Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

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But these legends of Indian warfare were
almost obliterated by the greater magnitude
of the white man's war, for the State had been
fought over before we came there and was
destined to be again fought over before the
close of the war.




CHAPTER XII

OLD BATTLEFIELDS

Lookout Mountain and its Surroundings — Gateway of
the Confederacy — Battles and Battlefields of the
Previous Year — River of Death — "Fighting Joe"
Hooker — General Sherman, then and afterward —
What is Meant by " Flanking."

IN due time we reached Lookout Alountain,
and following the military road up its
side and around its northern end there was
stretched out before us a scene of surpassing
interest, and my Imp has preserved it with
such fidelity that if I were an artist I do not
doubt that I could, from memory alone, place
it on canvas to-day. We were on or near the
ground where Hooker fought his romantic
"battle above the clouds" the autumn be-
fore. The right of his line of battle extended
upward nearly to the mountain's summit,
and while there was a bank of mist and cloud
124



OLD BATTLEFIELDS 125

resting about its base and obscuring that por-
tion from view, those near the top could
be plainly seen from Grant's headquarters;
hence the seemingly fanciful phrase was lit-
erally true.

To the northeast and in plain view of this
place the battle of Missionary Ridge was
fought on the day succeeding the. battle of
Lookout Mountain. The two were, in fact,
but the tw^o days' fighting of what was really
but one battle. At the southeast was the
battlefield of Chickamauga, and a few miles
to the north of where we stood was the town
of Chattanooga, since grown to be a city of
mining and industrial importance, while far
to the northward extended the valley of East
Tennessee, and west of us were the moun-
tains through which we had come. This was,
indeed, a "gateway" through which we were
entering, and within sight of this spot had
been enacted military achievements which it
would require a volume to properly describe,
and which have been classed by military
critics as equal in brilliancy of thought and
execution to any of Napoleon's famous
exploits.

But there is much besides the talents and
genius of generals that sometimes has to do



126 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

with the outcome of battles, and the conflict
at Missionary Ridge illustrated this.

Grant had carefully planned just how the
action was to be conducted. He had directed
a "demonstration" in front, in which the
troops were ordered to capture and hold the
first line of works and then halt and wait for
other operations, for the enemy's second and
third lines seemed to be almost impregnable
in their position, and even Grant would not
waste lives in attempting their capture. But
like the best laid plans of men and mice, these
plans did not carry. The troops did indeed
capture the enemy's first line, though with
considerable effort and loss, and here they
should have halted as ordered ; but not so.

Success was in the air; the enemy were
fleeing up the hill. Grant, standing on a hill
where he could watch the whole action with
his glass, saw the men scramble over the
breastworks with a cheer, but to his amaze-
ment he saw them push on up the hill with
waving flags, unchecked by the belching can-
non at the top or the blazing rifles in the
second line of works, and firing as they
climbed. Over the second line they rushed,
and still on they clambered up the rugged
hill until they actually captured the third and



OLD BATTLEFIELDS 127

last line of the enemy's works. The battle
was won without orders — against orders, in
fact.

There is nothing that succeeds like success.
If this movement had failed there would have
been a long series of investigations and court-
martials. But no one cares to find fault with
success.

We had now become in reality a part of the
western army, having joined our Corps, the
Twelfth, which had lately been consolidated
with the Eleventh. The new body thus
formed, being designated the Twentieth
Army Corps, was placed under command of
General Joseph Hooker.

" Fighting Joe," as he was generally called,
was the very ideal of a corps commander.
The fact that he had failed to fully oust the
Washington politicians from the command of
the Army of the Potomac was no more than
was true of all his predecessors, and if he was
sometimes a little touchy towards his superior
officers that fact did not militate against his
popularity with the rank and file. True he
had the reputation of working and fighting
his corps most unflinchingly, but he also had
the record of successes, as well as of being
exceedingly careful and considerate of the



128 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

welfare of his men. He was a superb horse-
man, and in time of action seemed to be
always present and always happy. His
really manly qualities were so evident that it
was no wonder he was popular.

