Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

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36 AS SEEN- FROM THE RANKS

There was an incident in this struggle at
Gulp's Hill which illustrates its desperate
character. At one time a little white cloth
was seen in front of our regiment. The firing
slackened at that part of the line to see what
a white flag meant at such a time, though
rifles were held at the shoulder, ready for any
attempted surprise. Presently a straggling
line of Confederates came running up the
hill, and, springing over the breastworks,
gave themselves up as prisoners. There were
about two hundred of them.

When questioned as to why they had done
so they explained that a second line back of
theirs prevented any possibility of retreat,
and that the fire of our line had become so
destructive that they had determined to be-
come prisoners in this way to escape destruc-
tion. It had required some planning and
some daring, for they were obliged to wait
for a favorable moment when the thickness
of the smoke concealed them from those in
the rear, as well as from those at each side.
When the favorable moment arrived they
sprang forward and made their escape into
our line, and they seemed greatly relieved
when they had accomplished it successfully.



CHAPTER IV

THE CRISIS BATTLE OF THE WAR

Pickett's Grand Charge — Daring Courage of the South
Breaks against the Firmness of the North — What
might have Happened — Hope of Repubhcs.

A LITTLE before noon on that fateful day-
there was a gradual lessening of the
firing. The artillery ceased entirely, and
the rifles, though not completely stopped,
subsided into a rattling skirmish fire. Our
regiment was withdrawn from the line on
Gulp's Hill in order to cool their guns, being
replaced by other troops, and were now rest-
ing in the edge of the woods. An hour
passed: what could it mean?

"Something 's on foot, you may depend,"
said a veteran; **the battle 's not ended yet."

Scarce a breath of breeze swayed the air,
while the sun passed the meridian and an-
other hour wore away.

37



38 ^S SEE.V FROM THE RANKS

Suddenly there came from beyond Ceme-
tery Ridge on the west the heavy sound of
two cannon fired in quick succession. They
were Lee's signal guns, and before their
echoes had died away the air was quaking
and trembling with the sound of one hundred
and fifty cannon fired as fast as the men could
work them, and all the variety of projectiles
then known to warfare were screaming, hiss-
ing, and roaring towards our devoted line.
But the noise and roar, great as it was, was
soon doubled by the reply of our own artil-
ler}% nearly equal in number of guns. For
more than an hour we listened to the most
rapid and heavy cannonading of the whole
war.

The explosions followed in such rapid suc-
cession that they became a continuous roar.
It was more than deafening; the air seemed
to lose, under this beating and torture, its
ordinary capabilities of conveying sound, and
to become stagnant and paralyzed. The
events occurring about us became a grand
pantomime which our eyes could see indeed,
but in which the sense of hearing took no
part. An ammunition wagon rumbled heav-
ily along the stone pike and a mounted cour-
ier galloped past, the iron of his horse's hoofs



THE CRISIS BATTLE OF THE WAR 39

' striking fire on the pavement, but to us they
were silent passers; the clash of iron and
stone gave no sound that reached the ears:
our brains were filled with a roar which we
seemed to feel rather than hear.

A comrade has since said that he was
within twenty-five yards of a battery a part
of that time, and did not know when it was
fired unless he was looking in that direction.
And yet there was some peculiar quality in
this sound carnival, not easily understood.
It was possible, for instance, for persons
standing very near together to converse,
almost in the ordinary tones of voice. Yet
at the same time the air w^as absolutely im-
penetrable by the voice to any distance.

Another singular thing is that heavy can-
nonading has a tendency to produce sleepi-
ness in some persons. As I have said, our
regiment was resting at this time, and as I
was at the right of the regimental line I hap-
pened to sit next to a member of another
regiment, one which had been in several cam-
paigns, including that most severe one of all,
the Peninsular campaign. He had been giv-
ing me an interesting account of his experi-
ences when the heavy cannonading began,
but that suddenly ended his narrative, for he



40 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

casually remarked, "That always makes me
sleepy. Wake me up if my regiment starts,
will you?" and despite the fact that shells
were dropping and exploding here and there
in our immediate vicinity, or ripping through
the trees above us, he was soon sleeping
soundly on the grass.

