The column, hitherto moving forward with the
steadiness of a mighty river, hesitates, halts, steps back then forward,
hesitates again, halts. The colonels talk to the brigadier, the brigadiers
talk to the major-general, some officers hurry forward and others hurry to
the rear. Infantry stands to one side of the road, while cavalry trots by
to the front. Now some old wagons marked "Ord. Dept." go creaking and
rumbling by. One or two light ambulances, with a gay and careless air,
seem to trip along with the ease of a dancing girl. They and the surgeons
seem cheerful. Some, not many, ask, "What is the matter?" Most of the men
there know exactly: they are on the edge of battle.
Presently a very
quiet almost sleepy looking man on horseback, says, "Forward, 19th!"
and away goes the leading regiment. A little way ahead the regiment
jumps a fence, and -- pop! bang! whiz! thud! is all that can be heard
until the rebel yell reverberates through the woods. Battle? No!
skirmishers advancing. Ordinance Department.
Step into the woods
now, and watch these skirmishers. See how cheerfully they go in. How
rapidly they load, fire and reload. They stand six and twelve feet
apart, calling to each other, laughing, shouting, cheering, but
advancing. There: one fellow has dropped his musket like something red
hot. His finger is shot away. His friends congratulate him, and he
walks sadly away to the rear. Another staggers and falls, with a ball
through his neck, mortally wounded. Two comrades raise him to his feet
and try to lead him away, but one of them receives a ball in his
thigh, which crushes the bone, and he falls groaning to the ground.
They have at last driven the enemy's skirmishers in upon the line of
battle, and are waiting. A score of men have fallen here, some killed
outright, some slightly, some sorely, some mortally wounded.
Now a battery has
been hurried into position, the heavy trails have fallen to the
ground, and at the command "Commence firing!", the cannoneers have
stepped in briskly and loaded. The first gun blazes at the muzzle, and
away goes a shell. The poor fellows in the woods rejoice as it crashes
through the trees over their heads, and cheer when it explodes over
the enemy's line.
But help is coming.
At the edge of the woods, where the skirmishers entered, the brigade
is in line. Somebody has ordered, "Load!"
The ramrods glisten and rattle down the
barrels of a thousand muskets. "Forward!" is the next command, and the
brigade disappears in the woods, the canteens rattling, the bushes
crackling, and the officers never ceasing to say, "Close tip, men;
close up! guide centre!"
The men on that skirmish line have at last
found it advisable to lie down at full length on the ground, though it
is so wet, and place their heads against the trees in front. They
cannot advance and they cannot retire without, in either case,
exposing themselves to almost certain death. They are waiting for the
line of battle to come to their relief.
last, before they see, they hear the line advancing through the pines. The
snapping of the twigs, the neighing of horses, and hoarse commands,
inspire a husky cheer, and when the line of the old brigade breaks through
the trees in full view, they fairly yell! Every man jumps to his feet, the
brigade presses firmly forward, and soon the roll of musketry tells all
who are waiting to hear that serious work is progressing away down in the
woods. Brigade after brigade and division after division is hurried into
line, and pressed forward into action. Battalions of artillery open fire
from the crests of many hills, and the battle is begun.
Ammunition trains climb impassable places, cross ditches without bridges
and manage somehow to place themselves in reach of the troops. Ambulances,
which an hour before went gaily forward, now slowly and solemnly returned
Shells and musket balls,
which must have lost their way, go flitting about here and there, wounding
and killing men who deem themselves far away from danger. The negro cooks
turn pale as these unexpected visitors enter the camps at the rear, and
the rear is extended at once.
At the front, a battery
of the enemy is replying and shells are bursting overhead, or plowing huge
furrows in the ground. Musket balls are rapping on the rims of the wheels
and sinking with a deep thud into the bodies of the poor horses. Smoke
obscures the scene, but the cannoneers, in faint outline, can be seen
cheerfully serving the guns.
As the opposing battery
ceases firing, and having limbered up, scampers away, and the last of the
enemy's infantry slowly sinks into the woods out of sight and out of
reach, a wild cheer breaks from the cannoneers, who toss their caps in the
air and shout, shake hands and shout again, while the curtain of smoke is
raised by the breeze and borne away.
The cavalry is gone. With
jingle and clatter they have passed through the lines and down the hill
and are already demanding surrender from many a belated man. There will be
no rest for that retreating column.
Stuart, with a twinkle in his eye, his lips puckered as if to whistle
a merry lay, is on their flanks, in their rear, and in their front. The
enemy will send their cavalry after him, of course, but he will stay with
Add now the streams of
wounded men slowly making their way to the rear; the groups of dejected
prisoners plodding along under guard, and you have about as much of a
battle as one private soldier ever sees.
of America, updated September, 2016.
Notes and Author:
This tale was written by a soldier named
Carlton McCarthy and was included as a chapter in Albert Bushnell Hart's
book, The Romance of the Civil War, published in 1896.