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A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Gentle Annie: A Daughter Of The Regiment

Title:     Gentle Annie: A Daughter Of The Regiment
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

FORT SUMTER had been fired on!

The whole country was in a state of flaming excitement. Up to that time there had been a division of sentiment in the North, and many thought that by patient effort the seceding States could be brought back into the Union--that there would never be any serious fighting--but now all that was changed.

In a measure the Northerners were unprepared for war, and the regular army was then very small, but one month after the inauguration of President Lincoln he issued a call for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months' service only, and the war between North and South began in earnest.

In every part of the country there was one absorbing topic of conversation, while men were being hastily gathered into companies, officers were forming their regiments to march to the scene of conflict, women were hurriedly joining hospital brigades, and the government was rushing the purchase and manufacture of ammunition and weapons, and collecting an adequate supply of horses and army-wagons, camp equipments and provisions and uniforms for the soldiers.

In every State there was an individual flurry of preparation while men and women made ready to leave homes and families, for the sake of their country. When the first enlistment took place, Annie Etheredge, a young woman whose childhood and early girlhood had been passed in Wisconsin, was in Detroit visiting some friends, and the set of young women with whom she associated became so filled with the enthusiasm of war that nineteen of them offered themselves to go as nurses with the Second Michigan volunteers under Colonel Richardson. This offer was accepted and all bade brave farewells to their families and friends, and set out with the regiment, to help and to heal wherever opportunity offered. But theirs were hands and hearts not accustomed to such work, and at the end of a few months, eighteen of them returned to their homes, having been unable to bear the sights and service of the battlefield. But it was not so with Annie Etheredge. Her brave spirit and heroic character never gave way under the most severe strain, and as we follow her through those sombre days, we give thanks for such a pure, strong example of what a woman, however young, may be. To Tennessee went Annie with her regiment, and was transferred to Michigan, where she had many friends and was with that regiment in every battle in which they took part.

It took very little time to discover the value of her services and General Berry, who for a long time commanded the brigade to which Annie's regiment was attached, soon declared that the young woman was as self-possessed under a hot fire of shot and shell as he was himself--and that was a good deal for the gallant commander to acknowledge of one of the opposite sex!

Annie was provided with a fine horse, a side-saddle, and saddle bags, as well as two pistols which she carried in her holster, but never used, and so fitted out she rode fearlessly to the front in the skirmish of Blackburn's Ford and in the first battle of Bull Run. Her keen eye was always quick to discover where there was need of assistance, and she would gallop to a wounded soldier who was too severely hurt to go to the rear, dismount, and regardless of the fire of shot and shell often whizzing around her, would skilfully bind up his wounds, give him water or a necessary stimulant, say a cheery word,--then gallop on to her next patient. So tender and soothing a nurse was she that the soldiers called her "Gentle Annie," and many an eye watched with eager affection as the horse carrying her girlish figure came in sight following the troops.

In the second battle of Bull Run, on the 29th of August, 1861, Annie was standing on a part of the battle-field where there was a rocky ledge, under the protection of which some wounded soldiers had crawled. Seeing this, Annie lingered behind the troops, helped several other injured men to the same retreat, and was soon busy dressing their wounds. One of the fellows was a fine looking boy whose lips were parched and his eyes brilliant with fever. She gave him a refreshing drink, then bound up his wounds, receiving in return a bright glance of gratitude and a faint "God's blessing on you," just as the rebel battery literally tore him to pieces under her very hands, while at the same moment she saw the enemy, almost within touch, and she was obliged to make a hasty flight or she too would have been killed.

On another part of that bloody battle-field of Bull Run, tireless in her activity, although sick at heart from the ghastly sights and sounds of the day, she was kneeling beside a soldier and tenderly binding up his wounds, when she heard a gruff voice repeating her name, and looking up, to her astonishment saw brave General Kearney, checking his horse by her side, watching her with genuine admiration in his eyes. "That's right," he exclaimed. "I am glad to see you here, helping those poor fellows, and when this is over, I will have you made a regimental sergeant," which meant that she would receive a sergeant's pay and rations, but as the gallant General was killed two days later at Chantilly, Annie never received the appointment. But she continued her care of the sick and wounded in the same quiet manner which characterised all her actions. When she was not busy on the field or in hospital or transport duty she superintended the cooking at headquarters, and when the brigade moved, she would mount her horse, and march with the ambulance and the surgeons, ready to serve where she was most needed, or if on the battle-field when night fell she wrapped herself in her soldier's blanket and slept under the protecting sky with the hardihood of a true soldier.

