Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

As seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war online

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of kindness. There seemed to be, instead, a
certain chivalrous feeling, hardly to have
been expected when all the circumstances
were taken into account, which forbade in-
sult to a fallen foe. Most of them were quite
non-communicative, but one was very free to
express his surprise and gratitude at the
treatment they received.

I learned that none of them could read or
write, but it must not be supposed that this
lack of knowledge of books indicated a
corresponding degradation or inferior intel-
ligence, as it would at the North. The con-
ditions prevailing in the South lowered the
public -school s^^stem, and it was in some
localities impossible for the children of even
well-to-do families to have any teaching
whatever unless a private teacher was em-
ployed. One of our unlettered Southerners
especially seemed to be a gentleman, in the
best meaning of the word, but he died before
I had an opportunity to get acquainted with
him.



CHAPTER XVIII

HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES (CONTINUED)

A Day's Duties — Curious Wounds — A Cheerful Patient
— Commonness of Death — Walt Whitman's Hos-
pital Pictures — A Berrying Excursion — Murders
by Guerillas— Return to the Regiment,

LET the reader accompany me through the
round of a day of hospital duties. Our
ward held forty patients, and there were,
beside myself, upon whom all vocations were
apt to fall by turns, two nurses, one or both
of whom were on duty at all hours, day and
night. If the one on duty during the night
needed assistance I was called, and it some-
times happened that a critical case demanded
my care all night. But I usually arose at
daylight and began preparing my family for
breakfast. Water was brought from a spring
a short distance away, and with basins and
towels we made the rounds.



190 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

It frequently happened that a cot held the
silent form of one who, in the slow ebbing of
vitality, had entered the night with insuffi-
cient to tide him over the fatal hours from
I to 3 A.M. The blanket had been drawn
up over the face, and as soon as possible the
burial squad would call to carry the remains
away, for with human nature just as it is, the
presence of a corpse among patients is not an
inspiring source of cheerfulness.

When all were ready, the nurses went to
the kitchen, a shed building some distance
away, for the breakfast. The food, as I re-
member it, was not what would now be called
hospital fare. It was principally hard-tack
and salt meat, with coffee and a little sugar,
and sometimes rice or beans were added for
variety. Special diet, for severe cases, had a
few added delicacies from the stores of the
Sanitary Commission : condensed milk and a
few vegetables and pickles, — the latter being
especially in demand just then, for scurvy
had gotten a strong foothold already and
was making its dreaded presence felt, and
pickles were its quickest and surest anti-
dote. I have seen raw potatoes and onions
packed in vinegar as eagerly sought and
devoured by the men in the ranks of the



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES I9I

army as are chocolate drops by a group of
schoolgirls.

Just at this time, and later, the Sanitary
and Christian Commissions had great diffi-
culty in getting transportation to Sherman's
army for any of their stores. The railroad
was burdened to supply the army with neces-
sities and had small room for luxuries.

After breakfast was finished each patient's
cup was washed and hung on the wall over
his head, the tin plates were returned to the
kitchen, and we then bestirred ourselves to
put the room in order for the day. I then
began my special labor of dressing the
wounds, having packages of lint, bandages,
etc., water and towels, and a great sheet of
adhesive plaster hanging on the wall to cut
strips from as they were needed. If there
was a difficult case it was left until the
surgeon came in, which would be during the
forenoon. This work was usually finished
before dinner time.

After dinner the report was made out for
the day, and the prescription book was taken
to the dispensary, where the prescriptions
were filled. There was occasionally a little
time then to write letters, and sometimes to
write letters for the sick, and before night



192 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

some of the most severe wounds would need
a second dressing. But there were often
surgical operations to be attended to, or a
number must be got away to the North and
a fresh lot of wounded from the front were to
be installed in their places.

So between the regular duties and the occa-
sional and extra duties we were usually kept
pretty busy until dark. Then a single tallow
candle was lighted in one corner of the long
building, and as it scarce penetrated the
gloom at all, silence would soon prevail and
sleep for those to whom it was not denied.

