Camp Letterman, from the Library of Congress photo archives
I continue my interview with Lydia Blaine Lape (21) and Frankie Blaine (17) from my American Civil War “Saint Maggie series.” On Monday, the young women talked about their feelings regarding Confederate soldiers and treating enemy wounded. In this part of the interview, they discuss Lt. Caleb O’Connor, a C.S.A. soldier with whom they became friends.
Janet: We left off the last time with you coming upon Lt. Caleb O’Connor as he lay pinned under two dead bodies on the battlefield.
Lydia: Lt. O’Connor had a leg wound, made all the worse because he had not received immediate attention.
Janet: That’s dangerous.
Lydia: It certainly was. I thought he might need to have the leg amputated if the infection could not be brought to heel.
Frankie: He wasn’t the only man in our wagon. We had four total. Two of them died shortly after we got them home.
Lydia: Fortunately for Lt. O’Connor, he responded well to the cleansing of his wound – it was a painful process, but I did not have to amputate. I was grateful for that. I dislike doing amputations unless a man’s life is in danger without it.
Janet: It’s usual for a young woman of 1863 to be a practicing physician.
Lydia: I was fortunate. Our town’s physician spotted my interest in and saw my aptitude for medicine and took me on as an apprentice. I had the opportunity to observe one leg amputation. But that wasn’t enough for Gettysburg.
Janet: What did you do?
Lydia: I went for help. I knew there was a hospital in the Union School, so I ran there and badgered the doctor into letting me observe and then perform a few amputations.
Janet: That was quite aggressive of you.
Lydia: Well, It was not a moment to be ladylike. We were in the midst of the battle. Also, I kept thinking of my husband Edgar. Because he did not make it, I was all the more determined to give as many men as possible the opportunity to return to their homes.
Frankie: Almost every soldier we treated had family and friends at home.
Janet: And Caleb O’Connor was one of those men who survived.
Lydia: Not only survived but thrived.
Janet: Frankie, you became especially close to him.
Frankie: I did! He told me he was from Virginia and had been in the army and away from home for a year. He was worried about his wife – her name is Lottie – and James, their baby. Caleb hadn’t heard from Lottie since May, and it was already July! [quietly] Made me realize how much I hate the war. People get killed or wounded. But even the people who aren’t in the army end up wounded one way or the other. It’s brutal and wasteful. [looks up] I asked him why he joined up.
Janet: What did he say?
Frankie: He said he did it because his country had been threatened. He didn’t own slaves. Not a one. He just wanted to protect his family. What he didn’t expect was that the war would go on for years. But, then, we all thought it would be over in a few months.
Janet: Was that conversation what made you want to help him?
Frankie: No. It made me feel sorry for him, and angry that we were all so stupid as to get into this war. What made me want to help Caleb was when I asked a question. If he could do anything right now, what would that be? And he said, “I’d leave this damn war behind.” He wanted to find his wife and little baby and get as far away from the war as he could. It broke my heart. He was just like our men in so many ways.
Janet: What did you do?
Frankie: Prayed for him. And I found my answer through that prayer.
Janet: That was a dangerous decision to make. How did you help him run away?
Lydia: We pretended Caleb had developed a fever, which I diagnosed as a communicable disease.
Frankie: We moved him from the front parlor to the back parlor, where none of the other soldiers were, and said it was for the protection of the other men.
Lydia: We did this on July 11. At that time, Lt. O’Connor had recovered enough to move on his own.
Frankie; That was also the day Capt. Philip Frost showed up at our door. He wanted to take inventory of the men in our house for the government.
Lydia: You see, there had been reports of Confederate officers walking around Gettysburg. That meant the officers might have spoken with the town's Copperheads –
Frankie [interrupts]: People opposed to the war.
Lydia: I was going to get to that Frankie. Please let me finish my sentence.
Frankie: I apologize.
Lydia [to Janet]: The government didn’t want the Copperheads sharing information with Confederate officers about our army’s locations and possible movements.
Frankie: Capt. Frost made the inventory and noted who among our patients was Union and who was Confederate. The Union and Confederate soldiers who were still bedridden from their wounds were to be sent to Camp Letterman, the tent hospital set up about a mile outside Gettysburg.
Lydia: The problem was what would be done with those who were able to walk. Union men were to be returned to their regiments but –
Frankie [interrupts]: Confederate soldiers would be sent to a prisoner of war camp!
Lydia: The prisoner exchanges between the North and South had been suspended. So, prison camps had been constructed to hold captured soldiers. We realized that we were healing Confederate soldiers so our government could put them in prison.
Frankie: Can you imagine? Healing people just to imprison them?
Lydia: We kept Caleb hidden in the back parlor. We burned his Confederate uniform and had him wear civilian clothes. On July 29, Capt. Frost moved the men out of our house. Fortunately, he did not take a headcount, and did not bother to check the back parlor because we didn't have anyone in there on his first visit. A few days later, we took a trip up to Middletown. Caleb went with us and got off when we reached the town. The plan was for him to walk up to Harrisburg, catch a train to Maryland, and make his way south.
Frankie: We don’t know what happened to him, but we hope and pray he found his wife and son.
Janet: You took an enormous risk helping an enemy prisoner escape. You could have been imprisoned or given the death penalty.
Lydia: We know.
Frankie: We know because Papa almost took the punishment.
Janet: And our readers need to hear the rest of this story, because your actions had some unintended consequences. Would it be possible to have your stepfather come with you on Friday?
Frankie: Oh, yes. He loves to talk! But you’ll have to tell him to watch his language.
Lydia [exasperated]: Frances…
Frankie: Well? He likes to use bad words. A lot.
And I'll leave you here, folks. See you on Friday with Frankie, Lydia, and their stepfather, Eli Smith.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder