Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam

Mary Bedinger Mitchell (1850–1896)
From The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It

September 17 marks the 150th anniversary of 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 dead and 17,000 wounded. Days before the conflict, the residents of Shepherdstown, Virginia, waited nervously as starving, straggling soldiers began showing up, looking for food and a moment’s rest. A mere ten miles away, Confederate forces under Stonewall Jackson had just captured Harpers Ferry on Monday, September 15, 1862. Closer to home, across the Potomac, General Robert E. Lee was reassembling his army outside Sharpsburg, Maryland, alongside Antietam Creek, while General George B. McClellan prepared Union forces to drive the Confederates back to Virginia.

But to Mary Bedinger, who had just turned twelve the previous month, the precise maneuvers of the armies amassing across the river were barely more than hearsay. Throughout the week, the area was overwhelmed with thousands of Confederate casualties. The dead and the wounded continued to pour into the town until Saturday, September 20, when Confederate forces repulsed an incursion by Union soldiers at the Battle of Shepherdstown.

Twenty-five years later, Mary was married to a former Union officer, John Mitchell, and living in Flushing, New York. She learned that General McClellan was preparing an account of the Battle of Antietam for
Century magazine. Historian Sarah E. Gardner recounts in Blood and Irony (a book on Civil War narratives by women) that Mrs. Mitchell wrote to the editors and offered her “personal experiences” of the battle, which “may not be without interest to your readers.” The magazine accepted her submission, paying her a respectable sixty dollars, and it appeared under the pseudonym Maria Blunt—the name she also used to publish works of short fiction in various magazines.

One of the tensest moments of Mitchell’s harrowing narrative (on pages 520–21) describes a nurse “who had no thought of leaving her post” but wanted to get her sister “out of harm’s way.” That “nurse” was, in fact, twelve-year-old Mary herself and it was her own eight-year-old sister, Caroline, that she tried to trick into going home and staying there. Readers will be interested to know that the brave Caroline not only survived the war but eventually became a prominent author herself, publishing under the name Danske Dandridge several volumes of poetry and history and over two hundred magazine articles on gardening.


Notes: “Sheridan’s ride” (page 512) refers to a later event in the war. On October 19, 1864, Confederate troops surrounded Union forces and drove them from their positions. Major General Philip Sheridan, returning from Washington, heard of the attack and rode to the front in time to rally his troops and direct a counterattack—a feat immortalized in a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read.

September, 1862, was in the skies of the almanac, but August still reigned in ours; it was hot and dusty. The railroads in the Shenandoah Valley had been torn up, the bridges had been destroyed, communication had been made difficult, and Shepherdstown, cornered by the bend of the Potomac, lay as if forgotten in the bottom of somebody’s pocket. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

2 comments:

Jyothi Natarajan said...

Very disturbing and moving indeed. What astounding humanity sheperdstonians show! Houses become makeshift hospitals,woman and little girls turn into nurses tending the wounded and the dying. The inhabitants share everything and whenever necessary sacrifice whatever they have to bring solace and succor. This truly is selfless service.

Anonymous said...

Thank you to the previous reader's moving comment, which says it all, and thanks to the Library of America for a valuable, harrowing 19th-century document, so well-written. I appreciate the LOA's spirit in presenting stories, whether a tie-in is seasonal, for example, or appropriate in some other way, and their interest in material written in the past by women, which is harder to come by. As usual, I found the biographical introduction informative and enjoyable. Finally, thanks to Mary Bedinger Mitchell, I learned a new word today: tatterdemalion.