Of the curiosities among wounds there was
one patient who had been Hit by a minie
ball that had entered back of his right ear
and found exit just under the left eye, mak-
ing a hole as large as one's finger. Yet the
man, when he left us, seemed to be in a way
to fully recover.

Probabl}^ it would puzzle even an expert to
guess what position a man could be in to get
hit seven times by one bullet. That, how-
ever, is what had happened to one whom I
cared for, and the way he explained it was
this: he had raised his rifle to fire when a
bullet from the enemy hit one wrist, all four
fingers of the other hand, cut a notch in



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES 1 93

his chin (as his head was bent forward), and
lodged in his breast, where it remained. As
it had not been extracted when he left us, the
outcome seemed to be in doubt.

There was a jolly, broad-shouldered Ger-
man, whose cheerfulness was unfailing,
though he had lost both his legs by a shell
which had burst between his feet. His morn-
ing joke and rippling laughter echoing dow^n
the great building was a benediction of life
and health-giving to the wan faces. During
his whole stay he avowed his intention to
begin with me the study of German just as
soon as I could spare an hour a day for the
purpose. That was also probably one of his
jokes, for, as he well knew would be the case,
the spare hour never materialized, and,
though he made a great pretence every day
of opening his school with one pupil, we
never got beyond the morning salutation and
a few^ phrases.

Among them all there was one who, per-
haps, attracted me the most strongly, not
only on account of the severity of his wound,
but also by his youth and purity. He was
a beardless boy, with flaxen hair and sky-
blue eyes, and a bullet had made an ugly

hole through the thick part of his thigh,
13



194 ^^ SEEN FROM THE RANKS

dangerously near the large artery. The doc-
tor said it should heal readily, but as day by
day it gave indications of growing larger in-
stead, he looked grave and made no com-
ments. One morning, as I was dressing it,
there floated out with the discharge a piece
of blue cloth. Here, then, was the secret of
its failing to heal; the bullet had torn and
dragged into the tissue a piece of the cloth-
ing and had left it there.

From that time the thin cheeks, whose
fairness had become marble-like in its white-
ness, began to recover a little tinge of color,
and when a few weeks later I carried him out
to the ambulance, and then at the depot took
him from the ambulance in my arms, and,
carrying him into the car, laid him in the
berth to begin his journey to the North, he
had a good prospect of recovery. His arms
clung about my neck and seemed reluctant to
unwind, even after he was laid in his berth,
and when I finally bade him good-by, I con-
fess there was a tug at my heart-strings as
the azure eyes looked up, suspiciously moist.

How easy it would have been to have pre-
served his home address, and that of hun-
dreds of others as w^ell, and how often I have
since wished that I had done so ; and it seems



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES 1 95

strange now that I did not. But life in the
army in war time takes no thought for
the morrow. That element of planning for
the future, which fills so large a space in our
home life, found little encouragement there.
** After the war" we were accustomed to look
forward to as a tangible certainty which
must sometime come, but its apparent re-
moteness gave a kind of intangibleness to the
thought after all, for the specific date no
one attempted to fix even approximately. It
would be soon enough to plan for that time
when it should come.

For the present we lived in the "now,"
each one vaguely conscious that he was a cog
in a vast machine whose movements he could
not fully know, and in the direction of which
he took no part. This feeling was probably
intensified by the commonness of death. At
home, no matter how watchful we may be,
death always brings with it some element of
surprise, but never in the army; there it is
always expected and is always happening.

As I write of these events scenes and faces
rise before me with a vividness that stimu-
lates my pen, and I must hold it in check or
the reader's patience will be exhausted. In
after years, when I read Walt Whitman's



196 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

account of his experiences in army hospitals,
these memory-pictures gave me the feeUng
that I could understand at least one phase
of his character, that best revealed in his own
unmetred lines :

" I sit by the restless all the dark night ; some are

so young,
Some suffer so much: I recall the experience

sweet and sad.
Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck

have crossed and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded

lips."

Dear old Walt! He was much belabored
because he would write as he would. Yet all
his roughness was in his pen, for personally he
w^as the gentlest and kindest of men, and at
work in and about army hospitals he was at
his best and in his element of usefulness. It
was here, too, that he received that close
touch of humanity so dear to his heart, while,
in their turn, it is said the wounded and sick
soldiers became much attached to him.

