Lewis O. Thompson
Belle Plaine Minn.
May 15th 1869
Pres. A. L. Chapin,
Your circular letter is received, & I rejoice heartily that Alma Mater is in such vigorous health -- so full of life and promise. The College has the strongest claims upon my love and gratitude -- a debt I can never repay.
I have subscribed my [mite] towards Memorial Hall -- & have paid two thirds of it -- the rest I will pay next June -- when the time runs out.
David W. Evans and myself served three months in the "U.S. San. Com." If any further use of y'r printed list of names is to be made, you will please notice the correction and omission.
The part of the service with which I was connected brought me into contact with the suffering soldier. The camp & the hospital are two different departments of military life; one who sees but the former has a very imperfect idea of war. It is not merely "glory or the grave," but as often war is "glory or the sick-bed." War is a great baptism of suffering, and blood and fire. I wish to bear testimony to the uncomplaining spirit of the suffering soldier. I saw thousands of them and I do not remember hearing one complaint! I saw them when brought from the field of battle, after days of exposure in the open air, and in rough army waggons [sic] to the base of supply without help, without care, their wounds undressed, and full of maggots, filling the air with an horrible stench, and yet no word of fault-finding escaped their parched lips. At such times as these, it was the privilege of the ["Xn"] and "Sanitary" Commissions to give a cup of cold water, to wash their wounds, and to give them such delicacies as they could eat; and to receive for such pains a hearty "God bless you."
I can never forget a trip on a Hospital boat from White House Landing, as it was called, on the _____ river to Washington City. All who could take themselves aboard the steamer were permitted to go and none other. Between four and five hundred found themselves aboard before sunset, filling ever [sic] available spot from prow to stern. How they all got aboard without help was a great mystery. There were thos [sic] who could not have even crawled aboard, much less walked. There was one man whose brain had been laid open by a gun shot, & there was not the least possibility of his living twenty-four hours. His hands were tied, as it seemed, to prevent him from doing injury to his brain. There he lay, on the forecastle, past help, past surgery. And so it was with others, but there they were, and it was our duty to take care of them as best we could. This duty devolved upon some fourteen or fifteen members of the Sanitary Commission, myself among the number. There were two army surgeons aboard, but so far as I could see, they did nothing but to smoke their pipes, alleging that nothing could be done for the soldiers till they reached the Hospitals at Alexandria and Washington, so that we performed the various & different offices of cook, nurse, and surgeon. We gave them what they could eat, we supplied them constantly with fresh water, and we dressed their wounds inorder [sic] to keep them free from that horrid enemy of the wounded soldier -- the maggot. A gun-shot wound when there is no fracture, requires no other treatment than fresh cold water applied to the injured part as often as is necessary to keep it clean & moist. When the soldier is deprived of this, his pain is intensified. So that after we had dressed the wounds, our chief care was to carry fresh water to them. We wrote also letters for many of them -- who could not write themselves -- to their friends & relatives, striving in every way to make ourselves useful.
We were on this floating hospital during 60 hours, and, for myself, I didnot [sic] sleep any during all that time. I suppose this is true of others who were equally nervous with myself. To be sure we had opportunity for sleep -- night watches relieved our necessities in this respect -- but withstanding, sleep kept at a distance, owing or I think mainly to the fact that the wounds of the soldiers filled the air with a sickening stench to which nerves were not accustomed. It was worse than a slaughter house, & the smell did not leave me for many days. I can never forget this living ward of death, and when I think of that great sea of suffering which rolled over the land; touching every household, I have before me such a picture of war & its affects as cannot be drawn from historical reading or the histories of marches & campaigns read by the quiet & peaceful fireside. When I remember the suffering soldier, my prayer is that God will bless him & that a grateful country will remember him in his crippled condition [or] honorable scars. I honor the sentiment of that Lady of culture & refinement who gave herself to fears of voluntary & unpaid service -- perhaps I ought not to say unpaid for the soldiers pronounced blessings upon her head -- a rich reward for labor -- when she said, "I love tho soldier in blue." Will not a free country love tho "soldirs [sic] in blue" who stood as a wall of defense to it in its hour of need?
But I had no intention of writing so much, when I began. I only wished to testify to uncomplaing [sic] & suffering patriotism, because I see already manifest a disposition to forget the soldier and his years of service & suffering.
As to a history of notable events in my own life, I am afraid that nothing has happened to me but what happens to the majority of mankind. I was born, received an A.B. & an A.M. at Beloit, spent three years in the Union Theol. Sem of N.Y. City, and have since married a wife, whereof I may truly say that I am glad. If anything unusual has happened to me, it is this, that I have been elected president of a college. But this is no very great honor since it is now generally believed that Colleges are thicker than the frogs of Eqypt.
In haste Lewis O. Thompson.