The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XI
The long three weeks ended, and the city was to be evacuated. Through the lonesome night of storm and darkness, we women held the lights for the soldiers to lift their comrades on stretchers, and carry them down the slippery banks to the transports in waiting on the river. No moon or stars shone on that painful embarkation;—thick clouds of storm were drawn from horizon to horizon, and the rain drenched us, and the chilly wind swept in long gusts, now and then extinguishing the dim lights which we carried.
Groans from manly lips, which could not be suppressed, bore evidence of the torture which they endured, when bare bone, and nerve, and artery freshly bleeding, came in contact with the stretcher.
There was no help—if they died there was no help, and I kept back the tears for those who I knew could never endure the transition to another hospital, or if reaching it, would die speedily.
Three hundred of the wounded from the Wilderness, who fell into the hands of the rebels, and were retaken by a cavalry force of their own number, were brought in, and with them we left Fredericksburg at dark for Washington.
We lost only two men while on the journey—one from a Michigan regiment, the other from Massachusetts.
I dressed wounds, and fed the helpless, while on the way, and although there was many a joke perpetrated, and much laughter from the unhurt portion of the crew, yet I was too sad, as I looked upon the uncomplaining misery of that heroic band of three hundred, to indulge in anything but tears.
While in Washington I visited the different hospitals, searching after those to whom I had ministered in Fredericksburg, under such unfavorable circumstances. I found some very low, and two, mentioned before, on whom death had already set his seal.
Privates Barber and Loomis, whom I saw with severe wounds in Fredericksburg, were both struck with mortal pains. Gangrene had made its insidious attacks, and in their exhaustion they could not rally against it, and died.
I promised to be with them as long, and as often as I could, and finished my care when both lay in the dead house, coffined for burial. I again went to visit Mrs. Youngs, and found her the same uncompromising rebel sympathizer, yet as ready for humanity's sake to do for our suffering heroes, as for those whom the fate of war threw wounded and helpless into our hands.
Her education had been half military, in fact, and her zeal for the relief of soldiers seemed almost indomitable. She was born and reared in the barracks of the Navy-yard at Washington; her father, brothers, husband, and son were connected with that branch of the service, and she had scarcely been outside the influence of naval manners, till just previous to the breaking out of the war, her son had established her in a pleasant home in Bladensburg.
Thoroughly good at heart, her feelings, so long allied with the South, could not tear themselves away from their first love, and the dead of Southern battlefields were to her the martyred for homes and principles.
We avoided all these sectional themes, and I loved her for what she was, and many a disabled soldier remembers the woman who, while she bound up his wounds, deemed them the just penalty of invasion.
I returned to Washington for duty, and was ordered to report to White House Landing. In company with a Mrs. Strouse, also ordered to that place, I went to the wharf to take the "Lizzie Baker," bound thither.
When we reached the boat, the Captain ordered her well out into the river, determined that no more "calico" should desecrate his decks. Knowing that he would stop at Geesborough for the mail, I hailed a propeller which was getting up steam to leave soon for the same place, asking the Captain if we could have passage. He replied "Yes," unhesitatingly, and we went on board the little puffer, keeping out of sight till well alongside of the "Lizzie," when we hurried upon her deck as they drew close together to put on the mail. We heard the rather profane ejaculation of the Captain, "My God, there they come now;" yet as he laughed and acknowledged himself beaten, I could not hold anger against him for wishing to keep "calico nurses" from his decks, his experience as he related it, being anything but commendable to the women.
The Captain was no admirer of them as a kind, and his lines having fallen amongst the unloveliest of the sex, he anathematized them all. However we were cared for very kindly, yet the trip was a terrible one for me—the wind blew a terrific gale, and directly over our heads the horses pawed and neighed, impatient of their restraint. Mrs. Strouse would believe they were coming down upon us at times, and her nervous manner added greatly to my disquiet.
I was hungry, for I had given my lunch to some boys who were returning to their regiments from sick furlough, and had neither money nor rations. I thought Providence would put me in the way of food—any way I could go hungry as well as they. But my trust was not in vain—the cook gave me a cup of coffee, and some bread which satisfied Nature's need.
We arrived the next day at White House Landing, and I looked in dismay at the dreary place, where nothing but blackened chimneys marked it as the former abiding place of men.
White tents flapped their wings over the uneven hillocks of a last year's corn-field, and the bristling canes, mildewed and rotting, stood under the pelting of wind, and rain, and the heat of the hot summer sun.
Our hospital lay on the same uneven ground, and many were very sick, and some dying, with no beds or hammocks on which to breathe out the last sigh. I was so weary I could hardly drag my footsteps thither; but meeting with some of our old hospital cooks, who hailed from the Granite State, they soon made me a cup of coffee, and I went to the tent assigned me, and with my head pillowed on a corn-hill, and my back curved in the exact hollow of the contiguous row, I tried to sleep, and forget how weary I could become.
The dews were like a drenching shower—feet and clothing were heavy with the moisture, which clung to us persistently, waiting for the hot sun to dry it away. It was a great discomfort to us, as we walked from tent to tent, our hoopless skirts clinging so closely to the figure as to impede our progress.
