Reynolds, Belle (fl. 1860s)

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Reynolds, Belle (fl. 1860s)

American Civil War nurse and diarist. Born in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts; married William Reynolds from Peoria, Illinois, in 1861.

Began traveling with her husband, a lieutenant in the Union Army who was serving in the 17th Infantry of Illinois (August 1861); survived battles and nursed wounded Union soldiers; awarded the commission of major by the governor of Illinois for her bravery and work during the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862); with husband, left the army (1864).

Belle Reynolds, a native of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, had been married to William Reynolds only a few months when the Civil War broke out. William enlisted and became a lieutenant in the Union Army. When his regiment, the 17th Infantry of Illinois, was deployed to southern Missouri in August 1861, Reynolds became determined to follow her husband into battle. She boarded a boat for Cairo, Illinois, on August 10, and joined him the next day at Bird's Point, Missouri. She recorded her experiences over the next three years in her journal.

Of her first experience of camp life, Reynolds wrote: "How could I stay in such a cheerless place…. [I]t all seemed too much to endure; but I resolved to make the trial." Having retained the colonel's permission to accompany her husband, she traveled with the regiment by all means available to her, including in the Army wagon, in an ambulance, on a mule, and sometimes on foot, marching with the soldiers and carrying a musket. The regiment traveled often throughout southern Missouri, but seldom encountered danger. Reynolds' journal during this time is filled with descriptions of the beautiful landscape and life in the wilderness.

After spending the winter months in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the regiment took orders from General Ulysses S. Grant to set out for Tennessee. Reynolds encamped near Pittsburg Landing, with her husband's company. She described the area as "a most romantic spot—high bluffs and deep ravines, little brooks carelessly creeping through the ferns, then rushing down over a rocky precipice, and bounding along to join the river." In contrast to this bucolic scene, she also recorded one of the most complete accounts of what became known as the Battle of Shiloh, in which over 10,000 soldiers on each side were killed in just two days. Union troops were still camped at Pittsburg Landing when the Confederate Army attacked before breakfast on Sunday morning, April 6, 1862. After quickly bidding her husband goodbye as he left for battle, Reynolds herself had to flee with nothing but her bonnet and a basket as Confederate troops descended on the camp. When she reached the safety of the river, she nursed the hundreds of wounded soldiers being treated on boats. The Union forces were being driven towards the river and impending defeat, and Reynolds described a scene of terror, confusion, and carnage. When hope was almost lost, Union gunboats and reinforcements appeared, and the Union Army under Grant won the first great battle of the Civil War.

Reynolds' accounts of the scene are sharp and terrifying. She wrote of her horrifying experiences as she nursed the wounded and dying

soldiers, and described the pain and anguish of the operating room: "These scenes come up before me now with all the vividness of reality. Sometimes I hope it is only a fever-dream, but too well I know it was no dream; for, one by one, they would take from different parts of the hospital a poor fellow, lay him out on those bloody boards, and administer chloroform; but before insensibility, the operation would begin, and in the midst of shrieks, curses, and wild laughs, the surgeon would wield over his wretched victim the glittering knife and saw; and soon the severed and ghastly limb, white as snow and spattered with blood, would fall upon the floor—one more added to the terrible pile." Reynolds' strong will is depicted in her recording of an encounter with doctors who did not desire help from Reynolds and two other women wishing to attend to the wounded. "On one [boat] the surgeon objected to our coming on board, as he 'wanted no women around.' But nothing daunted, we went in search of any who might belong to our regiment."

After the battle, Reynolds was reunited with her husband; his horse had been shot out from beneath him, but he had remained unharmed. Upon his urging, Reynolds boarded a boat heading to a more secure location. Since she was one of the few eyewitnesses to the battle aboard the steamer, she was entreated by the boat's occupants to describe the scene. Governor Yates of Illinois was on board and at that very time drew up a commission, giving Reynolds the rank of major. "I received it, not so much as an honor which I really deserved," she wrote, "but simply as an acknowledgment of merit for having done what I could."

After once again joining her husband, Reynolds moved throughout Tennessee with the regiment, from Jackson to Bolivar to Corinth. In early 1863, her husband was reassigned to Major-General McClernand as aide-de-camp, and in March 1863, Reynolds joined her husband near Vicksburg, Tennessee. After the Union forces overtook Vicksburg, Reynolds' camp life turned more peaceful. Her husband was released from service in the spring of 1864, and Reynolds fades from history with their return to civilian life one year before the end of the Civil War.


Griffin, Lynne, and Kelly McCann. The Book of Women: 300 Notable Women History Passed By. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1992.

Moore, Frank. Women of the War; Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton, 1866.

Kari Bethel , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri

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Reynolds, Belle (fl. 1860s)

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