Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

As seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war online

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sideratum in battle was to hit the enemy,
very little attention was given to target prac-
tice. The art of war was still new to our
officers, and it was the show drill that was
most highly prized ; but we were to graduate
from a dearer school.

As the winter wore away the regiment was
assigned to guard duty in various parts of
the city, and it began to look as if we might
be kept there during our whole term, until
Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in the follow-
ing summer put an end to all such specula-
tion, and one sultry day in June we hurriedly
packed the few things we could carry into
our knapsacks, and bidding the pleasant
camp good-by, began the life of real soldiers.

Sudden and strange was the transition
from camp to field. The knapsacks, haver-
sacks and canteens, to which we were so un-
accustomed, galled and tired us exceedingly,
and when we went into our first camp at


nightfall we lay down and drew the little
tents over us, too tired to try to learn how
to pitch them. We were on a side-hill so
steep that it gave me a sensation of being
dragged down by the heels, and as I dropped
off to sleep I seemed to be falling off a preci-
pice. In the night I was awakened by a
pouring rain which beat in my face, but I
pulled my cap over it and again dropped
asleep. In the morning I abandoned my
blanket and tent, for they, like my clothing,
were soaked with water and seemed too
heavy to carry; but I replaced them later
with similar articles which I picked up on
the battlefield of Gettysburg. We were each
given a loaf of bread for the day's ration, and
then resumed the march.

In these later wars we read of ' * company
cooks," and "details for providing wood and
water," but these are all luxurious inven-
tions of a luxurious age. As far as we were
concerned, from the beginning to the end of
our campaigns we never had "cooks," but
every one cooked for himself when there was
anything to be cooked; and not only that,
but we also had to find fuel and water, each
for himself, and it was sometimes necessary
to finish a hard day by going a mile or more


after these indispensable articles. Even uten-
sils for cooking we had to find as best we
could, for the government only furnished a tin
plate and cup with a knife and fork to each.
It was common for us to piece out our sup-
ply of kitchen furniture by using tin cans
which, with their contents, had cost at the
sutler's a thirteenth of a. month's wages each.

The sutler's store was an institution pro-
vided for in the organization of the army,
though I think the sutler was not regularly
enlisted in the service. He kept a sort of
department store which accompanied the
regiment most of the time, both at camp and
in the field. In our city camp, where every-
thing was easily obtained at regular stores,
he was permitted to keep lager beer, and it
formed the bulk of his trade. By some curi-
ous reasoning this was supposed to have an
influence towards temperance, and perhaps it
did, for if the boys went to the saloons or
worse places to have a convivial time they
were likely to encounter still more adverse

But in the field drink could not be included
in the sutler's stock of goods, which was car-
ried in a large canvas-topped wagon that was
permitted a place in the line of army wagons.


It was then that his prices became exorbi-
tant; but on the whole the sutler must be
accounted a blessing. Who cares if con-
densed milk was a dollar a can and pickles a
dollar a bottle? The goods were better to
us than the dollars were — when we had them.
The sutler's trade was usually active for
about a w^eek after we had received two or
three months' pay, and after that it dropped
nearly to zero.

It was customary for the men to combine
in groups of two or three, according to their
affinities, and thus secure a liti le of the bene-
fits of division of labor in the domestic ar-
rangements of the field. Each man carried
a piece of tent about five feet square, and
when two of these were buttoned together,
the middle drawn over a ridge-pole three
feet from the ground, and the ends pinned
to the ground, it covered a space about five
feet by seven. This slight shelter was known
technically as a "shelter tent," but was usu-
ally spoken of as a "pup tent." It secured
neither warmth nor privacy, but it was a
long way better than nothing to sleep under
when it rained, and the sticks and pins did
not have to be carried; they could be pro-
vided as needed.


I give these details to show how sudden the
change was from camp to field, but it must
not be supposed that our spirits were utter-
ly downcast by these physical discomforts.
Buoyant youth carries an elixir as exhaustless
as the widow's cruse and more potent than the
doctor's pellets; the gift of humor, which
never failed of finding an outlet. I recall a
trivial incident of the second day after leav-
ing Baltimore which will illustrate the point.

