How Men Feel in Battle
BY S.H.M. BYERS
SUMTER was fired on. I was twenty-two. I longed for the excitement of battle, the adventure of war; and so I enlisted in a regiment that was to be wiped out of existence before the war was over. More than ayear passed. It was noon now, of the 19th of September, 1862. Possibly the fiercest battle of the civil war was about to begin a battle in which our small brigade of three half-regiments was to lose six hundred and eight killed and wounded. My own regiment had but four hundred and eighty-two engaged, but two hundred and seventeen of them, with fifteen officers, were stretched dead or wounded in an hour. It was appalling.
That was war. That afternoon put a star on the shoulder of General Rosecrans. My regiment had been hoping for a great fight. We were tired of chasing "Pap" Price's battalions and guerrillas from the Missouri River to the Ozark Mountains, tired of being killed off in running fights, skirmishes, and ambuscades, where there was no honor. We wanted real war. At last, at luka, down in Mississippi, and close to the . Tennessee River, they said they would stand up and fight. And they did ! Not a soldier
in the Fifth Iowa was more anxious to participate in a red-hot battle than myself. I was among those who had volunteered not more for patriotism than for hope of tremendous adventure. My chance had come. We marched from our camps at Jacinto as light-footed and as light-hearted that September morning as if we were going to a wedding. The sky was blue, the birds sang, the autumn leaves were red and beautiful. We seemed perfectly gay with anticipation of being killed. It seems astounding now.
The fact is, no one thought himself in severe danger. Some of us would be killed, we knew, of course, but each thought it would be the " other fellow." We sang jovial songs as we marched along; one, a song of my own composing. That gorgeous forenoon, hurrying through the woods for twenty miles, towards the enemy, we saw the poetry of war. Sundown saw five of my messmates and forty-two of my regiment dead in a ditch by the battle-field. Another one hundred and seventy-five were wounded. And we had all been so happy in the morning! An hour before the fight commenced we soldiers feared the enemy might run and get away. At last a shot was heard in the woods in front of us. Our advance-guard had run on to some Confederates in gray. " Form your regiment instantly, right and left across this road," cried a staff -officer, galloping up to our loved commander, Colonel Matthies. " Stand your ground here and fight them,'' added the officer. " Dat is just exactly vot I calculate to do," answered our colonel in his Teutonic accen. In three minutes the line was across the road and every eye peering into the thin woods in front. Just then, to my amazement, the colonel galloped up to me and said: "You have got your musket, but you must not fight. Something has happened to the quartermaster. Go back to the teams and hurry them ten miles to the rear." I was the most disappointed man in Grant's army. Protests did no good. " I trust you," he said. " You must go; another time you shall have your chance." Orders were orders. I hurried away, with the oncoming battle sounding in my ears, and in my heart a fixed resolve never to obey orders again, if that meant taking me from the side of my comrades. When we got the news back at the wagon-train that my regiment had been gloriously cut to pieces, I almost cried, that I had lost the chance to fall in battle. The fighting had been something terrible. The combatants nearly exterminated each other. They fought so close that if a man were hit, he was powder - burnt. One regiment of the enemy had every officer killed or wounded. Yet we wanted more of this. Time passed. My colonel kept his word. In a little time that same enemy, reinforced, rushed on to our works at Corinth. We were 25,000 inside the town, and they were 40,000 outside. All the moonlight night of October 5 my regiment, what- was left of it, lay in a wagon road in the woods outside the works of Corinth and listened to the rumbling of the Confederate artillery as it was moving into place to attack us on the morrow. This time no orders hindered. A comrade who escaped being killed at luka lay under a blanket with me in the wagon road and in the moonlight.
The terrible experience at luka had sobered Jimmy King a little. He talked of what might happen at daylight. He said, too, he was " glad he had always led a good life." As for me, I was hopeful of a big time. I might of course get wounded I almost hoped for this little honor, but it was the " other fellow " who would certainly get killed. At daybreak of the 4th, Fort Robinette was picked out by the enemy as one of the points for their great final assault, and it proved one of the awfulest and bloodiest assaults of the civil war. There had been hard fighting all day of the 3d, and all our outer works were in the enemy's hands. On the morning of the 4th, my regiment with its division was placed some distance to the right of Robinette. We were in a field of high weeds. The orders were to lie down, as the enemy in overpowering numbers were about to assault us directly in front.
