IN TWO PARTS. PART ONE.
WHEN the war broke out, we were living in Fairfax County, Virginia. We boasted of fifteen families of “ cousins ” with whom we were in constant and most affectionate intercourse. This the neighborhood of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of Virginia is renowned for its delightful society. Besides our kinsfolk, we had as neighbors the families of the professors at the seminary, the family of Bishop Johns, the Fairfaxes of Vaucluse, Captain Forrest, U. S. N. and C. S. N., Mrs. Scott of Bush Hill, and others. Through President Pierce our older boy (the son of my widowed sister) received an appointment to West Point. He had been there but two years, and the other boy had just received his warrant for the navy, when the war came to break up our home and drive us forth wanderers for four long years. I heard in Congress the impassioned and sorrowful appeals of Mr. Davis, General Breckinridge, Mr. Pendleton, and others in the interests of peace, and saw the bitterness and anger of our foes. But it was impossible for us who had never seen war to realize what would be the invasion of our country. And who could believe that armed men (Americans like ourselves) could be brought to enter our beloved Virginia with hostile intent, — that “ Old Virginia ” which all professed to honor ?
I was in Washington the night that the troops crossed the Potomac. Never can I forget the dull, heavy tramp of the armed men as they passed under my window. Each foot seemed to fall upon my heart, while tears rained from my eyes. Next day I bade adieu to the city I was not to see again for twenty-five years. Already I found sentries stationed along our roads, and before evening we were prisoners in our own house. My sister had a few hundred dollars in Mr. Corcoran’s bank. How to get this money before we were entirely cut off from the North was the question. Already our “ West Pointer ” had gone to join the Virginia forces, and our neighbors and friends who had sons and husbands were following them South. My sister and her family were anxious to go. Our younger boy, a lad of sixteen, volunteered to find his way on foot through the woods, to cross the Potomac above Georgetown, get to the bank in Washington, and bring safely the money which would be so much needed. This was a fit beginning for his after adventures. Chased by soldiers, fired upon by sentinels, he managed to conceal himself in the woods, and came in after dark, weary and footsore, after twenty-five miles of travel, with the money concealed in his bosom, — the last United States money we saw for four years.
I resolved to remain at home and take care of my property. Having been much associated with the army, I was sure to find old friends among the officers to protect us. We were non-combatants, and in modern warfare it was never known that women had been disturbed in their homes. To our anxious friends I quoted how, in the late Italian and Austrian war, the women stood on the balconies of the Italian villas and looked down upon the battlefields of Magenta and Solferino. But the French and Italians had no “ Billy Wilson’s men,” recruited from the purlieus of New York, no raw levies, ignorant and prejudiced, who thought to do their country service by insulting “ Secesh ” women. Our houses were entered with pretense to search for arms ; in reality to steal thimbles and jewelry, and even to take earrings from the women’s ears. Trees were cut down, gardens rifled, storerooms invaded. In vain was complaint made to the commandant in Alexandria. He said he had no power over such men, and advised our retreating (where it was possible) to the security of our own “ lines,” then about Manassas; but I held out a little longer. Barricading, at night, windows and doors with tables, piano, and bookcases, we were alarmed by thumps upon the doors and threats to break in; and at mealtimes soldiers would enter and devour everything which was set before us. They robbed the henroost and the cellar, burned our fences, and insulted us in every way. My sister resolved to take refuge, with her daughters, at a friend’s house just within our lines. She was not allowed to take her own vehicle, but was forced to pay thirty dollars to the military authorities for a carriage to convey the party of four (including the son, who was eager to enter the army) about ten miles. Only one trunk was allowed for all of this family, who were leaving their home never to enter it again ! How often, in the after days of the Confederacy, had they reason to regret the warm flannels, furs, and silk gowns left behind ! Our house, occupied at first by friends from Alexandria, was not allowed to remain long out of the enemy’s hands. General Phil Kearny, commanding the New Jersey troops, soon took forcible possession of house and furniture. Happily, I was spared the distress of witnessing these things. My niece and adopted daughter, living in New Jersey, and married to an officer of General Scott’s staff, became ill, and I was asked to come to her ; her husband feeling certain that he had it in his power to send me home when my presence should be no longer needed. Alas, he little knew how impossible would be what he so confidently promised, and I so confidingly believed ! Advising with the officer in command at Alexandria, I turned my back upon my dear home, and went to the North; not, however, before I had seen how rapidly the work of destruction was going on in our neighborhood. The glass of our greenhouse was wantonly broken by muskets, our roses were trampled down, and the carriage was cut into bits ; a neighbor’s piano sharing the same fate. In my last walk in the neighborhood, for which I was obliged to get a permit (as well as for the cow to go to pasture, and the man to go to the market), I saw a party of rude soldiers sitting on the porch of one of our clergyman friends, reading and tearing up his correspondence ! I wonder how they liked mine, which they had soon after ?
