The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XII
So much waited to be done that I sometimes grew bewildered, and wished for a hundred pair of hands, that I might work out the strength of will which kept up soul and body. I was often sent for while in the midst of a distressing scene, and I hardly knew where to direct my steps. Some were so eager to join their commands, that it needed the greatest watchfulness to prevent them from going even out of sick-beds.
We had a Captain Williams sick with a fever, yet burning with a desire to join his regiment, which was gathering the laurels of battle thickly, in the long list of wounded and dead. No persuasion could turn him from his purpose; he got up from his straw bed, and with feeble steps tottered from the tent, left on the transport, and in ten days his body was at City Point in the dead-house, waiting embalmment.
So the Harvester gathered them in, one after another; before disease as well as by the deadly shot they fell in their manhood's prime, and many hearts ached with the terrible blows which came to them over the electric wires, and they never more rebounded from the fearful shock.
Lieut. Barton was our first officer killed. He met his death at Spottsylvania Court House; and here at White House Landing I learned that his fears were confirmed, when on taking leave of the regiment at Alexandria, he said to me, holding me by the hand,
"Goodbye, Aunt Becky, I bid you goodbye forever."
Do the wings of death cast their shadows thus over the heart, which is so soon to be hushed in its beating by the clutch of the cold, bony hand? Does the yawning grave open wide its portals to the eye of the soul which is so soon to be free from the clay, leaving the companion of its earthly joys and sorrows to mingle "ashes with ashes, and dust with its original dust?" Are there some spirits so etherealized that they can look beyond the veil of flesh, and know that it is only a little while, and the company of the blest will be their companions forever?
Coward fear may sometimes cause the soul to shrink back in dread dismay, but this premonition of death has a power speaking to the soul, hushing its fears, bidding it make its final peace on earth, and send its farewells to those whom they shall greet no more this side of the eternal river.
It makes no craven of the soldier who feels the full weight of the coming shadow; he meets death like a hero, and his spirit, we trust, goes to the bosom of its Maker.
Very many of our men were taken prisoners, and the horrors of Andersonville and Belle Isle were pictured to us, till they seemed to lie on the borders of the Satanic land; and starvation, and torture by the hot sun, and exposure to storms and disease, were the fell agents which laid them in the shallow, uncoffined graves, over which a nation mourns to-day.
Their names are inscribed with the band of martyred ones; shall their memory ever fade from the long roll of honor?
We lost our colors and our color-bearer, Grisel, was taken to Andersonville, and in that lonesome pen thought of his wife, and children, and home, till the soul went out of the starved wreck of mortality. They buried him in a grave amongst the murdered dead on that awful field, over which no smoke of battle rolled to make it seem "sweet to die for one's country."
Only one man of all the long list of captured ever returned to tell the tale of woe—Private O. P. Carmer, of Co. F., who lay in the pen of Andersonville, and whose hopeful spirit kept the soul within his emaciated body till the release came; and he returned like one raised from the dead, a wreck of manhood, unable to join his regiment, and scarcely able to endure the journey home.
I thought in the bitterness of my heart, while listening to the horrible details of the treatment of our prisoners by the rebels, and when I knew that my brothers might any day share the same fate, that I could never minister to the wants of their wounded again. But when I saw them suffering in the agony of fever, thirsting for water, now deliriously raving of the fierce charge of battle—then whispering low of the peaceful home which the invader had profaned with unclean feet, better feelings took possession of me, and I could be as gentle to them as to my brother.
Some woman's heart cherished them—some bright eyes were wet with tears for the missing soldier, and as I would that they should do unto those of mine who fell into their hands, so I tried to do to them; God forgiving me the bitter thoughts which were of my grosser self, and purging my soul of the sin's dark stain.
The tidings reached me here of another brave man killed, Captain Gorman of Co. C, shot by a stray bullet at North Anna. We had little time to dwell on these terrible casualties, for again the order came to move, and no one knew whither.
Our poor men must endure the dreadful journey, and we prepared them for the transport, and on the tenth day of June left the tented corn field, which was now trampled by many feet to a level plain, and I set about looking out for rations for the toilsome voyage.
Our worthy friend, the Christian Commissioner, had given me the promise of a boiled ham, and going after it, I learned to my dismay that they were all on board of the barge. My friend seeing my look of disappointment, and not liking to break his promise, went on board the boat, and soon, but with some trouble, returned with one.
I was looking out for lunch for those who were going to join their regiments, and procuring crackers, I cut the ham into slices, but found it was not enough for so many mouths, voracious in their newly recovered appetites. I presented the case, and our old friend said, "Blessings on you—you shall have another ham," and I got it, blessing him in my heart as I cut the thick juicy slices, which looked so tempting in their boiled perfection.
On the fourteenth of June we went on board the boat—six nurses of us, with five days' rations of bread, pork, coffee, and sugar, and learned to our disquiet that some one had blundered, and sent some two hundred of the sick on board who should have gone by another boat to Washington.
Our doctor had gone wooing, leaving the charge of affairs to some under officials, and matters were wonderfully mixed. In my vexation at the unpardonable extent of the blunder, I could have lectured every one roundly, who presumed to listen to the soft dalliance of Love, when reeking wounds, and fever-thirsting men lay helpless beside them.
