The mud was running in from the yard. Opposite the door, in a small room, was a pile of knapsacks and blankets; and on them lay two men smoking. To get into the large room, I must step out of the hall mud over one man, and be careful not to step on another. I think it was six rows of men that lay close on the floor, with just room to pass between the feet of each row; they so close in the rows that in most places I must slide one foot before the other to get to their heads.
The floor was very muddy and strewn with debris, principally of crackers. There was one hundred and eighty-two men in the building, all desperately wounded. They had been there a week. There were two leather water-buckets, two tin basins, and about every third man had saved his tin-cup or canteen; but no other vessel of any sort, size or description on the premises—no sink or cess-pool or drain. The nurses were not to be found; the men were growing reckless and despairing, but seemed to catch hope as I began to thread my way among them and talk. No other memory of life is more sacred than that of the candor with which they took me into their confidence, as if I had been of their own sex, yet ever sought to avoid wounding the delicacy they ascribed to mine.
I found some of the nurses—cowards who had run away from battle, and now ran from duty—galvanized them into activity, invented substitutes for things that were wanting—making good use of an old knapsack and pocket-knife—and had tears of gratitude for pay.
One man lay near the front door, in a scant flannel shirt and cotton drawers, his left thigh cut off in the middle and the stump supported on the only pillow in the house. It was six by ten inches, stuffed with straw. His head was supported by two bits of board and a pair of very muddy boots. He called me, clutched my dress, and plead:
"Mother, can't you get me a blanket, I'm so cold; I could live if I could get any care!"
I went to the room where the men lay smoking on the blankets; but one of them wearing a surgeon's shoulderstraps, and speaking in a German accent, claimed them as his private property, and positively refused to yield one. The other man was his orderly, and words were useless—they kept their blankets.
Going into a room behind that, I found a man slightly wounded sitting on the floor, supporting another who had been shot across the face, and was totally blind. He called, and when I came and talked with them, said:
"Won't you stay with us?"
"Stay with you?" I replied, "Well, I rather think I will, indeed; I came to stay, and am one of the folks it is hard to drive away!"
"Oh! thank God; everybody leaves us; they come and promise, and then go off, but I know you will stay; you will do something for us!"
It was so pitiful, that for an instant my courage failed, and I said:
"I will certainly stay with you; but fear it is little I can do for you."
"Oh, you can speak to us; you do not know how good your voice sounds. I have not seen a woman in three months; what is your name?"
"My name is mother."
"Mother; oh my God! I have not seen my mother for two years. Let me feel your hand?"
I took between both of mine his hand, covered with mud and blood and smoke of battle, and told him I was not only going to stay with them, but was going to send him back to his regiment, with a lot more who were lying around here doing nothing, when there was so much fighting to be done; I had come on purpose to make them well, and they might make up their minds to it. My own courage had revived, and I must revive theirs; I could surely keep them alive until help should come. By softening the torturing bandages on his face, I made him more comfortable; and in an adjoining room found another man with a thigh stump, who had been served by field-surgeons, as the thieves served the man going from Jerusalem to Jericho: i.e., "stripped him, left him naked and half dead." Those men surely did not go into battle without clothes; and why they should have been sent out of the surgeon's hands without enough of even underclothing to cover them, is the question I have never yet had answered. Common decency led to his being placed in the back room alone, but I shall never blush for going to him and doing the little I could for his comfort.
After I returned to the large room, I took notice about clothing, and found that most of the men had on their ordinary uniform; some had two blankets, more had one; but full one-third were without any. There was no shadow or pretense of a bed or pillow, not even a handful of straw or hay! There was no broom, no hoe, or shovel, or spade to sweep or scrape the floor; and the horrors were falling upon me when the man of the blankets came, and said:
"Mattam, iv you are goin' to do any ding for tese men, you petter git dem someding to eat."
"Something to eat?"
"Yaas! mine Cot, someding to eat! De government petter leave dem to tie on de pattle field, nur do pring tem here to starve."
I looked at him in much surprise, and said:
"Who are you?"
"Vy, I am de surgeon. Tey send me here; put mine Cot, I cannot do notting. Tere ish notting to do mit!"
I called out: "Men, what have you had to eat?"
"Hard tack, and something they call coffee," was the response.
"Have you had no meat?"
"Meat? We have forgotten what it tastes like!"
In one corner, near the front door, was a little counter and desk, with a stationary bench in front. To this desk the surgeon gave me a key. I found writing material, and sent a note of four lines to the Corps Surgeon. Half an hour after, an irate little man stormed in and stamped around among those prostrate men, flourishing a scrap of paper and calling for the writer. His air was that of the champion who wanted to see "the man who struck Billy Patterson," and his fierceness quite alarmed me, lest he should step on some of the men. So I hurried to him, and was no little surprised to find that the offending missive was my note. I told him I had written it, and could have had no thought of "reporting" him, since I knew nothing about him.
After considerable talk I learned that he had charge of the meat, and that none had been issued to that place, because no "requisition" had been sent. I had never written a requisition, but found blanks in that desk, filled one, signed it and gave it to the meat man, who engaged that the beef should be there next morning.
It grew dark, and we had two tallow candles lighted! May none of my readers ever see such darkness made visible—such rows of haggard faces looking at them from out such cavernous gloom! I talked hopefully, worked and walked, while mentally exclaiming:
"Oh, God! What shall I do?"
About nine o'clock Dr. Porter, Division Surgeon, came with Georgie, to take us to our quarters. These were but half a block away, on the same side of the street, but on the opposite side, and corner of the next cross-street, in a nice two-story brick house, with a small yard in front. An old lady answered his summons, but refused to admit us: when he insisted and I interposed, saying the lady was afraid of soldiers, but would admit us. We would bid him good night, and soon our lodgings would be all right.
She was relieved, took us in, cooked our rations for herself and us, gave us a comfortable bed, and was uniformly kind all the time we staid, and seemed sorry to have us leave.
I spoke the first night to Dr. Porter about blankets and straw, or hay for beds, but was assured that none were to be had. Supplies could not reach them since being cut off from their base, and the Provost Marshal, Gen. Patrick, would not permit anything to be taken out of the houses, though many of them were unoccupied, and well supplied with bedding and other necessaries. I thought we ought to get two blankets for those two naked men, if the Government should pay their weight in gold for them; and suggested that the surgeons take what was necessary for the comfort of the men, and give vouchers to the owners. I knew such claims would be honored; would see that they should be; but he said the matter had been settled by the Provost, and nothing more could be done.
It seems to me now that I must have been benumbed, or I could have done something to provide covering for those men. I did think of giving one of them my shawl, but I must have died without it. I remembered my Douglas Hospital letter, and knew that Gen. Patrick could order me out of Fredericksburg, and leave these men to rot in the old theater. Already their wounds were infested by worms, which gnawed and tormented them; some of those wounds were turning black, many were green; the vitality of the men was sinking for want of food and warmth. I could not forsake them to look after reform; would not fail to do what I could, in an effort to do what I could not or might not accomplish.
In the morning I saw that the men had something they called coffee, and found canned milk for it, which was nourishment; but a new difficulty arose. The men who brought the coffee would distribute it to those who had cups or canteens, and the others would get none. I had some trouble to induce them to leave their cans, until, with the two tin cups I could borrow, I could give about one-third the whole number the coffee they could not otherwise have.
Our cooking was done in the churchyard, with that of the church patients. A shed had been put up; but our cooking was an "uncovenanted mercy," and when our beef came there was a question as to how it could be cooked—how that additional work could be done.
I wrote to the Provost-Marshal, stating our trouble, and the extremity of one hundred and eighty-two men. Asked that we might take a cook-stove out of a vacant house near; promised to take good care of it and have it returned; and he wrote, for answer:
"I am not a thief! If you want a stove send to the Sanitary Commission!"
He must have known that the Commission was as pressed as the Government to conform its arrangements to the movements of an army cut off from its base of supplies, and that it had no stoves, so the plain English of his answer was:
"Let your wounded die of hunger, in welcome! I am here to guard the property of the citizens of Fredericksburg!"
I had already written to the Commission for blankets and a broom, but there were none to be had. It soon however sent a man, who cut branches off trees, and with them swept the floors.
