Belle of the Battle: Coolness Under Fire

You don’t hear a lot about the contributions of women during the Civil War but I came across an interesting story last week while I was researching the Battle of Shiloh. Belle and William Reynolds had been married exactly one year when word of Fort Sumter reached them in their hometown of Peoria, Illinois. William immediately enlisted and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Rather than be separated from her new husband, Belle (along with several other women) followed his unit keeping a journal about her experiences.

Throughout the summer and then through the fall and winter of 1861, William’s regiment was involved in various campaigns in southern Missouri. By April, 1862 they had moved into Tennessee and were camped by the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing just across the river from the town of Savannah. At dawn on Sunday, April 6, 1862 Belle was cooking her husband’s breakfast on the campfire when the Confederates launched their surprise attack on the Union forces. Now this is the part I love…in the midst of bullets flying and shells shrieking, Belle calmly finishes frying her cakes and as her husband mounts his horse to leave for battle, wraps them up and puts them in his haversack before running for her life! Talk about being cool under fire!

For the remainder of that day Belle and the other women assist as the wounded soldiers begin to pour in. Many were taken behind the lines to the Union steamboats on the river. The next day as they visited one of the boats, a surgeon objected to having women on board. Not intimidated in the least, Belle proceeds to search the boat for any members of her husband’s regiment. In her diary she notes that “though there were three or four hundred wounded men on the boat, there were but two or three surgeons, and they unwilling to have us relieve what suffering we could.” The surgeons also refused to give the women any supplies so undaunted, Belle gathers some from other boats and returns to clean wounds and serve food. Go Belle!

A week later Belle is ordered home to Illinois for some much needed rest. The other travelers on her boat were very interested in hearing her eyewitness account of the recent battle. One of the passengers happend to be Illinois govenor Richard Yates who, being moved by Belle’s story proposed to give her a commission in the army and upon learning her husband’s rank of lieutenant, made her a Major stating that he believed in “giving the women the best of it.”

Ladies, now THAT’S a role model!


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