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Memories of the Civil War

Emma French, October 9, 1914, as told to Winterset Women’s Club

Today I am living in the dim and hazy past, as I reread the treasured letters received in time of the Civil War. While there is such of sadness, there is great interest in reviewing those days of fifty years ago, when our country was in a turmoil in every part, when friend and foe were on every hand. The traitors were not all below Mason & Dixon’s line, but Copperheads, like the reptile name they bore, striking in the dark were in our very midst and had they dared, in their bitterness, would have taken the lives of many. From the time of the John Brown raid, capturing the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in the autumn of 1857, there was much bitter feeling, which could not be smothered, and was aggravated by the election of Lincoln to the presidency in the fall of 1860, followed by the seceding of several of the southern states in February, 1861. The distant rumbling of war culminated in the firing on Ft. Sumpter, April 14, 1861, which found the North wholly unprepared for war, while the South had prepared in many ways. Most of the men at the head of government affairs were slaveholders, so that through them great aid was given the South and crippled the North, and men who had received their military education at West Point, through the generosity of the government, became leading officers in the rebel army.

A “peace conference,” called by Lincoln, failed to patch up the trouble, and quick response was given to the president’s call for 75,000 men for only three months, as it was thought the war would be of short duration and by April, 350,000 men stood ready for action. And, as we saw the vigorous, patriotic young men waving caps, shouting loud hurrahs, and cheers, as they were starting from the North and to the front, we wondered how many of them would be spared to return, and how little they realized what was before them. Poor boys, (and many of them were only boys) they found out all too soon that sickness in camp, battle wounds and prison pens were no picnic.

Even at the time, Professor Low, who has achieved many wonders since, made a balloon ascension

at Washington, June 1861, and sent the first dispatch telegraphed from midair. Great progress and improvement had been made in the art of guns that would have astonished the war in the invention of cannon and soldier of the Revolution, as likewise, the steam war vessels and iron clad gun boats, instead of the clumsy ships like the Constitution.

About the middle of July, 34,000 men of the Grand Army of the Potomac, went gaily out to their first great battle, that of Bull Run, which was a defeat. This battle has been pronounced by an able commander, who had a large share in it, as one of the best planned battles of the war, and one of the worst fought. The troops were raw and undisciplined, both officers and men unused to war, and in spite of many officers being killed when trying to rally their men, who were demoralized and scattered, thus losing the victory. Prompt response was given to Lincoln’s calls for men and money, while it was hard for the South to procure the latter, as they had no creditable government. The whole country from the Gulf of Mexico to British America, was thrilling with heroism. Public squares were dotted with new white tents, and over them floated the stars and stripes at the North, and stars and bars at the South. There never was as large a collection of patriotic songs composed, as during the Civil War, which as soon as published, were sung and whistled everywhere. And, while the South was singing ‘Dixie’, the North was singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, ‘We Are Coming Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More’, ‘Maryland My Maryland’, ‘Just Before the Battle Mother’ (which was very pathetic), ‘Brave Boys Are They’ (which brought tears to many eyes as they were reminded of their own loved ones), ‘The Vacant Chair’ and the ever inspiring song, ‘Marching Through Georgia.’ ‘Tenting Tonight on the old Camp Ground,’ is to my mind, the most touching of them all, and when I hear it sung, it brings before me the magnificent play, ‘America’ which I saw in Chicago at the time of the world’s fair (1893). The moonlight scene of live horses, real tents and sleeping soldiers, and in the distance softly and tenderly, was sung ‘We are Tenting Tonight on the old Camp Ground.’

We had what was called the eastern and western army, and in looking to the west we find that Governor Jackson of our neighbor state, Missouri, was a Southern sympathizer as were many of the state officers. He refused to send his quota of troops when the president issued his first proclamation and they had planned to capture the government arsenals at Liberty and St. Louis for the rebels, but their plan being discovered, was thwarted, and the governor with his rebel General Price and troops, fled south, burning bridges behind them. A state convention was called, electing true and loyal officers. Battle followed battle, with victory on one side, and then on the other, and is it any wonder that families at home were in constant anxiety and suspense not knowing what the next tidings would be of their dear ones?

It has been well said, that the men who went to war were no more heroes than the wives and mothers who stayed at home, and assumed the duties of the field, and enduring all sorts of hardships with destitution staring them in the face and struggling to make a living for their helpless little ones. As has been said: ‘All honor to the old veterans who limp by, and to those lying under the sod. But all honor too, to the old wives who still live, and let us not forget to adorn with flowers and Old Glory, the graves of those “better halves” who carried a double burden when bullets laid men low’. Their hardships we cannot realize. Men from every walk in life left all to go at their country’s call. From the farm, the trades, professions and students from college, some never to return, others incapable of physical labor, resumed their studies, preparing for future usefulness.

