Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Plea to Remember the Sick and Wounded at Christmas

The other day while doing research for my annual Christmas post, I came across a moving piece in the December 9, 1863 edition of the New York Times. By the end of the war's third year, U.S. military hospitals in Washington and elsewhere were filled with thousands of sick and wounded soldiers. The Times made an impassioned and thoughtful plea for readers to remember these patients at Christmas. I will have more to say next week about Christmas 1863 in Washington's military hospitals. For now, I thought the Times article was worth sharing in its entirety:

Christmas in the Hospitals
During the next four weeks there will be a very large sum, we dare not guess how much, spent here and elsewhere in the purchase of books, jewelry, pictures and ornaments to make a merrier Christmas for children and friends, and relatives of all degrees. There is no period of the year at which the sale of luxuries is so great, and in which money is spent with such an open hand; and this lavish outlay is intended, and rightly intended, to mark the glow which, in all Christian countries, the season and its associations are sure to communicate -- the best and tenderest passions of the heart. There are very few -- and these few must be strangely constituted -- who do not find their sympathies enlarged and quickened, their asperities smoothed down, and all their affections warmed as the great Feast of Peace and Good Will draws near. Against marking it by as costly gifts as people's purses may bear, or their feelings prompt, we should, in ordinary years, have not a word to say.       
But it seems to us that this is an extraordinary year, and that we are all called on for an extraordinary recognition of the terrible weight of the responsibilities which it has imposed upon us. It has been a year filled from first to last with blood and tears; a year which has spread sorrow, like a tide, over the whole land; which has brought bereavement into a thousand homes; put out the fires on thousands of happy hearths, and taken all hope and all joy out of thousands of lives, which, until 1863, were filled with both one and the other. We cannot, and we do not expect those whom misfortune has not touched, to be constantly dwelling on these things. The ordinary business of life would have to be suspended, if we were all of us to make it our duty to keep our thoughts constantly fixed on the havoc of the war. No nerves could long resist the influence of perennial mourning. The work of the world has to be done, no matter how many fall or how many weep; and it can only be done by people whose ordinary thoughts are cheerful, and whose imagination is not forever haunted by scenes of blood and suffering. We have, therefore, no sympathy with the cant which declares all enjoyment unbecoming, as long as our young men are in the field and the cannon are sounding. If this were so, we should soon be all of us unfit for either war or peace.       
But there are undoubtedly some seasons when we are bound to think of those who suffer, and, above all, those who suffer on our behalf; think of them with our whole hearts and souls, and think of little else; seasons when we are bound, not less for their sake than for our own, to weep with, those that weep, and Christmas is certainly the chief of them. We are nearly all of us supporters of this war. There will hardly be a man, woman or child seated round a fireside next Christmas Day who has not in some way or other helped to send soldiers to the field, either by advice, by influence, by taunts, by exhortation, or by money. We have filled the air with trumpet calls, and hundreds of thousands of young men, in the very pride of life, have answered them. They have gone out because we thought it was a brave and noble thing to do, and because they hoped to live through it, and come back to enjoy our thanks and admiration. Thousands of them -- we will not say how many thousand -- have, during the past six months, fallen in our cause. Many thousands are dead -- are past all help and all sympathy, leaving vacant places in homes all over the country that can never be filled up. But a very much larger number have been prostrated by wounds or disease, and are now lying scattered in hospitals all across the continent, suffering in various ways, and in various degrees, for want of proper clothing, of proper food, of proper nursing; depressed, anxious, lonely. Thousands more are dragging their scarred of mutilated or broken-down bodies homeward, to struggle for life as best they may. We advised them to take up arms for the Union a year or two years ago, and clapped our hands and waved our handkerchiefs when they marched away. We surely, when Christmas comes round, and we are seeking to quicken our love for all in any way connected with or dependent on us, will keep the plight of these men in our memories, and open our hands for them, also, when they are so open for everybody else.       
We hope, therefore, that those who are blessed with the means of offering handsome and costly gifts to their friends at Christmas time, will not forget, when they sally out to make their purchases, that there is not a cent of the money they propose to spend which might not make a wounded soldier happier, better or more comfortable -- which might not either render his death easier, or his recovery more certain; and that there is hardly a sick or wounded man in one of the hospitals whom we, who are here at home eating and drinking and making merry, have not had some hand in bringing there. The war will not last always; the indications are, at present, that it will soon be over, and by this time next year the hospital patients will all either be dead or well enough to dispense with our aid. All we ask for them, therefore, is the charity of one Christmas, and it only needs a very little self-restraint to bestow it. We are satisfied that there are very few of the young people who are the usual recipients of Christmas presents who would not gladly consent to have the money that would be spent on them handed over for the relief of the soldiers, and we are quite certain that they would feel all the happier and all the better for having made such a sacrifice. There are, we are satisfied, few women who would not willingly forego a piece of jewelry -- if she were sure its price would make life a little brighter or make death a little less painful to a sick or wounded man.       
If the matter is only laid in this light before families, who usually look forward to a Christmas made merry by presents, we believe we know what the response would in a vast majority of cases be. It is not often that the chance offers itself of doing a noble act at so fitting a season, and we believe thousands have only to think about it, to avail themselves of it. 
The WOMAN's CENTRAL ASSOCIATION OF BELIEF, which has for the two last years been the branch of the Sanitary Commission in this City which devotes itself to the collection and forwarding of supplies for the sick and wounded, finds, for some reason or other, that its stores were never so low as at present; the aid it receives from branch associations in the country never so scanty; and the want of general interest in its operations apparently never so small; and yet its needs are as great as ever. This ought not to be. There is nobody who has ever had a hand in this work who ought not to be ashamed of wearying of it, as long as our soldiers do not weary of death and wounds and sickness. These men are still ready for the march and the battle, fall just as freely, flinch just as little now as a year ago. Can we not stand by them for one year more? Ought we not to be ready to stand by them for ten years more, if they ask it, or need it? The Woman's Central Association are in want of everything -- of woolen shirts and drawers; of sheets, of blankets, of quilts, of old clothes; of tea, coffee, sugar, wine, brandy, jollies -- in fact, of everything that a sick or wounded man, lying half dead in torn and bloody and mud-covered clothes, can possibly require. Everybody can think of something that will make him comfortable, or save him; and every one who wants to do an act of Christian charity -- we say nothing of helping a great cause -- on this great Christian festival, can do it by sending boxes containing the above articles to the WOMAN's CENTRAL RELIEF ASSOCIATION, No. 10 Cooper Union, New-York. Those who prefer it can send money; but there is hardly anybody in this land of plenty who cannot send something. E.L.G.

Ward in Carver General Hospital, Washington, DC (courtesy of Civil War Washington)

Reflecting the same spirit 150 years later, I would also encourage readers to support the men and women who have been wounded fighting for our country in today's wars. This Christmas, please consider a donation to the Wounded Warrior Project or other such charity.

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