Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

. (page 4 of 14)
Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 4 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


body became suddenly rigid at the instant of
death.

I recall another instance which occurred a
year later at Resaca, Ga. After that battle
there was found among the Confederate dead,
which lay so thickly in front of our regiment,
one of them who had taken position on his
hands and knees behind a tree for shelter.
He was probably killed instantly in that posi-
tion, and when found was rigid in death, still
on his hands and knees, and with head turned
to one side and wide-open eyes seemed to be
still looking for his comrades.

On that part of the field of which I have
spoken, among the dead was an ofiQcer of
rank, said to be one of Ewell's staff officers.
His horse also lay there, and the officer's dead
hand still clasped the bridle. Afterward sev-
eral different persons told me of having shot
this particular man. The fact was that the
smoke of battle settling in the heavy timber
here had greatly obscured the lines from each
other. This officer was riding along the line
when a puff of wind lifted the smoke and
brought him into full view for an instant, and
in that instant both he and his horse were
pierced by many bullets.



PENNSYLVANIA TO THE POTOMAC 59

But aside from the isolated instances which
each had some quahty of interest for the ob-
server, there was much in these aftermaths
of the strife that was repulsive to the last
degree. At one stage of the battle a portion
of the enemy's forces a little farther south, in
the position which the 27th Indiana had tried
to take, suffering so heavily in the attempt,
had been furiously shelled by our batteries,
and some of the results of this bombardment
could now be seen. Their position was such
as to make it possible for artillery to work
its most fearful havoc, — a large force closely
formed in a hollow, — and the partially en-
filading fire had been very destructive.

Men who have fallen by bullets often show
no external mark to the casual observer;
they are simply men who were alive but now
are dead. But these victims of the shell
and canister showed the human form torn
and disfigured beyond description. In one
case I noticed the hand, now stift'ened in
death, still clasped against the protruding
entrails where the jagged fragment of a shell
had torn open the abdominal cavity.

In another instance I remember the whole
front of the chest of a large man had been
literally torn away, exposing to view its



6o AS SEEA^ FROM THE RANKS

interior, including the heart and lungs. One
had climbed into a tall tree to do the sharp-
shooter act, and when killed his foot had
caught in a crotch and he now hung, head
downward, from the limb.

All were bloating and blackening in the
July heat, and the air was filled with that in-
describably sickening odor never found save
on a summer battlefield. Trees cut and
mangled in their full leafage; thousands of
camp-fires, from which ascended the smoke
and steam of wet, burning wood and blood-
saturated clothing; the putrefaction of hu-
man and animal remains ; all combined and
blended to assail, lest the sight should not
be sufficient, the sense of smell as well. So
when we had finally laid at rest our little
group of heroes, whose first battle had been
their last, it was not an unwelcome order by
which we turned our backs on the scene and
wearily took up the pursuit of the retreating
foe.

In connection with this battle I have often
wondered whether the Commanding General
knew of some things that every private, at
least in our brigade, knew of. For one thing,
that heavy cannonading previous to Pick-
ett's grand charge must have exhausted the



PENNSYLVANIA TO THE POTOMAC 6 1

enemy's store of artillery ammunition, and
our men knew of it and talked of it at the
time. Short sections of railroad iron were
among the curiosities of projectiles that were
hurled among us, and once a large stone
struck a tree directly over my head, the
pieces dropping to the ground about me.
This fact of a shortage of artillery ammuni-
tion with the enemy would have had a
great bearing upon the results of the move-
ments which Meade might have made at the
time of Lee's retreat across the Potomac, but
which he failed to make.

It was night when we started and we went
but a few miles, reaching the vicinity of
Littletown, Penn., and here we halted and
made camp. The next day we moved a
short distance farther and again halted. Of
this camp I have small recollection, for after
supper I sank on the ground in a dreamless
sleep. It was said that the bugle sounded
reveille at 2 a.m. the next morning, but I did
not hear it ; yet the results of that over-sleep
made such an impression upon my subcon-
scious self that never again in my whole
term of service, no matter what my previous
fatigue, did I fail to promptly awaken in re-
sponse to the morning call of the bugle.