Lawlessness seemed abroad in the land. Many soldiers were shot when not in battle, by bushwhackers hidden behind bush or tree. Morgan’s Raiders, who were little less than a company of robbers openly plundering and burning small towns, destroying railroads and telegraphs or attacking men, crossed the Ohio river into Indiana and then to Ohio, and were captured, but escaped from prison and fled within the rebel lines. Guerillas and Texas Rangers killed and robbed on every hand and a person suspected of loyalty was hunted down and shot or tortured. Later on the Ku Klux Klan, a band of organized, armed and disguised men in the south, was a terror to all who fell under their displeasure. The raids were made at night, and their most frequent victims were the negroes, agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau, northern school teachers and ministers, as well as carpet baggers “who were corrupt and often ignorant politicians, mostly from the north, who flocked to the south during the era of reconstruction, and were responsible for much of the rascality that disgraced that period of the history of the south and were spoken of with derision.” The government finally investigated, and although it was difficult to get testimony, as the witnesses were afraid of their lives, it was finally suppressed. “Knights of the Golden Circle” was a secret organization numbering several thousand in both north and south before the war, and gave aid and comfort to the rebels.

Several times in battles, rebels would advance claiming to be of the Union forces, and even flying those colors, hoping to thus gain great advantage and the slaughter would sometimes be terrible before they were discovered. But they tried it once too often, when a company advancing cried “Don’t shoot, for we are Co. F, of the 1st Iowa Cavalry,” but their deception was known at once for they were facing that very company of the regiment mentioned, who lost no time in responding with their ammunition. Such were the horrors of war.

Pres. Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation created consternation in the south and when it took effect, Jan. 1, 1863 it caused great changes among the people, as their property took wings and flew away, leaving them to do their own work. A draft became necessary in the spring of 1863, which called for the enrolling of all able bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45. From this list 300,000 men must be chosen to fill up the thin ranks of the army. A man could be excused by paying $300 or hiring a substitute, which many did. Some enlisted for the bounty which the government offered, and then there were the “bounty jumpers,” who would be sworn into service, securing a certain amount of bounty and then desert; repeating the process as often as they could without detection. But none of these classes were as brave and loyal soldiers, as the volunteers who enlisted for love of country.

After a long siege, the battle of Vicksburg was fought on the same day as the battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. “The rebellion was stunned, not killed by the defeat of its two great armies; for this same day that saw the Stars and Stripes wave from the court house at Vicksburg, saw also its folds flung out in triumph on the hills of Gettysburg. Two battles had been fought and won for the Union.” The Battle of Gettysburg has been called the most decisive battle of the war, and that of Antietam the most costly.

The high cost of living now, is as nothing to what it was in war times, although there are signs of its becoming so, when coffee was 60 cents per pound, and many substitutes were used for it, the most common being rye browned with a little molasses and as I have tasted Postum, it seems the same thing, for which I have no relish, as it is too great a reminder of the privations of war times. Butter was 60 cents per pound, calico, 60 cents per yard and muslin equally as high. Recently reading a letter from my soldier brother, written in September, 1863, at Little Rock, Arkansas, he said a lady told him that she had a cheap lawn dress that cost $100.00 and a calico dress, each of which cost $50.00. And a merchant informed him that he had seen a keg of nails, Northern price $5 or $6, sell for $250.00. He said “We are living on the fattest of the land, - the fattest kind of salt pork. And the best dressed rebel I saw in battle near Helena, Ark., was an orderly sergeant of the 86th Miss., who had on a shirt made of a damask table cloth and many, who for the protection for their property, were found in the rebel ranks. After the battle, we slept hard, for a soldier will sleep if he has to stand up with his clothes full of water, or lie on the wet ground.”

As far as possible, the government provided for the needs of its soldiers, but to cover the deficiencies, two great societies were organized, known as the Sanitary and Christian commission. The former supplied nurses, delicacies and comforts for the sick. Immense fairs were held in all the large cities to carry on the work. Photographs of “Old Abe”, the war eagle, were sold by the children to the amount of $16,600. This bird was mascot of the 8th Infantry and was carried on a perch by them in thirty seven battles, and although scarred, was never wounded, but when the battle raged fiercest, would flap his wings and scream as though urging the men on. His body is now preserved by the Historical Society of Wisconsin. The original Proclamation of Emancipation brought $3,000. It unfortunately was destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

The Christian Commission, originating with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of New York, was soon in active operation all over the country. Its object was to give moral and religious instruction, while as far as possible it also distributed comforts, furnished nurses, scattered Bibles, hymn books, newspapers, books and magazines among the men, and both of these societies furnished stationery free to the soldiers.

