The Last Few Days of the Civil War.
Richmond 1865: It is the last few days of the civil war, and Admiral Rafe Semmes of the Confederate Navy awaits orders on the CSS Virginia 2 on the James River. Rumors fly that the Yanks are winning at Five Forks on the Petersburg line; next stop Richmond.
With President Davis waiting until the last minute to leave Richmond, Rafe Semmes takes four of his wounded men to Chimbarozo Hospital, a few minutes’ walk east of downtown Richmond.
There he meets the formidable head matron, Phoebe Yates Pember. She has been managing the wounded as best she can with limited supplies. When the order comes for them to evacuate she sends those men who are able away, but decides to stay with the last few dangerously ill men.
In the tail end of the civil war Rafe and Phoebe unexpectedly find love and a reason to look forward to a life beyond the end of the war.
This sweeping tale tells of the stories of good men and women, Yanks and Confederates, during those few fraught days in 1865, and the aftermath for Rafe Semmes and Phoebe Pember.
Donald Bruce Callander
March 23, 1930 -- July 25, 2008
Don Callander was the best-selling author of the 'Mancer series and the Dragon Companion series. Don originally worked as a travel writer/photographer and graphic designer before retiring to start his writing.
Don was born in Minneapolis, brought up in Duluth, Minnesota, and graduated from high school there before enlisting in the U. S. Navy in 1947. After serving four years on active duty (including the Korean War) he transferred to the Naval Reserve where he served as a 'weekend warrior' for twenty additional years.
He settled in Washington, D.C., where he married, raised four children, and worked on the Washington Post newspaper and in National Headquarters of the American Automobile Association (40,000,000 members!) until his retirement in 1991.
During his retirement, Don lived in Florida and at the age of 62, began writing his bestselling fantasy books until he passed away in 2008.
April 1, 1865, Saturday Morning
“Heads up, sir!” cautioned the companionway sentry, trying to hide a grin.
He leaned his heavy Enfield against the passageway bulkhead, reaching out to steady his wiry, middle-aged, mustachioed Admiral. “Happens to all o’ us, sir!”
Rafael Semmes, Admiral, Confederate States Navy, had until late last summer been captain of the highly successful commerce raider CSS Alabama. Now he commanded the tiny James River Squadron from aboard CSS Virginia 2. His mind filled with problems and possible solutions, he’d caught his heel on the storm-sill of his cabin door and fallen heavily against the guard.
He cursed aloud, then shook his head ruefully. In the past he’d have howled in rage, blasphemed wildly, and blamed the grinning sailor for his own clumsiness.
But Rafe Semmes had changed.
Older; wiser perhaps. More tired than he could ever remember. No longer the kind of officer and gentleman to take his chagrin out on an innocent swabbie.
He’d come to terms with his self-image the day he’d lost his beloved Alabama.
“As you were!” he growled, not unkindly.
His way of saying thanks.
Wouldn’t do for a full Admiral in the Confederate States Navy to apologize for falling on his ass on his own deck, mused the guard to himself. People would assume the worst, of course, if they heard of it. They’d say he was pickled.
They always did.
Seaman Walter Williams watched his Admiral go with an expression of mixed humor, admiration, and sadness. A veteran of almost all the triumphs and defeats of the young Confederate States Navy, Willie had served under cruel quarterdeck tyrants, slick political demagogues, groveling panty-waists, even base cowards—but only a hatful of sound, seagoing warriors.
Rafael Semmes was at the head of that short list all by himself.
“He’s mellowed,” the veteran sailor murmured to himself, picking up his ancient musket. “But what a pure devil he can still be when tit comes to tat!”
Willy remembered that last morning on poor old Alabama as the Rebel raider closed with USS Kearsarge. She could have stayed safely in Cherbourg harbor. It wasn’t Alabama’s carefully considered way to meet enemy warships in open combat. Kearsarge had caught Alabama much in need of refitting in the neutral French port.
The French were not thrilled about it—but there were rules about such things, after all.
Anywhere else, any other time, it would have been a case of waiting them out, or flat-out running, but after three years of beating about the whole world’s oceans after Union merchant ships and Yankee cargoes, maybe Semmes was just plain weary of the raider’s life.
