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The Last Idea

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith


They are inside the city now. Inside our lines. Two thousand blue coats are running through the streets. Some of our big guns are still firing, but most of our men are falling back and I guess some will make a stand at the wall by the river. A shell lands close and something whips past my face leaving a big gash straight across my forehead. I drop the can with the lamp oil and spill half of it. When I bend to pick up the can, blood is pouring out of my wound, dripping on my hand and mixing with the puddle of oil. I almost puke again, but have nothing left to surrender, nothing left to sparkle up. I get a better grip on the can and start running in the direction of the dugout. I have to burn everything. I have to burn Doctor Penny. I have to burn Doctor Penny’s work.

• • •

I met Dr. Penny — Dr. Joshua Hoffman Penny — at Chancellorsville. He was a tall man with a high forehead, with big bushy sideburns. His eyes were pale and grey, and his hands were slender with long fingers, and by then his tool of choice was the saw. He was good with a saw.

They tell me he evolved into that. The war made him. Just like it made generals and statesmen and politicians. The war made him what he became. They tell me at Bull Run and at some of the earlier battles, they tell me at the start of the war, J. Penny was a different man. Early in the war men were armed with muskets that fired round shot. When shot hit a man it would plunge in slow, and when it hit big bones, it might nip the bone or crack the thing or break it jagged, but that was all. Bad enough — but that was all. Penny would clean the wound and sound for the ball, and remove long splinters, and then sew. And the patient would either live or die, depending on his time allowed.

Penny was wise enough, he was liberal with chloroform and soap and laudanum. He placed his men out in sunshine on good days. He allowed card playing, and quiet vice, and grumblings and voiced complaints — as long as the men tried to move on, tried to mend. He didn’t let men stand and stare off into the bad distance of their dark dreams. He made some who were on the long edge of helplessness, help with the others. So, those only half-wronged by fate were allowed to see there were others more wronged; and that they were here to help each other, as was a good man’s creed, as was intended.

That was the first year. When officers were gentlemen, and warriors didn’t whoop and holler and burn what they couldn’t use or carry. During the first year there was a naiveté, where men were uncertain how to war. I was there and remember John Trice telling a major early on, that he'd go into battle “on mainly strength and awkwardness.” Such were the men who fought.

But a year at any enterprise brings refinements. Ball gave way to minié ball. The troops were armed with rifles now. As the wounds changed, Joshua changed. War was changing. I was a stretcher bearer now. It was now a recognized occupation. When war broke open we only had 24 army surgeons in all of the South, most of them trained as federals. The war department owned only six thermometers and six stereoscopes. Joshua bought his own books. Some were in Latin, which amused the men.

It was at the crossing by Bent Creek Bridge, when I first saw Dr. Penny approach the “blind horse.” That’s what the men here call crazy, they call it, “riding the blind horse.” I’ve also heard it called “cold fever” and “catch-me-away.” And most of the time men just say, “Jeffy’s not there,” and then they stick out their tongues to the side, and waggle their heads showing in pantomime, where exactly Johnny went.

After two hard days of travel, we arrived. It was long after the battle. If you can get to a wound early you can do great things. If you get there later, you might as well amputate. And that’s what we did. Man after man was carried in, and most lost there on the tables. They lost.

Penny talked as he worked. Telling me he had a hard plan, a soft nightmare, a romance notion of his own vast utility and purpose, a stark coinage of his own swift mind, a wise conceit, a broader vision, and a deeper understanding of the pains of men. And he told me he often felt that everything around him was a false truth. And he felt he was the real innascibility of things… like the world was spinning hot around the point of his capital saw.

He told me the whole war seemed contrived to give him work. As if the wagons and cannons and steam contraptions, the generals and horses and telegraph machines — clattering machines ticking away in front of half-listening men — were all expendable props in one vast endless play. A play whereby he was called to put down his books, to come forth from his tent, and skillfully detach men from the less-wanted bits of themselves. Make out of them… pity and tears. And he felt when the tears were enough — then and only then — would the lines of men sink backwards into the quiet green groves, back into the wind-whispering grassy-flat meadows. Maybe then he'd be able to sit on a porch somewhere, he said, and watch the sky cloud over. And then a slow rain would fall and wash the blood out of the ravines. The graves would slowly disappear… the little mounds sink back… so the land was no longer dotted with scars.

He talked and talked and worked. After fifty straight hours of hard work, he staggered over to another table, another patient. The last of them today. This one was shot to pieces. Penny took him apart, left him without much at all. Then I saw the doctor pick up an arm, an arm from an earlier operation. He held it for the longest time, then he placed it curiously against the un-limbed man on the table.

The arm Penny held was one with elbow, wrist and hand. All strong. All muscled. All wanting soft work and hard love… wanting a chance at unknown skills… new tasks. And Penny held it up against the man whose right arm was now ended at mid-center. I could see Penny’s mind working. The doctor was toying with the last idea. Because his eyes were wide, I could tell he was toying with the last idea. The one we must keep hidden in the small pocket of our darker thoughts. And so, I went and took the heavy shred from his grip and tossed it back on the pile. I led the doctor out to fresh air. Then led him to a bunk and made him sleep. Later I found a pile of straw for myself, and it was a long time later, when I awoke.

