If you want to know how a hero feels in the trenches get behind a tree not quite big enough to cover you, and let two or three persons, who would just as lieve hit you as not, throw stones at you. Like every thing else in the way of fighting it is frankly uncomfortable, and nothing makes one put up with it but a sense of right and duty and honor. This is not the poetical view of battle, as you find it in Charles O'Malley and Guy Livingstone; but the author of Charles was never under fire, and the creator of Guy is reported to have run like an assistant-company-cook at
Before describing minutely how it went in the trenches let me explain rapidly how I came there. Having beaten Mouton at
Look at a wave rushing up a sloping beach against a line of rocks, and you will see the history of an assaulting column directed against fortifications. At a distance the billow seems irresistible; near at hand the under-current has deprived it of half its force; at last merely a little spray dashes upon the final impediment. Just so slaughter, misdirection, dispersion, and skulking enfeeble the column until only hundreds out of thousands reach the point of hand-to-hand fighting. On reflection it is a wonder that any assault succeeds. The attacking force must do what is very difficult in the open field; it must advance without firing against a line which is firing at it; it must do this in spite of difficulties of ground which inevitably break up its organization; and after long-continued slaughter it must scale defenses fringed with bayonets. We were expected that day to charge a mile in face of cannon and musketry, and then to carry earth-works defended by men of our own race. It was right to try the experiment, but it is not surprising that it failed.
My regiment was not pushed across that valley of death where lay the acres of abatis, but was ordered to an isolated position on the left, with instructions to throw out skirmishers and silence artillery. It halted on a knoll shaded by grand magnolias, six or seven hundred yards from the fortifications, and in face of three barbette pieces. Our skirmishers had been sent to the front during our movement to this point, and had already driven the cannoneers from their guns. During the rest of the day we had a quiet and pleasant bout of sharp-shooting. The reserve sprawled at ease under the magnolias, rarely disturbed by bullets bearing wounds and death. Once or twice in an hour a victim sent forth his shriek and was borne away to the surgeon, who had established his field-hospital in a secure neighboring gully. But in the main we could smoke our pipes and discuss the chances of the combat with a fair sense of enjoyment. Meantime the men of the skirmishing companies spread out over a front of nearly half a mile, and, sheltered behind stumps and fallen trees, popped away at the gunners whenever they tried to reload the barbette pieces, at the tents inside of the earthworks, and at every visible creature of the garrison.
At last an unpleasant moment, not unlike that in which you take your seat in a dentists chair, came to the author of this history. When the Colonel said, "Captain, take out your company and relieve Company G", I felt that heavy heart within me which man is almost always conscious of as he deliberately approaches the confines of visible death. With a smile of simulated gayety I turned to my men and shouted, "Fall in!" Five minutes thereafter, the ice of suspense broken, the blood heated with advancing and fighting, that gayety became real. Skirmishing is not nearly so trying as charging or line-fighting. In the first place, you generally have cover; in the second, if you are shot at you can also shoot. Now to fire at a person who is firing at you is somehow wonderfully consolatory and sustaining; more than that, it is exciting, and produces in you the savage but nevertheless natural and unaffected joy of battle. I was presently shouting with enthusiasm, cheering my men with jokes and laughter, jumping over fallen trees instead of crawling under them, and running about regardless of exposure. Then the close whistle of bullets, or their loud whack as they buried themselves in the stumps near me, would drive me temporarily to shelter. Such is skirmishing when it goes nicely, or, in other words, when the enemy is not too numerous. As to being slaughtered and driven back and scared to death, you can not make it pleasant under any circumstances.
