The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter IV
Death waited often at our door. Some lay very low, while every attention which it was possible to give was rendered unto them. Our faithful nurses wrought over the sick-beds with constant fervor. Their names—Jacobs, Gager, Robertson, and Stevens—will always be remembered by me, when somehow I, like the rest of womankind, are apt to forget that men may have tender, sympathetic hearts.
Jacobs' wife came to stay with her husband for a time, and I highly appreciated her society, and realized how much is always lost in the absence of women from any place where human beings congregate.
One young man named Raymond was very low, and in the uncertainty of his recovery we sent for his parents, who came on immediately. I had known them before coming out to the army, and the familiar faces were like a glimpse of home to the heart-sick wanderer.
They remained a week, and left him recovering, but how anxiously their thoughts dwelt around the boy whom they were leaving in the care of soldier nurses—the boy who had never known one hour of sickness,—but his mother was beside him, to smooth his pillow, and relieve his pain. How on the homeward journey their hearts came back to him, lying on the bare hospital bed, when the little white-curtained room at home was empty, and with all its comforts, and the plenty around, lone and unused.
Such visits were very frequent from the North, at the beginning of the war, but as the strangeness grew into a familiar thing, and it was nothing new to hear of "the boys" being ill in hospital, and later of suffering from wounds received in battle, the difficulty of reaching them increased, and many a poor fellow died, yearning for his mother, when in her heart agony she was denied the comfort of receiving his dying words.
The cruel war of the Rebellion taught many a strange, sad lesson to us all, it made tongues familiar with tales of starvation, and death in prisons, and wrought descriptions of wounds so horrible, that the heart and soul grew sick, remembering the comeliness of the young soldier, who, in his suit of blue, marched proudly away to the war, and now—Oh, the wreck of beauty and manliness is hard to dwell upon.
To vary the monotony of our life, sometimes, in company with some hospital visitor, we would go in an ambulance to Washington, and, of course, inspected the public buildings while there, as did every nurse and soldier whose time allowed the stroll.
Of course my eyes opened wide as they looked on pillar, and dome, and fresco, and gilding, and marble whiteness. I am not to attempt any formal description of what has been given in detail time and time again, so that even those whose eyes have never rested on the huge white piles, covering acres and acres, have something of a correct idea of the glory of our nation's capitol.
In passing through them one sees many rich and noble things, so much dazzling whiteness and glare that the eye wearies with the grandeur, and would fain turn away to rest on some little patch of green, fresh with showers, stretching out before a tiny cot, suggesting quiet home peacefulness, but sees it not.
The great wide streets look like dreary commons over which the ranging cattle have made beaten tracks—there is a dreary monotony about the muddy stretch, so unlike our northern streets, that one is glad to escape from them anywhere out into the free country beyond.
It was once a great thing to visit the Capitol; now, where is the home in the North out of which some member, friend or relative has not passed, to stand under the shadow of the marble dome, and the tasselled curtains of the White House lost many a bit of silken fringe which lies to-day, with moulder clay from Petersburg and Fort Fisher, and shivers of granite from Sumter, and battle relics and prison tokens, in treasure-boxes all over the land.
The war developed one thing at least—a thorough knowledge to many, of the extent and grandeur of the public buildings at Washington.
I was glad to remember the Smithsonian Institute, as it stood with its noble works of art before the flames rioted upon them. I visited it only the day before it was burned.
The Patent Office bewildered and amazed me—so much brain had been expended in fashioning those implements of useful industry. In their perfect finish, they told so many tales of years of privation and toil, when the soul, still confident of success, and sure of its powers, kept the hand at its cunning, rising above the want which perchance looked in at the window, and now the object was obtained. Was it the worker who reaped the reward—who saw his name enrolled on the list of benefactors to the human kind?
Many sad thoughts peopled those buildings for me; yet I am glad to remember that I too have been under the shadow of the Republic's glory, as expressed in the Capitol and other public buildings at Washington.