There was not lacking evidence that we
were surrounded by enemies, even though in
the rear of our own army. We were in a
country where nearly every white resident,



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES 1 97

male or female, was an enemy and ready to
act as one, either as "bushwhacker" or spy,
as opportunity might offer. There were also
raiding bands of Confederate cavalry con-
stantly looking for opportunities to capture
supplies or destroy railroad bridges, and
otherwise hamper and interrupt the supply
of our army in front. I doubt if they would
have cared to capture a thousand or more
cripples; that would have been a bootless
victory, but perhaps they would have taken
some chances in hopes of capturing the large
rs store of medicine and surgeon's equipments
^ that must have been here. Some arms were
<^ kept on hand, and when the scouts brought
an alarm every one who could move about
was expected to be ready to assist in defence.
I obtained leave of absence one day to
go huckleberrying. I was careful to take a
rifle, and keep clear of the houses and roads,
and probably went two miles into the country.
Once I heard voices approaching, and lying
down in the bushes remained concealed until
they had passed. Berries were plentiful, and
the afternoon outing made a pleasant change
for me, as well as for my patients, to whom
I brought the berries ; yet it was really noJi<
worth the risk, for a few of the men wj



o'"-'



^^^-



198 AS SEE AT FROM THE RANKS

went out the next day were fired upon from
ambush and two of their number killed.
The ambulance went out with a guard after-
ward and brought in the bodies. As there
was not known to be any Confederate force
in the vicinity at the time, they were prob-
ably assassinated by residents.

During the three months of my stay at
Kingston our comrades at the front were
passing through the various battles that
finally resulted in the capture of Atlanta,
and when, on September 2d, that city fell
into Sherman's hands, orders soon came to
break up our hospital. Carefully carrying
our helpless ones into the cars we found pro-
vided, we saw them speed away to the North.
Then after a little waiting we boarded a
south-bound train to report to our various
regiments.

It seems singular, but of the hundreds of
men that I knew first and last at Kingston
hospital, surgeons, nurses, and patients, to
the best of my recollection I have never met
one of them since, either in the army or out
of it, though I have several times received
messages of good cheer through friends and
acquaintances who had met some of them.



CHAPTER XIX

ATLANTA

Sketch of City Mansion — Death of a Member of the
Band — Mystery and Adventure of his Life — A
Foraging Tour — Voting for President — Amuse-
ments of an Army — Amateu/ Theatrical Company,

AS was the case with the immortal Tommy,
Frank Green and "Art for Art's sake"
were out looking for each other one day.
Frank was armed with pencil and a sheet of
uni-uled writing paper, and the result of their
encounter is a rather amateurish sketch now
hanging in my study, which I value at a
higher price than any picture dealer would
be willing to pay for it. The artist has long
since gone to his reward, and the sketch per-
haps belongs to that class sometimes adver-
tised as " of no use to any one but the owner."
Yet in this case the value to the owner is not
small, chiefly on account of its associations,
for Frank was my tent-mate.
199



200 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

The sketch is of an elegant stone mansion
in the city of Atlanta, and as it stood just in-
side the city's defences the shells of Sherman's
artillery had torn it through and through.
There seemed to have been some reason for
the treatment it had received, for in the siege
of the city this large house, with its thick
walls of stone, had formed a lurking-place
for the enemy's sharpshooters from which
to pick off our men. Therefore it had be-
come necessary to dislodge them in this
effective manner. I recollect, however, that
it had a pleasant aspect to me, for here I
found my messmates. The number of the
band had been reduced by the absence of
some on account of sickness, and of one mem-
ber, John Simmons, who had been wounded
and sent back to a hospital in Chattanooga,
where he finally died of his wound.

This Simmons was something of a character
in his way, and deserves more than passing
mention. As we mingled so much, there
came in time to each of us some nickname.
That for John did not arrive until we came to
Tennessee, and had done what all Northern
boys do during their first autumn in the
South — tasted green persimmons. The re-
semblance of the name, and his own pecu-



A TLANTA 20I

liarly acrid disposition, made the result a
foregone conclusion, and he was known from
that time as "P^r-Simmons." But, as might
have been expected, this did not sweeten his
temper at all, and he remained the same.

