At the very outset of the war, before the blood had commenced to flow in the long fratricidal strife, a group of ladies in Philadelphia met and organized a system of relief for the sufferings and privations which they knew must follow in the train of war.
They were mostly members of the church of Rev. Dr. Boardman, and had frequently coöperated in charitable labors for the destitute or ignorant of their own community or in pagan lands.
Mrs. Joel Jones was made the president of this association, and Mrs. Stephen Colwell was its treasurer. Its secretary was one of those delicate, fragile, and feeble-looking ladies who are apparently condemned to lives of patient suffering and inactivity by constitutional defect of physical vigor. She was known merely as a lady of warm personal piety, and excellent but mild and unobtrusive sense. Charitable and beneficent she had been in her quiet, daily life; but any aspirations that she may have had to wide, national, and laborious activity, were apparently quenched in the demands for passive endurance which almost constant illness made upon her. A heroine of Christian patience she might become, one would say; one of the uncounted sisterhood of silent pain, whose sighs are reckoned and whose chambers of suffering are visited by the angel who stood beside the mute Wrestler in Gethsemane. Yet she it was, this pallid and low-voiced lady, who, when the brazen trumpet of war rang across the continent, glided from her sick chamber, and entered upon a self-imposed and self-directed career of Christian and sanitary labors, more extended, more arduous, and more potent for good, than any other that can be found in American annals.
If there were any such vain decorations of human approbation as a crown, or a wreath, or a star for her, who in our late war has done the most, and labored the longest, who visited the greatest number of hospitals, prayed with the greatest number of suffering and dying soldiers, penetrated nearest to the front, and underwent the greatest amount of fatigue and exposure for the soldier, -- that crown or that star would be rightfully given to Mrs. John Harris, of Philadelphia.
Yet not one in all the noble sisterhood is more indifferent than she to all human applause. What she did was not to be seen or praised of men. It was other than the crown that human fingers can weave her that she sought, --
"The perfect witness of all-judging Jove."
Very soon after the organization of the Ladies' Aid Society, Mrs. Harris saw that work at the front and in hospitals was imperatively demanded.
After the first battle of Manassas, hospitals were created in Washington and along the Potomac. These rapidly increased, both in the number of their patients and in the amount of suffering and want they contained, as the demands of the war at first far outran the sources of supply. Her first visits to the front were immediately after the first bloodshed, and though no heavy battles were fought in Virginia till the following summer, when we remember that over two hundred thousand men were suddenly transferred from civil to military life, it will not appear strange that there were full hospitals all along the Potomac for miles above and below Washington. At that time there was no one in America who could be said to have a full practical knowledge of military surgery and hygiene. The European systems needed important modifications before they could be successfully applied to our army and our people. In the mean time, as the ponderous machinery was becoming adjusted, Mrs. Harris devoted herself to alleviating suffering as she found it, and where she found it, bringing to the work the clear practical sense of a person perfectly familiar with housekeeping in all its details.
Before the army moved in the spring of 1862, Mrs. Harris had visited more than a hundred hospitals, making donations of such articles as she had received from the society at home, and suggesting various simple but effective arrangements for the preparation and distribution of food for the sick. When the army moved out to Manassas in and soon after was transferred to the Peninsula, her exertions and exposures were made to correspond with those of the men.
When she entered upon these labors she seems to have been inspired by twofold motives, both alike blessed. Her sympathies embraced all the wants of suffering, dying men; and in the details that follow, the full, sad, and touching story of her labors by a thousand death-beds, on the field, in hospital tents, in shelter tents, in transports, or in lodges for the refugees, we are at a loss which most to admire in Mrs. Harris -- the practical good sense with which she labored for the physical comfort of sufferers, or the abounding Christian zeal and love with which she always strove to make sacred impressions on the minds of those she met; the saintly spirit in which she knelt by the dying, and whispered words of celestial consolation into ears that were growing deaf to all human voices.
To how many she thus ministered, and with what blessed results, no human records can possibly inform us. Hundreds, if they ever testify of her kindness, and of the supreme consolations received from her lips, will speak of her in the upper kingdom, and on the peaceful shore.
And how many, if they could speak from the rude soldier graves where they were buried, would say the last they knew was the touch of her soft hand on their clammy forehead, her low voice at their ear whispering of the Lamb that was slain for them, the sacrifice that atones for all, the blood that washes away sin!
But her name is cherished and linked with the most sacred and touching memories, on many a far-off hill-side, and in many a lonely cottage; for from her pen came the last record that ever reached them of the hero boy who was wounded on the Chickahominy, or at Manassas or Antietam, and died in a hospital; of the dying patriot, who, with glazing eye and shortening breath, begged of her to take the ring from his finger when he was laid out, and to cut a lock of his hair, and send them to her.
Fortunately the records of these labors of patriotic zeal and Christian love are more numerous and in better preservation than those of many who were her fellow-laborers. As the secretary of the Ladies' Aid Society, she wrote constantly and very full letters to its president in Philadelphia; and, in compiling their semi-annual reports, these ladies very wisely published copious selections from Mrs. Harris' admirable productions, and thus imparted, to what would otherwise have been a mere business pamphlet, touching interest and lasting value.
The first that we hear of Mrs. Harris, in these reports, is at Fairfax Seminary, early in the spring of 1862, before the enemy had moved down to the Peninsula, and when a battle was supposed to be imminent at or near Manassas Junction. She took with her to the general hospitals, in and near Alexandria, a large number of boxes sent to the Ladies' Aid Society, and was engaged for some time in a careful and judicious distribution of their contents. At one place she found two hundred poor fellows, who had been thrown into an unfinished hospital, some of them lying around on piles of shavings, and some stretched on the work-benches. They made few complaints, however; but they did think some improvement might be made in their tea, and Mrs. Harris pushed her way to the cook room, to see if she could make a useful suggestion. Talking the matter over with the cook, she found the plant was not in fault, nor the water; but all the pot he had for his two hundred men was a new cast-iron caldron, in which he boiled his soup, vegetables, meat, and tea in succession, each mess waiting its turn. Mrs. Harris at once went out, and without troubling anybody with a requisition, succeeded in getting, for three dollars, a very good boiler, which had originally cost ten. "You would all say I could not have used three dollars more wisely, could you have heard the poor fellows tell how much improved their tea was."