There was a moment when it seemed as if Port Hudson was taken. A white flag showed over the rampart, and on every hand the firing died away, while a large body of men, apparently a regiment, filed through a sally-port, stacked arms outside of the entrenchments, and sat down behind the stacks. To those of our skirmishers who had become intermingled with them and asked what their movement meant the Butternuts replied, sullenly, “We suppose that we have surrendered”. Had we had on the spot an officer promptly intelligent enough to order this force to move into the valley the fate of the place would have been decided; for the abandoned works could have been occupied by own skirmish line, which had already reached the ditch, and the example of surrender would doubtless have been quickly followed by other regiments. Company A of the 12th was at the right point, but under the command of a sergeant, its only officer, Captain Brennan, having been just taken to the rear wounded. And thus this propitious moment, this chance which might have saved a long investment and thousands of men, slipped by unimproved. While both armies stood gaping, down came a mounted Confederate officer, supposed to be General Gardner, placed the surrendering colonel under arrest, and sent the surrendered regiment inside the entrenchments. In an instant cannonade and musketry flamed forth with renewed fury, and we recommenced the siege, which was now to last six weeks instead of a single day.
It was not till after the surrender that I learned the inside history of this singular incident. It seems, according to the rebel officers, that the colonel of a New York regiment pushed his way up to an apron which projected from the main works and fought desperately for a while, but finally found himself in a bad box, most of the men who followed him having been disabled and the remainder driven to cover behind logs and stumps. Unable to combat longer he would have been glad to get away, but could not without exposing himself to almost certain death. In this extremity he hoisted a white handkerchief on a stick, and came to a parley with that part of the garrison immediately opposed to him. The rebel colonel in front of us saw this symbol of distress, but, deceived by the distance and the lay of the ground, supposed that it was raised by his comrades of the apron, and being a regular-minded gentleman, disposed to do what was proper, immediately got out his own handkerchief. My informants added that he was still under arrest, and would be tried by court-martial as soon as exchanged. They also stated that the New Yorker eventually escaped from them unhurt.
About two hours after this blundering interlude came the charge of the 12th
I have already intimated that skirmishing is not dangerous. Two men mortally and two severely wounded constituted my whole loss in something like three hours fighting out of a company of forty-one muskets. Four hours after I was relieved the wide-spread, straggling, wavering combat died into silence and night. The day had been a defeat:
With my rubber-blanket for a bed, and my blouse thrown over me for a coverlet, I slept at the foot of a huge magnolia scarred by bullets. The next day there was an armistice, demanded by Banks to bury the dead. In the afternoon we received orders to leave our position in charge of the 24th
Our basin was crammed with the blue uniforms and bright rifles of the three regiments. The men of the 91st sat on their knapsacks, ready to move to another position on the conclusion of the armistice. Prepared to open fire at the same instant, four companies of the 12th, relieving four of the 8th
A little after sunset, just as dusk was stealing into our wood, a signal-gun solemnly terminated the truce. In an instant a sheet of red flashes lit up the dimness, followed by crashes of musketry and the yells of combatants. Then came the roar of artillery, the crackling of shells, and the whistling of grape. We could hear the humming, shrieking, and hissing of the projectiles as they passed over our heads; we could feel the shuddering of the trees against which we leaned, as they were struck; we were conscious of a falling of severed leaves and branches. The order was passed along to lie down, and down we dropped, wherever we might be. As yet none of us knew our exact position with regard to that of the enemy; and, astounded by the unexpectedness and violence of the explosion, we supposed that the rebels had attacked. Gazing steadily at the spitting stream of flashes above me, I expected every moment to be called on to fight with the bayonet. All this, it must be remembered, was in darkness; for the
Presently an order reached me to move my company forward. Now for close-quarters, I thought, with a gravity becoming the moment, and picked my way toward the firing over the bodies of prostrate men. But I was halted at the foot of the bank, and directed to remain there as a reserve. Meantime we had begun to find out that nobody was getting hit, that the missiles were all unquestionably passing over our heads, and that the affair was only terrible considered as a racket. Presently Colonel Thomas of the 8th
“Captain, said he, I don’t want this sort of thing at all. I only want the men to fire as sharp-shooters. This blazing away and yelling like madmen is all nonsense. I wish you would step up there and stop it.”
