Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

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he settled lower and lower, and finally sank
on the ground ; there was a gurgling sound,
followed by a convulsive motion of the limbs,
which lasted a few moments and then ceased.

These are some of the minor incidents con-
nected with a battle, and from their very
commonness passed almost unnoticed in the
great procession of events. But they are
samples of thousands of experiences that fall
to the lot of attendants in field hospitals, and
may serve to illustrate the shaded back-
ground to the brilliant feats of arms which
the front of battle affords.

Even in this carnival of tragedy something
humorous or droll would sometimes happen
to relieve the monotony of suffering. There
was one young fellow whose face showed a
bullet hole not far from the nose, but no
place of exit could be found and it w^as con-
cluded that the bullet must have remained
somewhere within, but we could not guess
where. While sitting there he was seized
with a violent fit of coughing, and presently
coughed the bullet out of his throat, catching
it in his hand as it fell. Winking at the
nurse he quietly slipped it in his pocket, re-
marking as he did so, "I guess I '11 save that
as a souvenir."



l68 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

This army of a hundred thousand men (and
no one knows how many horses and mules)
had to be suppHed with food and ammunition
over a single-tracked railroad from Nashville.
This road the enemy destroyed as they re-
treated and our army rebuilt as they ad-
vanced; hence there was often delay in
getting transportation to the North for the
wounded. The railroad had now been re-
built to Kingston, thirty miles in our rear,
and day after day the ambulances received
their loads of suffering humanity to carry
them back to this point, where they were
loaded on the cars to be sent North. At the
end of a week they were able to take the last
of the wounded who were still living, and I
was one of the number detailed to take care
of them on the way.

The enemy had finally been routed from
about Dallas, and the field hospital at that
place was broken up. As we left the now
nearly deserted woods, almost the last sight
that met my eyes was the abandoned sur-
geons' quarters, and near at hand a consider-
able pile of legs and arms that their rightful
owners never saw again.



CHAPTER XVI

FROM FIELD TO HOSPITAL

With the Ambulances — Caring for the Wounded on the
Way — Hardships for the Sick — Temporary Stop-
ping-Place Becomes an All-Summer's Hospital.



THIS ending of the operations about Dal-
las marked a distinct change in my ser-
vice. I expected to be absent from the
regiment but two days at the most, but by
the fortunes of war I did not see it again for
three months, — not until after the capture of
Atlanta.

The ambulances with Sherman's army were
plain, two-horse spring wagons, having can-
vas tops to protect the inmates from sun and
rain. The driver was perched on a seat in
front, but the interior was entered from the
rear. Along each side ran a seat the whole
length, on which the patients could sit, and

arranged in this way it would accommodate
169



I/O AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

eight or more of those who had not been
wounded in such a way as to make it im-
perative that they should he down in being
carried. It might at first be thought that
the loss of a hand or arm would not prevent
a man from walking a limited distance, as
long as his legs were not injured. But the
loss of blood, the pain and nervous shock
attending it all, make the patient too weak
to walk much, and should it be attempted it
would prove fatal in a majority of cases.

But for those severe cases in which it was
necessary that the patients should be carried
in a horizontal position, there was an arrange-
ment by which the whole interior was made
into one plain surface on which the patients
could lie. Fixed in this way, two, or even
three, could be accommodated, though the
latter number made them packed too close
for comfort.

On the outer side of each vehicle hung a
stretcher. The army stretcher was a very
simple but useful contrivance. It was com-
posed of two strong side -pieces, and these
were connected at a suitable distance apart
by cross-pieces, the intervening space being
covered with canvas. The side-pieces were
long enough so that the ends could be used



FROM FIELD TO HOSPITAL I/I

as handles, and two men could thus carry a
helpless patient very well.

There was a guard of armed men who ac-
companied us too, for even in the rear of our
army, in the country we had just passed over,
there was liable at any time to be wandering
bands of the enemy's scouts and cavalry,
looking for a chance to surprise and capture
stores.

