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

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

January 26, 2013

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

Baton Rouge, Jan. 26.

Dear P., —This evening is really the first time when fatigue and work give me some respite, and I can begin to give you the sad particulars, — how our much-beloved Benjamin went from earth into the bosom of the Father. Tears and convulsive sobbing are now over with. I am calm, as I begin; and perhaps I can go through the detail with the gathering of no film and the trembling of no nerve. I am left here forlorn; my pride and joy taken from my side. It is evening now. I still am in the house where he died, — a deserted house now; its only tenants to-night being Robert Bodwell (the good fellow who helped me nurse him) and I. We are not in the room where he died, but just across the hall, in the chamber where we went after we had laid him out, that we might watch close at hand, and yet not intrude upon his solemn sleep in death. The clouds are dark, and the wind blows damp and chill from the northward, across the fresh turf upon his grave, then against these shutters. The last duty now is done. In the centre of the floor stands the box in which I have packed his things,—knapsack and cap, clothing and canteen, and soldier’s blanket, — all worn and marked as he wore and marked them; but they will be all the more precious for the stain upon the woollen, the hole in the garment, the rust upon the blade.

The first complaint of sickness which he made, I remember, was a fortnight ago this very day. We were ordered to stand under arms an hour before breakfast. It was raw and dark; and the companies, shivering and with empty stomachs, were severely drilled. I recall, that, when he came in, he sat down, — the new morning light showing his fatigue, — and said, “It was too much for him: the double-quick caused nausea, and almost made him vomit.” Still, through that day he was about his work, as usual, —at every drill, and calling the roll at night by his lantern’s light, wrapped in his blue overcoat. Tuesday he was too sick for duty. He complained of weakness and dizziness whenever he attempted to stand; but his spirits were good, and I never imagined it could be more than a temporary illness, he has been so constantly well, — “the stoutest fellow in the company,” as they said when he was sick. He lay still on the floor of the tent all day, — he and Sergeant Grosvenor, who was sick in the same way, — his rifle just at his head, polished, and ready for service; his constant companion, but henceforth to know him no more, except during one brief half-hour, when, in the midst of the uncovered and weeping regiment, it lay, with his belts and crimson sash, upon his coffin-lid. I remember he was full of jokes even then; and I did not notice, as others did, that his cheek was unhealthily flushed, and his breath too short. At night, as we lay side by side, I threw my arm around his neck, and remember now how hot and dry his face was, and how short his breath. Hannum, who is an experienced nurse, startled me in the morning. He thought Ed. might have a fever. He was plainly sick, and our company-officers sent for him to come at once to their quarters. That Wednesday morning, Ed. and I together left the tent, came slowly along the pleasant river-bank, with the plantations beyond, —his last little walk on earth, — climbed the stairs, and crossed the threshold of the room now so hallowed.

Daily he became weaker and weaker. He was soon unable to raise himself; and when, in the afternoon, the fever ran high, and it was time to bathe him, it was hard work to push up his solid young shoulders till he sat upright, and then hold him propped against my breast till he was arranged. Then the heat of the fever! I would pass the cloth, wet with cooling spirit, over his skin; and presently it would flame with red, as if, poor boy! his life within him, beleaguered by disease, threw out the crimson hospital-flag to win forbearance. He became delirious too, though not often wildly so; sometimes calling the company to “fall in,” sometimes crying out “to save the colors,” as if in battle; and I remember, too, he talked of all of you. Still, there was less of delirium than stupor. His hearing and sight grew dull, and his mind apathetic: yet I believe he always knew me; and he showed a touching confidence that I would do just what was best, which started the tears more than once.