My “Recollections of the Civil War” would not be complete without giving some of my personal experience which follows: Having had a design to become an army nurse, and minister to the need of our sick and wounded brave soldier boys, the opportunity at length came in the middle of January, 1865, when I left my home in Denmark, Lee county, Iowa, to go with a middle aged lady, Mrs. Colton. We went to Chicago, and reported to Mrs. Mary P. Livermore, who was the head of the Western Department Sanitary Commission. We found her with Mrs. Hogue, her assistant, very busy packing boxes filled with the articles contributed, which they were sending rapidly to the front, where great quantities of such supplies were needed.

Mrs. Livermore sent us to fill two vacancies in the Jefferson General hospital at Jeffersonville, Indiana on the Ohio River, opposite Louisville, Kentucky, giving us government transportation. Upon reaching there were immediately assigned to duty. She as matron of Ward 23, a chronic diarrhea ward, and I of Ward 18, which was filled with wounded men, as they were classified according to the ailment of the patient. Most hospitals were in buildings erected for some other purpose, but this was built by the government on the plan of one at Philadelphia, and had all the conveniences of hot and cold water pipes throughout and was lighted by gas, but heated by coal stoves. The sick wards were of one story, twenty four in number, and radiated from a circular, covered corridor like the spokes of a wheel. This circular corridor was half a mile in extent and fifteen feet in width, enclosed on all sides and proved with windows and an occasional door leading out between the wards, as there was quite a space between them. Within the circle were the buildings of the executive department rooms of surgeons, full and light diet, kitchens, bakery, dispensary, which contained the medicine and necessary equipment of the surgeons, dead house, post office printing office and chapel. Crossing this circle and leading to the central buildings, were two covered corridors, which crossed each other at right angles. Each ward, which was well lighted and ventilated, was 150 feet in length by 22 feet in width, and contained 59 beds for patients placed opposite each other with the heads to the outer wall, leaving a broad aisle at their feet the length of the ward and in which there were four large coal heating stoves. To the rear of the ward was attached a small room for the ward master, another for clothing, besides a bath room. In front of each ward was attached a little dining room for those patients able to leave their beds. Adjoining was a pantry where the diet was dealt out for the patients. This was brought hot from the kitchen in covered tin cans in a hand card, on which was marked the number of the ward. One might live there for months and not go out from under cover; be very hard at work and walk several miles a day.

That cleanliness was essential to health, seemed a prominent idea, and the wards and corridor underwent a scrubbing twice a week and mopping as often besides. Upon the arrival of patients, they were disrobed by the men nurses, of which there were four to each ward, who did all the dressing of wounds, and the dusty if not filthy clothing was rolled up, a check given for it and it was packed in the baggage room together with their arms if any, and when this room became crowded a sale was made of the unclaimed things. They were provided with clean hospital clothing and a clean bed, which was changed each week. The laundry was a building separate and some distance from the hospital upon the bank of the Ohio River.

One of the wards contained a large dining hall seating 300 men at one time being filled three times for each meal. For the ward masters, men nurses, guards and other men on duty, another for the nurses to accommodate the twenty four ladies besides our head matron who had charge of the sanitary stores. Above these dining rooms were two large sleeping rooms, which were our living rooms as well. When not on duty in our wards, which we were not allowed to be after supper. We occupied single iron army bedsteads with hard husk beds provided with genuine linen sheets which were like ice and I never slept warm until another lady and I sewed our sheets together and placed our beds side by side, after which I was more comfortable. But for all discomforts, we were fully compensated by the pleasure of ministering to the comfort of the sick boys.

The six o’clock a.m. bugle call was the signal for rising, and another at 6:30 to go to our wards, and taking our places in the pantry to issue the breakfast, which was brought from the kitchen and see that each patient received what the doctor has prescribed for him. After the attendants had carried this to the beds, I passed around to see how each one was getting along and perhaps one would have no appetite for his rations, but would want some oysters or eggs cooked, which he had purchased with his own money, but we never gave them extra food without permission of the surgeon and for each I had a stew pan, which I used in the mouth of the coal stove, and I have stood by the hour toasting bread, which made it more appetizing.

After the ward breakfast was over, we went to ours, where a convalescent soldier had charge of the dining room and it was tantalizing to inhale the odors of the good things which came through the transom of the stewards’ dining room across the hall to ours, while we sat down to coffee without cream or milk, bread without butter, and probably meat but no side dishes. We did not complain, for this was the regular fare for soldiers and nurses alike, but we did feel thankful when the baker sent us hot rolls two or three times, and we had the munificent wages of the private solder, which had risen from $13.00 per month to $16.00 at that time.