AM PLACED IN AUTHORITY.
On Monday morning I sent for Dr. Porter, and stated the trouble about nurses shirking. He had them all summoned in the front end of the large room, and in presence of the patients, said to them:
"You see this lady? Well, you are to report to her for duty; and if she has any fault to find with you she will report you to the Provost-Marshal!"
I have never seen a set of men look more thoroughly subdued. There were eleven of them, and they all gave me the military salute. The doctor went off, and I set them to work. One middle-aged Irishman had had some experience as a nurse; could dress wounds—slowly, but very well—was faithful and kind; and him I made head-nurse up stairs, where there were fifty-four patients, and gave him three assistants, for whom he was to be responsible. After Patrick's note, I calculated my resources, and got ready for a close siege. As I sat on that little stationary bench, making an inventory, I heard shrieks, groans and curses, at the far end of the room; ran to the place, and got there in time to see the surgeon of the blankets tearing the dry dressings off a thigh stump! Coming up behind him, I caught him by both ears, and had my hands full, ordered him to stop, and said:
"You had better go back to your room and smoke."
Again I sent for Surgeon Porter, and in less than two hours that little wretch, with his orderly, packed up his blankets and I saw him or them no more. I had never dressed a thigh stump, but must dress a good many now; I rolled that one in a wet cloth, and covered it carefully, to let the man get time to rest, while I got rid of his horrid tormentor. When there was so much to be done, I would do the most needful thing first, and this was ridding the wounds of worms and gangrene, supporting the strength of the men by proper food, and keeping the air as pure as possible. I got our beef into the way of being boiled, and would have some good substantial broth made around it. I went on a foraging expedition—found a coal-scuttle which would do for a slop-pail, and confiscated it, got two bits of board, by which it could be converted into a stool, and so bring the great rest of a change of position to such men as could sit up; had a little drain made with a bit of board for a shovel, and so kept the mud from running in at the side door; melted the tops off some tin cans, and made them into drinking cups; had two of my men confiscate a large tub from a brewery, set it in the vestibule to wash rags for outside covers to wounds, to keep off chill, and had others bring bricks and rubbish mortar from a ruin across the street, to make substitutes for pillows.
I dressed wounds! dressed wounds, and made thorough work of it. In the church was a dispensary where I could get any washes or medicines I wished, and I do not think I left a worm. Some of them were over half an inch long, with black heads and many feet, but most were maggots. They were often deeply seated, but my syringe would drive them out, and twice a day I followed them up. The black and green places grew smaller and better colored with every dressing. The men grew stronger with plenty of beef and broth and canned milk. I put citric acid and sugar in their apple sauce as a substitute for lemons. I forget how many thigh stumps I had, but I think as many as twelve. One of them was very short and in a very bad condition. One morning when I was kneeling and dressing it, the man burst into tears, and said:
"You do not seem to mind this, but I know you would not do it for anything but the love of God, and none but He can ever reward you; but if I live to see my wife and children, it will be through what you have done for me, and I will teach them to bless your name!"
He quite took me by surprise, for I seemed to have forgotten any other life than that I was then living; and dressing the most frightful wounds was as natural as eating. I felt no disgust, no shrinking, and mere conventional delicacy is withdrawn when the Angel of Death breathes upon it.
The man we stepped over at the back door, proved to be a student from the Pennsylvania Agricultural College, shot through the alimentary canal, near the base of the spine. For him there was no hope, but I did what I could to make him less uncomfortable, and once he said:
"This is strange work for a lady."
"You forget," I said, "that I am surgeon in charge, that you and I were made of the same kind of clay, in much the same fashion, and will soon turn into just the same kind of dust." How my heart was wrung for him, with his refined face, dying for a country which sent its bayonets to stand between him and the armful of straw, with which I might have raised him above that muddy floor. He had no knapsack to serve as a pillow, no blanket, no cup, and his position across the doorway was cold and uncomfortable; but even after I had made a better place for him, he objected to leaving two companions, who lay next to him, and I could not find room for all three together, even on that dirty floor. He himself always dressed the wound where the bullet entered, and was most grateful for the means of doing so. I cared for that one through which Death's messenger made its exit, and although he knew its condition, he did not know the certainty of a fatal result, and resented any intimation that he should not recover.
The second morning of my work in the old theater, Miss Hancock came to see how I got along. She was thoroughly practical, and a most efficient laborer in the hospital field, and soon thought of something to better the condition of the man minus clothes, who lay quite near my desk and the front door, and caught my dress whenever he could, to plead for a blanket. She could get no blanket; but was stationed in the Methodist Church, where there was a surgeon in charge, and everything running in regular order. In a tent adjoining, this man could be laid out of the draught and chill of that basement, and she would do her best to get some clothing for him. She sent two men with a stretcher, who took him to the church tent, where I fear he was not much better provided for than in the place he left.
After some days, Mrs. Gen. Barlow came to see the men who all belonged to her husband's division, and were rejoiced to see her; and to express a general fear for my life. I was to die of overwork and want of sleep, "and then," she exclaimed, "what will become of these men? No one but you ever could or would have done anything for them. Do you know there were three surgeons detailed for duty here, before you came, and none of them would stay? Now if you die, they will. Do take some rest!"
I listened and looked at her flushed face, while she talked, and said:
"Mrs. Barlow, I am not going to die—am in no danger whatever, and will hold out until help comes. This cannot last; Government will come to the rescue, and my men will be here when it comes. After all is over, I will fall to pieces like an old stage coach when the king-bolt drops out; will lie around as lumber for a while, then some one will put me together again, and I will be good as new. It is you who are killing yourself. You must change your arrangements or you will take typhoid fever, and after such a strain, recovery will be hopeless. I take nobody's disease—am too repellant; but you will catch contagion very readily. Keep away from fever cases and rest; you are in imminent peril." She hurried away, laughing at the idea of one in her perfect health being injured by hard work; but my heart was full of evil omen. I had talked with Mrs. Senator Pomeroy, on her way from her last visit to the Contraband camp, where she gave her life in labor for the friendless and poor, and she had looked very much as Mrs. Barlow did that day.
Soon after this, I was made glad by the sight of my friend, Mrs. Judge Ingersol. People say her daughter, Mrs. Gov. Chamberlain, is a beauty, but she is not old enough ever to have been as beautiful as her mother, that day, in her plain widow's dress, walking among the wounded, with her calm face so full of strength and gentleness.
She and Mrs. Barlow had hatched a rebellion. In the city was a barn containing straw, for want of which our men were dying. It was guarded by one of Gen. Barlow's men. Mrs. Barlow took two others, went with them, placed herself in front of the guard, told them to break open the barn and carry out the straw, and him to fire, if he thought it is duty; but he must reach them through her. The man's orders were to guard the barn; with the straw out of it he had nothing to do. The men moved side and side, going in and out, and she kept in range to cover them until the last armful had been removed. It was taken away and was to be distributed; but there was still so little compared to the need, that there must be consultation about the manner of using it. Mrs. Ingersol thought it should be made into small pillows, and volunteered to undertake that work; as the Commission could furnish muslin, I thought this best. She found a loft, and engaged several Fredericksburg women to work for pay. They worked one day, but did not return on the second. There were a good many Union women there by this time, who should have helped, but few could confine themselves to obscure work in a loft, when there was so much excitement on the streets. There was no authority to hold any one to steady employment; and so about two-thirds the helpers who reached Fredericksburg, spent a large part of their time in an aimless wandering and wondering, and finding so much to be done, could do nothing.
So, most of the time Mrs. Ingersol was in her loft alone, except the orderlies who stuffed her slips, sewed up the ends and carried them off to the places she designated; but she had nimble fingers, and sleight-of-hand, and turned out a surprising number of small straw pillows.
As my allowance came, the question was what to do with them. They were too precious for use. What should I do with those scraps of white on that field of grime? Our gaunt horror became grotesque, in view of such unwonted luxuries. What! A whole dozen or two little straw pillows among one hundred and sixty men! Who should elect the aristocrats to be cradled in such luxury amid that world of want?