But the Potomac ceased, for a few months, to be the principal theatre of the strife; and we find Mrs. Harris, in May, laboring in the hospitals at Fortress Monroe, full of those who had sickened on the Peninsula, in the first month of picket and trench duty before Yorktown, and the wounded of both armies at Williamsburg. On the 21st of May, she writes,--
"Mrs. D. in the Chesapeake and Miss S. in the Hygeia Hospitals are noble women. I cannot speak of all their worth, nor can I describe the state of things here. No language can give the faintest idea of the scenes of suffering and deadly anguish through which we are passing. My dear friend, say to the ladies, that no sacrifice they can make would be felt as such could they look upon the pains, the groans, the dying strife, of hundreds of the brave fellows whom we saw embark but two months since at Alexandria, then full of buoyancy, and eager for the conflict which was to vindicate the honor of our flag, and cover their names with glory. Could you have visited with me, on Saturday, the largest ward of the Hygeia Hospital, your whole being would have thrilled with anguish. Friend and foe are crowded together without distinction--all suffering. The first one approached had been wounded in the thigh and arm. The leg had been amputated, and an extraction made of the broken bones in the arm. Surgeons had been probing the (diseased portions, not heeding the shrieks of the sufferer, whom I found covered with cold sweat, and nearing the dark valley; indeed, the mists of the valley were settling over him. When the gracious words, 'Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,' were spoken, the suffering one looked up, and exclaimed, 'Rest, rest! O, where, where?' 'In the bosom of Jesus, if you will but lay your sins on him, and your suffering, throbbing, heart close to his, you will be filled with rest in all the fulness of its meaning.' He tried to stay his faith on the 'Rock;' but very soon the unseen closed him in, and left us vainly endeavoring to follow the departing soul.
"Next him sat a boy from Carolina, who had been shot through the body, and could not lie down. The poor fellow was soliloquizing, in low, tremulous tones, his eyes shut, thus: 'This poor boy was in the battle of Bull Run; left his mother on the 12th of April; she prayed for him, and almost broke her heart weeping. He wrote to his mother that he was safe and well. And then he got along, seeing a good many hard times, till the battle of Williamsburg. There a ball went through his body, and poor mother will never see her boy again. What a pity--yes, a mighty pity--.' I listened for a time with a bursting, heart, and then took his hand, and said, 'Shall I be your mother, and comfort you?' 'Yes,' he said, in a childish way (he was only nineteen), 'I'll try and think she is here.' After a short talk, in which Jesus was held up to the dying boy as better even than a mother, he begged me to write to his mother 'a very long letter, sending a lock of my hair; but you needn't take the hair now; say everything to comfort her; but,' he added, 'I want her to know how her poor boy suffers; yes, I do that, she would feel so for me.' He lingered till Monday; and, after a painful operation, sank away most unexpectedly, and when I got there was in the dead-house. So I went into that dismal place, full of corpses, and cut a lock from the dead boy's head, and enclosed it to the mother, adding some words of comfort for the sorrow-stricken. He had received a religious training, and told me to tell his mother he would meet her in heaven.
"Next him was a young man from Massachusetts--a face full of gentleness, but wearing a painful, anxious expression. He was not quite certain that he was on the right foundation, and shrank from death."
Next him lay a young Alabamian. He was evidently past all surgical aid, and Mrs. Harris could only do as she had with his fellow-sufferer from Carolina--pray with him, and whisper consolatory words of Christ, and take a lock of his hair to send to his mother, with some account of how and where her boy had died. Her letters were often interrupted by calls to come to this dying man, or that suffering boy; yet all this time her practical labors were not suspended.
She had with her ten boxes, five of which she appropriated to the Chesapeake and five to the Williamsburg Hospital, and wrote very earnestly to Philadelphia for eggs, butter, port wine, crackers, green tea, bandages, lint, pickles, and shirts. "Pads and cushions, of every imaginable shape and form, are in demand. Oil silk greatly, very greatly needed."
A few days later, in June, about the time the battle of Fair Oaks was fought, we find Mrs. Harris on the Vanderbilt, which had just been loaded with seven hundred wounded from that field. Many of them had eaten nothing for three or four days, and the first cry that met her ears was for tea and bread. Making her way into the cook-room, she took hold with her own experienced hands; and she tells us how glad she felt when the great boiler was heating with three pounds of tea in it, and she had five or six gallons of gruel bubbling for the boys. Meantime she bought and cut up twenty-five loaves of bread, spreading jelly between the slices, and soon had tea passed around in buckets. Then she made her way into the hold, and gave the sick some pickles, which they said did them more good than all the medicine. Wine she added to the gruel, and it was relished "you cannot tell how much." One poor wounded boy she speaks of, exhausted with the loss of blood and long fasting, who looked up, after taking the first nourishment he could swallow since the battle of Saturday, then four days, and exclaimed, with face radiant with gratitude and pleasure, "O, that is life to me; I feel as if twenty years were given me to live."
Laboring thus all day, she was overtaken by a shower when going back to the Hygeia Hospital, and reached her room with every garment saturated, where she lay down "aching in every bone, with heart and head throbbing, unwilling to cease work while so much was to be done, but fell asleep at last, from sheer exhaustion," the latest sounds that fell upon her ear being groans from the operating room.
On the afternoon of the next day (or the next but one), she describes the scenes on board another vessel, in like manner freighted with suffering.
"The afternoon," she writes, "found us on board the Louisiana, where fearful sights met us. The whole day had been spent in operating. In one pile lay seventeen arms, hands, feet, and legs. A large proportion of the wounded had undergone mutilation in some important member. Many must die. Four lay with their faces covered, dying or dead. Many had not had their wounds dressed since the battle, and were in a sad state already. One brave fellow, from Maine, had lost both legs, and bore up with wonderful firmness. Upon my saying to him, 'You have suffered much for your country; we cannot thank you enough,' he replied, 'O, well, you hadn't ought to thank me. I went of my own accord, in a glorious cause. God bless McClellan.'
