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In the Wake of Battle: A Woman’s Recollections of Shepherdstown during Antietam Week

From 1884 to 1887 a popular magazine called The Century ran a series called “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” and later reprinted it in a variety of formats.  The Historic Shepherdstown Museum recently acquired a copy of Volume 32, which contains Mary Bedinger Mitchell’s memories of Shepherdstown during and after the Battle of Antietam.  Even though the book is available online, its etched illustration show up more clearly in the printed version.

The historian and journalist, Alan Nevins, in his 1967 Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography, wrote that the series contained “Opinionated and rationalizing memoirs by high-ranking officers on both sides,” and made this work “one of the most quoted in Civil War literature.”  While this is true, it was also by design. The editors of The Century wanted to get personal accounts by leading figures of the War before they died. But they also sought out people they knew had an axe to grind, because controversy always has a good audience.

Perhaps it’s remarkable that the editors at The Century even got accounts from private soldiers and women (if they had asked some African-American participants in the War for their accounts, they would have done us a great service…but sadly they did not). Volume 32 contains the account of Mary Bedinger Mitchell of Shepherdstown during and after the Battle of Antietam, as the town was turned into a hospital for Confederate wounded, and the townspeople into nurses, orderlies, and , predictably, grave-diggers. It is rightfully one of the best sources for what the experience of the Battle of Antietam was like for the town, and that has accordingly drawn the most attention from people writing about it.

Mary’s father Henry had been ambassador to Denmark, but died soon after his return in 1858, when Mary was 8 years old. Her mother Caroline moved the family for a time to Flushing, NY to her parents, but soon moved back to Shepherdstown to purchase Poplar Grove. Mary would return to Flushing sometime around 1869, meet and marry a former Union officer, John F.B. Mitchell, and live there until her death in 1896. When her article was published, she was raising three children.

Mary had two axes to grind. “A Federal soldier once said to me, “’I was always sorry for your wounded: they never seemed to get any care”. We can suspect the soldier was her own husband, but in Flushing there would be others who could tell her how the Union cared for its wounded, to compare with her memories of  the Confederate doctors who eventually arrived in town, “ most of whom might well have stayed away. The remembrance of that worthless body of officials stirs me to wrath”.  But caring for his troops was not a great priority for Lee when he took them to Maryland.  He remarked to his officers at the planning of the campaign that it was going to be unnecessary to provision them, as they’d be marching through cornfields and could eat green corn.  His soldiers begged for food at any door they passed, and it is not surprising that they were mostly left to beg for care of their wounds, as well.

Mary was also indignant that they had to beg care of Shepherdstown, because in 1862 it was not the prosperous, bustling market town for the northern Shenandoah Valley that it had been in 1820. After the Erie Canal could feed the East more cheaply than would be possible with wagon traffic, the Valley farmers stopped going through town with their produce and livestock. Industrialization had put Shepherdstown craftsmen out of business, and the town was stuck on a spur of the railroad. It was not a place that could afford to be filled with the wounded and dying.

Shepherdstown’s only access to the river was through a narrow gorge, the bed of a small tributary of the Potomac, that was made to do much duty as it slipped cheerily over its rocks, and furnished power for several mills and factories, most of them at that time silent. Here were also three or four stone warehouses, huge, empty structures, testifying mutely that the town had once had a business. The road to the bridge led through this cleft, down an indescribably steep street skirting the stream’s ravine, to whose sides the mills and factories clung in most extraordinary fashion; but it was always a marvel how anything heavier than a wheelbarrow could be pulled up its tedious length, or how any vehicle could be driven down without plunging into the water at the bottom…..

   As the wounded began to be brought across from Maryland, the empty structures turn out to be useful: Men ran for keys and opened the long empty shops and unused workrooms; other people got brooms and stirred up the dust of ages.

The unfinished Town Hall had stood in naked ugliness for many a long day. Some-body threw a few rough boards across the beams, placed piles of straw over them, laid down single planks to walk upon, and lo, it was a hospital at once. The stone warehouses down in the ravine and by the river had been passed by, because low and damp and undesirable as sanitariums, but now their doors and windows were thrown wide, and, with barely time allowed to sweep them, they were all occupied; and even the “old blue factory.” This was an antiquated, crazy, dismal building of blue stucco that peeled off in great blotches. It had been shut up for years and was in the last stages of dilapidation. The doorways were boarded up; its windows looked eyeless sockets; boards were missing from the floor, leaving only rafters to bridging gaps; while, in one place at least, it was possible to look down through successive openings, from the upper story to the basement,   whence came back the sound of rushing water, for the stream, that had once turned the machinery (long since departed), still ran under archways in the foundations of the building.

This was the background to her story.  Not the heroics of patriotic Southerners, no Scarlet O’Haras managing to look beautiful while carrying water to the gallant soldiers, but only a poor little town that just happened to be near a slaughterhouse. After having lived through that, at the age of 12, it’s no wonder she preferred New York.

An illustration from The Century magazine’s “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” vol. 32