The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter X
Growing weary of my restless nights, so cramped in the high, old-fashioned pulpit, I sought a room where I could sleep in comfort, and was fortunate enough to find one with my companion of the night, and journey to Fredericksburg—Miss Roberston of the Cavalry Corps,—in a dwelling opposite the hospital.
We were company for each other in the long nights, when groans kept us wakeful, and I learned to appreciate the noble-heartedness of the untiring nurse, whose duties were for humanity's sake, not surely for the twelve dollars a month, and soldier's rations.
That was but a sorry recompense, so far as a return for the days of toil, and the haunted nights, and the scanty fare. Still there was no murmur of discontent—men needed a woman's hand to minister unto them, and in their sore need she withheld not her own, so strong with a brave woman's honest purpose.
Every place was searched by me in vague anticipations of meeting some one—I knew not who—whose desperate case wanted my help that moment. One day I found Private Vanvaulkenburg, wounded in the arm, and I think by the broad smile which fairly lighted up his face, that he was glad to see me, although I could do nothing but give him a cheering word.
Farther on I found Private Silas Phezonias, and Charles Godley, wounded badly, and I feared mortally. Phezonias had suffered an amputation, and his life was slowly going out. His thoughts also, centred on the one idea of his burial. He was conscious that only a few more days were left for him, and looking earnestly into my face, as though my woman's will could work miracles in that devoted city, asked if I could not get a box also for his poor body.
How could I withhold a promise asked by those dying lips? God only knew how keen my anguish was, when I saw death stealing away the senses of those men who were dear to my soul, and I knew I could move Heaven and earth to grant the dying request of a soldier, and I promised that his body should not lie in an uncoffined grave.
After that he grew content, and one night they came to me, saying that he was dying, and wished to see me before he went. Hurrying away to the comfortless spot, I found that his spirit had gone, and the words he wished to say had perished with his breath.
I found with infinite search a scrap of lumber, and a rude coffin was made for him also. When it was finished, and we went to lay the body within it, what was my horror to find it gone!
I hastened to the graveyard, resolved to have it exhumed in case of burial, and found them standing beside the remains, about to offer up a prayer for his repose. I said, "What is a prayer to a promise?" when the Chaplain argued that others had no coffins—it was unwise to establish such precedents, and he wished to conclude the ceremony as quickly as possible.
I ordered the sexton to take him from the grave, and with some demurring he complied, and I left a guard over the body, till I could return with the coffin. I combed his hair, and washed his face, and they laid him into the unstained box, and again he was lowered into the shallow grave, this time to rest in peace.
My feelings were bitter toward those unfeeling men, who thought of nothing only how best and quickest to put the poor clay out of sight, before it become an offence to the senses. Such familiarity with death may harden some natures—surely there was the semblance of utter callousness of heart in many such scenes, where dead men were hurried into the graves with scarce a foot of earth above the rotting clay.
Going out about two miles distant, I found a number of our regiment, one from Co. F—Sergeant Starkey—wounded badly through the back. He was lying on his face—his dirty, bloody blouse his only pillow, and as he grasped my hand, great sobs shook his manly frame, and tears even fell on his coarse sleeve.
I was almost unnerved for a moment—had he been my own brother I could hardly have grieved more, for they were all brothers to me. I had been acknowledged with so much respect by them—had received so much kindness at their hands, that my own kin were nearer only as blood is thicker than water, I suppose.
I asked what I could do for him, and he said, "Bring some apple-sauce, and lemons, and green tea, such as you use to make, Aunt Becky," and difficult as it was, I got them. I can't tell what spirit animated me at such moments, but I felt a strength which would have carried me through fire and water, if I could not else have obtained what I wished.
At such times how slow Government seemed in furnishing needful comforts for the suffering men—they had not been tardy in rushing them into the dreadful battles to uphold that Government, and when I saw how comfortless was their situation, bitter feelings would uprise in my heart, till I wished to see the whole body of officials, in whose hands these things rested, lying helpless as those poor men.
I knew it was a heavy work—I knew also that the people were not willing that their own sons, and brothers, and husbands should suffer such horrors, when it was possible to relieve them, and as I knew my own strength to do, so I calculated what those high in power should do, when no expense or ingenuity had been spared to bring them thus low.
Starkey looked his thanks as I returned, bearing the desired drink and food, and two blankets also, with which he was made much more comfortable than before. He was moved to Washington at the general clearing of the hospitals in Fredericksburg, and died soon after of his wounds.
His name doubtless swells the list of those who might have been saved, could it have been possible for them to remain quietly while nature asserted her healing strength, but the evacuation of Fredericksburg being considered a military necessity, there was no room for questioning the wisdom of the journey over the rough road leading to Belle Plain, and with many a brave man he bore it in silence, although death came soon after.
In coming from Washington I lost my trunk, and for twenty-one days had no change of clothing. The discomfort was felt exceedingly, although I said to myself, So long as I keep well, and these poor sufferers have less than I, it is not right for me to make complaint.
As one after another of our boys were found in my daily walks, I learned of the killed, and over none did my heart yearn as a mother over her son, more than when I learned that Willie Lewis was killed—both legs being shot away, his life went out with the deluge of blood. He had been with me for months in the hospital, and together we had watched over his dying boy brother, and I had taken the home-sick child into my affections as a son, and now mourned him as such.
I had thought so often of him, going out alone to the hot battle, when he had hoped to have his brother beside him, to stand together or fall. He lies with the unrecognized dead on that red burial plain, while they took his brother's remains from the graveyard on Mason's Island, and carried them to his native town, to rest till the graves give up their dead, while the world never knew of the two young lives which were given up for their beloved country.