62 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

When I did awaken an hour later it was
just in time to hear the imperative com-
mand, "Fall in," and, catching together my
things as best I could, I made a run for my
place in the line. Unfortunately I was thus
started, breakfastless, on what is known in
the army as a "forced march." For infan-
try sixteen miles a day was then called a
"regular" day's march, but on this occasion
we covered thirty miles before noon, reaching
the \'icinity of Frederick City. I\Iost of the
way was over one of the famous Maryland
stone pikes, and though nothing could fur-
nish a better road for artillery and wagon
trains, yet the sharp stone surface continu-
ally indenting the soles of the shoes for so
many weary hours, in my own case and in
that of many others, caused intense pain in
the feet and limbs. One droll fellow de-
scribed the sensation as "a jumping tooth-
ache in both feet."

After leaving Frederick City we passed
westward over the South Mountain range,
entering the Cumberland Valley. This was
the valley in which Lee's army was trying to
escape back to Virginia, harassed all the way
by the cavalry and threatened at every pass
by the infantry. The enemy must have



PENNSYLVANIA TO 7 HE POTOMAC 63

passed when we reached the valley west of
South Mountain, and we followed on with
the army in pursuit. In due course of time
we came up with the Confederate forces,
where they were trying to cross the Potomac
in the vicinity of Williamsport.




^/rv'^V



CHAPTER VII



ON THE POTOMAC



Scenery of Western Maryland — Interviewing a Scout —
Enemy Escaped — Whose the Fault — Night March
in Storm and Darkness — Harper's Ferry.



W



ESTERN Alaryland is divided across
from north to south by successive
ridges of the Alleghany Mountains, and be-
tween these ridges lie valleys of some of the
finest farming lands in the East. The Cum-
berland Valley is one of these, and is in fact,
but a northern extension of the Shenandoah
Valley, though the two are divided by the
Potomac River. I remember it as one of the
pleasantest pastoral landscapes that I have
ever seen, for it was entirely lacking in the
dead uniformity of the western farm scenes.
Though there were wide stretching fields roll-
ing away in the distance, yellow with unhar-
vested wheat, there were also wooded lands,
64



)



ON THE POTOMAC 65

rocky ridges, uplands, roads winding along
pleasant streams, cascades and dells, and
comfortable homesteads nestling among the
shade trees and orchards.

Williamsport is a small town near the nar-
rowest part of Maryland, just where the
Potomac River begins its southeastward
course which takes it past Harper's Ferry to
Washington.

When we arrived there preparations were
already being made, by the rapid building of
earthworks in well selected positions, for a
battle which seemed to be impending. Many
of these earthworks had in their front an
entangled chevaux-de-frise of felled forest,
with gaps conveniently arranged where
masked batteries could easily enfilade an
assaulting force. These carefully prepared
lines were said to be some seven miles in
length, with their ends resting on the Poto-
mac, and in their semicircular sweep enclosing
Lee's army where it was crossing. The enemy
on their part, we could plainly see, were build-
ing similar defences against assault, while be-
tween the armies were the two long skirmish
lines continually banging at each other.

Skirmish lines and picket lines do for
armies a service not unlike that performed



66 AS SEE AT FROM THE RANKS

for the insect tribe by their antennae: they
are thrown out to feel for what cannot be
seen. So an army never rests without throw-
ing out a circle of pickets beyond the out-
skirts, who watch to guard against surprise
while the army sleeps.

But when in the immediate presence of the
enemy or in actual contact, as was now the
case, these out-guards are known as a skir-
mish line. It sometimes happened that they
were placed so near the enemy that they
could not reach the spot except in darkness,
and then could not be relieved by others until
night came again. It was not uncommon in
such circumstances for the soldier, as soon as
he was placed, to begin the construction of
a little fortification of his own. - Digging up
the earth with his bayonet he would shovel it
out with his tin plate or cup, and before
daylight came would have a hole large enough
to sit or lie down in, and protected by a
mound of earth in its front.

The men told me that in this way they
sometimes got so near the enemy's pickets as
to converse with them, and even under favor-
able circumstances to strike up a temporary
truce in which they would trade coffee for
tobacco, perhaps, and ''swap lies."



ON THE POTOMAC 67

These opposing skirmish Hnes, which we
could see so plainly, were in open fields, and
within such easy range of each other that
neither side attempted to relieve the men by
daylight. It was rumored that the enemy
was crossing the river under great difficulties,
and that a vigorous attack while they were
thus at a disadvantage would insure us a
substantial victory. A veteran who had
studied the occult signs of war with the same
shrewdness with which the Yankee farmer
reads the portents of weather in the sky told
me he believed Lee's army was retreating,
for he never knew their skirmish line to fire
so rapidly and incessantly except when their
army was in retreat.

I saw and conversed with one of our
scouts, a farmer-like appearing man mounted
on a plain-looking horse. He was in reality
a spy, and had he been caught by the enemy
would undoubtedly have been hung. He
told me that he had just returned from a trip
in which he passed completely through Lee's
army, entering on one side and coming out
on the other. He said that the rains had
swelled the Potomac to such an extent that
the Confederates were crossing with great
difficulty, the men wading nearly to their



68 AS SEEN FROM THE RAA^KS

arms in the water and carrying their guns
and accoutrements above their heads to keep
them from being submerged.

If Lee's army had been attacked while in
this partially helpless position of being on
both sides of a swollen river, he must surely
have suffered a severe defeat. This was well
known and commented upon in the ranks,
and every one hoped the attack would be
made.

It may be thought by some that an un-
known person represented himself to me as a
"scout," and had entertained himself by re-
lating fairy tales in regard to things which he
had not seen, when, if he really had the
information alleged he should have reported
it to headquarters instead of retailing his gos-
sip to privates and musicians. But he told
me that he had already reported fully at
Meade's headquarters, and that his duty for
the time being was ended.

Subsequent events and all the light which
history has shed upon this epoch have con-
vinced me that the statements which he
made in our somewhat lengthy conversation
were true in every detail.

"Why was not the attack made?" This
is a question which has been asked many



ON THE POTOMAC 69

times, but those who were responsible for the
lack of action never answered it satisfacto-
rily, and most of those who might have done
so have long since passed away. The prob-
able reason is that Lee's prestige of success
up to the time of that invasion had to a cer-
tain extent made Meade, who was new in the
command of the army, over-cautious in his
ventures. The furnace of war had not yet
presented to the nation its trio of real militar}^
chieftains. A year later, with either Grant,
Sherman, or Sheridan given such an oppor-
tunity, Lee's army would have been destroyed
and the war ended.

So we sat idly for days in our camps, with
our silent artillery within easy range of the
enemy's lines, while they safely escaped into
Virginia again. Then in darkness and a
furious storm we had sudden orders to march,
and, hastily furling our things, shouldered the
knapsacks and plunged through the night
and rain into an invisible landscape. The
roads were but swimming beds of mortar
from the heavy rainfall and the passage of
armies, and when we essayed to cross the
fields the rich soil, if not yet as soft, furnished
a deeper mud. The furious night tempest
now blotted out earth and sky and we



JO AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

struggled blindly on, each being guided solely
by his file leader. How long this struggle
with the earth and elements continued I can-
not tell, but it must have been for several
hours.

By some break in the lines a dozen or more
of us finally got separated from the regiment,
and were without any clew whatever by
which we could find it. At last we discov-
ered a comparatively dry place by a fence and
lay down in a row w4th our heads towards it,
hoping to get a little sleep. But we had
hardly got settled before we heard the sound
of horsemen riding towards us. "Tim"
Beach w^as on the end of the row towards
them, and as they came near, fearing that we
might be ridden over, he shouted, "Halt!"
The horses stopped w4th suddenness, and
then we heard the clicking of pistols being
cocked.

"Who comes there?" called a voice from
the darkness.

"Friends," answered Tim, for such was
the usual reply to that challenge.

"What regiment?" demanded the voice
from the darkness.

" 150th New York," was the reply.

"All right," came back in gentler tones, and



ON THE POTOMAC 7 1

then we heard the murmur of voices as they
approached slowly. We learned that they
were couriers, or "orderlies," as they were
generally called, bound on military errands
to some part of the army, and when first
challenged thought they had stumbled in the
darkness upon a squad of the enemy.

