December 27, 1863
Lieutenant Carl Fielding was dreaming of warmth and light and the taste of roast pork. He and Gwen were positioned on the grassy slope of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, she sitting on a blanket, he stretched out with his head in her lap. It was early summer before the sticky, oppressive heat settled in, and benign sunlight bathed them in a cocoon of comfort. Gwen was feeding him morsels of pork from a nearby picnic basket, each offering accompanied by an indulgent smile. She held another bite inches from his mouth, and he was about to open to receive it when a sharp pain exploded in his left ribs.
Gasping, his eyes flew open to grim, cold reality. The butt end of a rifle was poised over his head, its bearer scowling down at him. “Get up, you red-headed Yankee devil! Roll call!”
Carl was well-acquainted with Dick Turner, the hated keeper of Richmond’s Libby Prison. This pompous sadist had somehow managed to rise to the position of second-in-command and head of prisoner discipline despite being but a common enlisted man. For some unfathomable reason, he had taken an instant dislike to Carl and used any excuse to mete out punishment for Carl’s supposed infractions of the rules. Early on, he had caught Carl washing his socks at the wash-trough hydrant after nine o’clock, the lights-out time after which such access was forbidden. His punishment? Standing barefoot in a bucket of icy water for the remainder of the night. On another occasion, Carl had been found lingering too close to one of the prison windows. For that, he was banished to the dungeon, a set of dank, windowless cells in the cellar where he languished for a week on bread and water. These indignities were in addition to the odd kick or pinch or poke that Carl was forced to endure almost daily.
He had been captured three and a half weeks before as he made his way back to his regiment after volunteering to remain behind to help cover a strategic repositioning. Four days later he arrived at the prison. It was a converted three-story, red-brick warehouse on the James River waterfront composed of three separate but interconnected loft-style buildings. There were a total of nine large rooms, three in each building, the top two stories housing the prisoners while the lower story and cellars were reserved for other functions such as administrative offices, guardrooms, the hospital, a cook room, supplies storage, and disciplinary cells. Carl and the other captured officers of the Army of the Potomac were kept in the third-floor east section, a cavernous room bare of furniture except for that which the prisoners, both current and those who had gone before, had managed to forage and cobble together for themselves. There were no beds, requiring inmates to sleep on the bare floor. Due to the current severe overcrowding, there were over a hundred and fifty men vying for space intended for two-thirds that many. The ceilings were low with massive exposed beams. Five glassless barred windows provided scant light, poor ventilation, and unrelenting exposure to the elements, whether the suffocating heat of summer or the frigid drafts of winter.
Carl had done his best to accept his uncomfortable circumstances, but he had soon learned to make himself as inconspicuous as possible when Dick Turner was nearby. It mattered little because the vicious keeper had already picked him out to be the butt of his brutality. Now he kept his expression stoic as Turner glared down at him. He stifled a groan, clasped an arm around his chest in the hope that his ribs had not been broken, and snatched up the threadbare, flea-ridden blanket that was his only defense against the winter winds. Another senseless rule of this place was that prisoners must not lie about on their blankets during the day, a consequence of which would be confiscation of the offending article. He clutched it close to his body and stumbled forward to join the other prisoners for the first of the twice-daily roll calls.
He took his place, but his attention was not on the prison clerk’s droning voice. Instead, he was torturing himself, as he had every day since his capture, with memories of the past weeks: his failure to fight off the Rebs who had ambushed him, the long forced march to Richmond, his arrival at the prison and his own stupidity for not hiding some of his money before he was searched and divested of his dollars, of which there had been rather a lot due to the paymaster having visited his regiment the day before he was captured. Left penniless, he had not had the means to access the thriving black market for such things as paper and pencil so he could write home about his predicament. Did they even know he had been captured?
