The inconvenience, suffering, and unpleasant consequences of ignorance of military regulations, endured by women who went to take care of sons, husbands, or brothers, sick in southern hospitals, might form an interesting, though sad chapter in the history of our great war, and I give you some instances.
At the sunset of a sultry day, I sat by my window, writing to the "friends at home," when my door was thrown unceremoniously open, and a lady entered, exclaiming, "What shall I do?" I knew from her face that she was a quiet, respectable, though uncultivated woman, and that nothing but the desperateness of her situation could have forced her to this abrupt entrance and question.
I gave her a chair, and listened to her story. Her husband had been so severely wounded in the leg as to make amputation necessary; and she had left home with a hundred dollars, which she had borrowed from a friend, and had come all the way to Nashville.
She had never travelled before, and had been troubled so much in getting passes and transportation, that her nervous system seemed quite exhausted.
Boarding and lodging were so dear that she found it impossible to pay for them in the city, while hospital regulations would not allow her to stay there. The surgeon said it would be weeks before her husband would be able to go home. "I cannot stay -- and if I go back, he will die ! What shall I do? What shall I do?" she cried, wringing her hands, and sobbing bitterly.
I proposed to walk into the ward and see her husband, while I thought what I could do for her. To my surprise she took me to the cot of one of my "special cases." "Is it your wife that has come?" I exclaimed. "Yes, it's my wife," he replied, while his eyes filled with a happy, peaceful light. "O Hattie, I have dreamed so often of your coming, that I am afraid I shall wake and find -- But no, you are here -- ain't you, Hattie?"
"Yes, Charlie, yes;" and the tears fell fast upon the clasped hands. The surgeon in charge consented to let her occupy an empty cot next to her husband, and the nurses changed him from the centre to one corner of the ward. For her board she helped us in the "special diet kitchen."
Eternity only can reveal the good done by her in the month she was in that large ward, containing a hundred beds. She remembered that Christ had said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me;" and day and night occupied her spare time in administering to her husband's fellow-sufferers.
One day of the fifth week of her stay, I saw a cloud on her sunny face, and inquired the cause. She said a man had died in the ward, and the nurses had carried him out head foremost, and that she and her husband deemed this a bad sign. She had tried to divert his attention from it, but he had replied, "It is no use, Hattie; I shall go next." And he did. I cannot calmly recall that parting scene. You who have laid a dear one under the sod, near your own home, while friends and relatives wept with you, can know a part of her grief. But you who have, like her, left the dear dust to mingle with that of strangers, can realize the depth of her woe. As the carriage was announced to take her to the depot, she shrank back, exclaiming, "How can I go home to my children! I promised I would not return without their father; and to leave him in the cold ground!" Hers was indeed a sad case. Her trip home would use up the last of the borrowed money, and she would have to take in washing to support her children and pay back the borrowed hundred dollars.
One day, a well-dressed, intelligent woman called at the door of the diet kitchen, and asked to see one of the "Christian Commission" ladies. The surgeon had sent her to me to help her find her husband, and the directions were, "Bed one hundred six, ward two." As we went up the steps, I noticed that she trembled with excitement. I inquired if she was tired, and she said, "No," though she had slept none since leaving her home. We entered the ward, and the nurse pointed out the bed, but it was empty. I looked at her, and saw she was deadly pale, and hastened to assure her that there was some mistake, as she would not have been sent from the office to look for her husband if he had been dead. While I had been talking to her, the ward-master had referred to his book, and told us her husband's leg had been amputated a few days before, and he was then moved to ward four. Again her face was in a glow, and I could hardly keep her from rushing in unannounced. We could see his face from the door, and I thought him asleep. As I was holding her by the arm, and beckoning to one of the men to come to us, he opened his eyes full upon her. Such a scream as he gave! She bounded from me, and in a moment had her arms around his neck, both crying and laughing at the same time. I am sure neither of them uttered a whole sentence for fifteen minutes, so overpowering was the joy of their meeting. His recovery was almost miraculous, and one month from the time she came, she started home with her husband. The wife remarked, as she bade its good-by, that she was not half so happy the morning she started on her bridal tour as she was now, taking her husband, though he left one leg in a southern grave.
Persons unaccustomed to hospital life can hardly imagine how absorbing it was. Nor can they conceive how we could find any enjoyment in life while surrounded by hundreds of those poor wrecks of humanity, from whom life had been well nigh driven by southern bullets. Surely God will forgive us, if -- as the long months of untold suffering rise before us, when we went in and out among -- the sufferers, while they wore out life in the vain hope of returning health, and finally were carried to the grave under the folds of the dear old flag -- a bitterness comes to us that no words can express, and we cannot help rejoicing that God has said, "Vengeance is mine, and I will repay."