But the longest night has an end, and this
night, which I remember more as a night-
mare than as a reality, also saw the day
dawn. Faint with fatigue, water soaked and
mud soaked, we leaned against the fence,
wondering what we should do to find the
regiment, when, — "Speak of angels and you
hear the rustle of their wings!" — here was
the regiment coming down the road. They
had halted but a short distance beyond
where we stopped and were now, in obe-
dience to orders just received, on their way
back to our former position.

With the game escaped there was nothing
for us to do but to resume the monotonous
daily tramping which, following the general
course of the river, brought us in time to the
vicinity of Harper's Ferry. We followed the
towpath of the canal on the north bank of
the river, and, passing beneath the towering
peak known as Maryland Heights, went into



72 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

camp for a few days in a little side valley
known as Pleasant Valley. This gave me an
opportunity to visit the renowned place just
across the river.

Harper's Ferry is a post village on the
southern side of the Potomac and on the west-
ern bank of the Shenandoah River, which,
flowing northw^ard, here enters the larger
stream. The village, with narrow streets
and compactly built, is enclosed on a penin-
sula between the two rivers, immediately be-
low which, with their united force, they
break through the great range of the Blue
Ridge. This river pass in the mountains
presents scenery which has impressed many
visitors with its grandeur and beauty and its
marvellous majesty. Jefferson declared it
to be " one of the most stupendous scenes in
nature, and well worth a voyage across the
Atlantic to witness." In the alternate occu-
pation of the place by the two opposing
armies the bridge from ^laryland to Harper's
Ferry had been destroyed, but an army pon-
toon bridge furnished a very good substitute.

We found the most interesting object to be
the old engine-house with its iron doors,
where John Brown had made his last stand.
He had knocked out bricks here and there.



ON THE POTOMAC 73

forming embrasures through which with his
rifles to defend his little castle. The holes
had been filled with new bricks, but the dif-
ference in color showed plainly.

As the only definite and organized stand
for liberty the African race have ever made
in this country the epoch is well worth the
historian's careful attention, and the place
itself is of more than ordinary interest. The
fanatical and visionary character of the
scheme may well be overlooked in bringing
the homage we all must grant to those whose
lofty courage impelled them to confront,
singled handed almost, the great and aggres-
sive evil in whose hands the nation then
seemed like dough. In the awakening which
it gave to the country it is not unlikely that
this incident was a more potent final influ-
ence than it has been credited with being.




CHAPTER VIII

VIRGINIA

Entering Confederate Territory — Snicker's Gap, with
Feasts of Blackberries — Distant View of the Shen-
andoah Valley — Sickness in Camp — Coincidence
— The Gravestone of a Northern Girl Stops the
Bullet Aimed at a Northern Soldier.

AT this Pleasant Valley camp there was a
readjustment of our organization. Up
to this time we had been brigaded with two
Maryland "home regiments" ; " Not to leave
the State except in case of invasion," as
Artemas Ward humorously said in reference
to his company. As a matter of fact these
two regiments were enlisted to serve north
of the Potomac only, so they were now to
return to their homes.

One of them, the ist Maryland Home Bri-
gade, was largely recruited in Baltimore, and
the ist Maryland Confederate also contained

74



VIRGINIA 75

many members from the same city. The
position of our brigade at Gettysburg in the
long conflict at Gulp's Hill was such that
these two regiments confronted each other,
and the members of our ist Maryland found
several acquaintances among the Confederate
dead after the battle, one man finding his
brother among the slain.

I will not weary my readers with any un-
due "ponderosity of particularity" in regard
to army organization, except to explain that
several regiments, usually five or six, con-
stituted a brigade; three or four brigades
made a division, and generally three divi-
sions formed an army corps. There w^as a
system of small flags, one carried with each
headquarters, which showed at a glance to
which organization each headquarters be-
longed.

In the new adjustment we became per-
manently incorporated in the Army of the
Potomac, an army which soon began its
southward march again. It was several days
in crossing the river here on the pontoon
bridge, and by going a short distance from
our camp to the brow of the hill we could see
the mingled and changing column winding
down the hills, crossing the bridge, and dis-



^6 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

appearing in the town, only to appear again
as they crossed the Shenandoah and again
disappear in the mountain beyond.

