Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 21

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

21
A Time of Tears

DURING the war years, sorrow and tragedy entered almost every home throughout the length and breadth of the land, in the death of a husband, a son or a brother on the battlefield, or in the widespread epidemics which prevailed in many camps. This heartbreak did not come to either Lee or to Lincoln, both of whom had sons in the Army. And yet each of them, as well as Jefferson Davis, lost a loved child during this period.

Davis’ little Joe was killed in a fall from a balcony, Lee’s best-loved daughter Annie died at White Sulphur Springs in North Carolina, and Lincoln’s son, Willie, at; the White House.

Robert Lee received the letter telling him of Annie’s death when he was in the press of military planning. His self-control was, as always, paramount and before he gave way to his private grief in a tender and touching letter to Mary, he performed his regular Army obligations.

It was a time of tears—those ever-darkening months when brothers fought against brothers and sons against fathers.

North and South, the list of the wounded grew longer after each battle. In a hundred little towns and in bigger ones, too, like Richmond and Washington, the slow trains pulled to a stop, day after day, bearing their pitiful burden of wounded and dying soldiers.

In Washington, one particular woman who was visiting there came down to the depot whenever a trainload of the wounded was expected. She was middle-aged and plain. Her felt bonnet was tied snugly under her chin and a gray knitted shawl was folded about her sturdy shoulders. Around her arm a strip of white cloth was tied to show that she was a helper. Not a nurse, just an assistant, ready to be of service whenever she was called on.

She carried a big, woven market basket and the things that were in that basket were a caution—combs, bits of mirror, broken pencils and scraps of paper, old news-sheets from a dozen towns, North and South alike, buttons and needles and tobacco plugs.

Each day when she started out, her hostess exclaimed, “Julia, all that trash!”

But Julia just smiled as she picked up her heavily-laden basket, for she knew it wasn’t trash to the boys. The little odds and ends weren’t trash but treasures to those boys who had been fighting for weeks on end. . . . A sliver of soap, even. Why, that was a thing to bring a light into a man’s eyes and a smile to his lips!

One evening Julia stood on the platform, awaiting the arrival of the oncoming train. The engine puffed in and jerked to a stumbling halt. From its long string of cars, hundreds of prisoners disembarked. They were led away under guard and only the wounded remained in the box cars, which were bedded down with mouldy hay.

The daylight was lading and a sharp wind whistled along the street. In the dim light of wavering lanterns, dark shadows flitted back and forth, bearing stretchers to the white-topped ambulances which, when they were filled, moved off across the rough, cobbled street to the hospital.

Some of the men had been placed on the bare ground to await their turns for the care of the doctors and nurses.

Julia bent over the figures, one after another, tucking in a blanket here, shifting a patient to greater comfort there. The men smiled up at her, spoke to her.

This one’s leg had been shattered by a shell while storming the redoubts, that one had received a wound in his side while struggling with a bayonet to capture the regimental colors. . . .

From some came groans and cries, “I’m so cold!” . . . “Give me a drink of water!” . . . “O God, I’m in such pain!”

To each man she offered a word of comfort, “Take my shawl. It will warm you. . . . Open your lips and I’ll give you a sip from my canteen. . . . I wish I could help your pain, but I can’t. The ambulance is nearly full. There’ll be a place for you in the next one. The doctor at the hospital will ease your pain. . . .”

A green-sashed surgeon came up then and nodded to Julia as he took his place beside the driver and ordered him to start the horses. “Sorry there’s no room for you,” he told her. “You’ll have to walk. But get there as quickly as you can. I’ll need your help in taking down the names of these men and writing to their families.”

She nodded. “I’ll be there almost as soon as you, I’m a fast walker.”

Hurrying along, Julia shivered a little without her accustomed shawl. It would have been nice to stop for a minute and warm herself, she thought, as she passed a rousing fire, around which were grouped soldiers of the Invalid Corps, grasping their guns. The ruddy light sparkled on the polished barrels and brightened the blue overcoats. Down the center of the street a long row of arms was stacked, with a sentry keeping guard over them. Huddled on the sidewalk lay sleeping men, snatching a few minutes’ rest before taking their turns at guard duty.

She overtook a group of slightly-wounded men who were walking slowly toward the hospital, helping one another along. They were laughing and talking, cracking jokes and telling tales of their experiences in the day’s fighting, expressing sorrow that poor Walter had “gotten his” in the rifle pit and that old Ned had found that bullet with his name on it.

