sighed. “I’ll get him moved out.”
A bearded older man approached. He supported a younger man whose right foot hung from a flap of skin from his shin bone.
“Y’all yankee doctors, I seen the last fella leave y’all’s table,” he said.
“Unlucky fellow,” said Dolores. “Shrapnel in his lung.”
The bearded man tilted his head. “Not sure I seen it quite the same as y’all sayin here. Now, I got my boy here, and y’all blue bellies done blowed his foot nearly clean off. Ain’t no other doctor around so I gotta trust y’all with my boy.”
Stephen tapped the table with his bloody knife. “These are all men to us. Gray is the same as blue.”
“I hope so, Doc,” said the bearded man. “I wouldn’t want to see one of y’all carried outta here like so many other men.”
The nurse moved toward him. “Now look here. Suppose you follow through on that. Just who do you think is going to carry on?”
Stephen motioned to the boy. “This is your son, you said?”
The bearded man nodded. “Yes, sir. We’re from Tennessee. I couldn’t let him just go off by hisself when y’all came to our home. Tole his ma I’d look after him.”
Stephen moved toward him. “Well, let’s get him up on the table and get him in shape to go see his ma.”
The boy made it through his foot being removed, and his father led him away. Man after man poured into the tent–more gray than blue now, but still some in blue nonetheless. Before long, candles and lanterns burned, and the cannonading and musketry faded to more sporadic sounds. By midnight, Stephen had gotten his pace down to four surgeries per hour, but his eyesight was getting blurry from exhaustion. He dismissed Dolores just after midnight. Sometime around 1 or 2 am, a doctor in a gray uniform relieved him and told him to sleep for a few hours.
He stepped out of the hospital tent and stopped immediately at the sight. Soft rain was falling again, shadowy forms moved around the field, half of the Union tents had been ransacked when the Confederates had overrun them. To his left was a huge pile of limbs–many from his own table, many others from the rest of the doctors. He untied his bloody apron and lifted it over his head. His uniform underneath was also soaked and splattered with blood. Men who had been wounded lay outside the tent; some of them were stirring, a few were moaning, and others were still, having breathed their last.
In the distance, he saw a pale, riderless horse moving slowly through the dark field, stepping carefully to avoid the twisted bodies at his feet. Stephen grunted and thought, A pale horse, indeed. With the apron partially folded and tucked under his arm, he looked at his hands, stained with the blood of different men–he had lost track of how many. His shoes were caked in blood, and his pants were speckled with it, as well. He thought of Moses anointing Aaron and his sons:
And he brought the other ram, the ram of consecration: and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram. And he slew it; and Moses took of the blood of it, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot. And he brought Aaron’s sons, and Moses put of the blood upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumbs of their right hands, and upon the great toes of their right feet: and Moses sprinkled the blood upon the altar round about.
Stephen had blood on all these parts of his body–the blood of men. Who had anointed him? No one really. Except perhaps God Himself. Moses had stood in the place of God, as he anointed Aaron and his sons. Stephen? There had been no intermediary.
And to what was he anointed and ordained? Aaron was to work in the temple, make the required sacrifices to the Lord, confer on the animals the sins of the people, carve out their organs and wave them before the Lord, burn the heart, head, and fat. Yes, it was all part of the law of sacrifice. Here Stephen stood in the cold rain drenched in blood. Of course it meant something! John himself had witnessed, And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
He paused for several long moments, waiting for the Spirit to alight on him, to witness of his holiness made plain by the bloody sacrifice he had participated in this day. He did not expect to see–never ask to see! But he expected the Spirit to come upon him, to render his exhaustion moot, to witness of his purity before God, to know that there was more to this day than the basic horrors he had seen, to know that he had stood as a barrier between life and death and kept many on one side of it. Instead a startling thought came to him:
Probably half of your patients died. For what? So you could learn?
The thought sucked the air from his lungs. He took a deep breath and stumbled forward, seeking the tent he had stayed in the last few nights. As he ambled, he was aware of the sounds coming from Pittsburgh Landing. The day had gone for the South, and many of the passing men had bragged of its glory, of their superiority against the hated Yanks, of how they were now eating the blue bellies’ food and sleeping in their tents and going through their personals.
But the sounds of Pittsburgh Landing told him that the Yanks were not whipped, that they were piling onto the shore, that they would stride forward in the morning bringing death at every step, that the hospital tent would double or triple the men it was serving. He had seen this at Fort Donelson when the South had crushed the Union right flank, and General Grant had looked at their coming out into the open as an opportunity and ordered counterattacks. There would be no relenting, not while there were men to sacrifice.
