The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter VIII
I had promised never to leave the boys, whether in camp or at the front, and that day I went to Miss Dix to see about being sent up. She gave me her word that I should go as soon as any woman was allowed there, and I rested for the time, with the wild beating at my heart which told of death and wounds to those who were dear as brothers and children to me.
I took the cars for Hyattsville, Md., where I found my friend, Mrs. A. E. Youngs, and was welcomed to her house. I enjoyed the rest in body, although, with the floating rumors of extensive movements, my mind was constantly on the march with our brave troops, dreaming of them nightly; the morning's first awakening filled with thoughts of them, perhaps preparing their coffee by the hasty fire, perhaps called by the long roll from the drowsy arms of sleep, to rush into the foray with breakfast untasted as yet.
I received while at Hyattsville the first letter from our regiment, from Sergeant Kresgee of the Pioneer Corps, giving me in detail the incidents of their march, the first night with Burnside, of the halt at Fairfax Station, and thence, as all the world knows, the movement on the Wilderness; the bloody ground on which the May blossoms were springing up, telling no tale in their sweet freshness of the gory stains which only the spring before wet their tangled roots.
Again, over that dreadful spot, the tragedy of death was enacted. Again, through the tangles of underbrush almost impenetrable, where years of undisturbed growth had woven the mass into one intricate thicket, taking no heed how men should die there by thousands, there our gallant men fought their way, contending for mastery over the dead bodies of the fallen.
In the lull of the crash of battle, when a hundred giants seemed to be falling in the forest, men listened in horror to the groans of comrades suffocating, burning alive in the woods which had been fired by hot shot and shell, and they were powerless to aid them.
Rumors of these terrors came flying thick and fast. Faces grew white with apprehension, when the heart remembered that in the ranks of that fighting host were some whom they loved as life itself. So to me came the tidings of the dreadful May battles, and receiving my orders, I prepared to go to do the work which the carnage had rendered a necessity.
I was to go to Fredericksburg; and on the 12th of May I went on board the "Lizzie Baker," bound to Belle Plain, on my way there.
A number of officers were on board, going to join their commands, and several women, amongst which was one who was "going on her own hook" to nurse our poor fellows. The bloom of youth had long since departed from her features, and her love of dress, if she had ever possessed any, had gone the way of the world's vanities. She wore a "horrible" bonnet, and a pair of scissors hanging from her left side conspicuously. She persisted in heaping opprobrious epithets on Miss Dix and "old Abe Lincoln," till we wearied of her tongue. Yet, in the kindness of her heart, she was going into the hospital city to do a woman's work amidst suffering men.
We arrived at Belle Plain on the afternoon of the 13th, and there the horror of battle burst upon us in sad, sad sights. Hundreds of wounded lay around in every stage of exhaustion, waiting for transportation to Washington.
I shall never forget the pale faces grimmed even then with the powder-smoke; eyes hollow, telling of long and intense agony, and patches of gore staining the uniform which bore the marks of swamp and thicket.
I remained all night with Mrs. Spencer, of the New York Relief, my companion a Miss Robertson, of the Cavalry Corps, who was going to Fredericksburg also. Our tent was pitched on the hill-side, and the rain began to fall in drenching showers, completely saturating everything about us—driving away sleep, even in our tired condition. I was glad when the gray morning dawned, and I could go out and help make the coffee for breakfast for the wounded boys.
I had assisted about an hour when the doctor on board of the transport sent for me to come and dress wounds. It was a hard morning's work, and at eleven o'clock I was relieved, having an opportunity to go on to Fredericksburg. There I knew were men over whose wounds not even a cleansing sponge had been passed—men whose limbs were literally alive with a crawling mass of maggots.
It was a tedious journey; the roads were broken and rutted by the heavy trains which passed over them, and we were till four o'clock reaching our destination. My boat companion and Miss Robertson were both with me in the ambulance, and even in the midst of my anxiety, I could not suppress a laugh, as the hideous groans escaped from under the horrible bonnet, each time when the shaky vehicle seemed to lose its balance.
All day, the wounded who were able to crawl, were passing us on their way to Belle Plaine, eager to get to some shelter, where food and attention were possible. My brother was in the throng, but fortunately I did not know it then.
At about three o'clock it set in to rain, and we went in our drenched clothing through the muddy streets to report to Surgeon Dalton for duty. He assigned me to the Fifth Corps. I protested against it; said that my regiment was in the Ninth Corps, and I could not be put permanently in any other. He assured me that I could get relieved when my Corps came in, which they had not then done, and I went out through the rain and mud to find something to do.
The house to which I went and reported to the surgeon in charge, was once the home of Washington. It had been an elegant mansion; the rich carving, broken and cut away for relics, showed the perfection of its finish. The yard was full of trees, but no fence enclosed it. It was told to me by the colored family with whom at the next door I obtained a place to sleep, that the cherry-tree cut by Washington's little hatchet grew near the house walls, and its roots yet remained in the ground.
I fully made up my mind to remain on duty where I was assigned no longer than till I found some of our own men, and went out to find something to eat, having fasted since morning.
At the New York Relief, I found some hard tack and coffee, which I relished exceedingly well in my half-famished condition. I found my bed at my lodging-place a mere bundle of straw shook into a dark place which had once been a dish-closet, but the dishes were not in the house now. I lay down with my cloak for sheet and covering, and no fastidious horror of bugs or mice drove sleep from my eyelids: The next morning I awoke quite refreshed, but with an empty stomach began dressing the wounds of the poor sufferers.