Edward Payson Roe.

An Original Belle online

. (page 23 of 37)
Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 23 of 37)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

number of men ever drank so much water before, for who could pass
by a white hand and arm, and a pretty, sympathetic face, beaming
with good-will? Here is a rough sketch I made of a Quaker matron,
with two charming daughters, and an old colored man, 'totin'' water
at a rate that must have drained their well."

Marian praised the sketch so heartily that Merwyn knew she was
taking this indirect way to eulogize the soldier as as well as the
artist, and he groaned inwardly as he thought how he must suffer
by contrast.

"I will pass over what occurred till the 1st of July. Our march
lay through a country that, after desolated Virginia, seemed like
paradise, and the kind faces that greeted us were benedictions.
July 1st was clear, and the sun's rays dazzling and intense in their
heat. Early in the afternoon we were lying around in the shade,
about two miles from the State line of Pennsylvania. Two corps
had preceded us. Some of our men, with their ears on the ground,
declared that they could hear the distant mutter of artillery. The
country around was full of troops, resting like ourselves.

"Suddenly shrill bugle-blasts in every direction called us into
line. We were moved through Emmetsburg, filed to the left into
a field until other troops passed, and then took our place in the
column and began a forced march to Gettysburg. Again we suffered
terribly from the heat and the choking clouds of dust raised by
commands in advance of us. The sun shone in the west like a great,
angry furnace. Our best men began to stagger from the ranks and fall
by the wayside, while every piece of woods we passed was filled
with prostrate men, gasping, and some evidently dying. But on,
along that white, dusty road, the living torrent poured. Only one
command was heard. 'Forward! Forward!'

"First, like a low jar of thunder, but with increasing volume and
threatening significance, the distant roar of artillery quickened
the steps of those who held out. Major Strahan was again on his
feet, with other officers, their horses loaded down with the rifles
of the men. Even food and blankets, indeed almost everything except
ammunition, was thrown away by the men, for, in the effort to reach
the field in time, an extra pound became an intolerable burden.

"At midnight we were halted on what was then the extreme left of
Meade's position. When we formed our regimental line, as usual,
at the close of the day, not over one hundred men and but five or
six officers were present. Over one hundred and fifty had given
out from the heat and fatigue. The moment ranks were broken the men
threw themselves down in their tracks and slept with their loaded
guns by their sides. Strahan and I felt so gone that we determined
to have a little refreshment if possible. Lights were gleaming from
a house not far away, and we went thither in the hope of purchasing
something that would revive us. We found the building, and even
the yard around it, full of groaning and desperately wounded men,
with whom the surgeons were busy. This foretaste of the morrow took
away our appetites, and we returned to our command, where Strahan
was soon sleeping, motionless, as so many of our poor fellows would
be on the ensuing night.

"Excessive fatigue often takes from me the power to sleep, and I lay
awake, listening to the strange, ominous sounds off to our right.
There were the heavy rumble of artillery wheels, the tramp of men,
and the hoarse voices of officers giving orders. In the still night
these confused sounds were wonderfully distinct near at hand, but
they shaded off in the northeast to mere murmurs. I knew that it
was the army of the Potomac arriving and taking its positions. The
next day I learned that General Meade had reached the field about
one A.M., and that he had spent the remaining hours of the night
in examining the ground and in making preparations for the coming
struggle. The clear, white moonlight, which aided him in his task,
lighted up a scene strange and beautiful beyond words. It glinted
on our weapons, gave to the features of the sleepers the hue
of death, and imparted to Strahan's face, who lay near me, almost
the delicacy and beauty of a girl. I declare to you, that when I
remembered the luxurious ease from which he had come, the hero he
was now, and all his many acts of kindness to me and others, - when
I thought of what might be on the morrow, I'm not ashamed to say
that tears came into my eyes."

"Nor am I ashamed," faltered Marian, "that you should see tears in
mine. Oh, God grant that he may return to us again!"

