Civil War Nurse Major Belle Reynolds



Civil War Nurse  

Major Belle Reynolds

In the Western Theater, due to her exploits at the battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, Belle Reynolds was commissioned as a major by the governor of Illinois. In the summer of 1861 her husband had joined the 17th Illinois Infantry as a lieutenant. (His initials may have been J.P., based on indirect evidence.) On August 20th, Belle joined her husband in camp at Bird's Point, Missouri. From then until the end of the war she kept a journal of her army life and adventures, from which the following extracts are taken.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1861-1862, Belle stayed with the regiment, sometimes riding in a army wagon or ambulance, and sometimes on a mule. At other times she marched in the ranks with the soldiers, carrying a musketoon (a short, large-bore musket) on her shoulder. While in camp along the Mississippi River in southern Missouri, it was a picturesque scene, and a romantic period for the recently married couple. The regiment was involved in the battle of Belmont, Missouri, on November 7, 1861, led by a new brigadier general named Ulysses S. Grant. They wintered over in Cape Girardeu.

In February, 1862 Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, opening middle Tennessee to invasion by Union Forces. On April 6, threatened by Grant's army near Corinth, the Confederates attacked the Union camp at Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh), Tennessee. Belle wrote in her journal for April 4th:

"The long roll has called the regiment out, and we know not what an hour may bring forth. Pickets have been driven in, and skirmishing is going on at the front. Distant musketry and the rumbling of artillery past my tent give the situation a look of reality which I had not dreamed of an hour ago. Although so near the enemy's lines, we feel no fear. Mrs. N. and myself are the only ladies in camp, and our tents are adjoining."

The battle broke full force at daybreak Sunday, April 6th, lasting through the next day after an overnight interruption. A sudden attack in force in the early morning hours caused half-awake Union troops to flee their camps. In her next journal entry dated April 17th, Belle reported her experiences when the Union camps were overrun:

"At sunrise we heard the roll of distant musketry....[About an hour later] while preparing breakfast over the campfire, which Mrs. N. and I used in common, we were startled by cannonballs howling over our heads. [The soldiers were ordered to fall in.] Knowing my husband must go, I kept my place before the fire, that he might have his breakfast before leaving; but there was no time for eating, and though shells were flying faster, and musketry coming nearer, compelling me involuntarily to dodge as the missiles shrieked through the air, I still fried my cakes, and rolling them in napkins, placed them in his haversack, and gave it to him just as he was mounting his horse to assist in forming the regiment."

Lieutenant Reynolds asked her what she would do, but there was no time to think. "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."

Before they had gone far, Belle and Mrs. N. came upon ambulances from which the wounded were being carried out and laid on the ground. "We stopped, took off our bonnets, and prepared to assist in dressing their wounds," she said. 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. Making their way to the river, Belle and her friend boarded the EMERALD, one of the steamers that served as Captain Norton's headquarters. Soon the wounded came pouring in, and they were busy for the next thirty-six hours doing what they could to comfort the soldiers.

By nighttime, the EMERALD alone had 350 wounded aboard. "I dared not ask the boys if my husband was unharmed." she wrote, "and feared each moment to see him among the almost lifeless forms that were being brought on board the boat."

All day long they heard the thunder of artillery, and spent bullets fell like leaden hail on the deck of the boat. Shells directed at the ammunition ship nearby whirled over their heads. Near sunset the retreating Union army crowded the scene, many seeking shelter on the already crowded boats, some swimming to the opposite shore. Just as it seemed their position would be overrun, the gunboats LEXINGTON and TYLER steamed upriver and unleashed a deadly fire on the Confederates. Union reinforcements could be seen on the opposite shore, approaching at the double-quick. As the transports were pressed into service to ferry the soldiers across the river, officers rushed around trying to rally the dispirited army to join in a counterattack.

"At the Landing it was a scene of terror, " Belle reported. "Rations, forage, and ammunition were trampled into the mud by an excited infuriated crowd.... Trains [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."

Nightfall brought a temporary halt to the infantry clashes, and both sides tried to rest. But throughout the night the gunboat cannonade continued, and the rain came pouring down. The storm increased in fury as the night wore on. Toward morning the EMERALD slipped downstream to Savannah and unloaded the wounded. Morning found Belle and her friends at work again, dressing the wounds of a new group of soldiers who had just been brought in from the field.

