Friday, May 18, 2012

My portrayal of Mrs Major Belle Reynolds ~ Civil War Nurse

Script for Mrs. Major Belle Reynolds
Written by Rosemary Connolly

{Photo from the book "A Civil War Captain and His Lady" by Gene Barr}

{sweep opposite side with musketoon}
“Halt! By order of the Doctor Norton. This hospital ship is off limits to retreating soldiers.  I shall determine who gets on or off this steamer”

This is what I had to do on that fateful day at Pittsburg Landing on April 6th 1862.

I am not bold or boastful to speak about myself but my circumstances thrust me into the media and I have been asked to tell you my story.  My name is Belle Reynolds of Peoria, IL.  Perhaps you’ve read about me in the newspapers and how Governor Yates recognized me for heroism at the battle of Shiloh.  There were stories written about my experience in the “Peoria Journal Star” because of the attention Governor Yates gave me in 1862.   
I was among the women who chose to accompany their husbands to the battle and have helped with domestic chores in the camp. 

I  Biography
II  Becoming a Camp Follower 
III  Story at Shiloh 
IV  Governor Yates commissioning 
V Post Civil War

I  Biography
I was born Oct 20 1840 as Arabella Loomis Macomber in Shelburne Falls Massachusetts.  Everybody called me Belle for short.  The place that I am from is along the Connecticut River Valley.  If you happen to come across a runaway in this area, I may be able to help them to contact the Underground Railroad.
My family came from a highly respected background.  My father is Kingsley W. Macomber a prominent lawyer and proud descendant of Revolutionary War.  Mother was related to the governor of Connecticut.   Our family valued a good education. My brother took after my father and perused a legal career. When I was 14 years old, our family traveled west to the new frontier. We settled in Cass County, Iowa.  After a few years there, I returned East for schooling to become a teacher. I met a young man in
Massachusetts by the way and more about that in a moment.  I then returned to my family and began teaching.  Teaching was well respected in the sparsely populated settlement. 
I met William S. Reynolds also from Massachusetts while in school and he moved to Cass County Iowa, most likely he followed me there.  I'm not sure why he moved but maybe to follow me home.  He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts son of Henry S. Reynolds who ran a grain, feed, and lime business on Washington Street.  William went to Springfield High School. Click here for Reference. {this site says Springfield, Massachusetts}
We were married in Iowa and shortly thereafter we moved to Peoria.  There he had a new position as a druggist.  

II Becoming a Camp Follower
I’ll never forget our first anniversary.  We were attending church services when a messenger gave the news of the attack on Fort Sumter  (April 12, 1861 was a Saturday).  Our parishioners were appalled but not totally surprised.   We live in the “home state” of our new president, Abraham Lincoln, and understood the political tension that was growing at the time.  Everyone wanted a solution and fast.

My husband and 3 other men joined the volunteer army for a period of 3 months.  He became the adjutant for the 17th Illinois Infantry.   As he departed for war I wrote my first letter to him I will tell you why I shall not miss you and shall not want you to come home.  I am going to the war with you.  Now, don’t protest…I am in perfect health, as strong as you and as patriotic.”

My friends and relatives discouraged me from making the journey but I insisted.   I had been used to traveling with my trunks between Massachusetts and Iowa and this would be just another journey.   
It was not uncommon nor against any rules to join our husbands off to war at that time period.  I just need permission and after three days of convincing the regiment's colonel, I headed to the front with them.  My free spirit and lack of ties to hold me down made me want to follow.   I also felt that by accompanying my husband, I was supporting the Union cause.  

Four months later, I joined Lt Reynolds at Bird's Point, Missouri on August 11th 1861 where his regiment was camped. Initially, it was a scenic trip and important to me to be close to where I was needed.  The beauty of the Mississippi River was nearly that of a romantic honeymoon that we never had.  I made the best of the journey.  

There were a few other women with me who joined their husbands as well. I was offered fine conditions to live in because I was  an officer's wife but chose to live like a soldier:  sleeping on the ground and drinking from pools.  I traveled by horse, cart and on foot living a soldier’s life and sleeping on the ground. To the order, "Fall in," I hurriedly mounted my horse in the darkness of the night.  I made long marches sometimes without food or rest.

