The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XXV
This pleasant day, so like the days long gone, with sighing wind, and sunny air which send the homesick tears into my eyes, and I cannot keep them back with all my efforts at composure! If I could pour out my heart into some sympathetic ear, perhaps I could find release from all this; but there is no one here for me, and I must keep the sad thoughts in my own bosom.
When will my girls know a mother's love again? Do they think it a long waiting for the cruel war to close? Do they see the days go by as once they went with me—seasons in weeks—ages in a year?
After a sleepless night I arose at reveille, and tried to write a few lines, but the wind and rain kept up an incessant roar all night, and the water dripped down on to my face, driving sleep from my tortured eyelids. Well, this is the poetry of campaigning. I sometimes think I will go home, but the first low wail of pain from a wounded soldier softens me in a moment, and I would not leave them for all the luxuries of the world.
Home! How the word thrills through my heart with a joyful pang. It is an old, old word, and the old home may answer to it in its dilapidation, but no other spot is half so dear—no other roof, though lofty and gilded high, can draw over us the peaceful restfulness of that moss-patched house-top.
There dwells the old father, and the old mother, there brothers have grown up, and gone thence into the world's great conflict. There childhood played, and youth dreamed of an unclouded future, and woke to maturity to find earthly hopes a cheating vision, and then turned again to its welcoming shelter, glad to escape from the rude buffetings of the stormy sea.
How dear the memory of the old home is to the helpless soldier, as he moans on his hard bed, and cannot sleep for the pain—how he thinks if he could only be there, and they who are always in his thoughts could minister to his wants, that health and strength would soon flow back into his chilled frame.
Alas! oh, alas! for those who shall never see this earthly home again; and why alas! Doth not the promise of the heavenly home await them, with far exceeding loveliness, and the spirit oftimes yearns for it with a longing nigh unto death, and the grave lies peacefully under the sunshine, and they rest from all wars and sickness there.
It is reported that General Sheridan is at the White House, but everything remains quiet at the front, as yet. It is nine o'clock, and bed-time, and I can sleep if the mice and wind hush their unwelcome clatter long enough to-night.
The wind continues to blow, rocking my tent like a boat on the billows; it would not surprise me if it broke from its moorings in some sudden blast, and drifted off into the unknown water.
I had a letter from home, and was as glad to get it as a child would be to see the face of its mother after long absence. How cheered up and hopeful I feel after reading it, and being assured that they wait and watch for me. The transport has again left with its load of precious sick.
Oh! for the summer weather, and the ceasing of these doleful March winds. I had a visit from Lieutenant French, a good friend, with whom I could converse at ease.
We have had a severe battle. The rebels took our troops by surprise, and many were killed as they slept. Our loss has not yet been estimated, but they are bringing in the wounded by scores. Our men drove them back, unprepared as they were for fight, and took many prisoners.
Over four hundred wounded men have been brought in, of which number about forty are rebels, nearly all with terrible wounds. It is a hard sight to see them, and I feel desperate toward everything and everybody, and yet know not on whom to rest this dreadful suffering.
I have all I can do dressing wounds, and waiting upon them. I am so thankful (oh! selfish heart) that my brothers have escaped.
Still they come in, with about fifty more of the rebels. They look starved and wild, but here they will have enough to eat, and will be cared for as our own men. How strange it seems to see them lying so close to those whom they met so lately with bloody intent—now all powerless to harm them, even if rage had not died out in their hearts.
I have looked in upon them, and find one fine-looking lieutenant from a North Carolina regiment suffering great agony. How I pity him, and pity them all, and wish I could do something to comfort them. Strange that I should yearn toward those whose hands only a little while ago were turned toward my brothers, eager to slay them.
The gun-boats are lying off here to protect us, in case we are disturbed by the rebels, which I think is very improbable. They know we have wounded men from their own ranks with us, and we should be no great spoil.
The weather continues pleasant, and the men seem to be doing well. We have lost none to-day. I have many things to try my patience. The doctor gives me orders to get things for the sick from the cook-house, and when I go after them I hear mutterings and growlings, and am denied often, while the sufferer has to go without the coveted article of food.
I wish I could order an evacuation of that post by some certain ones. I think I would institute a new order of things without much delay.
A terrible battle must be raging at the front; we hear the cannonading like near thunder, and the battle is so close we can hear the cheering of the men as they go to the wild charge. I went to bed, but not to sleep; visions of horrors too dark to portray haunted my mind, and when sleep wooed me, the vivid fancy brought sounds of stifled groans and cries issuing from lips growing cold on the clay before Petersburg, and roused me to full consciousness again.Our steward, and the steward of the Third Regiment Maryland Volunteers, made me a call in the evening, and after retiring, I arose, and wrote a letter, finding it impossible to sleep with my mind so overwrought.