We lay there in the weeds for an hour without speaking. What a chance for strange thoughts! And the men, thinking of their comrades dead in the ditches of luka, did meditate. The suspense, lying there in the weeds, every moment expecting a crash of musketry in our faces, was something intense. The sun was red hot. Poor Billy Bodley, grieving for his only brother, just killed, crept over to me and whispered, " I am not afraid, but I am too sick to fight you are the captain's friend; ask him to let me go back." He went, only to be killed on another field. He was just creeping back through the weeds, when some one cried out to us to " rise and fire." I was burning up with excitement, too excited to be scared. Instantly we were on our feet. I was in the rear rank. I could see the enemy perfectly. Some of them were in their shirt-sleeves, running from tree to tree and firing at us. I raised my musket and blazed away at nobody in particular. A comrade in front of me afterward said I " nearly shot his ear off." He glanced back once, he said, and I was only laughing. That was my first shot in an open, stand-up battle. We went on firing, biting our cartridges and loading with iron ramrods as fast as we could. I was constantly afraid lest the enemy would be on me before I could get that fool gun loaded. The destiny of the country was in my hands at that moment ; only I wasn't thinking of the country, or anything else save that miserable old ramrod and that line of fellows a hundred yards in front. I must have swallowed whole spoonfuls of gunpowder in my haste biting the cartridges. I had thirst beyond description. My canteen was full of water, too, but who could stop then to take a drink ! The fighting went on some minutes, yet not many men were dropping near me right or left. It must have been a ruse of the enemy, for suddenly he massed a heavy column to our left, and almost passing us, made that dreadful and historic assault on bloody Robinette. My regiment made a quick wheel half-way round, and there we stood and witnessed as brave deeds as were ever seen in any war. No soldiers could have stormed that fort and held it, yet now, suddenly, a great black column of Confederates debouched from the woods, spread out fanlike, and with a yell started to capture Fort Robinette. In front of them and about them lay fallen trees, making a strong abattis; in front of these, a deep, wide ditch; and in front of that, the fort, filled with cannon and soldiers. Every gun was loaded to the muzzle, and as the Confederates approached, a horrible whirlwind of bullets, grape-shot, and canister poured into their faces. They never halted. General Rogers, with a flag in one hand and a revolver in the other, led them straight into one of the awful death-traps of the war. Hundreds of them crossed the ditch, climbed into the fort, and with their muskets clubbed the men at the guns. Others lay dead on the fort's escarpment, their muskets folded in their arms. Useless courage, vain glory. In a moment, new Federal lines rose up behind the fort, and all was lost. The Confederates fled back among their dead, trampling them as they ran. Twice they had passed in front of my regiment, once as victors and once in horrible defeat. Standing there, looking
at the horrible scene, and in the midst of the awful thunder of battle, I felt as if the world were coming to an end. It seemed the destruction of humanity, not a battle. If the ground had opened and swallowed us all up, it wouldn't have seemed strange. At that moment I was thinking neither of victory nor defeat. It was the tremendous spectacle, the awful noise, that overwhelmed me. Had that charge succeeded, my regiment would have been lost. We were speechless, breathless, as we watched the storming of 'the fort. Soon I went down to the grass before it. Six thousand dead and wounded Confederates lay in front of Corinth. I saw the body of Eogers, the brave of the brave, lying there. He was in his white-stocking feet. Some vandal had robbed him of his boots. He lay on his back, his face to the foe.
That night in the moonlight I stood on guard on the battle-field. I was under an oak-tree. The dead lay there unburied, among them two of my chums and classmates in a Western school. I had time to meditate on the awfulness of war, that night. But I did not. I was only thinking of the words of General Rosecrans, as he rode down the lines at luka, crying out, " Glorious Fifth Iowa." I, too, in the moonlight on the battle-field was saying, " Glorious Fifth Iowa." It was my regiment. How a soldier loves glory! I forgot my dead comrades and classmates in my pride in the regiment.