When my aristocrat was elected, how should his luxury be applied? Would I put it under his head or mangled limb? I think I never realized our destitution until those little pillows came to remind me that sometimes wounded men had beds! Oh, God! would relief never come? Like the Scotch girl in the besieged fortress of India, I felt like laying my ear to the ground, to harken for the sound of the bagpipes, the tramp of the Campbells coming. It did seem that, without surgical aid or comforts of any kind, my men must soon be all past hope; but a surgeon came, and I hailed him with joy, thinking him the advance guard of the army of relief. Half an hour after his appearance I missed him, and saw him no more; and this was the fourth which left those men, after being regularly detailed to duty among them—left them to die or live, as they could.
Soon after this we had an official visit from one of those laundry critics, called "Medical Inspectors." As there were no sheets or counterpanes to look after, he turned his attention to a heap of dry rubbish in the vestibule, which gave the place an untidy appearance, as seen from the street. To remove this eyesore he had one of my nurses hunt up a wheel-barrow, and two shovels—shovels were accessible by this time—and ordered him and another to wheel that rubbish out into the street. The wheel-barrow coming in the door called my attention, when I learned that we were going to be made respectable. I sent the wheel-barrow home, gave the shovels to two men to dig a sink hole back in the yard, and forbade any disturbance of the dry, harmless rubbish in the vestibule. I would not have my men choked with dust by its removal, and set about getting up false appearances. No medical inspector should white that sepulchre until he cleared the dead men's bones out of it. He had not looked at a wound; did not know if the men had had any dinner. A man did not need a medical diploma to clear up after stage carpenters. If the Government wanted that kind of work done, it had better send a man and cart with its donkey.
In Washington, I had done nothing for any wounded officer, except a captain who was brought to our ward when all the others were taken away, and in Fredericksburg I began on that principle. I found twenty in the Old Theater, and had them removed to private houses, to make room for the men, and that they might be better cared for. Officers could be quartered in private houses, and have beds, most of those taken out of the theater were put into houses between it and our quarters, so that I could see them on my way to and from meals. Among them was the blind man, who still craved to hear me speak and feel my hand, and I kept his face in a wet compress until a surgeon was dressing it and found the inflammation so gone that he drew the lid of one back, and the man cried out in delight: "I can see! I can see! now let me see mother." I stood in his range of vision, until the surgeon closed the lids, when he said: "Now, mother, I shall always remember just how you look."
I found in my visit to those men that some orderlies needed some one to keep them in order, and that a helpless man is not always sure his servant will serve him. Often the orderlies themselves were powerless, and those men would have suffered if I had not cared for them. More than once some of them said: "I wish, mother, we were back with you in the Old Theater?"
There was a captain whose stump I must fix every night before he could sleep, and when his wife came I tried to teach her, but she was so much afraid of hurting him she could do nothing. I learned in time that officers quartered in private houses, even with the greater comforts they had, often suffered more than the men in all their privations. Mrs. Barlow came for me to see one given up to die, and I found him in a large handsome room, on the first floor of an elegant residence, absolutely hopeless, but for years have not been able to recall the trouble in his case.
It must have been easy to set right, for he began at once to recover, and I felt that people had been very stupid, and that there was an unreasonable amount of wonder and gratitude over whatever it was I did. It was often so easy to save a life, where there were the means of living, that a little courage or common sense seemed like a miraculous gift to people whose mental powers had been turned in other directions.
But I found another side to looking after officers in private quarters. One evening after dark, Georgia called to tell me of a dreadful case of suffering which a surgeon wished her to see. He was there to accompany her, but she declined going without me, and I went along, walking close behind them, as the pavement was narrow. He did not seem to notice that I was there, was troubled with the weight of his diploma and shoulderstraps, and talked very patronizingly to the lady at his side, until she turned, and said to me:
"Do you hear that?"
"Oh, yes," I replied, "and feel very grateful to the young man for his permission to do the work he is paid for doing, but if he had reserved his patronage until some one had asked for it, it would have had more weight."
"Your friend is sarcastic," was his reply to her; and I said no more until we reached the case of great distress, which was on the second floor of a vacant house, and proved to be a colonel in uniform, seated in an easy chair, smoking, while his orderly sat in another chair, oil the other side of the room.
Georgie stood looking from one man to the other in speechless surprise; but I spoke to the man in the chair, saying:
"How is it, sir, that you, an officer, in need of nothing, have trespassed upon our time and strength, when you know that men are dying by hundreds for want of care?"
He began to apologize and explain, but I said to Georgie:
"Come, Miss Willets, we are not needed here."
As we passed from the room, the surgeon took his cap to accompany us, when I stopped, made a gesture, and said:
"Young man! stay where you are! Your friend must be too ill to do without you. I will see the young lady to her quarters. The vidette is on the corner, and we do not need you!"
We came away filled with wonder, but we did not for some time realize the danger. We came to know that Miss Dix's caution was not altogether unwise; that women had been led into traps of this kind, when it would have been well for them had they died there, and when duty to themselves and the public required them to get one or more doctors ready for dissection. After that lesson, however, I did not fear to leave Georgie, who remained with the army, doing grand work, until Richmond fell, but laying the foundation of that consumption, of which she died.
Of all the lives which the Rebellion cost us, none was more pure, more noble, than that of this beautiful, refined, strong, gentle girl.
"NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP."
The Sanitary Commission soon got a supply of clothing, and sent two men to wash and dress my patients. These, with the one sweeping floors with branches, were an incalculable help and comfort; but these two did their work and passed on to other places. One of the men they had dressed grew weak, and I was at a loss to account for his symptoms, until by close questioning, I drew from him the answer,
"It is my other wound!"
These words sounded like a death-knell, but I insisted on seeing the other wound, and found four bullet holes under his new clothes. From the one wound, for which I had been caring, he might easily recover; but with four more so distributed that he must lie on one, and no surgeon to make trap doors, no bed—there was no hope. He was so bright, so good, so intelligent, so courageous, it was hard to give him up. Ah, if I had him in Campbell, with Dr. Kelly to use the knife! How my heart clung to him!
He lay near the center of the room, with his head close to a column; and one night as I knelt giving him drink, and arranging his knapsack and brick pillow, making the most of his two blankets, and thinking of his mother at home, I was suddenly impressed by the beauty and grandeur of his face;—his broad, white brow shaded by bushy, chestnut hair, half curling; the delicate oval of his cheeks; the large, expressive grey eyes; the straight nose and firm chin and lips!—he could not have been more than twenty-two, almost six feet high, with a frame full of vigor. How many such men were there in this land? How many could we afford to sacrifice in order to preserve a country for the use of cowards and traitors, and other inferior types of the race?
The feeble light of my candle threw this picture into strong relief against the surrounding gloom, and it was harder than ever to give him up, but this must be done; and I wanted to extract from that bitter cup one drop of sweetness for his mother; so I said to him:
"Now, George, do you think you can sleep?" He said he could, and I added:
"Will you pray before you sleep?" He said he would.
"Do you always pray before going to sleep?" He nodded, and I continued:
"Let us pray together, to-night, just the little prayer your mother taught you first."
He clasped his hands, and together we repeated "Now I lay me down to sleep," to the end; when I said:
"Do you mean that, George? Do you mean to ask God to keep your soul, for Christ's sake, while you are here; and, for His sake, to take it to Himself when you go hence, whenever that may be?"
The tears were running over his cheeks, and he said, solemnly:
"Then it is all well with you, and you can rest in Him who giveth his beloved sleep."
There was no time for long prayers, and I must go to another sufferer.
A kind, strong man, from the Michigan Aid Society, came and worked two days among my men, and said:
"If I only had them in a tent, on the ground; but this floor is dreadful!"
Up stairs were some wounds I must dress, while a corpse lay close beside one of the men, so that I must kneel touching it, while I worked. It lay twelve hours before I could get it taken to its shallow, coffinless grave; and while I knelt there, the man whose wound I was dressing, said:
"Never mind; we'll make you up a good purse for this!"
He had no sooner spoken than a murmur of contemptuous disapproval came from the other men, and one said:
"A purse for her! She's got more money than all of us, I bet!"
Another called out: "No, we won't! Won't do anything of the kind! We're your boys; ain't we, mother? You're not working for money!"
"Why," persisted the generous man, "we made up a purse of eighty dollars for a woman t' other time I was hurt, and she hadn't done half as much for us!"
