The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter VII
Our regiment was now broken indeed. Co. G was left at Bladensburg, Co. B and Co. I were about two miles from Falls Church, others were at Mason's Island, and a part with us. Yet they were enjoying themselves, and had many a privilege which was denied the soldier in camp.
The long roll beat one night, and the order for our boys to double quick it a mile, to where the Second District lay, for a band of raiders were supposed to be there. Excited, but fearless, they reached the spot in time to find that the alarm was only occasioned by the pickets firing upon an old white horse which, in his ghostly garb, had startled them with visions of a surprise.
The boys laughed as heartily as any one over the joke, some, in their hearts, no doubt, glad that the enemy was not a formidable force of desperate men, which had roused them from slumber in the December midnight.
The weather was quite severe for the climate, but we were as comfortable as could be expected.
While at Falls Church I visited one afternoon with Capt. Gordon's wife. They had a room, and were keeping house. Her furniture must have been quite in contrast to that which was waiting them when the war should be over, in the old home—one cross-legged table, two chairs, a camp-stool, a trunk, and a bed in the corner completed the inventory. When we took our tea, the trunk was drawn up to the table to make the third seat, soldiers making but little display for company.
Mrs. Gordon did the cooking over a huge open fireplace. I could have imagined myself in some pioneer settler's cabin, if the room had been walled with unhewn logs, and the ceiling unplastered; as it was, I remembered how many comfortable afternoons I had been out to tea with a neighbor, when we had no war items to talk over—no hopes and fears for the dear ones in peril to express, and I wondered if any of them ever proved any pleasanter or more profitable than this.
I had but little acquaintance with Mrs. Gordon previous to this visit, but knew she was thoroughly good, and eminently womanlike.
A "molasses lick" was a moral feature in our winter entertainments, and Dr. French and I were invited to attend one at the boarding-place, by Lieut. Waterford's wife. We went, of course, and waited patiently until eleven o'clock, and finding out that the molasses was not likely to come to the "licking" point till past midnight, we returned home without it.
At Christmas Mrs. Major Morell sent us a turkey for our dinner, and we had a feast. Private Close helped me cook, and do the work of the hospital, and I learned to rely greatly on his thoroughness and ability, and will always remember his kindness of heart to all who needed his assistance.
We were at Falls Church three months, when the Second District Volunteers were ordered into our places, and we were again to move.
My youngest brother was brought in on the eve of our departure, prostrate with lung disease, and as I could not leave him to the care of strangers, Dr. French left me a man, Private Haywood, to help me take care of him. Procuring rooms at Mrs. Chapel's I had him moved there, and staid to my lonely task.
The Dr. had little hope of his recovery, but I could not give him up without a desperate struggle. I saw the ambulances move away with our patients, and felt how desolate it was to be alone with strangers, fearing the approach of death to one who was as dear as my own child to my heart, for I had tended him in infancy as a mother tends her babe.
Five days of unremitting watchfulness over him, and Dr. Woodbury gave him up to die before the morning dawned again.
Haywood was stricken with the same disease, and with delirium and the prospect of speedy death I grew almost wild in my exertions to save him. I had slept none for three weeks only by snatches, while my brother slept, and but for the kindness of the women of the house my heart would have sunk entirely.
But the disease was arrested in its progress, and he became better, and once more I felt as though I had breathed the air of freedom.
Haywood was also recovering, and I felt that I could leave them in safety, and go to Mason's Island. One branch of our hospital had been moved to Alexandria, and the steward, after a visit there, brought back the sad intelligence of the death of one of our best nurses. Squire Gager, who died of small-pox in the pest-house.
We shuddered to think of the death by that loathsome disease, from which it is no wonder that every civilized being shrinks in trembling horror, and mourned him as one of our noblest men—so patient with the irritable sick soldiers' fancies—so kind to all.
We could ill spare such men when the work which we came out do was only begun. But who shall tell when the harvest is ripe, and the reaper gathers in his own, grown golden and heavy for the fall?
I went by way of Alexandria, looking in upon those whose constant attendant I had been for months, then crossed to Mason's Island, and took up my quarters in the camp.
My tent was made very cosy and comfortable; the boys ceiled it up, and laid a floor, and the Adjutant gave me his stove, which, insensate thing, black and bare as it was, seemed the dearest relic from the land of civilization—I could cook many a little delicacy over it for the sick. I had an iron bedstead, a chair, a stand made by the boys, and with my trunk I never felt richer in worldly possessions.
We had some men very low now. One a mere boy—dying so far away from his home. His brother, also a youth, had been one of our attendants in the hospital for many months, and I had become quite attached to him for his goodness of heart.
How I pitied the boy when they told him his brother must die—so young—only sixteen, yet old enough to breathe out his life to swell the list of sacrifices on the altar of his country. We had small-pox in our hospital at Mason's Island, and the pest-house to which they were taken proved in almost every instance the dead-house also. It was said that the men in charge would tie the patients to their iron bedsteads, while they went to Washington, visiting the theatres and concert rooms, leaving the sick in the delirium of suffering to fight the battle of death all alone, in the dreadful place. Could any punishment be fit for such wretches? Could any hell yawn deep enough to receive their shrivelled spirits? Rather I would have seen our men, one by one, laid under the sod, than see them taken to that place to suffer and die thus.