Women like me who chose to accompany their families were known as “Camp Followers”.   Well that is just what we did.  We followed the army and did domestic chores but often camped separately from the rest of the regular army.  Sadly, there were a few camp followers that gave us a bad name.  A few, I say, because most of us gave all of our work and hearts to supporting our soldiers.  One can choose to focus on the few or choose to focus on the typical majority of women supporting their husbands and fellow soldiers.

I kept a journal, describing in living color the events, the trials and the tribulations of an army wife.  At times I would send letters to newspapers back home about things that I saw so that others who stayed behind could understand what we were doing and the conditions we lived.

When time allowed, I would talk to the soldiers that were sick or melancholy.  This seemed to lift their spirits and want to join the rest of their fellow soldiers with great pride and enthusiasm.  They called me their guardian angel because I spent my nights by their side with my needles and thread and writing letters.  

While traveling with my husband, I witnessed several battles.  The Union won skirmishes at Fort Henry and Fort Donaldson in Tennessee resulting in 12,000-man garrison to surrender unconditionally.  The river was opened for the Union advancement.   It seemed like the war was going well for the Army and Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant got a nice promotion to Major General.

III Story at Shiloh
Now, let me tell you about the battle at Pittsburgh Landing in Tennessee.  I was in the field with my husband from the first great western battle at Shiloh.   

We heard the gunfire in the distance but I thought it was simply the pickets firing their muskets to make sure the gunpowder was still dry.  You see, there was a lot of rain and mud and it was common to check the powder.  I casually prepared a breakfast feast of griddlecakes and peaches over the campfire.   Suddenly, bugles were calling and people began running and so I dumped the food into a napkin and into my husband’s haversack as he left on his horse.  Meanwhile the women casually packed our trunks to leave.  We came across another camp already deserted.  It was not until a wagon master told Mrs. Norton and I to run for our lives that the reality of a rebel attack finally sank in.  We headed for Pittsburgh Landing for a steamer known as the Emerald.
For the remainder of that day the women assist as the wounded soldiers that began to pour in. Many were taken behind the lines to the Union steamboats on the river.  The rebels drove the Union back towards the river.
Allow me to read what I had recorded in my journal:
"Shells were bursting in every direction about us. Tents were torn in shreds, and the enemy, in solid column, was seen coming over the hill in the distance." As they fled, they saw cavalry soldiers forming on the parade ground near the camp. "Balls were flying and shells bursting among the terrified horses and fearless riders."

"We stopped, took off our bonnets, and prepared to assist in dressing their wounds,
 But an orderly dashed up, shouting orders to move the wounded immediately to the river. The rebels were closing in, and they were not safe where they were. “

"I dared not ask the boys if my husband was unharmed and feared each moment to see him among the almost lifeless forms that were being brought on board the boat."

"At the Landing it was a scene of terror -- Rations, forage, and ammunition were trampled into the mud by an excited infuriated crowd.... Trains [of wagons] were huddled together on the brow of the hill and in sheltered places. Ambulances were conveying their bleeding loads to the different boats, and joined to form a Babel of confusion indescribable. None were calm, and free from distracting anxiety and pain, save the long ranks of dead, ranged for recognition or burial, at the hospital on the hill-side."
After working hard all day, a surgeon objected to having women on board not knowing all that the women had done.  You see,  It was customary that men would be nurses for men.  Not intimidated in the least, I proceeded to search the boat for any members of my husband’s regiment.

I wrote in my diary that “though there were three or four hundred wounded men on the boat, there were but two or three surgeons, and they unwilling to have us relieve what suffering we could.” The surgeons also refused to give the women any supplies.  Undaunted, I gathered some from other boats and returned to clean wounds and serve food.  I myself did not take time to eat.

The Emerald soon became a hospital ship of sorts, receiving an estimated 350-wounded troops. In the beginning Capt Norton gave me a gun to keep the retreating soldiers at bay while he guarded the steamer on the other end. I assisted our surgeon but there were some that I could only console.  I felt compelled to go a bit farther because I was saddened by all of the blood and torture going on around me.  I often headed for the battlefield.  I looked to see whom I could help among bodies of union and confederate soldiers. I made way to Shiloh’s chapel, which was full of wounded in need of food.  I arranged for 15 men to get food and water.  I returned with those I could save on an ambulance wagon to the hospital ship.