"Eighty dollars!" called out the man who thought me rich; "eighty dollars for her! why I tell you she could give every one of us eighty dollars, and would not miss it!"
"She isn't one of the sort that are 'round after purses!"
Why any of them should have thought me rich I cannot imagine except for the respect with which officers treated me. To veil the iron hand I held over my nurses, I made a jest of my authority, pinned a bit of bandage on my shoulder, and played commander-in-chief. Officers and guards would salute when we passed, as an innocent joke, but the men came to regard me as a person of rank.
Citizens of Fredericksburg, who at first insulted me on the street, as they did other Yankee nurses, heard that I was a person of great influence, and began to solicit my good offices on behalf of friends arrested by order of Secretary Stanton, and held as hostages, for our sixty wounded who were made prisoners while trying to pass through the city, before we took possession.
So I was decked in plumes of fictitious greatness, and might have played princess in disguise if I had had time; but I had only two deaths in the old theater—this man up stairs, and the man without clothes, who lay alone in that back room, and after the amputation of his thigh, had no covering until government gave him one of Virginia clay.
MORE VICTIMS AND A CHANGE OF BASE.
One day at noon, the air thrilled with martial music and the earth shook under the tramp of men as seven thousand splendid troops marched up Princess Ann street on their way to reinforce our army, whose rear was about eight miles from us. They were in superb order, and the forts around Washington had been stripped of their garrisons, and most of their guns, to furnish them; but the generalship which cut our army off from its base of supplies, and blundered into the battle of the Wilderness, like a blind horse into a briar patch, without shelling or burning the dry chapperal in which our dead and wounded were consumed together, after the battle, had made no arrangements for the safe arrival of its reinforcements. So they were ambushed soon after passing through Fredericksburg; and that night, before ten o'clock, all the places I had succeeded in making vacant were filled with the wounded from this reinforcement. How many of them were brought to Fredericksburg I do not know; but it must have been a good many, when some were sent to my den of horrors.
One evening, after dark, I went to the dispensary, and found a surgeon just in from the front for supplies. While they were being put up, he told us of the horrible carnage at Spottsylvania that day, when the troops had been hurled, again and again, against impregnable fortifications, under a rain of rifle balls, which cut down a solid white oak tree, eighteen inches in diameter.
The battle had ceased for the night, and it was not known whether it would be renewed in the morning.
"But if it is," said the speaker, "it will be the bloodiest day of the war, and we must be whipped, routed. The Rebels are behind breastworks which cannot be carried. Any man but Grant would have known that this morning, but he is to fight it out on this line, and it is generally thought he will try it again in the morning. If he does, it will be a worse rout than Bull Run."
No one was present but the surgeon in charge of the church, the dispensary clerk, and myself; so he was no alarmist, for when he had done speaking, he took his package, mounted his horse and left. People had said, through the day, that the roar of guns was heard in the higher portions of the city, but no news of the battle seemed to have reached it during all the next day.
I spent it in preparing for the worst, warned Georgie and tightened the reins on my nurses. I had had no reason to complain of any, and felt that I should hold them to duty, even through a rout. It also seemed well to know where our wounded were located, in that part of the city, so that if an attempt were made to remove them, in a hurry, there might not be any overlooked.
At half-past eleven that night I had heard nothing from the front, and went to sleep, with heavy forebodings. At two o'clock I was aroused by the sounds of a moving multitude, rose and looked out to see, under the starlight, a black stream pouring down the side street, on the corner of which our quarters were situated, and turning down Princess Ann, toward the river landing. To me, it was the nation going to her doom, passing through the little period of starlight, on into the darkness and the unknown.
In Louisville, I had learned to believe that the Eternal verities demanded the destruction of our Government. True, the South had beaten the North in her bloody struggle for the privilege of holding her slaves while she flogged them; but I could see, in this, no reason why that North should be chosen as Freedom's standard-bearer! Our ignoble Emancipation Proclamation had furnished no rock of moral principle on which to plant her feet while she struggled in that bloody surf. God was blotting out our name from among the nations, that he might plant here a government worthy of such a country.
I calculated there was a rear guard that would hold the enemy back until morning, and did not wake Georgie, who needed sleep; but I must be with my men, who would be alarmed by the unusual sounds; must see that those nurses did not run away.
To get to my post, I must cross that stream, and as I stood waiting on the bank, could see that it was not composed of men in martial array. It met exactly all my previous conceptions of a disorderly flight. There were men in and out of uniform, men rolled in blankets, men on horseback and men on foot, cannon, caisons, baggage wagons, beef cattle, ambulances and nondescripts, all mixed and mingled, filling the street from wall to wall; no one speaking a word, and all intent on getting forward as fast as possible. So thickly were they packed that I waited in vain, as much as twenty minutes, for some opening through which I might work my way to the other side, and at last called the vidette, who came and helped me over.
Reaching the theater, I found many of the men awake and listening; went among them and whispered, as I did something for each, that there was some movement on the street I did not understand, but should probably know about in the morning. During the suspense of those dark hours, and all the next day I was constantly reminded of the Bible metaphor of "a nail fastened in a sure place." The absolute confidence which those men reposed in me, the comfort and strength I could give them, were so out of proportion to my strength that it was a study. I was a very small nail, but so securely fastened in the source of all strength, that they could hold by me and hope, even when there seemed nothing to hope for. As for me, all the armies of the world, and the world itself might melt or blow away, but I should be safe with God, and know that for every creature He was working out some noble destiny. All the pain, and sorrow, and defeat, were rough places—briars in an upward path to something we should all rejoice to see.
All day that dark stream surged around that corner, and I took heart that the flight was not disorderly, since I heard of none coming by any other street. All day the work went on as usual at the old theater, and I made short excursions to other places. Up that street in one end of an engine house, up a narrow, winding stair, I found a room full of men deserted, and in most pitiable condition. They were all supposed to be fever cases, but one young man had an ankle wound, in which inflammation had appeared. I hurried to the surgeons, stationed in the far end of the building, and reported the case. They sent immediately for the man, and I knew in two hours that the amputation had been successful, and barely in time.
As I went on that errand, I met two Christian Commission men walking leisurely, admiring the light of the rising sun on the old buildings, and told them of the urgent demand for help, and chicken broth or beef broth and water up in that room. They were polite, and promised to go as soon as possible to the relief of that distress; but when I returned and up to the last knowledge I had of the case, they had not been there.
I secured a can of cooked turkey, the only one I ever saw, and a pitcher of hot water, and with these made a substitute for chicken broth; gave them all drinks of water, bathed their faces, found one of their absent nurses, made him promise to stay, and went back to the main building to have some one see that he kept his word.
Here was a large floor almost covered with wounded, and among them a woman stumbled about weeping, wailing, boo-hooing and wringing her hands; I caught her wrist, and said:
"What is the matter?" "Oh! oh! oh! Boo-hoo! boo-hoo! the poor fellow is goin' to die an' wants me to write to his mother."
"Well, write to her and keep quiet! you need not kill all the rest of them because he is going to die."
"Oh! boo-hoo! some people has no feelin's; but I have got feelin's!"
I led her to the surgeon in charge, who sent her and her "feelin's" to her quarters, and told her not to come back.
She was the only one of the Dix' nurses I saw in Fredericksburg, and her large, flat, flabby face was almost hideous with its lack of eye-brows and lashes; but this hideousness must have been her recommendation, as she could not have been more than twenty years old.
From the engine house I went to the Methodist church. Miss Hancock had been detailed to the General Hospital, just being established, and I found a house full of men in a sad condition. Nine o'clock, on a hot morning, and no wounds dressed; bandages dry and hard, men thirsty and feverish, nurses out watching that stream pouring through the city, and patients helpless and despondent.
I got a basin of water and a clean rag, never cared for sponges, and went from one to another, dripping water in behind those bandages to ease the torment of lint splints, brought drinks and talked to call their attention from the indefinite dread which filled the air, and got up considerable interest in—I do not remember what—but something which set them to talking.
Some wounds I dressed, and while engaged on one, a man called from the other side of the house to know what the fun was all about, when the man whose wound I was attending placed a hand on each of his sides, screamed with laughter, and replied:
"Oh, Jim! do get her to dress your wound, for I swear, she'd make a dead man laugh!"
I found some of the nurses; a surgeon came in who would, I thought, attend to them, and I went back to my post to find every man on duty.
It was near sundown when we heard that this backward movement was a "change of base;" but to me it seemed more like looking for a base, as there had been none to change. The stream thickened toward nightfall, and continued until two o'clock next morning; so that our army was twenty-four hours passing through Fredericksburg; and in that time I do not think a man strayed off on to any other street! All poured down that side street, turned that corner, and went on down Princess Ann.
PRAYERS ENOUGH AND TO SPARE.
The next evening, after hearing of the battle of Spottsylvania, and while waiting to know if it had been renewed, I sat after sundown on the door-step of our quarters, when an orderly hurried up and inquired for the Christian Commission. A lieutenant was dying, and wanted to see a preacher. I directed the messenger, but doubted if he would find a preacher, as I had seen nothing of any save a Catholic priest, with whom I had formed an alliance; and I went to stay with the dying man, who was alone.
I found him nervous and tired, with nothing to hinder his return to his regiment inside of a month. He had been converted, was a member of the Methodist church, and seemed an humble Christian man. I told him he was getting well, had seen too much company, and must go to sleep, which he proceeded to do in a very short time after being assured that that motion was in order.
He had slept perhaps five minutes when the messenger returned, followed by six preachers! I made a sign that he slept and should not be disturbed, but they gathered around the bed with so much noise they waked him.
There seemed to be a struggle for precedence among his visitors, but one gained the victory. They all wanted to shake hands with the man in the bed, but his left arm was off, and I objected; whereupon the head spokesman groaned a good solid groan, to which the others groaned a response. He stood at the foot of the bed, spread his chest, and inquired:
"Well, brother, how is your soul in this solemn hour?"
The answer was such as a good Christian might make; and I told the gentleman that the lieutenant had been unnecessarily alarmed; that he had seen too much company, was weary and excited, needed rest, and was rapidly recovering; that he ought to go to sleep; but they all knelt around the bed, and the first prayed a good, long, loud prayer; talked about "the lake that burneth," and other pleasant things, while I held the patient's hand, and felt his nerves jerk.
I thought it would soon be over; but no sooner had this one finished than the next fell to, and gave us a prayer with more of those sobs made by hard inhalation than his predecessor, and a good deal more brimstone. No sooner had he relieved his mind than a third threw back his head to begin, and I spoke, quietly as possible; begged they would let the lieutenant sleep; told them that down in the old theater was a man in a back room, alone and dying. I had tried to get some one to sit with him and pray with him, and hoped one or two of them would go to him at once, as every moment might make it too late. A man was also dying in the engine-house, who ought to have some Christian friend with him as he crossed the dark valley.
They listened impatiently; then the man whose turn it was to ventilate his eloquence, pushed his sleeves up to the elbows, rubbed his hands as if about to lift some heavy weight, and exclaimed:
"Yes, sister! Yes. We'll attend to them; but, first, let us get through with this case!"
Then he went to work and ladled out groans, sobs and blue blazes. The other three followed suit, and when they had all had a good time on their knees, each one gave a short oration, and when they got through I reminded them again of the two dying men; but like the undutiful son, they said, "I go! and went not!"
It was two of the six whom I met next morning, and asked to go to the relief of those poor patients, who promised and went not.
GET OUT OF THE OLD THEATER.
I do not know how long I was in charge of the old theater, but remember talking to some one of having been there ten days, and things looking as usual. It was after the change of base, that one afternoon I got eight hopeful cases sent to the General Hospital, where they would have beds. That night about ten o'clock the vidette halted a man, who explained that he was surgeon in charge of that institution, and when he got leave to go on, I caught him by the lapel of his coat, and said:
"If you are Surgeon—what is the reason that the eight men I sent you this afternoon had had no supper at nine o'clock?"
He promised to attend to them before he slept, and on that we parted. Soon after this, Dr. Childs, of Philadelphia, and a regular army surgeon, came to the old theater, hung their coats and official dignity, if they had any, on the wall—never said a word about the rubbish in the hall, but fastened up their sleeves and went to work. When they came, I felt as if I could not take another step, went to my room and lay down, thinking of Raphael's useless angels leaning their baby arms on a cloud. My angels wore beards, and had their sleeves turned up like farm laborers, as they lifted men out of the depths of despair into the light and warmth of human help and human sympathy.
In sending the men away, they sent the amputation cases and George to the church, and sent for me to go to them there.
Georgie had gone to the General Hospital, and there was no surgeon in charge at the church when I went to it. So, once more, I set about doing that which was right in my own eyes. I could have a bale of hay, whipped out my needle and thread, and for several bad cases who had two blankets converted one into a bed tick, had it filled with hay, and a man placed on it; but three were sadly in need of beds, and had no blankets; and to them I alloted the balance of my precious bale, had it placed under them loose, and rejoiced in their joy over so great a luxury. My theater men had been laid in a row close to the wall, next to the late scene of their suffering; and about midnight of the first night there, a nurse asked me to go to a man who was dying. I found him in front of the altar. The doors and front panels of the pews had been fastened V shape to the floor, and he lay with one arm over this, and his head hanging forward. He had been shot through the chest, was breathing loud and in gasps, worn out for want of support, and to lay him down was to put out his lamp of life instantly. What he needed was a high-backed chair, but General Patrick's sense of duty to the citizens of Fredericksburg left no hope of such a support. As the only substitute in my reach, I sat on the edge of the pew door and its panel, drew his arm across my knee, raised his head to my shoulder, and held it there by laying mine against it. In this way I could talk in a low monotone to him, and the hopes to which the soul turns when about to leave the tenement of clay. He gasped acquiescence in these hopes, and his words led several men near to draw their sleeves across their eyes; but they all knew he was dying, and a little sympathy and sadness would not injure them.
He reached toward the floor, and, the man next handed up a daguerreotype case, which he tried to open. I took and opened it; found the picture of a young, handsome woman, and held it and a candle, so that he could see it. His tears fell on it, as he looked, and he gasped,
"I shall never be where that has been."
"Is it your wife?" and he replied,
"No! but she would have been."
I always tried to avoid bringing sadness to the living on account of death; but it must have been hard for men to sleep in sound of his labored breathing; and to soften it I began singing "Shining Shore." He took it up at once, in a whisper tone, keeping time, as if used to singing. Soon one, then another and another joined, until all over the church these prostrate men were singing that soft, sad melody. On the altar burned a row of candles before a life-sized picture of the Virgin and Child. The cocks crew the turn of the night outside, and when we had sung the hymn through, some of the men began again, and we had sung it a second time when I heard George call me. I knew that he, too, was dying, and would probably not hear the next crowing of the cock. I must go to him! how could I leave this head unsupported? Oh, death where is thy sting? I think it was with me that night; but I went to George, and when the sun arose it looked upon two corpses, the remains of two who had gone from my arms in one night, full of hope in the great Hereafter.
TAKE BOAT AND SEE A SOCIAL PARTY.
Next morning a new surgeon took charge, and ordered that hay to be removed. The men clung to their beds and sent for me; I plead a respite, in hopes of getting muslin to make ticks; but was soon detected in the act of taking a bowl of broth to one of my patients. This the surgeon forbade on the ground that it was not regular meal time. I said the man was asleep at meal time. This he would not permit, men must be fed at regular hours, or not at all, and the new authority informed me that
"More wounded soldiers had been killed by women stuffing them than by anything else."
He had just come from Massachusetts, and this was his first day among the wounded. I set my bowl down before the altar, found a surgeon who ranked him, and stated the case, when the higher authority said:
"Give every man an ox, every day, if he will take it in beef tea."
"But, Doctor, there is nothing in beef tea. I give broth."
"Very good, give them whatever you please and whenever you please—we can trust you."
The new surgeon was promptly dismissed, and when next I saw him he was on his way back to Massachusetts.
That night a nurse came for me to go to the theater which had been vacated, and once more almost filled with men who lay in total darkness, without having any provision made for them. I got them lights, nurses and food, but could not go back for another siege in that building—could not leave my present post, but the city was being evacuated. Both theater and church were emptied, and I went to the tobacco warehouse, where Mrs. Ingersol was perplexed about a man with a large bullet in his brain. When I had seen him and assured her that another ounce of lead in a skull of that kind was of no consequence, she redoubled her care, and I have no doubt he is living yet. But there was one man in whom I felt a deep interest and for whom I saw little hope. He had a chest wound, and had seemed to be doing well when there was a hemorrhage, and he lay white and still almost as death. He must not attempt to speak, and I was a godsend to him, for I knew what he needed without being told, and gave him the best care I could. He was of a Western State, and his name Dutton, and when I left him I thought he must die in being moved, as he must be soon; but I must go with a boat-load of wounded.
This boat was a mere transport, and its precious freight was laid on the decks as close as they could well be packed, the cabin floor being given up to the wounded officers. There were several surgeons on board who may have been attending to the men, but cannot remember seeing any but one engaged in any work of that kind. There were also seven lady nurses, all I think volunteers, all handsomely if not elegantly dressed. Of course they could do nothing there, and I cannot see how they could have done anything among the wounded in any place where there were no bedsteads to protect the men from their hoops. They had probably been engaged in preparing food, taking charge of, and distributing supplies and other important work, for personal attendance on the men was but a part of the work to be done.
Surgeons could do little without soiling their uniforms, but my dress had long been past soiling or spoiling; my old kid slippers without heels, could be slid, with the feet in them, quite under a man, and as I stepped sideways across them, they took care that my soft dress did not catch on their buttons. When I sat on one heel to bathe a hot face, give a drink or dress a wound, some man took hold of me with his well hand and steadied me, while another held my basin. I had half of an old knapsack to put under a wound, keep the floor dry and catch the worms when I drove them out—and no twenty early birds ever captured so many in the same length of time. I became so eager in the pursuit that I kept it up by candle-light, until late midnight, when I started to go to my stateroom.
Entering the cabin, I came upon a social party, the like of which I trust no one else will ever see. On the sofas sat those seven lady nurses, each with the arm of an officer around her waist, in full view of the wounded men on the floor, some of whom must go from that low bed, to one still lower—even down under the daisies.
I stopped, uttered some exclamation, then stood in speechless surprise. Three surgeons released the ladies they were holding, came forward and inquired if there was anything wanted. I might have replied that men and women were wanted, but think I said nothing. When I reached my room I found in the berth a woman who raised up and said:
"The stewardess told me this was your room; will you let me stay with you?"
She was another Georgie—young, calm, strong, refined, was Miss Gray of Columbia Hospital, and staid with me through a long hard trial, in which she proved that her price was above rubies.
Next morning I found on one of the guards, young Johnson, the son of an old Wilkinsburg schoolmate. Hoped I had so checked the decay and final destroyers which had already taken hold of him, that he might live. Wrote to his people, and saw him at noon transferred with the other patients, the surgeons and stylish lady nurses, to a large hospital boat; when Miss Gray and I returned in the transport to Fredericksburg.
TAKE FINAL LEAVE OF FREDERICKSBURG.
I cannot remember if our boat lay at the Fredericksburg wharf one day or two; but she might start any moment, and those who went ashore took the risk of being left, as this was the last boat. The evacuation was almost complete, and we waited the result of expeditions to gather up our wounded from field hospitals at the front. We were liable to attack at any moment, and were protected by a gunboat which lay close along side.
There was plenty to do on board, but in doing it I must see the piles of stores on the wharf brought there too late to be of service to our wounded, and now to be abandoned to the Rebels. There were certainly one hundred bales of hay, which would have more than replaced all that was withheld by United States bayonets from our own men in their extremity. I soon learned after entering Fredericksburg, that our Commissaries were issuing stores without stint to the citizens; went and saw them carry off loads of everything there was to give; and when those one hundred and eighty-two Union soldiers were literally starving in the old Theater, Union soldiers were dealing out delicacies to Rebels, while others guarded the meanest article of their property, and kept it from our men, even when it was necessary to save life.
I consulted several old Sanitary Commission men, who told me it was always so when Grant was at the front; that he was then in absolute command; that Patrick, the Provost Marshal, was his friend, and would be sustained; and that we must be quiet or we would be ordered out of Fredericksburg.
Gen. Grant may have been loyal to the Union cause, but it has always seemed to me that in fighting its battles, he was moved by the pure love of fighting, and took that side which could furnish him the most means to gratify his passion for war. His Generalship was certainly of a kind that would soon have proved fatal to our cause in the war of the Revolution, and only succeeded in the war of the Rebellion, because the resources at his command were limitless, as compared with those of the enemy. It was late in the afternoon when our boat shoved off, and as we steamed away we saw the citizens rush down and take possession of the stores left on the wharf. During the evening and night we were fired into several times from the shores, but these attacks were returned from the gun-boat, which kept our assailants at such distance that their shots were harmless. We must have no lights that night, and the fires were put out or concealed, that they might not make us a target. So I slept, as there was nothing to be done, but in the morning was out early in search of worms, and was having good success, when two richly, fashionably dressed ladies came to tell me there was to be nothing to eat, save for those who took board at the captain's table. They had gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea for a wounded officer, and were ignominiously driven off by the cook. What was to be done? We might be ten days getting to Washington.
I went in search of a surgeon in charge, and found one in bed, sick; waited at his door until he joined me, when together we saw the captain of the boat. There were two new cook-stoves on board, but to put one up would be to forfeit the insurance. There were plenty of commissary stores. The surgeon went with me, ordered the commissary to give me anything I wanted, and went back to bed. Our stores consisted of crackers, coffee, dried-apples, essence of beef, and salt pork in abundance, a little loaf bread, and about half a pound of citric acid. Of these only the crackers and bread could be eaten without being cooked. There were four hundred and fifty wounded men—all bad cases, all exhausted from privation. How many of them would live to reach Washington on a diet of crackers and water? I went to the cook, a large, sensible colored woman, and stated the case as well as I could. After hearing it she said:
"I see how it is; but you see all these officers and ladies are agoin to board with the captain, an' I'll have a sight o' cooking to do. I can't have none of those fine ladies comin' a botherin' around me, carryin' off my things or upsettin' 'em. But I'll tell you what I'll do; I'll hurry up my work and clare off my things; then you can have the kitchen, you an' that young lady that's with you; but them women, with their hoops an' their flounces, must stay out o' here!"
It was hard to see how two of them would get into that small domain, a kitchen about ten feet square, half filled by a cook-stove, shelves, and the steep, narrow, open stairs which led to the upper deck; but what a kingdom that little kitchen was to me! All the utensils leaked, but cook helped me draw rags through the holes in the three largest which I was to have, and which covered the top of the stove. There were plenty of new wooden buckets and tin dippers on board as freight, some contraband women, and an active little man, who had once been a cook's assistant. He and the women were glad to work for food. He was to help me in the kitchen. They worked outside, and must not get in the way of the crew. They washed dried apples and put them to soak in buckets, pounded crackers in bags and put the crumbs into buckets, making each one a third full and covering them with cold water. I put a large piece of salt pork into my largest boiler, added water and beef essence enough to almost fill the boiler, seasoned it, and as soon as it reached boiling point had it ladled into the buckets with the cracker-crumbs, and sent for distribution. The second boiler was kept busy cooking dried apples, into which I put citric acid and sugar, for gangrene prevailed among the wounds. In the third boiler I made coffee; I kept it a-soak, and as soon as it boiled I put it strong into buckets, one-third full of cold water. I kept vessels in the oven and on the small spaces on top of the stove. My little man fired up like a fire-king, another man laid plenty of wood at hand; and I think that was the only cook-stove that was ever "run" to its full capacity for a week. By so running it, I could give every man a pint of warm soup and one of warm coffee every twenty-four hours. To do this, everything must "come to time."
When one piece of pork was cooked, it was cut into small pieces and distributed, and another put into the boiler. During our cooking times I usually sat on the stairs, where I could direct and be out of the way; and to improve the time, often had a plate and cup from which I ate and drank. Cook always saved me something nice, and I made tea for myself. I was running my body as I did the cook stove, making it do quadruple duty, and did not spare the fuel in either case. Around each foot, below the instep, I had a broad, firm bandage, one above each ankle and one below each knee. If soldiers on the march had adopted this precaution, they would have escaped the swollen limbs so often distressing. I also had each knee covered by several layers of red flannel, to protect them while I knelt on damp places. Soon after going into Campbell, I discovered that muscles around the bone will do double service if held firmly in place, and so was enabled in all my hospital work, to do what seemed miraculous to the most experienced surgeons.