At last, after an hour or more of this heavy
cannonading, it began to decrease, and in its
place there came the sound of more rifle
firing. Then we knew that another charge
was being made on our line, and when the
cannonading had almost ceased there came
to us again the sound which had grown fa-
miliar the day before: that long, fierce,
screaming yell, the battle-cry of the Southern
army, nearer than it was yesterday and
louder it seemed. The cannonading ceased
now and the roar of small arms increased,
and finally lessened and died away, and when
the artillery again broke forth it was accom-
panied by cheer after cheer, and we knew
that the charge was repulsed. It was not
until long afterward that w^e learned the full
particulars of this charge of Pickett's Divi-
sion, which has passed into history as the
turning-point of the battle, and, in fact, of
the whole war.



THE CRISIS BATTLE OF THE WAR 4 1

At this time of the invasion of the North
by the Confederate army the war had been
in progress some two years, and during that
time the South had met with more successes
on the whole than reverses. They had suc-
ceeded in a measure in defending their terri-
tory in the East from our army. What they
needed most at that time was financial aid
and foreign recognition. If they could in-
vade the North and defeat the Northern army
on its own soil, it would obtain for them both.
This was what Lee attempted at the battle of
Gettysburg. If it had succeeded the Con-
federacy would probably soon have been
recognized by every nation in Europe, and
financial aid would have been proffered in
abundance. If he failed — w^ell, he did fail.

Looking back from this date it seems a
wonder that we succeeded. The Southern
army was combined under an able leadership,
with more experienced officers having West
Point educations than our army contained,
and under a supreme commander of known
ability in whom they had the most enthusi-
astic confidence. On the other hand our
army was frequently thwarted by a change
of commanders and hampered and harassed
by a meddlesome War Department. This,



42 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

with the further fact that its ardor was dam-
pened by lack of substantial success, while
the higher officials seemed many times to be
more influenced by political considerations,
or personal spite and jealousy, than by real
desire for the success of the government, was
a heayy handicap.

It seemed as if the hope of the Republic
must be, as the hope of republics must always
be, in the people themselves. And when the
battle was finally won it was won more by
the quality of the citizen soldiers than
through any talent of generalship.

On this last day of the battle, when Lee
found that all his efforts of the morning to
force any part of our line had failed, he con-
cluded to make one final desperate charge on
the very centre of our army, and if possible
to break into and crush it, leaving the North
with its cities and wealth defenceless against
his farther progress. The prelude to this
charge was the cannonading I have described.

Then from out of the woods west of Ceme-
tery Ridge were marshalled the forces for the
charge, in line of battle, line back of line, all
fresh men that had not taken part in the
conflict; the very flower and pick of the
Southern army. What supreme devotion to



THE CRISIS BA TTLE OF THE WAR 43

a commander's orders ! What sublime cour-
age! They must march through open fields
up a rising ground for nearly a mile before
they could begin to fight; and during the
whole distance they must be exposed to the
fire of over one hundred pieces of artillery,
and of rifles too, as soon as they were within
range.

The story of this magnificent charge has
been often told: how they advanced in
spite of the fearful carnage in their ranks,
until their front line finally plunged, with the
fierce yell we had heard so plainly, upon our
line. That was the supreme hour of the
Confederacy; that yell marked the acme of
its power. It was Slavery's demand to the
world, and if it succeeded it seemed as if the
world must bow down to Slavery.

Lee had counted with a just confidence on
the dashing courage OFv|iis men, but there was
a staying quality in the Northern army that
he had not estimated at its full value. And
so when his front line actuajt^ broke into our
front ranks, as he could plainly see with his
field-glass from the tower of ^le old seminary,
from which point he watched the action, he
expected to see our soldiers flee like sheep
in all directions. Instead of which, to his



44 ^^ SEEN FROM THE RANKS

dismay, he saw them close in upon three
sides of his invading force at short range,
even finally using bayonets, clubbed muskets,
and swords. This struggle at close quarters
is thought to have lasted about ten minutes.