We had one man, private John Vail, who was down with the varioloid, but I was determined he should not be sent there,—that I would take the care myself, and with help from the boys bring him up out of the danger. He was quite ill, but I told him when the Doctor came along to whistle, and make it seem that his illness was of little account; and he did so, being passed in the hurry without any critical examination, and as good luck would have it the Doctor went to Baltimore for two days, and when he returned Vail was on the fair road to recovery.
The first of April we moved into our new barracks, which the boys had built; I had a snug little room just out of the kitchen, with my tent furniture within, and a cupboard in addition, in which were ranged to make as wide a display as possible our white dishes.
The building was long, low, and unpainted, but it was an improvement on the tents, and we could care for the sick in greater comfort.
Miss Dix visited us here, and seemed quite well suited with our arrangements.
With the forward motion of the Army of the Potomac, when sunny skies bent over the devoted troops, came the rumor that our regiment was going to the front. At last the boys were to meet other foes than citizen rebels and the lurking diseases of a new climate.
My heart grew sick when I thought of the determined man who stood at the head of the grand army, and I knew that Richmond must fall,—that Lee's army must surrender; and then came in long array the thought of dismal marches through swamp, and morass, the hurried bivouac, the bugle-call in the morning, when some who saw the rosy dawn flushing up the fleecy clouds lie ghastly corpses before the setting sun.
I thought of the weary soldier as his tired feet could hardly support him while he made his cup of coffee over the fire of light wood—some rebel planter's fence rails—and shot, and shell, and sun, and storm would work out wounds, and sickness, and death for many a one now flushed with ambitious hopes, and eager for the fray.
But the order came, and soldiers must obey. I went down to see them for the last time before they joined Burnside's Ninth Corps, but I felt that the shadow of death was over them, as I looked upon them, clad in new bright uniforms, so many, alas! which would prove their shrouds.
As one by one said, "Good bye, Aunt Becky," I knew there were those amidst them whom I should never see again, or seeing them, it might be, in the crowded hospital, with wounds, and dying sighs to make the place a house of horror.
My brothers seemed going from me forever, and I tried to reason with the uprising in my heart that this was why they had taken their lives in their hands, leaving peaceful pursuits behind them to fight the battles of their country. They had been spared very long the attendant hardships of active warfare—they did not shrink—why should I?
Perhaps it was because a woman's heart beat in my bosom, and woman, you know, cannot brave the battle shock only as she goes in to minister to those who fall,—she could not give those dreadful wounds.
Lieut. Barton said as he shook my hand, "Good bye, Aunt Becky, good bye forever." And he fell the first in the fight at Spotsylvania Court House.
How many such a foreboding hung round those men—how many saw the close black shadow which even then flung its blackness across their way from
the coming death, and how true thousands of premonitions proved to be.
Many a one at home waited with high hope the sure return of the soldier from the wars, knowing that somehow—God only knew how—the dear one should escape the bullet and bayonet, while to others the farewell was the last on earth.
A noble band of men had gone—they were all noble, as regiment after regiment joined the veteran corps; heroic blood fired the hearts in every rank, while coward fear drove some wild with its desperation. It is folly for men to stand now, afar from the scenes enacted on those Southern battle-fields, and tell of regiment or corps the "Grandest that ever faced a foe."
All were grand; all were heroic; the blood of mortal men beat in their hearts; situations, and opportunities may have given some the precedence over others, but the same enthusiasm fired all the ranks, given the same time, and place, with; a master spirit to lead, and no one corps or regiment went beyond what it what it was possible for all to do.
Many a one rose to be a hero, who, if the war of the rebellion had never cursed us, would have remained as common place at home as the humblest day laborer who eats his bread by the sweat of his brow; the heroism was in the occasion, and the man's heart; met it without quailing, and forthwith became a hero.
When I went to camp to see the regiment before starting, we had twenty-six sick men in the wards of the hospital; when I returned one of the nurses came to me, saying I was wanted in a particular ward; I went, and found only one patient left—private Talman, who was too ill to go to the general hospital.
I felt that everybody was dead or dying, and went to my room, and indulged, woman-like, in a long rain of tears. My occupation seemed gone for the time, it was terrible to think when and how my next work might come to me.
In the morning the cooks were going, and only myself and Dr. French would be left. Very silent was our first breakfast alone. We had coffee, bread, and an egg each, and sat facing one another thinking of beefsteaks cooked rare, and seasoned with fine salt and pepper, and spread with generous slices of yellow butter—of mashed potatoes, and steaming rolls, and the frothy cream lying flaky on the rich brown coffee, but we made no outward demonstration of rebelling against soldier's fare; we saw a time not long hence when this breakfast even would have seemed luxurious.