The agents of the Sanitary Commission were then at work with their usual force and energy, and as the wounded were brought in daily, no one can tell the amount of suffering which they helped to allay.
Oh, those little streams rippling down from every town and hamlet in the North, sending their precious contents into the broad bosom of the Sanitary Commission, how we contrasted them with the dews of heaven, which through the tender grass blades in lovely vale and on wooded hill, find the way to the lagging brooks, and thence to river and sea. The little stores which came from the loneliest farm-house, where the old wife knit and dreamed of the soldier whose feet should be encased in the socks her fingers fashioned, were like the crystal drops which form the sea's great depths, and we meted them out to father, brother, son and lover.
We thought of the maiden who sewed the seams of the coarse hospital shirt, dropping a tear perchance on the garment, when she thought how wounds might pierce one precious body in those stalwart ranks, and hoped some one might do for him what she was striving to do for some other ones beloved.
How little the women thought as they made tiny pillows, stuffing them with hops and soft moss, to lay under wounded arm and limb, of the actual scenes which attended their using amongst the ghastly wounded. Many a bright eye would have grown dim with the tears, could its owner have looked into our hospital tents, and seen the wreck of manliness suffering untold agony with mute lips, and clenched fingers, bearing it all silently.
It was well that they could not follow those gifts down to the place of distribution, else no smiles would have gladdened those faces, and the meetings would have been sad as a funeral gathering.
I met at White House Landing one Christian Commissioner, whose kindness made him universally beloved—whose salutation was always, "Blessings on you," and by that name we knew him in our camp. His kindness to me will never be forgotten, nor the tender solicitude which he expressed for the poor crippled fellows, whose painful torture of body he could not mitigate.
It was distressing to see dying men lying on the hard earth, nothing but a blanket between; but we did the best we could with the means at hand, and although having better rations than at Fredericksburg, they were poor enough. Many a night I went to bed to think of the crumbs which fell from overflowing tables in low brown farm-houses, which bordered on Cayuga's tide.
We had six women nurses, and the men kept at their work, seemingly untiring, as they ministered to those who should need mortal aid only a little while longer.
We did our cooking by a fire made between two logs rolled close together, while Sanitary was in possession of a stove—an article of great worth in our eyes, perhaps a little envious at times. Sill we made many a dainty bit for the sick men over our rude fire, only giving vent to our feelings when the toast was burned, or a strong puff of wind blew the ashes into our smoke-bleared eyes.
I was sent for one day to attend a doctor who was ill, away back in a a tent aside from the hospital, and I found him in great need of help, getting but little sympathy in his worn and weak condition. It is a misfortune if a man grows ill from over-work in a hospital, that he is so often charged with a disposition to play off, and avoid duty.
The doctor was ill with a low, nervous fever, and I set about trying to relieve him.
I found a young lieutenant in the same tent wounded badly through the thigh, and whose sands of life were dropping silently away. Both doctor and lieutenant were from Holyoke, Mass. The young officer was a noble looking young man, and his struggle with death was hard, so much life and hope he had.
He said to me, "Will you look at my feet and hands, and tell me why they are so cold and numb? "Will I, can I ever get well?"
They were purple even then. I said honestly, "I think you can live but a short time," and sighing, he replied slowly,
"Well, I am not sorry that I came here, even if I have got my death, but it will be very lonely for her."
He seemed to dwell upon the thought very calmly, and went on saying, "If the country forgets me, she always remembers me; there will be a monument raised in her heart to my memory, and it will always live."
He died as peacefully as a child goes to its slumbers—dropped away silently without a struggle, and as I closed his eyes, and looked upon the great noble figure stiffening in death, I thought how her heart would ache, when she knew that her head could never more be pillowed upon his bosom.
The doctor recovered slowly, and remained an efficient aid in our Medical Corps till the army was disbanded, and each soldier was sent to the Hospital of Home, to draw upon the sanitary resources of individual households.
Four of us tented together, and slept upon the ground till just previous to our breaking camp, when the boys drove crotched sticks into the earth, and nailed barrel staves over the cross pieces, and over these we spread straw, and slept very comfortably indeed.
Getting desperately hungry one day, two of us started off on a foraging expedition; I in search of mush and milk. We reached a hut occupied by a colored family, and asking for the desired article of food, knowing it to be staple in such places, mine was given me in a tin wash-basin, while my companion received hers in a great yellow dish of antique mould. Nevertheless, we thought it worth a half dollar each, and departed with our hunger appeased in a wonderful degree.
The tent in which the colored wounded were, seemed to fall in my line of duty, and I found within it ten ill with fever and wounds. One little fellow only thirteen years of age, who had been waiter for a captain, and had lost a foot, bore his sufferings with the heroism of a man.
Not even a groan escaped his lips, and the only words which betokened his sorrow were, "What will my poor mother do now?" So young, with the stain of Africa upon his cheek and brow, he would have a hard world with its mountains of prejudice to surmount, and crippled in body as he was, I sighed for his future fate.