This was no sanctification, no calling to a higher purpose. The slaughter had overwhelmed them already. Tomorrow would match it . . . or worse.
God sanctified His elect by bathing them in the blood of their fellow men?
He reached the tent and saw it swaying in the rain. He opened the flap and stopped. His bed roll had a slumbering Confederate, beard down to his chest, breath loaded with whiskey. Stephen stepped in around him and looked him up and down. He had dark splotches on his uniform just above the buckle–shrapnel wounds maybe? Most of the men had advanced far past this point and were much closer to Pittsburgh Landing, but many of the men had stayed behind plundering the camp. Others were lightly wounded and riding out the battle here.
So now what? Stephen was exhausted. He laid out his apron and coat on the wet ground next to the man, lay down, and within minutes fell asleep.
His sleep was nightmarish and short–at 5 am, he startled awake to the thunder of Union cannon. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The man next to him was still there. Stephen leaned closer to him. The smell of whiskey was gone. So was the motion of the man’s chest. Stephen felt the man’s neck for a pulse–none, and his skin was clammy and cold. “The one shall be taken, and the other left,” Stephen whispered grimly.
He grabbed his coat and apron, then stumbled into the dark dawn. Cannon shots arced across the dark sky, and he thought, and there fell a great star from heaven, and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
Conditions at the hospital tent had worsened over night. More men lay around the perimeter. More were dead inside–the pile of limbs was taller and wider. He tried to shut off his racing mind, tried to ignore the signs and wonders around, tried to focus on the limbs he had to cut. He began to disassociate the limbs from the men, began to see only the flesh, meat, veins, arteries, and bones. Each limb was a unique puzzle boobytrapped by geysers of blood that could burst on you at any moment with a bad tourniquet or the wrong cut or move. The musketry came to life, as he worked, and the cannons on both sides both roared.
The next several hours were a blur until a young man in gray approached him. “Doc, we’re pullin back.”
Dolores was moving their most recent man from the table. Stephen lifted one of his feet, reached down with one of his knives, and sharpened it against the sole of his shoe. “Ok.”
“Y’all is running us back at the front.”
Stephen glanced at the nurse. “Who’s next?”
“Y’all are comin too, Doc,” said the young man.
Stephen looked at him, saw the stripes of a sergeant. “Who will tend to these men?”
“Y’all got way more doctors than we got. General Grant can figure it out, I’m sure.”
Stephen sighed and shrugged. What could he do? Within an hour, he was walking behind a wagon full of Confederate wounded, his bag of medical tools in his hand. The day was warmer, the sun out, and he could imagine himself back in Indiana strolling through the fields around his home. But then, a stray bullet whizzed by, its hiss centering him in Tennessee. His legs were heavy, his arms exhausted from hour after hour of cutting and manipulating heavy limbs. The sunlight struck him almost painfully. He winced periodically and thought that the colors of everything looked stronger than normal–grass was greener, mud blacker, blood redder. He felt he could sleep while walking and desperately wanted to knowing that more surgeries were coming.
He spent most of that day moving back, as did the Confederates. As soon as they got him set up in a makeshift area, they moved again, and in the late afternoon, it was clear that the South would vacate the field. They ordered Stephen to join a wagon of wounded to be taken back to Corinth. A day later, he arrived exhausted at the Old Tishomingo Hotel.
A week in, he had lost track of how many limbs he had cut off and how many men had died. Frequently, he was unsure whether it was day or night. The converted hotel housed a handful of captured Union soldiers, and the local doctors had him treat them as well as deal with cases they couldn’t reach. A couple of days in, he had become more aware of the Confederate nurses–women who had clearly left home and come to work with no training whatsoever. Nevertheless, he admired their stamina in the house of horrors. In the first few days after the battle, there had been no bunks or cots, and the wounded had lain shoulder to shoulder on the floor. When the women knelt to tend to them, they knelt in pools of blood and water, and they did so without hesitation.
In particular, he paid attention to one of the younger nurses, Kate Cumming. Nothing struck him about her appearance–it was her temperament and fire. When a wounded Union man had told her he was from Iowa, a place that was out of this world, she had retorted, “I wish all of you were out of this world, and then we would not have this trouble.”
He could also see that she was still in the early stages of service–she had an earnestness and a belief that she could save many of these men by her ministrations. A couple of days after the battle, a young man had been brought in and given to her charge. One morning, she had called Stephen over.
