The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-Life/Chapter XXVIII
We were daily expecting orders to leave, and as Sanitary was distributing its blanks ready signed, giving a list of what still remained in their stores, I thought, for the benefit of our boys, I would give them a parting call, and leave something substantial to those who would not depart as soon as we.
They had quantities of provisions on hand, and were profuse in certain qualities. I asked for things to distribute amongst the different regiments at Tenlytown, and was refused, as I had no blanks to fill up. I was surprised, but I bided my time patiently, waiting to see what might arise in my favor.
A clerk came in with several rolls of the requisite papers, and laid them on the table close at my side. One roll slipped down to my hands, as quietly and directly as though spirit hands had directed it, and I accepted it as quietly, putting it under the cloak which I wore when riding in the ambulance, and leaving the place, well satisfied with my success.
Call it not appropriating what was not my own—I had only taken what would bring those men the very comforts which had been sent to them from every town in the North—and they were going to have their own.
On Saturday I went over to the camp, and distributed a supply of tobacco, combs, needles, thread, and nameless little things, which, being deprived of, add greatly to a soldier's discomfort. It was a sad visit for me. So long I had thought anxiously over them, that I could not separate them from my heart now; and when they stood in line greeting me, and I heard the words of thanks which one after another volunteered, with the band striking up its parting strains in the interlude, words are vain to express my emotions, and swelled my heart almost to suffocation.
We left for Washington on Monday morning, June 12th, at seven o'clock. I could not look backward on the pleasant grove, or the green, sun-checkered hill-side. I closed my eyes, and the ambulance rattled along, bearing me on the journey toward home. Bound for home! And who ever thought I should go one step towards it, and not feel the joy in every fibre of my nature?
Then were thoughts of the dead left mouldering behind in the grave-yard at City Point, and in the trenches of many a well-fought field. There were thoughts of the tales we must tell to waiting friends, how those whom they held dearest on earth met the death which laid them low from mortal care and woe; and we went not back the same exultant one thousand strong, which cheered with loyal throats when they made the downward journey, and rebellion held high its serpent head. Only a little handful now—they had known wounds, sickness, battle, all but death, and were "going home."
The troops marched the short three miles. Those feet were inured to longer and harder journeys than this, and with glad cheering they took the cars in Washington. The glorious old North, whose sons had conquered, was about to receive back into her welcome arms, from the sufferings of three years, the little band which remained of the strong host she lent to save the honor of the Republic.
Two of our regiment remained behind at Tenlytown, too ill to be removed—private Lester, from Binghamton, and private Cronk, from Waterbury. Both seemed to be doing well, and anticipated the same journey which we were about to take. But, alas! for human hopes! With the end in full view, all dangers and privations of war safely passed, Death met them in the tented hospital, and both sleep in the land of the stranger.
At the depot I bade adieu to many more of my boys—those from New Hampshire and Massachusetts who would take other trains for Baltimore. It was hard to part with noble Fred Emmerson, who had been at the head of the cookhouse so long, in the hospital, and had favored me again and again when messing for the sick and wounded.
One of the genuine good hearts which never fail you, he had scores of friends, and deserved them all.
Before we started, I saw the boys piling stones into the cars, which I was sure meant mischief for some one. Hyattsville, Beltville, and Laurel they passed cheering lustily, but at Annapolis Junction no cheers went out—only the thud of the stones bounding against the houses, and then I knew it was for some insult long ago rendered—never forgotten or forgiven while they had faced death on the battle-fields of Virginia.
We had some sick, and some from different regiments on board—some three hundred were crowded on, without rations, and they grew ravenous as the day wore on, and hunger gnawed at their vitals. The cars moved slowly as we passed through loyal Pennsylvania, which had not forgotten the sound of rebel artillery, and the tread of hostile feet.
The boys would get off, while the women met them half-way with loaves of bread, and pies, and cake, and anything which was at hand, and it was all devoured as a hungry dog devours a bone—then waits for more.
At Williamsport, in one door-way, stood an old wrinkled woman, dancing for joy to see us on our homeward way. Many looked at us with tearful eyes, remembering those whom they should not welcome back even though the cruel war was over.
My heart was sore for them, and could hardly be glad with its burden of sad thoughts. We passed one town where the young ladies of a seminary, all dressed in pure white, came to the car-track, holding the stars and stripes—cheering us on our way.
