The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter IX
Such sights never before haunted my waking vision. You, afar off from the scenes amidst which we worked through those May days, can have but little conception of the horrors which filled the hospitals of Fredericksburg.
You shudder when a child mutilates its tender fingers, and the wound is carefully cleansed and dressed; then what emotions would have thrilled through every nerve of your body could you have seen those shattered frames, with limbs wrenched from the trunk by exploding shells, with gaping fissures, through which the soul had nearly escaped. Oh! it was horrible, and still the long trains poured in their hundreds a day.
They bore their sufferings with heroic fortitude, closing their white lips to repress the groans which every breath brought up, and clenching their strong hands in the intensity of mortal pain.
At nine o'clock I was called to hard tack and coffee, feeling the need of it to strengthen me for the work in hand.
We had a patient who occupied a small bed-room alone, whose wound was through the lungs, and mortal. He was young—too young to die away from the kind attentions of mother, and sisters, of whom he talked to me in the lull of his pain. He told me also of one other who was waiting for her soldier to return, that life might be crowned by the joys of his constant presence.
We knew he could not live, but he was full of hope, and when the numbness of death crept over him, soothing his anguished senses, he said, "Now I can go to sleep, and shall waken much better."
He dropped into an easy slumber, and did waken better—he wakened in a land where there is no more pain or sighing—no battle-grounds strewed with shattered wrecks of mortality, and we closed his eyes, thinking how dreadful the tidings would come to that peaceful village in the North—to mother, sister, and beloved, when they knew he for whom they prayed "died of his wounds after the battle was over."
In my nervous anxiety to find my own regiment, I could not rest after the death-scene was over, and went out in search of something to lead me to them, if they were yet reported as being in.
I had walked only a short distance, when a familiar voice called "Aunt Becky," and I turned to greet Col. Tracy, who was ill and suffering extremely. To my trembling inquiry after the One Hundred and Ninth, he said, "They are badly cut up," and with the dread of meeting those brave men, mutilated and nigh to death, I proceeded on my search.
Going in the open door of a church, I found one of our boys, Fred Bills, with a mortal wound, and his suffering agonizing. He said, "O stay with me, Aunt Becky," and I promised to do so, reporting and being assigned to the Second Division of the Ninth Corps, Dr. Snow in charge.
The hospital was located in the Presbyterian Church, and my bed-room the high narrow pulpit, in which I was so cramped and confined I could not lie at ease, even if my nightly vigils were undisturbed by groans and sighs of the wretched men below me.
Poor Fred Bills followed me with his anxious eyes as I went amongst the patients, and I held him upright in my arms many an hour, for in that position only could he obtain repose. He lived eight days, and a dreadful horror seemed to fill his mind at the thought of being buried in an uncoffined grave. He dwelt on the terror of falling an easy prey to the worms, before decay had fastened on his body—he seemed to feel the weight of the stiff clods over his bosom, and exacted from a me promise to see him "buried in a box."
Fortunately I had a dollar in my pocket, and with that bought some boards, out of which one of the boys promised to make a rude coffin, and I saw him laid on the stretcher, with closed eyes, and limbs decently composed, and went back to my work, waiting for the arrival of the rude six feet by two in which we would lay poor Fred Bills in his narrow resting-place.
Looking out at the window a little later, I saw him lying in the wagon to be conveyed to the graveyard—lying with upturned face, and uncoffined body. I was indignant at the outrage, for it was known that he was to be buried in a box, and my blood boiled because they heeded no more the last strong wishes of a life which had been given to save just such cowards from a like death.
I ordered him laid again upon the stretcher, and after some parleying it was done, and again I went to my work, but ill at ease, looking often from the window. Again I saw him lying in the dead-wagon: to outwit a woman they were outraging the body of the slain, and I cannot tell what feelings rushed over me, and almost sent me wild.
They were about to drive off, and I called upon the steward in my anger, and orders were given which threatened any who should disobey them with the guard-house.
The coffin came, and the soldier's body was decently laid within it, wrapped in a clean sheet, and carried to his resting-place in the hospital graveyard.
Days, in lulls of duty, I kept up my search for our wounded boys, and going to the door of the Planter's Hotel, I learned it was the hospital of the Third Division of our Corps, in which was the One Hundred and Ninth Regiment.
I inquired if any of our boys were there, and a voice inside said, "There is Aunt Becky," and going in I found twenty from our regiment, some badly wounded. A faintness came over me, which I had not before experienced, as I saw them huddled together, such piteous creatures in their helplessness, those whom last I beheld in the lusty pride of life, now lying, so low, with death near one, at least, of the number.
Shuddering as I heard a few groans escape him in his agony, the faintness passed away, and I felt equal to almost anything. In the second story I found ten more suffering extremely.
As I looked from the upper window to shut out the terrible sight of blood and wounds, my eyes fell upon another still as dreadful, and appealing urgently to my heart for help. A soldier lay on the bare ground—his head raised upon a pile of stones, the hot sun pouring down upon his pallid face, in which was no sign of life. Some moments passed, and he stirred not—then I questioned a nurse who was passing, and he replied to my inquiry of "Is that man dead?" "No, but about as good as dead—he can't live."
I never paused till I reached his side, and seeming to gather supernatural strength I helped to bring him into the house, after feeling his pulse, and ascertaining that there was life still in the body.
I gave him brandy, and in an hour he opened his eyes, and seemed to be a little conscious of what was going on about him. While striving to revive him the Doctor passed that way, and paused, asking, "What are you doing with that dead man?"
"Going to raise him for myself," I replied very deferentially, and he went his way, muttering about "calico nurses" being such plagues in a hospital, but I had come to Fredericksburg to meet just such rude sneers from just such men, while I strove to take up
the tangled threads of work which they had promised to do, and tie them myself, and he was thanking me for it. Well, it was one satisfaction that I craved no praise from men of his calibre—if I did any good to any poor suffering men in the coarse blue of a private soldier, I hoped to be remembered in his heart—that was all.
I saw my patient—who had been left to die, and would have died soon but for the help he had—made comfortable, and tended him daily, till he was sent to the General Hospital, and had the satisfaction of knowing that he fully recovered. I saw him afterward in Washington.