So I stepped up there and stopped it. Thus terminated one of the most dreadful-looking skirmishes that I ever witnessed. It was sublime, until I discovered that nobody was hurt, and that probably nobody would be hurt if it should last all night. We were sheltered behind fifty feet of solid earth, and the rebels were equally safe on the other side of the ravine. In justice to our men I must observe that they wasted their breath and ammunition under the instructions of a passing staff-officer of division, to pitch in lively as soon as the armistice terminated.
Now came forty days and nights in the wilderness of death. Before we left that diminutive gully fifty or sixty men of the regiment had stained it with their blood, and several of the trees, which filled it with shade, had been cut asunder by cannon-shot, While others were dying under the scars of innumerable bullets. The nuisance of trench duty does not consist in the overwhelming amount of danger at any particular moment, but in the fact that danger is perpetually present. The spring is always bent; the nerves never have a chance to recuperate; the elasticity of courage is slowly worn out. Every morning I was awakened by the popping of rifles and the whistling of balls; hardly a day passed that I did not hear the loud exclamations of the wounded, or see corpses borne to the rear; and the gamut of my good-night lullaby varied all the way from Minie rifles to sixty-eight ponders.
In one respect our gully was detestable. Well covered in front, it was open at one end, and this end was exposed to the enemy. I often wished that I could turn the wretched hole around. From a distance of nearly half a mile the rebel sharp-shooters drew a bead on us with a precision which deserved the highest commendation of their officers, but which made us curse the day they were born. One incident proves, I think, that they were able to hit an object farther off than they could distinguish its nature. A rubber blanket, hung over the stump of a sapling five feet high, which stood in the centre of our bivouac, was pierced by a bullet from this quarter. A minute later a second bullet passed directly over the object and lodged in a tree behind it. I ordered the blanket to be taken down, and then the firing ceased. Evidently the invisible marksman, eight hundred yards away, had mistaken it for a Yankee. Several men were hit upon this same hillock, or immediately in rear of it; and I for one never crossed it without wondering whether I should get safely to the other side.
Another fatal spot was an exposed corner in the narrow terrace which our men had made in the bank, as a standing-place whence to fire over the knoll.
"Don’t go there, Captain", a soldier said to me, when I first approached the place. "That’s Dead Man’s Corner. Five men have been killed there already."
I understood that Hubbard and Rodonowski of Weitzel's staff both received their death-shots at Dead Mans Corner, on the 27th of May. Early on my first day in the gully, just as I had risen, smirched and damp, from my bed on the brick-colored earth, a still breathing corpse was brought down from this spot of sacrifice. A brave, handsome boy of our Company D, gay and smiling with the excitement of fighting, disdaining to cover himself, was reloading his rifle when a ball traversed his head, leaving two ghastly orifices through which the blood and brains exuded, mingling with his auburn curls. He uttered strong, loud gaspings; it seemed possible, listening to them, that he might yet live; but his eyes were fast closed and his ruddy cheek paling; in a few minutes he was dead. We lost eight or ten men during that first day, partly from not knowing these dangerous localities, and partly from excess of zeal. Our fellows attempted to advance the position, leaped the knoll without orders, and took to the trees on the outer slope, and were only driven back after sharp fighting.
Served me right. I'd no business there, said a suddenly enlightened Irishman, as he came in with a hole through his shoulder. As the siege drew on, and we found that there was plenty of danger without running after it, we all became more or less illuminated by this philosophy. It is a remark as old as sieges, that trench duty has a tendency to unfit men for close fighting. The habit of taking cover becomes stronger than the habit of moving in unison; and, moreover, the health is enfeebled by confinement, and the nervous system shaken by incessant peril.
The garrison gave us full as good as we sent. Several of our men were shot in the face through the port-holes as they were taking aim. One of these unfortunates, I remember, drew his rifle back, set the butt on the ground, leaned the muzzle against the parapet, turned around, and fell lifeless. He had fired at the moment he was hit, and two or three eye-witnesses asserted that his bullet shivered the edge of the opposite port-hole, so that in all probability he and his antagonist died together. It must be understood that these openings were but just large enough to protrude the barrel of a musket and take sight along it.