"And here let me say, the young lady, Miss B., whom I brought with me, spent the whole of Friday night on board the Louisiana, dressing and caring for the wounded. When I left the boat, at eleven o'clock at night, I was obliged to wash all my skirts, being drabbled in the mingled blood of Federal and Confederate soldiers, which covered many portions of the floor. I was obliged to kneel between them to wash their faces. This is war."
During the latter part of June Mrs. Harris continued these arduous labors nearer the front. Much of the time she was on Dudley Farm and at Savage's Station, so near the battle line that the balls and shells whizzed over where she was at work. The style of labor here was much the same as on the ships. At one time, as she was passing a house, the sentinel told her there was a captain of a Maine regiment very sick within.
She describes the scene thus: "We went in, no door obstructing, and there, upon a stretcher, in a corner of the room, opening directly upon the road, lay an elegant-looking youth, struggling with the last great enemy. His mind was wandering, and as we approached him, he exclaimed, 'Is it not cruel to keep me here, when my mother and sister, whom I have not seen for a year, are in the next room? They might let me go in.' Only for an instant did he seem to have a glimpse of the real, when he drew two rings from his finger, placed there by the loved ones, handed them to an attendant, saying, 'Carry them home.' Then he was amid battle scenes, shouting, 'Deploy to the left! keep out of that ambuscade! Now go, my braves! Double quick! Strike for the flag! On, on!' he shouted, tossing up both his arms; 'you'll win the day.' As we looked on the beautiful face and manly form, thus wrestling with the strong enemy, and thought of the mother and sister in their distant home, surrounded by every luxury wealth could purchase, worlds seemed too cheap to give to have him with them.
"Having fought through three battles, he was not willing to admit that he was sick till the vital currents ebbed out, and he was actually dying. To the last he talked of his men; and now was no time to speak of the spirit-land. When I whispered a verse of Scripture in his car, he smiled and thanked me, but could not appreciate the sacred words. He was a graduate of Waterville College, and twenty of his company were graduates of the same college. An only son, his mother and sister doted on him; but the mandate had gone forth, and there he lay, unconscious, in the grasp of a monster that would never relax till he had done his work."
Mrs. Harris was at Savage's Station and Seven Pines while the fight was raging. Here, in the primary hospitals, and under the trees in the rear of the carnage, she took part in scenes, and assumed duties, which not often fall to her sex. Now she was soothing patients under the hands of the operator; now preparing the minds of "great, noble-looking men, officers and privates," to submit to the amputation of an arm or a leg. Her woman's heart was much moved for a captain from Massachusetts, who pleaded very hard for his leg. "O, my wife and children," he would say (and he had seven), "it will kill them to see me so mutilated." But it was of no avail. The ball had shattered his knee-joint, and amputation was unavoidable. So the chloroform was pressed to his mouth, and he was taken insensible to the operating table.
Her opinion of some army chaplains, notwithstanding her earnest piety, does not seem to have been very high. It was the night after the battle of Seven Pines; and she had just seated herself, after a most exhausting day, to a cup of tea," when a great, healthy man, there to look after the sick and wounded, and a chaplain, too, came to me, saying, 'They have just brought in a soldier, with a leg blown off; he is in a horrible condition; can't you wash him?' I was about to reply, 'Can't you perform that sacred office yourself?' when the thought the man that acts so would not be tender, checked me, and soon the duty was over; but I knew I 'had done it for his burial.' So a grave was dug, and we gave him back to earth, but not till I had cut away a lock of his hair for his Massachusetts mother."
During the first days of July these labors continued, and grew more tragical, before it was known in how tolerable a condition the army was brought to Harrison's Landing. When she reached that place -- carried from the Landing to a wagon on a sailor's back, through mud knee-deep -- the welcome she received from the crowds of poor, war-worn soldiers, who crowded the banks, was a reward for all her hardships.
Among the sick and wounded at Harrison's Landing and the hospitals along James River and at Fortress Monroe, Mrs. Harris labored through the months of July and August, with the same earnest devotion, the same mixture of Christian zeal with practical and physical kindness, that characterized her service elsewhere.
In August, her attention was directed principally to raising the spirits and health of the great number of the partially sick, who needed only rest, cheerful words, and palatable food. Ovens were built, and bread for whole regiments mixed and moulded, and baked by her directions. Pickles and jellies were brought from Philadelphia in large quantities, and distributed with the daily ration. Shirts, handkerchiefs, and socks were given out.
On the 20th August, she wrote from Fortress Monroe that she had been busy as possible getting a new hospital under way, had six hundred patients to begin with, and nothing to feed them with but the stores of the Ladies' Aid Society. In two days this number was swelled to fourteen hundred, mostly convalescents. Very opportunely, as she observed, she received sixty packages from New York and Massachusetts.
During the last two weeks of August, she distributed one hundred baskets, seventy-two barrels, five bags, and five boxes of onions; eight barrels of apples, eight of potatoes, three of beets, three of squashes; eighteen bushels of tomatoes; five barrels of pickles, one of molasses; two kegs of butter, six of dried rusk and crackers; eighty pounds of cheese, and large quantities of clothing, towels, farina, wine, milk, and cocoa.
Early in September these sanitary labors were again, for nearly two months, suspended, and her time was almost wholly occupied in the care of the dying and wounded, in the swiftly-following and bloody engagements that commenced with Jackson's advance up the Shenandoah Valley, and ended with Lee's defeat at Antietam.