January 4, 1864
It was a cold, blustery afternoon when Dr. Gwendolyn Pickering received the news that would change the course of her life irrevocably. It began with a note brought to her place of employment, the Female Medical College and Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The bearer was a young mulatto employed by her dear friend, Dr. Cora Ware, with whom Gwen had made the odyssey through medical school.
She was initially annoyed at being interrupted while she was explaining to a patient who suffered from uterine prolapse how surgical insertion of a pessary might offer relief of her symptoms. When she read the hastily scrawled note, however, her insides turned to ice: Dearest Gwen, I regret to tell you that Carl has been captured. Details are few, but I shall share what I have if you are able to come tonight. I shall send the buggy for you at 6:00. If this is agreeable, please tell Lea and she will report back to me. Your loving Cora.
Gwen stared at the words, barely able to comprehend their meaning. Her treasured fiancé in Confederate hands? The contrast between her jubilation over his survival of the previous summer’s carnage at Gettysburg and her horror over this devastating news could not have been starker.
She thrust the note into her sleeve, whispered her acceptance to the young messenger, and sent her on her way. Then, summoning the iron will that her profession had ingrained in her, she finished with her current patient, saw the remainder of her clinic patients, and made her final hospital rounds of the day. At a few minutes before six, she donned her wool coat, gloves and bonnet and exited the hospital onto North College Street opposite Girard College with its winter-bare trees and expansive grounds, now an unbroken plain of white after a recent snowstorm. The Ware buggy waited in the street beyond.
She ducked her head against a blast of frigid air and waded through the snow to where the Ware’s yardman waited to assist her into the buggy. He laid a wool blanket across her lap, and she immediately pulled it up to her chin for extra warmth. Dusk was closing in with the temperature falling fast. The street had been cleared, and the driver clucked the horse forward. As they plodded on, she allowed her mind’s eye to obliterate the wintry day and bring before it instead the hot June day when she had stood on the railway station platform to bid her newly-pledged fiancé, Carl Fielding, farewell.
They had been seeing each other on a regular basis over the past two years as she established herself at the hospital and he continued his studies at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. His astonishing talent as a woodcarver had gained him a place at the prestigious school, and he was finally fulfilling his destiny as an artist after an unhappy attempt to acquiesce to his physician father’s wish that he follow him into medicine. That shameful chapter of his life had brought him near to personal ruin as he descended deeper and deeper into rebelliousness and depravity. Through the loyal efforts of his twin sister, Cora, he had finally found the path that would bring him happiness and fulfillment. Then the nation plunged into the great conflict in which they were still embroiled, throwing the future of them all into doubt.
Carl had wrestled with his conscience from the moment the prospect of war became a certainty following the April, 1861 firing on the federal facility at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Other young men responded to the sudden fevered outpouring of patriotism by flocking to the recruiting centers. Carl rationalized that he would contribute little to the effort since all the prognosticators believed the war would be decided quickly. Why disrupt what he thought of as a divine calling to become cannon fodder? It would only repudiate the long, painful road he had traveled to arrive where he was.
Gwen was not entirely comfortable with his reasoning, particularly as the fighting raged on and the South proved itself to be a formidable opponent. Her admittedly soft heart, however, would not allow her to condemn his earnest decision. Then Congress passed the Enrollment Act in March of that year, and the choice was no longer in his hands.
This legislation set enlistment quotas for each congressional district in the Union. If these quotas were not met by voluntary means, they would be enforced by law. Rather than be drafted, Carl had enlisted in the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Army Regiment with a commission as first lieutenant obtained through the influence of his brother-in-law, Peter Ware. This sudden change in his circumstance finally broke through the comfortable stasis that had existed between him and Gwen. Faced with losing him forever, she had brazenly suggested they marry before he joined the regiment. His response was selfless but adamant: he would not tie her to the possibility of either widowhood or a lifetime of nursing a cripple. That they would marry the moment he returned safe and sound from the conflagration, however, he freely vowed.