Of the whole number who joined in that
attack many were killed and wounded on the
way, while others broke and ran before reach-
ing our lines ; but of those who actually came
to close quarters with our force none re-
turned. Some were taken prisoners, the rest
were slain, and where they fell and are buried
there was buried race slavery in America ; for
this was the turning point of the war, and
from this time on the course of the Confed-
eracy was a downward course until the cause
of slavery was "the lost cause."

Thus ended the charge and thus ended the
most important battle of the century.




^.






iE>







CHAPTER V



AFTER THE BATTLE



Emotions in Battle — Quality of Courage — Gettysburg
the Greatest Battle, both in Importance and in
Loss of Life — Greatest Regimental Losses Known
to History.

ONE of our younger writers made himself
a name and notoriety, at least, by a
single book, and that a small one. It pur-
ports to relate the experience of a private
soldier during a two days' battle, and a very
large proportion of that experience is the
boy's own highly wrought emotions under
new and trying conditions. The book re-
ceived favorable notice, both in this country
and abroad ; and, most singular of all, some
of those asserting its truthfulness to real life
are men who have been through their dozen
or more of battles and may be presumed to
know something whereof they speak.

45



46 ^S SEEN FROM THE RANKS

Yet after the book had received this high
commendation it chanced that its author be-
came attached to the volunteer army in the
late Spanish- American war. It was said that,
to his own astonishment and mortification,
he found the reality did not much resemble
the pen pictures of his imagination.

My own position as a non-combatant in
the army gave me exceptional opportunities
for observation not enjoyed by either officers
or privates in the line, or by those whose duty
it was to remain always at the rear. Except
for this I should hesitate to criticise the all
but unanimously favorable judgment passed
upon this product of the imagination, — for
the writer admitted to never having had ex-
perience of war at that time, and the book,
with all its vivid recount of emotions experi-
enced, was evolved entirely from his own
consciousness.

In spite of what writers have imagined and
historians have recorded, in spite of what
veterans think their emotions were because it
seems to be considered that such emotions
would have been suitable to the occasion, I
do not hesitate to differ from them all. Upon
first entering an engagement and during
special crises, there are doubtless a few mo-



AFTER THE BATTLE 47

ments of much excitement, but this quickly
disappears and in the strain of a hard and
persistent battle highly wrought emotions
are the exception and not the rule. Instead
of excitement, the great underlying motive
of action at such times is a deep and strong
sense of duty, greatly reinforced and strength-
ened by military discipline and resting upon
stability of character as its basis.

For my own part, I confess to a feeling of
disappointment in my first and each succeed-
ing experience of battle scenes. Not that
the occurrences were less dreadful than I had
expected, for they even exceeded my antici-
pations. The effect upon myself was not to
increase the height of feeling in proportion,
however, but rather the reverse, the con-
sciousness seeming to instinctively accept the
prevailing conditions and adjust itself to
those conditions.

I had seen a crushed finger and an injured
arm, and had even witnessed a death, and had
often wondered how it would seem to have
the emotions experienced on those occasions
multiplied a thousandfold; wondered what
my sensations would be were I to witness a
thousand persons with bruised and broken
members, or dead and dying. Yet when I



48 AS SEE AT FROM THE RANKS

did witness such scenes I discovered — though
I did not formulate it then — that it is the
unusual, the exceptional, which impresses
our feelings. As numbers multiply the emo-
tions are dissipated until by the very magni-
tude of the calamity the mind unconsciously
accepts the occurrences as the natural order
of events and devotes itself to whatever work
it may have at hand, as to any ordinary
occupation.

Thus when we met the first wounded m.an
my emotions reached their highest pitch, and
I saw the faces of those about me blanch with
fear, dread, and pity. Yet within twenty-
four hours I saw a man's limbs torn from his
body by a cannon shot and men killed in
numbers, and I assisted at the amputation
table for hours, without any of those emotions
of dread and horror that we are apt to con-
sider as inseparable from such scenes.

