The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter II
I was anxious to find my work, and in the afternoon of our arrival, Captain Knettles went with me to Beltville, where the hospital had been established the day previous.
The building was an old three-story wooden house, which had been unoccupied for some months, and was in a ruinous condition. No fence separated it from the street—no shrubs or flowers marked it as the former abode of civilized men and women. The kitchen floor was level with the ground, and laid in brick; an arched fireplace yawning its black cavernous mouth at one end, and a similar one in the room opposite, which we used for a dining-hall.
I could romance as I wrought on the dirty floors, and put my hands to the work of cleansing. I could speculate on the joys and sorrows which had been born and nursed, and had died beside that hearthstone; but the half hundred men who, sick mostly with fevers and measles, lay on the damp, dirty floors—no pillows for the restless head, no beds for the aching body, nothing but the two blankets which each had drawn for covering, and pillow, and bed—all this forbade long speculation; my heart ached for their hard condition, and studied how best to make them more comfortable.
I was eyed curiously by the strangers in the hospital, and overheard whispers of "She will soon play out," "It's a new broom that sweeps clean," as I went into the work with a will. I laughed to myself, for I knew my own strength. I had not come to the South with any purpose of shirking my duty wherever it lay.
They had provided no room for me, and I was obliged for the present to find some place in which to sleep and eat. I was fortunate enough to obtain board and lodging at the next door, where my room was with a crew of as hateful specimens of humanity as ever had a stepmother do duty over them.
I returned to Co. G. the next day, and stayed with a Union family named Boughtnot, where I met with a Mrs. Youngs, a cousin of Mrs. Southworth's, the authoress, and to her I took an exceeding fancy. Although "secesh" in principles, and her whole heart in sympathy with the rebel army, yet she nursed many a poor Northern soldier back to life, and gave him again to his country to fight those she loved.
My return to the hospital, and the beginning of its routine, was marked by my first meal at my new boarding-house. It consisted of the favorite dinner of boiled vegetables, and the seasoning of the whole cabbage came on to my plate alone, in the shape of a huge angle-worm, intact.
I thought, every one for himself, and ate my dinner in silence, keeping down as best I could the rebellious upheavings of my stomach, which hardly relished such sauces of the ground.
At tea-time, I got in before the meal was ready, and found the mother holding the youngest "pet" on her knee, making him tidy for the appearance of the strange "hospital woman."
"Sisey" had put on her dishwater, like a thrifty housewife, before the meal, and it being quite handy, and "pet's" hair in tangles, "Ma" wet the comb therein, that the curls might more readily yield to the gentle pulling process. That over, and the hair in order, the dishcloth, which lay handy on the table corner, was called into requisition, to wipe the dirt from the little snubby nose and freckled face, greatly to my disgust.
Think of it, when I was hungry, and waited for my supper!
All night a brindle pup belonging to the owner of the house kept up its howling, driving sweet sleep from my eyelids, and bringing to mind the old superstition, that death was waiting for some one without those doors then following thought over to the hospital, where, in the languor of fever, some were listening to the call.
For five days I endured the bad meals, and the night's disturbed repose, when I told the steward I could stand it no longer. The nurses gave me their own room, and fitted it up very pleasantly for my accommodation. They were all so kind to me that I felt fully repaid for all privations which I underwent, and the consciousness that I was doing some good to those sick and suffering men, soothed down the homesickness which would come, now and then, at thought of children and home.
The Autumn was mellowing the tints of the trees—the strange trees, and the bristling pines shot up like lances against the blue sky, while I looked away to the North, and pictured to myself the fearful aspect of the hills, and the low-lying valleys, while around me the foot-prints of War wore plainly into the trodden dust.
Our trio of surgeons, consisting of Drs. Hunt, Johnson, and French, were very kind to the men, treating them like patients at home, willing and able to pay the just fee for attendance, not as in after months I saw men treated, while my woman's blood boiled up, and run over—when a man was less than a dumb beast, because if he died there was no market value lost.
I had been in Hospital three weeks, when I was prostrated with an attack of pleurisy, which kept me from duty a few days, and I learned afterwards, that serious doubts had been entertained of my recovery. Had I doubted before in what respect and gratitude I was held, I could do so no longer, when the inquiries relating to "Aunt Becky's" situation came pouring in.
My recovery was rapid, and again I went on duty. Our food was substantial, consisting of bread, potatoes, pork, beans, beef, rice, tea, coffee, and sugar, while by the kindness of neighbors we were often treated to milk, eggs, and chickens.
Often, in the after months of our sojourn, we contrasted our fare at Beltville with the hard tack and coffee, and, unseasoned as it was with luxuries, it seemed delicious indeed.
One by one our men died—no friends around them, only some soldier comrade, so low in fever and delirium as to be half unconscious also. My work was hard;—many a night I went to bed but not to sleep;—my pillow was coarse straw, and every motion which I made in my restlessness, rattled its contents, and sent up new bristling stems to thrust them into my head and face.
At our next door—my old boarding place, they still kept the howling brindle pup, and one day as I dropped in for a moment, I chanced upon the final scene of its brief career. Our steward had given him a dose of something effective, and as his master was playing roughly with him, calling him into his lap to show his sprightliness, he leaped into the air—shuddered, and fell dead. I shed no tears over his untimely demise.
Our Chaplain made us a visit, bringing a trunk of Hospital clothing from the ladies of Binghamton, some fruit from Sanitary at Washington, and a firkin of butter from Owego. The last was a seasonable gift,—now we could butter the toast for our convalescing men, while before we were obliged to use salt and water, sometimes seasoned with a spoonful of milk.
The clothing enabled us to change the fever-saturated garments of our patients, and the fruit cooled the parched tongues of some who would never taste the like again.
One of our fever-patients received a box from home, sent in the kindly spirit which forwarded so many tokens to the boys, but it proved his death. He was recovering, and his weakened mind clung to this last link from those he loved, and was content only with the box beside his bed. I begged to be allowed to keep it safely for him, but could not obtain his consent, and he ate of the cake surreptitiously, rapidly grew worse, and died.
Two deaths from Co. G. occurred about the same time.