The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter I
NINTH CORPS HOSPITAL MATRON.
It is no record of bloody battles which these pages are opened to detail; neither do I purpose to depict the horrible scenes of carnage which made the "Sunny South" one red field of flame: only to show one weak woman's work amongst the sufferers gathered up from those dreadful slaughter-plains, and those driven in sick and exhausted from the unwonted exposure in camp and march, this work of recording is begun.
Standing firm against the tide of popular opinion; hearing myself pronounced demented—bereft of usual common sense; doomed to the horrors of an untended death-bed—suffering torture, hunger, and all the untold miseries of a soldier's fate; above the loud echoed cry, "It is no place for woman," I think it was well that no one held a bond over me strong enough to restrain me from performing my plain duty, fulfilling the promise which I made my brothers on enlistment, that I would go with them down to the scene of conflict, and be near when sickness or the chances of battle threw them helpless from the ranks.
I found it was a place for woman. All of man's boasted ingenuity had been expended to devise terrible engines with which to kill and maim God's own image; and if war was right, it was right for woman to go with brothers, and husbands, and sons, that in the time of peril the heart might not faint with the thought of an untended death-bed in the crowded hospitals, where no hand but the rough soldier's should close the dead staring eyes.
It was something to brave popular opinion, something to bear the sneers of those who loved their ease better than their country's heroes, and who could sit down in peace and comfort at home, while a soldier's rations, and a soldier's tent for months and years made up the sum of our luxurious life.
Had there been more women to help us, many a brave man, whose bones moulder beneath the green turf of the South, would have returned to bless the loved ones left in the dear old home behind him. But all alone, while the shadow of the valley of death was fast stealing over the numbing senses, his spirit went back, and his white lips murmured words which the beloved so far away would have given worlds to hear; and we heard them, but could not repeat them from the dying lips.
It is past and gone. The long agony is over, and the nation breathes free. Yet hardly a heart or home but holds the remembrance of some brave one, near and dear, who gave his life to save his country's honor. On the battle-field they fell, in tented hospitals, within noisome prison-pens breathed out the last breath of life, and counted it no loss if the glorious stars and stripes could but follow in the path which they helped to clear with tired, blistered feet, and blood dropping from throbbing wounds.
Should traitors again assay to grasp the helm of state, and the cry go up for succor, while the legions of young men spring armed from the North, let there be no words of sneering spoken to keep back those whose hearts go out with them, and who would gladly leave home, and friends, and comfort, to follow the brave one to the battle, and bind up his wounds when the day was won, and his life fast ebbing away with the gory stream, drawing, with every shifting sand, nearer and nearer the fountain. Let no one say, if war and its attendant sufferings be Christian, that where men are in the midst of the dreadful work, "it is no place for women."
The One Hundred and Ninth had been gone two weeks, and I did not care to leave till the change and exposure to which the raw regiment was unused had wrought sickness, and made my presence needed; and September 3d, 1862, I left Ithaca, N. Y., in company with one of our men, who had returned with the body of a comrade, killed by the cars while on guard-duty along the railroad, at Laurel Station, Md.
It was one of those rare mornings peculiar to that beautiful month. Deliciously cool, with soft breezes whispering in the tree-tops, then sweeping low to shake from the grass-blades a million of diamond drops. No bird-songs thrilled the still pulses of air like those which charm the summer mornings; the deep hush of everything but soft-sighing winds seemed to rush over me with overwhelming sadness, till for a moment, as I thought of the two little girls whom I was leaving motherless, I felt a wild desire to return—a shrinking from the duties which I had undertaken, and sickened at the thought of dressing bloody wounds, of combing out hair tangled and matted with the thick gore—of being alone of my sex at times in the camp of soldiers, whose trade was death.
Then better feelings took possession of me, and I knew if they could suffer so much, and die for their country, I could at least give some years of my poor life in the attempt to alleviate their sufferings; and I took up my burthen of duties again, and watched listlessly the changing scenes along the road.
The cool September morning ripened into the hot, dusty day; still we kept on our journey, arriving at Baltimore, weary and hungry, on the morning of the 4th.
We went for a moment's rest and escape from the dust into the ladies' room, our empty stomachs suggesting the roundness and thickness of the flakes of flesh which once clung round the bare ham-bone lying on the shelf, and the probable age of the remnant of cheese over which the sprightly skippers were noting.
We had no time to go in search of food, and our lunch had long since disappeared before the ravages of hunger, and soon were on board the cars again, arriving at Bladensburg at ten o'clock a.m., finding Co. G., of the One Hundred and Ninth Regiment N. Y. V., my own band of gallant men.
The greeting assured me that I was welcomed, and when we unpacked the boxes of provisions which had been prepared by the hands of mothers, wives, and sisters in the old well-remembered kitchens at home, there was silence for a moment, as the heart of the soldier throbbed with a half homesick feeling, then beat again in its patriotic measure, and voices grew loud and hilarious over "the box from home."