Yet there was much more to the gray-
haired man of Napoleonic features than this
aggravating and combative personality which
never tired of holding up to scorn and con-
tempt what, with the keenest of satire, he
termed "T'e A-m^r-ican soldier, who talks
United States!" The sarcastic reference to
a boastful nation which is without even a
national language was only one of the many
thrusts of his rapier-like wit, which none of
us were quite nimble enough to parry. He
rarely more than tasted of spirits, but one
day he had taken enough to break down his
habitual reserve in regard to his own history,
and he told me the story of his life.

He was born in Normandy, France, and I
judged from various things he told me in
connection with his family that they were
of good means and position. He attended a
German university, and while there became
involved in some affair that ended in a duel.
Opening his clothing he showed me the long
sword-scar on his breast, which indicated



202 AS SEEN- FROM THE RANKS

that the matter was something more than the
fiasco that such affairs at German universities
usually are. The duel had resulted in a break
with his family, and after various adventures
he had finally drifted into the French army.
Eventually he enlisted in our regular army
as a musician, where he served a long term of
years; for lack of something better to do, I
judge, for his education was not complete
and thorough enough to be worth much as a
breadwinner.

When he joined us in Baltimore he was
about forty-five years of age, and his com-
parative failure in life, notwithstanding un-
doubted natural talents, easily accounted
for the pessimistic sharpness of his tongue.
There is nothing like confidence to win
friendship, and from that time there was a
bond between us that he did not have with
the other boys, for I readily discovered that
underneath all the sharpness of language
there was a fund of generosity only lacking
opportunity for development. I was very
sorry that he had not fallen to my care when
he was wounded.

We learned afterward of his experience at
the hospital. He was told that it would be
necessary to amputate his leg in order to



A TLANTA 203

save his life. But life had already proved
a disappointment, and this offer of being
passed on into old age, a cripple dependent
on charity, was rejected with impatience;
and, as he was permitted to make his choice,
he died a few weeks later.

Despite all the asperity of his tongue, the
memory of his friendship abides with me
still ; but I doubt whether his real name was
Simmons.

Soon after our arrival in Atlanta, Hood,
w^ho now commanded the enemy's forces in
that vicinity, did the only thing he could
have done to make it possible for Sherman to
crown his campaign with completest success.
With his whole army he started northward
on a raid of his own, followed by three
quarters of Sherman's army, but leaving to
our corps the not unpleasant duty of occupy-
ing the city. But when Hood had gone well
away from us, Sherman sent a portion of his
troops to assist Thomas at Nashville, and
returning with the remainder to Atlanta
prepared for his most famous campaign.

I may as well add here that Hood con-
tinued his northward course until he actually
laid siege to Nashville, where in due time he
was effectually " dealt with" by Thomas and



204 ^-^ SEEA^ FROM THE RANKS

from that time to the close of the war Hood's
army was heard of no more.

It is said that in a cyclone there is a space
of quiet and calm in the centre, and similarly
our position was now central in the cyclone
'of war. The navy was pounding the enemy
along the coast and up the rivers, where foot-
holds had been obtained and enlarged at
various points, while from Virginia to the
West the tempest of war was raging north of
us, but ours was, just for a little time, the
centre of calm.

Our stay there, as far as our corps was
concerned, was uneventful. There were oc-
casional foraging tours into the surrounding
country, and sometimes an alarm from the
approach of a body of cavalry or mounted
scouts. On one occasion the wagons of our
division had been sent into the country east-
ward in search of forage, accompanied only
by a small guard, entirely inadequate to de-
fend it from a force of any size whatever. By
some means a rumor reachedcampthat a force
of the enemy's cavalry was in the vicinity
and that our wagon train was endangered.

Immediately our regiment had orders to
go to their relief, and we left the city at 4
P.M., taking the same direction and road that



A TLANTA 205

the wagon train had taken. The band was
ordered to accompany the regiment ; not that
music was so much needed, for we did not
blow a note on the whole trip ; but I suspect
that our other services, which they were liable
to have need of, were more thought of just
then than music.