"Well," resumed Blauvelt, after a moment of thoughtful hesitation,
"I suppose I was a little morbid that night. Perhaps one was excusable,
for all knew that we were on the eve of the most desperate battle
of the war. I shall not attempt to describe the beauty of the
landscape, or the fantastic shapes taken by the huge boulders that
were scattered about. My body seemed almost paralyzed with fatigue,
but my mind, for a time, was preternaturally active, and noted every
little detail. Indeed, I felt a strange impulse to dwell upon and
recall everything relating to this life, since the chances were
so great that we might, before the close of another day, enter a
different state of existence. You see I am trying, as you requested,
to give you a realistic picture."

"That is what I wish," said the young girl; but her cheeks were
pale as she spoke.

"In the morning I was awakened by one of my men bringing me a cup
of hot coffee, and when I had taken it, and later a little breakfast
of raw pork and hard-tack, I felt like a new man. Nearly all of our
stragglers had joined us during the night, or in the dawn, and our
regiment now mustered about two hundred and forty rifles in line,
a sad change from the time when we marched a thousand strong. But
the men now were veterans, and this almost made good the difference.

"When the sun was a few hours high we were moved forward with the
rest of our brigade; then, later, off to the left, and placed in
position on the brow of a hill that descended steeply before us,
and was covered with rocks, huge boulders, and undergrowth. The
right of our regiment was in the edge of a wood with a smoother
slope before it. I and my company had no other shelter than the
rocks and boulders, which formed a marked feature of the locality,
and protruded from the soil in every imaginable shape. If we had
only thrown the smaller stones together and covered them with earth
we might have made, during the time we wasted, a line of defence
from which we could not have been driven. The 2d of July taught us
that we had still much to learn. As it was, we lounged about upon
the grass, seeking what shade we could from the glare of another
intensely hot day, and did nothing.

"A strange, ominous silence pervaded the field for hours, broken
only now and then by a shell screaming through the air, and the
sullen roar of the gun from which it was fired. The pickets along
our front would occasionally approach the enemy too closely, and there
would be brief reports of musketry, again followed by oppressive
silence. A field of wheat below us undulated in light billows
as the breeze swept it. War and death would be its reapers. The
birds were singing in the undergrowth; the sun lighted up the rural
landscape brilliantly, and it was almost impossible to believe
that the scenes of the afternoon could, take place. By sweeping
our eyes up and down our line, and by resting them upon a battery
of our guns but a few yards away, we became aware of the significance
of our position. Lee's victorious army was before us. Sinister
rumors of the defeat of Union forces the previous day had reached
us, and we knew that the enemy's inaction did not indicate hesitation
or fear, but rather a careful reconnaissance of our lines, that the
weakest point might be discovered. Every hour of delay, however,
was a boon to us, for the army of the Potomac was concentrating
and strengthening its position.

"We were on the extreme left of the Union army; and, alas for us!
Lee first decided to turn and crush its left. As I have said, we
were posted along the crest of a hill which sloped off a little
to the left, then rose again, and culminated in a wild, rocky
elevation called the Devil's Den, - fit name in view of the scenes
it witnessed. Behind us was a little valley through which flowed a
small stream called Plum Run. Here the artillery horses, caissons,
and wagons were stationed, that they might be in partial shelter.
Across the Run, and still further back, rose the rocky, precipitous
heights of Little Round Top, where, during the same afternoon,
some of the severest fighting of the battle is said to have taken
place. Please give me a sheet of paper, and I can outline the
nature of the ground just around us. Of the general battle of that
day I can give you but a slight idea. One engaged in a fight sees,
as a rule, only a little section of it; but in portraying that he
gives the color and spirit of the whole thing."

Rapidly sketching for a few minutes, Blauvelt resumed: "Here we
are along the crest of this hill, with a steep, broken declivity
in front of us, extending down a few hundred yards to another small
stream, a branch of Plum Run. Beyond this branch the ground rises
again to some thick woods, which screened the enemy's movements.

"At midday clouds of dust were seen rising in the distance, and we
at last were told that Sedgwick's corps had arrived, and that the
entire army of the Potomac was on the ground. As hours still elapsed
and no attack was made, the feeling of confidence grew stronger.
Possibly Lee had concluded that our position was unassailable, or
something had happened. The soldier's imagination was only second
to his credulity in receiving the rumors which flew as thick as
did the bullets a little later.