They might have waited Kearsarge out or gotten clean away at night—but the peppery Captain had decided to go into harm’s way, instead.
They’d met Kearsarge out beyond the breakwater in the open English Channel.
They might, even so, have won the day, Willy firmly believed, if a lucky Union broadside hadn’t swamped ‘Bama’s engines and doused her fires. That—and more and bigger guns and the chain armor that made Alabama’s shot bounce off the Federal’s hull and spin hissing into the Channel waters.
Nobody, not even the stuffed-shirt politicos in Richmond, had the gall to suggest Semmes was a coward or a fool. His record was long and glorious—over fifty Union merchant ships captured or sunk. Millions of dollars’ worth of cargo sent to the bottom or forwarded to Bermuda or Cuba to be sold for much-needed cash or run through the Union blockades into Southern ports under cover of moonless nights or friendly fogs.
Semmes had faced his enemy in open water, traded volley for volley at close range, until Alabama shuddered in final agony and began to slip beneath the chop, her engines dead, her deck awash with seawater and blood.
Some of the crew were rescued by a private British yacht and carried to London; among them Seaman Walter Williams of Shreveport, Louisiana, and Captain Rafael Semmes of Montgomery, Alabama, and Baltimore, Maryland.
“Well, at least it threw back in damn Yankee teeth the notion we was pirates,” chuckled Willy, remembering. “They’d a hung us right then ‘n’ there, if they’d a caught us.”
“Who the devil are you talkin’ to?” demanded Master-at-Arms Frenchie LaRoche, coming along on one of his eternal infernal inspection tours.
“Nobody at all, beloved Bo’s’n,” said the Alabamian, poker-faced. “I was ‘membering Cherbourg and the pretty French gals...”
“Mind your duty!” growled the petty officer. “Day-dreaming’s punishable, just like sleepin’ on duty, you’d do well to remember.”
The sentry snapped stiffly erect, but grinned at his long-time shipmate. If things’d gone different, his look said, I’d be the Petty Officer and you’d be walking this post.
Bo’s’n LaRoche (born in an alley off Bourbon Street in New Orleans) suddenly grinned back and shook his head. Things were grim in these days of the war but friends were friends, no matter they were busted by a strict Captain for staying over-liberty ashore one too many times.
“As may be,” he said. “There’s better things to dream about than the last days of old ‘Bama, Willy.”
“Yep, that there be, but now even that seems glorious compared to settin’ here in the James like ducks, waitin’ for the Yanks to steam up from Norfolk to pot-shoot at us in narrow waters.”
“If necessary,” Frenchie insisted sourly, “we’ll show ‘em river war is not the same thing as a deep-sea fight. We can hold ‘em forever, here. Us...and Fort Darling, up there.”
“Only as long as shot and shell hold out,” Willy disagreed, no longer smiling. Everyone knew how short were their supplies.
“But at least that long, I say,” said the other with finality. “Walk the post here, Willie! Only two more hours ‘til change-of-watch. Is the Admiral about yet?”
“Topside not three minutes ago.”
Bo’s’n LaRoche disappeared on deck. Willy paced smartly to the door leading to Virginia’smain deck. He smartly right-faced, snapped the musket’s butt to the deck at his side, thrust its muzzle forward and spread his legs apart.
“Pee-rade r-r-r-rest!” he ordered himself aloud, to show anyone watching that he wasn’t loafing but seriously attending to duty.
The view over Virginia’s port rail was of a swirling and rain-muddied James River, then greening willows beginning to show full leaf here and there with the lacy white of dogwoods blooming in flattened masses, or with shooting sprays of yellow-gold forsythia and bright clusters of redbud.
High above this band of waterside greenery the sailor saw the raw earthworks of Fort Darling atop Drewry’s Bluff. Over the fort flew the Confederacy’s Stars and Bars with the blue flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia beneath.
“Sic semper tyranis!” Willy knew the Latin under the Old Dominion flag’s female figure in an old Roman helmet. “Fuck the Yanks!”
As he watched, a longboat unhooked from Virginia’s port chains and moved off upstream toward Richmond. In the stern sat Admiral Semmes, at the tiller. Between the two rows of oarsmen, four sailors on pallets lay like logs, covered with dingy grey blankets. Among them knelt Virginia’s medical officer, seeming to pray.