“Doctor, the other surgeons have not gotten to him. I am wondering if you could look at him.”
Stephen had agreed and knelt next to him. “Good morning, Private. What’s your name?”
The young man was short and blond with blue eyes and a face that barely needed shaving. He had looked back at Stephen. “I don’t rightly know.”
“You don’t know your name?” Stephen had said.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Are you hurt?”
The boy had felt along his chest. “I think my breathin’s funny and my chest and back hurt.”
“Do you recall why they might hurt?”
“No, sir,” he had said. “I remember I used to help people in a field, walkin behind horses. Sometimes I picked stuff off of plants. But I don’t rightly recall who those people was. Ain’t got no idea how I got here.”
Kate had looked at Stephen. “We think he got knocked senseless by a shell. Not at Shiloh. A day or two later. Some of the men from a different unit were falling back from the Federals and found him wandering around, covered in blood, and scared out of his mind. Said he talked nonsense to them.”
Stephen had nodded. “Let’s sit him up and I will examine him.”
They had sat him up and helped him out of his shirt. The boy’s chest and back were speckled with shrapnel wounds, some as large as a silver dollar, others as small as the tip of a pen. Some of them had scabbed over; others had still been oozing. Stephen had listened to the boy’s heart and lungs, had heard the gurgling with his breath, then had said, “Put his shirt back on and keep him comfortable.”
Nurse Cumming had helped put the boy’s shirt back on. “Anything else, Doctor?”
He had shaken his head. “No, ma’am. Just keep him comfortable.”
Each day, he had looked in on the boy–each day, the boy had no idea who he was or why he was there.
This particular morning, Stephen was on his way to check on his Union wounded when he passed by the young man. The man lay perfectly still, his eyes closed. Nurse Cumming was approaching from behind. Stephen stepped aside and let her pass. He watched as she approached the young man; rather than say anything, he watched. She had a bowl of warm water and a cloth. She knelt beside the man, dipped the cloth in the water, and began to wipe his face. The boy didn’t respond or move at all. She dipped the cloth back in the water and started on his forehead and his cheek–again, no movement at all.
“Did you sleep well, Private?” she murmured. She continued wiping. “I suppose it would be very difficult to sleep on this hard floor.”
Stephen half smiled. How long would it take?
“And what with your wounds and all, I can’t imagine how difficult this floor must be.” She moved the cloth around one of his eyes and gently worked the eyelid. She suddenly pulled back. “Private?” She set the bowl and cloth down. “Private?” She took his hand and felt his wrist for several seconds. Then she dropped it and opened the eye she had been wiping. She pulled back.
“Oh my,” she said. “He’s gone.” She sat in position for several long moments. At last, she turned toward Stephen. “I thought he was doing better. I thought all my patients were doing well.”
Stephen shook his head. “He had no chance.”
“I thought if I kept talking with him, he might start to remember who he was.”
“If that were his only problem, he might have made it back. It was the shrapnel. He was bleeding internally. His lungs were filling with blood. I’m surprised he lived as long as he did.”
She looked back at the boy. “We don’t even know his unit. No one here knows him. There is no way to let his people know.”
Stephen nodded. “It is a sad case.”
“Of course, the Lord says that a sparrow will not fall without the Father being aware,” she said.
“That is what the scriptures tell us,” said Stephen. Of course, he didn’t add that the Preacher also said that the dead have no consciousness. “Pardon me, ma’am. I need to attend to others.”
Stephen looked once more at the unnamed boy’s smooth face. The unnamed boy with no memory–no past, no present, no future, no family. The boy who was dead before he ever arrived at the Old Tishomingo . . . except for the formality of having his heart stop. The boy who was now headed to an unmarked grave. Just one of hundreds he had seen over the last two weeks. He couldn’t remember hardly any names. How could he? The slaughter and maiming had overwhelmed his senses and his mind. He had joined the army to gain experience. Now he understood the Preacher: For in wisdom is much sorrow: he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
He stepped down the hallway to the wounded Union soldiers.
A month later, the Confederate army evacuated Corinth and left Stephen at the Old Tishomingo. Shortly thereafter, he was reunited with the 48th Illinois. The action slowed way down, and it was mostly back to treating dysentery, malaria, cholera, and other camp diseases. These, of course, were nearly as fatal as bullets and shrapnel, but the daily volume was nowhere close to that of battle.
