Saturday, September 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 151: Kate Cumming, “The Nameless Dead” (#193)

Kate Cumming, “The Nameless Dead” (1866) from The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Today's piece is from Kate Cumming's diary, kept to record her unofficial and (later) official duties as nurse for the Confederate Army. Cumming's story does point out some new issues about the Civil War; for instance, the different responses to Florence Nightingale's work on nursing in the Crimean War: The North started the war with women nurses, while the South either kept them out of the hospitals or allowed them in on an unofficial basis (depending on the responses of the doctors). And, of course, in the way we've seen before, there's the ways in which Cumming shows some of her historical position, as when she gratefully accepts some wine to give the wounded--and, oh yes, also a black servant to help her tend to them.

But what's particularly striking to me in this piece is how Cumming comes off: as almost an obsessive altruist--an ambulance chaser who wants to get into the thick of things to make a difference. She's too upset to eat, can only think of helping people; and when she's rolling bandages, she's bothered that she's not down among the wounded men, helping them more directly. And after all that commentary on how things are going, Cumming ends her piece with a poetic and sentimental note about how nature is also crying for all the wounded and dead men, oh! Which is such a tonal shift that it feels like a late addition--like something added when she was turning her diary into a manuscript to be published.

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