I think a large proportion of this last lot of
patients were those most severely wounded,
for of those who came under my care very
few could get into the ambulances alone.
With much tugging and lifting we got them
in as well as we could, though there were
many groans and now and then an involun-
tary scream of pain. The forenoon was well
advanced when all was ready and the long
line of ambulances started up the road.

For the wounded men this long ride over
roads which the passage of two armies had
left in a terribly rough condition was one
prolonged torture which made the heart ache.
It was intensified, too, by the dust and sultry
heat, and the odor of festering wounds at-
tracted swarms of flies, so that before night
the wounds became infested by maggots.

There have been reckless statements to the



172 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

effect that army surgeons were hasty and un-
feeling in their treatment of wounded men,
but I am sure such statements are without
foundation. Depraved, indeed, must be the
person, professional or layman, who could be
rough or unfeeling to such patients. As far
as my experience went I never saw them
give any but the most kindly, considerate, and
careful attention to those under their charge.

We filled our canteens at every stream, for
every time the ambulances halted for a few
moments every man wanted water to drink.
We wet cloths and laid on fevered brows, and
poured water on the dressings covering the
wounds. "Water, more water," was the
constant call. The doctors went from one
ambulance to another along the line, giving
such relief as they could, sometimes an opiate
to relieve extreme pain, and sometimes a
little whisky to prop up the sinking vitality.

The dinner halt was a short one and we did
not attempt to take the patients out, but has-
tily building a fire made some coffee, and gave
them coffee and crackers where they were.
This and the brief I'est seemed to give them
some relief, and we soon started on again.
It was not until after dark that we finally
halted at a plantation houSe, with its sur-



FROM FIELD TO HOSPITAL 1 73

rounding group of outbuildings, for the
night, and now we laboriously lifted out our
charges and did what we could to make them
comfortable.

We grouped them about the fires on the
lawn, and where there were not blankets
enough two could be laid close together and
one blanket made to cover them both. Then
we prepared a supper for them and for our-
selves of fried pork, with coffee and hard-
tack. The guard put out their pickets about
the camp, and when all was done that could
be done I crept under a shed, and, softly lay-
ing my head on a little pile of cotton, thought
how pleasant it was to rest, when just then
(so it seemed) there was a long, shrill blast of
the bugle.

"There must be a night attack," was my
first thought. I sprang to my feet and ran
to the picket reserve, who were sitting about
a fire some little distance away and looking
strangely unconcerned.

"What call is that?" I asked.

" Reveille," replied the sergeant, looking up
as if he thought I mus^" be a recruit who
didn't know the "calls." The long-drawn
notes did have a familiar sound. But reveille
in the evening! I rellected a moment.



174 ^^ SEE AT FROM THE RANKS

"What time is it?"

"Three o'clock."

I had slept several hours without knowing
that I had been asleep. We were called thus
early to complete the journey in the cool of
the day. We arrived at Kingston without
accident, and here a surprise awaited us. A
raiding party of the enemy's cavalry had cut
the railroad and there was no communication
with the North. The ambulances, however,
must return to the army, and we must do
something with our patients. So we took
possession of some great barn-like buildings
that had been erected in a piece of woods, —
for Confederate hospitals it was said, — and
carrying in our wounded we laid them in two
long rows on the floor of each building, some
with a blanket and some with nothing to
soften the planks.

Of those who had been cared for by myself
and the two drummer boys that assisted me,
not one had died on the way, though there
were deaths in some of the other ambulances.

Now the surgeons and all had plenty of
work to do. The medical stores and food
supplies — such as they had in this unexpected
turn of affairs — had to be got out "and carried
into the buildings, and the necessary things



FROM FIELD TO HOSPITAL 1 75

for the immediate relief of the patients must
be opened and got ready. Then we made
haste to attend to the wounds, for the mag-
gots, which had got into them on the day be-
fore, had been gnawing, gnawing the flesh all
night. In most cases it was necessary after
removing the dressings to also cut the
stitches and again open the gaping space
which had been closed up after an amputa-
tion or other operation ; and even then, in the
case of deep wounds, we w^ere not sure of get-
ting them all out, and w^ould have to pour
liquid into the place from a bottle labelled
" whisky and chloroform." This would bring
them wriggling out, " on a canter," as one of
the boys said, but the sensation to the patient
was about the same as it w^ould have been
had we poured boiling water in the wound.

It must be remembered that this was be-
fore the days of antiseptics, which prove such
a perfect barrier at the present time against
not only maggots, but also against invisible
disease germs of all kinds that made such
havoc with the wounded in the Civil War.

Night came again all too soon, for we were
without candles, and what was done must be
done while the day lasted. My drummer
boys had gone back with the ambulances, and



176 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

Dr. Connelly said there was no one to watch
in Ward 4 but myself. So I prepared for the
night by filling at the spring what canteens
I could find among the men, and supplying
myself with matches. If any one called me
in the night I could find him by striking a
match, and it was not likely that I could do
anything but get water for drinking or for
wetting the fevered wounds. But where
should I stay during the tedious hours ?

The long, silent room was already losing its
boundaries in the gathering darkness, and
there was not a single article of furniture;
only the floor and the four walls rising twenty
feet to the roof. I could lie on the floor, but
I knew that if I did so I should instantly drop
asleep. I could keep awake by walking the
floor, but that would disturb the sick. Here
I have it ! I found, out-of-doors, a small box,
and placing it in the middle of the room,
seated myself bolt upright upon it, sure now
that I could rest my feet and still keep
awake.

As the last gleams of daylight disappeared
the room became blank darkness, and not a
sound could be heard except the heavy
breathing of the men. Hark! Was that a
distant gun on the picket line? No, one of



FROM FIELD TO HOSPITAL 1 77

the men had moved and something had
dropped to the floor. All was silent out-of-
doors, and I must have been dozing. Where
were the ambulances by this time? Had
they reached the army yet? I had been
placed under the surgeon's orders and had
obeyed them in remaining, but what would
Colonel Ketcham say when he learned that I
had not returned? Would he — there was a
pain in my head, and putting my hand to my
ear I found it wet with blood. I was lying at
full length on the floor.

" Got to sleep and fell off, did n't ye?" said
a kindly voice near. " It 's tu bad ; ye better
lay down here and I '11 wake ye up if anybody
wants ye."

Bless his generous heart ! After all he had
suffered and was suffering, and then to think
that he had compassion to spare for a sleepy
boy! But I was on my mettle now. I was
determined that I would keep awake for the
remainder of the night, and I did. But from
darkness to daylight not one of my patients
called for anything. The long ride had made
them crave for rest more than for anything
else.

That which was intended as a temporary
stopping-place became thenceforth an all-



1/8 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

summer's hospital, designated in army phrase
as a "receiving hospital." In due time we
received supplies of all kinds and — crowning
glory of all ! — there came a woman who took
charge of the special diet. During the
summer we were continually receiving fresh
wounded from the front, and sending those
that had become more comfortable to the
North.

Whatever experience at the front I may
have missed was — partially, at least — com-
pensated for by my experience in several
field hospitals, as well as in this receiving
hospital, and such experience cannot fail of
having a value and interest. For one thing,
it is a pleasanter thought in the declining
years, that of having relieved pain, instead
of the other thought, that of having caused
pain and death. In saying this I do not for
a moment overlook the fact that w^e were but
seconding the efforts of those at the front,
and were as much responsible as they for the
legitimate acts of the war. Still, in the long
after-years, the thought of having relieved
pain is pleasanter than the thought of hav-
ing inflicted it.

This was before the days of trained nurses,
even for the wealthy at home, and the army



FROM FIELD TO HOSPITAL 1 79

was obliged to make shift and use such ma-
terial as it could succeed in getting from the
ranks. To become accustomed to hospital
scenes is sometimes an experience in itself.
I well remember my first sight of an opera-
tion, which was at Gettysburg. x\ thigh am-
putation was in process at the time, and at
first sight of the quivering, severed muscles,
and the bone laid bare for the saw, there
swept over me such a sudden impulse to turn
and leave the place that only by an effort of
the will did I remain at my post. But from
that time, save for the universal pity we all
have for those who suffer, the sight of or par-
ticipation in operations did not affect my
nerves or give me any discomfort.