At Chancellorsville, on the 2nd of May, 1863, the men of the Third Corps were in extreme danger because of a panic by which the Eleventh Corps was broken up; and one company of the Third Michigan and also one of the sharp-shooters were detailed as skirmishers. Annie was advised of her danger in remaining with the regiment, but refused to go to the rear, and instead took the lead, but met her Colonel and he peremptorily commanded her to go back, saying the enemy was very near, and he was every moment expecting an attack. Reluctant to obey, Annie turned and rode along the front of a line of shallow trenches filled with Union men. Then rising in her saddle she called out, "Boys, do your duty and whip the rebels!"

The men's heads rose above the edge of the trench and they cheered her, crying, "Hurrah for Annie! Bully for you!" which shout unfortunately showed their position to the enemy, who at once fired a volley of shots in the direction of the cheering. Annie rode to the end of the rear of the line, then turned to look back, and as she did so, an officer quickly pushed his horse between her and a large tree by which she was standing, so that he might be sheltered behind her. She was staring at him in astonishment at such an unchivalrous act, when a second volley was fired; a ball whizzed past her, and the officer fell heavily against her, then lifeless to the ground. At the same moment another ball grazed Annie's hand (this was the only wound she received during the whole war), cut through her dress, and slightly wounded her horse, who was so frenzied by the pain that he set off on a run through the woods, plunging in and out among the trees so rapidly that Annie was afraid of being brushed from her saddle by the branches, or of having her brains dashed out by being thrown against a tree trunk. Raising herself on her saddle with a violent effort she crouched on her knees and clung to the pommel and awaited what might come, but by a lucky chance, the frightened animal dashed out of the woods and into the midst of the Eleventh Corps, who stopped the runaway and gave a rousing cheer for plucky Annie. Her regiment was by this time quite a distance away, and Annie wanted to see and speak with General Berry, who was the commander of her division, but was told by an aide that he was not there. "He is here," replied Annie, "and I must see him." The aide turned his horse and rode up to the General, who was near by, and told him that a woman was coming up, who insisted on seeing him.

"It is Annie," said General Berry. "Let her come, let her come. I would risk my life for Annie any time!" As Annie approached from one side a prisoner was brought up on the other, and after some words with him, and receiving his sword, the General sent him to the rear, and after greeting Annie cordially he gave the prisoner into her charge, directing him to walk by her horse. This was Annie's last interview with the brave General, for he was killed early the next morning in the desperate fight for possession of the plank road, in the woods not far from the hospital, leading past the Chancellor House.

During the same battle Annie found an artillery man so badly wounded that he could not move. The batteries had no surgeons of their own, and despite his entreaties the infantry surgeons with their hands full in caring for their own wounded men, had refused to assist him. Annie, after binding up the poor man's wounds, insisted on having him cared for, and a year later she received the following letter:

WASHINGTON, D. C., Jan. 14, 1864.

Annie:--Dearest Friend:--I am not long for this world, and I wish to thank you for your kindness ere I go.

You were the only one who was ever kind to me since I entered the Army. At Chancellorsville, I was shot through the body, the ball entering my side and coming out through the shoulder. I was also hit in the arm, and was carried to the hospital in the woods where I lay for hours and not a surgeon would touch me when you came along and gave me water and bound up my wounds. Please accept my heartfelt gratitude; and may God bless you and protect you from all dangers; may you be eminently successful in your present pursuit. I enclose a flower, a present from a sainted mother; it is the only gift I have to send you. Had I a picture, I would send you one. I know nothing of your history, but I hope you always have and always may be happy, and since I will be unable to see you in this world, I hope I may meet you in the better world where there is no war. May God bless you, both now and forever, is the wish of your grateful friend.