I wondered if the silken and velvet robes which trailed down the white steps covered hearts which beat like mine. After all, does the golden glint from piles of wealth throw any softer light out unto the world around for those who look over it? does any stronger throb of patriotism urge those pulses when all the world holds the name on its tongue? had those hands any potent power for healing which was denied us, who passed in lowly garb?
Who could tell? But I had no envy for the ease which had rusted its lines into those once fair faces, shaded now in their wan waxen whiteness by folds of soft, costly laces. I felt only a pity that those jewelled hands would not find a work as I had, into which heart and soul had entered, which brought in its faithful performance the peace of a life well filled and spent.
April came to us as sunny as when a child I used to wander in the woods by Cayuga's side, searching for all the sweet flowers which sprung up from the dark rich wood mould. I thought to how many this was the last Spring which should drop its flowery offerings at their feet.
Dying men looked into my face beseechingly, and I could give them no hope. They called for wife, and mother, and child in the swift workings of delirium, but no wife, or mother, or child could stand by the death-bed, to hear, as I heard, the dying words.
One lay even then, while the April sun was shining so brightly, asking for her who had promised to stand by him in sickness and in health—in the ravings of his sick fancy calling me by the dear name of her he loved, so happy for the moment to believe she had come to tend him, and nurse him back to life; and while he talked of what they would do when he was at home once more, how my heart ached for the woman who knew not that a few hours would leave her widowed.
Not till the soul had left the precious dust would she know how she was bereft, and the only comfort, if comfort it could be called, would be to gaze upon those mute lips which her own had pressed but a little while before in parting, and know that never a throb of life would pulsate through that still heart again, and the green grass would grow in long summer days over the silent dust of her soldier husband, starred with the daisies, and wet with God's showers and diamond dew, under the shadow of his native hills.
I experienced naught but kindness, where I had been warned of a soldier's roughness, and I was very content with my work, so long as the eyes of sick men followed me about and grew brighter at my approach. So still it made my life to feel that some little good was growing out of it, when so much was wasted.
Colonel Tracy and Lieut.-Col. Catlin visited us, and both were interested in everything pertaining to our boys, providing for them as fathers would provide for children. How the nobleness of such souls shone out in the fiery struggle through which they passed. Men were tried as by a fire at red heat, and if dross made up the measure of humanity, there it lay an ashen heap.
These were men who would not ask others to go where they could not lead—men who would divide rations and money to the last with a private soldier, and would not feel their manhood dishonored. Men on whom the dignity of office was in no way cast down by sympathy with the common soldier—whose Democratic spirits recognized the fact, that "All men are created free and equal," and a shoulder-strap had no signification of higher material than earthly dust having been incorporated in the frame, which a shot or shell made as easy prey for worms as though it struck through the coarse blue of the private in the ranks.
I occasionally went from the hospital to visit the different companies of the regiment; going once in April with one of our nurses, Ira Gager, who had lost his voice, and, consequently, I had quite a silent ride.
Everywhere the touch of the awakening Spirit! Everywhere the evidence of the beauty which Summer's sunlight would ripen into Autumn's golden fruitage!
Soon the May blossoms nodded by the road side, and the orchards stood filled with perfumed globes, which flung out rose-tinted streamers when the wind passed them by.
I bethought me of our over-burthened geese, which needed stripping of their downy plumage, and with help from the boys, they were soon secured, and the preparations made.
But I was disturbed in my work by the appearance of an old "Secesh," looking for his stray geese, which, strange to say, were two in number, one gray, one white. Singular that mine should be of these colors; his with clipped wings, so were mine; but I was defiant—I was a woman; and as he stood eyeing me with gaping mouth and staring look, the echo of a smothered laugh from manly throats just inside the door, warned him to leave the contest, and another pillow was added to our store.
The boys often brought in honey—and how could honest throats relish such stolen sweets? but they did nevertheless. War makes strange havoc with civilized principles.