During our relief days we were quite as much shot at, without the comforting excitement of shooting. There was but one spot in the hollow, and that only a few yards square, where bullets never struck; and by some awkward providence it rarely fell to the lot of my company, no matter when we came off duty. I used to look with envy and longing at this nasty but wholesome patch of gutter. It was a land of peace, a city of refuge, 30 feet long by 10 feet broad. Turning my back on its charmed tranquillity, where the dying never gasped and the wounded never groaned, I spread my rubber blanket in the mud or the sun according to the weather, lighted my pipe, and wondered when my bullet would come. It must be stated that, excepting the canopy of the heavens, there was not a tent in the regiment. I do admit, however, on recollection, that for two weeks or more I enjoyed the shelter of a white bed coverlet, abstracted by my colored henchman George from I know not whose shanty or palace, and which, being spread cunningly, kept off much sun and some rain. But on the 14th of June, while I was engaged in the storming party, certain vagrants from another regiment caused this improvised shelter-tent to disappear. Little by little we built in the treeless portions of the gully huts of branches just high enough to admit us in a sitting posture. Over these we threw our rubber blankets during the showers, and tried to imagine that we were thereby the drier. Being about to occupy the bivouac of Company F, which was going up to the parapet to relieve my company, I said to the commandant, Lieutenant Clark, What a palace you have left me! It looks nice, replied
As I was sitting at dinner beside this same domicile a large tree, fifteen feet in rear of it, flew asunder under the blow of a cannon-shot, the top plunging harmlessly across the bivouac of Company K, and scaring the first sergeant out of a sound sleep, while a splinter weighing ten pounds hissed over my head and fell between the feet of one of my own sergeants, Charles Collins. A minute afterward Collins was struck by a fatal bullet; which came from very nearly the opposite direction of the cannon-shot. So much for the advantages of the shanty which Lieutenant Clark had put up, after due thought as to selecting a safe location. Our brigade commander met with similar tribulations in his search after a quiet residence. A large and comfortable-looking arbor of boughs had just been erected for him, when screech came a 12-pounder ball, and down came a great oak, smashing the dwelling into uninhabitability.
To escape this all-searching fire one of our officers dug for himself a gopher-hole in a little bank, and was much laughed at for his pains when a bullet went slap into it shortly after he had finished it. He was absent at the moment; but I came very near suffering in his place, for I was just then surveying and envying his housekeeping arrangements. Two soldiers who were standing at the mouth of the hole had a still narrower escape, the shot passing between their heads not six inches from either. When the owner returned and heard my jolly story he looked slightly disgusted, but nevertheless refused to sell out, and crawled in upon his blanket with a smile of desperate resignation.
About one evening, when profound peace had fallen from night upon Port Hudson and all its surroundings, we were startled from our slumbers by a tremendous explosion, succeeded a few seconds afterward by another. Mighty vibrations seemed to spread outward through the atmosphere, as ripples circle over the surface of water from the plunge of a stone. In a moment our gully swarmed with men muttering and questioning in astonishment. Running up the steep bank of the rampart I beheld a meteor of war. Out of the black line of forest which crowned the hostile bluff came a fiery spark, flying straight toward us in silent swiftness. Then followed a sonorous, majestic basso-profondo pu----m which made night tremble. As the spark rose above us, as we turned our eyes upward to see it, it burst with a broad glare and was gone. Now came another report, a crashing pa----m, sharper, angrier than the first, but also grand, vibrating, stunning. This was a 68-pounder. The first explosion was that of the gun, and the second that of the projectile. In either case the flash was visible some seconds before the detonation became audible; and that brief interval, during which we awaited possible death, was a suspense of superhuman grandeur. Six shots to our left; six directly over us; six to our right; then silence. Night after night for a week or more we were bombarded in this magnificent fashion. At first it was trying; but we soon found that the gunners could not depress the piece sufficiently to hit us, and after that we did not care a hard-tack for their 68-pounder except as a spectacle. It did some little damage to our second line, we understood; but that was rather an agreeable piece of information than otherwise. Men in the front are always disposed to chuckle when their comrades in the rear get a share of the slaughtering.