My own judgment at this distance of time
is that the handling of a corps was about the
limit of his capacity as a general, but that up
to that point few, if any, were his superiors.

General Grant had been summoned to the
command of all the forces of the Union, and
in his place there was a new man, up to that
time but little heard of. In one of our daily
marches we met a little cavalcade of horse-
men, and riding at their head was an officer of
somewhat striking appearance. He was tall
and spare in form, and there was expressed in
his bearing that which was the extreme oppo-
site of inertia or sluggishness. His whole
manner, whether in standing or riding, seemed
the outward expression of exquisite life which
vibrated through every fibre of his being.

It was General Sherman, the new Com-
mander of the army to which we were then
attached, and from that time to the close
of the war his was a familiar figure. So
spontaneous and rapid was his own manner
that he seemed sometimes impatient at the



OLD BATTLEFIELDS 1 29

slowness of others. This restiveness was
by some persons mistakenly attributed to
nervousness.

A few weeks later I saw him standing on a
battlefield and surrounded as before by his
staff. The battle had begun and the bullets
were singing past, but his seeming nervous-
ness had now disappeared, and he was appar-
ently the coolest and most unconcerned of
the whole group of officers.

A quarter of a century later I met him at a
private social affair, which gave me an oppor-
tunity for personal and social intercourse
with this remarkable man, now famous in
song and history. He had then nearly
reached his three-score years and ten, yet
while his beard and hair were white as snow,
his form was but slightly bent, and his face,
over w^hich towered the striking forehead,
looked as natural as ever. Alike in private
conversation and in public reception he im-
pressed me the same as before: that the
preponderating element in his being was
abundant life, — using the word in its fullest
and completest sense, — life of the will, intel-
lect, and body; both subjective and creative
life.

He was by far the most intellectual officer



I30 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

of any who gained prominence during the
war, and I once heard General Kilpatrick
speak of him as the greatest soldier he ever
knew. He had seen three years of service,
much of it under Grant, and at the time of
which I write — the spring of '64 — he began
his career as the successful commander of a
large army.

After leaving the vicinity of Lookout
Mountain our march continued eastward and
southeastward. There followed days and
nights of the usual campaign experience of an
army, in which physical endurance is put to
the utmost test of its staying quality. As I
once heard a veteran say, — and he spoke a
great truth, — "One who has not served in
the army does not know the meaning of the
word 'tired.' "

When men are thoroughly "tired," they
have then only begun to do what they are
capable of doing and what they are frequently
obliged to accomplish in war, and the phrase,
"completely exhausted," means to a soldier
nothing short of death. That an army could,
as a whole, endure such conditions was partly
at least accounted for by the fact that they
were a selected class of men, and no one was
enrolled without first passing a rigorous phy-



OLD BATTLEFIELDS 131

sical examination. Then, too, the rank and
file were composed, for the most part, of men
between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five,
a time when the elasticity and recuperating
power of youth are still retained, and when
the currents of life are running at their
strongest spring-tide. But the severity of
the conditions is attested by the records,
which show that, even with this selected
class, the hardships killed twice as many as
the guns did, for moving armies left a line of
countless graves in their wake.

On our way we passed the battlefield of
Chickamauga. The battle was fought in the
autumn before and resulted in a severe defeat
to our army there engaged. There is a cer-
tain gruesomeness about an old battlefield,
not yet so old that nature has claimed
her own and covered the scars. Trees and
branches that were torn were still hanging,
though shrivelled and dead, and there was
still a stench of decaying flesh in the air.

Some of the slain had been buried, though
it had been hastily and imperfectly done.
Protruding shoes here and there showed the
bones of the foot inside, the flesh having dis-
appeared, and not infrequently a hand would
be seen extended above the ground, with the



132 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

skin dried to the bones and weathered to the
color of granite. The fingers would be
curved as if beckoning, but in one instance I
noted that the index finger was pointed up-
ward. In one locality many hundreds had
been left unburied, and the bones were peep-
ing through the clothing. I picked up a
skull which had a smooth, round hole through
it ; small it was, but yet large enough to let
a life pass out.

