Vivandiere’s were first used by the French. They were women who followed the armies, as sutlers or canteen keepers. In the American Civil War, they assumed nursing duties mainly, often tending wounded on the battlegrounds even during the battles. Sometimes, just taking water to wounded was enough to save a life.
Several of these women followed their units throughout the war and were wounded as well as their soldiers. They adopted uniforms similar to their units. These were remarkably courageous women who undoubtedly helped to save the lives of a great many men.
The following scene follows the first battle of Manassas or Bull Run.
If spirits had been high before, they should have soared now, but Stuart’s men were too numb to feel much. They had chased the Federals until dark and exhaustion overtook them. Death was hot, dirty, thirsty business. They pushed their staggering mounts back to Bull Run Creek to water. Wounded Federals and Confederates had the same idea. They had walked and crawled to the creek. Some collapsed along the way, too weak to go on and cried out for help. Friend or foe, there was nothing they could do to help the poor devils.
Dark mounds inched along in the moonlight, still making their way. They were close. Maybe they’d make it.
Water. Thank you, Lord Jesus.
Baron rode closer. London sat on his horse, several yards from the creek, still as a statue. Baron understood why when he neared him. They couldn’t even acknowledge each other in the horror of the scene. Bodies lined the banks. Wounded men had dragged themselves with their last bit of fortitude to the water and then were too exhausted to lift their heads. They lay there, heads submerged in the water they thought would save them. Dozens drowned for lack of a few more ounces of strength.
Bodies floated in the creek. Even in the moonlight, Baron could see the water ran red with blood. Baron forced Byron forward to water him, but the horse refused to drink. Baron slid down heavily, like a sack of potatoes, with no grace left in his bones, and scooped water in his hands, wetting the horse’s muzzle. He cupped the bloody water in his hand again and brought it back to Byron. The horse tried to turn his head, but Baron pressed his hand up. Byron licked at the dripping water. After three attempts, Byron reluctantly drank from the sanguine creek.
It was Baron’s turn. His tongue was so dry there was nothing to moisten his cracked lips. He knelt to drink, but refused to foul his canteen with the polluted water. At last he remounted and rocked to settle the saddle. Byron turned, anxious to be away from the creek. Baron was also. He noticed shadows moving amongst the wounded and hoped it was soldiers removing them to nearby hospitals and not ghouls robbing the helpless. Or worse. What could be worse? The goddess Hela reigned this day, but perhaps Lord Byron’s creatures also walked the night. He dragged his sleeve across his mouth, trying to get rid of the taste of blood, then whispered an almost forgotten verse.
“There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life,
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse.”
Baron shuddered and touched heels to the horse who managed to lurch into a trot. Some distance down the road a hooded rider approached. The cloak fluttered about it wraith-like, for he couldn’t tell if it were male or female or even human. The horse was dark, black by all appearances, with great feathered legs and trotted steadily toward him. Baron sucked in the night air and breathed out a quick prayer.
The rider stopped.
“Excuse me.” The voice was high, Bostonian, exhausted, and female. “I need water for the wounded. A stream is nearby?”
“You’re a long way from home, ma’am. Yes, it’s ahead, but you should go upstream. It’s . . . tainted.”
She drew herself up straighter. “I’m a vivandiere. I became separated from my unit in the confusion and decided to stay to help the wounded.”
Baron pulled out a cigar and lit it, studying her face briefly in the golden glow. She was too young to be out here alone. Hell, no woman, not even a nurse, had any business being here. “You’ve got more starch than most of your Federals.”
“I go where I’m needed.”
“Well, you’re needed here. Let me lead you up the creek.”