I kept dressing wounds while wondering the fate of my own dear husband.  Twice I was given the word that my husband was mortally wounded.  Then, I felt a hand touch me.

From my journal:
"I hardly knew him-blackened with powder, begrimed with dust, his clothes in disorder, and his face pale. We thought it must have been years since we parted. It was no time for words; he told me I must go. There was a silent pressure of hands. I passed on to the boat."

Later I learned that his horse was shot from under him but that he had survived.  I was grateful and relieved.  I also realized that it was close enough.

IV Governor Yates commissioning

Let me explain my relationship with Governor Yates.  My relationship with Governor Yates was both good and bad which I can explain.
After 7 days without rest, Governor Yates arrived with physicians to survey the battlefield.  He was shocked at my worn appearance and had me escorted back to Illinois for some rest.  We traveled on the steamer, Black Hawk.  Some of the wounded were on board and all we could talk about was the battle of Pittsburg Landing.  I told stories of the battle along the way with vivid imagery and my audience was moved by the gravity of war.  I was asked many questions by people who where not there and wanted to know.  I provided answers as only an eyewitness could provide.  

Allow me to read the feelings I had recorded in my journal:
"The terrible scenes were still before [me] and seemed to be a dreadful part of me, which I was glad to have removed, if relating them might have that effect. I told my story to quite an audience of ladies and gentlemen, Governor Yates being of the number. As I was one of very few ladies who were present at the battle, and had witnessed so large a portion of its scenes, the story seemed to interest all who heard."

Dr Colburn suggested I be given a commission because of my bravery on the bloody battlefield.  Governor Yates obliged and had his secretary fill out the necessary papers for a commission, establishing me as an army officer with the rank of Major.

Thus, I became an army officer without enlisting and outranked my husband. This event placed me squarely in the media’s eye. Beyond local Illinois newspapers like the Peoria Transcript, my story was also featured, complete with photo, in the May 17, 1862 issue of the national "Harper’s Weekly".  The newspapers had apparent difficulty with the military rank for a woman and referred to me as "Mrs. Major Belle Reynolds".  After that, my stay in Peoria was that of a heroine before returning to the army after a few days stay and securing the safety of the wounded back at their homes.


MRS. MAJOR BELLE REYNOLDS, whose portrait we publish on page 317, from a photograph by Cole, of Peoria, Illinois, is the wife of Lieutenant Reynolds, of Company A, Seventeenth Regiment Illinois troops, and daughter of K. W. Macumber, Esq. Her native place is Shelbourne Falls, Massachusetts. The Seventeenth, to which her husband belongs; is one of the most popular regiments in our Western army, being one of the earliest in the field, and during the whole war have been in active service. They met the enemy in a terrible encounter, and vanquished him, at Frederickstown, Missouri. They early took possession of Cape Girardeau; they also bore a prominent part, and were terribly cut up at the battle of Fort Donelson, and were in the thickest of the fight at the battle of Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing). In these last two battles Lieutenant Reynolds was Acting-Adjutant. During the greater part of the campaign Mrs. Reynolds has shared with her husband a soldier's fare in camp; many a night, while on long marches, sleeping upon the ground in the open air, with no covering other than her blanket, and frequently drenched with rain; and ofttimes, to the order "Fall in," she has hurriedly mounted her horse in the darkness of the night, and made long marches without rest or food except such as she might have had with her. She has at all times exhibited a degree of heroism that has endeared her to the brave soldiers of the Seventeenth and other regiments that have been associated with them, and to the officers of the army with whom she is acquainted.
Governor Yates, of Illinois, and his staff were at Pittsburg Landing to look after the Illinois troops, who suffered so severely in that fearful struggle, and learning of Mrs. Reynolds's heroic conduct on the field, and untiring efforts in behalf of the wounded soldiers, by and with the advice of his staff commissioned her Daughter of the Regiment, to take rank as a Major, "for meritorious conduct on the bloody battle-field of Pittsburg Landing." Mrs. R. left Pittsburg Landing a few days after the battle to attend some wounded soldiers to their homes by the rivers, leaving the last one at Peoria —Captain Swain, of Illinois, who died as the boat touched the wharf at Peoria. She remained at Peoria a few days to recover from her fatigue, and has left again to rejoin the army, and hopes and expects soon to be in Corinth.
The following letter has been addressed to Governor Yates by citizens of Peoria:
"PEORIA, April 27, 1862.
"To His Excellency Richard Yates, Governor, etc., Springfield, Illinois:
"DEAR SIR,—Permit us to thank you for the honor conferred upon Peoria by your voluntary act in commissioning Mrs. Belle Reynolds, of this city, to take rank as Major of Illinois State Militia, showing your appreciation of valuable services so nobly rendered by a lady on the bloody battle-field of Pittsburg Landing.
"And we take pleasure in bearing testimony to the high moral and Christian character of the 'Major,' believing that in whatever circumstances she may be placed she will ever honor her commission and the worthy Executive who gave it.   Respectfully yours."

I was glad when I saw the faces of the soldiers in my presence.  It was so motivating for their eagerness to the war's resolve after a great disappointment at Shiloh. 

I was rewarded with a handsome black warhorse and a blue jacket with a major’s gold braid.  I rode for the troops in  review in my uniform at Lagrange, Tenn which seemed to help morale of the soldiers.  There was an air of patriotism among all present. I was known as the “Daughter of the Regiment”.  

When my husband learned of my appointment as Major, he insisted on being promoted to colonel.   He said his wife commands him in opposition of our nuptial vows.  I vowed “honor and obedience” to my husband.  That would invade his rights and place him in a position to take orders from me.  The army did not recognize my rank nor did give credence to his request.  Humbly speaking, you will not see my name on any muster rolls nor in any pay records.  In time, he did become a colonel later on his own merit.
I did have a falling out with Governor Yates and his staff that resulted in unwanted advances. You see, some "camp followers" had a bad reputation as women of the night.  All of this recognition had turned on me. Some of Colonel Price's rowdies, that had been drinking that demon whiskey,  literally asked me to surrender and not in a good way.  I'd much prefer to forget that and proceed with the task of taking care of our soldiers' needs.  After that, I shied away from the governor and newspapers.  Reporters wanted to make a story where there is no story.  I wish the stories focused on shaming the rowdies and not so much myself.

Humanity has gained so much knowledge about death and healing as a result of this War Between the States. I have learned many things from the losses we had to endure in the battlefield hospital.  Many mistakes learned, were less repeated and shared with the other nurses.  I have made critical decisions on the battlefield in choosing who to save and who to let go.  I know I saved many men but I wish I could have done more.   My name still is not listed on the roster of 17th Illinois Infantry.   I became the soldier boys' comrade, their friend and fellow soldier, and yet they stood on no ceremony with me. Yet I exerted the strongest and the most cheering influence upon them because of this very feeling of comradeship. I was the soldier's comforter and counselor. All through the war I was sitting many an hour with the sick and wounded until death or health relieved him.   It was sad taking their last request.

However, I became an invalid after what I’ve been through.   
V Post Civil War

After the war, I went on to become a doctor in the late 1879.  Meanwhile my marriage slowly eroded and I divorced in 1884 without children of my own.

I followed in the footsteps of my father and a brother who became  physicians after the war.  I entered medical school in Chicago. Upon graduation, I practiced at the Home for the Friendless in Chicago and became very active in the Red Cross. After accompanying a patient to Santa Barbara in 1891, I opened an office there, specializing in pediatrics and women’s medicine.  There were only 5 other women doctors while I was there. 

I closed the practice in 1915. I did remain active and vital even though age robbed me of sight in the last years. I died in 1937, just short of my 97th birthday, the first woman commissioned a major in the United States Army.

Conclusion 1

The war changed our view of the World, our attitude towards conviction and what sportsmanship was all about. The war erupted out of emotions, pride and money under the guise of property rights.  The war began as some kind of sport with spectators gathering picnics on the hillside to watch the battles.   Both the First Manassas and Bull Run brought out spectators with picnic baskets and parasols to watch the battle and even cheer for their side like a sporting event. Ladies and politicians watched with parasols and opera glasses only to see defeat and retreating solders.  A few became prisoners and some were harmed.  [ In truth, the First Manassas battle had many sightseers that packed picnic baskets; but this was more a necessity than a frivolous pursuit on a Sunday afternoon. ]  The long marches were views as parades with spectators cheering on the side of the road.  Gone is the day when curiosity-seekers got caught in a stampede of retreating Union troops. I cannot fathom the direction this nation was headed before the war and knew that change would have to come by force.  The change we got had a very high price.  