Before night we came to the Chickamauga
River, w^here its wine-colored water flows
through dark woods, and there we went into
camp. The name is said to be Indian, and
signifies in their language, " River of Death."

Thus far we had come over old ground, but
we had entered the "gateway," and were
now well started on an aggressive campaign
which was destined to take us into the very
heart of the Confederacy, and in time clear
through it. The roaring of cannon was
heard in some direction every day, but be-
tween manoeuvering, fighting, and night
marching, the enemy was forced or flanked
out of one position after another.

Does the unmilitary reader know what
happens when a line of battle, or an army, is
" flanked " ? It was best described by a pris-



OLD BATTLEFIELDS



133



oner whom the pickets brought in one day.
In the course of a httle raillery and chaffing
in conversation he was asked why their army
kept falling back ; why they did not stay and
fight it out. His reply was, " You'ns swings
roun' on our een's, like a gate." This, then,
in some form, is what constitutes flanking.




CHAPTER XIII

BATTLE OF RESACA

Gruesome Preparations — Battle Scene like a Play Set
on the Stage — Assault by Colonel (afterward Presi-
dent) Harrison — Our Regiment Engaged — Enemy
Repulsed — Confederate Chaplain Slain, with his
Sons — Removing the Wounded — Confederate Field
Hospital — Bridge Building Hastened.

AT last, as we approached Resaca, we
could hear the sound of musketry.' Not
the long roar of a regular engagement with
its thundering of cannon for bass accompani-
ment, but a staccato solo as it were, in which
there was an angry and defiant crackling of
rifles along a skirmish line some two or three
miles in length. We recognized that the two
armies were again confronting each other, and
that this time we were likely to be in it, in
which expectation we were not disappointed.
In respect to this battle my Imp again
refuses to furnish a continuous record, but
134



BATTLE OF RE SAC A 135

instead hands down a group of scenes, each
unladed in detail, but unconnected from the
continuity of events.

At one place where we halted, a body of
men were digging graves. Not seeing any
dead near I inquired of one of their number
what they were for, and was informed that
as the ambulance corps had nothing to do
just then, and a battle was expected, they
were put to work digging graves — for men
who had not yet gone into battle.

Late in the afternoon we were hurried at
double-quick through glade and dell towards
where there was firing. When our division
arrived at the scene it was formed in line by
brigades in such a manner that our brigade
was not actually engaged, but was held in re-
serve on top of a ridge of ground from whence
the brief engagement could be seen with the
utmost distinctness. It was an attempt by
the enemy to capture a battery at the left of
our line, and thus be enabled to turn our
flank, and for one slow-passing hour it seemed
to be a crisis on which hung the fate of the
battle. During this time the conflict was on
an open plain in full view before us, and the
whole scene could be watched as plainly as a
play set on the stage.



136 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

Away to the left, just at the Hmit of the
view from where we were, was the battery of
six field-pieces, and they had been supported
by a force which had been considered ade-
quate. The ever-vigilant enemy, however,
had discovered that this point was assailable,
and waiting until just as night was settling
down, thought to capture the battery and the
position by a sudden onslaught, and then
under cover of darkness throw our broken
line into confusion.

It came near being a repetition of the de-
feat of our army at Chancellors ville, for their
attack was at first entirely successful. When
we came in view the troops which had been
supporting the battery were scattered over
the fields in complete defeat and confusion,
and the enemy were resolutely assaulting the
battery itself, firing as they advanced. With
the artillerymen it was a question of how
fast, with their decimated ranks, they could
load and fire, the grape and canister tearing
great gaps through the enemy's lines at each
discharge. With the Confederate troops it
was a question of whether they could bear
this destruction until they should reach the
guns, and either kill or capture the gunners.

The disposition of our force was made with



BATTLE OF RESACA \yj

the utmost dispatch, and presently we saw,
from the top of the ridge where we were, the
Third Brigade step briskly out of the woods
into full view. There was an instant's pause,
and then the gathering dusk showed their
volley in a sheet of flame and smoke springing
from the line. The enemy were surprised.
Our formation, being in the woods, had prob-
ably not been noticed by them, but they
were not recruits to be panic-stricken by the
unexpected, and unflinchingly they faced the
new force.

