The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XIII
On the afternoon of June eighteenth, we reached City Point, and landed. We had an excellent meal of canned chicken and crackers, from the Christian Commission, and sat down to await further orders, which soon came. We were to walk a mile distance to find our shelter for the night.
It was a motley procession, suggesting Falstaff's Ragged Regiment, or a Fourth of July demonstration of Young America, as we travelled on, each with knapsack, and such possessions as could not be dispensed with. I, more fortunate than some of my companions, had provided myself with a coffee-pot and frying-pan, which hung to my knapsack, and tired and dusty we kept on our way, regardless of military precision, seeking first one side of the road then the other, to avoid the thick dust, then forsaking it as another path seemed to look more inviting to the aching feet.
Dr. Hays and several others led the way, and a surgeon from the Fifth Regiment Mass. Infantry, going from the hospital to join his command, kept up wearily with the throng.
We arrived, and not a tent to shelter our heads, and night coming darkly on. There in an open field—in sight of the winding river, we sat down to rest awhile, and think of the long dusty, dreary mile intervening between us and the coveted shelter.
Backward we took our way—faint and almost strangled with the clouds of dust which enveloped our passage. All the women with the exception of Mrs. Strouse and myself—who seemed to be the strongest of the set—got into an ambulance, and thought themselves fortunate in obtaining such a lift in their weary condition.
An artist would have halted in eager admiration of the sight, as we went in single file, the dust flying in gray banners over us, and the gathering darkness lending its witchery to help the scene. But step by step we conquered the distance, and took a room in the building which had been occupied by General Grant as his head-quarters, and were supplied by the Christian Commission with stretchers, on which to spread what bedding we had, to make ourselves more comfortable.
It was early when we arose, and took a walk to view the situation. City Point was not at that time an inviting place. Its inhabitants were mostly colored people, who had no homes, and had gathered into the deserted town from every quarter. There was material, however, which could be made available in our new hospital, and the booming of the cannon assured us that ere long our work would reach us, borne on bloody stretchers from the last battle-field.
Again the Christian Commission supplied us with a bountiful meal, consisting of coffee, crackers, and Bologna sausage—the first clean meal for five days, and again at ten o'clock we took up our line of march, on the same dusty road, twice travelled before. We found the boys busy putting up the hospital tents, and at two o'clock they came—the long ghastly train of wounded, five hundred strong.
Some were near death, and amongst them I found men from our own regiment. Passing along I was accosted by name, but failed to recognize the dirty, begrimed soldiers, with torn and bloody uniforms, who looked so beseechingly into my face for help. They made themselves known as Sergeants Havland and Avery, both wounded in the hand.
They were as hungry as wolves, and I procured soup from the Sanitary Commission, and fed them, then washed their faces, and dressed their wounds. I kept at such work till many a poor fellow was made as comfortable as they could be on the ground, for our beds had not arrived, and we must have time.
I found George Reed wounded in the foot, so low-spirited and nervous that no efforts could cheer him up; thinking constantly of home, and bearing the pain of his wound with the silence of despair. How my heart ached for him, and when I learned that he was dead, I thought how the black shadow of dissolution had clouded those June days in the hospital, and plunged his soul into the depths of its darkness.
Dr. Snow was relieved at this time, to go to his regiment, and Dr. Wheeler put in charge. We had kind and faithful nurses and doctors, who did all they could to mitigate the misery of the wounded, and no such privations as stared us in the face at Fredericksburg took away our good spirits. Still we were losing our men very fast, and what fearful wounds we saw, and what groans of agony we heard, and how they suffered tenfold more than death, no tongue can tell.
The hospital, clean and neatly kept—the occupants of its beds freshly dressed, presents no view of the tents, when the first tide of wounded pours in, and torn and gory uniforms, and powder, and dirt hide the features which are as familiar as a brother's, and yet he is a stranger till the grim mask is washed away.
With sleeves rolled up, and dress pinned back, it was no delicate task to bring them to a state of comfort and comparative cleanliness. I was passing through the tents one day, and a soldier asked to see me.
"Are you the nurse they call Aunt Becky?" he said, as I stood at his side.
I replied affirmatively, and he wished me to sit by him, and let him talk of home and friends, which even if he lived he could never see again, for a rifle ball had passed through both eyes, destroying the sight forever.
It grieved him most that he could not go back to his regiment—he would give his life for his country if God so willed it, or living, he would bear cheerfully to be sightless, if only for her sake. He was a Massachusetts soldier, and how often I looked upon her dying heroes, and thought with pride how nobly the old Bay State had provided for her country in men and means, and how in times of battle the full streams of her Sanitary stores flowed into our crowded hospitals.
