The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XIV
Daily our men dropped away. Oh! so sad were those recurring death-beds; again and again I stood beside them, and heard delirious words and lost whispers, till I thought my heart would break with every new weight of woe it carried.
For those whose names were lost on the dear lips which the clay of a strange land would soon cover over, I could weep tears of bitter, bitter sorrow. Not for the dead, who was a hero forevermore, but for those who waited and watched, and saw the sun sink in its glory, and when it rose again, knew that they were desolate.
Our hospital corps of women nurses numbered ten, and our work was hard amongst so many sick and wounded, to which we were receiving daily accessions. Not an hour of daylight passed when the booming of cannon was not heard, and many a one got his death-wound, when no official report of battle was sent forth to the anxious nation. They died when no array of deathly conflict stirred the pulses into martial fever.
July 3d, learning that one of our One Hundred and Ninth men lay at Division Hospital badly
wounded, and could not live, I resolved to make a visit up to the front, and see if anything could be done for him.
There seemed no way open, only that I should go on horseback, and, looking about me, I found that Colonel Catlin had gone up to Washington sick, and unable to do duty, leaving his horse at City Point. One of our boys, John Lawrence, who was doing duty at the hospital, proposed to accompany me, I on the colonel's horse; and in the morning at six o'clock we started on our journey.
The great noble creature which I rode was so worn and poor, that the side-saddle which I had borrowed of one of the ladies of the Second Corps turned repeatedly, myself and the bag of articles which I was taking up from the Christian Commission going off together. Lawrence tightened the girth, and on we went over the lonesome road literally lined with the graves of our dead.
No Christian homes brightened the way. The houses, stormed by shot and shell, were deserted, only as our men on duty along the lines used them for a shelter against the inclement weather.
My riding-habit seemed to attract considerable attention from its novelty, being a striped bed-tick, thick and of great service in my work, and a black hat which I had worn in my hospital rounds. Soldiers laughed and stared at us as we rode along, but unheedingly we were enjoying the fresh morning air, and the exhilaration of a horseback ride.
At ten o'clock we reached the Division Hospital, and I made inquiries for the wounded man, Private Kresge, and was taken to his side. It was the third day, and his wound yet undressed.
I rolled up my sleeves, and went to work over the horrible fissure, now festering with the putrid discharges. The doctor said I had better do something for those who were likely to live, not waste my time and strength on a dying man.
I replied that if he died it made no difference; he would not be buried with the shameful evidence of his neglect still upon him; he could be no worse than he was, and I should not let him lie with his wounds untouched.
The doctor hoped I would not hurt the man any more than I could help, and with this precautionary remark, ordered one of the nurses to assist me, and we went to the hard task.
The rifle-ball had gone in at the back of his neck, tearing through, and coming out at his nostrils. As we syringed the cleansing preparation into his ear, it discharged at both apertures, and was a painful operation for us all, yet he bore it bravely. When he was made as comfortable as possible, we found two more whose condition was as pitiable as his had been, and we washed and dressed their wounds also, and gave them something to eat.
We could not return without a sight at the boys, who were lying in reserve in a dreadful place, about a mile distant. We reached it by going across the old battlefield, and there under a beautiful tree was pointed out to my notice the grave of one of our noble officers, Captain Warwick, who fell with his face to the foe, and was buried where he died. He was mourned sincerely by the whole regiment as one of their kindest and bravest officers.
On we went—my war-horse jumping over the fallen logs, and plunging into the hollows to the imminent risk of my bones; but the hanging-on process could not keep my mind from dwelling on the scenes so lately enacted on that same stretch of ground before me, and I seemed to hear the rattle of musketry, and the screeching of shells as they sent their death-dealing messengers into the ranks of the living, breathing men, and they fell like the tender flowers of summer before the sudden black frosts of November.
We reached them at last, and were greeted heartily—one little darky remarking that is was good for sore eyes to see a white lady, and "one dat didn't put on no style."
I sought the shelter of Captain Knettle's tent, and my reception-room was soon filled to its utmost capacity. I experienced some of the poetry of their situation, as standing beside the tent we heard the shrill screaming of a shell, and saw it fall only a short distance from the door. The little darky said, "Missus, you'd better git out dar; dem rebs don't mind the ladies no more'n dey do gemmen—hain't got no manners, no how."
The rifle-balls whistled through the trees, cutting through the green foliage with murderous sharpness, as though angered because they found no human heart to riot within. It was a nervous place for a woman; but I endured it, rather feeling a kind of enthusiasm in the nearness to danger and death.