Now the conflict became a test of nerve and
endurance, and the lines settled down to
their work, each man loading and firing as
fast as he could, and the noise of the guns
thickened into a long roar, accented by the
deep bass of the cannon. It was a "stand
up and take it " fight, for neither side had any
cover. Steadily, steadily our line moved for-
ward, still firing rapidly, and steadily the
enemy held to their position. Would they
come to bayonets? x\t last we saw the
enemy's fire slacken and then cease, and
through the smoke and gathering darkness
we caught glimpses of them running back
into the woods.

* * Blow ' cease firing ! " ' The voice was that



138 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

of Gen. A. S. Williams,— " old Pop" Wil-
liams, as the boys affectionately referred to
him among themselves, — and the order was
addressed to the brigade bugler, Stevenson,
who, as it happened, was a member of our
regiment. Stevenson had been as intensely
interested as the others in the drama before
us, and he afterward told me that it was the
only time he was ever ordered to blow ' ' Cease
firing." Now, with the suddenness of the
order he could not remember the signal, but
he clapped the bugle to his lips and blew —
something; and the firing ceased. The sig-
nal had not been needed, for the men saw
that the enemy had retreated from their
front, and they stopped firing without regard
to that uncertain sound from Stevenson's
instrument.

The battery was saved and the day was
saved. Once more the enemy had been
foiled; but it was only a skirmish after all,
and is scarcely mentioned in history; the
battle was as yet hardly begun. It is very
rarely that one is thus enabled to see plainly
both sides in an engagement.

Another picture which the Imp has handed
down is of the occurrences of the next day.
There were open fields between our line and



BATTLE OF RE SAC A 1 39

the enemy's, and in the distance we could see
a redoubt or fort of some kind on their Une.
Some distance to our right we saw a body
of troops advance over the open space to
assault this fort. It was the 70th Indiana
Volunteer Infantry, under command of Col-
onel Benjamin Harrison, of whom my readers
have since heard. He was the grandson of his
grandfather, and like that eminent ancestor
had an unstained military record, though it
was by no means brilliant, but that day's
undertaking was one of the things in which
he did not succeed. After his regiment had
suffered a severe loss they were compelled to
abandon the attempt.

At one time, when we were being moved
from one part of the field to another position,
we passed a place where our troops had evi-
dently been under fire, for there were a num-
ber of dead scattered about. Especially was
this the case on a certain hillside covered
with woods, and among them I noticed one
who had fallen, and, apparently to keep him-
self from sliding down the steep slope, had
seized a sapling with both hands. He was
stretched at full length on his back, and with
arms reaching above his head his hands still
held to their grip on the tree. His face, with



140 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

the wide-open eyes, almost startled one at
first, it had such an anxious and pained
expression.

The battle was raging furiously now, and it
was soon after the episode of Colonel Har-
rison's attack and repulse that our brigade
became engaged on the extreme left. We
were formed in line on a rise of ground in an
open field, and threw up a slight defence by
gathering and piling up the rails from a fence
near at hand. Soon the long gray line was
seen approaching, with good alignment and
steady front. Upon coming within range
they opened fire and continued to fire as
they advanced, the bullets splintering the
rails, and passing us with that peculiar, zip-
ping sound so familiar to veterans. Im-
mediately there was a crash close to my left,
— the first gun always sounds so loud, — -fol-
lowed in quick succession by others until
what had seemed at first but a successive
clatter of explosions became one prolonged
roar. The smoke soon became so thick that
it was difficult for me to see the enemy's line
except by glimpses and fragments.

In a few moments the fire lessened and
finally ceased; the smoke cloud lifted and I
could see plainly again. They were retreating



BATTLE OF RESACA I4I

in disorder now, but scattered over the field
were hundreds of their dead and wounded
who could not retreat. The fire of our line
had been very deadly and effective. We
soon noticed by their movements that they
were forming for a second attack. This was
much like the first, but they were more per-
sistent and got nearer to our line, though they
were finally driven back before the storm of
lead, and the dead and wounded in our front
were thicker than ever. Just at the crisis the
regiment at our right made a counter charge
and captured a stand of the enemy's colors.