In regard also to the question of physical
courage, so necessary a quality in battle, I
often find the crudest opinions expressed. I
think it is commonly supposed that men are
sharply divided into two classes, — those who
are afraid and those who are not ; or, as it is
more commonly expressed, "The brave ones
and the cowards." Save for a few abnormal



AFTER THE BATTLE



49



exceptions it would be much more nearly cor-
rect to say that all men belong to both classes.
When about to take part in an engagement,
and during a little while after getting well
under fire, there enters an unpleasant and
unwelcome thought that one may soon be
numbered among the dead, or be one of those
whose sufferings were such a common sight.
But in this case as in the others the mind
instinctively adjusts itself to the prevailing
conditions, and, without losing the thought /
of danger, yet becomes to a degree indifferent /
to it. The "scare feeling" is soon gone, and
thenceforth it is that dominant sense of duty
of which I have spoken which holds the
reins.

The battle was ended with that great
charge, though we did not know it then. An
obscure village, the trading centre of an old
farming district, which had stood unchanged
for a century, had sprung suddenly to a pin-
nacle of fame, and wherever the greatest
battle of the greatest war of a century noted
for its great achievements is mentioned,
there will be heard the name of Gettysburg.
Not only was the battle greatest in its loss of
life, but it was greatest also in its issue as the
turning-point of the war.



50 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

The numbers of the opposing forces were
about equal, being variously estimated at
from 75,000 to 85,000 on each side. The
losses were very large, not only in the aggre-
gate, but also in proportion to the number
engaged. Our loss in the number of those
who were killed or died of their wounds was
5291; and those who were wounded must
have swelled the total to nearly or quite
18,000. It is supposed that the enemy's loss
was considerably the larger, owing to the fact
that theirs was the attacking force. So it
will be seen that the losses of both sides in
killed and wounded were more than Washing-
ton ever had under his command at any one
time during the Revolution. Startling as
these casualties of an army may appear, the
record of the losses of individual regiments
is almost beyond belief.

Just at sundown on July 2d, when our bri-
gade was being hurried to the fray, was a
critical point in the nation's life. The enem^/
had discovered a weak place in our line and
were hurrying a whole division in there to
seize the point of vantage, and had they suc-
ceeded it might have won for them the battle.

It fell to the ist Minnesota \^olunteer In-
fantrv^ to hold this large force at bay, at all



AFTER THE BATTLE 5 1

hazards, until reinforcements should arrive.
They not only did this, but met the attack
half way by a counter charge in which they
captured a stand of the enemy's colors. But
what was the price of such valor? In the
short five or ten minutes which it took us to
reach the place on a run, more than four
fifths of their number were killed or wounded.
This is the largest percentage of casualties
recorded of any regiment in any one battle
(save that of one Confederate regiment on
the next day), either here or in Europe, and
it is worthy of note that at the close of the
engagement none were "missing"; all save
the dead and wounded answered the roll-
call, for not a man had flinched from that
deadly crisis.

It was probably the wounded from that
now famous regiment that we carried from
the field when we worked so late that night,
for I do not remember that my own regi-
ment lost any men at that time.

To further illustrate, we may compare this
action with some others which have attained
to a place in history, and for this purpose
I cannot do better than to quote a paragraph
from that painstaking statistician, Col. Wil-
liam F. Fox, as follows:



52 yiS SEEiV FROM THE RANKS

"Take the charge of the Light Brigade at
Balaklava. Its extraordinary loss has been
made a famiUar feature of heroic verse and
story in every land, until the whole world has
heard of the gallant Six Hundred and their ride
into the valley of Death. Now as the brigade
accomplished nothing in this action, — merely
executed an order which was a blunder, — it must
be that it was the danger and its attendant loss
which inspired the interest in that historic ride.
What was the loss? The Light Brigade took
637 officers and men into that charge; they lost
113 killed and 134 wounded; total 247, or 36.7
per cent."

It will be noticed that this is less than half
the percentage of loss scored by the Minne-
sota regiment, and the Light Brigade accom-
plished nothing at that. At Gettysburg
there were twenty different regiments in our
army who lost in killed and wounded more
than half their number who were present for
duty, so it will be seen that this battle was
phenomenal in many respects.

