The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XXVII
So much for us to leave—so hard it was to go away from the little tent which had brooded over me with its white wings so lovingly and long, that I scarcely believed I was glad to go home, and yet, contradictory soul, I was glad beyond measure. Whoever has felt this, let him comprehend and explain if he can this strange complexity of feelings.
I passed a sleepless night, and then all was soon over in the morning, and I on my way to Washington, on board the Daniel Webster. When we arrived we found the transports which had taken up our sick and wounded, and thus again I saw some whom I had thought never more to meet on this earth.
It was still uncertain when we were to go home—a delay of weeks might intervene,—we must wait what seemed to us in our impatience the slow action of Government in giving us full discharge. No one had proclaimed yet that the war was over, yet we accepted it as past, and every one acted in accordance.
I found one man in my rounds who had suffered an amputation of an arm, close to his shoulder, and in his sleep afterward had fallen from his narrow bed on to the bare, unhealed stump, and was in great agony of body. He was a lieutenant from a Rhode Island regiment, and bore the distress with no complaint from his white lips.
Another officer—a captain from a Pennsylvania regiment—was enduring great suffering, but his mother stood at his side, and I saw many an eye turned wistfully that way, as though they envied him his happiness even in his agony.
I could leave him contentedly with the one who cradled his infancy on her bosom, and watch by others who had no mother near to stand by them, as she did by him.
In Washington my first business was to see Miss Dix in reference to my pay, which I had not received in ten months, although I had been once from City Point to obtain it, and failed through the neglect of some necessary form.
Now I needed the money sadly, and was determined to omit no formality which would keep it still in reserve.
Miss Dix ordered me to the surgeon-general to get my papers made out, and thence I was sent to the paymaster, and from him farther on, and in turn referred back to him, as the proper person from whom to obtain my pay.
Highly relishing this journeying backward and forward through the mud of the capital, I presented myself before the paymaster again, and he flatly refused to pay me, saying I was not in his line. So on to the surgeon-general I took my way, thinking my money more than earned over again, and received from him a positive order for the payment of the withheld sum by the paymaster.
Returning for the third time I found the office closed, and so went up to Bladensburg to visit Mrs. Youngs, and try my fortune another day. Again I made my appearance before the gentleman in question, and found him obdurate—still refusing to pay me. Now I was a woman, and I was footsore and weary, and I wanted my money, and I said, "Well, you look very cosy here, and I will take a chair while you think the matter over, for I shall not go away till I am paid by somebody," and I sat down, taking up the morning paper, my thoughts so busy with all the outside circumstances surrounding me, that I failed to notice for the space of five minutes that I held the paper upside down.
Perhaps they saw defiance in my despair, for presently the paymaster sharply ordered the clerk to see how much it was, and pay me, for a woman sitting there in the office all day, was a nuisance not to be endured.
The clerk handed me the money, and I said to the very gentlemanly paymaster, "The war is at its close, and we nurses are about to lose a good job of twelve dollars a month, while you will be out just one hundred and twenty, to say nothing of what you can browbeat out of just such women as myself," and bidding him "good-day," I left, very much to his satisfaction, no doubt—certainly it was to mine.
A man in such a position can make himself so agreeable if he chooses, browbeating a woman, and those women weary with months of toil and privation in a hospital. If he wishes thus to make a show of his authority, and display, like a peacock, every feather of his lately grown plumage, he can rest assured he will betray the lovelinesss of his character in grand proportions, and we have sense enough left in our souls to feel it keenly.
I went to Georgetown to see the wounded whom I had tended. Our corps was to be divided—a part at Alexandria and a part at Tenlytown, three miles distant. Our regiment lay at Tenlytown, and there I was to find my work during the remnant of my life in a hospital camp.
I found many who could not eat theirrations—men who were slightly wounded, but who would not leave their comrades while it was possible to remain. Amongst these I soon disposed of ten dollars, and felt thankful that I had got my pay to enable me to do this slight charity.