I have quite a useful little present made me by Ed Smith of the One Hundred and Ninth Regiment. It is a mortar, and I oftentimes find occasion to use such an article.
It is now ten o'clock—the cannonading is very heavy yet. I will go to bed again, and if I do not sleep, I shall rest, and I will need all my strength in the work preparing for us at the front.
It is raining again very hard, and I can go out but little, for I am sick myself. I slept but little, and that in snatches, which seemed so little refreshing; the cannonading was very heavy nearly all night. The result is not yet known. I have been driven out to go over to the Second Corps, to find a place for some one to sleep, and returned about dark.
My brother and Joe Allen were in my tent for a short time, and the remainder of the evening I passed alone.
It rained all night, and is still pouring, but I slept well, and have been out all day, for I could not endure the silence of my tent. The wounded are doing well, and it makes my heart feel lighter to see them so.
I have just witnessed a sight which made my blood boil, and my hands clench convulsively, as if they were at the throat of the cruel, cruel man. A poor soldier, who the doctor thought was playing off, was kicked, yes kicked, by a miserable man who was acting as captain in the Fifty-Sixth Mass. Regiment. I could have torn him in pieces, as a wild beast tears the destroyer of her young. I could have seen his heart lie quivering at my feet, while the passion was on me, for I knew the man was sick, and if he were not, what right had that wretch to touch the sacred body of a man, and a soldier?
I wish I were out of the sight of mankind, when I see such exhibitions of cruelty; my whole nature rises up with the hatred of revenge; and then to hear them laugh over the affair when they get together at the dinner table! Oh, such scenes often repeated would turn me wild with the terrible passions which they stir up, like tigers in their lair.
April has come, and the morning is sunny, but the winds, so long rampant, are loth to go with the dead March, and continue to moan, and shriek, and sigh. I have a narrow bed, and last night I took in a great fat Irish woman for a companion, and consequently kept awake all night for fear one of us would fall out of bed. She came down to see her husband, and left this morning on the transport Connecticut, with the wounded.
Very many have gone from the Ninth Corps, and many more ought to go, for the freshly-wounded are arriving fast, most of them from the Fifth, Ninth, and Twenty-Fourth Corps. We have a great number in hospital now, and nothing is to be heard but the rumbling of wagon wheels, and the incessant roar of the cannonading. There is still heavy fighting on the left, but as yet the rebels have the advantage.
Bed-time again. I hope my bed-fellow of last night has a comfortable cabin berth now, to repay her for the weary hours passed here.
The wounded have come in which belong to this corps and the Fifth—three hundred in number—and all with bad wounds. The fighting continues, and our troops are in Petersburg, and rapidly pushing forward. Two from our regiment have arrived, and we expect more to-night. Oh, how my heart throbs with its anxious waiting. Who may those wounded be?
The procession pours in constantly. We have men from the Fifth, Twenty-fourth, and Second Corps, besides our own men, and it is almost impossible to give them the necessary attention. It is dreadful to see the suffering, and hear the groans, and know that you cannot ease one throb of their pain.
We have a hundred wounded rebels, and some will die. All night they were coming in, and many prisoners have passed to City Point. One little boy of only seventeen years, from a Carolina Regiment, has both legs off, and a wound in his wrist. How can we ever forget such sights as meet us here at every turn?
I am very tired. I think I can hardly stand upon my feet another moment; and then some one wants me, and I find I am not yet entirely exhausted. I have been with the wounded all day, and a part of the night.
The streams still pour in, bloody and ghastly. Richmond is ours, and where, Oh where is our poor regiment? No one can tell me, and my heart beats wild with fear.
We have fourteen hundred men now in our hospital. I hear their groans all the night long, and my work is very heavy. So still the air seems without the constant roar of cannon, it whispers of the advent of peace.
We have lost a captain to-day, and two privates.
The transport has taken away some who were not badly wounded, but they keep the quota full as they come straggling in. My work is hard, but the little I can do seems so inefficient when there is so much to do. If we had a score of the good wives and mothers who so yearn to be with their dear ones now, we could do more.
We have twenty-five hundred wounded men in now, some with arms and legs off, and the most frightful mutilations. A captain and a corporal have died to-day. How our grave-yard fills up with the hero-dust. I have worn out my feet, as I did at Fredericksburg, for so many are wounded through the mouth, that all they eat has to be fed them by our hands. I had a letter from home, but hardly had time to be glad over it.
