Gone For A Soldier

Chapter 9

At first light, we could see very little, for all the land was again concealed in dense fog. No wind blew the fog away. Nevertheless, we heard some desultory musket fire and then the booming of cannon.

We were ordered to move south towards where the First Corps had bivouacked. But then we were told to fall out and make breakfast. As soon as we got fires going with the damp wood we were told to put them out and move out again. We moved a few hundred yards and were again told to make breakfast. Each time we moved we had to start the fires all over again. I never did get anything to eat or even any hot coffee. It was very frustrating. I wanted to either eat or charge into battle, and we weren’t allowed to do either.

By the time we arrived where the First Corps had bivouacked, we could hear not only musket fire and cannon fire from a hill to the southwest of us but men shouting and screaming.

Soon, wounded men began emerging through the smoke and fog towards us, some horribly maimed while others were trying to help them. It was like I was in a dream. I saw terrible injuries but they didn’t seem real.

As we moved forward, there were so many dead and wounded men on the ground we had to step carefully so as not to walk on them. We continued south towards a cornfield where the corn stalks had been torn to shreds and the ground was littered with the dead and dying. But then we veered a bit east and then once again south, entering some woods. The woods were full of tall, stately trees without a lot of underbrush. There were rises and hollows in the ground, some stacks of wood, and some stone ledges which we could use for shelter. Billy, Theophilus and I stuck as close together as we could. Somewhere in front of us we could hear Tony beating his drum. There were men in the woods, including stretcher bearers trying to help the wounded, but at times it was difficult to figure out whether the men were Yanks or Rebs.

The combination of the fog and the smoke was nearly impenetrable. The lack of visibility, the explosions of cannon, muskets, and rifles, the whistling of bullets and shells all combined with the screams of the wounded were completely disorienting. The smells were indescribable, a mixture of burned gunpowder, blood, and fear. Time seemed to have stopped, or at least the world around me appeared to be moving unnaturally slowly. We continued to move forward. I was in a daze. The wounded and the dead were lying everywhere underfoot, the wounded pleading for help. Although the stretcher bearers were trying to give aid to the wounded, they were sometimes struck as well by the withering fire.

Mis-stepping, I fell over a branch and landed on a body. For a few moments I lay still, wonder if I’d been shot, if I was dead. Finally I began to rise, my eyes full of the blood from the body beneath me. I staggered to my feet, using my sleeves to try to clear my eyes.

It was then that I pulled out of my daze and fully realized that this was war. War was not nice uniforms and parades and admiring girls; war was ghastly, horrifying, hideous. Men were being killed in unspeakable ways, being blown apart, being torn to shreds, and being left mortally wounded on the battlefield to die alone in fear and pain.

As Theophilus, Billy, and I moved more eastward through the woods, I heard a grunt and then a thud. Turning, I saw Theophilus lying face down on the ground. I tried to move toward him but was prodded on by an officer who ordered me to keep moving. Billy and I never knew if Theophilus was wounded or dead. I had no idea where he had been hit; I never saw him again, one of only three true friends I had made since leaving home. Now I was determined to take as much revenge as I could. I did the only thing I could at the time — I kept moving as we drove the Rebs before us.

Our regiment emerged from the woods near a road. Not far away a farmhouse was a smoldering ruin. Off to our right, across another road, was a simple white building. On command we formed into two battle lines and advanced under fire toward the second road and the building across it with Tony still beating his drum just ahead of me and Billy. Then, with no warning, Tony’s drum exploded and he was lying on the ground, screaming. Billy and I went to him. His abdomen had been blown open, right through the drum, and he was trying to hold his guts in. Still screaming, he yelled, “Please, please help me.” I was certain he didn’t recognize either of us. Billy and I looked at each other, knowing there was nothing we could do to save him, but neither of us willing to do the only thing that would help him. Then a voice behind us said, “I’ll take care of him.” Sergeant Sweeney stood there looking down at the boy, who was really not more than a child. We nodded and moved forward, but before we had gone ten paces we heard a single gunshot and knew that Tony’s suffering was over.

I could barely see through the tears in my eyes to know where we were going, but the regiment continued to push up a plateau where we could finally find shelter and fire through a split rail fence and across the road. By then the fog had lifted although the smoke from the cannon and muskets continued to diminish visibility. Nevertheless we poured bullets across the road, shooting at anything that appeared to move and having no idea what if anything our mini balls struck.