I rested every moment I could, never stood when I might sit, made no useless motions, spent no strength in sorrow, had no sentiment, was simply the engineer of a machine—my own body; could fall asleep soon as I lay down, and wake any moment with my senses all alert, outlived my prejudice about china cups, and drank tea from brown earthen mugs used for soup, and never washed save in cold water; often ate from a tin plate with my left hand, while my right held a stump to prevent that jerking of the nerves which is so agonizing to the patient, many a time eating from the same tin plate with my patient, and making merry over it; and think I must have outstanding engagements to dance cotillions with one hundred one-legged men.
One day while I sat eating and watching, that just enough cans of beef were put into each boiler of broth, and no time wasted by letting it stand after reaching boiling point, a surgeon asked to see me at the kitchen door. He informed me that up on the forecastle, some men had had soup twice while those in some other place had had none. He evidently wished to be lenient, but felt that I had been guilty of great neglect. I heard his grievance, and said:
"Doctor, how many of you surgeons are on this boat?"
After some consideration he answered:
"Four surgeons!" I repeated, "beside the surgeon in charge, who is sick! We have four hundred and fifty wounded men! I draw all the rations, find a way to cook them, have them cooked and put into the buckets, ready for distribution. Do you not think that you four could organize a force to see that they are honestly distributed—or do you expect me to be in the kitchen, up in the forecastle, and at the stern on the boiler deck, at one and the same time? Doctor, could you not take turns in amusing those ladies? Could they not spare two of you for duty?"
I heard no more complaints, but left Miss Grey more in charge of the kitchen, and did enough medical inspecting to know that I had been unjust. Some of the surgeons had been on duty, and the men were not so much neglected as I had feared. As for the Ladies, I do not know how many there were of them, but they were of good social position—quite as good as the average of those whose main object in life is to look as much better than their neighbors as circumstances will admit. There was on board one of those folks for whose existence Christianity is responsible, and which sensible Hindoos reduce to their original elements, viz.: a widow who gets a living by being pious, and is respectable through sheer force of cheap finery; one who estimates herself by her surroundings, and whose every word and look and motion is an apology for her existence. She was a Dix, or paid nurse. The ladies snubbed her; we had no room for her hoops; and she spent her time in odd corners, taking care of them and her hair, and turning up her eyes, like a duck in a thunder-storm, under the impression that it looked devotional. If I had killed all the folks I have felt like killing, she would have gone from that boat to her final rest.
One night about eleven o'clock a strange surgeon, who had just come aboard with twenty wounded, came to the kitchen door, and handed in a requisition for tea and custard and chicken for his men. The man told him he could have nothing but cracker-broth or coffee. He was very indignant, and proceeded to get up a scene; but the man said, firmly:
"Can't help it, Surgeon! That's the orders!"
"Orders! Whose orders?"
I got down from my porch on the stairs, came forward and said:
"It is my orders, sir, and I am sorry, but this is really all we can do for you. If your men have tin cups, each one can have a cup of warm soup—it will not be very hot—or a cup of warm coffee. Those who get soup will get no coffee, and those who get coffee can have no soup. You can get tin cups from the commissary, and should have them ready, so that the food will not cool."
While I made this statement he stood regarding me with ineffable disdain, and when I was through inquired:
"Who are you?"
"I am the cook!"
"The cook!" he repeated, contemptuously. "I will report your insolence when we reach Washington!"
"That may be your duty; but I will send up the coffee and soup, and do you get the tin cups."
He stamped off in dudgeon, and others who heard him were highly indignant; but I was greatly pleased to find a surgeon who would get angry and raise a disturbance on behalf of his patients. I never knew his name, but if this should meet his eye I trust he will accept my thanks for his faithfulness to his charge.
On the lower deck, behind the boilers, lay twenty wounded prisoners, who at first looked sulky; but as I was stepping over and among them, one caught my dress, looked up pleadingly, and said:
"Mother, can't you get me some soft bread? I can't eat this hard-tack."
He was young, scarce more than a boy; had large, dark eyes, a good head—tokens of gentle nurture—and alas! a thigh stump. He told me he was of a Mississippi regiment, and his name Willie Gibbs. I bathed his hot face, and said I would see about the bread; then went to another part of the deck, where our men were very closely packed, and stated the case to them. There was very little soft bread—it was theirs by right; what should I do? I think they all spoke at once, and all said the same words:
"Oh, mother! give the Johnnies the soft bread! we can eat hard-tack!"
I think I was impartial, but there was a temptation to give Willie Gibbs a little more than his share of attention. His face was so sad, and there was so little hope that he would ever again see those who loved him, that I think I did more for him than for any other one on board. His companions came to call me "mother," and I hope felt their captivity softened by my care; and often rebel hands supported me while I crouched at work.
When we approached Washington, I proposed rewarding the cook for the incalculable service she had rendered, but she replied:
"No, ma'am, I will not take anything from you 'cept that apron! When we get to Washington, you will not want it any more, an' I'll keep it all my life to remember you, and leave it to my children! Lord! there isn't another lady in the world could 'a done what you've done; an' I know you're a lady! Them women with the fine clothes is trying to pass for ladies, but, Lord! I know no lady 'u'd dress up that way in a place like this, an' men know it, too—just look at you, an' how you do make them fellers in shoulderstraps stand 'round!"
Her observation showed her Southern culture, for whatever supremacy the North may have over the South, Southern ladies are far in advance of those of the North in the art of dress. A Southern lady seldom commits an incongruity, or fails to dress according to age, weather, and the occasion. I do not think any one of any social standing would have gone among wounded men, with the idea of rendering any assistance, tricked out in finery, as hundreds, if not thousands, of respectable Northern women did.
The apron which I gave to my friend the cook, was brown gingham, had seen hard service, and cost, originally, ten cents, and half an hour's hand-sewing; but if it aids her to remember me as pleasantly as I do her, it is part of a bond of genuine friendship.
TRY TO GET UP A SOCIETY AND GET SICK.
After two days in bed at home, I was so much better, that when Mrs. Ingersol came with a plan for organizing a society to furnish the army with female nurses, I went to see Mrs. Lincoln about it. She was willing to cooperate, and I went to Secretary Stanton, who heard me, and replied:
"You must know that Mrs. Barlow and Mrs. Ingersol and you are not fair representatives of your sex," and went on to explain the embarrassment of the Surgeon-General from the thousands of women pressing their services upon the Government, and the various political influences brought to bear on behalf of applicants, and of the well grounded opposition of surgeons to the presence of women in hospitals, on account of their general unfitness. Gen. Scott, as a personal friend of Miss Dix, had appointed her to the place she held, and it was so convenient and respectful to refer people to her, that the War Department would not interfere with the arrangement. In other words, she was a break-water against which feminine sympathies could dash and splash without submerging the hospital service.
After what I had seen among the women who had succeeded in getting in, I had not much to say. A society might prescribe a dress, but might be no more successful than Miss Dix in making selections of those who should wear it.
I asked the Secretary how it came that no better provision had been made for our wounded after the battle of the Wilderness, and tears sprang to his eyes as he replied:
"We did not know where they were. We had made every arrangement at the points designated by Gen. Grant, but he changed his plans and did not notify us. The whole army was cut off from its base of supplies and must be sustained. As soon as we knew the emergency, we did everything in our power; but all our preparations were lost. Everything had to be done over again. You cannot regret the suffering more than I, but it was impossible for me to prevent it."
I never saw him so earnest, so sorrowful, so deeply moved.
That effort seemed to be the straw which broke the camel's back, and I was so ill as to demand medical attendance. For this I sent to Campbell. Dr. Kelly came, but his forte was surgery, and my case was left with Dr. True, who had had longer practice in medicine. They both decided that I had been inoculated with gangrene while dressing wounds, and for some weeks I continued to sink. I began to think my illness fatal, and asked the doctor, who said:
"I have been thinking I ought to tell you that if you have any unsettled business you should attend to it."