No sooner did I reach New Jersey than I found myself an object of interest and suspicion. Only those who lived through that terrible time can understand the excited state of the public mind, North and South. I saw myself announced in the papers as a “ Secesh spy,” sent by General Beauregard to arouse the Catholics of the North, and by Mr. James M. Mason to stir up the Democrats. A full description of my person was given, and my “qualifications ” for such a task. These were infinitely flattering to my abilities ; for it was confidently asserted that I was clever enough to take in every detail of “ fortifications,” and ingenious enough to establish an underground system of communication with the “ Rebels ” ! My letters were intercepted, and the people were so clamorous to read them at the post office that the mayor of the town was obliged to take them out and bring them to me, which he did with every apology. He behaved in the most gentlemanlike manner. But my position became every day more painful and embarrassing, especially as it involved the peace and security of the family with whom I was staying, who were naturally regarded as my “ accomplices.” They besought me not to go out, or speak to any one. It was not difficult to obey in this last point, for nobody would speak to me. A leper could not have been avoided with surer signs of horror and aversion. Having gone to early church to ease my anxious heart, I read in the paper that I went at that early hour to meet my 舠 confederates,” and threats were made that a few days would see me safe in Fort Lafayette!
To give an idea of the extraordinary system of espionage carried on at this time, I must relate the following incident. Being a Catholic, and never having seen Archbishop Hughes, who was famed for his eloquence, I yielded to the suggestion of a friend of mine in New York, a Protestant lady, and a firm “ Republican,” who offered to introduce me. She came for me and took me to New York, and we went in the street omnibus to the archbishop’s door, were most amiably received, and had a pleasant talk, all of us carefully avoiding a subject on which we could not agree, — the war. Both going and coming, I remarked a man who sat near the door of the omnibus and often looked at us, got out where we did, and even accompanied us to the ferry on our return. After this I received a most anxious letter from an officer in Washington, a friend, telling me he had been at a dinner at Mr. Seward’s with Archbishop Hughes and others, and Mr. Seward was called out on business of importance. Presently the archbishop was sent for. When he returned he said to this officer : “ What a curious thing has happened, showing the state of the public mind ! A Catholic lady, Miss Mason, calls upon me, as does every Catholic coming to my diocese. She is followed and watched, and here comes a telegram to Mr. Seward telling him that I have received this £ spy.’ He calls me out, and I tell him the lady is no more a spy than I am.” Fancy the feelings of my friend! He was ready to fall from his chair with alarm. And no sooner was he at home than he wrote to beseech me not to leave the house again, lest something befall me.
This incident determined me to get away, if possible. I was distracted about my people. Six months had elapsed ; I could get no letters, and the newspapers were filled with the most exaggerated accounts of the suffering in the South. I was told that if I attempted to leave the North I would be arrested. But I resolved to risk this rather than suffer, and make my friends suffer, such anxiety. First I wrote to some Sisters of Charity, who were announced to be going South, to ask if I might go with them in any capacity. Then I prayed the bishop, who was full of concern for me, to send me off “ some way.” In vain. He said that if I were found with these Sisters it would injure their mission ; that I could never escape the vigilance of the government; and he advised me to be patient. But that I could not be. Some Sisters from New York came to see me soon after, to say that they were sure I would get through “ somehow,” and to beg me to take some letters with which they were charged, from agonized wives and mothers whose husbands and sons had been taken prisoners at the battle of Manassas, and were now in the military prisons of Richmond. I could not carry the letters, but I promised to learn them by heart, take the names of the men, and, if I ever reached Richmond, find the prisoners, and repeat the news and messages from their families, — which I really did, as much to my own satisfaction as to theirs.
After many plans revolved, and dismissed as impracticable, some friends living at Easton, Pennsylvania, came to spend a week with us, and it was arranged that one of these ladies’ trunks should be left behind, at her departure, and mine taken in its stead; and that when an opportunity arrived, I should slip away, go to Easton, take up my luggage, and go to Kentucky via Philadelphia. Once in Kentucky, I was sure I could be concealed for a time, and find a way to get into the Confederacy through Western Virginia, where General Rosecrans was in command of a division of the Union army. Months before I set out I wrote to Newport, Kentucky, to my cousins there, that I should make the attempt to see them “on or about the 2d of November.” And this message, couched in most ambiguous terms and without signature, received an equally ambiguous answer, — “ Ready to hunt with you at time specified.” To have money for this undertaking, I must go to New York, to a bank in which my brother-in-law had some money and North Carolina bonds which I might use. Hardly had I entered the ferry when I saw the same man who had accompanied me on my visit to the archbishop, weeks before. He kept his eye upon me till I entered my friend’s house on Second Avenue. To her I told my fears and my errand. She assured me I should dodge my persecutor, and after a time led me through the back yard to the stable, where we entered her carriage, drove out by the alley far away to Bloomingdale, and then, by circuitous streets, to the bank, where my friend’s husband brought me my moneys. We concealed them in the puffings of my sleeves, and at the ferry we bade good-by with many tears.
I mingled with the crowd, and thought myself safe, when somebody touched me upon the arm. Looking round, expecting to see my detective, I found the face of one of my childhood friends from Kentucky, who, reading in the papers of my peril, came to see if he could aid me, being a “ good Union man.” He had not the courage of a Cæsar, but he had the heart of a Kentuckian, and he told me how for days he had been watching and waiting for an opportunity to communicate with me. It was agreed that I should make my attempt the next day. He would go on to Philadelphia, and wait for me till the following midnight. Driving out with my invalid niece the next morning, I left her for a moment, ostensibly, but I took the first train for Reading, in fear and trembling, picked up my luggage, and, under the escort of a stout journalist whose paper had been burned the day before for sympathizing with my side, I reached Philadelphia at the appointed hour. I drew a long sigh of relief when once on the railway, bound for the West. Arrived at Newport, I found my young cousins on the ferryboat, armed and equipped as for a “ hunt,” bade good-by to my old friend, and went to consult as to what should be my next move.