By then the weather had begun to clear and become hot, but we were running very low on ammunition and had begun to scavenge it from the wounded and dead. Just in time a battery of 6 cannon pulled up bringing more ammunition with them. It was from them that we learned that General Mansfield, who had only been commanding us for two days, had been killed in the woods and General Williams had taken over. The artillery men positioned themselves among us and began firing grapeshot and canister shot in deafening salvos towards the woods near the white building. The canister shot was the most deadly when it hit the ground in front of soldiers and rebounded upward. Despite the cannon fire, the Confederates, with a rebel yell, tried to push back across the road as the canister shot tore into them.

We held our fire until they were about 70 yards away before we stood and fired a volley into them, destroying what was left of their line.

With a whoop and a yell we climbed over and through the fence and crossed the road, chasing the Rebs before us. We captured the ground around the building and moved on into the woods beside and behind it, taking several prisoners.

The battle that raged in the woods was both confusing and deadly. It was difficult to tell where the Rebs were and where the firing was coming from. At length we were ordered to move back and retreat in an orderly way across the road toward our former positions.

As I tried to vault over the fence on the far side of the road, my right arm suddenly gave way beneath me and I fell to the ground. I struggled to get to my feet, but that arm wouldn’t help me get up. Looking down I saw that my arm had been hit just above the elbow and was hanging loose, blood pouring down on the remnant of my sleeve. Miraculously, Billy appeared and helped me up. I tried to tell him to save himself, but he said, “Hell no, yer commin’ with me.”

With that he began to drag me back towards the woods we had passed through earlier. He ran and dragged me as I staggered, trying to keep up. The odd thing was that I felt no pain. I was dizzy and scared, but my arm just felt numb, like it didn’t really belong to me at all.

It was when we got into the woods and I was able to sit and rest on a tree trunk that the pain began, not gradually, but suddenly, and it was excruciating. Billy looked at the wound and said that I was lucky because no artery had been severed. Even so, he fixed a crude tourniquet above the wound. Then he helped me move north and east out of the woods. There were still stretcher bearers about but they were trying to help the wounded who were no longer mobile.

I don’t know how I withstood the pain, and I know I would never have made it had it not been for Billy assisting me the whole way, encouraging me with constant chatter and supporting me when I thought I could not move another step.

Somehow, we finally arrived at a field hospital. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of wounded men there. Billy wished me good luck and disappeared. Doctors moved among us, I guess trying to decide who could be saved and who couldn’t. I was eventually moved where I was placed on the ground to wait my turn for a doctor.

The sounds of the battle were still very loud, and they combined with the groans and screams of the men near the hospital. Blood, feces, urine, and vomit were mixed in a ghastly stench.

I was moved closer and closer to the operating tent, which brought me closer and closer to the screams and the stench. To my right was a hideous pile of human arms and legs which had been amputated and tossed away. Terror grabbed me as I knew that was soon to be my fate. I thought I would rather die than lose my arm, but of course I was given no choice. Yet I watched in fascination as the man before me had his leg amputated.

First the surgeon numbed the man’s senses, using some cotton onto which he poured a little liquid then held it to the man’s face. Next he tied a tourniquet above where he was going to cut. He then cut through the flesh and muscle before sawing through the bones. He finally busied himself with the wound, perhaps bandaging it but I could not see. Very efficient, he was done in less than fifteen minutes.

As soon as that man was moved away, I was hoisted onto the table and the cloth with liquid was placed over my face. I wasn’t totally unconscious but I felt as though everything was happening in a dream. I felt little pain but I admit I was terrified. Soon I was lifted off the table and placed in a group of men waiting to be transported, to where I didn’t know.

Slowly the pain returned. I tried to look at my right arm but saw only some bloody bandages. I was given a mini ball and told to bite down on it. While it kept me from screaming it didn’t really help the pain very much.

I must have fainted, for the next thing I knew was that it was nearly dark and I was being loaded into a farm wagon with other amputees. The slow ride along the rough road was incredibly painful, and I kept passing in and out of consciousness. When I was aware, I longed to be unconscious again. I have no idea how long the trip took, but the wagon finally stopped and we were taken one by one into a church which I believed was probably in Boonsboro.

In time I was given some sort of medicine which I later learned was opium for my pain and passed the night in and out of consciousness, listening to the groans and screams around me.