At eight o’clock, the bugle sounded for surgeon’s call and we were in the ward to receive any directions he might give us and when we had opportunity to ask him any questions that might be necessary in regard to the patients. From then until the dinner call, we were busy with various duties, such as writing many letters to the dear ones at home and reading to the helpless ones. It was ours to bathe the fevered brow, give words of comfort to the discouraged ones, and point the way to a higher life and smooth the dying bed for those who were near death’s door. A soldier past middle age from Minnesota, who had a leg amputated, lay upon his bed, listening with interest to my reading the Schonberg-Cotta Family, and although his wound was doing well, he pined until he died, to my mind a victim of homesickness or grief and worry over his future disability to provide for a family.

Many recovered and many not, and as I look back, I can see as I enter the ward from the beds on either side, the pale faces give me a smiling welcome and say that a woman’s presence made it more homelike. Everything was quiet and orderly and I was greeted with the greatest respect and gratitude by all with whom I came in contact. My needle came in play as there were slings to make for disabled arms, and I made one long one to support a leg. From the commissary, with an order from the surgeon, I procured material for these things, and to make pads for wounded or amputated limbs, covered or cushioned the tops of crutches to make them more comfortable, and there was a rent here or a tear there when a woman’s hand to take the stitches was appreciated. Through the kindness of someone had been sent good sized unframed pictures to decorate the walls, which gave the patients something of interest to gaze upon.

There were more or less deaths every day in this large hospital and several bodies would be brought into our ward and a short memorial service held by the chaplain, after which some of the soldiers would accompany the cadaver to the other gate of the grounds where it was placed in a wagon and conveyed to the cemetery, where a small squad of soldiers fired a salute. There was always an official notice of death sent to the nearest friend of the deceased, which was very satisfactory to those who wished to know more of the last incidents of their dear ones, as it was our duty to write more particularly of them, enclosing a lock of their hair. Many is the time I have gone to the “death house” as it was called to procure this, the body being removed during my absence of the night. This sometimes led to long continued correspondence with the friends and great gratitude was expressed for what I had done for their loved ones. Think you not this was rich reward for my humble service? For years, I corresponded with a young lady in Michigan, whose twin brother died in my ward, and his body was taken home. She repeatedly asked “isn’t there something more you can tell me of his last hours?” She urged me to visit them as the family wished to meet me and she continually expressed a desire to see me soon. But with the passing of years, I became careless, as other duties crowded upon me and our correspondence ceased. But when I anticipated going to Detroit recently, I wrote to the postmaster to get trace of her, hoping we might meet, and he replied that she died many years ago.

Services were held in the chapel every Sunday and during the week, there were prayer meetings in the barracks, which were rough buildings erected within the enclosure of high board fence, but beyond the wards. I never heard such earnest prayers as ascended to high Heaven from those humble quarters and the singing, in which all heartily joined came right from the hearts of those who did not lose their hold on God although surrounded by discouraging circumstance.

The gangrene patients, in tents beyond the wards, was a place of intense suffering. As a wound became infected, bromine was used to burn it out. A second amputation would many time become necessary, and a boy of only 15 years from my ward, suffered the third amputation on his arm, which proved his death. And as I went to the dead house to get a lock of his hair to send in a letter to his mother, I thought why are such mere boys permitted to enlist and suffer the penalties of cruel war. Many times, friends from home came to visit their soldier boys, bringing a box of good things to eat, which were always appreciated and divided with the less fortunate one. And when they found, they sometimes did, that their boy was dead and buried, they turned away with aching hearts; or if the boy had been transferred to a hospital farther north as was often the case, they followed on, continuing the search.

I well remember a young lady coming to see her brother, who had been removed only the day before, to Camp Chase, Cincinnati, O. And thus the boys were moved on, to make room for others, who as the result of battle would come to fill their places. In the summer of 1865, from a boatload of very sick men brought from the South to our hospital, many were brought to my ward, only two recovered, and one of those was so sick with fever, he was unconscious for days, and as screens were not known then, the flies swarmed about his half open mouth and face, only as I sat constantly by him during the day and brushed them away.

On the morning of April 15, 1865, as the tidings came that Lincoln was dead, the stillness of death was all about us. No one could conceive what the future might bring forth. We wondered what next, and one soldier, who was unwise enough to say he was glad, and that he ought to have been dead long ago, was immediately placed in the guard house, and not a word of treason dared be uttered. Prayers went up on every hand for the safety of the nation.