A farmer had seated himself on the fence
to see us pass. Possibly some one in the
First Maryland had recognized him and
called him by name, "Hello, Bill!" That
was enough: every mother's son when pass-
ing him shouted, " Hello, Bill!" like a battle-
cry, and long before the brigade had all
passed his face had become petrified in a
mingled expression that would have made
the fortune of a sculptor who could have
successfully reproduced it. Such little in-
cidents, having the least trace of fun or
humor in them, are immensely relished by
tired men on the march and have a positively
refreshing effect.

This brigade, now on its way to join
the Army of the Potomac, was under com-
mand of Brigadier General Lockwood, of the


regular army. He usually rode at the head of
the column with his staff and orderlies, and
accompanying them was always a mounted
man carrying a small flag of peculiar shape
and design. This was the "headquarters
flag," and w^herever that flag was, was the
headquarters of the brigade.

Now, it happened on one of these sultry
days that we halted for dinner at a broad
meadow, in one corner of which was a great
spreading oak which, with its comfortable
shade, offered an inviting resting-place.
What wonder was it that a considerable num-
ber of men, and at least one of our officers,
as soon as the order to break ranks was given,
bent their steps in that direction? To be
sure the man with the little flag was standing
there, but what of that? Soon the General
came riding up on a canter, and seemed to
be somewhat excited. He had one peculiar-
ity, and that was that when excited he stam-
mered furiously.

He now began : "T-t-t-this 's mum-
mum-my head-head-^z/ar/cr^ and when I
want you I '11 se-se-sen-sen-s^nt/ for you.
I-I-I-" but no one waited to hear the re-
mainder of the address, and I doubt whether
it was ever completed.


We had now learned that persons not hav-
ing business at headquarters are not ex-
pected to go there unless they are sent for;
for although we were drilled and instructed
in the duties of soldiers, there was yet to be
learned what may be termed the customs and
etiquette of field service. It was a long time
before those men ceased to be twitted on
their reception at headquarters, and the
echoes of General Lockwood's stuttering out-
break served to dispel the gloom of many
weary hours. But we were comforted a few
days afterward by noticing that he was never
excited and never stammered when under

On the afternoon of the third day after
leaving Baltimore our brigade, which was
composed, besides our own regiment, of two
from Maryland, came out on the brow of a
hill a few miles from Frederick City. Before
us lay a beautiful valley in which the roads,
for miles as far as the vision extended, were
filled with soldiers, horses, canvas-topped
wagons, and artillery, all moving towards the
north. We were told that this was the
Army of the Potomac, and we were surprised
at its magnitude, but our surprise was pro-
portionately increased when we learned that


this was the third day it had been passing in
this way.

Night closed in, and with the fading of the
dayhght it was easy to imagine we were look-
ing out on a great city, for the pleasant pas-
toral landscape was changed to a fairy-land.
Lights glimmered among the trees and were
scattered by thousands over the hill-sides,
while the evening air pulsed with the strains
of music and throbbed with drum -beats as we
sank to sleep. But with the coming of dawn
the city of a night had folded its walls and
the roads were thronged again. Night came
and as before the city of lights was spread
before us. Another morning came and still
the roads were thronged with this immense
army, and before noon our brigade of 2400
men had marched down the hill, crossed the
river and become merged in the great mass.

Then followed days of extreme fatigue,
made worse by short rations, as we tried to
keep the marching pace of those veterans.
On the second of July we were called at day-
break, and with hardly time to devour the
very scanty breakfast of hardtack and coffee,
were ordered to fall in. And now we were
directed to drop knapsacks, tents and blan-
kets, or rather such of these articles as were


still retained, for many of them had already
been abandoned, and the men were to retain
only canteens and haversacks besides the
arms and ammunition.

We filed along past headquarters, each one
in turn throwing upon the pile such treasures
as he had still retained. We were told that
the things would be forwarded to us by the
wagons, but war-time is careless of its prom-
ises, for we never saw them again.

