The Christian and Sanitary Commissions.
August 20. I have read a great deal in the papers of the Christian and Sanitary commissions, of the noble and humane work they were doing and the immense amount of money contributed for their support by the people throughout the north and west. I have taken a great interest in these commissions and have supposed they were a kind of auxiliary to the medical and surgical department of the army, carrying and dispensing some simple medicines, pouring in the balm of gilead and binding up gaping wounds, giving comfort and consolation to the sick, weary and distressed; but in all this, so far as my observation has gone. I find I have been laboring under a delusion. Since I have been here is the first I have ever seen of the workings of these commissions, and I have watched them with some interest and taken some pains to find out about them. Here is a branch of each, located midway the convalescent camp and sick hospital, and I find they are little else than sutler’s shops, and poor ones at that. These places arc said to furnish without money and without price to the inmates of this hospital and the boys in the trenches such little notions and necessities as we have been accustomed to buy of the sutlers, and in consequence of this no sutlers are allowed to locate anywhere in this vicinity. The boys are not supposed to be fooling away their money to these thieving sutlers when our folks at home are willing to supply our little needs, free gratis for nothing. So when we happen to want a lemon or a pencil, a sheet of paper or a piece of tobacco, or whatever other little notion we require, all we have to do is to apply to one or the other commission and make known our wants; after answering all the questions they are pleased to ask we are given a slice of lemon, a half sheet of paper or a chew of tobacco. These are not wholesale establishments.
Fortunately for me I have stood in very little need of anything within their gift. I seldom solicit any favors and those are granted so grudgingly I almost despise the gift. My first experience with these institutions was one day when I was out of tobacco, I called on the Christians and told them how I was situated. I got a little sympathy in my misfortunes and a short lecture on the sin of young men contracting such bad habits, when I was handed a cigar box containing a small quantity of fine cut tobacco and told to take a chew. I asked them if they couldn’t let me have a small piece that would do me for a day or two. “Oh, no; that is not our way of doing business.” “Will you sell me a piece? I would as soon buy of you as of the sutler.” “Oh no; it is against our orders to sell anything. All there is here is free, it costs you nothing.” He then put up a small quantity and gave me. The next day I sent down to the Point and bought some. My next call was for a pencil. I was handed a third of one. I said if that is the best you can do perhaps you had better keep it. He then gave me a whole one. I got out of writing paper and thought I would beg some. I called for it, and was given a half sheet. I used that and went for more, and when I had finished my letter, I had been six times to the Christian’s. I sent down to the Point and bought some. I sometimes think I should like a lemon, but there is poor encouragement for calling for one, as I notice that others calling for them only get a thin slice of one.
This is the first place I ever got into where I could neither buy, steal nor beg. I notice the officers fare a little better; they get in fair quantity almost anything they call for. I sometimes stand around for an hour and watch the running of this machine and wonder that in this business of giving goods away where the necessity for lying comes in, and yet I notice that this is practiced to some extent. Sometimes a person calling for an article will be told they are out of it, but expect some when the team come up from the Point. In a little while after perhaps some officer will call for the same thing and get it.
This Christian commission seems to be the headquarters for visitors. They stay a few days, going as near the trenches as they dare to, and in the chapel tent in the evening will tell over their adventures and pray most fervently for the boys who hold them. We are never short of visitors, as soon as one party goes, another comes, and they all seem to be good Christian men, taking great interest in the welfare of our souls.
Among our visitors is a tall, lean, middle-aged man whom I know must have seen right smart of trouble. His face is snarled and wrinkled up in such a way that it resembles the face of a little dog when catching wasps. Although there is no benevolent expression on his countenance, he yet has more sympathy to the square inch than any other man I ever saw. He takes a great interest in this convalescent camp and seems to have taken it under his special charge. He will be in this camp all day, calling on all hands, inquiring after their health and needs, praying with them, giving them sympathy and good advice. He will come round giving a thin slice of lemon to all who will take it, and will sometimes go through the camp with a basket of linen and cotton rags and a bottle of cologne, sprinkling a little on a rag and give it to any one who will take it and at the same time will distribute religious tracts. Some days he will come round with a bottle of brandy and some small lumps of sugar, on which he will drop three or four drops of the brandy and give it to any one who says they are troubled with bowel complaints, at the same time telling them he hopes it will do them good.
One day he came along distributing temperance tracts. He looked into my tent and inquired if there were any objections to his leaving some. I replied there were no reasons known to exist why he might not leave all he wished to. I then said: “You are laboring in a very worthy cause, but you seem to be working the wrong field, or as Col. Crockett used to say, barking up the wrong tree, for we here might just as well cast our nets into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, thinking to catch speckled trout as to think of getting any liquor. Your field of labor would seem to he up in the officers’ ward where you deal out your liquors.” The old gentleman sighed at such perverseness and went along. He will work this camp all day from early morning till night, giving every one something, and in all that time will not give away the value of fifty cents.
Now I don’t wish to cast any reflections or create any false impressions in regard to these commissions. I have only written my experience and observations as to their workings in this convalescent camp. So far as anything that I know to the contrary, they may be doing a great and humane work in the wounded and sick hospital, and I am charitable enough to allow that they are, but if the whole system of it throughout the army is conducted as niggardly as I have seen it here then there must be some superb lying done by somebody to account for all the money that is being contributed for its support.