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Scenes at Fredericksburg

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History

June 11, 1864, page 379 (1-4)

In company with other delegates of the Christian Commission I reached Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the 12th of May, seven days after the first engagement of the Army of the Potomac with the Confederate forces under General Lee. The spectacle which presented itself to our view as we passed down the pleasant streets to the head-quarters of the Commission was pitiable to the last degree. The town was one vast hospital; every church, every store, every dwelling, every door-yard was crowded with wounded; even the side-walks were occupied in many places by exhausted soldiers on their way from the field in search of shelter and assistance. On that day—the 12th of May—there were six thousand maimed and mangled veterans thus accumulated in this charming town, this malignantly traitorous town, lying by the river’s brink, with green and smiling slopes stretching away behind it, and rows of thrifty trees spreading their broad boughs along its ample streets. Walking abroad any hour of the day, groups of soldiers, with arms and faces bandaged, with feet limping painfully, many leaning on crutches, some supported on the brawny arms of kindly comrades, met us at every corner. Entering the roomy churches, a wounded hero was found lying in every pew, with his dirty blanket for a pillow; others crowded the vestibule, aisles, and pulpit; while among them all nurses moved softly to and fro, some with cups of coffee and baskets of fruit, some with basins and sponges, some with bandages, lint, and clothing—all with something needed by the suffering. Stepping into a private mansion, its portico overhung with vines, and flowers creeping up to the windows, soiled, weary, wounded men were found in every nook and corner, occupying chairs, sofas, beds, or lying on the floors, or sitting in ghastly rows against the walls, patiently awaiting necessary relief. Every where weariness was finding rest, and brave, patient souls were finding anchorage in still, homelike harbors, away from the battle’s storm.

Hourly, as the days and nights slipped on, trains of ambulances from the distant field wound along the streets, pausing here and there to leave additional wounded, or to permit the guards to lift out the dead and dying, and carry them away on stretchers to the dead-house, or the rooms where the more serious cases were attended to by the surgeons. Scarcely an hour passed, in the five days immediately following our arrival, that trains of this kind did not reach the town. Often, the ambulance trains proving inadequate to the emergency, the wounded were brought in in heavy army wagons, the men lying flat on their backs and suffering necessarily from the incessant jolting and the absence of the comforts ordinarily provided in ambulances. In some instances the poor fellows thus brought in were without any thing to eat or drink for over two days.

THE HOSPITAL ORGANIZATION

As far as possible the wounded, as they were brought in, were classified and assigned to the division and corps to which they belonged. In the Second and Sixth Corps the loss had been so great that several of the largest buildings in the town were required to accommodate merely the serious cases. One principal surgeon, with as many assistants as were needed, was assigned to each hospital, the delegates of the Christian and Sanitary Commissions acting as nurses. These men labored with a zeal and fidelity which can not be too warmly commended. Many worked night and day, snatching bits of sleep at odd moments, in carrying stores, dressing wounds, washing and clothing the sick and wounded, preparing food and drink, writing letters for the soldiers to the dear ones at home. This last is a prominent feature in the work of the Christian Commission. Its delegates, in all cases where deaths occur under their observation, furnish particulars of the event to the friends and relatives of the deceased, always sending a lock of hair as a memento of the lost one; and communicate also, in behalf of the wounded whenever they desire it, with the homes they have left to battle for the nation’s sake. Thousands of hearts have thus been enriched by news from the field which might never, but for this Commission, have been informed as to the fate of absent dear ones.

DIFFICULTIES OF THE WORK OF RELIEF

For the first week after our occupation of Fredericksburg hospital supplies were very scarce, and there was much suffering in consequence. The few citizens who had failed to join in the exodus of the population refused to furnish any facilities for the care of the wounded; the stores had been stripped by the Confederate soldiery, and absolute destitution consequently prevailed, even the commonest utensils, such as cups and basins, being altogether beyond our reach. It happened, from this, that many of the wounded were neither cleansed nor removed from the wagons in which they were transported from the field for two or three days after their arrival, and some who were carried to Belle Plain were a whole week without surgical assistance. Within nine days, however, after the first engagement, the medical and sanitary works was thoroughly systematized; adequate supplies were obtained, and the condition of the men was made comparatively comfortable. On Saturday the 14th, when there were 6000 wounded in the hospitals, and probably 2000 others wandering about the streets, there were none for whom it was impossible to provide, though there was of course, among those who had suffered amputations, or sustained injuries in vital parts, a great amount of suffering which it was impossible for any human skill to relieve.