The morning of the day before he died, I thought there was great improvement. His mind was clear, and he had passed a quiet night without an opiate. His pulse, I thought, was slower and stronger; and I moved about him light-hearted. He asked again, and again to be bathed. He was not very feverish; but the doctor had told me to let his inclinations guide me: so at length I yielded, and gave him a bath. Robert and I had found a bedstead in another room, broader than his bunk, which I thought would be so much more comfortable for him, that we took it. After his bath, he seemed so well, that we moved him to his new bed. Then I tucked him in all clean and sweet, ready for the doctor’s visit; feeling sure there would be encouragement. Ed, however, now began to show great exhaustion; and, when the doctor came, there was an ominous silence. I feared we had done too much, with the bathing and moving: but the doctor made light of them, saying he had seen some symptoms, the night previous, of a tendency to congestion of the lungs; which symptoms he now found much more -marked. After the doctor left, Ed. grew rapidly more weak, until, in my alarm, I sent for him again. He made use, at once, of violent tonics and stimulants, — quinine and brandy, — and had recourse to that expedient which always seems to me so desperate, — chest-blistering. We wrapped his feet, too, in cloths soaked in mustard-water. The extremities began to grow cold and clammy, and I felt that the dear boy’s hours were numbered, I went out a few minutes for the air, and wandered helplessly along the river-bank, overwhelmed with agony, — he sinking away from me into a gulf; and, though I reached and yearned after him with all my love, it was no cord that could support him or draw him back to me. About noon, the chill and torpor in which he had lain some hours gave way to fever and delirium. He laughed and shouted wildly with the crowd of phantoms who came trooping to him in his morbid dream, and clutched convulsively at the coverlid. While Ed. had been sinking, Mr. Grosvenor had been recovering; so that now both Robert and I could be constantly at his side. We gave him cooling drinks, and the powerful medicines the doctor had prescribed. Ed. showed no sign of pain; and, though delirious, recognized us when we spoke to him. His voice continued to have its strong, vigorous sound. I could hardly control myself sufficiently to keep at his bedside; but I choked back my grief. There was still hope: he was young and strong, and might, after all, rally; but his breathing was very bad, and his galloping heart could not keep its pace without soon being exhausted. In the evening, a friend I could trust came in, and insisted I should go to bed while he took my place; promising to call me if there should be any change. I lay down in this room where I am writing now, just across the hall from his chamber. Once or twice in the night I woke up, and could hear his voice, strong and firm, through the closed door.

The morning of the fatal Saturday, Jan. 24, came at last. I was in the room, refreshed by my night’s rest, at seven o’clock. “I am glad to see you again was his greeting,” spoken very earnestly. He was pale and wasted, though his eye and countenance had the old natural look. I lay down at his side, with my head by his pillow; a post I hardly left, except to give him medicine or nourishment, until the last. About eight, the doctor came, but saw little change from the night previous. He continued the same treatment, and still had hope. Ed. was uneasy, but in no apparent pain. He would ask to be moved or lifted, or suggest something he thought might give him comfort; but, if it was impracticable, he would give it up, yielding most sweetly and tenderly to every suggestion of mine. ” Oh! never mind; just as you say,” with a softness and trust in his tone and look, I cannot think of without a sob.

And now ten o’clock was approaching. I had thrown open the windows and blinds to receive the summer air of the day. The sun was just veiled by white vapor, the river flowed calm and full, and the sound of bugles and bands came in from the camps a mile away. I lay at his side as before. Mr. Grosvenor, a fine man and full of sympathy, now convalescent, sat before the fire with Robert. The sick man became more quiet, and his breathing changed. The hand of death was upon him. I hastily put a cup of brandy to his lips, which he swallowed with difficulty. I sent Robert at once for the doctor; and he had hardly left the room when the dear boy’s spirit went upward. There was no agony or spasm; one or two short, quick breathings, and all was over, — the minute-hand just pointing to the second minute after ten.

He went from earth calm in mind, and composed, — painless, fearless, hopeful to the end. He sent you no messages of love. I wish it had been otherwise; but the angels’ arms were around him ere we were aware. After all, perhaps it was as well there should be no parting pang,—no disappointment as his hopes fell; though I believe he would have faced his fate with all his noble courage, and with high faith and trust.