We remained to dinner, enjoying exceedingly the hard tack fried in bacon grease. At four o'clock p. m. we left en route for the Division Hospital again, for I was anxious to see my patients once more, and exact a promise that they should be sent up to our hospital as soon as possible.
I found them as I left them, and the second day they were brought to our Corps Hospital. Of the three men, one died, a young Michigan soldier, who was shot just above the lungs, and was delirious till he breathed the last.
The day of our visit to Division Hospital, we had been invited by our sanitary agents to take a sail on the river, but I preferred my visit up to the front; and when we returned, and learned what had occurred to the pleasure-party, we were glad that we declined. In the excitement of the ride, they ventured too far with the boat, and were fired into by guerrillas, and a Mr. Wilson, one of the noblest men connected with the Sanitary Commission, was shot, and lived only a short time. The women were panic-struck, and the excitement was intense.I received, on the 4th of July, a testimonial from the men of our regiment, in the shape of one hundred and seventy-five dollars in greenbacks, and could not keep back the tears from my eyes, when I thought how kind they all were to me, and I doing nothing but my duty.
We worked and wrought, till the regularity of clock-work governed all the movements in the hospital. We were divided into three divisions, and a cook-house attached to each. Mrs. Hazen was in charge of that belonging to the Christian Commission, and I in charge of the Sanitary, to cook for the sick and wounded. The men cooked for the convalescents.
In my eagerness to improve the most of my time for the benefit of the sick, I drew largely upon the stores, and some in charge fearing that the supply on their own tables might fall short too soon, began to complain, and I left, to the sorrow of the boys and the delight of the agents.
After that, when I desired anything for the sick it came hard indeed.
We had a printing-press, and as everything had to be procured by order, and as every kind of handicraft known to the arts of peace had representatives in our army, a sergeant from the Fourteenth Heavy Artillery issued orders from the office daily, and with them sanitary stores and diet rations were procured.
We had to cut just the same length of red tape, if a man lay dying for the need of a pin's worth. It was necessary to systematize the arrangements, and necessary that every one should conform to the regulations; but my impetuous nature would vent itself now and then, when sick men moaned, and the desired article was going through the slow process of the rules.
We had a laundry established by the river-side, where the colored people did the washing for the hospital and for us. Spencer, from the Twentieth Michigan Regiment, had charge of the clothing, as it was distributed weekly amongst the different wards.
It was quite amusing to go down to the river, and watch the gambols of the little darkies, whose fathers and mothers worked over the wash-troughs. The great black hose throwing its steady stream of water into the boiler was a source of some mystery to them, as they carefully avoided treading on its serpentine length, regarding it in the light of a living thing well calculated to inspire awe and respect.
I had little time to get interested in this portion of our people who were fleeing out of Egypt—my white brothers had my entire soul. I went one night to look upon the corpse of an old wrinkled woman who had died, one of their number, over whose sable remains the moans of loud lamentations resounded.
Naught belonging to the deceased could ever be used by a single blood relation, and her scanty possessions were soon scattered amongst the group of sympathizing friends around.
She looked very calm in her last sleep; the slave could wear no more fetters in that land—that blessed country from which no tinge of Africa's hue can debar the uprising spirit. Those hard bony hands had done their work on plantation, and in the planter's kitchen, and those dimmed eyes had looked upon the deliverers, as they broke the bondage of her people.
She could well lie down in peace, while children and grandchildren were left to solve the problem of newly found liberty.
No doubt there were amongst those sable men souls of unquestioned courage, but I have laughed over the dismal howlings of those wounded so slightly that our merest boys would have blushed to notice it; and in the light attacks of sickness the contortions were like death to the uninitiated.
They were a careless, happy set, as they lolled by the river, and enjoyed themselves in camp. Their prayer-meetings often ended with dancing, and song, in which the negro element was exhibited in its perfection. They had many privileges, good rations—sometimes better than our own men, and were under far less restraint.
They wooed and wedded—had feasts and funerals, and the young ebonies sported by the water, oftimes tumbling in to the trembling horror of the maternal heart. One young fellow with his "girl" paraded our streets one day, and one of our nurses, a mere boy, thinking to tease him a little in his pomposity, made a pretence of falling in love with the dusky beauty, making soft, melting speeches to touch her heart. The negro, enraged, sprung upon him, opened his jack-knife, and with the ferocity of a savage cut the boy's throat from ear to ear.
The boy was taken up severely wounded, and months elapsed before his recovery. Some friends of the negro removed him secretly to Washington, to escape the vengeance which would have fallen on him had he remained at City Point. I never knew thatany action was taken in the matter, and it was a bitter thought with the boys long after, that a negro could do with impunity what would have cost a white man his life.