One thousand patients were brought from the South at one time, crowding the wards beyond their usual capacity. One soldier said that his wound was looking nice when he left Nashville, but there were 150, whose wounds were washed with one sponge and none were dressed but once a day, consequently as many as 50 took gangrene. Others testified to the same, so who can wonder at the mortality caused by that dread disease. But in those days sanitation, infection and sterilizing were words almost unknown as well as germs, bacteria, etc.

Mail often had a hard time finding the owner, who had been transferred from place to place. The address of one, “Cumberland Hospt. Nashville, Tenn,” had been erased and written, “Transferred to Louisville, Ky.,” there it had been marked “Clay Hospt., not here,” then “Jefferson Hospt., Ward 7,” that was crossed out and the words written, “Tent C, Gangrene Ward”. I had the pleasure of carrying that letter to him, and as I entered the tent and read the name aloud, one man exclaimed “That’s my name,” then with streaming eyes as he received it, said “God bless it.” On a stand near the entrance of the ward, one day I found a potted plant from the greenhouse addressed to me as a slight token of unspoken gratitude and thoughtfulness.

Another day upon entering the ward, I was met by one of the men reading a note of appreciation and gratitude from my patients, placing in my hand a gift of $20, as a token of their esteem. And I still cherish that note among my mementoes of the past, as well as letters received after my service ended, from my patients who were not forgetful of what had been done for them. I received from my home a barrel of sanitary stores for the patients in which was dried beef, dried apples, jam and jelly, besides wearing apparel and handkerchiefs, hemmed by old ladies and young girls, with the name of each pinned to them, which were made out of old calico or soft muslin, as they were always burned after use.

As the summer waned many soldiers were being discharged and as it took much writing to make out the eight papers for every man; one for him to keep, some to be deposited in Washington, D.C., one in the capitol of his state and I have forgotten the disposition of them all. The soldiers were put to work as clerks, but very soon hunted out their own discharge, made the required copies, and home they went thus lessening the working force, so we were put to that work, and colored soldiers, having been brought in for guard duty, were so anxious to learn that we gave them instruction a few hours each day in the chapel, and it was wonderful to see how eager and ready they were to learn, and the rapid improvement they made.

As our work closed in the latter part of September, 1865, two of my associate nurse friends from Michigan went to Athens, Alabama, to teach in a Freedmen’s school, and I had not been home long when I received a call to come as soon as possible to take the place of a teacher gone home, but had to refuse, as I was already engaged in school work; and through all these years, I would not exchange the memories of those interesting days spent in Ward 18 of Jefferson General Hospital, and if I had the strength and vigor of younger days, I would be glad to repeat the experience if the occasion demanded it. While we did not witness the harrowing scenes at the front, and on the battle field, yet we were near enough to realize the awful realities of war.

I had often wondered what use if any, had been made of this extensive government building, and upon inquiry, learned that it is used as a place for manufacturing army blankets. And when twenty nine army nurses met as a national association in annual convention a few weeks ago, it was not as strangers, for we had a common bond of sympathy in our experience of the long ago. And we fully appreciated the many honors bestowed upon us by the citizens of Detroit and all the patriotic organizations convened there, who sent delegations, giving us greetings and a souvenir of the happy occasion.

Mrs. Emma French Sackett


Presented before the Winterset Women’s Club October 9, 1914 and reprinted in the Winterset Madisonian as a five-week series from October 21 to November 25, 1914


Emma French, daughter of Alvin D. & Caroline A. (Clark) French was born in Pennsylvania in 1841. Her father was a Congregational preacher and as a result, the family moved around a lot. Emma’s older brother was born in New Jersey and within two years of Emma’s birth, the family had moved to New York where they appeared in the 1855 Broome County census. A year later, they were living in Denmark, Lee County, Iowa and by 1860 they were in Eddyville, Wapello County, Iowa but returned to Denmark, Iowa sometime before 1865.

It was from Denmark, Iowa that Emma volunteered as a Civil War nurse in January 1865 and served until September of that same year. Her experiences in the war are detailed in the above document.

After the war, she went back home and was married to George Sackett on November 06, 1867 at Eddyville. They first lived in Denmark, Lee County where their first child, Frank, was born. In 1870 they moved to Grand River Township, Adair County, Iowa where they farmed and had four more children, Carrie, Anna, Ida and Erwin.

Retiring from farming in 1896, they moved to Winterset where they spent the remainder of their years on West Court Avenue. George passed away in April, 1922 and Emma in May, 1924. Quoting from her obituary “She was a woman of unusual grace and refinement, and one whose long and useful life was an impress for good among her friends and associates.”