Dr. Francis Thornton was the seventh lineal male to bear that name, his father, Reverend Francis Thornton, being the sixth. It was assumed, or at least the younger Francis believed it was assumed, that he was to follow in his father’s steps into the presbytery. His father was a towering man—in body, spirit, and intellect. The sort of man that people would refer to when discussing his progeny, as in, “She is the granddaughter of Reverend Thornton, you know.”
So when young Francis opted for medical studies, he was hesitant to discuss that decision with his father. When he did, the conversation was short: “It is good that you intend to learn the mysteries of the body, but you must never forget your duty to the higher mysteries of God’s word and law.”
That proved to be the easier conversation. After several years of studying and mentorship, he went back to his father for another discussion. His father sat behind a large oak desk in the church office, a ministerial suit hanging on a rack nearby. The Reverend wore reading spectacles and peered over them at his son.
Dr. Thornton met his father’s gaze. “Reverend, as we have discussed previously, I believe we are bound for war.”
The Reverend looked at him without blinking. “The sword of the justice of God hangs over our country, Dr. Thornton. On that we agree.”
“I feel called to be of service, sir.”
“I would expect nothing less. We are the hands of God on earth.”
“Indeed, sir. Which is why I have enlisted in the army as an assistant surgeon. My orders are to Florida where I report next week.”
The Bible was open, and the Reverend drummed his fingers on the pages. Dr. Thornton noted that his father had been studying Isaiah. The older man took a deep breath.
“You feel called to this work?”
The Reverend removed his glasses, set them on the open pages, and rubbed his eyes. “When the states divide, with whom will you go?”
“Where I am called and where the need is greatest.”
“The need will be greatest among our own people,” said the Reverend.
“Are not all of God’s children our people?”
The old man nodded and looked tired. “We do indeed love and serve all His children. Of course, in political matters, I cannot stand with oppressors, those who would grind their fellow men under their boot heel.”
Dr. Thornton maintained his gaze. “I will almost certainly go with our home state, whatever she may decide.”
The Reverend laced his fingers together and rested them on the pages of Isaiah. “I will not argue with your decision. I think it may be more in line with the work of Martha than the higher choice of Mary. But it is nonetheless worthy. The Lord is about to thrash this nation, to divide the sheep from the goats. Out of His mouth goeth a two-edged sword.”
“I believe so, sir.”
“This is largely a heathen nation, Francis. The damned will suffer for their unbelief no matter their allegiance. The Lord will use you as an instrument to spare the lives of His elect that they may come to know Him. The dead who die in the Lord will not fear.”
Dr. Thornton shifted and crossed his left leg over his right. “I have your blessing, then?”
“God bless you on His errand.”
For a year and a half, he worked in Florida and treated the swamp illnesses he saw there. It was hard living for his wife who was native to Louisville, Kentucky, but she refused to stay home with family. Francis came to be known for his religiosity, adherence to army protocols, discipline of his staff, and stubbornness in dealing with superiors who did not see things his way. But this view of him masked who he was.
In the quiet moments, in his small army dwelling, he would sit with Parmelia Jane feeling the weight of his duties and of the coming conflict. He rocked in an old wooden rocker, and she would say, “Your mind is far away tonight.”
He would respond, “I can see the conflict, the destruction, the sword of the justice of God that will divide the wheat from the tares, the grain from the chaff. People do not understand the precision that God requires. They do not understand, either, how the smallest of details divide life from death for the ill and injured.”
“You are feeling persecuted,” she would say, and she would come to him, rub his shoulders, and say, “They do not see the size of your heart. They mistake your ambition as being personal when it is to save all that God puts in your hands.”
“Indeed,” he would mutter.
They had some version of this conversation on many humid nights along the Florida coast where the mosquito-born illnesses wreaked havoc on the men’s health. And then, Lincoln was elected, the dominoes of secession began to tip, and Virginia–his birth state–joined the Confederacy. Parmelia Jane was a Kentuckian by birth, but her family was sympathetic to the Southern cause. As he had suggested to his father, he resigned his commission in the United States Army and received a surgeon’s commission in the CSA.
He was deployed to Ringgold, Georgia, where he worked at the more permanent hospitals in Catoosa County. He was frequently impatient in surgery with those helping to attend–each unnecessary moment allowed more blood to leak, more infection to grow. He did not wish to be cruel; he wished people to understand the urgency–the young men under his hand might be unreconciled to God and yet might be His elect, chosen still to be found by the voice of God and saved. It was incumbent on him to save physically all that he possibly could. If he was short with people on occasion, how different from the Lord God was that? The same God who straitened the Israelites in the wilderness and disciplined them through forty years of wandering. The same God who caused Joshua to stone a family in front of the whole camp who had stolen from the conquered when the Lord had commanded all to be destroyed. The same God who sent Samuel to rebuke Saul for not slaughtering the animals of Canaan when he had been commanded to destroy everything. Obedience was better than sacrifice. Precision in the work was more important than feelings and effort.