"Strahan and I had a quiet talk early in the day, and said what we
wished to each other. After that he became dreamy and absorbed in
his own thoughts as we watched for signs of the enemy through hours
that seemed interminable. Some laughing, jesting, and card-playing
went on among the men, but in the main they were grave, thoughtful,
and alert, spending the time in discussing the probabilities of
this conflict, and in recalling scenes of past battles.

"Suddenly - it could not have been much past three o'clock - a dozen
rebel batteries opened upon us, and in a second we were in a tempest
of flying, bursting shells. Our guns, a few yards away, and other
batteries along our line, replied. The roar of the opening battle
thundered away to the right as far as we could hear. We were formed
into line at once, and lay down upon the ground. A few of our men
were hit, however, and frightful wounds were inflicted. After this
iron storm had raged for a time we witnessed a sight that I shall
never forget. Emerging from the woods on the slope opposite to us,
solid bodies of infantry, marching by columns of battalion, came
steadily toward us, their bayonets scintillating in the sunlight as
if aflame. On they came till they crossed the little stream before
us, and then deployed into four distinct lines of battle as steadily
as if on parade. It was hard to realize that those men were marching
towards us in the bright sunlight with deadly intent. Heretofore,
in Virginia, the enemy had been partially screened in his approaches,
but now all was like a panorama spread before us. We could see our
shells tearing first through their column, then through the lines of
battle, making wide gaps and throwing up clouds of dust. A second
later the ranks were closed again, and, like a dark tide, on flowed
their advance.

"We asked ourselves, 'What chance have our thin ranks against those
four distinct, heavy battle lines advancing to assault us?' We had
but two ranks of men, they eight. But not a man in our regiment
flinched. When the enemy reached the foot of the hill our cannon
could not be so depressed as to harm them. The time had come for
the more deadly small arms. After a momentary halt the Confederates
rushed forward to the assault with loud yells.

"Strahan's face was flushed with excitement and ardor. He hastened
to the colonel on the right of the line and asked him to order a
charge. The colonel coolly and quietly told him to go back to his
place. A crash of musketry and a line of fire more vivid than July
sunshine breaks out to the right and left as far as we can hear.
Our men are beginning to fall. Again the impetuous Strahan hastens
to the colonel and entreats for the order to charge, but our
commander, as quiet and as impassive as the boulder beside which
he stands, again orders him back. A moment later, however, their
horses are brought, and they mount in spite of my remonstrances and
those of other officers. Strahan's only answer was, "The men must
see us to-day;" and he slowly rode to the rear and centre of the
regiment, wheeled his horse, and, with drawn sword, fixed his eyes
on the colonel, awaiting his signal. Supreme as was the moment of
excitement, I looked for a few seconds at my gallant friend, for
I wished to fix his portrait at that moment forever in my mind."

"Merciful Heaven!" said Marian, in a choking voice, "I thought I
appreciated my friends before, but I did not."

Mr. Vosburgh's eyes rested anxiously on his daughter, and he asked,
gravely, "Marian, is it best for you to hear more of this to-night?"

"Yes, papa. I must hear it all, and not a detail must be softened
or omitted. Moreover," she added, proudly, dashing her tears right
and left, "I am not afraid to listen."

Merwyn had shifted his seat, and was in deep shadow. He was pale
and outwardly impassive, but there was torture in his mind. She
thought, pityingly, "In spite of my tears I have a stouter heart
than he."



"Miss Marian," resumed Blauvelt, "the scenes I am now about to
describe are terrible in the extreme, even in their baldest statement.
I cannot portray what actually took place; I doubt whether any one
could; I can only give impressions of what I saw and heard when
nearly all of us were almost insane from excitement. There are
men who are cool in battle, - our colonel was, outwardly, - but the
great majority of men must be not only veterans, but also gifted with
unusual temperaments, to be able to remain calm and well balanced
in the uproar of a bloody battle.

"In a sense, our men were veterans, and were steady enough to aim
carefully as the enemy advanced up the steep hill. Our shots told
on them more fatally than theirs on us. The greater number of us
shared Strahan's impatience, and we longed for the wild, forward
dash, which is a relief to the tremendous nervous strain at such a
time. After a moment or two, that seemed ages, the colonel quietly
nodded to Strahan, who waved his sword, pointed towards the enemy,
and shouted, 'Charge!'

