A Civil War Inside Me

December 18, 2012
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A Civil War Inside Me

Our country had only been in existence for around eighty years when the fighting broke out; we didn’t have even one century of peace before the Great War. This was a terrible, bloody war that violently tore many families apart. The southern, cotton growing states -South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee- all seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy in the slave-owning South.
A war between neighbors, between brothers; among other reasons, it was a war over slavery. It all started around 1860 when the political tensions started rising. There were new states forming and it had to be decided if they would be slave-owning or not. Being a properly raised Union girl, I didn’t fully understand the implications of this American Civil War, but I knew that something greatly important was happening in our country, and I desperately wanted to be part of it.

In Father’s study, there were many, many books, of all types of genres precisely organized on mahogany shelves all across the room. Jamison always asked me to read to him from the large storybooks. We would sit together. He would sit sleepily on my lap in the leather armchair that faced slightly away from the window. We quietly read away for lengthy hours. Under our feet fine Indian rugs spanned across the cozy room. The study always smelled like paper and book glue, which had always made me feel easy and calm. As we sat together comfortably, we read the fantastical stories, about pirates from the last century, and about princesses falling in love with gallant knights. We set the old books on the wooden cabinet by the chair.

When the war broke out, my father and two of my elder brothers immediately joined up with the Union Army. It hurt my mother, but she knew that it was the duty of our family to help our country. After they left, she started volunteering at the hospital, hoping to God that no one we knew would come through. Since my brothers left, I was the eldest child in my family, so it soon became my responsibility to watch over my younger siblings while my mother was gone. This could be tiring, troublesome work, as my little siblings didn’t always behave and were constantly asking questions about what would happen to our family and to our country.

“Lilly, where are you?” Mother called out when she came home from the hospital.

“I am in father’s study, Mother; Jamison asked me to read him a story,” I replied.

“Alright. Jamison, please leave, I need to talk to your sister,” she politely, yet firmly, ordered as she entered the east door. She looked how she always did when she worked at the hospital: her graying hair was in a neat bun, her clothes were slightly rumpled, and her eyes looked sad.

“What is it you would like to talk to me about?” I asked curiously.

“Well, I was at the hospital today,” she said, “and I’ve come to the decision that I would like you to start volunteering there rather than have me away from home so much. I would like you to write letters for the soldiers so they may keep in contact with their families back home.”

I nodded quietly, knowing there was more she would want to say.

“While you are there, you are expected to act like a proper young lady,” she continued, “and you must take care not to get attached to any of the soldiers, for they pass on fairly often. Also, keep in mind that some are Confederates.”

“Yes’m. When will I start?”

“Tomorrow morning at precisely 8 o'clock.”

I wondered what it would be like at the hospital. Everyone said that it was hell on Earth. I could just imagine the stench and the screams from people having amputations. I hoped the soldier I would write for would be near my age. It had always been easy for me to talk to my peers rather than my elders. Maybe the soldier would even be handsome. Hopefully he would have blue eyes, since those were my favorite.
I couldn’t focus on making polite conversation during dinner, for I was worried about going to the hospital the next day. As I got into the featherbed I shared with my mother, I remembered everything people in the town had said about hospitals, especially what they said about army hospitals. But those thoughts soon faded from my mind as I drifted off to sleep in my warm bed.

The next morning I hardly tasted my breakfast. I was extremely nervous about going to the hospital. I ate quickly, but not so quick that Mother would scold me.

“Does Lilly have to help at the hospital?” Jamison and Samson, my other younger brother, whined.

“Yes, dears,” Mother replied, “I feel that it will do her great good to get acquainted with our soldiers fighting in this great war. Shouldn’t you be leaving soon, Lilly?”

“Yes’m, I’ll leave now, Mother,” I quickly replied. As I said so, I got up from my chair and headed to the door.

“Don’t forget your cloak, it is on the bench next to the door; I don’t want you to catch your death of a cold,” Mother called after me.

I left the house then, and hurried down Main Street, walking past the closed butchery and the dry goods store. While I scurried on, I could feel a cold breeze on my cheek and wondered if it might snow before the end of the day. When I neared the end of the street, I slowed down, for I could see the hospital. I mustered up my courage and went in.

The smell of blood and rotting flesh was overwhelming. All the cots were filled, some with people that seemed like decaying corpses. I could hear screams coming from the back of the hospital and wondered if someone was amputating an arm, or maybe a leg. Wailing. Crying. Pleading. These were all sounds that filled the hospital.

“Ah, Lilly, good to see you,” one of the nurses called out, “I’m Martha. Your mother said you would be along today. Lets get you started with writing for that young gent over there,” she pointed towards one of the beds in the second row. “William, this is Lilly, she’s here to write letters for you brave soldiers. I understand you got a letter from your mother yesterday? Lilly here can write your reply,” she then left.

William was fierce-looking, but he was also very handsome. He was a ghost, part living, part dead, who had been lost in the war. His brown hair hung limp in his face from not having been washed or cut in months. His icy blue eyes portrayed someone who was wise for their age. Someone who had been through too much. Drawing my eyes away from his face, I noticed how shockingly skinny he was; he looked on the edge of starvation with his ribs sticking out under his thin cotton shirt.

“Are you going to stop staring sometime soon?” he moodily asked, “I would like to write back to my mother now.”

“Yes sir. Sorry sir,” I replied.

“Good. Start the letter off like this ‘Dear Mother,’” he commanded, “I have gotten your letter about Sally running off and joining the army, but as I am in the hospital now, I can’t go searching for her to bring her back.”

“Sally? But that’s a girls name, and girls can’t join the army,” I interrupted him rudely.

“She disguised herself as a man,” he quickly explained.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“It’s alright. Sally was always adventurous. You remind me of her, you know?”

“How so?”

“You have the same spirit in your eyes, and you seem to be very responsible. Though I think maybe you don’t enjoy the responsibilities you take on.”

“Are you saying that I, too, am going to go join the army?” I defensively asked.

“You tell me,” he said, looking deeply into my eyes searching for my answer.

I finished writing William’s letter and left the hospital as soon as I could. What he had said nagged at me; I felt like he saw my soul and who I was, when I didn’t even know that yet myself. However foolish it was, I realized that what he said was true. I did want to join the army, but how could I when my elder brothers and father had already gone?

Soon, I passed the town square. There were many men standing in a long line, looking as if they were hoping to leave. Some were hugging women and children close to their bodies as if they would disappear from right beneath them. I quickly realized that they were in line to sign up for the army, to leave their families. How coincidental was that? The day I realize I want to be a woman disguised as a soldier is the day the army came through our town looking for recruits.

Could I do it? Could I really become a soldier? What if I never saw Jamison again? Or Samson? Our reading in the library would be over. Yesterday might’ve been the last time Jamison would ever sit on my lap and fall asleep as I read. Even with all those thoughts going through my head, I knew I would go through with becoming a soldier.
I ran home, hoping that my family was out visiting friends. Luckily for me, they were. I went to Jamison’s room and stole some of his clothes, put them on, and got some cloth shears from the quilting basket in my room to cut off my long hair. How vain I used to be of my hair, and now I was cutting it off. This would be my very own sacrifice for the war. Then, I drafted a note to Mother explaining that I joined the army. That when I heard of a another girl doing so, I felt inspired by her. I told her not to worry, I could take care of myself, and I was sorry for leaving her alone to take care of the boys. I left the house then, knowing I may never come back, but feeling that if I didn’t, I would’ve at least died for my country.

That was the day I became a soldier; the day I never looked back.

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