In several of his letters A.P. confessed that he had been plagued by
"rheumatism attacks," and on at least one occasion, he was hospitalized
for illness and declared temporarily unfit for fighting at the front.
Perhaps because of his delicate health, A.P. spent most of the war behind
the lines of battle, serving as a nurse in various field
hospitals . The doctors who supervised A.P. praised his skills
in caring for the wounded and began to give him more and more responsibility.
Yet he had mixed feelings about these assignments. "As for nursing
I don't like that and never did," A.P. wrote to Emma. "But I
don't think I can be beat in that business."
While A.P. was spared from marching into the bloodiest battles, he encountered
the horrors of war firsthand in his hospital work. He spent long hours
changing bandages and assisting doctors during amputations to remove arms
and legs shattered by gunfire. More often, however, he tended to soldiers
suffering from diseases like typhoid fever and dysentery, caused by the
filthy living conditions in the camps.
In the earliest days of his enlistment, A.P. was shocked by the scenes
of misery all around him. But by 1863, he found himself becoming numb
to it all. "Last night I had four crazy men in my ward," he
wrote matter-of-factly. "One died this afternoon. Another I don't
think will live long. I have been so accustomed to seeing sickness and
suffering that I am getting quite hard hearted . . ."
As the war dragged on, A.P. found ways to escape the ugliness of War.
Whenever he could, he borrowed books from the hospital library and took
them back to his tent to read--biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Joan of
Arc, and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. He began studying
the German language with the help of a Dutch soldier who he worked with
in the hospital. And at Christmas time, he gathered laurels and evergreens
to decorate the ward, where a holiday dinner was served to all the patients.