Forty years have passed. As I write this, I do not know that twenty of my regiment are alive. It was one of the commands that perished almost before the war was over. Later, when I was mustered out of the army as an escaped prisoner, the Secretary of War said to You have no regiment. They are all gone. They fell gloriously. -You are the last man of the regiment." Is it any wonder that there, on the battle-field, alone in the moonlight, I was thinking only of the deeds of the regiment. I skip a few months. Again the chance is mine. I had not yet been killed or hurt. I had volunteered that something might happen. I wanted more adventure, and more and more; and it was all coming, but I did not know it. A last great attempt was to be made on Vicks- burg. We had made so many attempts and failed. In all, ten thousand lives had been lost and Vicksburg was still standing there, a defiance to the Union army. A European war-office would have courtmartialled Grant for leaving his base as he did now, putting a mighty river behind him and starting into an enemy's country, almost without food for man or beast. We got used to strange warfare in the civil conflict, after a while. Anyway, there we now were, marching behind Vicksburg here, there, anywhere walking through dust shoe-mouth deep, roasting in the sun, sleeping in the road, fighting everywhere Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hills victories, every one. We hardly waited to bury the dead. Day and night we kept going. We just marched and fought. At Jackson, an awful thunder-storm accompanied the battle. Forty years after I still laugh to think how a hundred times we soldiers dropped flat on our faces at every mighty clap of thunder, thinking it an exploding shell from the guns of the enemy. Suddenly Pemberton, with all his army, came boldly out of Vicksburg, to give us one great battle. He chose his ground among the magnolia woods of Champion Hills. My chance for adventure had come again. On the night of May 15th, my regiment got hold of a little flour. At dawn of the 16th we were mixing it with water, making dough balls to bake on the end of our ramrods over our little bivouac fires in the woods. It was all we had to eat. Once we heard faint sounds of cannon far away. Some horsemen were passing the bivouac. It was just daylight. I went out to the roadside, and there I saw General Grant galloping past, followed by aides who were jumping their horses over logs and stumps, trying to keep up with the commander. There were more sounds of cannon. " Fall in," sounded down the regiment. In five minutes we were making a forced march for Champion Hills. The fight had commenced and we were a dozen miles away. How we travelled! The cavalry did not more than keep up with us. We were nearly dying with thirst. The day was terrifically hot. As we neared the battle-field, we passed a dirty pond of water. We left the ranks and filled canteens and stomachs with a fluid fit only for swine to wallow in. One can't be too fastidious with a battle coming on. Already hundreds of wounded men were rushing to the rear. In a little time my regiment was stretched in line of battle, at the side of an open field. Beyond that field, in the wood and hills, the enemy was firing random shots into our silent unresisting line. What we were doing there, Heaven only knows. How little a subordinate soldier ever knows as to what he is about! His business is to march, keep still, be shot to pieces, and say nothing! The suspense of standing in that line was something awful. We were being shot down, and not firing a shot in return. There was again a chance to think, and I was thinking if I had not had enough of fool adventure! I was quartermaster sergeant, anyway. My post was at a safe place with the train, at the rear. Yet, here I was, just as in every fight of the Vicksburg campaign, volunteering to get myself shot.
The colonel had allowed a convalescent to perform my duties, while I went forth in search of fame. I hadn't long to think, for shortly General Grant rode up behind my regiment and dismounted, almost where I was standing in the line. It was something to see him in battle, and so close I could almost hear his talk. He had the inevitable cigar as he leaned against his horse, listening to the reports of aides as they galloped to him. An occasional man in the regiment threw up his arms, dropped his musket and fell dead. It created no remark. We just stood on, wondering what next. There was some mysterious nodding of heads between our colonel and General Grant, And then suddenly came an order, " Fix bayonets forward double-quick charge I" We started on the run. Grant, I noticed, mounted his horse and rode away. As we were about to move, the colonel made me acting sergeant-major of the regiment. To be promoted right then, in such a place! General Grant, commanding the army, was not so proud as I was. Fear or no fear, I could do nothing now but pitch in and fight. Honor was at stake ! We charged up and into the woods, under a heavy fire till, suddenly, we were stopped by a blazing line of Confederate musketry. Then the two lines, the blue and the gray, stood two mortal hours (though it did not seem but a few minutes to me) and poured hot musketry into each other's face. I was struck twice, but slightly hurt. Comrades near me I saw covered with blood, their faces black with powder, fighting on. The dead lay everywhere unnoticed. Again I was biting cartridges and hurrying with that awful ramrod. A Confederate shot his ramrod through nay hand. I was too busy, too excited, too hot, too thirsty, to think of it to think of anything but loading and firing and standing my ground. We were winning Vicksburg right there, making Grant President that afternoon. Every torn face was a step