Once we were pounded a little by our own artillery. On the last day of June the regiment was mustered for pay in the gully, the companies being brought one by one before the commanding officer (Lieutenant-Colonel Peck), and the whole ceremony made as simple as possible in order not to attract the attention of the enemy. The last company had been reached; the men stood in line silent and statue-like with supported arms; the Colonel was at the front with muster-roll in his hand, and Lieutenant commanding by his side. As each man’s name was called he answered "Here"; came to a shoulder, and then an order. The roll was half finished when suddenly there was a whisk, whisk in the air, and a spent 12-pounder shot passed over the muskets and dropped twenty feet in rear. A slight dip, a kind of courtesy, wavered through the line of arms; then they returned to their military level, while a grin glanced along the war-worn faces. The Colonel turned his head, gave one stare of calm surprise, and resumed his reading. Whisk, whisk once more; another shot whispered in the track of the first; but this time the men were prepared, and the arms were steady; this time, too, the projectile flew higher, and fell in the bivouac of the next regiment. Deliberately and calmly the roll was called to the end. The company shouldered arms, faced to the right, ported arms, broke ranks, and went to its quarters.
No more shots; but still we were uneasy, for this fire came direct into the open mouth of our gully; and if it should be resumed with spirit our position would be hard to hold. The next day we learned that one of our own batteries, a mile and a half distant, had been our assailant. Aiming at a projecting angle of the rebel works, it had elevated too high and sent its missiles clean over the mark into our quarters. Oddly enough the only person injured was the regimental coward of the 114th
Meantime the rebels were as much worried by constant exposure to fire as ourselves. Not only did our artillery search every corner of the fortress, but our bullets sowed it, and even went clean over it into the
Here I am reminded of an adventure of Andrew Bartram, a private of my company. Far to the left of our gully, and nearly in front of the position which we had occupied on the 27th of May, the siege-works had been pushed so near the rampart that the fatigue party, of which this man was one, could hear the voices of the defenders in conversation. Naturally curious and adventurous, he determined to risk his skin for the sake of obtaining a close look at his antagonists; and, taking advantage of the quiet of night and a fine moonlight, he left the covered way, scaled a slope, and found himself at the base of the earth-work. here, as the reader may suppose, he paused, lay low and considered. The men inside would certainly shoot him if they saw him; and the men outside might also make a mark of him, supposing him to be a rebel. The result was that he resumed his hazardous journey, climbed the sloping mound on his hands and knees and cautiously peeped over it. There they were, immediately under his nose and almost within reach of his hand, a score or so of men in dirty gray or butternut, some lounging and others apparently sleeping. The scene was remarkable, but not altogether delightful, and he was soon satisfied with it. Sliding quietly down the face of the mound he made a run of it, reached the covered way unseen, hurried to the nearest battery and reported the position of the rebels. A couple of shells were pitched nicely into the spot indicated; and the shrieks which answered bore witness that they had done their pitiless duty. For this feat Bartram was made lieutenant in a negro regiment.
Such are some of my experiences and observations in the matter of duty in the trenches. The thoughtful among my readers, those who care less for objective incidents than for their effect upon the human soul, will ask me if I liked the business. With a courage which entitles me to honorable mention at the headquarters of the veracities, I reply that I did not like it, except in some expansive moments when this or that stirring success filled me with excitement. Certain military authors who never heard a bullet whistle have written copiously for the marines, to the general effect that fighting is delightful. It is not; it is just tolerable; you can put up with it; but you can’t honestly praise it. Bating a few flashes of elation which come in moments of triumph or in the height of a breathless charge, when the air is all a yell and the earth is all a flame, it is much like being in a rich cholera district in the height of the season.
Profoundly, infinitely true, true of every species and of every individual, is the copy-book maxim, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature”. The man who does not dread to die or be mutilated is a lunatic. The man who, dreading these things, still faces them for the sake of duty and honor is a hero.