It was resolved that my best chance would be to throw myself upon the charity of the old Archbishop of Cincinnati, an ardent Union man, who had known my family, and whom I had known, in other days. To his door I went, shut in a close carriage, to find him out of town. Turning to go away, his brother appeared in the hall, and said : “ Miss Mason ! My brother has been expecting you for some days.” “ Expecting me ? ” I rejoined. “ Impossible ! I have just run away from the North, and am concealing myself near here.” “Yes,” said he, “my brother saw your name at the custom house in a list of a thousand ' suspected,’ and opposite your name was, ‘ Dangerous. To be watched.’ ” I dropped into a chair, exclaiming: “I wish the earth would open and swallow me ! It is plain I shall never get away to my people, with whom I have not communicated in six months.” He consoled me with the assurance that if I got into prison his brother would be able to get me out, since he knew I had done nothing against “the government.” I explained that I had come to pray him to find means to get me home, and he promised to inform me when his brother should return and be able to see me. Anxious days passed while I lay perdue, afraid to go out. Yet among the “ initiated ” my presence was known, for I had offers of aid from many quarters. A poor little priest and some poorer Sisters offered me their tiny all, to help me on my perilous way. At last came a note from the good bishop, to whom I went with my tale of woe. “ God bless my soul ! ” said he. “ I have already thirteen women on my hands, some of them French Sisters, who are trying to get to New Orleans.” I prayed him to get me off first, as I had been his old friend. And having eaten of the stale cakes and drunk of the sour wine which he offered me, I was ready to go. He then pulled from his pocket a long, lean purse, from which, after much searching, he drew forth a gold piece, the only one, and pressed it upon me, saying, “ You will want it for some poor soul, if not for yourself.” God rest his soul, and reward his charity a thousandfold, in that country where there is no North, no South, no Catholic, no Protestant, but all are as the children of God !
In an article published in the Charleston News and Courier, some years ago, I gave an account of my journey through the lines, by Western Virginia, and this appeared afterwards in a book, Our Women of the War. But as this book was little known, and is now quite rare, the story may well be repeated here. Armed with a letter from the bishop, I went to a hotel in Cincinnati where were some gentlemen going on a government steamer to carry forage and provisions to the Federal army in Western Virginia. I had a letter to General Rosecrans, whom I had known in happier days, and was sure he would send me into the Confederate lines by flag of truce, if I could reach him before he received communications from Washington. The gentlemen to whom I was recommended were to set out the next morning, and were most kind in offering to take me with them. So behold me on board, with two well-bred men, — one a volunteer officer, the other his brother - in - law, a physician, and both from Boston. They were too polite to ask my errand, and I was too prudent to disclose it. If they assumed that I was going to the Union army to nurse soldiers, it was not necessary to disclaim it. We discussed everything but politics on that journey of three weeks, and became fast friends. We traveled by day only, as both sides of the river were said to be infested by Rebel scouts, ready to fire upon us at any moment; and I was not allowed to go upon the guards of the boat, lest I should be a mark for their bullets. Longingly I looked for the Rebel cavalry, and prayed they would come and take us, and thus end my difficulties. But they did not come, and one day we ran upon a snag, and to save our steamer we were obliged to give to the waters all our grain and forage. My trunk only was saved from the wreck, and empty-handed we proceeded to our destination. When about ten or twelve miles from “ headquarters ” my gentlemen left me, to report the disaster, and by them I sent my letter of introduction to the commanding general, with one of my own, reminding him of our former acquaintance, and stating the circumstances which had brought me to his camp; saying that I waited at a respectful distance, not to see what he would wish concealed from my people, and assuring him, if he would let me pass through his hosts and send me to my own lines, I would not in any way make use of any knowledge I might obtain, to his disadvantage. In a few hours came a telegram, saying that a flag of truce would go out at daylight next morning, and that his own servant and ambulance would be sent for me during the night.
While awaiting an answer, I had observed that the steamer was being loaded with great bundles discharged from wagons on the high bluff above us, and that these bundles came sliding down from the banks on a plankway, falling heavily upon the lower deck.
“ What are you loading ? ” I asked one of the boatmen.
“ These are sick men come in from camp,” he replied.