toward the city, every dead man a ballot for the White House, yet neither White House nor ballot nor Vicksburg was in our thoughts. Would that awful line in front of us ever give way? That was all. The terrific fighting continued. I emptied my musket forty times, at men in front of me. Some took cartridges from the dead and fired fifty, sixty times. Once we were being flanked. A boy ran up to me crying: "My regiment has run. What will I do?" "Stay right here!" I shouted. "Load and fire." He did, until both his legs were shot off by a cannon-ball. That was war! I was getting adventure, too lots of it! Before sundown the battle was over. Leaving our dead unburied, our wounded in the woods, we hurried on. We had taken Vicksburg, out there under the magnolia-trees of Champion Hills. The awful fighting for the city forts, later, would have been in vain had Grant's army been defeated that afternoon in May. We went on to the Black River and fought again. Not knowing of our victories, the government ordered Grant to abandon the campaign; let Vicksburg go. Think of it! The messenger came to him as he sat on his horse watching some brave regiments storm the breastworks defending Black River bridge. "It is too late," he said to the messenger. " Look yonder. Forty cannon are in our hands." And then, sitting there in his saddle on the battle-field, he wrote General Sherman a letter in pencil, telling of the victory. The autograph letter here reproduced is in the writer's hands. Soon we approached the mighty forts and lines surrounding Vicksburg. The soldiers had had so many victories, they believed that they could storm the works. Grant let them try. That 22d of May saw the Union army hurled back into its own breastworks. The charge had been made by 35,000 men. My own brigade and regiment advanced at the centre. Three hundred cannon and all the mortar-boats bombarded the city before the charge. The Fifth Iowa crept up through the gullies and ravines very close to the fort. The cannonading and the hot sun made the warring terrible. I was ordered to carry some ammunition to the boys at the very front. The regiment lay to the boys at the very front. The regiment lay against the hillside under a galling fire. One hardly dared lift his head above the ground, fearing to be killed. I got my bundles of cartridges to the men and sat down in a depression in the hillside. I was safe as long as I did not move. Once more I had a chance to think, there, with the bullets whizzing within three feet of me. We could go neither forward nor back.
We were just sitting around and being killed. Still the attack had not been given up. Sitting in that protected spot, a dozen soldiers, with heads bowed low, crept past me. Each carried a musket and a little ladder. They were to make the desperate attempt to try and place these ladders across the ditch, when the regiment would climb over them and cross into the works. These laddermen passed so close I could look into their eyes. For once, at least, I felt death to be hovering very near. These men had surely volunteered to die. Few, or none of them, ever were seen again. Our assault failed. Our whole brigade crept down the gullies and ravines as best we could, and got away. Again we tried it at another point, and there our leader, Colonel Boomer, calling to the Iowa men to follow him, was shot dead. It was sundown and the storming of the city was abandoned. The siege commenced. Like beavers, we dug and dug till all the hills in front of the forts were honeycombed with rifle-pits. Every soldier at the front fired his hundred rounds a day, whether an enemy was seen or not. The men inside the forts did the same with us, and at intervals a hundred cannon poured exploding shells into the city.
One morning when I was out at the front rifle-pits I saw General Matthies creeping along the galleries to the pit where I was firing. He had a package in his hand wrapped in brown paper. To my astonishment he unfolded the paper and gave me an officer's sash. No wonder it hangs above my table as I write. " You are to be the adjutant of the regiment," he said. I do not know if the roar of the musketry then going on drowned my voice as I tried to thank him, or if in the circumstance of war he witnessed my delight. At a later battle, in the storming of Missionary Ridge, I saw him sitting under a tree, bleeding, a wound in his head that later led him to his grave. It was in a pause of the battle of Chattanooga. I was lying on the grass between two lines of the enemy. All around me were dead and wounded. Again I was having adventure. Again I had a chance to think. And before the doors of a Southern prison closed on me, as I lay there on the grass for just one moment, my mind went back to that village green where I had volunteered to go out and fight and, maybe, win adventure. I had had it all and the worst, a thousand times, was yet to come. In a few minutes the Confederate lines closed in on me, and eighty of my regiment, of whom a handful only, dead or alive, were ever to return, marched away to Libby Prison. Many times I escaped, only to be retaken. Once, foot- free in the Confederacy, I entered a Southern regiment and, inside Atlanta, saw what great battles were from the standpoint of the Southern side. At last I got away, was placed on the staff of the great Sherman in the Carolines, and was the first to carry the news of his victories to the government at Washington. I had, as a boy, often wondered how men feel in war-times. After four years of war, adventure, and prison, I found it out. In all the civil war I slept but eight nights in a bed at home. I had longed for adventure. The memory of the past is now enough.
* Harper's Magazine. By Making of America Project. Published by Harper's Magazine Co., 1906.