At 4 A.M. we started at a furious marching
pace, covering eight miles in two hours.
Surely there must be some reason for all this
haste, and it was not long before the cause
became apparent, for when we were being
hurried forward with all speed an unwelcome
rumor spread along the column that a great
battle had been fought the day before near a
village called "Gettysburg"; that our army
had been repulsed there and General Rey-
nolds killed.

The rumor proved to be true, except that it
was only the beginning of a great battle that
had been fought, and even as the rumor
reached us it was apparently confirmed by
the rolling echoes of distant cannonading.



Approaching the Conflict — Meeting the Wounded —
On the Field — Entering the Battle — "How Does
a Battle Look?" — Work of the Stretcher- Bearers
— Opening of the Third Day's Battle — Recover-
ing a Position — Holding Gulp's Hill against
"Stonewall" Jackson's Veterans.

AS we nearecl the field we began to meet
stragglers from the front. I well re-
member the first wounded man that passed
us. His hand and arm were covered with
blood, and his face and manner denoted ex-
treme fatigue and suffering. We looked
from one to another with serious faces which
expressed what we all felt but no one put in
words. We now realized we were approach-
ing the horrors of a real battle. Jesting
ceased; a strange silence fell upon the march-
ing column and we trudged on, less in fear
of personal danger, I verily believe, than of


seeing more suffering. Strange that a little
wound in a man's arm should affect us so. In
twenty-four hours we were as little moved by
the sight of wounds and death as the oldest

When at last we arrived on the field we
were held in reserve until nearly night.
The frequent booming of cannon west of us
told its own story, and an occasional shell
which missed Cemetery Ridge would come
howling towards us and bury itself in the
ground or burst in mid-air. But in the after-
noon there arose, away off in the southwest,
a great rattle and roar of rifles, mingled with
the increasingly frequent booming of cannon.
This was the struggle near the ' ' Peach
Orchard," "Wheat Field," and "Round-
tops." A cloud of sulphurous smoke hung
above the trees in that direction, and borne
to us on the sultry smoke-laden air there was
a significant, and to us a new and peculiar
sound ; a prolonged, fierce, wavering yell,
gaining in strength and rising higher and
higher until it finally died away in a scream.

"What's that?" I enquired of a veteran.

" Oh, that 's the ' Rebel yell,' " he answered ;
"they're charging now; fist en." We lis-
tened and the sound of musketry broke out


thicker and louder: the roar of artillery
increased, but after a little there came to us
another sound; three long cheers in ringing
chest tones.

''That's our boys," said my veteran
friend; "the 'Rebs' failed that time."

Often while the afternoon wore away was
this experience repeated, and as often were
the yells and cheers of the contending forces
borne to our listening ears as the tide of
battle swayed back and forth. But there
came a time, just at night, when the enemy's
yell was no longer answered by the Union
cheers. It was evident that our line was
being driven back. Suddenly our brigade
was ordered to march in great haste to the
scene of action, we musicians having been de-
tailed as stretcher-bearers. We started on
the "double quick," and orders kept coming
along the line to " Forward, " — " Faster, " —
''Faster!'' until we were in the very battle

" How does a battle look? " I imagine some
young reader is asking. I recall a road and
fields with fences torn down and scattered;
trees cut and marred by bullets and shells,
broken branches hanging down; wounded
men walking and limping towards the rear,


some sitting or lying on the ground; dead
men here and there; straggling members of
defeated and scattered regiments wandering
to the rear; a broken gun-carriage. There
was a battery where the smoke-begrimed
men were loading and firing across an open
field, with the automatic movement which
makes each man appear to be but a part of
the whole machine, and yet with such a furi-
ous haste that made them all seem as if they
were on springs worked by quick-moving

A mounted officer was riding past on a
gallop when one of the enemy's shells burst
directly in front of him. His horse, sud-
denly rearing, half turned, but hard spurred
dashed through the smoke and passed on.
There was the incessant roar of rifles, the
crashing sound of cannon accompanied by
the peculiar howling roar of shells, and the
constant th, ill, of bullets.