The following extract, from a letter written just after Antietam, is a picture of her labors, and the sights and sufferings through which she moved during that battle autumn: --
"Night was closing in upon us -- the rain falling fast; the sharpshooters were threatening all who ventured near our wounded and dying on the battle-ground; a line of battle in view, artillery in motion, litters and ambulances going in all directions; wounded picking their way, now lying down to rest, some before they were out of the range of the enemy's guns, not a few of whom received their severest wounds in these places of imagined safety; add to this, marching and countermarching of troops; bearers of dispatches hurrying to and fro; eager, anxious inquirers after the killed and wounded; and the groans of the poor sufferers under the surgeons' hands, -- and you may form some faint idea of our position on that eventful evening. Reaching a hospital but a few removes from the cornfield in which the deadliest of the strife was waged, I found the ground literally covered with the dead and wounded -- barns, hayricks, outhouses of every description, all full. Here and there a knot of men, with a dim light near, told of amputations; whilst the shrieks and groans of the poor fellows, lying all around, made our hearts almost to stand still. The rain fell upon their upturned faces, but it was not noticed; bodily pain and mental anguish -- for many were brought to meet the king of terrors face to face, and would have given worlds to evade his cold touch -- rendered them indifferent to their surroundings. Most of the sufferers were from General Meagher's Irish brigade, and were louder in their demonstrations of feeling than are the Germans, or our own native born. We could do little that night but distribute wine and tea, and speak comforting words. We were called to pray with a dying Christian; and I feel the grasp of his hand yet, as we knelt around in the rain, in the dark night, with only the glimmering lights around the operating tables, and looked up to the Father of our Lord and Saviour for his mercy and grace to fall upon the dying man, and all his comrades clustering round us needing dying grace. Then we sang, 'There is rest for the weary,' Miss G.'s loud, clear voice leading. The sound stopped the shrieks and groans of the brave men. They listened. They all seemed comforted. It was then midnight, or near it. Before the next sun threw its rays in upon these twelve hundred wounded soldiers, the darkness of death had settled upon eleven sons, husbands, and fathers, whose hearts had throbbed healthfully with loving thoughts of home and country but a few hours before. We remained at this hospital until the evening of the 19th; we had slept a few hours on the straw upon which our soldiers had lain, and upon which their life-blood had been poured out. We prepared tea, bread and butter, milk punch, and egg-nog; furnished rags, lint, and bandages, as needed, and then came on to French's Division Hospital, where were one thousand of our wounded, and a number of Confederates. The first night we slept in our ambulance; no room in the small house, the only dwelling near, could be procured. The next day was the Sabbath. The sun shone brightly; the bees and the birds were joyous and busy; a beautiful landscape spread out before us, and we knew the Lord of the Sabbath looked down upon us. But, with all these above and around us, we could see only our suffering, un-complaining soldiers, mutilated, bleeding, dying. Almost every hour I witnessed the going out of some young life. No words can describe the wonderful endurance: not a murmur, not a word of complaint or regret. Many such expressions as the following have been heard: 'Yes, I have struck my last blow for my country; whether I have served my country well others may judge. I know I love her more than life.' The lip quivered with emotion, and the face was full of meaning, as he added, 'I am done with all this, and must meet eternity. I have thought too little of the future. I had a praying mother. O that I might meet her!' Another, a mere youth, with full, round face and mild blue eyes, said, 'Hold my hand till I die. I am trying to think of my Saviour; but think of my mother and father; their hearts will break.' Another, in reply to the remark, 'Well, my brother, you have fought a good fight; we thank you for what you have done and suffered for us; and now we want to talk to you about One who suffered and died for you and for us, eighteen hundred and sixty- two years ago, and now lives to intercede for us. He is near us now, and knows all your wants. Shall we ask him to abide with you, for the day is closing?' Putting his hand (he had but one) to his eyes--'It is growing dark; can it be death?' For a time emotion was too big for utterance; but, recovering himself, he said, 'I came into the army to die if need be, but did not think it would come so soon -- my first battle. O, my wife and children! O God, have mercy upon them!' As we left him, his earnest 'Mother, come soon again,' fell upon my heart. When next seen, I turned from him with sorrow inexpressible. The straightened, defined form, covered over with a blanket, told of three orphaned children and a stricken widow. The love of home, and thoughtful care of mothers, sisters, and fathers, are manifested most touchingly, especially by our New England soldiers: perhaps this may be true of all from rural districts, in the several states. The loss of a strong arm or leg is a mother's loss. 'Who will support her if I am disabled? Who will cut her wood and fetch her water?' I just recall an instance of filial devotion on the part of a young boy, who sickened and died on his way to Poolesville the last month. He was extremely delicate, almost childish in appearance and expression. When told that he must be very quiet, that his physician thought he should have rested at Washington, and not come on with his regiment, he replied, 'Yes, I thought I ought to stay there; I felt awful bad and weak like; but it seemed so much like giving up.' Then he burst into tears, and his delicate frame quivered with emotion, as he added, 'My mother is weakly, and is trying to educate my little brother and sister, and I helped her; and now that I must die, what will she do?' After a time he grew calm, and said, 'I will try and leave her where she said she left me all the time -- in the arms of our heavenly Father. If I die, he can and will take care of her and her children.' All this was said with many interruptions, for he was very weak. He languished a few days, and slept in Jesus. This is not an uncommon experience.
"Passing over the battle-ground of the 9th, such sights as might cause the general pulse of life to stand still met our eyes.
"Stretched out in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, were the dead and dying. Much the larger proportion must have died instantly -- their positions, some with ramrod in hand to load, others with gun in hand as if about to aim, others still having just discharged their murderous load. Some were struck in the act of eating. One poor fellow still held a potato in his grasp. Another clutched a piece of tobacco; others held their canteens as if to drink; one grasped a letter. Two were strangely poised upon a fence, having been killed in the act of leaping, it. How my heart sickens at the recollection of the appearance of these men, who had left their homes in all the pride of manly beauty.
"When they kissed their loved ones, and bade farewell, a gush of pride, mixed with the sadness of the parting, may have swelled the hearts of mothers, wives, and sisters, as they gazed upon the manly forms, in their bright, new uniforms, and for a time the perils of the soldier may have been forgotten. Now, how changed! Begrimed with dust, heads and bodies bloated and blackened, a spectacle of sickening horror, objects of loathing, the worm already preying upon them!"
Other letters, written in October, give full accounts of the deaths of various soldiers, whose devotion and excellence of character had interested Mrs. Harris, whose sufferings were soothed by her gentle and Christian consolations, and who finally died in full faith, glad to have suffered so much for their country, and hopeful when the summons of release reached them.