Goin’ for Chimborazo, Willy thought.
He felt a cold chill in the pit of his belly. Hell-holes of slow death, pain, despair, and grief, were all damned hospitals.
Rather die at sea—or be shot dead by a jealous husband, Willy thought.
Fifteen or so miles up the river on the north bank, vast Chimborazo Hospital molded itself along the flat top of a low, steep-sided bluff that raised its wards and operating rooms above the riverside miasmas, the mosquitoes, the muggy heat of summer, and the dank chill of winter.
This bright spring morning the bluff looked less winter-cold, dreary, and bare. Greening had touched the elms, chestnuts, and oaks shading the hospital’s mud-spattered lawns.
Chimborazo was a few minutes’ walk east of downtown Richmond. It was judged, by those who knew such things in Vienna, London, and Paris, to be one of the finest, best equipped, best-staffed, most modern medical facilities in the world.
It was also the largest; almost an entire town in itself.
Its wards were wide, low, and long, with tall windows to let in healing sunlight and fresh clean air. Its surgeries, wards, and treatment rooms were spotlessly clean. Its founders had been disciples of the famous British surgeon Lister and his new theories of disease-causing bacteria.
Lister had claimed it wasn’t damp, fetid air, or rats or the flies which laid their eggs in open wounds, which caused men and women to suffer and die. Tiny invisible germs caused wasting sickness and putrid fever.
Sanitation was vital. And everything humanly possible was done to keep Chimborazo clean. Even the surgeons were required to wash their hands.
Chimborazo baked its own bread, laundered its own bloodied linens and bandages, raised its own cattle and hogs on nearby farm lots, mixed its own medicines, and cooked wholesome meals in the huge kitchens.
Its medical staff and attending nurses—men and women—lived in neat cottages right on the grounds or in rooming houses just across Franklyn Avenue.
Still, in that age most men, like Willy Williams, quaked in fear—or superstition—at the very thought of being in hospital. If you had to be wounded, and you had to be sent to hospital, if you were sent to Chimborazo you were merely among the luckiest of the unlucky.
“Now, Orderly!” snapped Head Matron Phoebe Yates Pember, “that’s not the way to make your corners and you know it!”
The male nurse swallowed a disrespectful reply. This bed might never again be filled with a suffering Johnny Reb, he felt. The war was about over, from all he could see. Old Chimbo was emptying rapidly this first April day of 1865.
Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was about to fall to the monstrous Grant.
The Yanks were closing in. You could almost feel it in the air. If anything, the next man to lie here would be some goddam Yankee filth from some out-of-mind place called Ypsilanti, Davenport, or Kokomo.
He wouldn’t deserve old Chimbo but somewhere much, much worse.
“This way,” said Matron with ill-concealed impatience, “and then that way! You know better, Ferndale. As long as you’re at Chimborazo Hospital, you’ll do up beds proper!”
“But, Matron,” Ferndale said, plaintively, “why don’t we just strip the beds and roll up the mattresses? Our boys are leaving, not coming.”
“A good hospital...and a good hospital nurse,” said Phoebe, severely, “must always be ready for the very worst.”
Phoebe Pember smiled suddenly at the rather young, terribly nearsighted man, of an age to be her son.
He smiled rather ruefully back.
“If you’re going to do anything,” said the Head Matron of Chimborazo Hospital, “then do it right, for God’s sake.”
She moved off down perfectly straight lines of wood-frame cots, stopping here cheerfully to greet a patient whose ravaged face had become familiar over previous weeks and there to adjust a pillow, read a letter, or inspect bandages for boys blinded or crippled by the wounds of battle.
Or more likely weakened by raging fever.
Military camp should be as clean as a hospital ward! she’d often said.
Few, if any, took her seriously on that. A fighting army was, by very nature, filthy. The men didn’t bathe—or couldn’t. Bandages applied in the field were any handy, old, dirty piece of cloth.
Almost worse than nothing.
“Ma’am?” a man with bandaged hands whispered in greeting. “M-M-Matron? I gotta pee! Sorry, ma’am!”
Phoebe calmly attended to his urgent need, sheltering his nakedness from the rest of the ward with a dingy, patched sheet, pretending to look elsewhere, herself.
