Testament to Courage
by Donna L.H. Smith
Nashville, Tennessee 1864
Eliza Clark had finally reached Nashville. She knew that somewhere in this city, recently captured by the Army of the Potomac, someone would listen and respond to her plight. She must find her son Samuel. She clutched the telegram she’d received a week ago saying he’d been wounded and was near death. The last of her four sons, he was only a teenager, having run away at age fifteen to join the Tenth Michigan Volunteers. His last letter, nearly a year old, was from Gettysburg. He’d only received a minor wound, and told her not to worry.
She’d heard from a colonel the day before that Major General George Henry Thomas was arriving in town. Maybe he had the authority to help her. She’d already talked to several majors and colonels. None had the authority or the manpower to help her. All she wanted was a pass to allow her to find Sam.
She stepped into the St. Cloud Hotel. She was shown into a waiting room outside another room where she would see General Thomas. Even though she’d come early, there were at least a dozen people also waiting to see the general.
Finally, she was shown in.
“General, I must have a pass to go south to see my son. He may be dead – or dying. I received a telegraph message a week ago. He’s my youngest. I must find him.”
She looked into the general’s eyes. Even though he had what seemed like a hard jaw, she saw kindness in his eyes. He shifted in his chair. Surely, he would allow her a pass. Then, just he before he spoke, something in his eyes changed, but his voice, though commanding, had a gentle southern drawl.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Clark. I cannot allow any woman to go south, especially traveling alone. It’s too dangerous. The war is still going on. Literally hundreds, possibly a thousand officers wives have come to me, as you have, seeking a pass. I’m sorry. I cannot grant it.”
Eluza had trouble catching her breath. Her anxiety rose. “Please sir. Thee must hear my petition. General Thomas, I’ve already given three sons in this war. They didn’t come back. They were buried where they fell, and I can’t get to them. But Samuel is my youngest. He is only seventeen. He ran away and joined up two years ago, lying about his age. He may dead or dying. I must find out. I am a widow, my husband died before the war. Samuel is all I have left. I must find him!”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Clark. I truly appreciate your predicament. But I cannot allow a woman to go south, especially an unescorted one.”
Eliza snapped on the inside. She leaned over the edge of the desk, and slammed her fist on it, making the general quickly move his head back. For a moment, his eyes flashed anger, but quickly disappeared as he seemed to understand her desperation.
“Sir, I am a widow and I have given three sons for this war and my youngest lies dead or dying AND I AM GOING.” Then, realizing what she’d done, she immediately, moved back, yet stood with her back straight. She relaxed her hands, then held them in front of her. It appalled her to think she’d lost her temper.
The general’s eyes opened wide, and he leaned back in his chair. His aide-de-camp moved towards him as if to protect him. Eliza thought it strange. But all she could think about was Samuel.
For a few moments, silence reigned in the room. Then, the general turned to his aide. “Write this lady a pass and instruct all officers and surgeons with whom she comes in contact to give her every assistance within the power of the government to give. I’ll sign it.”
Samuel Clark only knew he was in a small town in northern Georgia. As part of Sherman’s march towards Atlanta, the Tenth Michigan Volunteers were in hostile territory. Scattered skirmishes and pot shots kept them on their toes, even when the regiment rested.
On one such occasion, Samuel was shot twice, once in the leg and once in the abdomen. He’d barely registered the pain from his leg wound when the second shot found him. He lost consciousness.
When he regained his senses, he was in a large room being used as a hospital. He was surrounded by men in beds, some moaning in pain, others thrashing with fever, and still others sitting or sleeping on their beds. He tried to get up, but cried out from the pain in his belly.
Since he could do nothing, he thought of home. In the last letter received from Mother, he’d found out that all his brothers were dead in the war. He released a breath and pictured Mother in his mind. Her dark curls always seemed to escape her bun. Her square face sometimes seemed severe, but when she smiled, her expression seemed to take years off her approximately forty-five years. She always wore plain, dark-colored dresses of black, brown, green, or blue. A short woman, but not of stout wideness, she was Mother, who held the family together after Pa died almost ten years ago now.
A nurse finally found him. “Lay back, young man. You need your rest. You are seriously wounded.” She had kind blue eyes, smooth skin, and hair the color of flax. The concern flowing through her eyes caused him to want to obey her.
He did as he was told, but after a few days, he knew he wasn’t getting any better. Days and nights ran together. On some level, he knew he’d become one of the fever thrashers, until his strength wore completely out, and a coldness seeped into him.
Eliza had several challenges, even with General Thomas’ pass, trying to find Samuel. The southbound train was a feeler, an engine and two box cars. They were sent out to see if some larger train could get through safely. She’d finally waved her pass at the soldiers. They stopped trying to force her out of a boxcar after that.