A short paroxysm of grief, and I was calm enough to go forward with what was to be done. The chaplain came in, full of the sympathy of a brother; so the doctor. An experienced nurse came over from the main hospital. I bathed the straight, sinewy limbs for the last time. We clothed his tall figure in the familiar soldier’s suit,—the brave young limbs and shoulders in their own loyal blue. I wiped his lips and cheeks, and smoothed his locks. I took from his finger his little ring. Presently the coffin came. I helped to bring it up stairs and lay it by him. The captain came in, and paid his tribute of tears above the corpse of his old right-hand man; then he, I, and a fellow-sergeant, lifted him gently; put his blouse, covered with a white cloth, for a pillow; then laid him tenderly in his coffin; smoothing softly his garments; brushing with reverent care every speck of dust away; putting in view his sergeant’s badge,—the diamond trebly underscored,—to which office he did honor.

As the day wore on, I went to the burying-ground, where lie the dead soldiers of our regiment, to choose the best spot for him. The ground lies a few rods east of the old United-States Arsenal Buildings, and was once a cemetery of the city, though now it is used for the interment of soldiers. Five or six fresh graves lay in a row,—Roberts, Thomson, Culver, and last our own Paine; large, high mounds, and at the head an oaken board with name, regiment, and date. The row begins near the fence, and runs northward. The fence is of wood, thickly covered with a climbing rose; a dense, luxuriant, beautiful vine, full of bright-green leaves, with the seed-vessels still remaining from the former blossoms. It wraps the palings so they can hardly be seen; then droops over upon the ground, and spreads its tendrils toward the soldiers’ graves. Just over the fence, outside, stands a thick, venerable tree (beech, I believe), whose limbs are swathed heavily with the funereal gray moss. From the foot of the graves, the ground goes downward in a rapid slope. The spot has not the beauty of a cemetery carefully cared for; but it is not unlovely. Perhaps it is not inappropriate, that a short distance off runs the line of intrenchments, through embrasures in which silent cannon watch day and night. I chose for the grave a spot left vacant close by the fence, where the vine could droop directly over it, and the rose-leaves could fall upon it, and the tree, with its mossy harps, could pour its sighing requiems above it. I marked the spot; and Sergeant Hannum, with four who loved him, presently had dug his resting-place.

The funeral was to be on Sunday, at noon. I sat, in the evening of the day he died, with Robert, when presently came steps on the stairs; then Capt. Morton, with Sergeant Warriner and Arthur Sprague, both fine singers, came in. They knew him, as the whole regiment had known him; and Capt. Morton, to do him honor, tendered the escort of his company, while the other two begged to be allowed to arrange a fine choir with appropriate music. I have not mentioned, that, during Ed.’s sickness, the camp of the regiment had been moved from the river-bank into a wood in the suburbs of the town. The tents had gone from the river-bank, and the officers had left the house; so that, during the last days of his life, Ed. and his watchers in the upper chamber were alone in the house.

Sunday came, fragrant and balmy. The heavens were full of clouds, like angels’ wings; no parching heat, but grateful air, inspired with all sweet odors. Spring birds sang in the trees. In solemn calm poured the great river before the windows where he slept. In good time, around the corner of the building, came young first Sergeant Bertram, Ed.’s familiar friend, marching at the head of the escort; all with burnished arms. They halt in front of the house. Bias Dickinson and Henry Morton come up stairs, and help me arrange on his coffin-lid his equipments. Lie there, eagle that he bore upon his broad breast; and there, shining badge with which he clasped his belt; now his well-kept gun, and here the sash and cap. For the last time I smooth his hair, compose his limbs and dress, that he may seem to his comrades truly to lie like a “warrior taking his rest.” Now replace the lid, and let eight of your strongest lift the burden.

transparent“Slow; for it presses heavily:
transparentIt is a man ye bear!”