These letters of Mrs. Harris from the Peninsula and the Potomac, in 1862, were published and extensively read in the loyal communities of the North, and had a great effect in increasing her usefulness, and that of the society of which she was secretary. She displayed remarkable fitness for hospital and sanitary labors. Her usefulness in the trying duties she fulfilled was abundantly evinced by the testimony of surgeons, officers, and soldiers, in the field and in the hospitals; and now very large supplies were sent directly to Mrs. Harris, at the front, without passing through the rooms of the Ladies' Aid Society of Philadelphia.
During the period from October, 1862, to May, 1863, although but one great battle took place in Virginia, Mrs. Harris continued her hospital labors with unabated zeal and devotion. At no time in the long struggle was sanitary service more needed; for the winter of 1862-3 was in this war what that of 1777-8 was to the Continental army under Washington. The troops had been worn down by the unexampled fatigues of the fall campaign, and when the cold weather set in, sickness multiplied at a rate so alarming, as to threaten, at one time, the very organization of the army.
Between thirty and forty thousand men were in the sick and convalescent camps, that extended from the Rappahannock to the Potomac. Thirty thousand more lay in the military hospitals in and around Washington. Mrs. Harris was laboring, during the month of November, to direct the attention of government to the destitution and suffering in these convalescent camps; and finally Congress was aroused to action, and some slow and inadequate remedies were applied. Writing on the subject, in December, she says, "I am at present exercised in mind and body to a fearful degree. Think of the cold weather of the past week, and of hundreds of our boys, many of whom we had nursed at Bolivar and Smoketown, who came here to join their regiments, being thrown into this camp to suffer and die. So it has been. Fifteen of those in whom I was interested have died--shall I write it? -- of starvation and exposure, within three weeks, and that under the shadow of our Capitol." Early in January the command of the army passed into the hands of General Hooker, and by degrees a better spirit was infused into the whole Union force. But there was much suffering during the winter from cold and sick ness. Picket duty was very heavy, and the sick at all times abundant. Mrs. Harris was for many weeks established at the Lacey House, where her self-imposed duties were onerous and varied.
She procured a stove, some corn-meal and ground ginger, and with wine and crackers prepared, every day, and often twice in a day, a large supply of hot ginger panada for the pickets as they came in from the line of the Rappahannock. The boys were extremely fond of this preparation, and were drawn up in line in front of her head quarters, each receiving in his tin cup, from her own hands often, the wholesome and stimulating preparation. It will never be known how many a poor fellow, coming in from his post, where he had stood for the weary hours of an inclement night in the mud and sleet of a Virginia winter, was saved from pneumonia by this simple expedient.
The following picture of Sabbath morning life at the Lacey house will illustrate the manner in which her time was spent during that winter and spring: --
Could you have looked in upon us at breakfast time this day of sacred rest, your eye would have fallen on scenes and groupings all out of harmony with its holy uses. One cooking-stove pushed to its utmost capacity, groaning beneath the weight of gruel, coffee, and tea, around it clustered soldiers, shivering, drenched to the skin, here and there a poor fellow coiled upon the floor, too full of pain and weariness to bear his own weight. Seated along the table, as closely as possible, were others, whose expressions of thanks told how grateful the simple repast was -- bread, stewed fruit, and coffee. All alike were wet and cold, having been exposed throughout the night to the driving snow and rain, the most uncomfortable one of the season. Two poor boys groan under the pressure of pain; they are carried to the chamber, their wet stockings removed, feet bathed with camphor, spice tea given them, and an ambulance sent for. Now we return to our room of all-work. The vapor from the clothing of the soldiers, mingled with the steam from the coffee and gruel, condenses on my glasses; the eye waters, too, and the lungs are oppressed with the heavy atmosphere, and for a moment I am ready to give up; but only for a moment. Suddenly the word 'halt' is heard, and an instant after such a chorus of coughs smites upon our ears, and each one seems to say, 'What thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.' Seventy-two of our defenders stood there in the raw March wind, in need of something to keep the powers of life in action. Thoroughly wet, icicles on their blankets after a sleepless night, a march of from three to five miles before them, sinking every step over shoe-top in mud and slush, -- could you have seen the eager pressing forward, tin cup in hand, to secure the coveted portion, simple as it was, you would feel that God's own day was honored."
These labors were continued till late in April, when the advance across the river commenced. Sometimes Mrs. Harris acted as apothecary, sometimes as physician, constantly as nurse and Christian friend.
The preparation of the ginger panada, or "bully soup," as the soldiers called it, was kept up as long as the north bank of the river was picketed. She continued to visit those who were very sick, and especially all she heard of who could not recover, and labored, in her simple and direct way, to fit them, if possible, for the great change.
Letters, full and graphic, descriptive of all these scenes and labors, were constantly forwarded to the Ladies' Aid Society, and, when published and extensively circulated, aroused a wide-spread sympathy for the heroic sufferers, and admiration for the no less heroic laborers in the army hospitals and at the front.
Early in May came the battle of Chancellorsville, and for a few weeks the letters of Mrs. Harris were less frequent, so completely was her time absorbed by the constant and painful demands upon her to act as nurse and Christian comforter to the ten thousand wounded in that fearful series of engagements.
The extent and degree of that suffering is best under stood from an extract from a letter of May 18.
"After seeing Mrs. B. and Mrs. L. off, we filled two ambulances with bread and butter, prepared stewed fruit, egg-nog, lemons, oranges, cheese, shirts, drawers, stockings, and handkerchiefs, and went out to meet a train of ambulances bearing the wounded from United States Ford. Reaching Stoneman's Station, where we expected to meet the train, we learned we were a half hour too late, but could overtake them; so we pressed forward, and found ourselves in the rear of a long procession of one hundred and two ambulances. The road being narrow, steep, and most difficult, we could not pass, and so were obliged to follow, feeling every jolt and jar for our poor suffering ones, whose wounds had just reached that point when the slightest motion is agony.