"You know him well enough to be sure that this was not an order
for the men to fulfil while he looked on. In a second his powerful
bay sprung through the centre of our line, and to keep up with him
we had to follow on a run. There was no hesitation or flagging.
Faces that had been pale were flushed now. As I turned my eyes
from moment to moment back to my company, the terrible expression
of the men's eyes impressed me even then. The colonel watched our
impetuous rush with proud satisfaction, and then spurred his horse
to the very midst of our advance. The lieutenant-colonel, undaunted
by a former wound, never flinched a second, but wisely fought on

"The first battle-line of the enemy seemed utterly unable to stand
before our fierce onset. Those who were not shot fled.

"Again I saw Strahan waving his sword and shouting; 'Victory!
Forward, men! forward!'

"He was in the very van, leading us all. At this moment the second
rebel line fired a volley, and the bullets swept by like an autumn
gust through a tree from which the leaves, thinned by former gales,
are almost stripped. It seemed at the moment as if every other man
went down. Wonder of wonders, as the smoke lifted a little, I saw
to the right the tall form of our colonel still on his gray horse,
pointing with his sword to the second rebel line, and shouting,
'Forward, my men! forward!'

"As the order left his lips, his sword fell, point-downward, and,
with a headlong curve, he went over his horse upon the rocks below.
Even in his death he went towards the enemy. His horse galloped in
the same direction, but soon fell. I thought that Strahan was gone
also, for he was hidden by smoke. A second later I heard his voice:
'Forward! Charge!'

"The men seemed infuriated by the loss of the colonel, and by no
means daunted. Our next mad rush broke the second line of the enemy.

"The scene now defies all my powers of description. The little
handful of men that was left of my company were almost beyond
control. Each soldier was acting under the savage impulse to follow
and kill some rebel before him. I shared the feeling, yet remained
sane enough to thank God when I saw Strahan leap lightly down from
his staggering horse, yet ever crying, 'Forward!' A second later
the poor animal fell dead.

"Our own cannons were bellowing above us; the shells of the enemy
were shrieking over our heads. There was a continuous crash of
musketry that sounded like a fierce, devouring flame passing through
dry thorns, yet above all this babel of horrid sounds could be heard
the shouts and yells of the combatants and the shrieks and groans
of wounded and dying men. Then remember that I saw but a little
section, a few yards in width, of a battle extending for miles.

"In our mad excitement we did not consider the odds against us. The
two remaining lines of battle were advancing swiftly through the
fugitives, and we struck the first with such headlong impetuosity
that it was repulsed and gave back; but the fourth and last line
passing through, and being reinforced by the other broken lines,
came unfaltering, and swept us back from sheer weight of numbers.
We were now reduced to a mere skirmish line. It was at this moment
that I saw Strahan fall, and it seemed but a second later that the
enemy's advance passed over the spot. It was impossible then to
rescue him, for the lieutenant-colonel had given orders for all
to fall back and rally behind the guns that it was our duty to
protect. Indeed, the difficult thing, now, was to get back. The
Union regiment, on our right, had given way, after a gallant fight,
earlier than we had, and the rebels were on our flank and rear. A
number of our men going to the ridge, from which they had charged,
ran into the enemy and were captured. There were desperate hand-to-hand
encounters, hair-breadth escapes, and strange episodes.

"One occurs to me which I saw with my own eyes. It happened a
little earlier in the fight. We were so close to the enemy that a
man in my company had not time to withdraw his ramrod, and, in his
instinctive haste to shoot first at a rebel just before him, sent
ramrod and all through the Confederate's body, pinning him to the
ground. The poor fellow stretched out his hands and cried for mercy.
My man not only wished to recover his rod, but was, I believe,
actuated by a kindly impulse, for he ran to the 'Johnny," pulled
out the rod, jerked the man to his feet, and started him on a run
to our rear as prisoner.

