Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part Three)

This is the third of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death Of Captain Charles W. Billings, Co. C, 20th Maine Regiment, at Gettysburg, PA, in July 1863. Part Two, on Billings' life prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, may be found here.

Billings was brought to the field hospital of the Fifth Corps on the farm of Michael Fiscel, a mile and a half southeast of Little Round Top. Along with the "worst cases" in the corps, among whom were his own men, he was treated on the floor of an old barn. Historian Glen LaFantasie graphically describes the scene in the days immediately following the battle:

The hospital was bedlam and slaughterhouse combined. Piles of amputated limbs could be seen everywhere, attracting flies and giving off a sickening odor. Only some of the wounded could be comfortably accommodated on hay beds in the buildings and in several tents; many of the suffering men lay in long lines under the hot sun with no protection over them at all. The moans of the wounded blocked out most of the other sounds around the Fiscel farm, except for the occasional screams of men who could not bear their pain any longer. Rain storms that came after the battle put the men in more agony, turning the hay into damp straw and drenching the wounded soldiers to the skin. East of the barn, in a field overlooking a stream, the men who died from their wounds were buried in shallow graves that gave off an eerie phosphorescent glow at night. [1]

Lying in the hay, his femur shattered above the knee by a minie ball, Billings looked on as around him his men died of their wounds. The sight so affected him that he became deranged--a "raving maniac"-- requiring several attendants to subdue him. He was brought to a room by himself, away from the other mangled and dying men, and in time he rallied. One of the corps' surgeons went in to assess his condition. Departing from Billings, the surgeon spoke to a chaplain from the Christian Commission, the Rev. Robert J. Parvin, telling him that Billings would not live. If the Captain had had a primary amputation--within forty-eight hours--he might have had a chance of surviving.

Parvin went in sit with Billings and held his hand. The Captain asked the chaplain what the surgeon had said.

"He thinks it hardly possible that you will live," Parvin replied.

"My wife, Chaplain, have you heard from her since your message yesterday?"

Parvin said that he had not, that the telegraph lines were in heavy usage by the government.

"We hope she will be here," he replied.

"Does the surgeon say that I cannot live long, Chaplain?"

"Yes; but you are a Christian man, Captain Billings?"

"Yes, Chaplain, I have no hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ. I have tried to serve him in the army, and he will not forsake me now. I would like to see my wife..." he continued, as his thoughts turned to Ellen.

'Well, Captain, if you have anything to say, will you give the message to me?"

So he gave Parvin his knapsack and sword and the message he wished to be conveyed if she came. 

"Now, don't stay longer with me. Go and minister to the boys, and run in here as you can to read a few words of Scripture to me, and kneel down and pray with me."

Billings then asked: "Could you have my body embalmed and sent home? I lost my money on the field."

"Certainly, Captain" Parvin replied, " Give no further thought about that."

The Chaplain later wrote: "Not another time did he refer to it, but he passed away a dying Christian, triumphing over all the horrors of war, over all the sad circumstances surrounding him."

Billings died at eleven o'clock on the morning of July 15th. Later that afternoon, his body was delivered to the embalmers. At ten o'clock that night, as Parvin sat in his tent writing letters, he heard a knock at his door. A civilian gentleman walked in.

"Is Captain Billings, of the 20th Maine, here? I am his brother. I have his wife with me. I have buoyed her up this long way with the hope that we would find the Captain in good condition. Where is he?"

"You have not brought the Captain's wife out here with you tonight?" Parvin replied.

"No, I left her in town for tonight."

"It is well; the body of your brother was sent to the embalmers at five o'clock this afternoon!"

Billings' brother was overcome with grief. "I cannot tell her! I cannot trust myself to tell her, or even see her again, tonight! I have brought her all the way to Gettysburg, and now you must, you must tell her all!"

Parvin concluded: "And so our duty was to see his wife, and to deliver to her the messages; and the tokens of dying love of her husband, and speak to her words of comfort in the name of the Lord! His body was carried on to the State of Maine, to repose with those of his kindred there."

(to be continued...)

[1] Glen LaFantasie, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Oxford University Press, USA, 2006)
[2] The Rev. Robert J. Parvin, from remarks given at a meeting of the Christian Commission,: Washington, D.C; February, 1864; Frank Moore, Anecdotes, Poetry, and Incidents of the War: North and South. 1860-1865  da5wx8p7zf

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