The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter III
We proposed a Thanksgiving dinner, but Dr. Hunt thought we could not get one up for the whole Hospital, but I, being a private myself, was unwilling to assist in cooking dainties for the officers alone, and the matter was given over to me to manage in my own way.
Four days previous to the day, I gave in my requisition for the solid things which should flourish at the feast.
My order was for two pigs, seven turkeys, five chickens, beef, rice for puddings, seasoning for pies and cake, and with bread and vegetables, I thought our table would be well furnished for the occasion.
We had one hundred and eighteen names on our dinner-list, yet some were not able to eat a full supply. Matters began to look doubtful to me, as my order was not filled at the time I wished to prepare them, and the steward, with some of the boys, got permission to go out into the country, and see what they could obtain.
They returned with wild and tame turkeys, and pigs, and chickens, and we were soon on the high road to success.
Our pies Coleman and I made at night, and I cut out two hundred biscuit, thinking bread would eke out the supply, but we must have some of our home fixings, or it would not seem like Thanksgiving.
Our cooks, Stillman, West, Quick, and Georgie, prepared the vegetables, and Thanksgiving came.
Thanksgiving! How thought went back to our homes in the North, where the snow lay over the dead leaves, on the sear grain fields, and on the orchard paths, where the moss clung to the rocks and fences along the way. In the dear homes, by the warm fires they talked of us, who were so far away, and going on, no one knew how soon, into the valley of battlefields, some—ah many, never more to set foot upon those homeward paths, never more to cheer the loved ones who would wait their coming till the certainty of death broke the heart with its convulsive terror.
In the midst of so much preparation I could not indulge much sadness, and a box arriving to me from home, running over with just the things which I needed to crown the feast—cake and butter, and enough to go around withal, I felt a thankfulness which was in strict accordance with the day.
Our men had an excellent dinner. The table looked as homelike as we could make it by spreading sheets over it, and the new tin cups and plates, with the knives and forks, were laid neatly upon it.
We set the table for the officers in the steward's room, also spreading sheets thereon for a cloth, and the little handkerchiefs of cotton which the Binghamton ladies had sent for the use of our sick men, we used for napkins;—we were anxious to support some style while yet in the regions of civilization.
Adjutant Hopkins, forgetting that we should need them for the destined purpose ultimately, pocketed his, and was called back to deliver it up, amidst much laughter. They would soon forget the use of napkins in the camp, and on the hard marches; we could excuse it if he had passed into partial forgetfulness thus early in the day.
Col. Ireland of the One Hundred and Thirty-Seventh N. Y. V. took dinner with us, and seemed to enjoy the occasion.
I put my hands to all the work which lay in my way;—now washing—now mending—now making a toast, or cup of tea for a sick man, yet the days were long at times, and the nights endless, and sleepless. And yet I was not sorry to be where I was, I was not homesick—I would not have returned if I could.
Some jokes were perpetrated, and some patients suspected of not helping nature in rapid recovery,—still it was hard to think this of men who had done all the duty thus far required of them.
We had one man who "did not complain of feeling very well,"—his lungs were bad, and I proposed blistering. He had few friends, for above all a true soldier despises a sneak, and such we thought him to be—whispering and drawing his face into unusual length whenever he came near the steward or myself—of whom he was a little in fear, having been told that we were "cross."
Some of the boys in the secret said I would not induce him to submit to a blister, but I thought differently, and proposed mustard at first, which hurt some, but did not effect the cure,—he was still "weak in the lungs." Next, a blister of Spanish flies, well rubbed with vinegar to make it adhere, was applied, and he was cured.
We were very tired of him before he went away, but his blister served him one good purpose, whenever after that he was ordered to go on duty, all he had to do was to lay his hand on his lungs, and he was excused.
In the month of Jan., 1863, we were ordered to move to Laurel, to join those sick at that place—our hospital having been divided heretofore. The steward's mother was with us at that time, and once again I enjoyed the society of a woman, to whom I could talk without restraint. So strange it had seemed to me—no faces but those of bearded and mustached men.
I was anxious to go, for those whom I had come to the seat of war to tend in sickness were there. I took the cars, in company with a Mrs. Bennett, on a cold windy day, when the sun would peer at us by snatches, while white clouds with inky borders, as though they had dipped down into the troubled mire of earth in their flight, went hurriedly over the blue sky above us.
It was a dreary place to which we went, but I was welcomed to it so heartily, and found my room so cosy, I took it with a sigh of relief.
Our hospital buildings consisted of an old store, and a two-story dwelling house. As we had but little to move, only the precious sick, it took but a short time to settle ourselves, and be at home in Laurel Hospital, and our sick-list numbered on]y twelve men.
We were in the midst of a rich farming country, and as we tired of our bare rations, the boys made frequent requisitions on the neighbors, and drew a pig, then a turkey, then a goose, using all strategems, deeming them always fair in love and war, and the people were only loyal as they stood in fear of Northern bayonets.
Our cellar was open to the light of the sun, our door having fallen in, and, like tenants who expect to move in a week or so, and having no particular love for the landlord, we had delayed repairing it.
The boys enticed two pigs into it one day, regaling themselves in prospect of the delicious roast, which in savory sweetness lay palpitating beneath the bristling hide of the unthinking porkers. They had them nicely captured, and accustomed to the place, when Dr. Johnson was prompted by some spirit to go into the cellar, and out ran a pig. He asked me how it happened—pigs in the cellar—and I, not knowing how to account for it, said the boys must have concluded not to keep their pigs over, but had driven them in preparatory to the slaughtering.
Surgeon Hunt left us at Laurel, and Dr. Churchill, from Owego, took his place. We were very sad to part with him, for he had proved himself a kind, humane man—a friend to us all, and we had trusted in him to do so much for the recovery of the sick.
Dr. French went to Annapolis Junction to take charge of some of our regiment stationed there, and our medical corps was sadly broken up. Our sick-list swelled to thirty names, mostly down with fever, and my brother amongst them, prostrate with typhoid fever.
We had enough to eat, and comforts for the sick in a measure, and a box arriving from Sandy Springs, a few miles distant, sent by a Mrs. Deborah Lee, containing wine, jelly, and pickles, furnished cooling drinks for the sick, and many a little bit of relish for the convalescing.
Often we had chickens, and a cow would be milked by some unknown "fairy," and the contents of the pail deposited in our kitchen before the sun was up in the morning.
March, which brought its bitter winds to our Northern hills, came to us with now and then a clear sunny day—a promise of the coming spring. With every streak of golden light came a wild throbbing at my heart, for battles would be fought again—the contending forces only waited for the work of nature's hand to begin again the carnival of death. When her sweet breath had breathed life into the bud, and stem, and tangles of bloom rose in the waste places—then the blue sky with its fresh smile would be clouded with the thick smoke of battle, and the tender grass be dyed with the blood of human hearts.
How could the flowers open in those trampled dells again, where under the blooming tangles the root was yet wet with the gore of last year's carnage? But nature smiles, let man desolate as he will; her kindly hand begins with every recurring spring-time the work of renovation. The grass grows ranker where some heart spilled its life blood, and where some soldier's bones lie mouldering beneath, the grain grows heavy in its unripened richness, bending its tassels to the very ground. O! doth it not strive to hide with its tangled beauty the devastation which man's hand hath wrought?