The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XIX

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Dr. Wheeler was relieved in the summer, and Dr. McDonald put in charge of our hospital. He ordered barracks to be built and the cook-houses to be merged in one, with a low diet, and a full diet-kitchen. Our old cooks were ordered to the front and men from the drum-corps put on duty instead.

The long row of low, unpainted buildings which sprang up would have suggested little poetry in the eyes of an imaginative person, but they were far better than tents, accommodating more patients, and, although destitute of architectural beauty, yet from the comfort afforded, looked well in our practical eyes.

The cannon belching forth its red flames sent men to their long account, and prostrated others with its withering touch; still the ceaseless work never paused, and our hands were not allowed to be folded idly in our laps, waiting for the relay of wounded.

We had always one work which lay ready at our hands. I suppose fastidious women who know not the size or color of a louse, or the uneasy sense of their crawling presence, will be shocked to learn that we had them in plenty in our hospital, in our heads, and in our clothing.

It is an abomination in a civilized family to let children keep lousy; but sometimes the best of people will be obliged to make forays on the sudden attack of the pests, but in the army no Sanitary rules—nothing, in fact—would rid us effectually of them, and we endured them with the heroism of martyrdom.

We endured them, waiting the advent of plenty of soap and water, fine-tooth combs and new clothing, consigning, in fancy, our old garments, the tenant-houses of so many families, to the merciless flames.

In deep seam and hem the creatures bred and grew till they were as large as a kernel of wheat, ripe and full; and any lady can imagine scores of such creatures crawling on her delicate flesh, while the shudder of horror creeps over her; but if lover, or brother, or husband, or son, were in the ranks, she can rest assured that his clothing also was peopled by these army-followers; and if she is in doubt, let her be convinced by his truthful statement.

It was a recreation often indulged in by convalescing patients—turning the garments inside out, and picking these creatures from the seam, to which they cling in desperation. Our tents were invaded; roof, wall, and floor, were astir with them, and they were an enemy invincible to the foe—reinforcing the slaughtered ranks till their number was legion, and they were left victor of the well-fought field.

Think not we sunk down at first into this sudden defeat, or admitted their foraging with impunity; many an onslought from a nervous hand to the shoulder ended the day of scores; many a determined raid with brush and comb laid them low by dozens; but still they came; still they swarmed our clothing, and beds, and tents, and we made a virtue of necessity, and endured.

I sometimes went to the front, to see the boys of our own regiment, taking up little articles—as stamps, paper, and things not easily obtained there at all times; and one day, in the early September, I proposed to take a journey there, and hardly knew what conveyance I should find.

Still, as my will was generally obeyed in some shape, I looked about me for some mode of travel, first engaging Steward Demming as driver. We found an old horse running about, which seemed to be ownerless, and an abandoned wagon, and proposed to take our journey with the aid of these, in faint remembrance of days of peace, when the wagon trundled over smooth roads, grass-lined, and wound in dusty quiet by the habitations of civilization.

We were to go on Monday—a day on which no thrifty housekeeper thinks of going on a visiting expedition; but our arts were the arts of war; we heeded no washing days at the front.

I had canned fruit and quite a collection of good things which I wished to take up to the boys, and we were astir early, eager as children for a holiday-ride. We tied up our broken wagon, and extemporized a harness out of ropes and old pieces of leather, put together in any shape, to keep the horse from leaving the vehicle behind him in his swift flight.

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It was a very warm day, and the poor old horse felt the heat extremely, and the boys bade us "good-bye," with many a joke at our stylish equipage, scarcely expecting to see us return as we went.

But we reached camp at last, and were greeted with loud demonstrations, which would have done credit to the arrival of a favorite major-general; and indeed our whole journey had been a continued ovation.

The boys hastened to the roadside, calling our horse along with hands held forth, suggesting to the half-famished brute the oats, the taste of which had almost gone out of his remembrance, so long ago were they taken into his stomach.