These men expected her to be maidenly and modest.
“I’ll bring you a pair of shears,” she told the relieved soldier. “Cut that hair! And your nails, too. Promise me?”
The man grinned sheepishly and agreed. It would give him something to do.
If they only knew what she had seen and done in surgery.
Better not to upset their farm-boy sensibilities.
Phoebe stopped suddenly at the cot at the far end of the ward, leaned forward, looking carefully.
“He be dead, Ma’am!” said a nearby patient. “Durin’ the night!”
“I see. I’ll have him tended to, then, shortly. You should have called me sooner, Watts.”
“Why wake you?” asked Watts, solemnly. “You needs your sleep, Ma’am. What could you do?”
Phoebe nodded, pulled the thin cotton blanket up over the dead soldier’s face. It looked more peaceful than it had since he’d been brought in.
What was his name? Oh, yes, Carson. From Upper Marlboro. I knew a family named Carson. No, they lived in Atlanta, I think. The days before the war are sometimes dim in my mind.
She said a short prayer, as all nurses do in such cases. Lord, accept thy servant, who has given his life for others.
As she passed softly back toward the door of the ward, she heard a muffled laugh and an excited stir from the supplies storeroom to one side of the entrance. Stepping inside, she found eight patients squatting on the floor around an old blanket.
Playing at dice!
She shook her head and cleared her throat. The players jumped up—those who could, that is—and turned to her, blushing furiously.
“If you’re well enough to play games,” Matron said sternly, “you’re surely well enough to come find me when Carson died!”
The men shuffled, hawed and hemmed.
“We—ah—jes didn’t know, Matron,” said one.
“We could use help, you know,” she said, angry again. “Where is Nurse Antrobus? He should’ve seen to it, hours ago.”
“Haven’t seen the little prick,” admitted a legless soldier on crutches. “We’re that sorry, Ma’am! Times get heavy on idle hands, you know.”
“I just do not understand you men, sometimes. You surely don’t enjoy bedding down with corpses?”
“No, Ma’am!” they said in chorus.
“If you can walk this far, you can do some work for the good of us all. Start by sweeping out this closet. Put the blanket in the laundry and take the dirty clothes and sheets to Garfield, over at the laundry shed. Now!”
The patients, those who could, began to clear up their mess, readying trash to be carried away.
“Thank you, Matron,” said their spokesman, a man with badly burned hands and arms.
“You’re welcome. Beater, isn’t it? A question, if you please.”
“What, Ma’am? O’ course!”
“How the devil can you roll dice—shoot craps, as you call it—with those hands?”
“It hain’t easy, I agree,” the man admitted with a grin. “If we had any money, now, I’d be busted!”
“And if wishes were horses, you’d ride away, back to Longstreet, is that it?”
Beater laughed aloud.
She was a tall, slim, 45-year-old Georgian, a Southside Virginia cavalry officer’s widow, with heavy auburn hair tightly braided and pulled back into a bun under a starched white linen cap.
Erect. Graceful. Not beautiful—nor even, strictly speaking, comely although young soldiers who met her often thought she was—well, quite attractive for an old lady.
She had strong, clean, capable hands that were good at almost any task from stitching a flap of skin over a bloody stump to firmly restraining a patient delirious with pain and stark terror.
She was competent and compassionate. She insisted on neatness, cleanliness, and duties done with a minimum of fuss and bother, efficiently and well the very first time.
The four hundred-odd Chimborazo beds were now mostly standing empty after almost four years of terrible crowding. Each empty bed was immaculately made up, so tightly tucked-in that a coin dropped in their middles bounced at least a half-foot in the air.
What her patients remembered best about her after they’d been discharged to go home, if unfit to serve further, or back to their military units, if they still could fight, were her eyes. Whether sparking with indignation at the harm men did to each other on fiery battlefields and in filthy camps, or soft with pity, or cold with iron determination, they were memorably, startlingly green.
“Grandma had such eyes,” Phoebe used to tell her friends at church socials, or quilting bees.
The subject of her eyes was invariably mentioned.
