Alexander Hunter, 17th Va. Inf., Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, pp. 560-565
At this time the privates of the rank and file had not much belief in Grant's generalship. His mad charges in which he lost thousands, his repeated attacks and repulses, until the vicinity of Spottsylvania resembled a great abattoir, where, instead of cattle being slaughtered, precious humanity gave up their lives, was not their idea of a master of the art of war.
In about ten days the damage done by Sheridan's raiders at Beaver Dam was repaired, and those of the wounded who could be moved were put on flats and started for Richmond. Many trains were loaded with the wounded.
It was an unpleasant ride for some, the track being rough and uneven, and the cars were those used for transporting timber, ties, pig iron and other third-class rate. But it was easy enough to gain patience and philosophy now, for thoughts of furlough and a gradual convalescence in the home circle lingered in the minds of the majority.
No thieving commissary to rob him of his daily meals, no guards, no work of any kind, but a glorious idleness, with care and trouble banished. So the antiquated cars racketed and ruffled along as best they could, and each revolution of the driving wheel brought us nearer home.
About twilight the train stopped at the depot, and the wounded, of which there were several thousands, were taken off and sent to the different hospitals. For hours the ambulances carried their loads, and then returned for more. Those in the front cars disembarked first, and were of course chosen in turn.
When our flat was reached the surgeon told us that the hospitals were jammed, and we would have to be carried to a, temporary one. We learned what that meant later on.
It seemed that the Government at Richmond had failed, as it always did, to be ready for-an emergency, even such a necessary one as the taking care of its own wounded. It had made no provision for the army which came pouring in, in a steady stream, from the different battle-fields, and with criminal carelessness had, in a time when wonders could have been accomplished, calmly folded its hands and waited for a miracle to occur.
When north, east, south, and west the air was filled with the sound of the raging conflict and Richmond was girt with flame, it found, the officials helplessly wringing their hands and gazing appalled at the host of maimed from the battle-fields. Every bed in the hospital was occupied, and still the long procession came steadily onward. It was at this crisis that the women of Virginia arose in their grandeur and came out in colors that shone in spotless lustre. They cast aside the natural timidity of their sex, conquering those finer feelings which make women shrink from all that is abhorrent to the sight, and met the emergency by flocking to the city from all sections, and each carried back as many patients as her household could accommodate.
A half-dozen creaky ambulances emptied our flat and soon dumped us into the shades of Chimborazo Hospital. There is no descriptive power on earth which could convey the abomination of this dreadful place. It had been erected in the distraction of the bloody crisis, by the authorities, who lay all the winter inert, and only at the eleventh hour provided long buildings like those seen in the marble yards to protect the workmen.
I quote from my diary:
"May 28th, 1864.
"Arrived in hell last night, and now am reclining on a bag half stuffed with sawdust, which is red and sticky. Haven't seen a doctor. This place of the spirits damned is a shed of rough planks about 150 feet long, I should judge, by about 50 feet wide. The coffins in which we lie are about six by three feet. Shrouds, called bed-clothes, of coarse sacking. The mattresses are stuffed with shucks, straw, sawdust-anything that comes handy. There are only two brute attendants, both black (they call them nurses, God save the mark!) to take care of us. The odor is fearful, the heat unbearable. It is sweet to die for one's country."
All that day there was only one visit from a sorely harassed surgeon, accompanied by a brutal negro, who I saw take a dead soldier, preparatory to burial, and place the stiffened limbs in all kinds of fantastic attitudes, enjoying his diabolical exhibition with as keen zest as a child playing with a doll.
The beds were so close together that a patient could touch his right and left neighbor by simply stretching his arms. A narrow window placed at intervals half lighted the room, but wholly failed in any purpose of ventilation. Not a mouthful was given us for supper or for breakfast next morning, and it was not until noon that some hardtack and rye coffee was handed around by the callous Caliban. The condition of affairs in that close-cribbed Gehenna was shocking.
On my right a young soldier had passed away peacefully during the night; I tried to attract the attention of the hospital nurse, but failed, so pulled the blanket over the dead face. On my left was a stalwart soldier who raved in delirium, with none, to notice or care for him. The water given us was lukewarm and unpalatable, and the all-pervading gloom depressed the spirits. The jolting of the train had started many wounds bleeding afresh, and there should have been at least a staff of surgeons to those hundred and odd patients, every one of them wounded seriously.
The second day was but a repetition of the first. Many begged to be taken outside to lie in the sun-anywhere to get out of that dark, foul-smelling place. I wrote an urgent letter to my sister, who occupied a Government position in the city, and begged her for God's sake to get me away.
On the third day several Sisters of Charity and a robed priest entered, bringing hope and comfort with them.