CHARACTER OF THE WOUNDS

A large proportion of those who had gone into hospital had sustained wounds of the arm and right breast. This was said to be owing to the fact that in the engagements in "the Wilderness," where the scrub timber was about as high as a man’s head, the right arm, lifted necessarily in loading the musket, had presented a mark for the sharp-shooters of the enemy, who, firing deliberately under cover of the brush, had thus disabled an unnatural proportion of our solders in the arm so peculiarly exposed. The wounds thus received were for the most part slight, and would not permanently disable those sustaining them. Many, however, wounded from the same cause in the head, suffered greatly; in some cases balls were extracted, in others broken pieces of the skull removed, and in a few eyes were shot away, jaws broken, noses fractured. Wounds of this nature required the closest care and attention, needing to be dressed, when peculiarly aggravated, once or twice a day. One poor fellow who fell under our care—J. H. Pervis, of the Thirty-seventh Alabama Regiment—was wounded in four places, namely: in the neck, breast, shoulder and right arm—all the wounds having been made by a single ball. The hurts were of the most aggravated and offensive character, emitting a horrible odor; but the sufferer was attended to with the same care as our own men, his hurts being faithfully cleansed and dressed twice a day.

All these wounds, however, were but scratches as compared with the injuries of many who fell in the desperate engagement of Thursday, May 12. Some of the men who came in from that terrible field were literal hulks. Arms, legs, hands, feet, and in some cases even the bowels, were shot away; and for two days after their arrival in the hospitals a large force of surgeons was constantly employed in amputating fractured limbs. Walking the streets, you could see streams of stretchers bending under limp and mangled bodies, dead and living, flowing in and out at the doors; while all about groups of soldiers stood chatting with calm unconcern, simply saying, as the litters drifted past them, "There goes Captain This, Colonel That, or Private So-and-so—dead, poor fellow, at last!"

SPIRIT OF THE MEN

Yet amidst all these scenes of horror, these pains and sufferings, under which common men would have perished, these royal—souled veterans of the Army of the Potomac did not utter one whimper or complaint. Suffering often for food and drink; their clothing saturated with blood, their limbs limp and helpless; sometimes dragging themselves on crutches, by painful marches, from the distant field to the nearest hospital, they endured all with a robust patience and resignation, showing they had in them the stuff of which martyrs are made, seeming to rejoice that it was their privilege to "suffer and be strong" for the nation’s sake. A cup of coffee, or ration of "hard tack," seemed to compensate, in their view, for all pains and losses; and the assurance of shelter and a handbreadth of dry ground on which to spread their blankets and lie down to rest, was to them the only bliss, beyond the supply of nature’s wants, they could desire. One day, passing along a side street, we found a woman kneeling over a soldier lying prostrate on the sidewalk, his head resting on a tuft of grass which the thousands of hurrying feet had left untouched. Upon inquiry we learned that the sufferer—names Stephen Kidd, of the Twelfth New Jersey Regiment—had two wounds in his bowels and his right arm broken; that he had come from the field in an ambulance, but becoming too much exhausted to ride any further had been lifted out and left at the roadside where we found him. Stimulants were administered, and animation was after a while restored, when the wounds were dressed, though it was apparent he could not survive the day. The brave fellow, however, vehemently insisted that he "would be all right in a day or two;" and on reply to a question whether he would not like his family to be advised of his condition, said it was altogether unnecessary; he could very soon write himself and tell the whole story. Yet, while he was thus talking to us in painful morsels of speech, death was every moment deepening its shadow on his face, and the soft sky, bending over him, and all nature’s loveliness, was fading slowly, surely, and forever from his failing sight! The dream of his heart, glimmering that hour though his feeble talk, that he would yet have "another chance" at the foe, and participate, perhaps, in the glory of the final triumph, was not to have its fulfillment, failing, alas! as the prophecies of how many other brave souls have failed in these sad years of the latter time.