Only Parmelia Jane understood him, though he was given to know from her that she talked often with the nurses and that they knew of his great heart, his desire to serve God, his willingness to support the Cause. “The nurses may smart from your rebukes at times,” she told him, “but they know the greatness of your heart. I have spoken often to them of your tenderness, the tears you shed for the men in their sufferings, how you pray night and morning for their recoveries. Trust me in that, and do your work as God directs.”
The nurses, male and female, adored his wife–loved her sunny disposition, broad smile, and the twinkle in her eye when she was up to mild mischief. She brought light in the gloom of the hospitals, and her association with him gave credence to her words about him. He knew that she bought him grace from many people.
In the winter of 1862, Dr. Thornton was notified that more than two hundred sick men were inbound on trains from the front. Foard Hospital, where he was post surgeon, had no more room. Every church in town except one was already in service of the army. There was no time to waste–he walked briskly to the church offices and found the minister.
Standing in the doorframe of the man’s office, he said, “Sir, with your permission, we need to use the church to house more sick and wounded.”
The pale-faced minister said, “I cannot consent, Dr. Thornton. This is the last house of worship in town. The people will not yield it. I know of your father. Surely, he would understand as you would.”
Dr. Thornton stood quivering with a growing rage that flushed from his core up through his face. “Very well, sir. Then without your permission, we will seize the church to serve the least among us–that is, our wounded and deathly ill soldiers. Surely, you, your parishioners, and your God will understand. As would my father.”
The pews would not do, so they moved them out to the snow-covered lawn, hauled in hay, and ripped off the backs of the pews to create headrests.
The men who arrived within hours were in dire straits–poorly clothed, many on stretchers, most emaciated, almost all near death. That was a dark, cold, terrible night that he would never forget, and throughout much of it, Parmelia Jane was at his elbow, dishing out hot soup to men, spoon feeding those who had no strength to do so themselves. Dr. Thornton worked from a place of remove, though. The hour of each man’s death was affixed–God would save whom he would save, call home whom he would, and cast off whom he would. The doctor’s work was only in the service of that which had been predestined.
The late winter and early spring brought additional disasters and humiliations. US Grant’s army swallowed both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson whole. Then, he provoked the cataclysm at Shiloh, and from all of these, the long-term wounded were shipped down to Ringgold. Day after day, he worked the floors, extracted bullets and shrapnel, removed gangrenous limbs, and saw to it that the hopelessly ill or wounded were comforted. He was not beloved among the staff because of his disciplinary nature and the precision he demanded.
In May, the mood of the nation darkened further when fellow Presbyterian Stonewall Jackson was felled by the bullets of his own men. A secondary infection from those wounds ended his life. To Dr. Thornton, the tragedy was mystifying. Jackson had been the Lord’s avenging angel against the invading North. He was like Elisha of old–Jackson never feared the numbers of the North, knowing that they who were with their cause were more than they who were against. So how had the Lord permitted him to die? And to do so at the hands of his own men? The hand of the Lord could not be against them, could it? Perhaps it was like Elijah with the priests of Baal–the trial must appear so difficult that when the South conquered, there could be no doubt that the Lord had performed it.
These were the thoughts he was wrestling with in late May when he found that the liquor supplies were being illegally depleted. He called into his office the two Irishmen most commonly working the floors–the head nurse, a former soldier whose wounds would permit no further combat service, and an orderly in the section where the theft had occurred.
“Sergeant Murphy, Private Doyle, there has been a theft of liquor,” he said, glaring at the two men in front of him.
“Aye, sir,” said Murphy, the nurse.
“Sergeant Murphy, the ultimate responsibility is yours. I trust that you understand that the supply is for the gravely wounded and ill.”
“Aye, sir. We understand. We got no call to be taking the liquor, sir.”
“Are you arguing with me? Intimating that it is not being stolen?”
“No, sir,” Doyle interjected. “It’s being stolen all right.”
Dr. Thornton clenched and unclenched his fists. “Sergeant Murphy, it matters not who is stealing it. You are responsible for the disposition of supplies in this ward.”
“But sir, it’s the matter of who is stealing it.”