“Grandma married an English sea captain after Grandpa died and she went to live in Jamaica, of all heathen places. I got my eyes from her, but not my taste in gentlemen. I prefer soldiers, like my dear, dead Richard.”
She didn’t mention Captain Richard Pember often these latter days. She’d heard of his death almost before she became accustomed to his being away. He’d died in a skirmish at Sudley Springs west of Manassas Junction in northern Virginia.
That was midsummer of 1861.
Thank God he’d died quickly, as they said, Phoebe thought.
His brother had ridden the train for two days up to bring his body home to Smithfield. They’d buried him in the Methodist churchyard there, surrounded by his family—hers were way down in Atlanta—and his ancestors going back to almost the very beginning of the colony.
After a greatly shortened wartime mourning, much to everyone’s surprise, Phoebe had fled up to Richmond and “gone to war” herself. Even Phoebe was unsure why. She had come to Chimborazo because John Campbell had asked for her.
“Doctor Campbell?” she asked, laying her hand softly on his shoulder as he bent over a man whose right leg had been shattered by a Yankee shell and crudely amputated outside a field surgeon’s dugout before Petersburg, a ways south of the James.
“Matron?” he asked without looking up.
The stump just below the man’s knee was angry-red with fever, swollen with infection, smelled terribly of gangrene. The patient writhed in agony as Campbell gently probed with his fingers.
“Shall I open the Pharmacy by myself?” asked Phoebe, watching his deft movements. The sight of mutilated limbs had long since ceased to disturb her, except for pity and professional concern. The man on the cot would probably die, she knew, now that gangrene had set in.
She smelled the familiar foul odor of corruption.
“Please do, Matron. I’ll be at this some minutes yet. He’s in shock. Perhaps—laudanum is indicated, I think. It’s going to be more painful than a man can stand, I think, very soon.”
“I’ll see to it,” said Phoebe.
John David Campbell, MD, was perhaps too easily persuaded to use the powerful painkiller. Not that Phoebe wanted the patient to suffer. Nurses saw what the doctors often did not...the terrible addiction to the drug that far outlasted the need to ease pain. And all drugs were becoming nearly impossible to obtain, even for the South’s premier hospital.
Dr. Campbell came to her in the Pharmacy where she was doling out the precious drug.
“The man needs laudanum,” he insisted.
“If you say so, Doctor.”
Her disapproval was nothing new. They’d had this discussion many times before.
“I don’t want him to suffer,” explained Campbell, plaintively. “He’ll die before tomorrow morning, at any rate. Let’s make it as easy as we can for the poor soul.”
“Nor do I want him to suffer, John. But, he might just pull through, you know. If he does... It’s so very, very hard to stop the ungodly craving for laudanum. Men have killed for it; I know for a fact.”
Campbell shook his head. “There’s no hope for this one, Phoebe.”
Phoebe counted out drops of the laudanum while he watched.
He changed the subject.
“General Breckinridge has ordered us to evacuate everyone, even ourselves, before the Federals overrun us. We’re to be ready.”
“They wouldn’t bother a hospital, would they?” she wondered, shocked by the very idea.
“Old Breck doesn’t think as highly of the Yankees as you seem to,” replied Campbell sourly. “Besides, he says Chimborazo Hill would make too good an artillery emplacement for them to resist. It commands the city’s riverfront and miles downstream. They could blow our puny little Flotilla right out of the water!”
“They wouldn’t dare put cannon here,” Phoebe exclaimed. “Oh, I suppose they would. The General’s right, of course. They’re almost all gone, anyhow, John. General sent an armed escort this morning. He fears many of them will—desert.”
“I’m afraid so, my dear.”
He hesitated for a long while, watching her carefully measure pills, powders and liquids into doses.
“It’s been months since we’ve had any time to ourselves. You took your furlough home...”
“You’ve been much too busy,” she replied, not looking at him. “So have I. I’m up well before dawn, work ‘til well after midnight, most nights. I’m sleeping here, now, not in the city. And you are up all hours of the night, yourself.”
“Dearest Phoebe.” He gave a sad chuckle. “You are so very right! Well, I was thinking—now that Chimborazo is emptying?”
Phoebe paused in her work, considering his hesitant words carefully. Her reply was even more cautious.