Many a dying message was given to me for faraway friends—many a last farewell was whispered in my ear for the dear wife and children, who knew not that death was even then snatching away one they loved, and for whom they prayed. How I wished for the power to bring them to the bedside, and then stand away where only my tears might mingle with the mourner's.
But War knows none of the comforts of peaceful death beds. No friends and family can watch with anxious eye the struggles of the soul to free itself from earth. War breaks down all the sweet charities which Peace nurtures into life, and dead men lie like dumb cattle in a slaughter-house, scarcely heeded, unless some tie of blood or spirit bound the living to the cold, inanimate corpse when life warmed it.
Beds and pillows were in plenty now, and we had good and sufficient food, while Sanitary supplied us with many a little dainty for our sick and exhausted soldiers. We were only just made comfortable, when another battle's shattered heroes were added to our hospital, and our regiment gave its quota to swell the list.
Through the growing corn—under the scorching summer sun, they had followed their noble general to face a determined foe, and many a one had got the death-wound in his noble breast. But the most entire confidence in General Burnside pervaded—a feeling that he cared for his soldiers as a father cares for his sons—and those who lay wounded and helpless were eager to rise, and rush again into the fray.
A sentiment of humanity seemed to deter him from making wild, reckless charges, even though by such, without any more danger to himself, he might have won a name at once high on the list of victorious generals—but he preferred rather the calm judgment of History, which weighs reckless onslaughts, and persistent pressing of the foe with the great loss of life, and which will award to him the victor's crown.
Our hospital soon numbered two thousand wounded and sick men. Dr. Johnson, head surgeon of our regiment, came down to give us his aid in the heavy work devolving upon us; but we were greatly favored by the cooks, who granted us favors for the sick in season and out of season.
They were sent from the front at the beginning of the campaign, belonging mostly to the Brigade Band, and not especially needed at the scene of conflict. They had been brought up by New England mothers, and knew that the mysteries of the kitchen were closely allied to the sick-room.
Years before, while the farmer boy sat listlessly by the wide open fire in the old home at the North, seeming to watch only the red-leaping flame with his unspeaking eye, he was learning lessons of the mother, as she kept up her round of toil, and when the green corn-fields of Virginia were trampled by thundering artillery, and the feet of thousands opposed to the death, he gathered up those scraps for practical use, and by the knowledge became a benefactor to men suffering from the dreadful havoc of war.
If only strong and bearded men had been accepted into the ranks, I could have borne it better to see them suffer and die; but to see faces of youth, fair and smooth as a girl's, lying under the coarse blankets, and the white lips moaning with the pain of deathly wounds, was hard to bear. Men, if they died, seemed to possess a life which, because it was wanted, had become fully ripe with the glory of perfect manhood.
I saw one boy under the surgeon's knife, so white and still I almost hoped he would never wake to know how he must go through life a shattered wreck, and the journey just begun. Yet he opened his eyes cheerfully upon us, and the mangled limb was tossed away like a useless rag, and laid in the bosom of old mother earth, only because in her laboratory alone it could be resolved into elements inoffensive to living man.My tent was my fortress, invaded now and then, it is true, by the feet of messengers to summon me to some sick-bed—still my fortress, where I sat in silent hours, and thought of home, and wondered if my children missed me, but all with no wish to leave my post. Had the war lasted fifty years, and I been living in health, I must still have remained. No peace would have visited my pillow, knowing that I could watch beside the suffering, and impart one ray of comfort.
As I lay down at night on my iron bedstead, and looked about the little cloth shelter, seeing the evidences of kindness shown to me by them all, I thought how fortunate I was in thus being provided for with comforts, when others were glad of one-half my accommodations.
Never in my life have I been treated with more respect and consideration, than while a nurse in the Volunteer Army. If woman respects herself, men will respect her. Our soldiers were men—some, many of them, the noblest and best in the land, and no woman, whose motives were pure, would have been called to blush in their presence.
In my admiration of the high character of our men as a whole, I thought often and eagerly how, when the war was over, if I had control of the Treasury, I would give good gifts to every returned soldier, when, disabled and war-worn, he should sit down to repose on his laurels.I thought how comfortable they would be, if amongst a score were divided what a few great men now received to ventilate our Americanism abroad; what happy, cheerful homes I would provide for those whose dear ones fell in the battle's shock, or died of wounds in the hospitals near the field.