"When this sad procession halted near the hospital of the Sixth army corps, we prepared to minister to the sufferers. Some gentlemen of the Christian Commission were there to assist us. No pen can describe the scene. Most of these sufferers had been wounded on the 3d instant.
Amputations and dressings had been hurriedly gone over, and then much neglected, necessarily so, for the rebel surgeons had more than enough to occupy them in the care of their own wounded. You know we left most of our wounded on the right in their hands.
"By day and by night I see their poor mutilated limbs, red with inflammation, bones protruding, worms rioting as they were held over the sides of the ambulance to catch the cooling breeze! Those anguished faces -- what untold suffering they bespoke! Many a lip quivered, and eye filled with tears, when approached with words of sympathy; and not a few told how they had prayed for death to end their sufferings, as they were dashed from side to side, often rolling, in their helplessness, over each other, as they were driven those twenty weary miles. We came to one poor fellow with a ball in his breast. His companion, who was utterly helpless, having been wounded in both arms, had rolled on him, and was thrown off only by a lurch of the ambulance. When we carried him some egg-nog, he drank it eagerly, and asked to be raised up, stopping at intervals to recover breath; but before his turn came to be lifted from the ambulance, the mortal had put on immortality, and his wife and five children left to plead with God the promises made to the fatherless and widow.
"We have sent large amounts of hospital supplies to Mrs. Husband and Mrs. McKay, in the Third corps. Miss Dix asked me to attend to the distribution of a half barrel of eggs and some oranges, and they were divided between these ladies, who are both admirable women.
"For six mornings we have prepared five gallons of custard, using six dozens eggs, and about eight gallons of pudding. The surgeons tell us to give as much whole some, nutritious food to the wounded as they will eat. You may judge how completely our time is filled up. Our evening meetings are now so largely attended that we have been obliged to resort to the main building. They are temporarily disturbed, at nine o' clock, by the cry, 'Fall in, third relief,' when the heavy tread of men, the clatter of swords, and the rustle of the old relief taking their places are heard. We find it difficult to close these services, so full of enjoyment are they to the soldiers."
These religious meetings were continued for three months, and were very numerously attended. Mrs. Harris assumed the whole responsibility, occasionally calling upon clergymen and others, whom she knew, to lead the devotions of the audience. Her hospital labors continued, as described above, after the battles of the Peninsula and Antietam, with occasional flying trips to Washington and other points in the vicinity, to look up and forward the boxes of the Ladies' Aid Society. Late in June and on the first days of July, we find her, now in Harrisburg and soon after in Washington, sharing the general uncertainty as to where the struggle, that all knew to be impending, must take place, yet ready, with her sanitary stores, to commence labors at once.
On the 3d of July she was in Washington, and besought of the government, with tears, permission to carry forward to Gettysburg a car-load of supplies, but was advised that it was unsafe to go to the front. Taking some chloroform and stimulants, she left Baltimore on the 4th, and penetrated as near as possible to the scene of the conflict, ministering as much as in her power to the stream of wounded that filled the cars, and was now rapidly swelling with each arrival from Gettysburg. Hundreds of the soldiers greeted her, she says, with the kindest expressions.
On the 9th she writes from Gettysburg these few hurried words :--
"Am full of work and sorrow. The appearance of things here beggars all description. Our dead lie unburied, and our wounded neglected. Numbers have been drowned by the sudden rising of the waters in the creek bottoms, and thousands of them are still naked and starving. God pity us! -- pity us!"
On the day following she gives a fuller account, saying she has been on the field of blood since the 4th, and has seen suffering of the most fearful character.
On the 12th Mrs. Harris and another lady, finding supplies in great abundance at Gettysburg, and a large number of assistants arriving daily, concluded that they could do more good by following the advance of General Meade, and attending to the fresh cases of the wounded and sick. With two ambulances, one loaded with medical stores and the other with food and clothing, they followed the army in its rapid marches for nearly a mouth. Severe skirmishing was in progress much of the time, and great numbers were taken sick. At Warrenton the inhabitants refused them their kitchens, and they prepared food for the sick soldiers in the street, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked in barns, by the wayside, in churches, in cars, wherever they could find the suffering soldiers.
Her letters, during this month of labor, were neither long nor frequent. Yet she says it was a real trial to her to be so summary when so many moving incidents pressed upon her mind, and tingled at the tips of her fingers.
In August we find her again at Warrenton, giving out supplies for four hospitals recently opened there, and instructing the doctors and surgeons in the homely science of preparing farina, corn starch, and panada for the sick.
She says there was hardly a family at Warrenton but mourned one dead at Gettysburg. The extreme heat, and long-protracted and heavy service, had produced great prostration in many who were not suffering from acute disease. The water, too, was in some places very impure. She sent to Philadelphia for a large number of empty phials, and filling these with such stimulants as the doctors advised, left them at the head of each of the suffering soldiers, thus saving many lives, and alleviating much misery.
Early in September she found herself one evening so exhausted by labor, travel, discomfort, and the extreme heat, that she was for a little time fixed in the determination to seek health and repose among the mountain breezes and cool streams of the Alleghanies. But the next morning being somewhat restored by sleep, she was actively forming plans for further labors of relief and comfort for "the brave boys." After breakfasting on a piece of army bread, and some jelly, eaten with a rusty knife and an old tin tea-spoon, she heard that some cavalrymen, the Sixth Michigan, were not far distant, and greatly in need of aid. After much difficulty and delay in crossing a swollen creek, she was hailed with joy by all who knew the humane nature of her errand. She found sixty sick men, wholly without attendance or food. The surgeon in charge had been prostrated with camp fever -- the hospital steward and the cook were both sick. They had camped in a low, marshy place; and, as the men were exhausted by long marches, irregular meals, and sleepless nights, they yielded in great numbers to the miasm of the swamp, and the glare of the sun, unbroken by any friendly shade. They had eaten nothing for several days but a few mouldy pieces of hard-tack, and drank black coffee, boiled in their tin cups.