“It is, unfortunately, a fact of medicine and war that doctors are busiest when a patient is brought in, and nurses are busiest when the doctors are through, John.”
“I suppose that’s true...”
“I’m sending my nurses away this afternoon.”
“Can we afford to lose them?”
“Can we afford not to send them away? The men will be needed in the field—either as nurses or as soldiers. For another thing, it’s getting harder and harder to feed the patients properly, let alone the staff. I’m sorry, John. We must let them have a chance to get safely away before the fighting comes right into Richmond.”
“Are you sure they’ll come?” he asked, again rather plaintively. “Might Bob Lee yet drive them off, once again?”
“If you believe that,” said Phoebe with an unladylike snort, “you must be sampling the laudanum, yourself.”
“You cannot mean that!”
“I’m so sorry, John.”
“What will you do, when we—when the war is over?”
Phoebe sat down on a straight-back chair and smoothed her long, black skirt about her knees. “I haven’t given it any thought.”
“Well, maybe you should. There’ll always be call for good doctors—and experienced nurses, too. The question is: where?”
“Where do you think?”
He turned to look out of the window behind him. In the silence they heard distant thunder. The day was cloudy and chill, but the thunder was of guns, not lightning. The guns of Petersburg, twenty-five miles south across the James.
“Far West, I think,” he said at last.
“I should find it most difficult to leave Virginia.”
“But if—when—the Union prevails, will there be much left of Virginia?”
“I don’t know. But perhaps we should stay to help.”
“Well, let’s think about it, Phoebe. I’ve trouble thinking of the future if it doesn’t include you. To help me in my practice.”
Just in your practice? Phoebe thought, but she didn’t say it aloud. She never said such things aloud, not since Dick went off to war.
Did she love John Campbell, as she’d once thought?
Watching him shuffle wearily down the corridor toward the last occupied ward, bearing his gift of freedom from pain for the one-legged soldier, she wasn’t at all sure.
The President of the United States, followed by his younger son Tad, dressed in a miniature Union Army uniform, and his bodyguard Crook, paced the deck of USS Malvern, watching her sailors bring the warship up to dock at City Point, thirty miles down the James from the Confederate Capital.
“Papa, you hear that noise?” asked the lad, climbing on the lowest rail to see better.
“Artillery, m’boy,” said Crook, rather importantly.
Crook was one of the President’s bodyguards, borrowed from the Washington City Police. Tad thought Crook was much too patronizing, but he preferred him to his alternate, Parker. Parker always smelled strongly of sour-mash whiskey.
“I’ve heard artillery before,” said Tad to Crook, rather stiffly.
“Laddie,” said his tall, thin father, “good men are being hurt and killed over that way. We must show respect for them.”
The little boy wondered why his tart reply to the policeman was construed as disrespect for dead soldiers. His older brother Robert was in the Army and fighting for the Union.
He idolized Robert.
Abe Lincoln was saying, “This’s as close as I’ve been to fighting since the Black Hawk War when I was a boy. I like it even less now than I did, then.”
“You forget Fort Stevens, sir,” said Crook.
The President remembered Fort Stevens with a cold shiver. He’d ridden up from the White House to watch the Army stop a Confederate raid on the northwestern edge of the City of Washington.
He’d climbed on a rifleman’s step in an earthen trench, the better to see the enemy.
Confederate rifle balls whizzed angrily close to the beaver stovepipe hat, right past the Presidential ear. Crook had dragged the President down by main force.
“My time has not come, yet,” Abraham Lincoln had reassured him, brushing a fine dusting of Maryland soil from his coat.
His words would be remembered a few months later, as prophecy.
“Mr. President,” said a Commander on Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s staff, “word has been sent to you that General Grant is still below Petersburg, but he’s been informed of your arrival.”
“Good! Good!” said Abraham Lincoln, nodding. “And General Lee?”
“Reported to be somewhere in Petersburg, itself, sir,” said the three-striper. “Breakfast will be served as soon as we dock, sir.”
“It’s curious, Tad,” said Lincoln, turning to watch the activities ashore again. “But even in the worst of times, we think of our stomachs.”
“I’m hungry, even if you’re not, Papa,” cried Tad.
He thought the sound of gunfire was increasing, but decided not to say anything, in case it might delay breakfast.