As Julia was passing them, a newspaper reporter sprinted up and drew out his notebook under the glaring light of a street lamp. The men came to a halt and gave him a description of the finer points of the battle.

A little further along, a door opened and a very old man, with a long white beard, came down the front steps carrying a bucket of steaming hot soup and a dipper. “Want some?” he called to Julia when he saw the white band about her arm.

She stopped an instant for a quick draught, thanked him gratefully and directed him to the wounded men down the street behind her.

A few more blocks and she reached the hospital where all was confusion as the ambulances drew up at the door and the injured men were unloaded and rushed to the wards. She followed along behind the stretcher-bearers.

An hour later, two hours, maybe, for she had lost all track of time by then, the men were in their beds.

Here were the main rows of Union soldiers and over there, in a corner, attended by two husky guards, the Rebels were placed.

Clad alike, in well-worn hospital shirts, it was impossible to tell the foe from the friend, Julia thought, as she passed from bed to bed, distributing her little comforts. On each face there was the same look of suffering which, in most cases, gave way to an expression of gratitude as the pleasant feel of clean sheets and warm blankets began to bring some degree of peace.

The green-sashed surgeon and one of the nurses called Julia to hold the hands of a man whose mangled face they were bandaging.

After that they told her to gather up the dirty rags of uniforms they had cut away. And then she was to soothe that delirious Negro boy over there, they said.

At last she was finished and the doctor told her to rest, pointing to a chair in the far corner by the Confederate beds.

Gratefully she sat down, glancing at the boy in the bed alongside her chair. She noted the pale young face, the petulant mouth.

The youngster stirred and looked up at her wide blue eyes. “What do you want?” he asked truculently.

“I want to know what I can do for you,” she said evenly and quietly, no shade of annoyance sounding in her voice.

“My leg hurts, I want my mother,” the boy said childishly.

“I’ll write to your mother.” Julia reached down into her basket and drew out a scrap of paper and a pencil.

“What’s your mother’s name?” she asked, as she dated the sheet.

“Mrs, Polly Porter Jones,” he answered. “But I don’t want you to write to her. I’ll write, myself, tomorrow.”

Julia put the paper back in the basket and looked down at the sick boy, compassionately. “What do you want, son?” she asked in a patient voice. “What would your mother do if she were here?”

“She’d sing to me or say a poem for me. That’s what she used to do when I was little and got hurt. . . .”

“I know plenty of poems,” Julia said cheerfully. “Tell me what poem you like best.”

The boy turned his head on the pillow and looked up at her. She saw tears in his eyes. “There was one in a magazine last year. It was called The Soldier to His Mother.

Julia placed her small, square hand over the boy’s slim fingers which lay there limp on the bedcovers. The gravity of her tone gave beauty to the undistinguished words of the poem:

Upon the field of battle, Mother,
All night alone I lay,
While angels watched above me, Mother,
Till breaking of the day.
Oh, how I thought of you, Mother,
And loving ones at home,
Till to our humble cottage, Mother,
I seemed again to come.

I feel that I am going, Mother,
To a kindly land of rest,
Oh, could I feel your kiss, Mother,
And lean upon your breast,
Would I could repay you, Mother,
For all your love and care,
May God be near and bless you, Mother,
In this sad grief you bear!

The boy had closed his eyes during the reciting of the poem. He opened them now and smiled up at Julia. Seeing the brave, kindly face bent over him, his look of self-pity changed to one of greater confidence and hope. “Thank you,” he said, “I fee1 better, much better, already. I didn’t know a Yankee-lady could be so nice!”

Julia noted that a new thoughtfulness seemed to strengthen, the weak, handsome face as his eyes smiled up into hers. Perhaps, she thought, there might still be the making of a man in him.

“You must sleep now,” she said and laid her hand on his forehead.

He closed his eyes obediently and then opened them again to say, “I’ll tell my mother how kind you were, What’s your name, lady?”

“Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.”

“I’ll remember.” His eyelids fluttered down once more.

Quietly she began to speak then, but beneath the low words there was an undertone of passion. She felt in her heart that this boy would get well and hoped that he would remember not her name, but her message. . . .

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
          Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
          Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
          Glory! Glory! Hallelujah;
          His truth goes marching on!

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