We marched until ten or eleven o'clock in
the evening, and only went into camp because
it was not easy to find and be sure of the road,
and we were in danger of losing our way. We
started again before it was fairly light, and
following the road that the wagons had taken,
which took a wide circuitous sweep around a
section of the farming country, kept a furious
marching pace until some time in the after-
noon, when we reached Atlanta again. The
wagons had returned safely from their cir-
cuit and reached camp just before us, for we
had almost overtaken them. Since leaving
camp we had marched over forty miles.

We heard of battles far to the north on
ground which we had passed over, but that
which interested us most was the approaching
Presidential election. By a special arrange-
ment it was so managed that each voter was
permitted to enclose his ballot in an envelope,
which was sealed and sent home to be opened



206 AS SEEN- FROM THE RANKS

at the polls where he would have been en-
titled to vote if he had not been in the army.

As I had reached my majority since enlist-
ing, my first vote, which was for Lincoln, was
cast in Atlanta, but was opened and counted
in my native town. By that election the
people decided that the war was not "a fail-
ure," and the decision has never been reversed.

Nothing is more cheerful than a victorious
army, and while it rested there were many
who were quick to devise amusements. A
group of Indians, who had enlisted in one of
the Western regiments, were persuaded to
give a war-dance in the evening. The thrill-
ing Indian stories of my boyhood's literature
were still fresh in my mind, and I expected to
be thrilled now by the representation of the
real, and by the real Indians too. But the
disappointment was as complete as it was
possible for it to be.

Was it because the performance was in a
crowd in the centre of a city, whereas it
needed the setting of a camp-fire gleaming
up the towering trunks of forest trees and
glistening on the bodies of naked savages,
while the weird song was answered from the
far solitudes by the panther's cry? Or was
it that I had been surrounded by scenes so



A TLANTA 20/

much more warlike than any Indian wars
could furnish ? The death of an ideal is some-
times painful, but this sudden collapse of my
ideal of an Indian war-dance touched my
sense of humor instead, and I enjoyed a laugh
that lasted far into the night.

There was a theatre, and this was soon
taken possession of. Some of the company
had possibly been connected with theatres
before, but now they were all stars of the
first magnitude, though the actresses were
conspicuous by their absence. "The strong
man" nightly tossed the cannon balls, catch-
ing them on the back of his neck, and allowed
a rock to be broken on his breast by a sledge
in the hands of "t ' other strong feller," and
with the help of the soloist, the clog-dancer,
the impromptu comedy, and the inevitable
minstrels, the time was filled, and a not over-
critical audience was delighted.

At one camp I found a couple of trick
mules who tossed the unsophisticated who
could be induced to ride them by the light of
the camp-fire, while at still another place a
rude ten-pin alley had been constructed.
The pins were termed "Rebels," and the
balls used were some unexploded shells
which our artillery had thrown into the city.



CHAPTER XX

MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA

Evacuation of Atlanta — The City in Flames — The
March Begun — Stone Mountain — Destroying Rail-
roads — Immensity of an Army — Refreshing
Change of Diet — Crowds of Slaves.



THE countr}^ about Atlanta is not moun-
tainous, though eleven hundred feet
above the sea, but is of a rolling surface and
diversified by field and forest. The city
stands exactly on the divide, where the
waters flow in one direction to the Atlantic,
and in the other to the Gulf. It is of even
more modern growth than Chicago, and owes
its importance and even existence to the
concentration of railroads there. The same
fact gave it also its prominent military im-
portance, for railroads are as necessary a
supplement to modern warfare as they are to
modern commerce.

208



MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA 2O9

Soon after his capture of the city Sher-
man ordered all the inhabitants to leave at
once. Those who desired to go North were
furnished with transportation, and about
twenty-five hundred availed themselves of
this offer. The remainder were sent South
under a flag of truce, and continued to link
their fortunes with those of the Confederacy.

Sherman had started from Chattanooga
wdth about one hundred thousand men, and
up to the time of entering Atlanta his losses


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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 10 of 14)