Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

. (page 8 of 14)
Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 8 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

dishevelled plumage and filthy beaks, were
circling lower and lower over the field, but
the Pioneer Corps were busy now burying the
dead, both of the Blue and the Gray, while
the wounded were being got away to the
North. So these North American vultures
would feast this time only on dead horses.

Youth and Hope go hand in hand and will
not be depressed, and as we pushed on after
the enemy we laughed and joked as before.



Memories Revived by Old Letters — The Sanitary and
Christian Commissions — "Uncle John" Vassar,
the Army Missionary — Captain Cruger Wounded
—The New Chaplain Wished to See a Battle—
"Sherman's Method" — The Recruit and the Gen-
eral — Confederate Letter.

THE mystic chords of memory, stretch-
ing from every battlefield and patriot
grave to ever}^ living hearth and hearthstone
all over this broad land, will yet swell the
chorus of the Union, when again touched, as
surely they will be, by the better angels of
our nature."

Surely our good Lincoln had forgotten for
the moment the immediate public when he
penned these lines, and, writing to himself,
wrote to an eternal public. It gave us a
glimpse, too, underneath his rugged manhood


and heroic qualities of leadership, of a pro-
found poetic imagination blended with pro-
phetic foresight. P'ortunate Lincoln ! So soon
himself to fill a patriot's grave ! The assas-
sin's bullet placed him forever secure in the
temple of fame, and that nobler temple, the
affections of his countrymen, before un-
toward circumstance or human frailty had
robbed him of the right. That "chorus of
the Union ' ' has been rolling calmly on these
many years, and the "better angels" were
not inactive even then.

Those mystic chords of memory were stirred
and quickened again when there was handed
to me a letter which gave some account of
the battle of Resaca. It was a letter written
by a soldier boy to his sister, and the paper
bore an imprint that reads like an enigma to
the present generation. At the top of the
sheet is a printed heading, a dove in flight,
with a letter tied to its neck, and underneath
this emblem are these words: "The U. S.
Christian Commission sends this sheet as the
soldier's message to his home. Let it haste
to those that wait for tidings."

Doubtless some will read these lines, won-
dering who or what was this " Commission "
which so strangely mingled the symbols of


peace with those of war. It was a voluntary
organization which, co-operating with its sis-
ter organization the Sanitary Commission,
and making the army chaplains their agents,
kept in touch with the citizen soldiers.

Had the incidents of camp and field de-
prived them of the means to write a letter?
The chaplain could supply them. Did
scurvy break out and defy the medicine
chest? The chaplain would soon receive a
supply of pickles and other antidotes. Were
there cold fingers on picket duty? See the
chaplain, and perhaps some patriotic girl in
the North had knit and contributed to the
Commission barrel some woollen gloves.
Was there idleness in camp ? The seemingly
inexhaustible Commissions had a supply of
reading matter also.

i\nd so all through the army these twin
Commissions ministered to the well and to the
sick, to the wounded and the dying. There
were none more active in this service of love
than the army missionary, John Vassar, who
was a familiar figure to every one who served
in the Army of the Potomac. ' ' Uncle John, ' '
as he was familiarly known, was equally an
adept at marching, nursing, and praying, and
there are still many living who gratefully re-


member the mingled spiritual and bodily ser-
vice rendered by him in their hours of need.

We may listen again to those mystic chords
whose memories are surely now controlled by
the better angels of our natures. We have
long since learned that the conflict was not
one of principalities and powers, but rather a
conflict between the powers of great prin-
ciples ; a fierce struggle between two civiliza-
tions, in which the ancient and barbaric
institution of race slavery, fighting for its
life, at last went down. We now remember
conditions and events as the product of in-
stitutions rather than as indicating the pecu-
liarities of a people, for the two opposing
forces were of one race. The well-known
horrors of the Southern prison system, the
dense ignorance and hatred of some of the
Confederate prisoners with whom we came
in contact, sometimes coupled with brutish
malignity, were all the natural oft'spring of
the peculiar institution.

In the previous chapter I gave some ac-
count of the battle of Resaca. Among those
of our regiment who were there wounded was
Captain S. Van Rensselaer Cruger, then Adju-
tant of the regiment. This is a name that
w411 be recognized by New York readers, in


the circles of politics as well as of society.
He fell to the ground a few feet from me, and
I afterward assisted in carrying him to the
field hospital, where his wounds were at first
declared fatal. But his good constitution,
strengthened by a pure life, enabled him to
pleasantly disappoint the surgeons. His re-
covery from such severe wounds w^as the
more remarkable, as most of the other
wounded died, as I afterward learned, owing
to the fact that scurvy had already infested
the army, for nothing more surely destroys
the healing power of the body than this insid-
ious disease.

In the same brigade with my regiment was
the 2d Massachusetts Infantry, and the chap-
lain of that regiment developed a rare ability
of executive and leadership quality, which
was recognized by the officer having charge
of that medical department. Although it
was not customary to give a chaplain any
command, he gave this chaplain command
and direction of the ambulance train of our
brigade during this engagement, a sphere in
which he proved very efficient.

It happened that in another regiment in
our brigade was a new chaplain, who had
just received his commission, and he came to


the Massachusetts chaplain with a strange
request. He had never seen a battle, and
simply asked that he might be assigned to a
place at the front ; some one must go there,
and he desired to do his duty and at the same
time gratify an almost feminine curiosity to
know what a battle was like.

"Certainly," said the New Englander; '*go
with the stretcher bearers; your assistance
will be needed there." And then, in a humor
quite his own, he added a parting jest, " I can
'eat crow,' but I don't love the diet." As it
happened, before night the new chaplain was
himself borne to the rear on a stretcher, hav-
ing been crippled by a shot through the leg.
As he passed he called out to the Massachu-
setts chaplain, with the grim humor of an
unruffled courage, '*I say. Quint, I can 'eat
crow,' too, but I have had enough." The
comedy had a tragic ending, however, for the
poor fellow died of his wound. Historians
rarely give due credit to this devoted class of
men, for records show that more than a hun-
dred chaplains in our army lost their lives in
battle during the war.

It was more than a dozen years later that
I met our Massachusetts chaplain again, and
I did not recognize him then. It was at a


city in his State, and the writer was a con-
spicuous party in a ceremony in which the
obHgations assumed are the most solemn a
man can take upon himself. The chap-
lain, now grown gray and dignified, was
the officiating clergyman. It was the late
Dr. x\lonzo H. Quint. But another dozen
years had passed, and a friendship had
sprung up between us, before we happened
to learn that we had served and marched
together, and during this battle, at least, had
worked together among the wounded. The
same talents and devotion which made his
service so efficient in war yielded also the
victories of peace, and he became know^n
throughout all Congregationalism as the best
of presiding officers and advisers, alike for
men and churches.

Thus, as Past and Present touch finger-tips
across the chasm of time we are saved from
thinking that either is a dream, but realize
that both are realities, and that when these
events occurred it was "now" as much as it
is at the present time.

I see that Grant, in his Memoirs, classes
the action at Resaca as a skirmish, which,
however, is incorrect, as the engagement was
continuous and general for some time. Gen-


eral Grant was very busy in Virginia about
that time and really knew very little about
the details of our campaign. But it w^ould,
perhaps, convey a more correct impression
to say that the whole four months' cam-
paign from Chattanooga to Atlanta was al-
most a continuous battle, for not many days
passed that some part of Sherman's army did
not come in conflict with the enemy, and
some of these actions were stubborn and

The campaign was understood by every
one in the ranks to have Atlanta as its objec-
tive point, but as to how the end was to be
obtained there was much diversity of opinion.
It was noticed, however, as the summer
advanced, that this diversity vanished, and
it was conceded by all that "Sherman's
method" was in being always on the aggres-
sive, and thus compelling the enemy to be
continually on the defensive; and this was
accomplished by persistent hard fighting and

The Twentieth Corps held the only troops
that served in both the East and West, and
they probably had a more varied experience
under different commanders than any other
portion of our armies. They served under


the several commanders of the Army of the
Potomac, then under Grant about Chatta-
nooga, and under Sherman to the close of the
war. I think it will be the universal testi-
mony of the members of that corps that no
general understood better than Sherman the
art of marching an army, and no one was
more ready to demand extreme exertion if the
occasion required it. Yet I doubt if any
commander had more the complete confi-
dence and esteem of his men.

I have spoken of our laughing and joking,
but it occurs to me that some may wonder
what could possibly be found as an excuse for
humor at such times and amid such scenes.
Well, for that matter, almost anything will
answer where the disposition and necessity
are. After recruits began to be sent to the
regiments they were as inexhaustible a source
of joy to the veterans as are the proverbial
Freshmen to the college Sophs. There was
one who "guessed" the evening order to
march at daylight would not be executed,
because it "looked like rain." Imagine the
roars of laughter from around that camp-
fire. But the most enjoyed of all these
involuntary entertainers was the one who
wanted to get his boot mended.


Now it happened that that brigade was
under the command of a Brigadier-General
whom I will call General K. It was not at
all to the discredit of this officer that he began
life as a shoemaker, for he had risen to his
then position by sheer ability, and was a
most efficient officer, though somewhat quick
tempered betimes.

Of course, when the recruit innocently in-
quired one night for the shoemaker he was
promptly directed to the large tent on the hill,
and the General's name was given as that of
''the shoemaker of the brigade." The in-
nocent was watched with much interest as he
wended his way in that direction, boot in
hand, and was finally seen to enter the bri-
gade headquarters tent. The details of the
brief interview within we were never able to
fully glean, but the exit was hasty, and some
observers averred that they had caught
glimpses of a boot in the inquirer's rear, and
even that the guard had to render him some
assistance in getting disentangled from the
tent ropes.

It sometimes happened as we followed the
retreating army that we found letters and
other things of interest which had been
dropped or lost. It was always possible that


such things might contain matters of im-
portance, hence every scrap of paper having
writing on it was Hkely to be picked up and
examined. I do not remember that I ever
found anything of much value or assistance
in the prosecution of the war, but some few
things proved to be of passing interest.

Thus at Gettysburg I picked up a Confed-
erate furlough which had been granted to
"E. Williamson, G Company, 3d Reg., Ala.
Vols." for twenty days from September 6,
1862, with transportation to Anderson, S. C,
and back. It is signed in a bold hand, " By
order Gen. Winder," and across the face it is
endorsed by "D. H. Wood, Capt.," and " Jno.
Johns, Lt. & A. A. C. S."

My ''find" after the battle of Resaca did
not furnish any autographs of historic per-
sonages like the one at Gettysburg. It was
a letter dated at "Comberlan Gap," and
was evidently from a Confederate soldier who
had been home on a furlough, to his "Dear
Cosin" in the Georgia army. Its delightful
frankness and the quaintness of its expres-
sion were quite amusing, and I will give a
paragraph, but without invading the sacred-
ness of family secrets by disclosing the writer's


... in particular I would
inform you that miss Joies is
well and in the greatest
capasities of sociabilties. she
sang so sweet ; she maid me
Feel enchanted, with the lisp of
Her sweet voice that are surtin
. To captivate, the most sincere
Affections of one, that had been
Struck witli cupid's flying quiver,
enough of that."

The confusing metaphor employed here
does not leave it quite clear what '' that " was
of which the writer indicates there was



Mind-Readers and Coming Events — Popular Misappre-
hensions — Battles are Fought by the Rank and
File — Field Hospitals — Pathetic Scenes — Rebuild-
ing — Advancing — Pursuing.

ONE pleasant day, a week or more after
the battle of Resaca, we were ap-
proaching the vicinity of Dallas and crossed
a brook called ' ' Pumpkin Vine Creek. ' ' This
pleasant-sounding bucolic title, however, has
been deemed too prosaic to be inscribed on
granite monuments erected to immortalize
heroic regiments, and the battle which was
fought here has been rechristened " New
Hope Church." The Confederates were
heavily intrenched in a strong position at this
place, and it was assigned to the First and
Second Divisions of our corps (ours was the
First) to attempt its capture. The attempt


was a failure at that time, and resulted in a
heavy loss to us.