Such rewards for loving service must have been very grateful to one of Annie's sensitive nature, and she continued to toil on in the spirit of love and heroism through the battle of Gettysburg, and the engagements of Grant's closing campaign, where her gentleness and courage were favourite themes of the soldiers, who could scarcely bear to have her out of their sight when they were sick or wounded.

At the battle of the Wilderness, when the fighting was fiercest and the balls were raining like hailstones, the Fifth Michigan, to which Annie was now attached, together with other troops, were surrounded and nearly cut off by the rebels and as the line of battle swung round, the rebels at once took the places vacated by the Union men. Annie was at that moment speaking to a little drummer boy when a bullet pierced his heart, and he fell against Annie, dead. For the first and only time during the war she was overcome by a panic of terror and laying the dead boy on the ground, she ran like a hunted deer towards what she took to be the Union troops, to find to her horror she was mistaken. It was the rebel forces, but, too late to retrace her steps she dashed ahead, cutting her swift way through the enemy's line, and though shots whistled after her, she escaped in safety.

With every month of service, Annie's patriotism grew stronger and her desire to serve the cause for which the Union was fighting, keener. During the battle of Spotsylvania she met a number of soldiers retreating, and when imploring them to turn back had no effect, she offered to lead them herself, and shamed into doing their duty, by a woman's courage, they turned, and led by the dauntless girl, went back into the thick of the fight, under heavy fire from the enemy. Never did Annie bear the regimental colours or flourish sword or flag, as has been asserted; she simply inspired men to deeds of valour or to the doing of their simple duty by her own contagious example of unwavering patriotism.

When the enemy was attacked by the Second Corps, as they were at Deep Bottom, Annie became separated from her regiment, and with her usual attendant--the surgeon's orderly, who carried the medicine chest, went in search of the troops, but before she realised it, found herself beyond the line of the Union pickets. An officer at once told her she must turn back, that the enemy was near, and almost before the words were spoken, the rebel skirmishers suddenly appeared, and as suddenly the officer struck spurs into his horse and fled, Annie and the orderly following as fast as they could, until they reached the Union lines. As the rebels had hoped to surprise the Union troops they did not fire lest they should give an alarm, which is probably the reason why Annie escaped uninjured, and in this as in many other cases it seemed as if the loving thoughts and prayers of those to whom she had been mother, sister and friend in hours of blackest despair protected the brave girl from harm.

So strong was the confidence of the soldiers in Annie's ability to shape even circumstances to her will, that this confidence amounted almost to a superstition, and whenever a battle was to be fought, were uneasy as to results, also as to the care of the wounded unless she was at hand, and there was never a more fitting tribute paid to man or woman, old or young, than that paid to Annie by the brilliant General Birney. After watching her closely and observing her invaluable service and dauntless courage one day at twilight he gathered together his troops, and amid shouts of appreciative applause presented her with the glittering Kearney Cross, a token of noble self-sacrifice and heroic service rendered to the Union army, and it is pleasant to picture the brave girl as she received the reward of her faithful service, with that modest diffidence which is so charming in a woman, but with shining eyes and cheeks flushed with appreciation of the token that her work had not been in vain.

Many verses have been written in honour of Annie, and this fragment of one of them seems a fitting tribute to the pure, sweet, patriotic Daughter of the Regiment.

To Miss Anna Etheredge.


Hail dauntless maid! whose shadowy form,
Borne like a sunbeam on the air,
Swept by amid the battle storm,
Cheering the helpless sufferers there,
Amid the cannon's smoke and flame,
The earthquake sound of shot and shell,
Winning by deeds of love, a name
Immortal as the brave who fell.

Hail angel! whose diviner spell
Charmed dying heroes with her prayer,
Staunching their wounds amid the knell
Of death, destruction and despair.
Thy name by memory shall be wreathed
Round many desolate hearts in prayer;
By orphan lips it shall be breathed,
And float in songs upon the air.

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Gentle Annie: A Daughter Of The Regiment