 “There is no woman who can not in some way do something to help the army. This war of ours has developed scores of Florence Nightingales, whose names no one knows, but whose reward, in the soldier’s gratitude and Heaven’s approval, is the highest guerdon (reward) woman can ever win.”

Listen...I hear the trumpet.  It calls "Fall In".  The army is headed on to Corrinth and on to Vicksburg and I must follow.  Thank you for listening to one woman's story for there are many whose stories are untold.

Conclusion 2

I began telling you that I learned of what happened at Fort Sumter through a messenger interrupting our Sunday Church service.  I recall the Gospel we read that Sunday from Luke Chapter 10 about Jesus as a guest of Martha and Mary.  Martha was very busy with the domestic duties preparing a meal for their guest and Mary sat and socialized with their guest.  Martha felt that Mary should help more instead of being conversational and idle with the preparations.  To Martha's surprise, Jesus sided with Mary as her job was important too.

This story is my story too.  What I did in our hospitals before and during the Battle of Shiloh was more like Martha.  Busy with the chores of a hospital under emergency conditions. After that I learned that life was short.  Instead I spent much time at our recovering soldiers' bedside and making them feel worthwhile during their last time on this Earth.  I stayed with recovering soldiers and there were many I could only console on their death bed.  Time with them was often melancholy but others noticed that listening, sitting, or reading to them that gave hope to all that were there.  In their dying moments, the soldier knew he had suffered for a cause. I supported the nurses side-by-side.  After the war, I became a supporter of the newly formed Red Cross.  I do not regret ignoring requests for me to go home but I knew too much and the need was overwhelming.

General L. E. Ross wrote to me: "I wish you would stay if you possibly can Mrs. Reynolds, your influence is so good upon the boys."

This war produced many Florence Nightingales of which I'm proud to have known a few.  Listen...I can still hear the trumpet.  It calls "Fall In" and I must follow.  Thank you for listening and understanding one woman's story.


Heroic Services of Major Belle Reynolds. (favored resource)

San Francisco Call, Volume 83, Number 173, 22 May 1898
I really enjoyed this article published in later years to put Belle's story in lifetime perspective.


Page 255 google book has much of her vivid diary:
Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice

Discussion forum on Belle Reynold in Civil War Talk

This was written by DUVCW

Belle Loomis (Macomber) Reynolds written by Cliff McCarthy

MAJOR BELLE REYNOLDS; The Only Woman Ever Commissioned in the United States Army. HER SERVICES DURING THE REBELLION Gov. Yates Made Her an Officer After the Battle of Pittsburg Landing -- Popular with the Soldiers.

Guidelines for those women following the army.
Compiled by 44th camp follower Christina Neitz.

July 21, 1861 Senators Witness the First Battle of Bull Run

Civil War Nurse from Illinois by

Santa Barbra Independent: 
Question: Belle Reynolds

I would like to know more about one of Santa Barbara’s early doctors, Belle Reynolds.’ -Paula Sanderson

More on the relationship between Belle and Govenor Yates.

We know that the author of "What I Saw of Shiloh" by Ambrose Bierce was referring only to Belle Reynods in sec IV

Fuller speaks about government sex scandals at symposium

United Service: A Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs, Volume 8

page 603

Picnic Baskets and Parasols

This was my first formal presentation taken at the Illinois State Military Museum in April 2014.  I had been doing this informally at reenactments for small groups of spectators on an impromptu basis prior.

17th Illinois Infantry veterans at their 50th reunion in 1911. Organized and mustered in at Peoria and fought in Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and many other engagements. Picture was found in the photo database of the Will County Historical Museum in Lockport.


Unknown said...

Hi! This is a great blog post. What is the source of the image at the top of the page -- the one of Major Reynolds with her husband? Many thanks.

ivetret said...

I scanned this photo from the book I got from author, Gene Barr. I was captured by the fact that the letters in his book were from the 17th IL which is the same unit as Belle Reynolds.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much, Rose!

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