Without technical knowledge I yet ac-
quired a certain readiness in assisting in the
ordinary details of surgery which must have
been somewhat appreciated by the surgeons,
for I was generally required to assist when
such work was to be done. But for that
matter there was so much to be done that
they were obliged to make use of a great deal
of unskilled labor. I have probably assisted
at more surgical operations than the ordinary
surgeon sees in a lifetime.



CHAPTER XVII

HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES

Peculiarities of the Patients — One who Lost Half his
Blood and All his Conceit — Gratitude of the
Wounded — High Rate of Mortality — Theory and
Practice in Medicine — Confederate Patients.

THIS hospital at Kingston, Ga., though
estabHshed by accident as it were, be-
came a valuable adjunct to the army, and, as
its supplies came forward and the details were
perfected, we settled into a routine of daily
life. Gradually its capacity was increased by
the erection of a number of very large tents,
and it is probable that there were, at one
time, nearly or quite a thousand wounded
men there.

The ward for the care of which I was re-
sponsible had forty cots for patients, and I
soon had charge of the medicines and surgical
dressings of forty cripples. There is a good

i8o



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES l8l

deal of human nature everywhere in the
world, but nowhere is it found more manifest
than in a hospital, where all are helpless and
dependent. Under incompetent manage-
ment they become a tyrannical family of
spoiled children, while under wise supervision
they readily follow directions and hold to a
degree of order and cheerfulness which is
worth more in its general effects than the
doctor's medicines.

The Ward Master who was kind, cheerful,
and just to all, and at the same time filled the
room with a prevailing spirit of good cheer
and fraternal feeling, was the one of value,
however little he might know of nursing.
The ward that had beside this a few good
story-tellers, or those of a witty and humor-
ous turn among the nurses and patients, was
indeed blessed.

There were always a few selfish patients,
seemingly entirely devoid of generous or
moral impulses, and they were not usually
of the most severely injured either. They
were utterly regardless of the comfort of
others and eager to be served first and best,
whether the service was of food or attention.
It sometimes required firmness and care to
get along with such moral monstrosities;



1 82 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

firmness to resist their bullying demands,
and care to prevent being outwitted by their
cunning deceptions.

I remember one instance in which I was
finally obliged to quietly bring the aggressor
face to face with the ultimatum of physical
force, and then his collapse from cowardly
bravado was so sudden that it was ludicrous,
and a wholesome ripple of laughter went
around the room.

There was another class of patients who
were as much in the minority as those just
mentioned. Among so many there were sure
to be a few whose conceit was proof against
reasoning and advice, and they earned the
sobriquet of "Knowing Ones." There was
one patient brought to our ward who was so
striking an instance of this class that he
may fairly be taken as a type. Aside from
this trait, though, he was a first-rate fellow,
warm-hearted and impulsive, and generous to
a fault. He had been crippled by a bullet
which had passed through his leg in some
mysterious course, entering below the knee
and coming out on the other side down near
the ankle.

He was repeatedly warned by the surgeon
to remain in bed in a horizontal position, as



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES 1 83

the wound was liable to break out bleeding at
any time. But he was not of the kind who
are fond of accepting statements on faith,
and one day, not long after his arrival, he
*' guessed" that he knew "as much about
that wound as the doctor" did. So he tried
sitting up on the cot ; then put his feet to the
floor, — rather timidly at first, but finding no
discomfort, finally limped about the room,
in defiance of my protests and with great
delight in his own independence.

On the night following, soon after mid-
night, I was suddenly called by the night
nurse. Springing to my feet I ran to the
Knowing One's cot to find it being saturated
with his blood at a rate that would have cost
his life in a few minutes more. I made a
rush for bandage and compresses, which were
always on my table, and in a short time had
stopped the life stream. The next day there
was a council of surgeons, an operation last-
ing two hours, and a very sick patient who
had lost half his blood and all his conceit.
But as he was steadily improving when he
was sent North a few weeks later, it is prob-
able that in time both were restored to their
normal condition of surplus.