“ An outrage upon humanity! ” I exclaimed, and ran down the companion way to examine the live bundles, which were coughing, groaning, and moaning. Here were men in all stages of measles, pneumonia, camp fever, and other disorders incident to camp life, sent in wagons over thirteen miles of mountain road, on a December evening, without nurses, without physician, and with no other covering than the blanket in which each man was enveloped. They assured me they had been sent out in the early morning, without food or medicine, and were expected to remain without any attention till the sailing of the steamer to a hospital twenty miles below. In spite of the remonstrances of the boatmen, who declared the “ company ” had let the boat to the government to transport horse feed, and not men, I had the poor fellows taken into the cabin and placed in the berths, denuded of mattresses and bed covers, and then proceeded to physic and feed them as best I could. No entreaties could prevail upon the steward of this “ loyal ” company to give me anything for them to eat. I had tea, however, in my stateroom, and some crackers. The doctor had a box of Seidlitz powders, a greatlump of asafcetida, and a jug of whiskey. There were thirty men to be doctored. To the chilly ones I gave hot whiskey and water, the most popular of my remedies ; to those who wailed the loudest the pills of asafœtida proved calming; and the Seidlitz powders were given to the fever patients, whose tongues and pulses I examined with great care ; and where there was doubt, and fear of doing harm, the tea was safely given. Hardly was the jug emptied and the last pill and powder administered, when the captain and the doctor returned from camp, and announced that the ambulance waited for me. The doctor was not a little indignant at my having appropriated his whole medical supply, but was kind enough to go around the group of patients, examine them, and tell me their real condition : so that I left them in his hands, and departed with their thanks and blessings. And this was the beginning of my ministrations amongst soldiers, which lasted to the end of the war, and which became the life of my life.
It was midnight when I left the steamer, with a thankful adieu to my kind hosts. Once more on my native heath, though seated upon my trunk, with rain and sleet beating in my face, I felt neither cold nor fatigue, for at last I saw home and friends before me. After crossing a mountain, over the worst road imaginable, we reached the camp at daylight, through miles of white tents and formidable-looking outposts. We drove to the general’s tent, and his orderly came to say that I must go to a lady whose house was within the camp: and there I should rest, get breakfast, and be ready to set out at eight o’clock. By this time my strength had given out; want of sleep, fatigue, and excitement had made me really ill. I had to be lifted from the ambulance, put to bed, and fortified by sundry cups of strong coffee, to prepare me for an interview with the general and for my departure. I have had the opportunity many times since to thank this lady for her kindness, and to talk over with her the strange fortune which brought us together at this juncture. The camp was upon her plantation, and on the top of the mountain above us was stationed her husband, an artillery officer of the Confederate army, whose guns were pointed toward the camp, but who could not fire without endangering the lives of his wife and children. The kind general came to greet me and give instructions for the journey. He warned me to be careful of my luggage, as he was obliged to employ on escort duty men noted in camp as thieves and freethinkers. But over these men he placed two experienced officers, to see that the men did their duty and treated me with proper respect How accomplished his thieves must have been may be inferred from the fact that, though I sat upon my trunk and carried my bag in my hand, not only were my combs and brushes stolen, but my prayer book and my Thomas à Kempis, for which they could have had no possible use.
The general further reminded me that I should follow in the path of war, that ruin and desolation would be on every side, and that there was but one house which he could count upon where I might find shelter before I reached the Southern lines. In this house, once the finest in the country, I would find a woman as beautiful as Judith, and as fierce. He declared that she had been a thorn in his side for many months. Driven almost to madness hy the depredations of his soldiers, her husband and son in the Confederate lines, her cattle and horses stolen or mutilated, she waged war upon her enemies with relentless fury. Leading his men into ambuscades, she would betray them to the Southern scouts, and, while the fighting went on, would sit upon her horse and pick off his men with her pistol. She had been summoned to his camp to answer these charges, but always defied him, bidding him “ come and fetch her.” In vain had he tried to appease her. As she lived in this fine house at the foot of a great mountain, he counseled me to force myself upon her, if necessary, and demand shelter for a night; if I should be ill, to stop there, and send on the flag of truce for succor.
I parted with tears from this the last friend of “ the other side ; ” and though I invited the general to come to Richmond, and he promised to do so, he never got so far! My friend loaded me with messages for her husband and family, begging them to come and release her from her forced sojourn with the enemy, and at the last moment gave me a package of clothing for a poor woman on the mountain side, whose house had been burned the previous day, and whose loom, her sole means of support, had been destroyed by the soldiers. As we drove off, the general dropped a gold piece into my lap, saying, “ That’s for the poor woman on the mountain,” and before I could thank him the escort “ closed up,” and we were off to Dixie’s Land.
We found the poor woman sitting amidst her ruins, the snow making more hideous the scene of desolation. The road on every side was marked by burned houses and barns, and torn and disordered fences. Now and then a halfstarved dog or a ragged negro would peer from some ruins, and then hide from us. Crossing over mountains and fording streams, we reached at last the inhospitable mansion at which the general had recommended me to knock so loudly. In answer to our summons appeared a tall, dark woman, with flashing eyes and jet-black hair, behind whom peeped a fair girl, in contrast to our virago. The latter, without waiting for us to speak, waved us off with a most imperious gesture. “ Go on,” she said ; “this is no place for you. You have done me harm enough. There is nothing more for you to steal.”
Leaning from the ambulance, I implored her to take me in for the night. Half dead with cold and fatigue, I could go no farther. I assured her that I was a Southern woman trying to get to my family, of whom I had had no news in six long months.
“ You are in very bad company for a Southern woman,” she rejoined, “ yet as you are a woman I will let you come in ; but these men shall not enter my doors.”
