CHAPTER LXI. SOLDIER MINSTRELS.
You may see at certain points on Broadway, maimed and battered veterans, sitting through the whole day grinding a hand-organ for a living. These men have heard sterner music than that by which they earn their scanty subsistence, and have participated in a nobler struggle for life.
THE STORY OF A PATRIOT.
In the spring of 1861, there went through the States of the Union a cry that had never been heard in them before. It was the thrilling appeal of the Union for aid against its foes. How it was answered, how thousands of warriors started forth at the call, all men know.
Among those who responded to this call, was a young man just entering upon the great drama of life. He had worked hard during his boyhood, and was at this time one of the most promising and skilful mechanics in one of our eastern cities. It was a great sacrifice for him to abandon all the bright prospects before him; but the love of country was warm in his breast, and he made the sacrifice cheerfully.
John Williams saw his first active service in the numerous outpost and picket encounters, which marked the autumn and winter of 1861, while the army under General McClellan was organizing on the banks of the Potomac. There he distinguished himself by his firmness and vigilance, as well as by his unfaltering courage.
When the campaign of the Peninsula began, he was with the advance of the army, and participated in the great reconnoisance of the 5th and 6th of April, 1862. At Williamsburg he was wounded in the arm, and did not return to the army until the great battles of 'the seven days' had commenced. He bore himself bravely through the whole of this trying time, and came out of the fights unhurt.
During the retreat through White Oak Swamp, it was necessary to destroy a small foot-bridge over a little watercourse. The enemy were pressing on behind, and the task of demolishing the bridge was one of great danger. General Sumner, seeing the condition of affairs, called for one volunteer to cut away the log that still supported the structure. John Williams sprang forward, and, seizing the axe which was held out to him, dashed towards the bridge. In another instant his heavy blows were falling on the log, sending its chips right and left. He had scarcely begun when the enemy's skirmishers appeared on the other side of the stream. Seeing him thus engaged, they opened a rapid fire upon him. The balls flew all around him, two went through his hat, and his comrades looked every moment for his death. But he did not shrink from his post. He only brought the axe down heavier and faster upon the log. A minute of painful suspense to his friends went by, and then the bridge fell, with a crash, into the stream. Waving his cap triumphantly, the brave fellow rejoined his company. For this gallant deed Private Williams was, at General Sumner's special request, made a corporal.
From Harrison's Landing he went with the army to the Potomac again, and followed McClellan to South Mountain and Antietam. Here his conduct again drew upon him the notice of his officers; and when the army lay at Harper's Ferry, preparatory to its advance into Virginia, he received his sergeant's warrant, and a flattering note from General Sumner, who, although wounded himself, had not forgotten him.
He was at Fredericksburg, and there lost his left arm. It was a severe trial to him, for in the trade to which he had been trained, and to which he hoped to return at the close of the war, both arms were necessary. Nevertheless, he bore up against everything, and submitted to his long and painful suffering as only a brave man can. When the wound was healed, he went back to his command. He had no idea of claiming his discharge for the loss of only one arm. He said, cheerfully, he would only leave the service when the other arm, or a leg, went from him.
He was well enough to participate in the battle of Chancellorsville, but not sufficiently restored to health to meet the fate which there befell him, for, toward the close of the second day's engagement, he was taken prisoner. A few days later he was marched to Richmond, and there became an inmate of the famous 'Libby prison.' A dreary attack of sickness followed his arrival there, and lasted several months.
Hospital life, even among one's own friends, is not pleasant. To a prisoner, among his enemies, even though they be kind and humane, it is horrible. He is constantly haunted by the fear that he will die there, and that his fate will never be known to his friends at home. So, in spite of the bravery of Sergeant Williams, this feeling constantly preyed upon him and retarded his recovery.
The weeks and months went by slowly, and at last the long imprisonment came to an end. The sick man was sent back to the North, among a number of others, who were exchanged under a special arrangement. A furlough was granted him to go home and recruit his health. He was so weak and thin when he went back to his old home, that his friends scarcely knew him. But his native air, and the cheerful home scenes, soon brought him up again, and when he returned to his regiment, he was as well and as hearty as ever. He reached the army just after Grant had taken command of it, and was reorganizing it for the last grand campaign against Richmond.
He began the march with a light heart and happy anticipations. They were cut short at Cold Harbor, where he lost his right leg. His days of service were now over, and he went into the hospital to await his recovery, when he would have to go back to the world unfitted for almost any avocation. Still he consoled himself with the hope that the people for whom he had fought and suffered, would not let him lack for some means of employment.