But over against the selfish, the knowing,



1 84 ^S SEEN FROM THE RANKS

the rebellious, and the worrying ones, there
was the plain and manly remainder, always
greatly in the majority, who were reasonable
in their expectations, and so very apprecia-
tive of the service we were rendering as our
daily duty, and which surely none could have
withheld, even without that incentive. Nor
were they slow to express their appreciation.
Richer than any may know were the rewards
of this kind that came to me, not only then,
but months and even years after, when some
chance meeting of an acquaintance with one
of m}^ former patients would bring me a
message which would show how gratefully
we were still remembered.

It was some months after that, when on
our march to the sea, that my tent-mate,
Frank Green, came straggling into camp one
night a little late. He had been away from
the regiment, foraging on his own account,
that day. Almost the first words he said
were, "Do you remember Willson, of the —
Ohio?"

" Yes, I took care of him in Kingston; but
what do you know about him?"

Then he told me of his experience. Re-
turning from his foraging expedition he had
fallen in with a member of an Ohio regiment



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES 1 85

which was in another division, and he proved
to be one of my patients. Learning what
regiment Frank belonged to he suddenly ex-
claimed, " Do you know Charlie Benton? He
belonged in that regiment."

'*Yes," said Frank, "I tent with him."

** How is Charlie ? " was the next question.

"Charlie's doing well," replied Frank,
somewhat amused by the lively interest dis-
played by his nevv^ acquaintance.

" I hope he will always do well. Give him
my *best,' will you? I shouldn't be alive
to-day if he had n't taken care of me."

With this hearty remembrance they parted,
and the message was surely more than com-
pensation for all that I ever did for him, for it
showed that my efforts had been appreciated
at least.

The circumstance recalled an incident of
Willson's stay at the Kingston hospital. He
was wounded in the thick part of the thigh,
and the minie ball, as large as the end of
one's thumb, was still in there. Soon after
his arrival the surgeons concluded to look for
that bullet. He was put to sleep in the
usual way by the use of chloroform, and the
operation, though pretty long, was finally
successful. As he was coming out from



1 86 AS SEE AT FROM THE RANKS

under the influence of the anaesthetic, but
while his eyes were still closed, he began to
talk, like one talking in his sleep. His re-
marks were mostly about the doctors who
were present, and as they were witty and
sarcastic, and one after another came in for
his share of the cuts, every one in the ward
roared with laughter, and the doctors them-
selves had to join in it.

Finally one of them gave him a little
whisky to rouse him to full consciousness.
After a time he opened his eyes slowly, and,
looking steadfastly a moment at the surgeon
who was bending over him, solemnly said,
"We've had a great drunk, haven't we,
doctor? " It was a long time before he could
understand what we were laughing at. He
gained rapidly after that day, and I think the
incident materially improved the general
health of the ward.

Deaths were frequent, as may be supposed,
for, as I have said, none of the modern appli-
ances for the protection of surgical operations
from disease germs were then known to sci-
ence, and the dead were buried daily without
ceremony.

Nor was the theory and practice of medi-
cine always the same with different doctors.



HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES 1 8/

There was one — a German doctor — who had
great faith in whisky. If our prohibition
friends could have access to the prescription
books of that hospital I have no doubt they
would find therein a strong argument for
their cause. The hospital steward, who put
up all the prescriptions, told me in conversa-
tion on the subject that that doctor's book
was "full of gravestones," referring to the
entry of death opposite the patient's name in
the prescription book.

The wards of our hospital were like the
ranks of the army, in that they included all
grades of life, — the rich and the poor, the
ignorant and the cultivated, — for it was a
war that laid such strong hold upon feeling
and sentiment that social considerations were
sunk for the time being. There were many
who did not see why education or wealth,
which happened to be theirs, should debar
them from carrying a rifle in the ranks — ' ' for
the cause." The native Americans who
could not read were scarcer with us than col-
lege men.

Among other kinds of patients we had at
one time a few prisoners who were too se-
verely wounded to be placed in the prison
with the others. They were our enemies, but



1 88 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

now they were crippled and helpless, and to
the honor of our boys be it recorded that not
once during their stay among our patients
were they addressed in any language but that


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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 9 of 14)