The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XV
Everything had grown into the routine of the strictest military discipline, as City Point became the centre of hospitals, and the booming cannon sent its mangled victims thick and fast upon us. The hot sun of July poured down upon our heads, and a hotter fire burned beneath the devoted fort at Petersburg.
Who that listened to the heavy cannonading on the thirtieth of July, and heard the terrible explosion, will forget the horrors of the scenes which were presented on the battlefield, as men were mown down like ripe grain in the harvest-time.
We worked faithfully to make room for the new recruits which we knew would soon be furnished. We cooked, and I remember how the simple fact of severely burning my dress as I stood between two stoves, annoyed me, from the reason that I thought no time could be spared to mend it. Mrs. Spencer of the New York Relief gave me tobacco to distribute to the freshly wounded who should come in, and be unable to procure it. Abominating the habit as I did, yet I enjoyed a great amount of satisfaction in knowing that I had in my possession that which—weed as it was—would brighten up many a poor soldier's face, and help him to forget the heavy dull pain of throbbing wounds.
Some of our wounded were to be removed to Washington to make room for the scores of freshly mutilated men which the bloody thirtieth had furnished. One of the men had given me his money to keep while ill, and was ordered on board the transport, State of Maine, before I was aware of it. I knew, in the city, he would want many things which were not included in hospital furnishing, and went to the landing, to see him if possible, and return the money.
The surgeon in charge stood by the plank which rested on both boat and shore, and with no ceremony I stepped upon the narrow way, and was about to pass up, when he stopped me with the information that no person could be allowed to go on board the boat without special orders.
I stated my errand, and he said, "Give me the money, I will find your soldier."
I replied, that small as the sum was it went into no hands but the owner's from mine, and turned away as if giving up the contest. But my will was going to be obeyed, and while the Doctor was busy with some person aside, I passed the guard, went on to the tower-deck, found the soldier, and gave him the money, returning safely.
As I passed the surgeon I could not resist the inclination to let him know that a woman had set his authority at naught, and thanking him for his kindness. I added that the boys looked very comfortable.
He said quickly, "Did you go on board?"
"Certainly," I replied, and very angrily he asked if I had not received orders to the contrary.
"Only verbal ones, which will hardly stand law," I answered defiantly, and passed on, leaving him doubtless revolving the problem of woman's perverseness and obduracy.
I never found resistance from the guards—and red-tape I could endure only as it was sewn on to the white ground-work with many stars, and floated in the free air of heaven.
It was an awful suspense for us who waited for the long, ghastly procession of men to be brought in, and we knew what shapeless, gaping wounds would open their bloody lips under our hands. The days were intensely hot, and I volunteered to help make the chicken broth with which we were to feed the wounded as they were brought from the battle-field.
Our cook-stove was in the open air, and no shelter over us. I wore a black hat, not considering the consequence, and soon, as I began my work over the heated stove, and under the broiling sun, I grew blind and staggered speechless away, and remained in a senseless stupor for some hours. When returning consciousness dawned upon me, vague fears and hopes shaped themselves in my mind, with the variety and rapidity of a kaleidoscope.
With the good care given me by Dr. Hays and the nurses, I was able the next day to be about; but, on the recurring hour of noon each day, for many weeks, I was blind for some moments. The wounded were brought in, and we were appalled at their number, when we thought of the slain, which must be in proportion. Every tent was filled to its utmost capacity, and still they were borne in; ghastly wrecks were some of them, who only came to die. Ropes were hoisted, and blankets laid over them to keep out the blinding heat of the sun, till busy hands could put up additional tents.
Some twenty rebels were brought in—and they seemed to bear their sufferings well—as wounded prisoners of war. I think they were glad to find rest and sufficient food. They were great, gaunt men, who looked likely to have lived on scanty rations all their days.
Our men died rapidly from fever and wounds, and it seemed impossible to rise from the depression which each new death caused.
It was piteous to hear them moan so sadly, yet utter no words of complaint. A little drummer-boy, only thirteen years of age, who belonged to a Rhode Island regiment, was taken with bleeding at the lungs, and moaned only for his mother. She would be all alone, he said, for his father died when he was only ten years of age. He asked me to write, and tell her how it went with her boy; and I sat there holding the dying child in my arms. I thought how her poor stricken heart would agonize over the cruel, cruel blow.
She wrote a reply to my letter, and it was read with tears, long after her boy was laid to sleep in the hospital grave-yard at City Point. I learned of the killed in our regiment as one after another was brought in, by whose side they had been stricken down. Lieut. Griswold and Sergeant Fish were of the first killed, whose names were given to me then, and my heart grew sad when I remembered how I had seen them last, and shuddered and trembled lest I should hear of some whose blood was as my own in the throbbing pulses of my heart.
They told me Chester Phezonias was killed, and I thought of the meeting in the land where there are no more desolate hearts and hearths, while one body slept on the field where he died, and one in the hospital grave-yard at Fredericksburg.
Sergeant-Major Bristol was wounded in the hand, and Sergeant Root lost his right arm, and came to us, remaining but a few days, however, and going thence to Washington to give room to men lower with wounds than they.
Colonel Catlin came in with one foot lost, and Lieut-Colonel Stillson with a ball in his shoulder, both wounded while leading a charge in front of Petersburg, and with them Private Delos Hubburt, hurt on the same day and ground.
One little incident occurred which pained me exceedingly. One of our men, Private Youngs, was brought in so changed by dirt and grim, and sufferings, that I did not recognize him, and, although he called me "Aunt Becky," it did not occur to me that he was any one in whom I was particularly interested, as coming from our regiment.
I had learned that he was wounded, and had been making search for him, but not till after he died was made aware of the fact that I had been nursing him for a whole day, and had not known him.
He was such a sufferer that I forbade all unnecessary questions, and kept him as quiet as possible. He tried at the last to say something to me, but it was unintelligible, and he died with his unknown secret, himself unknown. I thought, perhaps, I could have received some sign if I had known him, and it was so hard to think of his dying thus, while I stood by his bed, and could not convey the message of the dying to those who loved him, and of whom his latest thoughts and words were spoken.
A small hospital was established nearer the river for those in government employ, when ours was over-crowded with the battle's unripe harvest, and Mrs. Dunbar, one of our best nurses, and my closest friend, went there to do duty. I was very lonely after she went, still I knew she would do more good in that position than any other one of whom I had knowledge, and remembered that I was not in the army for social enjoyment or the sweets of friendship, and so held my peace, wondering when the war would be over, and we could all go home out of the sight of wounds, and such painful deaths.I thought of the ending that there would be thrills of regret at parting—heart-aches at the breaking of those ties so cemented by blood; but the nation and the nation's soldiers yearned for peace, and its pursuits, and so we waited patiently for the end.