The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter V
The returning Spring brought anxious thoughts to my heart. How long, I asked myself, will our regiment be detained on guard-duty, and escape the fatigue of marches and the chances of battle. I listened eagerly for any flying report; but May's fairy fingers fringed the borders of the dusty road, and Hooker's men fought again on the old contested ground, to retreat wearily and hurriedly across the river, to leave their seventeen thousand comrades dead, wounded, or prisoners.
We followed them in thought to the river's side, where they contended for a passage and won it—to the heights of Fredericksburg, where victory crowned their charging columns; then through reverse and retreat, and the final recrossing of the river to encamp on the old ground; to miss so many faces, to hearken vainly for voices which had strengthened the courage of many a one whose heart recoiled at the prospect of bloody battle.
Spring rapidly glided into the early Summer, and rumors of Lee's approach suggested descents upon the railroad, and our regiment now on strict duty, almost envying the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, whose bivouac for the night had lengthened into an encampment for days.
Silence at last fell over the movements of the army. Rumors were flying thick and fast. Now General Lee was within eight miles of Sandy Springs, and our boys caught the scent of the battle afar off. It was the first glow of the fire for them, and produced quite a sensation in camp; and in the hospital the sick lay, uncertain whether they were to fall into the hands of an enemy, or listen to the victorious shouts of their comrades as they drove the rebels back.
The troops at Annapolis Junction came on the double quick to Laurel to join the regiment, and the excitement ran high. Many were elated with the prospect of a sight at the foe—some who faced him months after, and were stricken down by the fatal shot which sought and reached the heart.
The citizens were panic-stricken. Women and children with white faces waiting for the beat of the rebel drums, and men standing in mute terror, gazing upon their homes which a few hours hence might be smouldering in ashes, nothing left to remind the stranger of what now stood, in sightly peace, a human habitation.
One man, who had since our forces were stationed there, floated the stars and stripes from his dwelling, pulled them down. If the "Johneys" came they wouldn't disturb him—you know. His loyalty was of the safe kind; he had no idea of sacrificing to either friend or foe.
The women connected with our hospital were in a great state of trepidation—some even packing up their clothing, in case they were taken prisoners.
I was excited, as was natural, but had no notion of being carried off by Gen. Lee's posts. But the days passed, and quiet settled upon us again, as we learned that the alarm had been occasioned by the presence of raiders, foraging on the farms near Sandy Springs.
It was too bad to disappoint so many who made loud protestations of bravery, but there was many a sigh of relief heard that no sound of rebel drums echoed along the valley, and no rattle of musketry proclaimed the meeting of hostile forces.
Now the grand army had broken camp, and were again on the move, no one could tell where, while Lee's men swept like a whirlwind through Maryland, and up into Pennsylvania, and men rallied to the defence of their homes; with hands unused to labor, they took spade, and shovel, and pick, and went into the work.
It must be a good thing to stir up the patriotisms of stagnant blood in the human heart. Those who had listened to prudential reasoning of business cares, now trusted the intricate work to other hands, and proved themselves capable of brave things—when the war was to be waged over their own hearths.
The latent soul fired up, and the coward who took his life, and left home and friends, beareth forever after the mark upon his forehead. Better to die one brave death fighting over the bodies of the slain, than to die the thousand deaths of fear which convulse the
heart of the coward. No Paradise waits for his successive ghosts,—the hell of despair yawns at his feet, and blindly he stumbles into its depths, while the land of Beulah awaits the soul of the dying brave.
We heard the boom of the far-away cannons, when the feet of hostile forces paused on the sacred hill at Gettysburg. The vibrations were plainly felt like the tremblings of an earthquake, and we knew that men were being cut down like ripened grain. The silence of days was broken, and men talked of the dreadful heat on the dusty highway, where soldiers fell prostrate by hundreds, stricken down by sun-stroke.
Eager eyes sought every scrap of information from the daily journals,—and waited, hoping for the best.
Lee's army, laden with spoils, went back into Virginia, uncaptured, and no one knew why,—so sure they were if a conflict was risked every rebel gray-back would be taken prisoner of war.
Hundreds came from the North to visit the field for relics—dead bodies were stripped, and the harness taken from bloated horses lying rotting where they were killed,—it was safe to indulge curiosity and acquisitiveness then, with Gen. Lee miles and miles away, and only the boys in blue with their loyal guns to guard the field.
Two visitors came to our hospital thence. It was whispered about that their eagerness for relics had caused them to indulge in undue freedom with proscribed things, and in consequence they were obliged to dig the grave for a horse's festering carcass, and bury it within.
Such was the tale, however true it might be, and those hands unused to labor, in that hot July sun, must have blistered with the heavy work. The relics, if they were retained, have a weightier meaning for them, no doubt, than the bare fact of being gathered from the battle-field of Gettysburg.
I went to Annapolis Junction to see the wounded, who, five hundred in number, were lying in the hospitals at that place.
It was the first sweep of battle-harvest which I had seen—yet, there was nothing at that late day to offend the senses, all was clean and neatly kept,—the wounds carefully hid. I heard but few groans telling of anguished suffering from those white lips.
Dr. Wheeler, afterwards in charge of the Division hospital, was in charge here.
I returned almost surprised and disappointed that my feelings had received no shock. Conjuring up in fancy the scenes which attended each removal from the bloody ground on which they fell,—the dusty uniform dyed with patches of gore—the faces blackened with powder smoke, and the life stream slowly ebbing away on to the trampled grass—but nothing of this appeared. So little one can tell who visits a hospital after the wounded are cared for, as I found months after, when I stood watching the gory procession brought into the tents, for our hands to minister unto.
Perhaps it was better for me that none of these terrible signs met my eyes till in the first search after my regiment, the anxiety which hastened my steps on and on was a kind of armor-plate to my tenderer sympathies.