“No, it is not!” Dr. Thornton thundered.
Sergeant Murphy flushed red. “Now, listen, Doctor. I’ll not have you maligning me and Doyle here. We are doing our jobs and we are good at them.”
“Sergeant Murphy, I will have you drawn up on charges if you continue with this impertinence.”
“You do that, Doctor. You draw up papers. Me and Doyle are trained to draw guns.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“You might ought to hear who is stealing it. And you might ought to remember that there are charges against you, sir.”
Dr. Thornton drew in a deep breath. “The charges from the quartermaster are a reaction to my disciplining the man for his slovenly dispersal of food and bandages. Which strikes me as not dissimilar to what I am presently staring at.”
“It were the matron, sir,” said Doyle.
Dr. Thornton turned to him with a steely gaze. “The steward’s wife? That’s a serious accusation.”
“You can ask Miss Cumming, sir,” said Doyle. “She seen it herself. Drunk as a trollop ready to fall off a log.”
A heavy silence fell between them, and Dr. Thornton glared at Sergeant Murphy. “Sergeant, I do not care if President Davis is employed here himself and demands all the liquor. You are to guard it and keep it for the wounded. And if it happens again, I will see to it that you are disciplined as though you had done it yourself.”
“Well, now, that’s just it, isn’t it?” said Sergeant Murphy.
“What’s that?” said Dr. Thornton.
“We’re not really talking about who else done it because you think it’s the drunk Irishmen.”
Dr. Thornton pounded the desk, stood, and thundered. “We are not speaking of Catholics and Protestants here! We are talking about supplies for the wounded that you are in charge of!”
Sergeant Murphy nodded. “Doyle and me will be showing ourselves out now. I think you ought to think twice about who you accuse, Doctor.”
“You think twice before any liquor goes missing again, sir,” said Dr. Thornton lowering himself back to his seat.
Two nights later, he was in the dining room with Parmelia, a modest plate of sweet potatoes and chicken breast in front of him. They were staying at the home of a wealthy widow whose husband had died at First Manassas. The windows were open, the breeze was cool and lightly rustled the curtains. A horse pulling a wagon clopped by, and a slice of light streamed through a gap in the curtains as the sun set.
“You are so tired, my dear,” Parmelia Jane said brightly.
“I am not sure I will ever feel rested while this war is on,” he said.
“The work you do is miraculous, but it is a heavy burden.”
In the distance, he heard the warble of broken singing heading up the street toward the house.
“The miracles are the Lord’s. And I am not sure that I am adequate to bear the burdens.”
The silverware tinkled against the plate as Dr. Thornton cut a small piece of the chicken.
“Do you hear that?” said Parmelia Jane.
“Uh huh,” said Dr. Thornton putting the bite in his mouth.
“I love that song. From the old country.”
Dr. Thornton paused his chewing and listened. He swallowed, then said, “The Last Rose of Summer. Drunken Irishmen.”
“It’s a beautiful song,” Parmelia Jane said, setting down her fork, her dark eyes bright as she listened. The men had just finished the first four lines:
‘Tis the last rose of Summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
Parmelia Jane joined softly for the next lines, as the drunken voices approached the front of the yard.
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes
Or give sigh for sigh!
Dr. Thornton set down his fork. Her voice was hypnotic to him, removed him from the horrors he dealt with daily, reminded him of the first days after their 1845 wedding when she would play piano and sing to him.
Then the singing from the street stopped. “Ay! Doctor Thornton! Come out! We need help!”
Dr. Thornton snapped out of his reverie and clenched his fists.
“They know you,” said Parmelia Jane. “From the hospital? Invite them in for a song.”
“We got no whiskey!” the other voice hollered.
“No chance,” said Dr. Thornton rising. “Drunken Irishmen who are upset with me.” He pushed his chair back from the table.
“Oh, let them be,” said Parmelia Jane. “They’ll pass on. They’re harmless.”
“Come on, Doctor!” the first voice hollered. “We got a good funeral song going for ya.”
“They are decidedly not harmless,” he said, and he moved to the front door and opened it.
“Do be quick and don’t spoil dinner,” Parmelia called after him. “It’s such a pleasant evening.”
Dusk was falling, as Dr. Thornton headed down the walkway.
“Aye! There he is!” Doyle called. He had an arm around Sergeant Murphy.
“Care to join us!” Sergeant Murphy said, and then he started loudly on the next line of the song. “I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one, To pine on the stem.”
“You will face charges for this,” Dr. Thornton hissed.
“Face charges for what?” said Murphy straightening. “Me and Doyle are just heading up the street. Wanted to have a drink with you. Patch up any hard feelings.”