Mrs. Harris drives up to where a little camp kettle is hanging over a low fire, and finds the whole cooking, equipment of these sixty or seventy sick men consists of a small sheet-iron stove, a small tea-kettle, two tin pans holding a gallon each, one small water-bucket, a few spoons, and a broken earthen dish.
She collects all the canteens belonging to the men, and sends them with the bucket to the spring, replenishes the fire, gets the bag of farina from the ambulance, as also the sugar, dried rusk, nutmegs, brandy, butter, milk, and flavoring extracts. When the water was brought she filled up the vessels and sent them for more.
Then the horse-bucket, from the ambulance, was cleaned, and partly filled with dried rusk, a few spoonfuls of butter, a half bottle of brandy, four nutmegs, and boiling water poured over the whole, and the panada was made.
While this was being distributed, and, as there were but a few tin cups, but few could be supplied at a time, the largest kettleful of farina was boiling.
Then she adds, "If you could have seen the tears and heard the thanks of these sick braves, you would not wonder that I remain here day after day."
Soon after this, Mrs. Harris returned home for a few days of rest; but on the 24th September we find her at Culpepper, spending her days in preparing food for the sick, of which she says there were not less than four hundred in the four hospitals. Remaining a few days at this post of duty, she returned to Philadelphia early in October; and, after advising with the officers of the society, it is decided that she is to go west of the mountains, and labor for the lives and comfort of the thousands and tens of thousands whose hopes, health, and happiness had been crushed under the iron wheel of war.
Two great armies had marched and countermarched, for nearly a year, through the counties of Tennessee that are adjacent to the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. Rosecrans, after his great battle of Stone River, had pressed upon his antagonist, and partly by force, but mainly by strategem, had driven him out of Middle Tennessee, and thrown him across the river of that name, into Northern Georgia.
There, on the 19th and 20th of September, a long and bloody contest had taken place on the slopes of Lookout Mountain, and in the valley of the Chickamauga below, for possession of the roads leading to Chattanooga. The Union force was overpowered, and driven back to Chattanooga, taking a considerable part of their wounded with them, but leaving many in the enemy's hands.
Communication with the rear was greatly interrupted. Supplies could not be forwarded, and horses and mules were dying by the hundred every day in the mountain passes, all the way from Tullahoma to Chattanooga.
Refugees, of all ages and both sexes, and every shade of color and degree of intelligence, were crowded into Nashville, and the various towns along the road to Chattanooga. Most of these wretched people were poor and destitute to the last degree.
The Ladies' Aid Society, of which Mrs. Harris was secretary, was not confined in its operations to one army, or one class of sufferers. A noiseless channel for the distribution of genuine charities, its principle of action from the time it was organized, in April, 1861, till the Proclamation of Peace, was to relieve any suffering, in any part of the land, that arose out of the state of war, and in this noble mission to "sow beside all waters." A signal of distress in any quarter, whether from a provost guard at a fort, the captive in his prison, the soldier on the field, the mutilated but patient hero in the hospital, the refugee from starvation and death, the Cherokee in his devastated fields, the freedman in his destitution, even the bleeding rebel solder, alike called forth the sympathies and shared the bounties of this association.
As transportation was slow and difficult, the Ladies' Aid Society could not forward to the sufferers in Tennessee those supplies which they had so freely sent to the Potomac army; and when Mrs. Harris left for Nashville, in the middle of October, she was supplied with money from the treasury of the society, and a few boxes of the most portable sanitary articles, to be used according to her discretion. In two days after her arrival she commenced her labors of love among the Union refugees -- that large class of the miserably poor who had migrated from the pine barrens of North Carolina, and settled on the mountain sides and in the obscure caves of the Alleghany and Cumberland ranges. In the days of peace and comparative plenty, these people were poor. But when the whirlwind of war swept through their secluded valleys; when the once united and harmonious communities were divided into bitter factions;--
"When the clarion's music thrills To the heart of the lone hills; When the spear in conflict shakes, And the strong lance, shivering, breaks;"
then want and famine overtook these people as an armed man, and their condition became truly pitiable.
"It is a very dark picture," writes Mrs. Harris, "made up of miserable looking women and old men, with naked children of all ages. Many come here to die, no provision being made for them other than the food and shelter afforded by government. After herding together indiscriminately in some dirty wareroom, or unfinished, unfurnished tenement, in ill-ventilated apartments, they become an easy prey to that foe of all the ill-clad and ill-fed -- typhus fever. It comes in the form of a chill, followed by fever; and this is followed by jabbering idiocy, with no great suffering, except to sympathizers. The mind of the sick one is filled with old home scenes; ghastly smiles, more saddening by far than tears, play over wan and haggard faces; the patient sinks, in a few days fills a government coffin, and is carried to a nameless grave. Going into a long, dark room, on the ground floor, in an unfinished mammoth hotel, now used as barracks, we found in the foreground some half dozen women with a crowd of children, crouching around a smoking stove; the women in tattered, dirty garments, their vacant, listless expression seeming to say, 'We are only poor white trash.' The children, dressed in hospital shirts, -- no other garments,-- would have looked comical had their poor little faces been hid; these were so unlike careless childhood that we could only look and wonder if any that surrounded our Saviour when he took them in his arms and blessed them were like these. In the background were beds, so close as scarcely to admit a passage between them. On one of the beds lay a sick old man, moaning; still farther on, a young woman in the last stage of rapid consumption. Two of these homeless sick had that morning found homes from which they will never be driven. The wretched inmates told us they were 'right smart better off then than they had been.' They made no complaints."
Among these unhappy people Mrs. Harris labored for more than a month. She watched with the sick, and prayed with those about to die. She assembled them in some large room, or, when the weather would admit, in the open air, and engaged some Christian speaker to hold before them the model of Him who knows our sorrows, and is acquainted with all human griefs; who was himself homeless, and had not where to lay his head. Not confining her labors to the refugees, Mrs. Harris visited various hospitals in Nashville, and was able to do a great deal for the comfort of those who were about to be sent forward to Louisville, on their way homeward.
