The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XVI
Rumors of a change in our cooking establishment made a little flutter amongst us. Things were going on so smoothly in the worn groove, that we hardly liked the prospect of adapting ourselves to a new order of things. The kitchens were so cleanly and well aired, and everything scoured to snowy whiteness. Brawny arms, with more than a Bridget's strength, reached the perfection of a model housekeeper's ideas in the cleansing of the unpainted tables and shelves.
But change was the order of the day—military rules were arbitrary, and we bore it all in outward silence.
Our mess-room was directly back of the medical dispensary, and our cooks made chairs for each, surprising us one day with seats independent of the movements of our neighbors. Owing to some oversight, or a mistake in somebody's arithmetic, we fell short one seat, and they extemporized a nail-keg, which, falling to the lot of one of our women, caused a storm of indignation to arise, and she left the table determined to avenge the insult. And she did report to the surgeon in charge, and was ridiculed for her tenacious holding to the idea of an intended insult, when no thought of one had entered their brains.
We had good and sufficient food, still some of the convalescents, with appetites sharpened by late fevers, failed to receive all which their voracious stomachs craved, and my tent became the repository for all odd bits from the cooks, and under its white shelter I dealt out the broken remnants, and wished I could augment the store by miracle or material means—I was not fastidious which, if the substance was only at my hand.
I knew one man who would eat three loaves of bread, with crackers in proportion, and still be hungered for more. My heart ached for him as his wistful eyes would scan my board for some bit of extra food remaining, and I gave him again and again.
The chief cook forbid the under men giving me these extra things—he was an enemy to "calico," and seemed to take particular pleasure in foiling me in attempts to get additions to a sick man's rations.
My great cloak, which enveloped my person completely, served me a good turn then—for many a chunk of dried beef, basins of custard, cans of milk, and balls of butter were smuggled out of the kitchen by the cooks under its ample folds, and the sick men brightened at my coming.
He moved on in his consequential dignity, unconscious how he was being outwitted, regarding me with glances which plainly said, "You are only a woman—I think you get only what I will you should out of this establishment." I contracted a dislike for him, which culminated into almost absolute hatred, when one morning I saw him absolutely kick a convalescing soldier in the mess-room, accusing him of taking a piece of bread which he said lay on a plate on the table, which accusation was emphatically denied.
I felt in my anger as though I wished God would strike him dead, and end his miserable existence. To put on the authority and air of a major-general, and then to descend into such depths of meanness, and knowing his real position before taking charge here, was sickening indeed.
At the head of a drum-and-fife band, this man, without moral sense, was set over those of immense superiority, with kindly hearts, and it was quite a trial to me to see him retain his position when I would have made him the lowest drudge over the washing of pots and kettles, in the vilest depths of the cook-house, and hardly think him good enough to do that work either.
Many thanks to those with him, I suffered but little from his meanness, and few luxuries were withheld from the sick, for goodness of heart triumphed over the brief authority of the conceited fellow, and we went our several ways without conflict. My enlarged proportions at times, as I went demurely from the kitchen laden with the good things, made a little flutter at my heart, but I braved the storm, and weathered the voyage to my wards in safety, each and every time.
Thus men of low calibre, and full of wretched self, often got in places of trust, and caused us much annoyance in the exercise of their authority to withhold.
Such, at one time, was the man dispensing sanitary stores. Cases of fruit, put up by loving hands to tempt a sick soldier's taste, went into rich pies to garnish his dinner table, and wines bottled to revive a sinking wounded body, which some one loved and prayed for, went down throats where water was seldom a beverage. But there were good and humane men also with Sanitary, and of them I never failed to obtain what I wished.
Of the Christian Commission we invariably procured the desired article, if in their stores. Their labor was voluntary, and of course only the benevolent-hearted, in a spirit of humanity, could afford to give away six weeks of valuable time in dispensing the comforts to those who had nearly given up sweet life for their country's sake, while those in the Sanitary department received from fifty to a hundred dollars per month, which, with the chance of fare which they had, and the position which it gave, made it quite an object.
I had an order one day from Surgeon Yount to get some brandy for a man who lay very low—(we had orders for only a pin's worth from Sanitary)—and wanted the best, and "our" Commissioner would not let me have it, saying they had none. In less than an hour I met one of our cooks returning from the same place, and he said, "Look here, Aunt Becky," while with a little laugh of satisfaction he took out a well-filled flask of the purest brandy from under his blouse, and his eyes sparkled with the beaded fleck of foam at the mouth of the bottle.
Well, I was intensely angry—the man for whose use I needed that bottle of liquor, given to a boon companion for a carousal, was sinking fast, and we had nothing but poor "Commissary whiskey" to give him, and he soon died. In my heart I believe he would have rallied if I had obtained for him the brandy which I coveted so much, and which went to wet the lips of a drunkard.
I told him of it—I could not resist the inclination to let him know that by the fact of his withholding, one brave man had gone, and that the poor whiskey was unfit for medicine in any shape. He said, "It is such as Government furnishes for Government troops," and I replied that I did not wonder Sanitary could not furnish any for the soldiers, when they employed such great stout men as he, who gulped down a glass full of raw liquid fire at once, and to whom water would be a dangerous mixing.