Will they some time recognize such humble heroes—will the great men some time unbend from the dignity of office and position, and acknowledge, while the mouldering bones receive due sepulchre, that to thousands and thousands of such unknown soldiers, perishing on the battle-field, in prison pen, or in hospital, they owe their proud estate?
America of all nations on earth can afford to be grateful to the humblest defender of her soil, whose spirit went up with the countless host.
The Sanitary Commission did a work of mercy, so far as they could reach our needs—but it was impossible, when Government could do no more for them, to do everything.
No tongue can tell the suffering which at this time filled Fredericksburg. None only those who were in the midst of the dreadful scenes, can realize in the faintest degree how hunger and death walked there, hand in hand. Our rations did not arrive, and for days we felt the keen pangs of starvation gnawing at our vitals.
To add to my misery, if pains of the body in the centre of so much anxious watching could be called such, I wore my feet out with constant tread, till the blood came through to the soles of my shoes. I thought of Valley Forge, when the intense cold of a Northern winter stole into the camp of desponding men, and Washington saw the bloody tracks of his soldiers printed in the snow's white purity. They suffered for the same country which we loved, and bled in the same cause, counting it no loss if only the end should be peace.
My ward was over the amputation room, and never while I live, will I forget the groans which issued from that place. Heartrending cries for aid, when the surgeons stood with drops of sweat beading their brows—agonized over the pains which they could not alleviate. Oh it was horrible, and sickening to listen to them as we must at times.
Scarcely a building in Fredericksburg but bore the mark of hot shells, for both armies had turned their guns upon the doomed city; still every torn and shattered house held its quota of wounded men, and through the fissure where some screaming shell had penetrated in its fiery flight, the night-wind sighed sadly, and flared the dim lights which we carried, and the rain and mist beat through in the lonesome midnight.
The sound of the organ in the church which we occupied, when played by Miss Gilson, another efficient nurse, seemed like the spirits of another world chanting hymns of consolation to the poor troubled souls of this, as they lay, some in the delirium of fever, fighting again the hard-contested battle—some thinking sadly of homes which should be never more blessed by their presence, of wife and children, who in after years, when peace was reigning again, should speak in subdued tones of the dear soldier who died of wounds in the hospital at Fredericksburg.
Sometimes the wild wailing of the chords seemed a dirge, which sad spirits were chanting over the souls so soon to pass the dark river with the silent boatman, and I grew tearful, and escaped from my thoughts at once.
My labors were confined mostly to the hospital of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps, although I visited my outside patients every day, and they seemed to look regularly for my coming. I tried to carry a cheerful countenance with my aching heart, for God knew that little enough of sunshine went into those dreary rooms. I could go out into the free air, when the scent of blood and discharges from wounds made the closeness unbearable, but they must lie there, and on their hard beds bear it all as best they could.
I found Privates Barber and Loomis in my walk one day—Barber wounded in the arm, while Loomis had lost a leg. Both seemed as comfortable as they could be made without beds, in the crowded rooms; and day after day I went to them, relieving them the best I was enabled to do with our stinted means.
It was dreadful to see the depths into which their spirits were plunged at times, when as comrade after comrade breathed out the last sigh, the uncertainty of their own recovery stole over the enfeebled mind, and agonized with thoughts of all that which they were leaving behind them, they sunk into the depths of despondency.
We had one youth of about seventeen years, whose cheerful face was like sunshine in our ward; we knew him as "Charlie," and he seemed the light of the place, never murmuring, although his good right arm lay festering somewhere, food for worms.
He would say to me, "Now, I can never write any more love letters, Aunt Becky, do you think she will like me as well as ever with only one arm," thus playfully cheering up those whose sufferings were not more than his own, but whose spirits were less sun-shiny to endure them.
One day he called me to him in great alarm, and said, "I think I am dying, I feel such a strangeness there," pointing to his amputated arm. I undid the bandage, and there, rioting on the fresh festers of the wound, were a score or more of white crawling worms. They had produced the uneasy feeling, and as I picked them off he grew quiet again.
We had a call one day from the Provost Marshal, who said to me, "Madam, I must compliment your hospital on being so clean and well aired, and the men looking so comfortably."
Said I, not knowing who he was, and glad that I did not, "We have done the best we could for the poor fellows, and if it had not been for the Provost Marshal would have had bunks also; I wish he lay in the place of that old soldier, and I had the privilege of feeding him hard tack, and seeing him try the soft floor till I was satisfied," and the gentleman, coloring, and stammering, shortly after left us.
Dr. Hays came in directly, saying, "So you've had a call from the Provost Marshal."
I was so indignant at his meanness, that I would have given him a harder thrust than I did, if I had known him at the time. Having fallen in love with a "secesh girl," who owned a lot of lumber, he had taken the men, sent by the surgeon to make it into hospital bunks, to the guard-house, and set a strict watch over the lot, and our boys lay on the floor to satisfy his selfishness.
The old German soldier to whom I had pointed, wishing the Provost Marshal in his place, was an intense sufferer—his wound through his lungs compelling him to sit upright at all times. He leaned against a pillar of the building, his gray, tangled hair fluttering in the wind, and I was reminded of saints and martyrs hourly, as I looked his way. He talked much of those whom he had left, how hard it would be for them to think he should never come home, when the war was over. All he ate I fed him in lemonade, with a teaspoon.
He died in great agony, after suffering days of untold misery, and death seemed a welcome release.
Oh, if the cruel shots could only kill at once—but this terrible mutilation, when the soul is almost let out of the gaping wounds, and struggles with the full strength of manhood, till faint and weary—weak with the deluge of blood, which has drained the fountain, the cold hand of dissolution clutches at the heart, and the soul goes forth from the torn body, leaving it a poor lump of festering flesh, on which the worms may banquet at will!