In the meantime, he procured a copy of some of Darwin’s earlier publications and then the full On the Origin of Species. In February 1863, he had a positively Darwinian experience–he was promoted to full surgeon and moved to the 79th Illinois in Murfreesboro. Why Darwinian? After more than a year of being with combat units, he observed that many men had been promoted simply because the men ahead of them were dead. In other cases, men were promoted simply because they had more experience than others doing certain jobs–not because they had done them particularly well. For Darwin, “fitness” wasn’t about obvious physical or mental superiority–it was the trait or traits in a given environment that allowed an individual to survive. Stephen had seen that many of the strongest and bravest died first. He had also seen political appointees as officers–many were dead or had gotten so many men killed that they had been shuffled off to noncombat positions.
Where did Stephen fit in this view of the world? He did not think he was a particularly good surgeon. He had completed several hundred surgeries by now, and he figured maybe sixty percent of those had lived for a week or more thereafter. He had learned extensively; Shiloh had been rough, and the Old Tishomingo had basically been a zero-sum disaster. Virtually everyone he operated on died. Those who lived were probably going to live anyway. And somehow, he had been promoted? Of course, he had–because he was still alive and because he had done a surgeon’s main job several hundred times.
Now, he moved with more certainty. He knew the cuts precisely–as precisely as any butcher who had slaughtered cattle and turned them to meat. He was expert in stitching, and he understood the anatomy of arms, shoulders, hips, knees, hands, and feet probably better than anyone in the world except a handful of other experienced surgeons. It was unfair that it took hundreds of surgeries and hundreds of deaths for him to become proficient. No god should permit or require that. Men who might have lived had unwittingly sacrificed their lives on the altars of the field hospitals Stephen had worked so that he could be a better surgeon for someone else down the line. In the fall, he was at Chickamauga for the second greatest battle of the war. Like Shiloh, the casualties were overwhelming; like Shiloh, they performed surgery after surgery, then had to fall back and reposition. Unlike Shiloh, he was mostly unfazed, feeling almost nothing for each man to whom he ministered. Soldiers who knew him and his experience sought him out. Many of these lived; some of them died.
With the rest of his unit, he was caught in the siege of Chattanooga. He treated frost bite and symptoms of starvation; hypothermia; dysentery; and minor wounds from horse kicks or misfired weapons. Then, news reached that General Grant had broken through the siege and joined the army. Shortly after, William Sherman’s corps arrived. They were nearly surrounded with the enemy holding the mountains and high ground all around them, and yet, everyone knew that they would not be idle long. Indeed, they weren’t. Late in November, they sprang from the siege and attacked. In two different locations, they charged straight up mountainsides into the teeth of enemy artillery and musketry. Those who were shot up and lived found their way back to Stephen’s hospital, among others. As he had in battles before, he spent days and nights cutting limbs away, stitching arteries and veins, and sewing flaps of skin over stumps. He watched men with gut wounds die slowly; he watched gangrene set in. He saw men become delirious for days, then die at last. These were all normal for him now.
One winter day just after that decisive victory, he took a break from the operating table and stood outside in the cold. He had left his coat inside, and he appreciated the chill that ran across him, the sharp wind that reminded him that he was still alive, that he could still feel. Men around him smoked cigarettes; they offered, but he declined.
Just when he was about to turn back to the tent, he heard the trot of horses. He looked up to see flags he had not seen before–headquarters and general flags. A handful of riders trotted into the field surrounded by the medical tents. Stephen did not know who they were or what unit they had come from. Then he saw a man in the middle of them–short, a scruffy uniform that had seen many days in the field, and a dark beard. The man commanded his horse better than any he had ever seen.
“There he is,” a man on a crutch muttered.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory,” said another whose arm was in a sling.
Then Stephen remembered an off-handed comment Dr. Hill had made to him on another wintry day, and he looked around to see the dead strewn about, the limbs piled outside the tent, the hopeless struggling to breathe, the walking wounded looking on in awe at the man who had sent a counterattack at Fort Donelson, wave after wave at Shiloh, an entire army down the Mississippi beneath the guns of Vicksburg, and full divisions straight up the mountains here at Chattanooga. A strange feeling was building within Stephen, and he thought to yell out, as Namaan of old, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel.” But then, that didn’t feel quite right. No marvelous healing had taken place. Instead, the slaughtered, maimed, and dying lay about. And yet, here was the man who had made Dr. Stephen James Young what he was. Without any of those charges and assaults, Stephen could not stand between life and death and call himself a physician.
He felt the chill of the wind, saw the breath billowing from the short man on the horse, felt the spirit well up inside. He thought to kneel in reverence, offer praise, and cry,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.