After explaining that we had a flag of truce, and that if they abandoned me I could never get on, as she had neither horse nor wagon to give me, she consented to admit the two officers, and to allow the men to sleep in an outhouse. By a blazing fire she told me the story of their sufferings, gave me a good supper and bed, and next morning I took my last taste of real coffee for many a long day. But the officers did not find the coffee so good, as the pretty blonde daughter vented her spite upon them by withholding the sugar, and they were too much afraid of her to ask for it.
The next evening brought us to our lines. As we approached these the escort became unwilling to go on, and declared they were afraid of “ bushwhackers.” It was necessary to use blows and drawn swords to get them on. How my heart bounded when I saw the first “man in gray ” ! I soon found that, in spite of all reports to the contrary, he was well armed, well dressed, and looked well fed. We fell upon the pickets from a South Carolina regiment, and I was proud to show to my escort that the men were all gentlemen of refinement and elegance. It was impossible for me to get to the Confederate camp that night, and impossible to allow the flag of truce to approach nearer. I was forced to sleep in one of the two log huts belonging to the pickets, while the other was allotted to the Ohio officer who had me in charge and his Confederate host. They had but one bed. What was to be done ? I was informed next day by the Ohioan that there was a long struggle between the representatives of the contending armies as to who should occupy the bed. At last it was determined they should sleep together. “ I had no objection to sleep with a South Carolinian,” said the Northern officer, “ but I can imagine what it cost him to sleep with a Yankee ! ” The flag of truce went back next morning, with a letter of thanks from me to the general. Then came from the Confederate camp a carriage exhumed from some long-disused coach house. It was driven by a little Irishman, who announced that he had heard a “Yankee lady” had come through the lines, and he wanted to see how she looked. So far already had the two countries drifted apart that the people spoke as if the separation had endured years instead of months. Mounting the ladder-like steps of this primitive vehicle, I drove through a camp of thousands without finding one familiar face, though every man came to stare at the unwonted sight of a carriage and a woman. As my courage was about to give way, I was greeted by the familiar voice of a young physician, — a family connection, — who hurried to my assistance, got into the carriage, and promised to find me shelter and set me on to Richmond. Alas, shelter was not easy to find. Every house near the camp, every barn, every cabin, was filled with sick and wounded soldiers. There was no town within twelve miles, and the stage to Richmond passed only twice a week. I must wait somewhere two days. We drove from house to house. The poor people either had their rooms filled, or they had suffered so much from disease, resulting from their hospitality, that they were afraid to take any one in. I was fainting with fatigue, when, at the door of a neat-looking house, a young girl, who heard her father’s refusal, cried: “Father, let the lady come in! I will give her my bed ! ” Upon the assurance of the doctor that I had no disease, and was ill only from fatigue, they admitted me to a delicious feather bed, from which I emerged the next day for dinner.
At the table I observed the mistress of the house preparing Sunday messes of “bacon and greens ” to send to some sick men in one of her outhouses. I followed the servant, to find seven East Tennesseeans lying on dirty straw, in every stage of camp fever. The air was stifling ; the men were, suffering in every way, especially for medicine and for clean beds and clothing. With the aid of the one least ill, we brought in clean straw, had water heated in the big iron pot standing in the chimney corner, while bits of rag served for towels and toothbrushes, and we soon changed the atmosphere and the aspect of things. The water of boiled rice made them a drink, and when the doctor came to see me he prescribed, and agreed to come out from the camp every day and visit them. “ Do not be. afraid of losing them,” he added. “Yon cannot kill an East Tennesseean.” I did not feel so sure of this. So before parting we prayed together (they were good Baptists), and begged that God would spare us to meet again. I promised to come back in a week or ten days, armed with power to open a hospital and bring them into it; and here I will add that at the end of a fortnight I had the happiness to see my East Tennesseeans drive up to the hospital, waving their caps to me, — not one of the seven missing.
The night before the anxiously expected stage arrived, I saw drive to our door a wagon, which deposited a finelooking young officer. He walked feebly, and I went to meet him. He was looking for the coach to take him to his family in Richmond. I saw that he was very ill, and found that he had been six weeks in camp with fever. He begged that I would not let the people of the house know it, or they would refuse him a lodging. We took into our confidence the young girl whose kindness had secured me entrance, and soon we helped our patient up the steep ladder stairs, and saw him fall heavily upon the bed. While she went for hot water, I drew off, with difficulty, the heavy spurs and wet boots, rubbed the cold feet and bathed them, washed the fevered mouth, and administered hot tea. When fairly in bed, and after I had promised under no circumstances to leave him behind, he exclaimed, “This is heaven!” And heaven sent him refreshing sleep.
Next morning we left our kind hosts, the sick man resting his weary head on my shoulder; and so we jolted over the rough way till we reached the neighboring town, Lewisburg, and drove to the office of the medical director to ask what should be done with our precious burden, by this time delirious and unable to proceed farther. After some delay (for the town was filled with the sick and dying) we found a good lady who agreed to take him, though every room in the house was full. I saw the poor fellow comfortably disposed in her drawing-room, where he was as carefully tended as by the mother who was soon summoned to his aid.
