Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Battle as the Recruit Saw It

Trying to give some consideration to the military side of things, I pulled this article from the CS veteran's magazine Southern Bivouac that sheds some light on the rank and file perspective of combat. It's got some fantastic observations on soldiers in battle and in camp. It sums up a good deal of what we have read about the pre-battle and battle experience from other sources and has some great observations.

"The Battle As The Recruit Saw It"

The camp-fires threw their flickering rays over the bronzed faces of the men as they sat grouped around, and the shadows of the forest trees were lengthened on the sward. A few soldiers were dreamingly thoughtful of distant homes where other log-heaps were tossing their fitful flames also over a thoughtful dreamers, thinking and dreaming of the absent boy in the far-off Tennessee camp; some of the men were smoking, others engaged in absorbing games of cards, with hilarious accompaniment of jest and laughter, but by far the greater number, thoughtless of the future, careless of the present, and altogether apathetic to a degree characteristic of the Southern soldier, were simply doing nothing.

A courier gallops into camp, making his way through the contending lights and shadows to regimental headquarters. As he passes inquiring faces are turned toward him, and the exclamation, "Something's up, boys," passes from fire to fire, and -- all settle again to their pastimes, but soon to be interrupted by an order to "cook five days' rations and be ready to move at once." The woodman of each mess is soon busy with his axe, the mess-cooks are busily arranging their culinary apparatus, that is, shaking the mud from their gum coats, on which the dough is to be kneaded; the general "utility man" trots off with all the canteens within reach to the nearest branch; all are busy as bees and as the waning camp-fires dart out their struggling lines of light over the darkening grove, the rations are cooked and haversacked, and all save the camp sentries are sleeping, as only tired soldiers can sleep. With the first streak of morning light the "long roll" rumbles, and drowsy, hurrying, half-clad men fall in; then by twos the regiment threads its way through the wood and is soon on the road to "we know not where," but to a prospective battle even now sending hither its promises in the firing of the distant pickets.

The sound becomes nearer, clearer, more rapid than before; the command is quick-timed, the skirmishing in front is more exciting, couriers are dashing hither and yon; wagon-masters are urging their teams rearward, ordnance officers forcing their wagons forward, cavalry with rattling sabers galloping alongside and past the infantry, leave a cloud of dust trailing behind them; artillery under whip and spur are coming up in a run to secure a commanding knoll, ambulances are seen in solemn procession in the rear, and we are filed in on the right of the road and fronted in battle line with other commands that have preceded us; muskets are loaded, the firing in front still continues, skirmishing becomes rapid, then a lull. Our arms are stacked and we are rested "in place" and soon loll around, assume a look of confidence and indifference we do not feel and endeavor by light jests to shake off the nervous tremens produced by the popping of guns on the picket-line. A courier gallops by, then another, a third follows, soon an "orderly" hurries toward us from headquarters, the firing becomes spirited and nearer, our skirmishers are in sight, falling slowly backward, contesting inch by inch. Attention! Every man in his place, the skirmishers are forced nearer, we are moved forward to their support; the long dark lines of the enemy are seen to advance to the support of their skirmishers; the cavalry by a sudden dash debouch to protect the flanks, and then a "boom," a crush in the timbers, a shell whirring just over our heads proclaim the opening of the ball. The rattle of musketry becomes continuous, and our artillery responds to the enemy's guns.

The enemy comes steadily toward us. "Steady, men," still nearer. "Steady," "Ready," "Aim," "Fire," and a line of lurid flame leaps from our guns; "Steady," "Load at will," "Fire," "Fire at will." -- Crash, rattle, boom, shout, shriek of shell and wounded men, the smoke rolls upward and onward, filling the space intervening between the opposing forces, we fire at the smoke, and thus the battle goes on.

A soldier falls, another is struck, poor Sam is borne to the rear and mortally wounded; the ranks close up. "Forward," others fall, and are carried back; still the den of conflict continues and our captain's cry rises above the tumult. "Steady, men," "Fix bayonets," "Steady," "Charge," and then the Confederate yell rises above all other sounds of the raging conflict, bearing encouragement to our sorely-pressed brothers, and sending with it a terror to our foes. We yet press on in the charge; the enemy momentarily gives way; then grape and canister sweep our thinned ranks, and we in turn are forced back, then "forward" again, and so throughout the day, advancing, now receding like a tidal wave, and so struggling until night closes the contest. Our lines are reformed to converge to the main road like the closing of a huge fan, and we soldiers of the line are revolving in mind the anomalous state of affairs on which a victorious army is in full retreat.

Southern Bivouac, Vol. I, pp. 112-114, 1882.

The article is anonymous, though its author was clearly an Army of Tennessee vet. And though it is not about any battle specifically, that very vagueness lends the observations an almost universal applicability. The Bivouac was frequented by any number of veterans of the western campaigns, including some prominent figures like Fred Joyce, John Jackman, and Sam Watkins. Still, it hits on some essentials of the Civil War combat experience that all those fellows would have been more than familiar with. Personally, I think the sound effects and use of vocabulary sounds like Watkins, but maybe I read too much of him. Best part, in my mind, is the discussion of the preparation for battle, the hurried packing and gathering of one's earthly life in preparation to go into battle and possibly lose it.

Neat stuff, no? Is it realistic? Does it contrast with the "modern" fighting that we see, in some of our other posts here?

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