Thus, Gwen had found herself on the train platform that stiflingly hot June morning along with Cora as he prepared to join his regiment. Clouds of steam billowed from the engine’s smokestack and swirled around a chaotic scene as other new recruits and their loved ones and well-wishers said their desperate goodbyes. The cacophony of sound made conversation difficult, forcing Gwen to lean in close as she thrust a wrapped package into Carl’s hands, saying,
“I shall think of you every day and try to imagine what you are going through. Please write your experiences in this journal. Then I can read of them when you return, and it will seem as if we have never been apart.”
The sudden moisture in his eyes bespoke his emotion. To mask it, he pulled her into a close, tender embrace, whispering, “Every word will be a love song to you, my dearest Gwen. Please pray that God will bring me home to you whole.”
A little sob caught in her throat. “I shall do so with the intensity of my very being. I have no doubt but that He will do so.”
A piercing whistle split the air, signaling that the train was about to depart. Carl stepped back and embraced his sister. He turned back to Gwen, his eyes smoldering with pent-up ardor. He placed a hand on either side of her face, whispered, “I love you,” and leaned in for a final lingering kiss. Then he reached for his rucksack, swung up onto the car platform, and disappeared into the interior. He was gone.
Gwen recalled his last three letters, which had been delayed by weeks because his regiment was on the move chasing Lee’s army into Virginia after its defeat at Gettysburg. In them, he wrote about the long, wearisome days of marching, the frustrating advances and retreats of their brigade as General Meade attempted to engage the enemy, and several disturbing accounts of deserters being punished before the entire division by either being shot or shamed out of camp. Although the thought of such calumny saddened her, nothing else he wrote aroused particular anxiety as to his safekeeping. His latest letter, dated November Twenty-fifth, had been written during a period when his regiment was at rest camped near Wilson’s Mills. She received it on December Fifteenth and had heard nothing since. She was not particularly concerned, however, because there had been other long periods of time between letters, and she had learned to accept these lapses as a necessary consequence of the war. Now it seemed that rather than a harmless delay of mail service, the reason she had received no more letters was that he had fallen into enemy hands.
She knew about the horrific conditions facing Union prisoners of war as detailed in recent newspaper accounts. A group of recently escaped surgeons had written of the filth and disease rampant in Confederate prisons as well as the lack of rudimentary necessities such as food and clothing, all of which was contributing to an increased loss of life. And this was the type of place where Carl was apparently now being held.
The hollow feeling in her heart matched the echo of the horse’s hooves bouncing off the walls of the covered wooden bridge across the Schuylkill River. The buggy had followed the streetcar tracks on Market Street and was now approaching West Philadelphia on the far side of the river. They continued on, turning west onto Fortieth Street. The broad, lightly traveled street lined with leaf-bare deciduous trees provided a pleasing contrast to the city’s narrow, congested streets. Another five blocks took them to Pine Street, on the south side of which sat the Ware house, now barely visible in the fast-falling darkness. It was a three-story white stucco structure with Italianate features that Peter had built on a pleasant rise above the street two years before. The driver pulled alongside the house and came around to help her down. Her foot had barely touched the top step of the ornate front portico when the door opened and Cora came forward to embrace her.
Her friend’s short, slight frame had thickened somewhat since the birth of her son, Thomas, but the flaming hair was just as vivid, her violet-blue eyes now the hue of the midnight sky, a sure sign of her roiled emotions.
“Tell me it is not true,” Gwen begged even as the grim cast to her friend’s face told her that it was.
“The details are scant,” said Cora as she led the way into the spacious, high-ceilinged parlor where Peter’s aunt, Emmeline Norton, already sat near the fire. The cheerful blaze and warm, gas-lit atmosphere of the charming room belied the palpable air of despondency that rested like a heavy fog over its inhabitants.Gwen could barely contain herself enough to greet Emmeline, who lived with the Wares in her own quarters on the back of the house. She did so with as much warmth as she could muster and perched on the edge of a small settee, blurting with great impatience, “Now please, tell me how you know this.”