Yet the noble men who "welcome death with songs and decorate it with the braveries of faith" are by no means callous to the gentler influences of life. The mere mention of Home was at any time sufficient to bring a grave and wistful look into the bronzed, weather-beaten veteran’s face. Passing a church occupied as a hospital, a night or so after our arrival, we hear the music of an organ. Entering the building, with every pew and aisle crowded with wounded, a ghostly light from a dozen lanterns making the darkness seem only the more horrible, we saw in the organ-loft a group of men with their arms in slings, one of whom, who had sustained a mere trifle of a hurt, was fondling the organ-keys. Presently, as we stood there in the pallid gloom, down from the gallery, and along the aisles, floated the tender notes of "Home, sweet Home," sobbing, sighing, as with the unutterable longings of souls famished for glimpses of the dear spot, around which all of life’s joys and hopes are forever grouped. The spirit of the song seemed, on the instant, to fill all the place, and every maimed and suffering hero, who in the battle’s face had been stern and pitiless as death, melted at the touch of the familiar melody. Bandaged hands stole to eyes unused to weeping; heads that no calamity could have bowed bent under the soft pressure of old home-memories. To how many souls, think you, came glimpses in that moment of homes far away—homes on busy city streets, homes on green hill-sides dotted with apple-trees in bloom, homes in pleasant villages with gardens lying all around them; homes in which a vacant chair awaits the father’s or son’s return, and sweet-faced children, clambering to the mother’s knee, prattle in their innocence of the dear one exposed to the battle’s storm, while unto them the May skies float down only blossoms, song, and fragrance?

The music ceased at last, and for a little time all was still. Then, suddenly, from a far corner of the gallery, came a voice: "Now give us ‘Yankee Doodle;" and with that a gust of feeble cheers fluttered up from the ghostly pews, and, obedient to the call, the organ pealed out, full and strong, the nation’s hymn, supplementing it with "Hail Columbia!" and other stirring airs, to all of which the veterans cried, again and again, Encore. We walked away with their faint cheers sounding in our ears; and we say to ourselves hourly, as we remember that soul-lifting scene, "With such men to fight our battles victory must be ours."

Many other scenes deepened the impression that no more magnificent courage ever animated any army than that which nerves and sustains the soldiery of General Grant. Every hour or so regiments of fresh troops, marching to the front, passed through Fredericksburg. As they moved forward to the sound of inspiring music, groups of wounded, standing on the corners and sitting on the piazzas and in windows of the hospitals, saluted them with round after round of cheers. That was the welcome of men who had been through the fire to men, as noble as themselves, who were panting and straining for the same glorious baptism. For every cheer from the limping, smitten spectators, they returned—these fresh, clean, courageous comers—salutations of double volume, cheering with all the strength of lusty manhood, flags dipping and fluttering over all as if with royal benedictions. The wounded, under the inspiration of such grand moments, forgot all the dangers of the field, all their personal pains and sacrifices; they thought only of the Cause, remembered only that these stout fellows marching to the front would fill their places and help achieve the overthrow at last of the still defiant foe; and that thought brought a welcome to every lip, and made every heart eager for the fray.

An excellent illustration of the prevailing temper of the men was given by a Pennsylvania captain, who had been wounded in the thigh and ordered to Washington. "I wouldn’t have minded my hurt," he said, with a sort of savage despair, "if I had only been able to do something before receiving it. But that was denied me. I had just got my men into line and their pieces loaded, and was about to give the order to fire, when a bullet came whizzing straight into my leg, and I fell with the order forming on my lips. Oh, if I could only have delivered a single volley! But here I am, disabled, and without the consolation that I have done a single thing for the cause." Another brave fellow, chatting with the surgeon while his wounds were dressed, said it "was too bad he had been hit, " he "wanted so much to remain in the ranks;" and with that broke into sobs because he couldn’t at once return to the front and share in the perils of coming battle-days.