This was the first campaign of a terrible winter, which proved so fatal to Southern men, called from luxurious homes, where they had never known ice and snow, to die amidst these cruel mountains, with every disease incident to cold and exposure. In this town all the women opened their houses and gave their services. The churches and courthouse were turned into hospitals. I went through one of the former to aid in giving food and medicine. In every pew lay a patient, cheerful sufferer, and into the inclosure round the altar they were constantly carrying the dead, wrapped in a single blanket. Side by side lay master and servant, rich and poor. War, like death, is a great leveler. I saw come in from the camps ambulance after ambulance with their sad loads, the dead and dying in the same vehicle, and tried in vain to stay many a parting breath. How could I leave such scenes, where there was so much to do ? Impelled by the hope of coming back with aid and comfort, I hurried away.
There was no way of communicating with my family to tell them of my escape, and arriving in Richmond alone and at night, I did not know how to find any one. At last, as I was passing along one of the main streets, I saw through an open window, seated by a bright fire, my cousin Mrs. Sidney Smith Lee. Entering unannounced, I was informed that they all thought me in a “ Yankee prison.” It was not long before I found all my dear ones, and I told them of my resolve to leave them again, after a few days’ preparation, to return to the mountains, gather up my patients, and go to work. The President said to me at parting : “ God bless your work ! Remember, if you save the lives of a hundred men, you will have done more for your country than if you had fought a hundred battles.” From him and from the surgeon general I had carte blanche, free transportation wherever I should go, hospital stores, and nurses ad libitum, could I have found any of these willing to encounter the winter’s snow on the mountains, where were defeat and disaster, sickness and suffering. With one faithful man servant I set out, so full of enthusiasm as not to feel cold and fatigue, everywhere encountering that sympathy and kindness from our people which never failed me in all my wanderings. We slept at Staunton ; and when I asked for my bill, the landlord said that he had none for a woman who went to nurse soldiers : and so it befell me everywhere.
“ Jim ” was my protector on my journey ; and when we opened the hospital at the Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, he was my cook, nurse, maid, sympathizer, everything, and he did all things well. He slept in the room adjoining mine, and I would often wake in the night and cry out: “ Jim, I am frightened ! I cannot sleep ! I see the faces of the men who died to-day ! ” “ Go ’long, Miss Embly,” he would grumble out, “ dead men ain’t agwine to hurt you. You was good to them. Go ’long to sleep.” My fears thus quieted, I slept.
We had our own little troubles. Looked upon as an interloper, I was also viewed with suspicion as having recently come from “ Yankeedom.” But my kind chief surgeon, Dr. Hunter, stood by me, and soon stilled the evil spirits. Also the neighbors, the Caldwell family, to whom the springs belonged, were most kind. With the family of Mr. Cowardin of Beauregard — near by — I formed an intimacy, cemented by our mutual trials, which has continued ever since. Thrown together again in Richmond (where Mr. Cowardin was editor of the Despatch), we saw the last act of our great drama; and my association with the younger generation through all changes and chances has never been, interrupted. In the summer of 1889 I saw again, for the first time since the war, the scene of my early hospital experiences. With what emotion I found myself upon the spot sacred to such memories ! Every room had its own story; and saddest of all was the place where we had laid the dead, unmarked by a single stone ! I had difficulty in finding the spot. Oh, my poor fellows ! Was it for this you left your Southern homes, the “ land of flowers,” Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Carolina, — to die amidst these cold mountains, and he forgotten ?1 In the ballroom, in the dining room, where now the gay world assembled, I saw a sight they could not see, I heard a voice they could not hear. Yonder were sixty typhoid cases, there sixty wounded men. Every cottage had its quota of the eighteen hundred men we gathered in. “ Carolina Row ” held the diphtheria patients, and here, in one room, on a bright, sunshiny winter’s day, died four men at the same hour, while I ran in vain from one to the other, trying to tear with my fingers the white, leathery substance which spread over the mouth, and even came out upon the lips. Up to the time of the war I had seldom seen death. A merciful Providence had spared me the sight of it in my own family, in the cases of my parents. And now, in this great family, I saw eighteen die daily, and could not go fast enough from one to the other, to say a last prayer and hear a “ last word.”
Both the North and the South soon found that it was necessary not only to have love and devotion, to nurse well, but also that successful nursing required knowledge and experience, which few of us had. The Sisters of Mercy of Charleston, South Carolina, were offered by the bishop of that state to go wherever they were needed, and I was the happy person to secure their aid. They arrived at midnight Christinas Eve, in a blinding snowstorm ; but they soon cleared the sky about them. Our labors were systematized, and I learned much from their teachings. The men were shy of them at first, few of them having ever seen a Catholic, much less a “ Sister.” But very soon my pet patients hesitatingly confessed : “ You see, captain ” (as I was called), 舠 they are more used to it than you are. They know how to handle a fellow when he’s sick, and don t mind a bit how bad awoundsmells.” It was not that they loved me less, but they loved the Sisters more — and I forgave them.