But we were in time for dinner, and remained awhile, dispensing the good things to the boys, to whom hardtack had become second nature. At dusk we arrived back at the Hospital, being greeted like voyagers who had dared some great and perilous sea.

The autumn winds grew chilly over City Point, and we were astonished one day by the sweeping discharge of all the women connected with the Ninth Corps, with the exception of my humble self, who was retained by what process this deponent knoweth not.

Why the others were discharged was quite a mystery for the time. Some said it was because the surgeon in charge disliked women in general, but as he doubtless had wife, mother, or sister, that could not be.

But the women were sent away, and I, alone of my sex, was left in the Ninth Corp Hospital at City Point.

The stewards and myself had our own table, and the cooks prepared our meals, and it was strange again to me to see only men about, wearing the blue uniform, and to hear only their harsh voices in the camp.

Still, when the desire for female society pressed strongly upon me, I visited the nurses of other corps, where hospitals were in close proximity to ours, but time did not lie heavily on my hands, allowing discontentment to spring up in my mind like weeds, overshadowing duty.

The November rain fell alike on the camp and the beleaguered city of Petersburg, and the mud was ankle deep in the streets of our tented town. The stray bullet and cannon still did its fearful work, and sickness struck many a man down in the height of his ambition for glory.

The leaves fell, and the grass withered. We had no birds to leave us on their bright wings. Never a bird did I see here or at Fredericksburg; only a few crows, with black wings, ominous of death and disaster. The storm of iron hail had effectually driven them away, but not forever, we hoped.

It would be sad if, amongst other horrors, the spring-time should bring no birds to build their nests high in the tree-boughs, or low in the June meadows. But although there will be desolation enough, Nature will not withold her gifts to the South—the bright land of the sun. The birds are there—the blue skies, the tender flowers, beaded with rain and dew; and man may do as he will, she will never fail to renovate when the iron heel is taken from the long pressed sod.

When the screaming shell ceased to speed on its death errand, and the cannon to belch forth its lurid fires, these birds returned, singing in the bright mornings, only to take leave when the black frosts touched with withering fingers all that was frail, and lovely, and blooming.

The trees were naked again, the hill-sides were bleak, and we shrunk from the bitter wind, thinking of another long winter in camp. The army was still amidst active operations, and the foe yet lifted its brazen head strong for the battle. The chill blasts crept into every forgotten aperture, and we drew our blankets closer over us in the dark lonesome midnights.

Yes, it was settled we were again to pass a winter in the South—when the last spring opened I had said, "We will go home before cold weather assails us again," but yet we lingered, rebellion still rampant, and the horrid Moloch of War yet unappeased.

The semblance of Northern seasons dropped upon us in promising flakes, but the white robe was like ermine only for a few moments, the feet of nurse, and cook, and guard defiled its purity, and the sticky mud was left alone after the snow wept itself out in silent tears.

Our ranks were constantly recruited, and the days wore on. Many a fanciful armament was fashioned by those deft fingers, when the owner lay thinking of the craft which he had followed, and strove to wear away the tedium of the monotonous life in the hospital.

I had many a token given to me—images moulded of the clay which was upheaved when the great mine was sprung at Petersburg,—and of other earth made historic by the blood of the brave men spilt upon it—little ornaments carved of beef bones, polished till they were like ivory in whiteness and beauty.

One chain was given me, each link composed of some carpenter's implement—axe, saw, file, everything in fact—but some covetous hand stole it away, and it lies a confiscated relic in some treasure trove. I wish it were in mine.

In work like this, in reading and silent thought, the men passed the days, and the winter months wore off with no great incidents to mark them in my calendar.

February drew near, and came at last, with the promise of a speedy going. As I look over the diary kept at that time, and remember the little white sheltering-tent under whose brooding it was written, I think the record of the few weeks inscribed within it will tell best what feelings urged us, and how we longed for home and home comforts to be given to all that sick and suffering throng.