Finally there came a halt and rapid form-
ing of line of battle. In the field before us,
just skirting the woods, was a long line of
men in gray, firing continuously. Our own
line paused a little in forming, then a cloud
of blue smoke, pierced with a thousand jets
of flame, sprang from their front, and before


the echoes of the volley had died away they
dashed forward with a cheer. The enemy,
almost as much exhausted as the troops whom
they were driving, gave way completely and
ran scattering through the woods before this
impetuous charge of fresh men.

Then followed the stretcher-bearers, tak-
ing up the wounded and carrying them back
to the ambulances which conveyed them to
the field hospitals. Night dropped her sable
mantle over the scene, but still we worked
on far into the night, guided in our search by
cries of pain and calls for help, until at last,
compelled by pitchy darkness, w^e paused in
our labor. We were now unable to find our
regiment, and, indeed, had lost our sense of lo-
cality and points of the compass entirely, and
fearing we might walk unwittingly into the
enemy's lines, lay down on the blood-stained
stretchers and fell asleep ; but our sleep was

We were awakened at 3 a.m. b}^ a roaring
sound which ended with an explosion and
was followed by a scream. From what I
have since read I believe that it was the first
shell from the opening gun of the third day's
battle which had passed over us. It may
have passed ten feet above us, but I some-


how got the impression at the time that it
was not more than ten inches away. Others
followed in quick succession and the day was
begun, even at that early hour. We fortu-
nately soon succeeded in finding the regiment,
which had been withdrawn from that hill in
the night, while we were so busy with the
wounded, and had been taken back to the
right of the line.

Dtiring the forenoon there was consider-
able fighting along the whole line, of which
the infantry occupied about three miles, and
the cavalry extended it about a mile on each
flank, making the whole line of battle some
five miles in length. The peculiar semicir-
cular form, or "fish-hook shape," as it was
called, of our infantry line, gave the effect of
our being apparently surrounded by fighting ;
there was firing in all directions.

Then there was the ghastly procession of
wounded men straggling from the front:
men with blood streaming down their faces
and necks; men using muskets for crutches,
and some with shattered arms from which
blood was dripping. Barns, houses and
shaded yards contained long rows of the
wounded, waiting for the surgeon's atten-
tions. Some were unconscious, some already


dead, and many bearing their pain in silence
with a fortitude greater than was needed to
face danger.

Our regiment was moved from place to
place, at one time supporting a battery, and
at another time fronting a threatened point.
The 27th Indiana were in our front here.
They had tried to recover a certain point
which the enemy had captured on the evening
before, and had failed, losing in ten minutes
a third of their number.

." Do you think you could do any better?"
the General asks Colonel Ketcham, who is in
command of our regiment.

*'I don't know, but we'll try if you give
the word," was the quiet reply.

" I '11 see what can be done," said the Gen-
eral as he rode away, and soon after that we
saw the enemy's difficult point torn and
ploughed and shattered under the concentra-
ted fire of the batteries, and when the infantry
again advanced they yielded and fell back.

Early in the forenoon of July 3d, our bri-
gade was put in at Gulp's Hill, taking the
place of troops which had held the line all
night. Now, for the first time, our brigade
and regimental surgeons established them-
selves, locating their field hospital at the old


stone barn on the Baltimore pike, and I was
assigned to their direction and began my
first experience in field hospitals.

The word hospital brings to the mind of
the unmilitary reader thoughts of a long
room, with cots having white sheets. But a
field hospital is simply a place, generally out-
of-doors, where the brigade or division sur-
geons have placed themselves to receive the
wounded as they are brought from the front,
and give them such immediate attention as
is possible. Often these operations and dress-
ings are the last they receive for several days.

On the previous day we did not see the
field hospitals at all, but delivered the
wounded to the ambulances. But ours now
established was so near the battle line and so
much under fire that no attempt was made to
bring the ambulances up. There was room
on the barn floor for some of the worst cases
after their operations, but the others were
simply laid on the grass. It was in charge of
Dr. Campbell, the Surgeon of our regiment,
and there were several other surgeons present
as his assistants. He was a man well past mid-
dle life, and many wondered that he should
undertake the hardships incident to war. I
have often thought that he may have been


prompted to the step as much by his love for
the boys of his dear home county as he was
by love of his country, for a kinder hearted
man never lived.