Our division was commanded then by
Brigadier-General A. S. Williams, the same
that I have already referred to as "Pop"
Williams. He was a most efficient officer,
and in the Savannah campaign which fol-
lowed was promoted to Major-General, and
commanded the Twentieth Corps.

Now, a general must have his own plans
and keep his own counsel, but his daily life is
open to the vision of an army, for he lives in
"that fierce light which beats upon the
throne." It was not strange then that the
men in the ranks were in the habit of making
a shrewd study of the faces of those who were
supposed to know of intended movements and
plans for battle. No doubt the generals
knew this and tried to cultivate a good bear-
ing at critical times. I remember that when
our brigade was at Gettysburg it was at one
time waiting idly, but in a position where
shells came uncomfortably near us. There
was some uneasiness manifested among the
men until General Lockwood seated himself
quietly on a stump in a conspicuous place,
and immediately became absorbed in a news-
paper which he took out of his pocket.


If " Pop" Williams ever had any emotions,
he took good care not to let them show in his
face, for through all times and places it wore
an expression of impenetrable good nature
which was a closed book to the would-be
mind-readers. But there was one thing
which he failed to mask, and that was the
cigar which was carried in his mouth most of
the time. Was it lighted and emitting a
cheerful cloud of smoke ? All would be quiet
for the day. Had it been allowed to go out,
while the end was being violently chewed?
Then plans were maturing and some new
movement wag on foot. But when it was
frequently shifted from side to side in his
mouth and kept rolling over and over be-
tween the lips, "like a log in the peeler," as
the paper-pulp man said, then there would
surely be a fight before dark.

This battle near New Hope Church was a
surprise to many, for it opened with the sud-
denness of a cyclone descending from a clear
sky, without the usual prelude of skirmish
firing. But those mind-readers who had
carefully noted his cigar that morning as the
General rode past with his staff said that it
had not been lighted at all, but was rolling
between his lips with unusual vigor.


In my experience of this battle I saw far
more of its wreckage than I saw of its action,
for the small portion of the conflict that I
actually witnessed was in dense woods, and
I was soon busily engaged with others in car-
rying the wounded to the rear.

I trust that no young reader has the idea
that I had when a boy. I thought that in
battle the bands and drum corps marched
ahead of the soldiers and played sweet music
to drown the groans of the dying and cheer
the living on to victory and glory. Had I not
seen more than one brave picture of our re-
vered ancestral patriots being led to the fray
in that poetic manner ?

But in real service I never heard a note of
music during a battle. Occasionally the
piercing sounds of a bugle would be heard,
for in some parts of the army orders are given
by certain understood signals on the bugle.
The notes of this instrument have such a
penetrating and far-reaching quality that it
can be heard when, in the din of battle, the
voice would reach but a short distance. We
were called upon to issue liberal "music
rations," from time to time, especially in the
camps; but battles are very prosaic affairs,
and the General's ideas about musicians*


duties at such times were entirely utilitarian,
for we were invariably detailed to assist in
some capacity about the wounded.

Another popular misconception about the
conduct of battles is that a general " leads " a
charge by riding ahead of his line and shout-
ing "Follow me!" This, perhaps, is not
strange, for who ever saw a newspaper ac-
count of that date which did not describe a
brilliant charge in about that way? As a
matter of fact, when a line of battle is formed,
the officers' place is not in front, but in the
rear of the line; for it must be kept con-
stantly in mind, whatever eulogistic biog-
raphers may say to the contrary, that battles
are not fought by the officers, for they only
direct the fighting. The battle is fought by
the rank and file. Officers must, of course,
be where they can both receive and give
orders, and this could not be done if they
were in front of their own line, and as a
general rule the higher the rank of the officer
the farther to the rear, from very necessity,
his position must be.