Here we labored until the spring brought a “ Yankee raid ” from the west, and we “ fell back ” to Charlottesville, where we were under the supervision of the famous Dr. Cabell. But soon came the Seven Days’ Fight before Richmond, and I was sent to Lynchburg to open the Methodist College building and prepare for the wounded, who already filled Richmond to overflowing, and polluted the air with the odor of blood and wounds. At Lynchburg we had also a camp of Federal prisoners, which I visited with the priest. But there were no wounded, and few sick. Here, as elsewhere, we met with the greatest hospitality and kindness. Mr. McDaniel’s carriage met me at the station, and to his house I was taken while we made ready the new hospital, which the McDaniels helped to stock with dainties from their own stores. My sister, Mrs. Rowland, who had been nursing soldiers, since the battle of Manassas, at Warrenton Springs, joined me at Charlottesville, and together we labored to the end. The Sisters of Mercy had been called away to another field of duty. At Lynchburg arrived, day after day, hundreds of mutilated bodies, with unbroken spirits, and many to whom fatigue and exposure brought pneumonia and fever.
I frequently visited the camp of Federal prisoners, who had been captured by Jackson in the Valley of Virginia, carried dainties to their sick, and wrote many letters for them to their homes. Then I became ill, the only time during the war that I lost a day from 舠duty.” The odor of wounds poisoned me, and for a fortnight I gave orders from my bed. It was here that I met Mrs. J. E. B. Stuart. She lost a lovely little girl of ten or twelve years, who vainly asked to see her father, then far away with the army. The skill of our chief surgeon, Dr. Owings, and the pure mountain air brought healing to us all, and we were sorry when the investiture of Richmond obliged us to leave this beautiful region to open the great Camp Winder Hospital, near Richmond, where my sister and I took charge of the Georgia Division, numbering about eight hundred men.
What stories of heroism I might relate, of faith and endurance, amongst men the most illiterate and the most uninteresting in exterior ; of sufferings from fevers, of agonies from wounds and amputations ; arms and legs with gangrene, the flesh all sloughed off or burned off with caustic, leaving only the bone, the blue veins, and muscle visible! I must put cotton wet with camphor in my nostrils, to stand by these cases. Man after man I have seen carried to the amputating room, singing a Baptist or Methodist hymn as he passed on his stretcher. As I walked beside him, holding his hand, he would say : “ Tell my mother I am not afraid to die. God knows I die in a just cause. He will forgive my sins.” Standing by the table upon which lay a man to be operated upon for an enormous aneurism, whose chances for life were small (this must have been in Lynchburg), I wrote down his last words to his family, while he coolly surveyed the instruments, the surgeons with bared arms, and the great tub prepared to catch his blood. The doctor held his pulse, and assured me that, with all these preparations in view, it never quickened its march. His courage saved him ; but he was so weak, after so great a loss of blood, we could not move him from the table, nor even put a pillow under his head. He was one of the “ tar-heels ” of North Carolina, who are hard to beat.
It was after the battle of Fredericksburg, or perhaps the Wilderness, that we were ordered to have ready eight hundred beds; for so many our great field hospital accommodated. The convalescents, and the “ old soldiers ” with rheumatism and chronic disorders who would not get well, were sent to town hospitals, and we made ready for the night when should come in the eight hundred. The Balaklava charge was nothing to it! They came so fast it was impossible to dress and examine them. So upon the floor of the receiving wards (long, low buildings, hastily put up) the men nurses placed in rows on each side their ghastly burdens, covered with blood and dirt, stiff with mud and gravel from the little streams into which they often fell. The women nurses, armed with pails of toddy or milk, passed up and down, giving to each man a reviving drink to prepare him for the examination of the surgeons ; others, with water and sponges, wet the stiff bandages. As I passed around, looking to see who was most in need of help and should first be washed and borne to his bed, I was especially attracted by one group. A young officer lay with his head upon the lap of another equally distinguished-looking man, while a negro man servant stood by in great distress. I offered a drink to the wounded man, saying, “ You are badly hurt, I fear.” “ Oh no,” he replied. “ Ho not mind me, but help the poor fellow next me, who is groaning and crying. He is wounded in the wrist. There is nothing so painful as that. Besides, you see, I have my friend, a young physician, with me, and a servant to ask for what I need.”
So passing on to the man with the wounded wrist, I stopped to wet it again and again, to loosen the tight bandage, and to say a comforting word ; and then on and on, till I lost sight of this interesting group, where there was so much to absorb my attention, and forgot it till in the early morning I saw the same persons. The handsome young officer was being borne on a litter to the amputating room, between his two friends. His going first of all the wounded heroes proved that his was the most urgent case. Rushing to his side, I reproached him for having deceived me with his cheerful face. “ Only a leg to be taken off,” he said, — “an everyday affair.”
I followed to see him laid upon the terrible table which had proved fatal to so many. Not only was his leg to be taken off at the thigh, an operation from which few recovered, but he had two wounds beside. From this moment I rarely lost sight of the doomed man. He was of a Louisiana regiment (the Washington Artillery, I think, for he came from Washington, on the Bed River). One could see that he was of a refined and cultivated family ; that he was the darling of the parents of whom he constantly spoke. Yet he never complained of his rude straw couch, or seemed to miss the comforts which we would fain have given him ; nor did he lament his untimely fate, or utter a murmur over pangs which would have moved the stoutest heart. He could not lie upon his back, for a gaping wound extended from his shoulder far down upon it, nor could he get upon one side, for his arm was crushed. We were forced to swing him from the ceiling. Soon the mutilated leg became covered with the fatal gangrene, and all the burning of this “proud flesh” could not keep death from the door. Even in his burning fevers, in his wild delirium, every word betrayed a pure and noble heart, full of love to God, to country, and to home. He could be quieted only by the sound of music. We took turns, my sister and I, to sit beside him and sing plaintive hymns, when he would be still, and murmur: “ Sing. Pray, pray.” Thus we sung and prayed for three long weeks, till we saw the end draw near, and lowered him into his bed, that his “dull ear” might hear our words, and his cold hand feel our warm touch. One evening he had been lying so still that we could hardly feel his pulse, and the rough men of the ward had gathered about the bed, still and solemn. Suddenly the pale face lighted with a lovely glow, the dim eyes shone brilliantly, and rising in his bed with outstretched arms, as if to clasp some visible being, his voice, clear and cheerful, rang out, “ Come down, beautiful ladies, come ! ” “ He sees a vision of angels ! ” cried the awestricken men. We all knelt. The young soldier fell back, dead!