I had a feeling of being generally distributed over the bed, of being a mass of pulp without any central force, but I had had a letter that day from my daughter, who was with her father and grandmother in Swissvale, and wanted to come to me, and the thought came: "Does God mean to make my child an orphan, that others may receive their children by my death?" Then I had a strange sensation of a muster, a gathering of scattered life-force, and when it all came together it made a protest; I signed to the doctor, who put his ear to my lips, and I said:
"Doctor True, I shall live to be an hundred and twenty years old!"
He took up the lamp, threw the light on my face, and peered anxiously into it, and I looked straight into his eyes, and said:
He laughed and set down the lamp, saying:
"Then you must get over this!"
"You must get me over it. Bring Dr. Kelly!"
Next morning, I had them carry me into a larger room, where the morning sun shone on me, and ten days after, started for Pennsylvania, where I spent three weeks with my old Swissvale neighbors, Col. Hawkins and Wm. S. Haven.
When I returned to Washington, I found an official document, a recommendation from the Quarter-Master General, of my dismissal for absence without leave. It was addressed to Secretary Stanton, who had written on the outside:
"Respectfully referred to Mrs. Swisshelm, by Edwin M. Stanton."
I went back to work, and learned that Mrs. Gen. Barlow had died of typhoid fever, in Washington. No man died more directly for the Government. Thousands who fell on the battle-field, exhibited less courage and devotion to that service, and did less to secure its success. I know not where her body lies, but wherever it does, no decoration-day should pass in which her memory is not crowned with immortelles.
She died at a time when my life was despaired of, and when Mrs. Ingersol wrote to a Maine paper of my illness, adding:
"I hope the Lord will not take her away, until He has made another like her."
She told me afterwards that just then she held the world at a grudge; but it must have been relieved of my presence long ere this, if I had not found in homoepathy relief from pain, which for eight months made life a burden, and for which the best old-school physicians proposed no cure.
AN EFFICIENT NURSE.
To show the capabilities of some of the women who thought they had a mission for saving the country by acting as hospital nurses, I give the history of one.
While I lay ill, a friend came and told of a most excellent woman who had come from afar, and tendered her services to the Government, who had exerted much influence and spent much effort to get into a hospital as nurse, but had failed.
Hearing of my illness, her desire to be useful led her to tender her services, so that if she could not nurse wounded soldiers she could nurse one who had. The generous offer was accepted, and I was left an afternoon in her care.
I wanted a cup of tea. She went to the kitchen to make it, and one hour after came up with a cup of tea, only this and nothing more, save a saucer. To taste the tea. I must have a spoon, and to get one she must go along a hall, down a long flight of stairs, through another hall and the kitchen, to the pantry. When she had made the trip the tea was so much too strong that a spoonful would have made a cup. She went down again for hot water, and after she had got to the kitchen remembered that she had thrown it out, thinking it would not be wanted. The fire had gone out, and she came up to inquire if she should make a new one, and if so, where she should find kindling? She had spent almost two hours running to and fro, was all in perspiration and a fluster, had done me a great deal of harm and nobody any good, had wasted all the kindlings for the evening fire, enough tea to have served a large family for a meal, and fairly illustrated a large part of the hospital service rendered by women oppressed with the nursing mission.
My sense of relief was inexpressible when Mrs. George B. Lincoln returned from her visit to the White House, sent my tea-maker away and took charge of me once more.
TWO FREDERICKSBURG PATIENTS.
Some months after leaving Fredericksburg, I was walking on Pennsylvania avenue, when the setting sun shone in my face, and a man in uniform stopped me, saying:
"Excuse me! you do not know me, but I know you!"
I turned, looked at him carefully, and said:
"I do not know you!"
"Oh, no! but the last time you saw me, you cut off my beard with your scissors and fed me with a teaspoon. When you left me you did not think you would ever see me again."
"Oh!" I exclaimed joyfully, "you are Dutton."
He laughed, and replied, "That's me. I have just got a furlough and am going home."
He was very pale and thin, but I was so glad to see him and shake hands, and wish him safely home with his friends.
During the great review after the war, I had a seat near the President's stand. There was a jam, and a man behind me called my attention to a captain, at a short distance, who had something to say to me, and passed along the words:
"You took care of me on the boat coming from Fredericksburg."
Looking across, I could see him quite well, but even when his hat was off could not recognize him; and this is all I have ever heard from or of the men with whose lives mine was so knit during that terrible time.
I fear that not many survived, and doubt if a dozen of them ever knew me by any other name than that of "Mother."
When Early appeared before Washington, we all knew there was nothing to prevent his coming in and taking possession. The forts were stripped. There were no soldiers either in or around the city. The original inhabitants were ready to welcome him with open arms. The departments were closed, that the clerks might go out in military array, to oppose; but of course few soldiers were sitting at desks at that stage of the war. The news at the Quartermaster's office one morning was that the foreign ministers had been notified, and that the city would be shelled that afternoon. We lived on the north side of the city; and when I went home, thousands of people were on the streets, listening to the sound of guns at Fort Reno.
So far as I knew, there was a universal expectation that the city would be occupied by rebel troops that night. As this was in harmony with the general tenor of my anticipations for a quarter of a century, I readily shared in the popular opinion, and for once was with the majority.
Among the groups who stood in the streets were many contrabands, and their faces were pitiful to see. One scantily-clad woman, holding a ragged infant, and with two frightened, ragged children clinging to her skirts, stood literally quaking. Her black face had turned gray with terror, and she came to me and asked:
"Oh! Missus! does ye tink dey will get in?"
Suddenly my eyes were opened, like those of the prophet's servant when he saw the horses and chariots of fire, and I replied:
"No! never! They will come no nearer than they now are! You can go home and rest in peace, for you are just as safe from them as if you were in heaven!"
She was greatly comforted; but a gentleman said, as she moved away:
"I wish I could share your opinion; but what is to hinder their coming in?"
"God is to hinder! He has appointed us to rescue these people. They are collected here in thousands, and the prayers of centuries are to be answered now!"
I myself went home feeling all the confidence I spoke, and wondering I could have been so stupid as to doubt. Our Government and people were very imperfect, but had developed a sublime patriotism—made an almost miraculous growth in good. Ten righteous men would have saved Sodom. We had ten thousand; and I must think there are few histories of supernatural interference in the affairs of the Jews more difficult to account for, on merely natural grounds, than the preservation of Washington in that crisis.
December 6th, 1865, the fiftieth anniversary of my birth, found me in Washington, at work in the Quarter-Master's office, on a salary of sixty dollars a month, without any provision for support in old age; and so great a sufferer as never to have a night of rest unbroken by severe pain, but with my interest in a country rescued from the odium of Southern slavery, and a faint light breaking of the day which is yet to abolish that of the West.
In the summer of '66, Dr. King, of Pittsburg, came to know what I would take for my interest in ten acres of the Swissvale estate, which he had purchased. My deed had presented a barrier to the sale of a portion of it, and he was in trouble:
I consulted Secretary Stanton, who said:
"Your title to that property is good against the world!"
It had become valuable and the idea of its ownership was alarming! I had made up my mind to poverty, had been discharged from the Quarter-Master's office by special order of President Johnson, "for speaking disrespectfully of the President of the United States!"—Washington Star—was the first person dismissed by Mr. Johnson; was without visible means of support, could not suddenly adjust my thought to anything so foreign to all my plans as coming into possession of a valuable estate, and said:
"Oh, Secretary Stanton, how shall I ever undertake such a stewardship at my time of life?" He looked sternly at me, and replied:
"Mrs. Swisshelm, don't be a fool! take care of yourself! It is time you would begin. The property is yours now. You are morally responsible for it, and can surely make some better use of it than giving it away to rich men around Pittsburg. Go at once and attend to your interests."
This was our last interview. I instituted the suit he advised, and he would have plead my cause before the Supreme Court, but when it came up he was holding possession of the War Department to defeat President Johnson's policy of making the South triumphant. However, the decree of the court was in my favor, and through it I have been able to rescue the old log block house from the tooth of decay, and to sit in it and recall those passages of life with which it is so intimately connected.