So severely did the enemy suffer in this
assault on our line that Colonel Calhoun, who
commanded the Confederate regiment in our
front, afterward admitted to General Smith,
then our Major, that his regiment never had
a roll-call afterv/ard.

K pathetic incident in connection with this
attack was that among the Confederate dead
which lay so thickly strewn before us was a
family group; a gray-haired chaplain and
his two sons.

As hostilities had ceased for the time at
that part of the field, the task of removing
the wounded to the rear commenced. There
were no stretchers at hand, so we improvised



142 ^S SEEN FROM THE RANKS

by using blankets and half -tents. When you
start with a helpless man in a blanket he
seems to weigh about a hundred pounds, but
after you have gone a fraction of the distance
you will think he weighs five hundred, and by
the time you have carried your burden half a
mile you will be ready to make affidavit to a
weight in excess of anything on record ; espe-
cially if part of the course, as it was in this
case, happens to be in range of the enemy's
fire.

We soon found where the surgeon had
established himself in a hollow in the woods,
and after we had brought all of our wounded
to that place we set to work under his orders.
Night found us tired and fasting, but with
crackers and coffee and a few hours of sleep
we felt restored; and when we awoke at
dawn it was to find that the enemy had re-
treated from their position during the night.

In this retreat they had crossed the Oos-
tenaula River, here a stream of considerable
size, and as a matter of course they had de-
stroyed the bridge. This necessitated the
building of a new one, as for some reason the
pontoon battalion was not on hand; for
although a few men can be got across a river
without much difficulty, the rapid crossing of



BATTLE OF RESACA 1 43

an army is quite another matter. There was
a story told, which was current in the army
at the time, about the building of this new
structure.

It seems that the Chief of Engineers in this
army was accustomed to more leisurely
methods than could now be tolerated under
the new commander. When the General
asked him how much time would be required
to make the new bridge, he replied that it
would require two or three days. Upon this
— so the story went — Sherman informed him
that if it was not finished before night he
could resign his position, as that army would
have no further use for him.

It was said that the revelation in this im-
perative dictum of the newer element that
had taken control gave such an impetus to
the faculties of the Chief of Engineers that
he surprised both himself and his commander
by completing the bridge in even less than the
limit of time assigned. I do not vouch for
the truthfulness of the story, but I can vouch
for the fact that we crossed the new bridge
long before night on the day after the battle
closed.

In leaving this battlefield we passed along
much of the ground which had been occupied



144 ^-^ SEEN FROM THE RANKS

by the enemy, and this inside view of the lat-
ter' s position is always of more than passing
interest. It furnishes a sort of "put-your-
self-in-his-place " experience, by which we
were enabled to take the same view which
the Confederates had of our position, and also
to compare our previous impressions of their
position with the reality. I was especially
interested in the redoubt which Colonel Har-
rison's attack had been directed against, for
we found it to be a veritable stronghold in a
position well selected for defence.

Soon after reaching this point we passed
through what had been, on the day before, a
Confederate field hospital. Of course it al-
ways happens in field hospitals that many of
the wounded die, both before and after re-
ceiving the surgeon's attentions, and there
were many of their dead here. One even lay
stark and rigid on the surgeon's operating
table, which seemed to indicate that the
desertion of this place had been very hasty.

The surgeon's table in this case was not a
folding and portable thing such as our sur-
geons used, but was a rough convenience
made on the spot. Crotches had been set in
the ground, with cross-pieces resting in them,
on which were laid poles of even size long



BATTLE OF RE SAC A 1 45

enough for a table top. It was a rough affair
at the best, but seemed to have answered the
purpose. Our own army was none too well
supplied with conveniences for the comfort of
the wounded, but in the Confederate service
there was a still greater deficiency, because
they could not obtain them.

The turkey buzzards, with their sooty,


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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 7 of 14)