Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for The Color Guard, A Corporal’s Notes, James Kendall Hosmer.

The Color Guard, A Corporal’s Notes, James Kendall Hosmer.

January 19, 2013

The Color Guard, A Corporal's Notes, James Kendall Hosmer


Jan. 19.—One by one, all the phases of military life are passing before me. Camp and transport life I know,—picket and guard duty, and the routine of drill. For a month, this has been our life, — a tedious and uneventful season, whose incidents it is idle to record. The battle-field, so far, has kept aloof with its bloody terrors; but now I am face to face with a chapter of the soldier’s life, less hideous than the battle-field perhaps, yet full of sadness. Suddenly I come to see hospital-service; and, as I feel to-night, it is quite possible I may see much of it: for while there is so much sickness in the regiment, and I continue well, perhaps I can best employ myself in nursing. I am writing here at ten at night, in what the doctor calls my “ward;” a pleasant, airy chamber belonging to the officers of our company, who, however, with great kindness, have given it up to Ed. and Sergeant Grosvenor, who are here sick of fever. I snatch the intervals between the calls of my two patients to write. Two of our men sleep here on the floor, who are to watch part of the night. It will be an hour or two before I go to bed; and I may have an opportunity to write a good deal.

My first visit to the hospital put me face to face with its gloomiest spectacles. A mail had come, and it fell to me .to distribute to the patients their letters. I had been giving letters to well men, had my own pocket full, was happy myself, and had come from among men happy as men ever are; for I have discovered the secret of happiness to be hidden in mail-bags. I rushed up the stairs leading to the second story of the building, the rooms of which are used as part of the hospital. Two or three doors were before me. I opened the first, and found myself alone in the presence of a corpse. It was the body of a man who had died the night before. He lay in full soldier’s dress, decently brushed coat with military buttons,—his “martial cloak around him,” — and with a white cloth covering the face. He was buried in the afternoon; the regiment drawn up in a hollow square, solemnly silent, while the service was performed; then standing reverently while the body and its escort with the muffled drum moved to the burial. I have heard of the “wail” of the fife, but never made it real to myself until then, when across the parade-ground, down the street, then from the distance, came the notes of the “Dead March.”

In the next room to the one in which lay the corpse, the floor was covered with pale, sick men. Now they have rough bedsteads, “bunks;” but then there was nothing but the mattress under them, and sometimes only the blankets. One or two attendants, as many as could be spared from the regiment, had the care of the whole; but they were far too few. One poor man was in a sad way, with inflammatory rheumatism, which made it very painful for him to stir; and, at the same time, with dysentery, so that he required to be lifted every few minutes. Pale, forlorn men, away from friends, tended by nurses who have no special interest in them, and are overworked, —crouching, wrapped up in blankets over the fire, or stretched out on a floor. God pity the world if it has sights in it more melancholy than a military hospital!

The hospital of our regiment is only in part located in these rooms, of which I have been writing. Most of the patients (I am sorry to write, they are very numerous) are in a larger building, once a hotel, which lies a few rods outside the lines. Well do I know the road thither now, by night or day, by storm or sunshine; for, after the doctor’s visits, it is my work to go to the hospital-steward after the medicines and comforts for my sick men. How many times already have I climbed the steep clay bank of the parapet, then slid down into the ditch outside! — a hill of difficulty in bad weather, when one’s feet slip from under him in the slimy soil. The old bar-room of the hotel is now the hospital-kitchen and head-quarters of the surgeon and steward. Above the bar is a flaring gilt sign, “Rainbow Saloon;” and below it, along the shelves which once held the liquors, are arranged the apothecary stores of the regiment. The steward is constantly busy, — one of the hardest-worked men in the regiment, I believe; for he prepares pills and powders by the thousand, and the rattle of his pestle is almost constant.

In the rooms above lie the sick men, and in one apartment the surgeon is quartered. Every morning, just at light, “surgeon’s call” is beaten; and from each company a sergeant marches off at the head of a long line of sick men to be prescribed for. These are men unwell, but not so badly off as to be obliged to leave their ordinary quarters for the accommodations of the hospital.

Let us go up stairs into this second story. At the head of the staircase, the door of a room is ajar; and I see the bed on which generally is lying one of the sickest patients of the hospital, some man near to death, — a comfortable, canopied bed, a death-bed for numbers. To-night, poor Paine, of our company, who died a little while ago, has just been laid out there. An entry runs north and south, from which, on each side, open the doors of other sick-rooms, where men with fever and dysentery, with agues, and racking, lung-shattering coughs, lie stretched on mattresses. Here is one with ghastly fever-light in his eyes; there, one pale and hollow-cheeked. Wrapped to the chin in blankets, some are; some parched with the fire of disease,— their buttons and gay dress-coats, the finery in which they used to appear at dress-parade, hanging forlornly overhead.

The nurses, too, look jaded and worn: and no wonder; for, with a dismal contagion, the torpor and weariness in the faces about will communicate itself to the attendants and visitors, and the most cheerful countenance can hardly help becoming forlorn. Our chaplain and colonel (both good, energetic, and useful men) make it part of their daily duty to go to every couch, and befriend the poor fellows lying there; and their visits are the golden hours of the day at the hospital, — waited and prayed for. The doctor’s apartment is large. In one corner are piled up the “stretchers,” the cots with handles (half-bed, half-bier), which are meant to carry wounded men off the field. At daybreak, each day, this room is filled with the procession which answers the surgean’s call.

Now I am a nurse in the hospital; though in the room, my “ward,” I have only two patients, and can make things more comfortable than in most of the rooms. Only two patients: but they both have this terrible fever; and I fear (God knows how much!) for this young brother. Yet I must veil my apprehension. To-night, a letter must be sent North. My heart is sinking; but I must counterfeit light-heartedness, lest they take alarm.

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