Finally, she’d reached the hospital where Samuel lay. Now she’d get some answers.
Doctor Stewart, man in his forties, with dark hair barely scuffed at the sides with a bit of gray, was in charge of the more serious soldiers. When Eliza found him, he looked at his list of patients. “Sorry, ma’am, his name is not on this list.”
Eliza put a hand to her head. “Doctor, I must find him. Even if he has already died, I must find him.”
The doctor checked another list. “This list is the list of the dead.” His eyes slowly went down the list. “Ah, yes. Here he is, Samuel Clark, Tenth Michigan. Yes, he’s in the dead house.”
Eliza’s hand immediately went to her throat. “The dead house?”
“Yes. As soon as a soldier dies, they are taken to the dead house until they are either claimed or buried. I’m sorry, ma’am, for your loss.”
Eliza gulped and squared her shoulders. Tears welled up, but she fought them. One lone tear escaped and dribbled down her cheek. “Thank you, Doctor. Can you show me the way?”
The doctor signaled to an orderly. “Take her to the dead house.”
Eliza spotted her son’s body from across the room and rushed to him. The bodies were laid out one beside the other with only about a foot between each, just enough room for someone to walk. She knelt down and took his hand. It was clammy, but not cold. That puzzled her. A dead hand should be cold and stiff. She placed her index finger under his nose and felt slight warmth, as his shallow breathing touched her finger. He was alive!
She turned to the orderly. “Get the doctor, now! My son is alive! He needs care!” She bent over and kissed Samuel’s forehead, speaking to him as if he could hear her. “Mother’s here now, Samuel. Thee will live. Thee will be all right.”
“He simply cannot come back to the hospital! We have no place for him.” The doctor crossed his arms in finality.
Eliza released a breath, but clenched her jaw. She’d already faced many officers saying “no” to her request to come south. She’d faced problems and challenges at every turn. Now this stubborn doctor wouldn’t allow her son back into the hospital from the dead house!
“Then find a house with a room for my son. I have General Thomas’ order that I am to be given every possible help and assistance within the power of the United States government.” She pulled out the order and waved it at the doctor.
“All right. He can return.”
Eliza sat by her son’s bed for weeks. Although he was still alive, Samuel was in and out of consciousness. Reports had reached the hospital that Confederate General Hood was driving General Thomas north. Union soldiers under Thomas’ command had already moved out of the area, leaving only the hospital under the command of the chief surgeon, Doctor Stewart.
All of the wounded who could safely be moved, had already been transported north in ambulances. But Samuel’s condition was still serious, being brought back from the brink of death, he remained. He’d die if he was moved. Sometimes Eliza helped the surgeon and the few nurses courageous enough to stay behind, when not looking after Samuel.
One very warm late spring morning, the rebel yell could be heard through the open windows. They were close. Doctor Stewart rushed in. Eliza stood up, her hand to her throat.
“We must get out of here now!” Doctor Stewart grabbed her arm.
“Can I take my boy?” She shook off his hand.
“No! It would kill him to be moved. Come with me now!” He reached for her. She moved back.
“No! I will stay with my boy and my Savior will take care of me.” Eliza raised her chin and she placed a hand on her hip.
“All right then. Stay and take care of those left here, while we load the last of the ambulances.”
“Can I take my boy?” She tapped her pocket where she kept General Thomas’ order with her at all times.
Doctor Stewart’s head dropped. “All right, all right!”
“Doctor, I need soldiers for protection and escort.”
“All right.” He called over ten soldiers and gave them the order to guide and protect Eliza and her son.
The last remaining patients were loaded up and the ambulances began to leave. In the last one was Samuel, Eliza and two of the protection detail of ten. The rest were to ride alongside, in front, and in back of the ambulance. Eliza noticed no canteens had been brought. She rushed back into the hospital, with the sounds of cannon fire getting closer.
Just as she reached the supply room, the brick wall furthest away from her exploded as a shell came through it. She was knocked to the floor, but grabbed a canteen, quickly rose and rushed out.
When she got back to the ambulance, the soldiers quickly helped her inside. They rushed off with sounds of increasing cannon fire and rifle shots.
Samuel awakened to the tossing of the ambulance as it hurried down the road. He looked up and saw his mother’s face. She smiled.
“Mother, what’s going on?”
“We’re taking you north, son. Just relax. Sleep if you can. You’re alive, and that’s a miracle of God.”
As the ambulance rushed down the road, Samuel could hear the sounds of war decreasing the further along they got.