Peace has come to us at last; and now, when almost a year has passed since we sat in front of the White House, and looked upon the great army, "with banners," marching through the streets of Washington, -- and the tears came more freely than the smiles, as we gazed at the bronzed faces, torn banners, and thinned ranks, -- still those scenes are too vivid for us to realize that the work of the war is over, and that the dear, blessed hospital days shall come back to us no more forever. We call them "blessed days," because the joy of ministering to the suffering filled our hearts with a melody before unknown. But, as "the darkest day has gleams of light," so our usually dark days were often illumed with gleams of brightness. One gleam, especially bright, came to us November 4, 1864. It was a dull, rainy day; such a day as, glancing at the hospital windows, you would not fail to see pale faces, full of weary longing, looking forth. We had been all the morning in the "diet kitchen," and the dinner for our large family of over three hundred, on special diet, was well under way. A rustle at the door, and looking up, we greeted Mrs. E. P. Smith, the wife of the Christian Commission agent. She was always the bringer of good tidings, and this time especially so.
"We have eight boxes of grapes for you," she said; "the nicest Catawba, Isabella, &c.; and as it is a gloomy day, it will be pleasant to distribute them at once, and show the men that they are not forgotten by the friends at home."
We acted upon the suggestion immediately, and, accompanied by the officer of the day, to tell us who could have grapes, we were soon passing from cot to cot. It was wonderful how the men brightened up. They could scarcely have expressed more gratitude had we given them clusters of gold instead of grapes. One elderly man sat on the side of his cot, and seemed very impatient as we paused to say a word to others near him. He had been long prostrated with a fever, and we were surprised to find him sitting up; for only a few days before we had taken him a few grapes, and they were the first thing he had eaten for days. We knew nothing would cheer the old man more than a little pleasantry. So, as I came up, I said, with much solemnity, laying the grapes on his stand, "To thy shrine, O hero of the war, I bring my humble offering" -- but stopped short at that, for I discovered that his eyes were full of tears. He then went on to tell me, that one week before he had felt sure he must die. He could eat nothing, and felt himself sinking slowly into the grave. Then the grapes were brought him. In all his life he had never tasted anything half so refreshing. The first thing he did was to pray God to bless the good women that sent them. He took no more medicine, and his recovery was rapid, dating from the first grape he ate. "There is a good wife up in Wisconsin, and a house full of little children, that will bless the Commission while life lasts," said the old man, with fervency; and I turned away, lest my own tears should mingle with the grateful soldier's.
In one corner of one of the wards lay a man thin and pale, and with eyes sufficiently glittering to represent the Ancient Mariner. As we came near, we saw he was looking almost fiercely at the dish piled high with grapes. As we laid an unusually generous amount on the stand, he smiled grimly, and began crowding them into his mouth. The officer of the day came up in haste, and said that man must not have any; they would injure him. He was not to be so treated, and clutched them in both hands. The doctor, finding remonstrance in vain, took the grapes from him by force, is he was too weak to cope with a strong man. A disappointed child could not have wept more bitterly than he did, to be deprived of the only thing he had wanted for months. My heart ached for him; but the doctor's word was law, and we could only tell him how sorry we were. We were very careful, afterwards, to have the doctor go ahead, and point out any that could not have grapes, so as to avoid such disappointments in future. Here and there we found a man that would look longingly at the grapes, but shake his head, and say there were others so much worse than he that they should have them. How glad we were to be able to say, we have enough for every man in the hospital!
We had one case of a soldier that had been wounded, -- shot through the breast, -- and were thinking how much he would enjoy the grapes. To the surprise of all, he shook his head, and then told us that the discharge from his wound produced such nausea that he had not been able to eat anything for some time. He would enjoy the grapes so much but for that! There came to me a bright thought -- just arrived from the young ladies of Mount Pleasant, Iowa -- one box hospital stores, handkerchiefs, slippers, pillow-cases, and a few bottles of perfumery. It took but a moment to go to our room, return, and the soldier found himself surrounded by far more savory odors than ever floated from
"Araby the Blest."
In a short time our soldier was enjoying the grapes, and that evening ate his supper.
Not a great while after, as we entered the hospital gates with a basket of flowers -- the last of the season -- to brighten for a few days the wards, we were surprised to see the same soldier walking slowly towards us. He bowed politely, and to our "What! you able to be out?" he replied, --
"Yes, miss, the grapes and cologne saved me."
But it would be impossible to write out one half of the interesting occurrences connected with that one day's distribution of grapes.
One bright day in July, as we passed through the wards, many of the men told us, that they thought if they could get out into the sunshine, and see the trees and flowers growing, it would almost cure them. They were worn out with staring at the bare walls of the Gun Factory Hospital, and would so like to see something green.
Accordingly there was a "council of war" held in the diet kitchen, and the result was, that two very demure- looking women, wearing the badge of the Christian Commission, started out to steal. With covered hand-baskets they went directly to the cemetery. But they surely could not intend making any depredations there, for every few steps were signs -- "Five dollars fine for breaking, or in any way injuring, the shrubbery." They went all round the grounds, and soon ascertained that there was only one grave-digger in the inclosure, and he in a remote part of the grounds. Whether the Nashville people ever discovered that day's work this deponent saith not; but one thing is sure: a table in Number One Hospital was soon covered with flowers, from two well-filled baskets. The next question was, What would be done for vases? That question was soon answered. The cans from which the condensed milk had been taken for the pudding were just the thing. Soon every ward was bright and fragrant with flowers. If the perpetrators of the crime had had any compunctions of conscience before, they all vanished as the thanks of the men came to them from every ward.
While the summer lasted, the flowers did their good work, but no one could tell where they came from.