In November we find her in Louisville, communicating with the towns in the North-Western States, and collecting the materials for a general thanksgiving dinner in Nashville. Having obtained large supplies for this purpose, she did not stay to see the soldiers enjoy their luxuries, but pressed forward with relief to the suffering and starving in Bridgeport and Chattanooga. Two weeks later she wrote from Chattanooga, where her labors for the wounded were similar to those for the Potomac army, of which a full recital been given; but she saw more horror, and agony, and death, during her three months here, than she had ever seen in her whole experience in the East.
"As I write, an ambulance passes, bearing the remains of four heroes of the late battles; all of them full of hope when I came here, and, though wounded, talking only of victory; one telling how vexed he felt when the bullet struck him, half way up the hill; another rejoicing that he got to the top; another, that he grasped the flag, and held it aloft nearly at the top--is sure the old 'Stars and Stripes' saw the top, if he didn't. And so they talked, for days, only of their country's triumph; but a change passed over them. Gangrene was commencing its ravages, and they were carried from their comrades, and put in tents, lest the poison might be communicated to their wounded fellow-sufferers. There, in the 'gangrene ward,' the glory of battle and victory faded away, as the fatal disease bore them nearer and nearer to the great eternity that shuts out all sounds of war.
Then the fearful misgivings that took the place of the hopes of earthly glory were deeply engraven on their poor, wall faces, and began to be whispered in the ears of Christian sympathy. No words can describe the condition of our hospitals here, and of the whole country. Think of Golgotha, the Valley of Hinnom, and all the dark places of the earth, and you may arrive at some conception of it."
Just as Mrs. Harris was entering systematically into measures of sanitary relief similar to those she had so admirably conducted on the battle-fields of Virginia, the long series of labors, exposures, and anxieties worked their natural effect upon her constitution, and for two weeks she was very sick. For a time, even, her life was despaired of; but while so much was to be done for those crowded hospitals, she could not give up her hold on life, and God, in his mercy, restored her to health, and gave her back, to be an unspeakable blessing and comfort to those who suffered in hope, and to those who languished without hope. Early in January she resumed her labors and her correspondence with the society, saying, in reference to her sickness, only these words: "I feel almost ashamed to consume your time with any account of it, the suffering all around me is of such an intense character."
During the months of January and February, 1864, she labored incessantly in the great hospitals of Chattanooga, still crowded with the wounded of two terrific battles. In January she was rejoiced when the transportation was such as to allow all the well men to be comfortably clothed and fed. The railroad was not opened till the middle of the month. The battle of Chickamauga had been fought four months before. In recapitulating the events of that time, she writes, "My experiences, since I reached Chattanooga, have been among the most painful of the three past eventful years. In looking back, amazement seizes me, and the attempt to rehearse them seems futile. War, famine and pestilence have made up the warp and woof of our soldier life. As I entered one of the hospitals, early in December, and asked, 'Well, friends, how are you getting along?' the response came from many a cot, 'We are starving.' A surgeon remarked to me, in a careless tone, 'A great many of our men have starved to death, but they did not know it.' He was mistaken."
As spring opened, active operations were about to be resumed at Chattanooga. It was the commencement of Sherman's last magnificent campaign. Mrs. Harris accordingly returned to Nashville in ,March, and for two months continued her labors among the unhappy class for whom she had done so much in the fall.
As the Union arms became victorious in Northern Georgia, a great number of refugees from these counties came pouring northward, and stopped at Nashville.
The following picture of sights and groups, among which Mrs. Harris's daily life at Nashville was passed, illustrates at once the misery of these refugees, and the Christian kindliness of her ministration: --
"As I entered a house on the Murfreesboro' Pike, a few miles out of Nashville, which showed signs of former elegance, but was now occupied by twelve refugee families, I was met by a ragged little child, who said, 'That's our room; my aunt is there. I reckon she's dying.' Upon a bed lay a woman whose breathing told of the death-struggle. Stooping over the fire were the mother and sisters, in silent grief. They had been driven from comfortable homes in Dade County, Georgia, because their husbands were loyal, and had months before entered the Union army. After untold sufferings, they found them selves among strangers, miserably lodged, and worse fed. All of them had been sick. Two children had died; and now the daughter, a mother, too, was dying. None of them could read. I stooped over the dying woman, and repeated a part of the fourteenth chapter of John (this is the chapter where Jesus states “in My Father’s house are many mansions” and that “I go to prepare a place for you”). She turned her dying eyes on me, and with a look of glad surprise, exclaimed, 'That's my home; Jesus is there, and he is here. I have had a power of trouble, and been pestered mightily; but it was worth it all to feel how good Jesus is.'"
After her return from these protracted and depressing labors in the West, the health of Mrs. Harris was so utterly wasted, that not even the inspiration of an heroic purpose or the promptings of holy zeal could sustain her in labors equal to those she had undergone. But when the life-blood of the army of the Potomac was poured out at so fearful a rate in the great campaign of 1864, she went down to Fredericksburg, and soon after to White House and City Point, and labored with her customary earnestness and efficiency.
Early in the spring of 1865 she went into the department of Virginia and North Carolina, and was in the latter state when Sherman brought his veteran army around in that gigantic curve to the rear of the rebel stronghold, and the closing scenes of the long tragedy were rapidly hurried across the arena. Almost her last acts of kindness to soldiers were bestowed upon the wretched victims of malignity that had staggered alive out of the infamous prison pens at Andersonville and Salisbury.
It was not until the army corps were disbanded and the primary hospitals broken up, not until the bloody stretchers were rolled up and stowed away with the bandages and lint, to gather dust in dim corners of government storehouses, that Mrs. Harris could regard her mission ended and her occupation gone. With returning and established peace she has glided back to the life of quiet duty and patient endurance, from which, four years before, she had emerged, her health feebler than before, suffering constantly from the effects of a sunstroke, received while laboring on the field at Savage's Station. But if the approving testimony of conscience is any reward; if ever mercy is twice blessed, enriching the receiver and the giver alike; if the affectionate admiration of the thousands who saw her labors, and were benefited by them, is precious, -- this admiration, this blessing, this reward, she has, to alleviate the weariness of her sick chamber, and to brighten the pathway along which she moves to the heavenly approval.