As soon as possible after a battle has begun
the surgeons establish themselves in a favor-
able position near at hand, and, having the
wounded brought there, give them imme-


diate attention. This is called a field hospi-
tal, and the operations and dressings which
they received there were likely to be the last
they would have from surgeons until they
reached a permanent hospital in the North,
perhaps a week or more afterward.

At New Hope Church the field hospital was
promptly located in a stately pine forest,
where the ground was so thickly covered with
pine needles that the tramp of armies and the
rumble of w^agons was rendered almost noise-
less. The position w^as also protected by a
little rise of ground from wandering projec-
tiles that might come from the line of hostili-
ties in our front. Numerous large tents were
erected to shelter the wounded from the
pouring rain which soon set in. The rain
ceased next day, but as the battle continued
the tents were filled and many long rows of
the wounded were laid under the trees.

I remained at this field hospital about a
week. Part of my time was spent in assist-
ing the surgeons at the operating table, and
much of the nights were filled in the care of
the wounded. Even now my Imp crowds
the memory with the pictures of that week:
of the enemy's night attacks, v^/ith their
shrieking accompaniment of the " Rebel yell,"


followed by the roar of musketry and the
strong cheers in deep chest tones from our
line when the attack was repulsed; of the
agony of some of my patients who died of
lockjaw; of the freshly wounded continually
brought in. The surgeons would make a
preliminary examination as soon as possible
to determine the general character of the
wound, and, possibly giving a few instruc-
tions, would pass on.

Here, for instance, is a man in the prime
of early manhood stretched on the ground in
evident distress. The surgeon opens his coat
and shirt in front, and turning them back
reveals the wound, a bullet hole in the right
breast. Its centre, as large as the thumb
nail, is a clot which sinks deep in with each
respiration and then bulges out. It is circled
round with its fringe of destroyed tissue,
black at its inner edge and shading away
through successive purple, leaden, and ashen
tints to the alabaster whiteness of the skin.

Each labored breath, staining the tawny
mustache with its crimson tide, tells me,
even before the doctor has given the word, —
"Done for; that shot through the lungs will
use him up before morning," — ^that the case
is hopeless and before another day has


dawned the gasping struggle for breath will
have ceased. Thenceforth he will receive no
further attention, except that the nurses will
frequently give him water.

Attendants in field hospitals witness many
such pathetic scenes, different from those in
general hospitals where lingering sickness and
emaciated forms are always present. But
here are sun-burned men, suddenly stricken
in their full vigor; here are the freshly torn
muscles and dripping blood, and tragic death


I remember a fine-looking young fel-
low, hardly twenty-one, who was mortally
wounded. His frequent request was for
water, and finally, seeing that he could last
but a few moments, I knelt by his side and at
frequent intervals put a little in his mouth
with a spoon. Finally his parched lips could
not open to 'speak the word or receive the
water even, but the pleading look came into
his eyes, and, understanding it, I dipped my
fixnger in the water and moistened his lips.
To my surprise they parted in a pleasant
smile. I glanced quickly to his eyes, but
saw that I was looking at the half-closed
windows of an empty tenement ; that smile
had spanned two shores.


At another time there was a strong man of,
perhaps, twenty-five, who sat on the ground.
One hand rested on the ground and the other
on his thigh, while his head drooped forward.
If you would see his exact counterpart look at
the Dying Gladiator. The sculptor of that
ancient statue must have seen something
besides professional poseurs. The modern
gladiator called frequently for the doctor, and
an attendant, pointing him out, spoke to the
surgeon, but the latter said that he had ex-
amined the case an^ could do nothing for
him, as he was bleeding to death internally.
The nurse returned, and, kneeling by his side,
spoke in a low tone to the dying man ; then
took out a pocket memorandum and began to
pencil down a last message to distant friends.
But as many fresh wounded were being
brought in just then, and help was scarce, the
surgeon called him.

He sprang to his feet and left the dying
soldier— alone ; for his regiment was at the
front, and among the many within sound of
his voice he was an entire stranger. He occa-
sionally raised his head and spoke weakly,
but no one had time to give him any further
attention. I noticed after a little that the
palor of death had spread over his face. Then


1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 8 of 14)