Penny never mentioned his wild idea. We went on fresh campaigns and learned new tricks. Like the thread leading out of the body. How to tie veins closed at their ends.

We moved from unit to unit, and battle to battle, on trains that rushed too fast or crawled too slow. We were dispatched to a city. The city came under siege. And we were bound to the land and the hospital was shelled. Trenches were dug. Men went underground and we followed them.

We gathered the wounded at night. One night, with no moon above, and the stars away on some errand of their own, we were so near the lines I could hear men cursing back and forth. One of our grey soldiers called out to the Union lines, “When do you think ol' Grant will get around to fightin'?” And a Union man called back, “I expect when you’ve eaten every dog and cat, and start chewing their leather collars.”

It turns out he was right.

Penny moved his patients underground. Holes in the ground with logs for ceilings and kerosene lamps for the sun. I watched him become a grub. His filthy white coat became a bad husk with a good surgeon trapped inside. He became crass and he smelled. His eyes were red all the time; from tears, from no sleep, and from touching drugs.

He started wandering out late at night. Putting himself down on the ground, face up on the ground. Staring up at the sky and talking to God, so the sentries were complaining, because sometimes he talked too loud… he'd go on and on… saying it was all on the doctor’s shoulders. Talking about himself in the third person. Saying he wanted to help a baby born. Saying it wasn’t fair he had to hack off limbs. Saying he wanted to make things whole again.

So one day he cleared a lot of bewildered men out of a new room they made under ten feet of hard dirt, and the stairs down to the room were good with logs along the sides, and the doctor took with him some tables and lamps and he posted a notice outside about a quarantine. He said he needed the room in case something like fever, or measles, or plague touched them. Most of the wounded were carried into the main rooms, where more than just Penny had admission. But every few days the doctor would say, “This man. This man may have small signs of the big hurt.” Then the wounded man would be carried to the quarantine. And I wasn’t allowed past that canvas door. The doctor would drag the man inside, and we heard screams and pitiful cries and crazy sounds and words of disbelief… insane songs sung by morphine and laudanum and pain.

The shelling began an hour ago. Most of it on the east boundary. And sniper fire. And a mine blew up. And we knew it was the start of some new phase. I ran to find Joshua Penny. I called through the canvas door. No answer. I called again. No answer. I went past the sign and, pulling my hand into my uniform sleeve so I didn’t have to touch the screen, I pushed the canvas open. Weak light looked past me into the dark room. What we saw inside the door made us wretch. For the first time in a long war, I was sickened at what I saw.

Dr. Penny was insane.

He was working with a needle and long thread. He was sewing together flesh to flesh, and what he had before him weighed more than Jonah’s great whale, or all the pharaoh’s chariots combined. It was a pile of limbs, scattered across the tables. Five — six — seven tables, were side by side, and it looked like a horrible puzzle contest… or an unearthing of the shattered dead… or an assembly line of soft statues.

Make statues. Make statues of soldiers. Make them from these.

Then I looked closer. Some of the puzzle was completed. For there were heads and torsos also in the mix. And some of the limbs were moving. One of the heads was turned to the side, coughing up smelly blood. And everything was sewn together, so an arm of one man — his hand gone by war, was meld surgically into the leg of another — his foot gone by war. And it was like garments put together by a mad seamstress. With sleeves sewn to cuffs and pants sewn together waist to waist. Jackets torn open with extra sleeves attached, sewn to the sliced opening, and hands and feet… He was indeed good with his skills, for so much of the mess on the tables was living. What in the name of hell was on these tables?! It was fifty men taken apart, and put back together into one giant specter, with a dozen pumping hearts pumping, and a dozen dead minds minding very much I think, the impositions of the deranged doctor. And then with a cheerful hello, Dr. Penny called to me, and he said, “See? You see… ?”

I stepped around the doctor and grabbed a scalpel from his wooden box — and started cutting them free of one another. I started cutting throats and wrists. The monster was so big — one big thing — so it could not move or rise. But it screamed from places — and the screams led me to more throats… And the doctor grabbed my left hand — but the hand with the scalpel was free. With one quick stroke I severed him.

In horror, I dropped the red blade and backed out of the room. That’s when I thought about fire and cleaning the room. That’s when I crossed the compound and took the fuel and got myself injured and dropped half the can, and made it back finally to the place with the bodies and limbs.

• • •

I'm at the dugout now. I open the curtain and douse it all with kerosene. I pull down a lamp and toss it inside.

The flames begin to roar.


I sit on the dirt and wait.


The bluecoats are streaming in.


One of them notices my coat, thinks I may be a surgeon.“Would you be able to help the wounded?” he asks.


“Up to a point…” I answer, “… just as far as my knowledge allows.”



Thomas Lee Joseph Smith is a member of, Writers Under The Arch (WUTA), a writers group in St. Louis. Tom has three children and a very patient wife. When he isn’t writing, Tom likes to spend time playing lead guitar in the heavy metal band I Can’t Believe I'm Not Bitter.


September 2002