What Was It Like

What was it like, that first time under fire? In real battle during the U.S. Civil War? Brothers of the native soil against brothers of the same good earth?

Said (or wrote) an officer from Maine sometime after: "The behavior of those who were hit appeared to be singular; and, as there were so many of them, it looked as if we had a crowd of howling dervishes dancing and kicking around in our ranks."

Said (or wrote) a Confederate cavalry colonel: "Barely in position, I heard a distant cannon, and at the same instant saw the ball high in the air. As near as I could calculate, it was going to strike about where I stood, and I dismounted with remarkable agility, only to see the missile of war pass 60 feet overhead."

An unnamed soldier added: "For the first time in your life you listen to the whizzing of iron. Grape and canister fly into the ranks, bomb-shells burst overhead, and the fragments fly all around you."

Maine Officer again: "A bullet often knocks over the man it hits, and rarely fails by its force alone to disturb his equilibrium. Then the shock, whether painful or not, causes a sudden jump or shudder."

Rebel colonel: "I felt rather foolish as I looked at my men, but a good deal relieved when I saw that they, too, had all squatted to the ground, and were none of them looking up at me. I quickly mounted and ordered them to 'stand up.'"

Unnamed soldier: "A friend falls; perhaps a dozen or 20 of your comrades lie wounded or dying at your feet; a strange, involuntary shrinking steals over you, which it is impossible to resist."

Maine officer: "Now, as every man, with hardly an exception, was either killed, wounded, hit in the clothes, hit by spent balls or stones, or jostled by his wounded comrades, it follows that we had a wonderful exhibition. Some reeled round and round, others threw up their arms and fell over backwards, others went plunging backward trying to regain their balance; a few fell to the front, but generally the force of the bullet prevented this, except where it struck low and apparently knocked the soldier's feet from under him. Many dropped the musket and seized the wounded part with both hands, and a very few fell dead."

Rebel colonel: "We were soon ordered to charge, and drove the enemy through the tall prairie grass, till they came to a creek and escaped. We passed some of the dead and wounded, the first sad results of real war that I had ever seen."

Unnamed soldier: "You feel inclined neither to advance nor recede, but are spell-bound by the contending emotions of the moral and physical man. The cheek blanches, the lip quivers, and the eye almost hesitates to look upon the scene."

Maine officer: "The enemy were armed with every kind of rifle and musket, and as their front was three times ours, we were under a crossfire almost from the first. The various tunes sung by the bullets we shall never forget....The fierce zip of the Minié bullets was not prominent by comparison at that particular moment, though there were enough of them certainly. The main body of sound was produced by the singing of slow, round balls and buckshot fired from a smooth-bore, which do not cut or tear the air as the creased ball does.

"Each bullet, according to its kind, size, rate of speed, and nearness to the ear, made a different sound. They seemed to be going past in sheets, all around and above us."

Rebel colonel: "At night the heavens opened wide, the rain fell in torrents; not even a campfire could be kept to light up the impenetrable gloom, and I sought a comfortable mud-hole to sleep as best I could.

"The pale rigid faces that I had seen turned up for the evening sun appeared before me as I tried in vain to shield my own [face] from the driving rain, and as the big foot of a comrade, blundering round in the darkness, splashed my eyes full of mud, I closed them to sleep, muttering to myself, 'And this is war.'"

Unnamed Soldier: "In this [frozen] attitude you may, perhaps, be ordered to stand an hour, inactive, havoc meanwhile marking its footsteps with blood on every side. Finally the order is given to advance, to fire, or to charge. And now, what a change! With your first shot you become a new man. Personal safety is your least concern. Fear has no existence in your bosom. Hesitation gives way to an uncontrollable desire to rush into the thickest part of the fight. The dead and dying around you, if they receive a passing thought, only serve to stimulate you to revenge."

Further: "You become cool and deliberate, and watch the effect of the bullets, the shower of bursting shells, the passage of cannon-balls as they rake their murderous channels through your ranks, the plunging of wounded horses, the agonies of the dying, and the clash of contending arms, which follows the charge, with a feeling so calloused by surrounding circumstances that your soul seems dead to every sympathising [sic] and selfish thought."

So it was for the newcomer to battle, it seems. But when it's all over, what then?

"Walking the battleground, among the dead and groaning wounded," said the unknown soldier, "[you] begin to realize the horrors of war, and experience a reaction of nature." Wondrously, "the heart opens its floodgates, humanity reasserts herself again, and you begin to feel."

You now help the wounded, friend or foe. Foe, too? Yes. "The enemy, whom, but a short time before, full of hate, you were doing all in your power to kill, you now endeavor to save."

You provide water, food, whatever he needs. "All that is human and charitable in your nature now rises to the surface." Amazing. And, oh, so true: "A battlefield is eminently a place that tries men's souls."

C. Brian Kelly

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