In another ward lay upon the floor two young men just taken from an ambulance, — dead, as was supposed. Their heads were enveloped in bloody bandages, and the little clothing they had was glued to their bodies with mud and gravel. Hastily examining them, thesurgeon gave the order, “ To the deadhouse.” I prayed that they might be left till morning, and bent over them, with my ear upon the heart, to try and detect a faint pulsation, but in vain. Yet neither of them had the rigidity of death in his limbs, as I heard the surgeon remark. Turning them over, he pointed to the wounds below the ear, the jaws shattered, and one or both eyes put out, and reminded me that even could they be brought to life, it would be an existence worse than death, — blind, deaf, perhaps unable to eat; and he muttered something about “ wasting time on the dead which was needed for the living.”
“ Life is sweet,” I replied, “ even to the blind and the deaf and dumb, and these men may be the darlings of some fond hearts who will love them more in their helplessness than in their sunniest hours.”
And so I kept my “ dead men ; ” and the more I examined the younger one, the more was my interest excited. His hands, small and well formed, betokened the gentleman. His bare feet were of the same type, though cut by stones and covered with sand and gravel. After searching for a mouth to these bundles of rags, we forced a small tube between the lips with a drop of milk punch, and had the satisfaction to perceive that it did not ooze out, but disappeared somewhere ; and all night long, in making our rounds and passing the “ dead men,” we pursued the same process. At last, with the morning, the great pressure was over, and we found a surgeon ready to examine and dress again the wounds, and we were permitted to cut away by bits the stiff rags from their bodies, wash and dress them, pick out the gravel from their torn feet, and wrap them in greased linen. With what joy we heard the first faint sigh and felt the first weak pulsation ! Hour after hour, day after day, these men lay side by side, and were fed, drop by drop, from a tube, lest we should strangle them. The one least wounded never recovered his mind, which had been shattered with his body, and he afterwards died. The younger one, though he could neither speak nor see, and could hear but imperfectly, showed in a thousand ways, though his mind wandered at times, that he was aware of what went on about him, and he was gentle and grateful to all who served him. As he had come in without cap or knapsack, and there was no clue to his identity, over his bed we wrote, “ Name and regiment unknown.”
In the meanwhile, by flag of truce from the North, had come newspapers and letters making inquiries for a young man who, in a fervor of enthusiasm, had run away from school in England to fight the battles of the South. His mother having been a South Carolinian, he wrote his father he had gone to fight for his mother’s country and for his mother’s grave. Traced to Charleston, he was known to have gone to the Army of Northern Virginia, and to have entered the battle of the Wilderness as color bearer to his regiment, in bare feet. As nothing had been heard of him since the battle, he was reported dead ; but his distracted friends begged that the hospitals about Richmond might be examined, to learn if any trace of him could be found. We perceived instantly that this runaway boy was our patient. Informed of our convictions, the assistant surgeon general came to see and examine him, being himself a Carolinian and a friend of the mother’s family. But the boy either would not or could not understand the questions addressed to him. Many weeks and months passed in the dimly lighted room to which he was consigned, before we could lift the bandage from the one eye, before he could hear with the one ear and eat with the wounded mouth. Fed with soups and milk, he grew strong and cheerful, and was suspected of seeing a little before he confessed it, as I often noticed his head elevated to an angle which enabled him to watch the pretty girls who came from the city to read to him and bring him dainties. These, moved by compassion for his youth and romantic history, came to help us nurse him, and risked daily choking him in their wellmeant endeavors to feed him. At last all the bandages were removed, save a ribbon over the lost eye, and our “ dead man ” came forth, a handsome youth of eighteen or nineteen, graceful and elegant. Now the surgeon general claiming him for his father, with much regret we gave him up to the fiag-of-truce boat, and he was lost to us till the end of the war. He had a new eye made in England, and came to see us after the fall of Richmond, bringing me a fine present, his enthusiasm and his gratitude nothing damped by time and change. Even with the two eyes, he saw so imperfectly that he was soon obliged to seek for a life companion to guide his uncertain steps. In Charleston he fell in love with one of his own family connection, and, like the prince and princess in the fairy tale, “ they were married, and lived happy ever after.”
Emily V. Mason.
(To be continued.)
- The Daughters of the Confederacy, in West Virginia, as throughout the whole South, have this sacred duty now in charge, — the care of Confederate graves.↩