Through a Child’s Eyes

The Littlest Nurse of Gettysburg

A Fictionalized Retelling

The Rebels came through our town a week before the battle. They took bread, cheese, and vegetables from almost every house. They stole people’s cows, pigs, and horses. They took chickens and cooked and ate them. They threw Constable Burns in prison. He tried to arrest all of them–that’s why they threw him in prison.

A week later, they came back. This time, our boys were there to meet them. It was July 1, and it was very hot. We stayed inside all day. We heard cannons and muskets firing north and west of the city. At night, our boys came running back through town. The Rebels were after them.

Sometimes, I snuck up from the cellar to see out the window. Men in gray and brown shot at our men. I saw a dead man for the first time–he was lying in the street. He looked only a little older than my oldest brother. I felt sick to my stomach. I saw wounded men with missing legs and arms. Mother would find me and tell me to go back to the cellar.

That night, the shooting slowed down and almost stopped. Ma and Pa let us go up to our beds. At 3 am, Mother woke me up. She told me that the fighting was coming to the town in the morning. I was to take William and go to Grandma’s house. She and Father would watch out for the house and our things.

I took William over Cemetery Hill. That is where our friend, Jennie Wade, is buried now. Jennie used to sew things for people. For my mother and us some times. The roads were full of men and horses–our men, not Rebels. They were heading into town.

The sun came up. We reached Grandma’s house. She lived with Cousin George. Soon, the fighting started again. The shooting was everywhere. Cannon balls started falling on the farm and exploding. Bullets flew around the house and hit some of the walls. Cousin George and Grandma made us go down to the cellar. They were fighting on the hills and the big rocks. Then, we heard voices. Cousin George went up, and he found wounded Rebels on his lawn. A doctor was trying to help them. He told Cousin George they needed help and were going to take things from the house.

George started bringing out cloths for bandages and helped set up tables from spare wood near the barn. Soon, there were many wounded men in the yard. Some of them were already dead. The wounds were terrible. One guy had his leg blown off. Another guy had a huge hole in his leg and the muscles were showing like a piece of meat. I was scared of the shooting, and the cries and moans of the men made me sick.

It was not long before wounded Union men began arriving. Soon, there were many more of them than of the Rebels. Union doctors started showing up too. Then men that arrived said they were coming from the hills–the rocky round tops and Culp’s Hill.

One time, George sent me out to the barn to get more wood to use as table legs. I was close to the barn when I felt a rush blast through my skirt. I froze, and my heart pounded. Did someone shoot at me? A man in the yard near the barn said, “Wow, that was close! That was an artillery shell. You had better get out of that road and come over here!”

I walked over to him. My hands were trembling, and I could barely think. He said, “I am Dr. Lyford.”

I said, “Hello, Dr. Lyford. I am Sadie Bushman.”

Right then, two of our men came out of the barn helping a man between them. They put him on Dr. Lyford’s table. His right leg was bleeding and wounded. The men put the leg over a saw horse, and they went back to the barn. They both had blood on their shirts.

“Can you help me, Sadie?” said Dr. Lyford.

“Ok,” I said.

There was a barrel of water in the yard that they had hauled up from Rock Creek. He told me to get the man a cup of water. I found a tin cup on the ground and got water from the barrel. I gave the soldier a cup of water while Dr. Lyford laid out his tools. Then he asked me to hold a mask with medicine over the man’s face. The man thanked me for the water. When I put the mask over his face, the man went to sleep. Dr. Lyford cut open the man’s leg with a knife. Then he sawed off the man’s leg. The sound of a saw cutting bone is like when it cuts wood. I will never forget it.

I did not see my family for two weeks. I did not know if they were alive or dead. They didn’t know if I was alive or dead. I helped out Dr. Lyford a lot. We helped Rebels and our men. He cut off a lot of arms and legs. I cut up sheets and clothes to make bandages. I gave men water and beef broth. I held the sleeping mask over their faces when they had to get an arm or leg cut off. After a few days, the smell was terrible. But we all got used to it, too. They buried a lot of people on cousin George’s farm. Uncle Michael’s farm, too. Even cousin Lewis’s farm. There were dirt mounds everywhere. More every day.

Even after Ma and Pa came to get me, even after I went back home, I went around town and brought bandages to the hospitals. I would sneak out to help at the hospitals outside town. Pa didn’t like that and would sometimes whip me for it. But I liked helping, and the people called me the littlest nurse of Gettysburg.

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