Our President has this day honored our hospital with a call. It has been one of our sunshiny days, and in anticipation of his coming, every one who was able to do light duty had a share in the work of cleansing and beautifying the camp. He looked pale and careworn, but had a smile for every one, as with pleasant words he passed through the Hues formed, and shook hands with the men, telling them they should all go home soon.
He was accompanied by a number of people, who seemed so gay and careless that I felt a sort of contempt for them, where so many were groaning with wounds.
One lady in rich garb sauntered through our worn walks, leaning on the arm of a Congressman, noting what we lacked in our appointments. My bed-tick dress made a sorry contrast to her costly-attired figure, but I looked at my hands, which were not afraid to touch the dirty blouse of a wounded soldier, and wondered if her jewelled fingers would shrink from the contact.
"There should be a greenhouse yonder," she said, pointing out the spot, and as her companion spoke of the cost, said disdainfully," "What of the expense?"
and there were men who had not had a change of clothing in weeks, and to whom the smallest dainty from the cookhouse was sweeter than could be concentrated from all the greenhouses in America, beautiful as they were, and rare with perfume.
I turned to my tent, sick of folly—sick of fashion—sick of that species of my sex which trailed costly silks and laces in the dry dust, when the help for which many died even, could not be given from their hands.
I thought how poor the glitter of life would seem to me there, when hungry soldiers, with eyes hollow from long suffering, starved for the crumbs which they threw to the dogs. I am not sure but wealth and position transform people into other beings, but if they would have rendered me insensible to the miseries of poor humanity, God be praised that he has withheld them from my hands.More of the wounded have gone to Washington; we have enough left to tax us to the utmost, and then feel conscious that more should be done. Another of our regiment has come in, with an arm off. We have many officers, and I don't see why they should be any more trouble than privates, unless they expect the straps to be considered—and I don't choose to do that—I came out to nurse the private soldiers, and I wish some one who understands their cases would attend to these particular officers. The State of Maine has again left.
The sun shines so brightly I begin to think of flowers, and see that others do also, by the beds of every shape which adorn the nooks by tent-sides, and by the barracks, and along the walks. Corps badges and all manner of fanciful patterns are represented, and the sun is warming the tender germs, and calling up leaf, bud, and flower, almost unheeded in the excitement of the hour. The transport leaves on her daily trip, and so we drift along—waiting—hoping—fearing.
Oh, such joyful news! Lee has surrendered, and the rebel capital is in our hands. Oh! soon we shall go home now—the war must be at its close. Such cheering from the men was never heard. Every man able to get out of his bed is following after the drum, and the cripples have hoisted their crutches, and put their tattered hats upon them for banners, and the whole camp is wild with the clatter. Home—children—friends—soon we will hasten our war-wearied steps toward you, and bathe our souls in your rest!
I have had several calls to-night, but could hardly hold my head up, and saw them depart with feelings of relief.
I am unable to sit up much to-day, and I long for quiet to think over this great joy which has come to us, and try to realize that home is so near, and this summer will not be desecrated by the slaughter of men. The wounded are dying by scores. Oh! how sad it seems when they were so near the last.
It is very pleasant, but I do not feel like enjoying the sunshine myself—and I am tired of this loud demonstration. Why cannot people be heart-glad without shouting, and drumming, and doing anything and everything to make a noise? And then they think I must want to talk of what lies in my mind all the time, and so throng my tent to say over the same things, and anticipate the homeward journey.
More men have died to-day, and our ranks keep full from the flowing stream off the battle-fields of a few days ago.
The cold rain is dropping sadly to-day, and our joy is turned to grief, for the Nation's Chief lies low,—stricken down by the hand of the assassin, and the ship drifts towards the black rocks in danger of foundering. The flags are at half-mast, and any demonstration which made the first days ring with the clangor is hushed to-day, with the tidings which were borne to us. The sadness of death pervades our camp, and on the eve of victory everything seems to point to defeat.
Oh! how will they bear it, and how will they fill his place, who with so firm and gentle a hand guided the helm, and had seen the old ship almost into port? Life so uncertain—how little we thought who looked upon his pale face one week ago, that it would wear a heavier pallor now—the hue of death.
But his work is finished, and a nation is in mourning. The rain is a fitting tribute paid by this April day to his memory, and how could the world look glad with the cloud of blackness overhead.
On my rounds I found all sad, and some strong men in tears, and with an aching heart I tended the last moments of one of our regiment, Private Carson, from Danby, N. Y.
My diary is here broken off rather abruptly, for, in daily anticipation of leaving, and having an opportunity, I sent my small effects to Washington, packing my writing materials and diary, hoping soon, and very soon to follow.