We arrived tired and hungry at Elmira on the morning of June fourteenth, and were soon met by our old colonels—Tracy and Catlin. The boys were marched up to the barracks, where they were to remain till paid, and mustered out, and then ate their bread and drank their coffee.
I went to the American Hotel with the steward, and at eleven a. m. took the passenger train for Ithaca, arriving at sundown, feeling that I had won my rest.
"What accommodations did you have in coming home?" one acquaintance said to me, and I told him, "cattle-cars." Yes—cattle-cars, hardly cleansed of the filth which had accumulated by long and continued use. No wonder the soldiers felt the degradation—drawn from point to point like cattle for the slaughter-pen. Denied air—was it any wonder that they thrust bayonets through the blank car sides, and admitted the free air and light of Heaven, if nothing else, into the dark noisome dens.
It is a foul blot on the nation's escutcheon that her defenders should have been transported as they were often in condemned vessels, and on cars on board of which a conscientious drover would hesitate to consign his choice market stock.
Who fought the battles—who endured the long, weary foot marches, and finally achieved the triumph of victory? Not the starred and epauletted men who rode noble chargers, and for whose service railway companies and steamboat captains tendered their most sumptuous conveyances. Not the Honorable Sirs whose advent from point to point, from city to city, was one continued ovation, but those brawny men in dirty ragged blouses, with muskets in their horny hands, and knapsacks slung across their broad shoulders,—those men who were crowded into freight trains, and cattle-cars, from which light and air was was well-nigh excluded. They were our brothers, and our husbands, and our sons, each followed with tearful prayer—each with anxious hearts going down with them to the deadly peril, and throbbing with trembling fear for the news after the battle.
"Would you ask for them to be conveyed on velvet upholstery to the camp and battle field?" someone, disdainfully asks. No, sir! no, sir!—But I would ask for the precious freight decently ventilated cars—plain, even rude seats, and vessels which are in no danger of foundering at sea in a gale of common strength. I would ask, if the companies contracting to transport them were too poor to furnish these, that the General Government at Washington sell some of its superfluous ornamentation about the capitol, and build such themselves.
It is no light thing to those who have travelled over the roads in these filthy cars. I was offered a free transit on a passenger train through, but I chose to come with the regiment, and fare as well as they fared—and no better.
I hope ere the next war-breezes sweep over our land, the nation shall know how to appreciate and treat the common soldier, on whom it depends for its splendid success. Generals, and artillery, and gun-boats, and fortifications are nothing unless the solid material of mortality man them, and in all conscience let that thinking, breathing material be treated like men, or else let those who are able to ride in splendor, on caparisoned steeds, and in rich carriages, on land and sea, save the nation themselves. It is worth as much to them as to the man who, not one whit the less noble, earns his bread by the sweat of his brow.
To a man, I hope they would stand up to be allowed the decencies of travel in their route to and fro, or failing to obtain this, refuse to take up arms in defence of an ungrateful government, which with close hand withholds from the masses to lavish on the few rich and great.
I may be thought bitter; I feel bitterly on this subject of justice to the common soldier, when I have had tears of agony rain back on my heart to see them dead and dying, treated like swine driven before the butcher.
It may be only neglect, not a wilful oversight of Government, but if it is, it is none the less culpable, and asks for a remedy to be applied to all the future,—for the past is beyond recall.
The last token of regard from the dear old One Hundred and Ninth as a body, came to me—a check on the bank for one hundred and sixty-five dollars, "in appreciation of my kindness and faithful services," they said, when I had done no more than duty bade me, and nothing but what my hand was prompted to do for any one who wore the army blue.
Scattered abroad—some in the South, wooed there by gentle winds, and gentler voices, some in the old homes grown doubly dear since they first went from them away, that band of patriots, who were like brothers for three long years, are separated widely now.
They will never more together hear the stirring beat of the drum, or the boom of battle cannon, yet my thoughts still cling to each and every one, and in all the future of my life no others can hold, as they hold, my heart's sincerest affections and its tenderest regards.
God bless them wherever they go,—whatever skies bend blue above them,—whatever flowers blossom at their feet. Others are remembered as the heart always remembers its tried and true friends—those who shared the toil and privations of camp and hospital, but the One Hundred and Ninth Regiment lies forever, a sacred memory, in the earnest heart of Aunt Becky.