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
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
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
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
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
To have been born a gentleman and reared as such,
to prove worthy of oneís birth and training, is to have reached the summit
of every manís 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 patientsí 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.
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