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Civil War Men and Women: Glimpses of Their Lives Through Photography

Using a photographic portrait of Belle Reynolds, from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs as an entry point, this essay highlights the life and experiences of an individual nurse.

Belle Reynolds: Nurse, Major and Doctor

By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.

Union nurse Major Belle Reynolds
Roderick M. Cole, photographer. Union nurse Major Belle Reynolds. 1862. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Chaos ruled at Pittsburg Landing. Panic-stricken Union troops descended on the area along the Tennessee River after Confederates drove them from their camps on April 6, 1862. Half-crazed with fright, the demoralized, disorganized mobs were only intent on saving themselves. “For God’s sake,” exclaimed one soldier in what might be the order of the day, “run for the river; the rebels are coming.”1

The threat of a Confederate advance was real. As darkness shrouded the scene, the jittery throngs, by now hungry and utterly exhausted, sought refuge from a new enemy—the nighttime cold.

Some had already attempted to force their way aboard support vessels anchored in the river, and concerned commanders moved to protect crews and cargo. On the Emerald, where about 350 wounded from fighting earlier in the day were housed, two guards were posted. A captain clutching a pair of revolvers blocked the gangplank.2 On the hurricane deck above him stood a woman armed with a revolver and ready for action.3

She was Belle Reynolds. Her actions at the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, better known as Shiloh, became the stuff of legend.

The story of how Belle came to be there is rooted in a familiar narrative of westward expansion. Born Arabella Loomis Macomber in the village of Shelburne Falls, Mass., she had migrated as a teenager with her family to the Iowa frontier in the mid-1850s. Her parents sent her back East to get an education, and she returned to Iowa a teacher, reportedly the first in Cass County.

“The bright, handsome, independent young lady was a great favorite in the new county and her work as a teacher highly appreciated,” noted one writer, who added, “Among the young men who regarded the popular teacher with a jealous eye was William S. Reynolds.”4 A merchant just a few years her senior, Reynolds had relocated from the same region in Massachusetts. According to one report, they had first met in the Bay State, having attended school in the same building.5 Romance ensued, and the couple married in April 1860. They soon left Cass County for Peoria, Ill., where Reynolds went to work as a druggist.

When the war came in 1861, Reynolds promptly enlisted and left Belle in Peoria. Reynolds joined the 17th Illinois Infantry and became a second lieutenant.

The newlyweds struggled with separation anxiety, a condition common to countless couples, young and old, on both sides of the Mason and Dixon line. In their case, Belle resolved the issue. On August 11, 1861, she showed up in her husband’s camp at Bird’s Point, Mo., located along the Mississippi River along the southern border of Illinois.

A few days later, as she adjusted to the rigors of camp, the regiment received orders to ship out for Southern Missouri. “My husband was anxious to have me accompany him, if the colonel’s permission could be obtained; but I feared to make the request, lest it should be denied.” Reynolds asked Col. Leonard F. Ross.6 “Wrapped in my husband’s overcoat, I sat on my trunk to await events,” Belle noted. She watched soldiers break down camp and burn empty barrels and boxes, lost in thought. “I was aroused from my reveries by the voice of our colonel, who said, ‘Are you here, Mrs. Reynolds? You will be more comfortable on the boat.’”7

Her fate decided, Belle left with her husband and other soldiers.

The regiment had its baptism under fire on October 11, 1861, at the Battle of Fredericktown, a federal victory that secured southeastern Missouri for the Union. Reynolds survived the fight and Belle tended to battlefield wounded—her first experience as a nurse.

Belle continued on. “She remained with the regiment, following it in all its campaigning in Southern Missouri, and on the Mississippi River during the fall and winter of 1861 and 1862. Sometimes she rode in an army wagon, sometimes in an ambulance, and sometimes on a mule. At others she marched in the dust beside the soldiers, with a musketoon upon her shoulder,” reported a biographer.8

In March 1862, the 17th arrived at Pittsburg Landing. Belle captured the scene in her diary on March 21. “A most romantic spot—high bluffs and deep ravines, little brooks carelessly creeping through the ferns, then rushing down over a rocky precipice, and bounding along to join the river. Blooming orchards meet the eye, and tiny flowers peep out from their green beds. Deserted cabins are scattered here and there, which seem to have been built for ages, and tenantless for years. Shiloh meeting-house and the cool spring are all that make the place look as if ever having been trodden by the foot of man.”9

Battle of Shiloh
Battle of Shiloh. 1888. Popular Graphic Arts. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

 

Two weeks later, on April 6, everything changed. “At sunrise we heard the roll of distant musketry; but supposing it to be the pickets discharging their pieces, we paid no attention to it. In about an hour after, while preparing breakfast over the camp fire,” Belle explained, “we were startled by cannon balls howling over heads.” As the long roll was beaten and officers dashed off to form the troops, Belle maintained her position by the fire and fried up a few pancakes for her husband. She finished the task as artillery shells came ever closer, rolled up the cakes in a napkin and tucked them into Reynolds’ haversack just as he mounted his horse to join the regiment.10

Belle continued, “I little knew then what I should do; but there was no time to hesitate, for shells were bursting in every direction about us. Tents were torn in shreds, and the enemy, in solid column, was seen coming over the hill in the distance.”