Belle still had no news of her husband. The mud and rain confined them to the boat, but persistent reports reached them that the rebels were retreating. That the Union army, having received strong reinforcement by Major General Don Carlos Buell's army and Major General Lew Wallace's division, was pushing the rebels back. The tide had turned.

About dusk on the second day, Lieutenant Colonel Smith arrived from the regiment with the message to Belle from her husband. Although his horse had been shot out from under him, he was unharmed. "How thankful I was none can know but those who have endured like suspense and anxiety," she wrote. Greatly relieved, Belle loaded Smith's saddlebags with loaves of bread for the regiment, and he dashed off into the dark.

Throughout the night the storm continued to rage, but on Wednesday morning, "the sun came forth upon a scene of blood and carnage such as our fair land had never known." The roads were muddy, but Belle and two friends set out to help at the hospital. "We climbed the steep hill opposite the landing, picked our way through the corrals of horses, past the long lines of trenches which were to receive the dead, and came to an old cabin, where the wounded were being brought," Belle noted in her journal. "Outside lay the bodies of more than a hundred, brought in for recognition and burial--a sight so ghastly that is haunts me now."

Inside they found one room full of wounded, another with surgeons amputating limbs. Belle pitched in to help. "The sight of a woman seemed to cheer the poor fellows, for many a 'God bless you!' greeted me before I had done them a single act of kindness." The soldiers cried out for water, so Belle organized a bucket brigade to fetch water from the river. She bathed and bandaged their wounds, and distributed the small available supply of bread and jelly. Finding a sutler's stand, she bought s supply of gingerbread, which she called "singular food for sick men, but very acceptable."

Side by side on the floor she observed two dying soldiers, one an old man severely wounded in the chest, the other a rebel with both legs taken off below the knees by a cannonball. To one side was a soldier who had been hit in the face by a missile. "His breathing," she wrote, "was of that horrible sort which once heard is never forgotten. He, too, was past all cure. And that operating table," she continued, "these scenes come up before me now with all the vividness of reality."

She watched as one soldier after another was brought in and placed on "those bloody boards," and given chloroform. Often before the sedation took hold,

"the operation would begin, and in the midst of shrieks, curses, and wild laughs, the surgeon would wield over his wretched victim the glittering knife and saw; and soon the severed and ghastly limb, white as snow and spattered with blood, would fall upon the floor--one more added to the terrible pile."

Finally, about 3:00 P.M., she could stand no more. One of the surgeons gave her a spoonful of brandy, and turned to go back to the boat. Just then she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned, startled to see her husband. "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 many words; he told me I must go. There was a silent pressure of hands. I passed on to the boat."

That night, each time she closed her eyes and tried to sleep, vivid images of the dying soldiers and the amputating table caused her to bolt awake and jump out of bed. Repeatedly, she had to convince herself that she was not still there in the hospital. A few days later, sorely in need of rest and change of scenery, Belle found space on the steamer BLACK HAWK back to Illinois with a delegation of visitors. About twenty members of the regiment also were on board. She said good-bye to her husband, who had to return to camp.

"Each parting seemed harder than the last," she wrote, "for I knew now the dangers and uncertainties to which he was exposed. But my health had been failing... and I felt I must recruit now, or I might not be able to spend the summer with him." On board the BLACK HAWK conversation naturally centered on the battle just concluded.

As an eyewitness, Belle was the center of attention and was bombared with questions.

"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 gentleman, 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."

Soon one of the party, impressed by her story, suggested that Belle deserved a commission more than some of the officers, and another suggested that it be done. The governor directed his secretary to fill out a commission form giving Belle the rank of major. The document was formally signed, sealed, and handed to her amidst general congratulations.

After a brief period of rest back in Illinois, Belle rejoined her husband in the filed and shared the hardships of camp life, seeing service in Mississippi and being an eyewitness to the duel between Confederate shore batteries and Union gun-boats at Vicksburg in July, 1863. When Lt. Reynolds' period of service expired in the spring of 1864, they gratefully returned to the quiet of home and hearth.

Text taken from:" Patriots In Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War"
by: Richard Hall

Picture taken from:" Amazing Women of the Civil War"
by: Webb Garrison

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