Down the stairway he had climbed a fortnight before, with halting feet, through the garden in front; now into his hearse. His guard of honor stand with arms reversed; half to march in front, half behind; broad platoons of young soldiers, with downcast faces. Across the parade-ground slowly now. How well it had known his vigorous foot-beat! Now through the rampart and the streets of the town, — the bells of the Catholic church meantime tolling for service, — past the frowning penitentiary, into the shade of trees, until, at length, we saw the tents of the regiment. A majestic temple we had brought him to. Magnolias, with broad, rich foliage, ever green, and trees hung with moss, formed lofty aisles with intersecting branches: and within one of these we placed him; trembling shadows passing upon his pall, his weapons and belts and badges of office lying on the lid. I could not trust myself to look around: but my eye fell upon field-officers, their eyes shaded with their hands; and from behind me, where our company was arranged, I heard the sound of much sobbing. How have you told me, comrades, that you loved him! Manly Rogers, happy-hearted Brown and Hannum, his fellow-sergeants,—from you, from captain and all, there is no dearth of sympathy.

The service begins. The chaplain, with a broken voice, reads the selections; then came the grand hymn, “Mourn not that his kin are far,” Warriner and Browning and young Cyrus Stowell and first Sergeant Arms of B. The notes rose and swelled, and mingled with sweet tree-whisperings and the sobs of soldiers. Their voices choked, and they had to wipe the tears away to see the words. “Warriner, let me have your copy.” Is it not a grand requiem for a young soldier? —

“Mourn not that his kin are far,
While we lay him in the grave;
For his fellow-soldiers are
Loving brothers of the brave.
And his tender mother here
Shrouds him as a warrior thus:
‘Tis his country, loved so dear, —
Mother, too, of all of us.
Sleeping soft, the youth shall lie
Calmly here beneath the sod,
Where, a living sacrifice,
He his body gave to God.
Now let martial music sound!
Beat the dead-march for the brave!
Lower him gently in the ground!
Fire a volley o’er his grave!”

And now the prayer is said. Captain, take his arms and belts. He is through with them. This little bunch of Southern lilies, fragrant as his memory, I have further use for. I take them into my hand from the pall. Now, Grider, the blacksmith, and Prime, stout Pocumtuc farmer, and the rest, take him in your arms again, and to his hearse. The wail of the dead-march and the painful throb of the muffled drum! I love him and magnify him; and it sounds to me like the agonized heart-beat of the genius of his country who had lost him. Slow through the glades of the forest: the sun of noon strikes down, as we reach the street, upon the shining arms of the escort, and the hundred young men, the mourners who march behind. Slowly and tenderly; and now the little hill is climbed, into the cemetery, and the dead-march ceases. Lay him here on this convenient tomb; the last prayer; then choir of youths, “Calm on the bosom of thy God.” How sweet! how soft! We have taken off his coffin-lid again: straight and tall he lies at full length. His head is turned a little to one side, and his lips wear a soft and natural smile.

“They that have seen thy look in death,
No more may fear to die.”

His brothers in arms march in order to take the last look: then it is my turn. Beautiful in death! The ghastliness of the fever is in great part gone. The features are emaciated somewhat, and the mouth rather more compressed than usual, giving to the nose a fine Roman curve; not enough to be unnatural, and yet wonderfully dignifying the face, — a faint foreshadowing of the fine mien and presence into which the boy might have matured. I know I am showing brotherly extravagance: but now the thought comes to me of the eager youth leading his charge; and, as heretofore, the passage comes into my mind, from Henry IV. I think it is, “I saw young Harry with his armor on; beautiful as the herald Mercury new-lighted on some heaven-kissing hill!” Something like that, I believe; so lithe of limb; so free and strong and jocund; a young winged god of the Greeks! I would rather have had him fall in battle; but I know him to be just as much a brave martyr to exposure and faithful work in the cause: and hereafter, if conflict is joined, and his old charge come face to face with the foe; when they stand with steady discipline, and overwhelm assault with rattling tide of fire, — to him be in part the honor, though he lie cold in death! I have my lilies in my hand, now upon the pillow right here by his cheek, one for each one of us; then a deep, warm kiss upon the brow, and the leave-taking is over. They held aside the climbing vine, and lowered him in his grave. Suddenly, at the word of command, a line of shining barrels was levelled over him, then a loud volley, telling through the camps and town afar that a soldier was at rest. Three times it was repeated, sending echoes far over the river and back into the forest to the outmost solitary vidette; then all was done.

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