Returning to Mrs. Youngs' at Bladensburg, I remained until the tents were put up for our hospital, and in a few days was again on duty, awaiting the hour of discharge. We had no wounded then—only those sick men in our hospital at Tenlytown.
We had the best of cooks, and everything was good and wholesome. We had much assistance from the agent of the Michigan Belief, Mrs. Brainard, one of our country's noble women, one with whom it was no question, when called upon for stores, if we had Michigan men with us. They were all Michigan's men, and every State's men—they had given the most they had to give for the whole country, not for one State alone, and her noble soul comprehended it in full.
This miserable spirit which we saw so often displayed, which withheld from some poor soldier what would have done him worlds of good, because some other State was his birth-place—we had but little patience with it.
What could it matter in the spirit of humanity, so long as they were Union soldiers—had been fighting for its preservation, and were ill and suffering in her cause? I often thought the country ought not to be saved, just to punish such miserable specimens of humanity.
From the sanitary commission established there, we got many luxuries, and they did nobly for us, because the right men were in the right place.
I went one day to the New York Relief with an order from the head surgeon (for red tape was not cut asunder yet, if the rebellion was), and the gentleman in charge said, "Have you any New York State men under your care?"
I replied affirmatively, and he put me off with some excuse, asking me to call the third day. I did so, accompanied by the chaplain of the Twenty-seventh Michigan, fully expecting to have my requisition filled. I was suddenly dampened by the sneering remark, that "he did not believe we had any sick or needed anything; he would come up and see for himself.
He saw in the shortening of his supply of canned
fruit and wine, a scantier table for himself, and I left, feeling as though emerging from a shower-bath in December. We went to the Christian Commission, and, blessings on its great human heart, we got a full supply of all we needed.
Again, I saw those who reminded me of the days passed at City Point. Miss Blackman, from Michigan, visited me, and we talked hopefully in the dawning summer weather, thinking of the peace which had so suddenly settled down upon us, that it seemed an unreal dream of the midnight, which the morning sun would dispel like the mists of the low green valley.
Our camp was on a rising hill-slope—a beautiful place, where the hitherto untrampled sod grew rank and green. A little grove lay a short distance aside, with trees full-leaved, and wild blossoms growing in the tangled hollows.
It was a peaceful place, and we soon made it home-like, as soldiers always try to do when pitching camp even for a few weeks.
The farmers had lowing herds roaming in the dewy pastures, and one in close proximity to camp was solicited to sell us milk for our use. He was loyal, of course; but he would not accede to our request, for some unknown reason, and the temptation to have a bowl of bread and milk for an occasional dish, proved too great for the boys. They often bribed the negroes who had charge of the cows, and for a few cents they would allow them to milk the herd unmolested, although still keeping up a show of resistance, for effect, in case the owner should be watching proceedings.
Thus the sick had their milk without money, and without price, and the old farmer had to pocket his indignation, or vent his spite on the lax-moralled negroes.
The great review took place—when the Grand Army which had conquered the rebellion passed under the eyes of the officials at Washington. The day was intensely hot, and many a poor fellow was sun-struck, who had endured forced marches during the long, bloody campaigns. The strain of excitement was over; no more rebels with death-dealing engines confronted them; the artillery was tame in its slumbering wrath, and we could look upon the grand army with composure now, for were we not going home soon?
There were men who had just achieved the grandest march of the war, and men who had lain before Petersburg for many long months, all met together, with thought wandering far away from the capital and the soul-stirring pageant, of which they made a part. The roll of drums and the gleam of rifles waked a glow of patriotism in hearts which had well-nigh grown insensate with the dreadful blow that had been given them when some dear one fell out of the ranks, and his home knew him no more forever.
May it be long and long before another such gathering shall be possible in the national capital. The great mass has melted back into the bosom ofour country, and the pulses of industry throb faster, and the homes of the land are brighter for the presence of those whom they look upon with pride and joy, mingled with thanksgiving.