Just here I desire to give a willing tribute to the devotees of that denomination. The heart of the Roman Catholic Church South was profoundly interested in the cause of Secession. Their devotion was intense, their deeds the theme of all praise. In the very smoke of the battle the priests could be seen succoring the wounded or making content the last hours of the dying. Neither hardships nor danger could daunt those faithful men, who worked from motives holy and pure. In the hospitals the garb of the sisters was ever seen, and the woe that they alleviated the Omnipotent only knows. These divine women would "go into the highways and byways," leaving others to attend the patients in the regular hospitals, and would sally out and hunt up the unfortunate in just such festering holes as we were stewing in. Blessings upon the sisterhood with its white caps, saintly presence, meek, soft eyes and tender touch; every veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia will always hold them in a most sweet remembrance.
The three days I spent in that hospital were the most terrible of my life; with nothing to do but to fight away the bloated flies which clung to the wounded spots until they were mashed. I am convinced that a month in that Hades would either have killed or maddened any patient. Like many, I sank into a listless melancholy and cared for nothing on this mundane sphere.
On the third day my sister, accompanied by the surgeon of the post, found me, and within an hour I was transferred to a private hospital in Franklin Street.
This home was the result of the efforts of a devoted woman who, without money, collected enough by persistent endeavor from the Richmond people to found a hospital, which was supported entirely by voluntary contributions. The most seriously wounded soldiers were treated there.
Miss Sallie Tompkins was the heroine and she threw her whole soul into her work; her hospital, "The Robertson," was incomparably the best in Richmond, and lucky the soldier whose form rested upon the snowy sheets of this retreat.
Miss Sallie as a quartermaster would have been worth her weight in gold; she was a born forager, and no matter how scarce vegetables might be in the beleagured city, she always managed to secure enough for her patients; indeed, fed them so well that some of them actually grew fat and refused to go home on a wounded furlough because they had such a royal time at The Robertson, which, by the way, was situated in the most fashionable part of the city.
If the sanitary side of the house was complete, the medical department was no less so under the management of one of the most eminent surgeons in the Confederate States, and his skill was only equalled by his kindness and great heart.
Doctor A. Y. P. Garnett was probably the most popular man among the soldiers in the South. He effected wonderful cures at The Robertson, and would stay by the seriously wounded day and night, fighting death step by step.
Surely if all the wounded that Dr. Garnett pulled through and made whole would join ranks, there would he a very strong brigade of staunch, lusty fellows, who but for him would have made rich the soil.
To have been born a gentleman and reared as such, to prove worthy of one's birth and training, is to have reached the summit of every man's high ambition. Coming from a race whose blood was pure for generations, Dr. Garnett inherited also the bright brain of his ancestors, and by his talents made a name which has ever been famous in Virginia.
He was the family physician of Mr. Jefferson Davis and of General Robert E. Lee, and an intimate social friend of the leaders of the Confederacy. Indeed his influence over Mr. Davis was second to none, and he was often chosen by officers high in rank to broach schemes to the President which conspired for the benefit of the country.
Miss Sallie made a set of rules and expected obedience from her soldier pets, who loved her, every man of them. At eight A. M. breakfast was served; at ten the lady visitors came, bringing food, wine and flowers, and many remained all day, reading to or writing for the disabled, or assisting Miss Sallie about the house. At two dinner was served in the patients' rooms and in the dining-room; at seven supper, and until nine those patients who were able were allowed to leave the hospital for recreation or visiting; but they were to be back punctually at the stated hour or the door was locked; but repeated summons always brought Miss Sallie in person. She would not say much, but before those rebuking eyes the bravest soldier in the Confederacy would quake.
Miss Sallie trusted to the honor of her patients, and it was laughable to see some half-tight six-footer blush and stammer his excuses before the reproving four feet ten inches of femininity.
There were hundreds of the wounded sent home daily from the various hospitals, and nearly every farm-house in southside Virginia had one or more patients to attend to.
A party of ladies from the country came to The Robertson to choose convalescents to take back with them. I was drawn by a Colonel Ashlin, and was to leave the next morning, Miss Sallie promising to have my ticket and passport ready.
Now I wanted my comrade, Will Edelin, to go along, Dr. Garnett having good-naturedly said that a little rusticating would not hurt him; hut he looked too rotund and rosy to pass off for a patient under treatment. I told Edelin that he should go, but he said that without his furlough and medical passport it was impossible.
He helped me into the canal boat the next morning, and when the lines were being cast off, the mules touched up and the guard was driving everybody ashore whose papers were not en regle, I was taken with a succession of fainting spells, and hung on to Edelin so tightly and implored the guards so piteously not to take him from me, that despite his orders he weakened, and my friend was soon sitting on deck under the awning, as blithe as a cricket.