The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XXVI
I shared with all the excitement of the hopes newborn, yet tempered by the sorrow which had thrown its shadows over the most joyous tidings ever borne to us. Yet we tended the wounded, lingered in the sunshine, talked of the pleasant weather, and thought of separations which would be hard to bear.
I wished to obtain my pay, as it was due, and went up to Washington on the transport with the wounded, one of those bright days in April, and my "pass" being of the regular, I expected to have lodging on the boat on my return, as it would be a night-trip. Calling for it near dark, I was told that to obtain a state-room, I must pay seventy-five cents.
A woman on her way to Fortress Monroe occupied the cabin in company with me, and several officers were scattered about lounging on chair and sofa. I said to the captain who informed me, "Your sofas are very comfortable, I think I can rest here;" and, folding my shawl, I made myself ready for sleep, better lodged than I had been before in months.
Persisting in his wish to furnish me with a state-room for seventy-five cents, the captain soon sent a chambermaid to inquire if I was not yet ready to take one, and an officer, taking my refusal as the result of an empty pocket, very courteously offered to pay the required sum, if I would allow him to do so.
I said to him, thanking him for his kindness, "I am a government nurse, on government duty, and my pass calls for lodging as well as transportation, and I have money enough to pay the required sum, but I am not disposed to humor this captain by putting seventy-five cents even into his pocket. My pay is twelve dollars a month, and rations."
And I slept soundly on the sofa in the cabin all night, replying to the captain's rather impudent stare in the morning, that I was delighted with my couch, and greatly obliged to him for his kindness in providing it.
Wishing once more to see the regiment before they broke up at the front, I went up one day in the cars loaded with provisions for the horses, feeling as grand as a queen on a bag of oats. I enjoyed my seat, coarse cushion as it was, and the ride was one of keen pleasure, for all was so quiet, and no anticipation of its being broken by martial sounds.
The Thirty-Seventh Wisconsin Regiment lay by our own, and as the band came out to play for us, Major Eaton stepped in wonder to the door of his tent, thinking they were doing honor to some captain of renown, and beholding only Aunt Becky in her worn and faded dress, retreated in silent awe.
I learned of the death of Charlie Morgan, of Co. G, of our regiment, who was in our hospital for weeks, low with a nervous fever. Some days I thought it would be impossible for him to recover, and took charge of his medicine and diet myself. With careful nursing, the tide of life turned in his favor, and he was able to join his regiment before the last battle was fought. Strength and health came back slowly to him, but his nerves seemed bared to the least touch or sound, and at times he seemed to be going into convulsions.
When once, as many times it did, the wild rumor floated down that the rebels were trying to break through our lines, and every patient able to carry a gun was ordered out a short distance from the hospital, he was so struck that I thought he would die of the excitement, and gave him a morphine powder to put him to sleep, after vainly exerting my whole strength to quiet him down.
At the last battle, poor Charley was ordered up with his company, and was struck with the nervous feeling fatally, was sent to the rear, and in a few hours lay a corpse.
I think it was no coward fear which filled his soul; it was an absorbing excitement, which he had no strength to bear, and it broke the pitcher at the fountain.Our women at the same time, through fear, packed their worldly possessions ready for retreat, and sat up all night in anxious expectation. I went to bed, desiring to be waked at six in the morning; and as I had on the best and only dress in my wardrobe, I had no effects to worry me, and slept soundly, finding myself on waking undisturbed in my cozy tent.
Poor Charley had gone beyond all danger now, and I mourned, because he could not have lived to return home, and enjoy the sweets of peace, when he has suffered so much mental agony under the banners of war.
Our men were jubilant at the front. The sadness which the death of the President had thrown over them, was not strong as the life which imbued those mortal hearts with love of home, toward which their eyes turned with eager longing; and although they mourned him who had fallen, yet eyes were bright with hope, and voices glad in their joy that the war was virtually ended.
I returned from my visit, on the engine, as the cars were loaded with wood, resuming my work like a child which sees its task almost done, and the reward nigh.We had many painful operations to perform and to witness. One mere boy from the Thirty-first Maine had a ball pass through his throat, and the flesh had to be cut in order to take up the arteries, and for three weeks was fed through a glass pipe of the size of one of common clay. He would smile as I called him my little cut throat, and seemed very cheerful under his affliction. I never knew whether or not he recovered, if he did and these lines should ever meet his eye, he will remember Aunt Becky in her bed-tick dress, who used to come daily into his ward, and try to cheer up his drooping spirits. I think he lived, for Dr. McDonalds was one of the most skilful surgeons in our corps, and in difficult operations was nearly always successful.
Days passed, and we heard no sound of booming cannon. Hope built her airy castles, and we talked of what the summer should bring forth for us, amidst the peaceful hills of the North. Our gardens in the camp were growing with rich promise of an abundant yield. Peas were up many inches, and other vegetables were rank and green under the April skies.