DISPOSITION OF THE REBELS

The feeling of all the Confederates with whom we were able to converse was one of unqualified discontent with the Confederacy and its rulers, and of hearty weariness at the prolongation of the war. All admitted that popular freedom at the South had been destroyed; that the army was only kept together by harsh and arbitrary measures; and that the people would welcome gladly the restoration of peace and order, even under Federal rule. Many of these men had been kept in the service by force after the expiration of the terms for which they enlisted; and they all manifested the utmost satisfaction at their deliverance from the grip of the Confederate authority. They seemed, for the most part, surprised at the kind treatment they received at the hands of our surgeons and nurses, and were even more amazed at the evidences every where presented of the unfailing resources and prosperity of the North. The appearance of these prisoners, ten thousand of whom we saw in camp, was any thing but prepossessing. None had complete uniforms; many were barefooted; many without hats; and their faces were to the last degree expressionless and stolid.

THE FREDERICKSBURG CEMETERY

Back of Fredericksburg, near the foot of the celebrated Heights, lies a cemetery, surrounded with a heavy wall, and crowded with trees and shrubbery, with flowers fringing the ample walks, and gray, weather-beaten tombs and green hillocks marking the couches where weary pilgrims have lain down to the long sleep. At the northern extremity of this cemetery are several rows of graves, with plain boards at the head and foot of each, were some hundreds of North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi soldiers, who fell in the battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, are buried. These graves have been neatly kept; many are embellished with floral tributes from some kindly hands; some have pots of flowers leaning against the plain head-boards, while upon all green mantles are folded lovingly, as if to shield the still sleepers from all rudely-pelting storms. On the opposite side of the grounds, as we wandered to and fro, we found several graves, just made, in which loyal soldiers, fallen in the campaign, have been buried. On one of these graves—that of a Maine soldier—some one had planted a rose-bush, and grouped a handful of round white stones in the form of a wreath. Beside these were other graves, just opened, waiting occupants from the hospitals just a little distance away. Thus, however divided in life—with whatever eager passion contending under hostile flags—the loyal and disloyal sleep side by side at last in the bivouac that only the long-roll of the Judgment shall break: sleep side by side, with the same boughs whispering over them, the same birds singing around them, the same summer blossoms drifting fragrance through their calm sleep, the same softly-stepping years pacing past their graves, leaving shadow and wreck behind.

THE SOLDIERS AND GENERAL GRANT

It is wonderful how entirely the army confides in General Grant. Every soldier’s tongue is full of his praises. No matter how severely wounded, no matter how intensely suffering, if there is strength enough in him to speak, every man in all these hospital wards will tell you, if you ask him his opinion, "He is one of us, this Unconditional Surrender General; and he will bring us through, God willing, just as surely as the sun shines." Then they will tell you stories of the watchfulness and care, the fearlessness and obstinate intrepidity of this man whose plume they delight to follow; how he is every where, by night and day, looking after the comfort of his men, and quietly prosecuting the strategic work of the campaign; how he rides, unexpectedly, to the remote outposts, speaking a pleasant word to the pickets if faithfully on duty, and administering reprimands if not vigilant and watchful; how he shuns fuss and show, going about often with only an orderly, instead of a dozen or so of foppish, bedizened aids; how his staff, plain, earnest men like himself, get down at times from their horses, that sick and wounded fellow, straggling hospital-ward, may rest their weariness by riding to their destination; how, in a word, he is an earnest, thoughtful, resolute, kind man, sympathizing with the humblest soldier in his ranks, penetrated with a solemn appreciation of the work given him to do, and determined, by Heaven’s help, to do it, right on the line he has occupied. And when they tell you this, these maimed heroes lying here in these Fredericksburg hospitals, they add always, with a magnificent élan—an energy which has a grand touch of pride in it—"And we’ll help him do this work; we’ll stand by him to the end, come what may; we’ll perish, every man of us, rather than have him fail and the Cause dishonored; we’ll be proud of every scar won in fighting where he leads." What is it—can any one tell us?—that makes two hundred thousand men put trust and confidence so complete as this in this simple-hearted farmer-General, who, three years ago, was husking corn or following the plow on far Western prairies?

 

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