I never saw these men dress a wound while I was in the hospital. The most they could do for the boys, to make a demonstration, was to run from tent to tent with a little bag fastened at their sides holding a dozen sheets of paper split in two, and three or four shirts and as many pairs of drawers, and it sometimes took more than one to that.
One right-minded woman, having charge of what the wives, and sisters, and mothers had sent down to us with prayers and tears, for those who languished in the fever of wounds, or from exposure to the malaria of swamps, could have wrought far better work in their distribution than these great, unfeeling men, who grew fat on the rich spoils.
A woman's taste is generally considered as accurate in regard to testing the freshness of canned peaches, or the purity of domestic wines, and they could have pronounced upon them, too, without taking the most of the contents to fill dishes on their own table.
Of course abuses will exist—but in this matter of providing comforts for those whose lives hung by the merest thread, I would be severe in protesting against the employment of men wherein the least sign of selfish appropriation appeared.
Too many a one I have seen turn away from the plain toast, or crackers, when half a peach, or a dozen red cherries would have made his eyes sparkle, and the lagging appetite come, urging the parched tongue to partake.
I went sadly away from that dying man, and wondered where selfishness would end, and if the legitimate object of war was to harden men's souls to the miseries of their brothers, till they could look upon dead and dying men with no compunctious feeling for what they had withheld, which might have been a timely salvation to the exhausted body.
Such scenes stirred me to the depths of my nature, and my blood boiled, and my cheeks glowed, till only in the quiet of my little tent could I regain the composure necessary for a steady hand over the distressing wounds which I dressed daily.
The Christian Commission built a church, and sometimes of an evening I would sit within it, with head bowed down, listening to prayer and hymn, and wondering if I was at home again, in the little gray church under the hill-side pastures, and if those men whose voices were raised in exhortation, were our neighbors and our friends, fresh from the clover fields which I knew then were red with many blossoms, and the bees were humming over them in the drowsy afternoons.
I could cheat my heart awhile—I liked to think of the ripple of the brook plashing over the white stones, moistening beds of spongy moss, and scattering drops of dew on bending brake, and lonely water-weed. I was a child again—taking the wood-path to the school-house, looking up into the tall trees with feelings akin to worship, and tracing the sun's witchery through the quivering leaves, down into the dark brown mould, grown so rich with the decay of centuries. The quiet way—the hushed repose of the country in the summer sunshine, came with sweeping force upon me, and with a wild rush of feeling I lifted up my head to see blue army uniforms about me—crutches leaning against the bare walls, and I realized that I was an army nurse, down near the battle-fields, where "It was no place for women."
We had a reading-room attached to the same benevolent Commission, and the studious convalescent could lose himself and his misery in the pages of books, which only a little while before lay on tables, and in peaceful libraries in his own beloved North.
I had so little to do in arranging my toilet that I enjoyed the look of surprise by which strangers signified their thoughts of my appearance. I presume I was called the worst dressed woman in the whole army, for a little satchel held my wardrobe after losing my trunk, and I certainly could not have cared for a "Saratoga" full of dresses and accompaniments.
My pair of bedtick dresses were strong, and would bear washing well, and when they were clean I gave no more attention to my attire, but with sleeves pinned up, had no scruples about going into any work for fear of soiling my dress.
I went to church so arranged, and enjoyed the sermons as thoroughly as though clad in a velvet robe, when those poor men with torn and dirty uniforms were waiting for me on beds of pain. My straw hat sheltered me from the scorching sun, and when, as often I did, it was taken from my head to cover a soldier's whose cap had gone in the battle's charge, Sanitary would furnish me another.
My feet were very comfortable in slippers three sizes too large for them, and as I had no matrimonial designs on that motley throng of men, it was all the same, and they welcomed me with my hands full of rations as kindly as though clad like a queen.
Heart entanglements were hardly safe then, as some found to their cost—too many men married, yet sported with ripe affections, when they were thrust upon them, and the poor deluded woman awoke to the knowledge of wife and children only soon enough to save herself from a desperate heart-break.
I was laughed at for a little incident which occurred one day, testifying to one man's faithfulness to his wife—even in thought.
One morning the doctor called for me to go and cheer up a man in Ward B, who was so low-spirited he was in danger of running down and dying soon, and I must do something to rally him, if possible. I went to his side, and said, "Now I have got you—the doctor says if I can raise you, I can have you all to myself, and it will be so nice, when the war is over, to take a father back to my children."I will never forget the look which staggered me as he opened his weary eyes, and said faintly, but firmly, "My good woman, I have got a wife at home." The poor fellow's thoughts were with her even then, and his sinking spirits longing for her presence. I wondered if that wife knew how true and noble her husband was, and then fell to thinking how strange a thing was the human heart, and that the great want of truth of which people complain lies in their own souls. Be true to ourselves, and no one will do us great harm by being false to us.