So much we had prided ourselves on what we should gather from those growing ranks, that the order to make everything ready for Washington gave a little heart-pang to us all. If the war was ended, we could well go, leaving everything behind us, but if new battles were to be fought, and new hospitals to grow in deserted corn-field, and on waste hill-sides, it would be a sad day when we left City Point, bound—no one knew whither.
The regular working machinery had been wrought by the experience of months, and we had grown into the groove, and disliked to be thrown out unless for a purpose.
I received from some of the boys a picture of the dispensary, showing the stewards and clerks, and it is something always to remind me of those anxious days.
Our regiment, with a Wisconsin and Michigan regiment came down near our hospital, just before we left, and if ever men were joyous those were, in the prospect of speedy release from duty in camp and field.
The time drew near for our departure, and I had not thought it possible for me to feel so badly, almost in sight of home, but when I bade the boys "Good bye," knowing that I should never see them again, and that in after years my memory even would fade from the hearts of those over whom I had watched with so much anxious solicitude, I could not keep the tears back, and I would not if I could.
I went up to the peaceful burial-ground on the hill. The fresh earth was uncovered by sod, or flowers, and the white head-boards bore many a name whose owner's soul had gone up into the presence of its Maker, while I stood by the bedside, and saw the struggle with death.
The great field was regularly laid out, each grave marked with name and regiment, and here and there the mournful inscription, "Unknown." I thought, in so many homes they had waited long, and waited in vain for tidings from their soldier after the battle. "Not known to have been killed or taken prisoner," the letter said, and then hope struggled a little way, and they thought soon to hear from him in hospital, or from some place where death had not found him.
Meanwhile, too weak to tell his history, he had been brought with the maimed thousands to the hospital, and his life had ebbed away, and God only knew how to comfort those waiting hearts, which, in the uncertainty of his fate, should never know perfect peace again.Unknown, their bones will be gathered up when years hence they pile these relics of the dead under some huge marble, which, pointing heavenward, shall tell how nobly they died.
I could not bear to think that these graves should ever be disturbed, only as friend after friend searching here should find the remains of the dear son, or brother, or comrade, and with reverent hands gather them up, the dust and bones, and bear them away to the home grave-yard, to sleep under their native sod.
It seems a desecration to disturb in any other way the bones of a dead soldier. Let them sleep in the trenches, where the hands of comrades laid them down after the bloody fight was over, and piled the sod sorrowfully over the bleeding breast. Let them sleep in the solitary graves where they were laid when they dropped out of the line in weary marches, and the solemn wind playing through the tall trees which overshadow the lone graves shall seem a requiem forever chanted over the fallen hero. Wherever they found sepulchre, by light of the pale spectral moon-beams, or where the rain dropped sorrowfully into their shallow beds, there let the soldier await the sounding of the last trump.
The embalming tent had always been a place of interest to me. I had obtained many a garment from the Christian Commission with which to replace the dirty, ragged ones in which the soldier died—for I felt it a duty to soften as much as possible the shock of the return of him who went out so full of pride and hope.
There were often delays in sending for the embalmed dead, and one soldier's remains lay for three months within the tent. His name was Thomas, and I was beside him when he died. I used to go to his coffin and lay back the sheet, and wipe away the dust which accumulated on his hair and face, brushing his hair again to its old natural position.
I thought much of the comfort which it must be to those who loved him, to see him again with the look of life on his pale dead face.
Bodies were brought here to be deodorized, previous to transportation home—bodies which perhaps had been buried for months, retaining no sign of the comeliness which in living they wore. My own brother might have lain before me, and I could not have told him—no look which you remembered would be found on those blackened features, and it would seem poor consolation to take such a token from the hands of one who did not positively know the grave from which it was exhumed.
There was so much room for fraud—so many unscrupulous persons eager to prey even on the anxious credulity of sorrowing friends, and willing to do unholy deeds to gratify their lust for gain. I would rather let the remains of a friend rest in the grave wherein he first reposed, than to feel the uncertainty which such imperfect recognition must always produce.
The wish to be taken home after death was a feeling strong as life with some. I never felt the neglect to conform to this wish as I did in the case of one member of our regiment, who had repeatedly expressed his desire not to be left there when the war was over. We knew where he was buried. I wrote to his friends stating the embalmer's terms, and charges for coffin and transportation—had an ambulance ready engaged to bring his remains to City Point, from Petersburg, where he fell, and had even the clean shirt and drawers laid away in which to enshroud him, but no order ever came.His own back-pay was more than sufficient to cover all expenses: whether his friends, from prudential motives or careless thoughts of him, neglected to fulfil the last request of this dead soldier, I never knew, and doubtless never shall.