I knew those men could not go without food so long as our rations lasted, and I took the supply into my own hands, cutting up five loaves of bread, and the pork, thinking of the five loaves and the fishes, and wishing I had the power of feeding that multitude with full supply, as did our Saviour in times of old.
A doctor from the Cavalry Corps Hospital was in charge, and to him the women made complaint that Aunt Becky had given away their rations. On the second day we had nothing to eat—only the ham bone remained, and the vengeance of dire hunger was meted out to me in strong measure.
This day the barge which bore our surgeons came alongside, and when they reached the boat the storm of fury broke upon my devoted head. I took it calmly, and when he finished only said, as I thought, that if any of us well women were unable to eat as much hard tack as a sick soldier, she had better go to Washington at once, and remain there.
The startling cry of "a man overboard," broke upon the stillness of the next dark, foggy morning. I shall never forget the piercing shriek for help, when no help could reach him. The tide was running high, and in the thick darkness it was impossible to give him any aid, and he sunk to the watery depths. He was a nurse, and a good one, and we missed him sadly from our crew.
We had a rough voyage, all but Mrs. Strouse and myself being sea-sick, she complaining merely of a headache, while I felt strong for any up-hill work which might lay before me.
We had a good cup of tea all around, and I descended into the kitchen to see if anything could be found to eke out the scanty supply of food for the boys. They were selling hot water for coffee for ten cents a pint, and many a poor fellow, whose dirty clothing was innocent of currency, went without for that cause.
I could not endure this, preferring rather to brave the chances of a hand-to-hand conflict with those denizens of the lower regions, than to see the hunger-pinched faces, and hollow eyes of those who had not tasted food or drink for many hours.
I got their coffee, promising to make that for them, at all events, and down I went, being ordered out peremptorily. I did not purpose to go, and was deaf to all orders of the kind. They kindly put out the fire, and I sat down to await its rekindling. They sent up for the first mate, and he came down, furiously repeating the order to vacate the kitchen.
I said, "The Doctor would'nt like to know you were making love to me—I am Aunt Becky," and he replied, angrily, that if I did not leave forthwith, he would throw me overboard.
I said, "O don't drown me yet—I haven't said, positively, I won't have you," and he retired in disgust, leaving me victor of the field, with the exasperated darkies punching me every now and then, and regarding me with looks of intense hate. I did not heed things of this sort, a combat usually made me stronger, and the boys got their coffee, and it did not cost them ten cents a pint either. As I saw them swallowing it from their blackened, battered cups, I wondered if I could not find something in the shape of bread to help it relish the next time, and I did.
I found two boxes of hard tack, the owner of which seemed a myth, and accepting them as a Providential gift in answer to my earnest desires, I knocked off the corner of one, and, without a single pang of conscience, filled my apron, and distributed the biscuit among the hungry crew.
Just as I was opening the second box, Dr. Bunnel, the embalmer came up, asking me by what authority I was opening his boxes of hard tack, and I, too eager, and fearing to lose the contents, said, "Who is opening this box—you or I?" He rather thought I was, and under the circumstances, he could do no better than to yield a graceful assent to the distribution amongst the hungry men, and we became very good friends from that time.
On the morning of June sixteenth, on looking from my window I saw the grim old Fortress Monroe looming up against the glimmering daybreak. We were nearly on the scene of the conflict between the iron clad monsters, when they struggled for mastery. The waters wherein our wheels revolved had been stirred by the contortions of the giants in the close fight.
It was something for me to look out on to the spot, surrounded by the same land-marks, and remember the deep excitement which filled the land, as the news of the strange battle was borne over the converging wires—to remember how proud New York trembled, lest the traitors' hands should guide the rebel monster up into her crowded harbor, and her merchant princes looked upon their wealth, and felt how uncertain it was all made by this strange new warfare.
They hearkened for the report of the red-tongued flame which belched from its ungainly port-holes, and breathed free only when it had gone to the rusty deep, to be garnished by sea mosses, and filled with old Ocean's drifting treasures.
Another day, and we hailed with delight the ration barge, which came along with bread and bacon, and our men drew full rations.
We were indebted to Capt. Hall of the Michigan Sharpshooters for this kindness and timely aid; he had presented our case, and obtained relief for us. A feast of good things seemed to rain upon us, for another barge came alongside with a barrel of pickled cabbage on board, its savory smell stealing upon our senses with strong desire to partake.
As no such thing ever hurt sick men, I got a pail belonging to one of the nurses, and started for the cabbage, she following, calling out vigorously for her disappearing pail.
Our old friends, the cooks from our hospitals, were there, kind as ever, and they filled and refilled my pail, till the empty barrel remained with only the scent to give evidence of what its contents had been. It was delicious, and our appreciation of it should have been ample recompense to its owner, or owners whoever they were, making allowance for its appropriation, in that our stomachs had grown insensible to all civilized laws of mine and thine.On the seventeenth we could distinctly hear the report of cannon, and knew that somewhere our men were facing the foe in deadly fight. It came booming over the water in slow solemn measure, and men were hurled to the ground, crushed and lifeless, before every thundering discharge.