The burial of these thousands in hot July
weather was necessarily very hastily done,
but in the following year a national cemetery
was established there, and our dead, as many
at least as could then be found, were removed



AFTER THE BATTLE



53



thither. It was at the dedication of this
cemetery that Lincoln, with his rare genius
for giving the most beautiful expression to
the nation's best thought, delivered that
epitome of the principles of representative
government which has become the classic of
the century.




CHAPTER VI



FROM PENNSYLVANIA TO THE POTOMAC



Aftermath of the Strife — The Price of Valor— Acres of
Dead Men — Phenomena of Death in Battle —
Repulsive Appearance of the Battlefield — A
Forced March — Again Facing the Enemy.

FOR forty-eight hours we had been with-
out food. With the fatigue and loss of
sleep, and the pouring rain which began on
the night of July 3d and soaked us to the
skin, this was not calculated to raise the
spirits. But with the coming of morning
the news suddenly spread that the enemy
had retreated during the night.

Perhaps the reader imagines us now throw-
ing up our caps and shouting in exultation
over the victory, but nothing of the kind
occurred. Doubtless every one in the whole
army was as heartily glad as I was myself;
but, for one thing, the physical condition of
54



PENNSYLVANIA TO THE POTOMAC 55

the men forbade it. When poor humanity is
reduced to that condition in which food and
a dry place to he on seem the only desirable
things in life, there is small likelihood that
men will burst out in ecstatic demonstration.

And then, too, there was the other fact
that not a regiment but had lost valuable
members, and scarce a man in our whole
army there who had not lost friends and ac-
quaintances. Besides this there was also the
constant presence of the wounded. Turn
which way we might there was always suffer-
ing before us, for even then they had not
all received the surgeon's attentions. How
could there be great outward demonstrations
of rejoicing in such surroundings? The in-
nate delicacy of manhood forbade it.

My regiment remained near there, not far
from our field hospital, until nearly night on
July 4th, and I secured time in the course of
the day to visit a little of the field. My first
visit was to that portion which the enemy
had occupied near Gulp's Hill, confronting
our own brigade. "Stonewall" Jackson's
old corps was commanded by Ewell at that
time, for it was after Jackson's death, and it
was they who had faced us here. Again and
again they had attempted to force our line



$6 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

back, as I had witnessed on the previous day,
and had been defeated in every attempt,
and now we could see what their courage had
cost them. One could have walked on dead
men over acres of that ground in any
direction.

For the most part the dead were lying on
their backs with wide-open expressionless
eyes. In a few instances the features were
drawn and distorted in a manner which gave
an expression of great pain and horror. I
supposed at the time that the victims had
suffered very painful deaths, but after ex-
periences convinced me that the expression of
features after death gives no clue whatever to
the presence or absence of pain before death
takes possession.

I remember one instance in particular in
which a man had either walked or crawled to
a considerable distance away from the line
before he finally lay down beside the fence
where he died. His eyes were closed, per-
haps by some comrade who thus gave him
his last attention. His wounds were such
that his must have been a lingering, painful
death, and yet there rested on his features
such a pleasant and delightfully happy smile
as to make one think for the moment that it



PENNSYLVANIA TO THE POTOMAC 57

was the expression of happy thoughts and
dreams not even extinguished by death.

The phenomena of death in battle has re-
ceived more or less scientific attention, but I
doubt whether all its features are yet fully
explained. For one thing, it is claimed that
under some conditions sudden death leaves
the body rigid and motionless in the exact
position it was in at the moment of death,
and one writer has given an instance of a sol-
dier who was killed while he was in the act of
mounting his horse, and remained standing
with one foot on the ground and the other in
the stirrup until the line came up. Only one
instance of this character came under my
own observation at Gettysburg.

A man — as it happened, a neighbor and
acquaintance of mine, John P. Wing of Com-
pany A — was shot in or near the heart while
standing. Falling forward on his hands and
knees his fingers closed tightly on the leaves
and twigs, and it was probably in that atti-
tude that death reached him. Although he
rolled slowly to one side and finally turned
completely on his back, yet his limbs and
arms retained the same relative position, his
hands still clasping the leaves and twigs, and
it seemed to be one of those instances, oftener



58 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

heard of than seen, in which e^'ery fibre of the


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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 3 of 14)