The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XXI
I have just come in from a visit to the poor wounded men. O how they suffer, yet few groans or cries issue from their lips, as they endure amputation, and dressing of wounds—only the close shutting of the mouth, and the contortion of a muscle, shows how keen is the pain which brings the beaded sweat to their foreheads.
Oftimes the amputated limb seems to lie distorted in the great festering heap, and they beg that it may be laid straight. Strange this sympathy which the member gone seems to have with the frame-work left. How many have told me that fingers or toes were cramped, and even thought if the limb which was gone could be placed aright in the grave, with its mutilated companions, the uneasy feeling would vanish at once.It is very muddy, and the wind blows a perfect gale, and although the sun shines overhead, I feel a gloom like night stealing over me. I hear the groans of the wounded, and the sound fires me with ten thousand feelings which I cannot express—so many perish, and the end still in the far distance.
Still the wounded come in, and little I can do to mitigate their sufferings—so many mere boys, it makes my heart ache for the mothers, whose whole souls yearn over the brave little fellows, who could not remain at home when the old flag was endangered. I look at them and think, what if they were my children, how I would bless any one who gave them even a kind word, and I try to cheer them up, telling them the Confederacy must give way with such help as they have given our army, and that they do not suffer in vain.
Some of my old patients come back almost every day. I watch for the familiar faces, whose owners I nursed at Fredericksburg, or White House Landing, and they recognize me in my scant bedtick dress, but perhaps appreciate what I am able to do for them, as well as if I passed hours in dressing for the Wards.
Well, it seems heartless for me to see women caring for curls and colors, when so many need a brave hand which will not shrink from a dirty, bloody wound, waiting to be dressed. I cannot think of such things now—it is no time, or place. I am a common woman, and I come to nurse the common soldier, whose sixteen dollars a month is the exceeding reward of hardships almost unendurable—nursing and burial thrown in if he dies, and if he lives, a wreck, with only the vital trunk intact, eight dollars a month for the term of his natural existence.
I don't say it is not liberal, but I do say, when men have almost died—nay, worse than died, for the country—that country should, like a grateful mother, gather up her children in her loving arms, protect them and theirs, with her means and her strength, and so far as outward things will go, soften the pathway all through life. She cannot do too much, alas! I fear she will do too little.
My sympathies all centre in the soldiers who wear the common blue of the ranks—whose columns have been swept down like grain before the reaper, whose bones lie many deep under the battle-sods—whose blood has moistened the roots of countless grasses, and dyed many a stream with its muddy flow.
Those who have money and position will receive all which these can bring—it is smaller matter when a soldier, in the coarse uniform, lies low—only the few ripples which widen out to the circle of home, and intimate friends, are seen, and the dream is past.
The prospect is, that this spring's campaign will be the hardest of the war—how I shudder at the thought of so many brave fellows rushing into the jaws of death, and perishing on the instant. Something is wrong somewhere. God never made man in his image to be thus mutilated and murdered by the hand of his brothers. His mighty curse rests on the slayer's head, and shall those who wrought this killing go unscathed?
The giant intellect works at the great problem till it solves a way to take life by the hundreds, and iron missiles are moulded with poison in their, hearts, to corrode and steal away the life which they got not outright. The man under whose generalship thousands are lost to home and friends is the feted hero of the hour.
When I think how each one in dying leaves such desolation in some hearts, and then multiply this by the lowly sodded trenches of Virginia, God knows how my soul agonizes over a land clad in deepest mourning.
How kind the soldiers are to me. I appreciate each little act of thoughtfulness, which assures me that I am remembered, and have done some good in coming so far from home into the reach of so much sickness and death. I am not working hard now. The time may soon come when my hands shall be full to overflowing with work. O what work—what work! Ye who sew, and knit, and toil over the heated stoves, while those you love are away fighting the hydra-headed monster of Secession, ye little know how these hands toil at the bruised and bleeding wounds, when fresh "victory" sends its recruits into our Hospital.
I could not be happy away from here while the war lasts, still I look forward with longing to a time when a home and home comforts will usurp this strange life, solitary from my sex, yet as courteously treated as though I were the highest lady in the land.
What is it which inspires even the lowliest soldier in the ranks? Never but once have I been addressed in terms unbecoming to a soldier. Certainly I have met rebuffs from steamboat captains, and paymasters, and that kind of fish, but from the ranks of our Ninth Corps, and from every soldier in the Union Army, with that one exception, I have received all, and more consideration than was due me.
Sunday Morning, February 12.
The wind rages without like a wild beast howling for its prey. It blows my stove-pipe down, and twice I have had to replace it. I am feeling weak and worn this morning, and I crept back to bed after arising, feeling altogether too miserable to keep my feet.
I think I am experiencing the effect of a fall which I had not long ago, but it was all in the line of duty; I must keep a little quiet now, while I am not so much needed, and then by and by—
Well, I have not been alone, or quiet much today, the evening has been pleasant, but it has gone, and I go—to bed.
Again a morning of wind, and air filled with bitter cold; I passed a sleepless night, and my heart lies sad, and heavy in my bosom.
Can I put on smiles, and cheat myself into cheerfulness, even as I cheat these sick men pining for home? I think, as I dress myself, and tidy up my tent, how quickly the years will go away, and no one remember that I ever lived. I shall die, be buried, and forgotten. My children while they live, will cherish my memory, but it is only one generation, and no one will exist who ever looked upon my face.
But why art thou disquieted, O my soul! So is the life of the human kind—a day of sunshine—a week of storms—a cup of bitter, with only a drop of sweet,—and yet some lives seem beautiful from the beginning to the end. Some hearts seem to throb unhaunted by trouble, and the years glide on. I have reared many a castle in the air, and stood breathless while they tumbled down to earth, bringing my fondest hopes to the mire and clay.
"Man's inhumanity to man makes countless millions mourn," and the crushing sense of poverty loads down many a soul which might aspire to the very sun.
I think sometimes, when this is over, if I could only take my children away from the world's influance, and live and die in some lodge in the vast wilderness, I would be content; but that would forestall God's purpose—the prayer should not be, Lead us not into temptation, but, O Lord, keep us through temptation.
I have just answered a letter, which, if not too late, will take me when this is over into new scenes of love. I have accepted the Matronship of the Asylum for Orphans at Washington, and if that is my sphere henceforth, I will try to be happy.
Still sad and gloomy, and yet denied the privilege of giving vent to my feelings. I feel the need offemale society now—these rough men, kind as they are, cannot sympathize with a woman, even though she pours out her heart at their feet. I look to a time when peace will come, and wonder if I can then forget the sufferings which I have witnessed day after day, when naught but misery and wounds thronged our camps.