"When at last what was left of the regiment reached its original
position it numbered no more than a full company. Scarcely a hundred
were in line. Over one hundred of our men and the majority of the
officers were either killed or wounded. While the lieutenant-colonel
was rallying us near the battery, a shell struck a gun-carriage,
hurling it against him, and he was home senseless from the field.
The command now devolved on the senior captain left unwounded.

"One of my men now said to me, 'Captain, why don't you go to the
rear? Your face is so covered with blood that you must be badly

"It was only at that moment that I became conscious of my wound. In
my intense anxiety about Strahan, in the effort to get my men back
in something like order, and in the shock of seeing the lieutenant-colonel
struck down, my mind seemed almost unaware of the existence of
the body. In the retreat I had felt something sting my hand like
a nettle, and now found one of the fingers of my left hand badly
shattered. With this hand I had been wiping my brow, for it was
intensely hot. I therefore was the most sanguineous-looking man of
our number.

"Of course I did not go to the rear because of a wound of so slight
a nature, and my earnest hope was that reinforcements would enable
us to drive the enemy back so that I could go to the spot where I
had seen Strahan fall.

"What I have vainly attempted to describe occurred in less time
than I have taken in telling about it. I think it would have been
much better if we had never left the line which we now occupied,
and which we still held in spite of the overwhelming superiority,
in numbers, of the enemy. If, instead of wasting the morning hours,
we had fortified this line, we never could have been driven from

"Our immediate foes, in front of us did not at that time advance
much farther than the point of our repulse, and, like ourselves,
sought cover from which to fire. We now had a chance to recover
a little from our wild excitement, and to realize, in a slight
degree, what was taking place around us. Information came that
our corps-commander had been seriously wounded. Our own colonel
lay, with other dead officers, a little in our rear, yet in plain
sight. We could only give them a mournful glance, for the battle
was still at its height, and was raging in our front and for miles
to the right. The thunder of three hundred or more guns made the
very earth tremble, while the shrieking and bursting of the shells
above us filled the air with a din that was infernal.

"But we had little chance to observe or think of anything except
the enemy just below us. With wolfish eyes they were watching every
chance to pick off our men. Many of our killed and wounded on the
bloody declivity were in plain view, and one poor fellow, desperately
hurt, would often raise his hand and wave it to us.

"Our men acted like heroes, and took deliberate aim before they
fired. When a poor fellow dropped, one of our officers picked up
the rifle and fired in his place."

"Did you do that?" Marian asked.

"Yes; my sword was of no service, and my handful of men needed no
orders. Anything at such a time is better than inaction, and we all
felt that the line must be held. Every bullet counted, you know.

"Some of our boys did very brave things at this time. For instance:
rifles, that had become so clogged or hot as to be unserviceable,
were dropped, and the men would say to their immediate companions,
'Be careful how you fire,' and then rush down the slope, pick up
the guns of dead or wounded comrades, and with these continue the

"At last the enemy's fire slackened a little, and I went to take
my farewell look at our colonel and others of our officers whose
bodies had been recovered. These were then carried to the rear,
and I never saw their familiar faces again.

"The horses now came up at a gallop to take away the battery near
us, and I saw a thing which touched me deeply. As the horses were
turning that a gun might be limbered up, a shot, with a clean cut,
carried away a leg from one of the poor animals. The faithful,
well-trained beast, tried to hobble around into his place on three
legs. He seemed to have caught the spirit which animated the entire
army that day.

"As I turned toward the regiment, the cry went up, 'They are flanking

"The brief slackening of the enemy's fire had only indicated
preparations for a general forward movement. An aid now galloped
to us with orders to fall back instantly. A few of my men had been
placed, for the sake of cover, in the woods on the right, and I
hastened over to them to give the order. By the time I had collected
them, the enemy had occupied our old position and we barely escaped
capture. When we caught up with the regiment, our brigade-commander
had halted it and was addressing it in strong words of eulogy;
adding, however, that he still expected almost impossible things
of his troops.

"It was pleasant to know that our efforts had been recognized and
appreciated, but our hearts were heavy with the thoughts of those
we had lost. We were now sent to a piece of woods about a mile to
the rear, as a part of the reserve, and it so happened that we were

Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeAn Original Belle → online text (page 23 of 37)