The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XVIII
Some shrewd games were played upon us at times, although I was slow to believe that men, wearing the Union blue, would descend to trickery to remain in hospital, and leave their comrades to brave the dangers at the front.
One who had been a sailor, and once before in the service, was playing the crazy soldier. He had received the bounty for which he enlisted, and was anxious to obtain his second discharge. Sometimes when I talked to him he forgot his part, and seemed to understand as readily as any one, and we thought him trying to play upon us, although we could get no proof. He played so adroitly, however, that he was sent to Washington soon, and did obtain his discharge on the ground of insanity.One old soldier came in almost bent double with rheumatic pains, and seemed to suffer so much that I became enlisted in his behalf, and ministered daily to his wants. He lay for weeks with no change for the better, and every luxury which I could obtain I carried to his ward, and after a time begged permission of the doctor to have him come nearer to my tent, that I could do more for his comfort.
Not many days after my wish was complied with, the examining surgeon came around and visited my old soldier, pronouncing him an impostor. I protested against the decree—that inflammatory rheumatism often gave no outward sign, and that it could not be he was playing us false.
Notwithstanding the arguments so conclusive to myself, they sent him to ride the horse which had neither saddle, nor bridle, nor lines, with which to make the ride agreeable, and I was very miserable thinking of the hard penance which he was undergoing, and the disgrace to his manhood.
But the cure was effectual; he was erect as any man from that day, and always passed me with an averted face, and hurrying step. I was laughed at many a day for my expenditure of unavailing sympathy for the poor old rheumatic soldier.
I believe we had but few such men; death before the foe was not such a dreadful thing, that they could often disgrace the uniform which they wore by such mean shifts.
In direct contrast to this case was an old white-headed man, who came down to us from the One Hundred and Seventy-Ninth N. Y. Volunteers, very ill from the exposure to hardships which in his old age he had no strength to bear up under.
His name was Freer, from Slaterville, N. Y. He was the greatest example of patience and endurance with which I ever met, and he suffered extremely, never through it all uttering a groan, or word of complaint. Sometimes he thought himself at home, and would talk like a child which had been long homesick, and was again sitting under the old roof by his mother; then again he realized his position, and would question me if I believed he would ever see home, and children, and the old wife again.
I waited upon him most of the time, and the tears would often come to my eyes when he would speak of the comfort which they should take when the cruel war was over. I knew that when that time came, he would be a heap of mouldering dust, somewhere under the sods of the ground.
A neighbor came all the long distance between him and his roof-tree, to be with him in the last, and take back, with his cold clay, the messages of love to his family. When he came in and took his hand, and he heard the sound of his familiar voice, new life seemed to flow into his lagging pulses—his eyes brightened, and the neighbor thought hope was not yet dead. He said it seemed to him an angel had come from heaven to take him home, and clung to him with the tenderness of a babe to its mother till he died.
I remembered him sadly for many weeks, and the picture of the silver-haired old man is photographed in my gallery of brave men who died to save their country's honor.
I had charge of one ward in which lay seven little boys, all under seventeen years of age, and all ill with fever. I was thoroughly at home there. When I had washed their faces and combed their hair, and made all necessary changes in their clothing, I felt like sitting beside them and rocking them to sleep.
They were gathered from different States, and had succumbed to the hardships of war. Delicate boys, with faces fair as a maiden's, with soft, curling hair, and eyes so bright, and truthful, and loving, I could not think of them as learning the hard lessons of battle, standing in the front ranks of soldiers, meeting without shrinking the deadly charges.
I wished only for the power to nurse them into health, and send them to the mothers who loved them, till the smooth lip should grow downy, and the fair brow bronzed with the winds which manhood's prime must face, and leave them there till years should mature them ready for the next great conflict.
Oftimes I found them all in tears—poor homesick hearts pining for their native hills—longing to lay their heads in a mother's lap, and forget that they had ever thought of onslaught on to any greater game than the squirrels and blackbirds which frequented well-known haunts.
Then I laughed them into spirits again—told them I should order baby-jumpers for the next offender, and left them a little brighter for the day. They called me "mother," and drifted into it so naturally, that as one by one they convalesced, and were sent away, I felt like a mother weeping for the loss of her bright, beautiful boy—knowing into what hardening scenes they were passing, and trembling for the purity of the young brave hearts.
