The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter VI
Summer's heat burned into the heart of the grasses, and they withered to spring up again under the cool dew of Autumn nights. The foe made no more northern demonstrations, and we slipped back into the old routine again.
Our convalescents sometimes made raids into the woods, and captured the pigs which fattened them. We had one on an eventful day roasted to delicious perfection, and waited for the meal, when one of the boys came hurrying in, while visions of the guard-house disturbed his agitated digestion, saying, as he went, close to my ear.
"O! Aunt Becky, hide the pig—Col. Tracy is coming."
Aunt Becky said, "No, Col. Tracy will stay to dinner, and shall eat of it—it is so nicely done—you know."
And he did remain, and as he sat at the table eyed me sharply for a moment, then smiled, and ate the roasted pig as any honest soldier would when he knew it was fattened on rebel stores.
Nothing ever came to the boys of the lost pigs, although a sharp search was made for them soon after. Sick men of course could not know, and we women were not adepts at capturing the lank specimens of porkology which only needed kinks tied in their tails to keep them within the bounds of a rail-fenced wood-lot.
One of our men—Private A. M. West, died in August, and his father and wife came on in time to catch the last fleeting breath, although he was too far gone to recognize them. Still it was a comfort to be with him in the death hour—perhaps his spirit was conscious, if the body made no sign—and in after years they will remember when the grass is thick with many summers' growth, that hands which he had clasped in love, closed his dead eyes, and bore his pale clay back to the quiet churchyard, to sleep far from the shock of coming battles.
September returned, and I had been gone from home one rolling year. The golden haze hung over hill and wood top, and a homesickness came over me, which I could neither reason away nor subdue. I longed for the dear old spot again with childish furor;—I could not be witheld longer, except I saw for a while the faces of friends and children, and felt once more the surging waves of civilization sweeping around me again, far from camp, and hospital, and battle array.
I took the cars, having obtained leave of absence for a few days, and hurried home. Still my heart was with its work, and the visit which I thought would be so pleasant, was crowded with anxious thoughts of the boys, who might any day be ordered to the front, or might sicken and die, and I away.
I received intelligence of the proposed moving of the hospital to Falls Church, Virginia, and that I was needed to help make the change.
I returned to Laurel, having been absent thirteen days. It was the only break in my hospital life for nearly three years, for while so much was to be done, and so few hands for the work, I could never bring my homesick heart to desert its post, although alone of my sex in the hospital at City Point—weary and dejected at times, and sick of man's heartlessness and cruelty.
Soul and body, both were in the work, and strange as it may seem a fascination pervaded it which amidst all its trials and privations still kept the tired hands at the task, and they would not accept release.
The autumn waned, still the armies kept the field, doing enough of their bloody work to fill the land with mourning, and the hospitals with sick and wounded men.
The raw winds of November still found them on the offensive, and wearied but brave, many a soldier chose the excitement and din of march and fight, rather than the monotonous months of camp life, when the mud was knee deep, and cold, drenching rains froze on the tent-roof, and raw winds crept like thieves through the thin walls of his unsubstantial shelter.
The desolation of winter flaunted its signs in our faces, as with wild, gusty breath the departing autumn blew down the dead, discolored leaves, and the rain penetrated the thick uniform of our guards, suggesting, by contrast, the warm fires at home, around which gathered forms which he saw now only in dreams of the night.
How often they talked of their soldier, unconscious of the storm which beat upon his head.
The regiment had orders to move in this dreary time—a part going to Mason's Island across from Georgetown, and a part to Falls Church, Virginia, to which latter place I was assigned, and glad to go. The monotony of our long stay at Beltville was becoming wearisome, and we longed for a change.
It was like breaking camp to the brave soldier, whose spirit is fired with the prospect of coming battles, and who longs to forget in the excitement of marches, hoping to meet the enemy, those dull days of life, when the sameness had become almost unbearable.
So I was eager to go. Dr. French procured transportation for the sick, cooks, and nurses, but forgot me in the hurry of the transaction. I told him to make himself easy about it—I thought I could "cheek" it through.
The pass called for the exact number of privates, nurses, and so on, and Major Morell, our paymaster, thought I could not do it. When the conductor came around, asking me for my ticket, I said, "I belong to the Hospital of the One Hundred and Ninth N. Y. Volunteers."
He straightened himself up, saying, "This pass calls for only so many privates."
"Nevertheless," I replied, "I am supposed to be a private—I don't wear shoulder straps," and he said I could go on, and left me, doubtless revolving in his mind the wisdom of allowing such a reply to "pass" a woman, and being wholly unable to see the point.
We arrived at Mason's Island a little after noon, and having there a brother's wife, who had come out to remain with her husband while in camp, I remained there over night. It was a hurrying scene in the gray November afternoon, when the ferry-boat touched the landing, and the sick who were to be left there were taken in ambulances to the hospital.
There was greeting of friends who had been separated for months—and a glad, homelike feeling throbbed through those sluggish pulses at the sight of familar faces.
The next morning I recrossed the ferry, and went in an ambulance to Falls Church, eight miles distant. The ride was very pleasant in the cool November sunshine, where the leaves rustled down, dry and dead, with every breath of wind, all colored as I had seen them always by my own home which bordered on Cayuga lake.
And as I rode I tried to think myself winding along the roads which by and by would give me a glimpse of the bright waters, with the white breakers running in wild play over them. But again I looked on my strange carriage;—we did not ride then from neighbor to neighbor in vehicles made to take the wounded from the battle-field, and I was myself again—the hospital nurse, going to her new field of duties.
It seemed long—very long since September went, and I had taken the hurried peep at home and children, and the uncertainty of the next meeting filled me with sadness, which almost ripened into actual homesickness, when I beheld the great barren church, which the hand of war had arrested in its completion.
The gaunt skeleton, with its huge ribs uncovered, stood grinning, waiting for the sick to enter the door, and my work lay before me. Any unfinished building appears desolate and gloomy—we shudder as though the frame work of some human body stood before us, waiting to be clothed in fleshy habiliments.I could not remain there until some arrangements could be made for comparative comfort, and while the boys procured lumber, and finished me off quite a comfortable little room, I staid with a Union family—a Mrs. Chapel by name; and as we had only five names on our sick-list, and none in immediate danger, the work was lighter than with the burthen of anxiety weighing down the heart.