Suddenly, the ambulance stopped. Mother got out. Samuel could hear some of the heated discussion taking place before Mother got back into the back of the ambulance. She turned to him. “Son, the soldiers found a house they can commandeer. They are afraid of capture if we go too much farther.
Within minutes, they stopped again, and soldiers carried Samuel into the house. It was a large mansion. Samuel couldn’t remember seeing any place so fine as this. Their home in Michigan was plain. The chandelier in the foyer was almost as long as Samuel himself. Samuel tried to sit up, but his belly pain was too great, and his leg didn’t help him get up either.
Mother’s voice was commanding. “By order of General Thomas of the Army of the Potomac, we commandeer this house as a hospital for my wounded son and one other.” She waved the order in front of the home’s owner, Colonel Vance. Samuel couldn’t see him well from his angle, but his booming voice carried.
“I do not recognize General Thomas’ authority in this order, Madam. But as we are southerners, you may stay here a short while on your journey north. I myself have been discharged after being wounded in battle.”
The soldiers placed him on a luxurious couch in a first floor drawing room, the part of the house she had commandeered with General Thomas’ order. Mother came and covered him with a blanket. On a square table next to the couch, was a black Testament. Mother gave Samuel the one from his knapsack. She’d given it to him when he turned twelve. She’d inscribed it, “With love, Mother. Follow the Savior and He will give you life and peace.”
“I’ll be right back, son. I need to give the soldiers instructions on how to show any advancing confederates that this is a hospital, a place of peace.”
“How will you do that?” Samuel decided to stop using the Quaker “thou” as soon as he’d enlisted. It ensured him less ribbing from others.
Mother smoothed his bangs off his forehead. “By using curtains as flags on the chimneys – soldiers must look at a hospital as neutral ground.”
When she left the room, a curious girl, who must have been a daughter to Colonel Vance, around thirteen years of age came in and looked Samuel over up and down, her eyes blazing with hate and anger.
“Are you a Yankee soldier?”
Samuel tried to think of how he could assuage the girl’s anger. “Yes, Miss, I am. But I am a man of peace, too.”
“Humph!” The girl exclaimed, as she leaned over and spit in his face before leaving the room. Samuel wiped his face with the corner of his blanket, then turned away.
What had the world come to when a little girl could hate him so, just because of where he was from and what he was fighting for?
He placed his Testament next to the one on the table, and fell asleep.
A couple hours later, Eliza heard the soldiers of her protection detail engaging in gunfire outside the house. A private rushed in.
“Ma’am, we have to get out of here! The rebs don’t believe this is a hospital! They’re firing on us!”
Eliza put her hand to her head, but raised her chin. “Then let’s load up and get out of here before we’re all killed.”
She hurried to Samuel’s side, finding him fast asleep. Remembering the incident of the canteen, she grabbed up one of the two Testaments without looking inside and placed it in Samuel’s knapsack.
Nashville Two weeks later
Samuel was finally on the road to recovery. He could sit up now and take food without throwing up. His wounded leg still pained him and doctors had told him he’d likely be on crutches the rest of his life.
Still, he was alive. Now that he spent more time awake than asleep, he felt thankful to his Creator, and wanted to read from the Testament. He reached in his knapsack and pulled out the small book. He wanted to read again, the inscription his mother had written nearly eight years ago. He opened the Testament to the inside cover. What?
“Property of Cyril Paul Vance, Crossroads, Georgia.” Underneath it was dated, “Given on this day, 14 April 1850.”
Samuel shook his head as he tried to piece together what had happened. Evidently Mother had grabbed the wrong Testament when they hurriedly departed the confederate colonel’s house.
He pondered what that would mean and released a sigh. If he had Colonel Vance’s New Testament – that meant Vance had his. Forever. Samuel doubted he would ever see Vance or anyone in his family again. The war had to come to an end soon, but Samuel knew he would never seek to exchange this Testament for his.
He would ever be reminded of his mother’s courage in his survival. There was no doubt in his mind he’d be dead if it weren’t for Mother. Even though she was a Quaker and believed in peace, she fought stubborn soldiers on both sides of the war. She showed great courage, and this Testament affirmed that.
Author’s Note: This story is adapted from a letter to my grandfather from my great-grandfather. His name was Samuel Clark Whitwam and he ran away at age 15 to fight for the Union. His mother, Ruth Eliza Whitwam, showed great courage during that turbulent time, when she sought a pass from General Thomas. Samuel’s Testament was left at Colonel Vance’s mansion by mistake. I just found a copy of this letter a few days before writing this. Most of the story is true, but certain details have been conceived by me for enrichment and setting.
© Donna L.H. Smith 2014