Belle and another army wife moved to pack their trunks, but by now the Confederates were close and the Union soldiers were all gone from camp. “The wagon-master told us we must run for our lives; so, snatching our traveling baskets, bonnets in hand, we left the now deserted camp.”11

Caught up with fleeing soldiers and other personnel, Belle made her way to the river landing. A surgeon directed her to the vessels with certain knowledge that there would be plenty of work to do. She landed on the Emerald and treated the wounded into the night, with the exception of a period of time when she was tasked with guarding the vessel. From an observation point on the hurricane deck, she stood with a revolver which, according to a press report, “she was pledged to shoot in the air.”12

Belle eventually put down the revolver and returned to her nursing duties. Over the next two days, she cared for the wounded buoyed by news that the tide of battle turned in favor of the Union and that her husband had come through the battle without injury.

On April 9, the third day since she had fled camp, Belle ventured from the Emerald to tend to those in field hospitals. In one such place, a house surrounded by tents, she assisted surgeons in a room set aside for amputations. She later recalled, “They would take from different parts of the hospital a poor fellow, lay him out on those bloody boards, and administer chloroform; but before insensibility, the operation would begin, and in the midst of shrieks, curses, and wild laughs, the surgeon would wield over his wretched victim the glittering knife and saw; and soon the severed and ghastly limb, white as show and spattered with blood, would fall upon the floor—one more added to the terrible pile.”13

This and other events of the day took a toll on her nerves. Belle collapsed in mid-afternoon, and she was revived with brandy. She prepared to go back to the Emerald, “when a hand was laid upon my shoulder. The shock was so sudden I nearly fainted. There stood my husband! I hardly knew him—blackened with powder, begrimed with dust, his clothes in disorder, and his face pale. We thought it must have been years since we parted. It was no time for many words; he told me I must go. There was a silent pressure of hands. I passed on to the boat.”14

Belle continued her labors, but by now she showed signs of exhaustion and over the days that followed it became clear that she needed to leave. On April 13, exactly a week after the battle occurred, Belle boarded the transport Black Hawk to return home.

During the journey, she fell into company with two ladies. The talk turned to the recent battle, and Belle shared her experiences, carefully edited to eliminate the most gruesome details. A crowd formed around her, fascinated by her stories. One of the listeners happened to be the governor of Illinois, Richard Yates.

Belle remembered, “The story seemed of interest to all who heard, and some one suggested, ‘She deserves a commission more than half the officers.’ ‘Let’s make one,’ said another. No sooner said, than a blank commission was brought, and the governor directed his secretary to fill it out, giving me the rank of major.”15

The original document stated, “Mrs. Belle Reynolds having been duly appointed to the honorary position of “Daughter of the Regiment” for meritorious conduct in camp & on the bloody field of “Pittsburg Landing” with the rank of major in the state militia. She was twenty-one years old.16

Belle received the commission with many congratulations. “I received it, not so much as an honor which I really deserved, but simply as an acknowledgment of merit for having done what I could.”17

Julia Dent Grant, wife of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, came to know Belle and put her own spin on the commission. Julia mused that with the title of major, Belle outranked her husband and therefore he could not order her away from the frontlines.18

A month later, Harper’s Weekly magazine featured an engraving of the portrait pictured here and an account of her deeds under the headline “Mrs. Major Reynolds.”19

She was also known as "our Nightingale".20

By this time, Belle was back with the 17th. She continued to serve through the Vicksburg Campaign and until the regiment’s enlistment expired in June 1864.

Belle’s postwar activities equaled if not excelled her services to the Union army. She earned a new title—doctor—and operated a successful practice in Chicago and Santa Barbara, Calif., for many years. In 1884, she and her husband divorced.

Belle resumed the role of army nurse in 1899, under the auspices of the Red Cross. She traveled to Manila in the Philippine Islands during the U.S. occupation of the former Spanish colony. Upon the conclusion of her service in Asia, she returned to Santa Barbara and continued to practice medicine until 1915. She died in 1937 at age 96.

Notes

  1. Moore, Women of the War, p. 261. (Return to Text)
  2. The account in Women of War names this guard as “Captain Norton.” The narrative suggests that Belle knew him prior to events at Shiloh. It is possible that he is Addison S. Norton (1821-1874), who started his war service in the Seventeenth Illinois Infantry as captain of Company A. He went on to command his regiment as colonel. Belle’s husband, William, also served as an officer in the Seventeenth. (Return to Text)
  3. Moore, Women of the War, pp. 262-263; San Francisco Call, May 22, 1898. (Return to Text)
  4. The individual quoted here is identified as F.W. Burrington. Indianapolis Journal, April 25, 1897. (Return to Text)
  5. Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), July 28, 1864. (Return to Text)
  6. Leonard Fulton Ross (1823-1901) had his first military experience in the Mexican War as an officer in the Fourth Illinois Infantry. The original colonel of the Seventeenth, he moved to brigade command during the fight for Fort Donelson. He went on to become a brigadier general and command on the division level before he resigned his commission in July 1863. He went on to become a successful cattle farmer near Avon, Illinois. (Return to Text)
  7. Moore, Women of the War, pp. 256-257. (Return to Text)
  8. Ibid. (Return to Text)
  9. Ibid. (Return to Text)
  10. Ibid. (Return to Text)
  11. Ibid. (Return to Text)
  12. San Francisco Call, May 22, 1898. (Return to Text)
  13. Moore, Women of the War, p. 267. (Return to Text)
  14. Ibid; pp. 267-268. (Return to Text)
  15. Ibid. (Return to Text)
  16. Brown, Clara S. “Major Belle Reynolds.” Midland Monthly (August 1898), p. 108. (Return to Text)
  17. Moore, Women of the War, pp. 269-270. (Return to Text)
  18. Simon, Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, pp. 112-113. (Return to Text)
  19. Harper’s Weekly, May 17, 1862. (Return to Text)
  20. Simon, Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, pp. 112-113. (Return to Text)