For four weeks we had a man in hospital, whose skeleton frame seemed ready to drop into the consumptive's grave without a warning. He was not recovering, and the doctor having charge of the ward would not send him away. I thought a change would help him if anything could, and one day learning that the Fifth Corps were to send some of their wounded to Washington that afternoon, I went to the steward and obtained a ticket for one of our men, ordering the nurses to take Brother Jonathan, as we called him, to the boat where the Fifth Corps left, and they did as ordered.
He had been gone only a short time when the doctor came on his round of inspection, and missed the man—wanted to know if he had got well, or died, and as he persisted in his questioning, they were obliged to tell of my share in the transaction—that he had gone off on the transport. "By whose orders?" he thundered sharply.
"Aunt Becky's," was the reply, and he marched away, muttering, "I'll give her the devil."
So, with vengeance in his heart, he came directly to my tent, flushed with anger, and demanded to know what business I had to send men out of his ward, or indeed out of any ward in the Hospital.
I made but little reply—letting the storm rage till its fury was spent—then I said:"The man was not doing well—he did not belong to you—pieces of men grew together to make Brother Jonathan, and his two eyes haunted me so, I could not help sending him off."
His eyes were like saucers—and the dark rings about them were fearful to behold. The doctor had nothing more to say, and left me victor of the field. I saw the man in Washington after that, looking quite well, and what was better, he had his discharge papers in his pocket.
Some punishments occurred in camp which, perhaps, were deserved, although an unpleasant feeling always attached itself, in my mind, to the manner in which they were performed, so degrading to the culprit—attaching such a shameful thought to all association with his comrades in after-life.
I made a custard one morning for a ward of the sick, baking it in a four-quart basin, and giving it to a nurse to distribute. He gave them each a table-spoonful, ate some himself, and sold the remainder to the boys. Before it was known to me, I heard the fife and drum, and saw the culprit parading the camp with the board on his back, marked, "Thief."
I knew the offence should be punished, or such things would often occur, but I could not look with anything like complaisance on such a degrading display. I would rather the offender were put on bread and water alone, for a week, in solitary confinement; or that a fine should be exacted, reaching into the next pay. Anything but the return to barbarism, of which the "Rogue's March" was the first downward step.
One morning I went to my tent after some sauces for a patient, accompanied by one of the boys who was acting as nurse, and as we returned, found a letter lying on the ground, directed for the post-office, to the address of a married lady in Washington. Thinking no more of it, I gave it to the boy to drop into the box. I was sure he did as directed, and the matter rested, till I heard the doctor say he had lost a letter which he was about to post. I went directly to him, saying, I had found one to the address of Mrs. ——, Washington, D. C., and he, coloring up to the roots of his hair, said it could not be his letter, for the lady whom he had addressed was unmarried.
I mentioned the name of the nurse into whose care I had entrusted the letter for the office, and after a few hours learned, to my great indignation, that the boy had been put into the guard-house, because the doctor could not find his letter in the post.
He had been "sweet" on this lady, and we all knew it, and I was determined that no one should suffer for his carelessness, even if the letter had been retained and read, which I did not believe, so, going to the head-surgeon, and stating the case in plain terms, the boy was ordered to his ward again, and the citizen doctor was the butt of many a laugh and joke at the surgeons' mess, for weeks.
Such things tried my soul, and, one day, finding a boy, who was a favorite of mine, tied up by the thumbs to a tree, I took my knife from my pocket in an instant, and the cord was severed, and the boy sent quickly to his ward, with the assurance that I would stand all blame, and if they wished to tie up any one else it might be me, but I hardly thought that would look very well under the circumstances. Nothing was ever said about it, however, and Aunt Becky went unharmed.
Deserters were shot on the heights above us, within sounding distance of my tent, and I shall never forget the horror in which I listened to the band playing the death-march, as they passed the curve in the road, and the doomed man went to the open grave which yawned for him. I could not help the silence in which I sat, till the music had died away, and the crash of musketry sounding in the sullen distance assured me that the soul of the one time soldier had gone to eternity—ushered beyond the portals by the hands of those whose companion he had been.
I could not reconcile the deed with my obdurate conscience—although I knew the penalty must be severe as death, to hold many in the ranks, yet so often and often men failed to know the true duty of a soldier, and the act of desertion seemed hardly enough to warrant his death at the hands of comrades.It seemed a cruel thing to make men, who perhaps had been playmates in youth, the executioners of the stern military decree; but I was a woman,—I did not know of these things, and although they tried my soul to the very depths, I was compelled to let them pass silently.