“You’re drunk as drunk can be,” said Dr. Thornton. “And you are not welcome on this property.”
Murphy took one step back to the walkway lining the street. Doyle dropped his arm and swayed. “Better?” said Murphy. “Can you drop the charges now? Not on the property anymore.”
“How dare you desecrate this woman’s home!” said Dr. Thornton, and he reached out to grab the men’s shoulders.
He did not see the blade, mostly didn’t even feel it. It was more of a thud as though he had been punched. He stopped and dropped his arms, saw the knife withdraw from his left side, his blood covering most of the blade. Dr. Thornton instinctively placed his hands over the wound and saw them turn crimson.
“What have ye done?” cried Murphy.
Doyle stared for a moment at the blade. Then he tucked it back in a holster.
“You have killed me,” Dr. Thornton gasped.
“Run!” Murphy said to Doyle, and the two of them stumbled up the street.
Dr. Thornton started back toward the house, and already his strength was failing him. The blade had perforated his left lung and probably a major artery to his heart. Logically, he knew it was fatal. But that made no sense.
Parmelia Jane was in the doorway, having risen from her seat to ensure he came back to dinner quickly.
“Francis!” she cried.
He staggered toward her and collapsed at the base of the steps. She dropped to his side, removed his hands from the wound, and pressed it with her own hands.
“Help!” she screamed. “They’ve stabbed Francis!”
Dr. Thornton was hardly conscious of the doors on the street that flew open, the men and women who came running. Rather, he was struggling to understand it.
He was sure to die, but there was no way he could. His work was too important, his knowledge of the body and of the word of God too critical. He had been called to this work to do His will! This could not be Francis Thornton’s predestined time!
He could feel the thud of his straining heart, feel the well of blood pouring inside and pushing to the outside. He heard the gurgling of his breathing and began to taste blood in the back of his throat. This was all natural. He had seen many, many men die in such fashion. But it could not be him! At any moment, the Lord was bound to command him to take up his bed and walk so that he might continue his mission.
“Francis! You must fight, Francis!” Parmelia was yelling through tears. Faces appeared all around him, and men were handling him, jerking off his shirt, cursing, vowing revenge against the men who had stabbed him.
He tried to speak, tried to say, “I will be all right soon enough.” He had perfect faith in the God who had raised Lazarus from the dead. Ha! Perhaps He would call Stonewall Jackson back from the dead too! He, too, had died mysteriously without purpose or cause.
But faith was not extinguishing the geyser of blood within him.
“Is Dr. Stout on his way?” someone bellowed.
“He should be here any moment. Wilma went for him. I’ll whip that woman if she stops even for an instant!” another voice said back.
Dr. Stout. The head of all the hospitals here. He would know what to do if he got here soon enough. The only doctor Francis thought of more highly than himself.
He thought it strange that he felt no panic. But maybe it wasn’t strange. He knew the Lord could raise him if He so chose, and why would He not? Why, the Lord referred to Himself as a physician even!
He glanced around at the people rushing to and fro. Someone was trying to offer him whiskey for the pain. Whiskey! Ha! That’s what had gotten him to this point!
“Give it to Doyle,” he whispered. “He needs it more.”
“What?” bellowed the man offering. “He just spoke!”
“Francis, darling, what are you trying to say?” Parmelia cried through tears.
He didn’t have the strength to say it again. He just shook his head.
Whiskey! He was intensely thirsty but not for whiskey. He knew this was his body screaming because of blood loss. He was going to die over a liquor dispute! It was comic and absurd. No, it could not be his time and this could not be the reason. The Lord would show that He had power to remit sin by raising him up in front of all these people. He was no common man laying down his life in similitude of the Savior for a greater cause. No. He was a Christ-like physician wearing out his life in the service of others to save sinners and buy them time for redemption. Jesus didn’t die at the wedding feast from the wine He created out of water!
He saw pinpricks of light begin to dart across his vision, and now, he thought he saw specters or spirits dashing around in the sky above him. Ah! The angels of God! Here they were to raise him up!
At first, they seemed formless, but then they began to take shape. Then they ceased to be darting around; instead, they seemed to be gathered and waiting, looks of peace on their faces. Was that his grandfather? His grandmother? His friend who had died in childhood? He seemed to be advancing toward them, hovering above himself in the air. As he did, he heard a familiar tune sung by angelic voices. He strained to hear it. Ah! The song Parmelia, Murphy, and Doyle had been singing! It really wasn’t such a bad song.
So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away!
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?