The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XVII
Our hospital was a great laboratory of sighs. Many a brave man breathed out the last whisper to us when death fastened upon his heart. We were called upon to listen to delirious ravings, and to the hardly articulate words of those whose struggle for life was hard and long. Youth lay before us with fair locks, and face as smooth as a girl's, and with them the bullet had done its work at last.
One of seventeen years, who was mortally wounded through the lungs, sent a messenger for me one day, having heard my name spoken by some of his comrades, and I hastened to his ward. Very cheerfully he asked me how many hours I thought he could live, and I said, "You may live a day, and perhaps longer," for it was useless and cruel to deceive when they themselves knew that death hovered near them.He only sighed, and turned his face away for a moment, then asked me brightly if I would play checkers with him, adding, "It will bring home back clearer to me than anything else, for my sister played with me the last evening we spent at home—and we used to be so happy together."
I got the board and played several games with him, but not being an adept at the work, of course he beat me every time. He would pause to rest, and his features would often contract with the heavy throb of pain, and his breathing was a difficult labor. Yet he let no complaint fall from his lips.
He wished me to write to his friends that he had died for his country, and was willing, and that his last hours were spent in thoughts of them. He died peacefully not long after he had finished the last game, and thus early life's story was told for him.
I could not keep my tears back from my eyes when I covered the face of the young dead, and left him in his peaceful slumber.
Captain Lee, of the One Hundred and Eleventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, was brought in, bayoneted through the right leg, and suffered the most intense agony. He was delirious nearly all the time, but in his rational moments talked of his wife, and sustained the cause in which he was suffering, and was so sure that success would crown the efforts of our noble general.
He died, and a sister came for his coffined remains, bearing them back in sadness to the lonely-hearted wife, in her desolate home.A Lieut. Dupree, from a Rhode Island regiment, came in badly wounded, also in the leg, and for two days and nights the nurses relieved each other, as they sat with fingers pressed on the severed artery, to keep the life-blood from ebbing away till his wife could reach him.
She came with his brother, and only God and those who have felt it can tell the agony with which she caught his dying look, and knew that the man she loved was so near his death. No efforts to save him availed, and all we could do after the spirit was gone, was to make the poor lifeless body ready for the silent journey homeward.
One man from a Michigan regiment, who was wounded through the brain, I cared for myself, shaving his head, and dressing the wound carefully. He seemed quite comfortable, and was rational at times; but they had told me from the first it was of no use to waste strength and time on a dead man, and on the third day he died.
He was a noble-looking fellow—somebody's pride; and I wished that those who loved him could see the peaceful look which his features wore, and take him to the dear old spot to sleep his last sleep, afar from the din of battles.
A woman came from Pennsylvania to our hospital to see her husband, who was reported as badly wounded through the head, with no hopes of his recovery. When she arrived, with a little tender babe in her arms, how my heart ached for her, and for the little one who should never look upon its father's living face, for he had been dead and buried three days.
The old father came with his daughter-in-law, and the last act they could render to his lifeless remains, was to remove them from the scene of his death, back to the sacred soil wherein each and every one of us desires to repose, when life's fitful dream is over—the church-yard under the shadow of our native hills.
It was a rare treat to see a little white baby, ebony ones had been in plenty—but a little white baby, with twining flaxen hair, and laughing blue eyes, and rosy mouth, was a rare treat for us. Its dimpled hands wandering over the bronzed faces of the soldiers, made many a one think, with tears almost up to his eyes, of nameless little ones so far away, as I carried the pretty fatherless child from tent to tent.
Many an eye moistened as I told the story of its father's death, and many a one thought of the sweet darlings, from the lumpy baby of two months to two years, who might soon, alas! be fatherless like that tender one.
I saw the widow take the child to her bosom, and thought how it would grow to full stature, and never know, only as an old story, of the journey to the hospital, where the sight of its father's dead face was the only consolation to the bereaved mother.
So many sick and wounded were crowded into the tents, and the transports taking away fewer than arrived, we were obliged to shelter them as we could, and my small house was given to five men, Lieut. Austin of our regiment, his brother, Private Strong, and two soldiers from Western regiments, while we women all went into one tent to sleep.
Chaplain Washburn took us in his way to join the regiment, and was very kind in his efforts to assist us. Erin Van Kirk, of the One Hundred and Ninth, was very sick at the time, and my hands were filled with work. Major Dunn, Captains Gordon and Mont, were ill also, and the duties were arduous which devolved upon me, more because I had taken every man of that brave regiment into my heart as a brother, and wished to watch over them as such.
We had some cases of gangrene which proved fatal to all who were attacked. So suddenly, while we thought the wound was healing, the poison infused itself into the festering sore, and death came, a speedy release from the agony of pain.
So sad it made my heart as one after another dropped away, and others came in with bloody wounds, some from the beloved regiment, of whose welfare my whole being was so solicitous. The rebel lines seemed impregnable, and the dire casualties of such frequent occurrence, that I grew sick with apprehension, and wondered if the bloody carnage was to fill up the measure of our material existence.
Captain Knettles came in with his right eye shot out—a painful wound, and a brave man to endure the pain. Then came the terrible news of Sergeant Jerome Woodbury's death, killed August 19th, and there were many sad hearts in our regiment, for he had a host of friends to mourn his death. And Capt. Mitchel wounded also, of Co. K., his sister with him.Well, I just began to think that Miss Mitchel will have a proposal soon, for there is a certain doctor from the Second Corps that visits my tent rather often, and I do not think he comes to see me; for it would be so funny if a shoulder-strap should take so much notice of Aunt Becky.
Woodbury was down to see me the day before his death, and as he left my tent he said, "I feel sensible that I am not going to get out alive," and his prediction proved true. A mother's heart bled at the loss of her hero son; was there not also a throb of pride that he died such a good soldier—such a brave, noble-hearted man?
Every effort was made to find his body, but they were unavailing. His name and regiment were pinned to his clothing by the hands of a comrade, after he died; but although the search was close and long, they failed to discover his remains, and he was doubtless buried where he died, in the soldier's nameless grave.
His sleep is as peaceful as though the sods of his native valley covered him, and spring sows as sweet flowers to deck the green trenches of Virginia, as those which blossom in the quiet Northern grave-yards.The lovely summer weather seemed profaned by these deeds of death, but our convalescents enjoyed the long warm days, when no fatiguing marches or wearing duty rendered them conscious of the heat. They sat at tent doors dreaming of the days which were gone, striving hard to forget the terrible scenes through which they had so recently passed.