He set up his operating-table, which was a
portable affair, in the open field, and here we
brought the most severely wounded, one at a
time, and when we removed them some were
minus a limb or arm which it had been found
necessary to amputate. The cases not need-
ing elaborate operations were attended to
where they were lying, by other surgeons.
But the dear man handled every patient in a
fatherly way, as if he were a relative and he
had a special and personal interest in his case.
Surely he had his reward, for to his dying
day, which was long after the war, he had
the devoted affection of every member of the

After I had worked in this field hospital for
some time. Dr. Campbell remarked, " I think,
Charlie, you 'd better go to the regiment now
and assist some of the wounded to get back."

"Where is it. Doctor?"

"Down in those woods," was the careless

Phrased though it was in the good doctor's
kind way, the order was not a welcome one.


"Those woods" were not far distant, and
wandering missiles from there frequently
whizzed past us. Above their tree tops hung a
cloud of smoke, while from their depths came
the roar of rifles, rising and falling in tumult
as the waves of onset rolled against our line,
or, broken and repulsed, rolled back to gather
force for the ever-recurring attack. But I had
absorbed already so much of the army spirit
that I would not even seem to hesitate, and
turned my feet at once in that direction.

I had no difficulty in finding the regiment,
who were in the line of battle on the southern
slope of Gulp's Hill, crouched behind a barri-
cade of logs and branches, and once in the
line I was rather surprised to find that the
fear which had haunted me so on the way
immediately v^anished. Yet in each subse-
quent trip to the regiment, as I came under
fire I experienced the same shrinking dread
of the bullets, which all seemed intended for
me. Their whispering message gives one the
singular feeling of being soul-naked in their
presence, and that neither clothing nor body
would for an instant check their flight.

Yet curiously, whether from the presence of
numbers or whatever the cause, each time as
soon as I reached the regiment this feeling


vanished and I felt as much at ease as when at
the rear. The experience was quite different
from that of the night before, for then the
exertion of running while I was burdened
with the heavy stretcher, in the effort to
keep up with the column, gave no room for
thought of danger.

The ground descended sharply in our front
here and the enemy's line was* not more than
fifteen or twenty rods distant. . The smoke
had settled so thickly in the heavy timber
that we could not distinguish them clearly,
and the spurts of smoke from their guns fur-
nished the principal indication which showed
our men where to aim.

There is courage and courage, but this
was of a different character from that of the
day before, when in the excitement and im-
petus of the charge they had scattered twice
their number of the enemy, by the very
"freshness," as one phrased it, of the attack.
But here we were confronted by " Stonewall "
Jackson's famous veterans, who had never
known defeat. They had gained a little
ground on the evening before and had lost it
again in the morning, and now were strug-
gling with an obstinate persistence known to
no other race, to recover it. The combat


was long past the excitement stage. It had
now settled to a resolute test of endurance;
a grim determination to fight to a finish; a
primordial test of blood and nerve ; a trying
of which could longest bear being killed. It
was a death grapple. Would "Stonewall's"
invincibles succeed, as they had always suc-
ceeded, or would it be their first defeat?

I was struck by the cool and matter-of-fact
way in which our men were loading and fir-
ing, while the dead lay at frequent intervals,
and not infrequently some of our number
fell. And yet it was but yesterday the same
men had paled at the sight of a wounded
man. What magic art had suddenly trans-
formed these timid youths into hardened
veterans ?

Nor was the change less noticeable in the
field hospitals. Men and boys who but a
short time before could hardly bear to look
at any serious injury now carried wounded
men to the surgeon's table, removed the am-
putated limbs which gradually accumulated
in a pile near by, and took part in all the
sickening details of hospital service; and
through it all with a cool and easy way as if
it was a round of duties they had been ac-

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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 2 of 14)