When we think of armies we are apt to
think of them as being mostly composed of
men, but some portions of the army were
much more conspicuous than the men. At
one time we would see a string of the large,
white canvas-covered wagons, each drawn by
six mules, that would be an hour or two in
crossing. Then would come a column of in-
fantry, the men marching in what is known
in army phrase as " route step," which is four
abreast, the men not attempting exact order,
but going in a free-and-easy way, each one
keeping somewhere near his place in the line.
The fragment of infantry would perhaps
occupy a mile or more of the road, and be-
hind them would be a battery of artillery,
with its cannon, cassions, and wagons, each
drawn by six horses.

Then perhaps a company or two of cavalry
would follow, — though most of these were
generally kept in the advance, — then infantry
again, then more wagons, etc., constituting a
mixed and heterogeneous throng in which the
wagons were the most conspicuous, and the
men the least so of it all.



VIRGINIA yy

In a few days our turn came to join the
forward movement, and, wending our way
down the hill and through the gorge, we
headed for the swinging and dancing pontoon
bridge by which we were to cross into Con-
federate territory. When midway of the
bridge I glanced upward to the towering
mountains before us, and silhouetted against
the sky far above their highest peak was the
motionless form of a soot-hued bird, which,
with wide-stretched wings facing the breeze,
seemed to neither advance nor recede.

''Hen hawk?" queried one.

"Buzzard," was the brief and comprehen-
sive answer of the veteran who had been in
Virginia before.

''What makes him keep so silent and mo-
tionless?"

"He's counting us," was the laconic reply,
not without a grim and smileless humor under
it all.

The turkey buzzard is a southern bird, but
it is a little singular that the first one which we
saw was when we were in the act of crossing
the Potomac, and I never saw one north of
that river, though in Virginia we found
myriads of them.

We did not pause in the village, but im-



78 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

mediately crossed the Shenandoah on the old
wooden bridge, and began the tiresome climb
of the mountains. When well up the moun-
tainside we came to a point where, peering
through the trees, we could see backward to
the village and the Potomac, and the blue-
tinted column with the glint of steel swaying
above the blue, interspersed with horses, ar-
tillery, and canvas-topped wagons, was still
winding, serpent like, along the river bank
and across the bridges.

At last we emerged from the mountains
and, keeping southward, skirted along their
eastern base until we came to Snicker's Gap.
This is not a "gap" in the ordinary sense of
the word, but is a low place in the mountain
over which a fairly good mountain road
passes to the famous Shenandoah Valley on
the other side.

It was fortunate for the health of the regi-
ment, which was not yet fully seasoned to
campaigning, that we camped here several
days, for Dame Nature had kindly provided
a healing balm for the ravages caused by
army rations, or, as it had sometimes hap-
pened, a lack of rations. On the old fields
and hillsides of these abandoned plantations
had sprung up a marvellous growth of black-



VIRGINIA 79

berries, and they were just then in their full-
est prime of ripeness. In addition to the other
miseries of the past few weeks I had suffered
the keenest discomfort from lack of suitable
food. At times my stomach had completely
revolted at the coarse diet, and I had gone
a day at a time without food. As may
readily be imagined, these blackberries, with
their well-known healing and nourishing quali-
ties, were for us a veritable feast of the gods.
With the restlessness of youth I one day
extended my berrying tour into an exploring
expedition, following up the mountain road
to the summit. Leaving the road then, and
climbing to a convenient peak, I was re-
warded by a view — the only one I ever had —
of the Shenandoah Valley. Stretching away
in the distance as far as the eye could clearly
distinguish the objects was a pastoral land-
scape of surpassing beauty; wide stretching
fields with innumerable stacks of grain ; un-
dulating farms with a fertility that has made
them world famous, interspersed with com-
fortable homesteads with granaries and corn
cribs, and surrounded by their groups of
little cabins ; and through it all, like a silver
thread in a setting of gold, twined and wound
and glistened in the sun the beautiful river.



8o AS SEEN- FROM THE RANKS

A year later the exigencies of war caused
such a devastation of this valley as to
justify the epigram attributed to Sheridan:
"If a crow were now to fly through it
he would have to carry his rations with
him."

I returned safely to camp before night, and


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 4 of 14)