In the ranks to the Antietam.
by David L. Thompson, Co. G, 9TH New York Volunteers.
A disorganized private.
From a photograph.|
On the 5th of September, 1862, Hawkins
' Zouaves, as a part of Burnside
's corps, from Fredericksburg
, landed at Washington
to assist in the defense of the capital, then threatened by Lee
's first invasion of Maryland
, and, as events proved, to join in the pursuit of the invaders.
Here, in pursuance of a measure for shortening the baggage train which had lately been decided on, we were deprived of our Sibley
tents — those cumbersome, conical caravansaries, in which eighteen men lie upon the ground with their feet toward the center.
Shelter tents came soon to replace the “Sibleys,” and with them came marching orders — the army was moving west.
At dusk we set up our new houses.
A shelter or dog tent is like a bargain — it takes two to make it. Each man is provided with an oblong piece of thick, unbleached muslin about the length of a man — say six feet--and two-thirds as wide, bordered all round with buttons and button-holes alternately matching respectively the button-holes and buttons of his comrade's piece.
To set it up, cut two crotched stakes, each about four feet long, point them at the uncrotched end, and drive them into the ground about six feet apart; cut a slender pole to lie horizontally from one crotch to the other, button the two pieces of muslin together and throw the resulting piece over the pole, drawing out the corners tight and pinning them down to the ground by means of little loops fastened in them.
You will thus get a wedge-shaped structure — simply the two slopes of an ordinary roof — about three and a half feet high at its highest point, and open at both ends.
This will accommodate two men, and in warm, pleasant weather is all that is needed.
In rainy weather a third man is admitted.
A piece of rope about four feet long is then tied to the top of one of the stakes and stretched out in the line of direction of the ridge pole, the free end being brought down to the ground and pinned there.
The third man then buttons his piece of muslin to one slope of the roof, carries the other edge of the piece out around the tightened rope and brings it back to the edge of the other slope, to which it is buttoned.
This third piece is shifted from one end of the tent to the other, according to the direction of the wind or storm.
You thus get an extension to your tent in which knapsacks can be stored, leaving the rest of the space clear for sleeping purposes.
This is large enough to accommodate three men lying side by side.
But will such a structure keep out rain?
Certainly, just as your umbrella does — unless you touch it on the inside when it is soaked.
If you do, the rain will come in, drop by drop, just where you have touched it. To keep the water from flowing in along the surface of the ground, dig a small trench about three inches deep all around the tent, close up, so that the rain shed from the roof will fall into it. Such a house is always with you potentially, for you carry the materials on your back and can snap your fingers at the baggage wagon.
For three-fourths of the year it is all the shelter needed, as it keeps out rain, snow, and wind perfectly, being penetrable only by the cold.
We marched at last, and on the 12th of September entered Frederick
, wondering all the way what the enemy meant.
We of the ranks little suspected what sheaves he was gathering in at Harper's Ferry
, behind the curtain of his main body.
We guessed, however, as usual, and toward evening began to get our answer.
He was right ahead, his rear-guard skirmishing with our advance.
We came up at the close of the fight at Frederick
, and, forming line of battle, went at double-quick through cornfields, potato patches, gardens, and backyards — the German washer-women of the 103d New York regiment going in with us on the run. It was only a measure of precaution, however, the cavalry having done what little there was to do in the way of driving out of the city a Confederate rear-guard not much inclined to stay.
We pitched tents at once in the outskirts, and after a hearty supper went to explore the city.
The next morning the feeling of distrust which the night before had seemed to rule the place had disappeared, and a general holiday feeling took its place.
The city was abloom with flags, houses were open everywhere, trays of food were set on the window-sills of nearly all the better class of houses, and the streets were filled with women dressed in their best, walking bareheaded, singing, and testifying in every way the general joy. September 13th in Frederick City was a bright one in memory for many a month after — a pleasant topic to discuss over many a camp-fire.
The next day our regiment went on a reconnoissance to a speck of a village, rather overweighted by its name,--Jefferson
,--about eight miles from Frederick
and on our left.
Far up the mountainside ahead of us we could see, in the fields confronting the edge of the woods that crowned the ridge, the scattered line of Rush
's Lancers, their bright red pennons fluttering gayly from their spear heads.
We reached camp again about 10 o'clock at night, and found awaiting us marching orders for 2 o'clock the following morning.
Late as it was, one of my tent-mates — an enterprising young fellow — started out on a foraging expedition, in pursuance of a vow made several days before to find something with which to vary his monotonous regimen of “hard-tack” and “salt horse.”
“ran the guard”--an easy thing to do in the darkness and hubbub — and returned shortly after, struggling with a weight of miscellaneous plunder; a crock of butter, a quantity of apple-butter, some lard, a three-legged skillet weighing several pounds, and a live hen. It was a marvel how he managed to carry so much; but he was a rare gleaner always, with a comprehensive method that covered the ground.
That night we had several immense flapjacks, the whole size of the pan; then, tethering the hen to one of the tent pegs, we went to sleep, to be roused an hour or so later by hearing our two-legged prize cackling and fluttering off in the darkness.
Up to the 10th the army had not marched so much as it had drifted, but from this point on our purpose seemed to grow more definite and the interest deepened steadily.
There had been sporadic fighting through the day (the 13th), but it was over the hills to the west, and we heard nothing of it beyond those airy echoes that take the shape of rumor.
Now, however, the ferment at the front, borne back by galloping orderlies, was swiftly leavening the mass.
Occasionally, on our march we would pass a broken gun wheel or the bloated body of a slaughtered horse, and in various ways we knew that we were close upon the enemy, and that we could not now be long delayed.
This would have been told us by the burden of our daily orders, always the same, to hold ourselves “in readiness to march at a moment's notice,” with the stereotyped addendum, “three days cooked rations and forty rounds.”
Every one lay down to sleep that night with a feeling of impending battle.
By daylight next morning we were in motion again — the whole army.
The gathering of such a multitude is a swarm, its march a vast migration.
It fills up every road leading in the same direction over a breadth of many miles, with long ammunition and supply trains disposed for safety along the inner roads, infantry and artillery next in order outwardly, feelers of cavalry all along its front and far out on its flanks; while behind, trailing along every road for miles (ravelings from the great square blanket which the enemy's cavalry, if active, snip off with ease), are the rabble of stragglers — laggards through sickness or exhaustion, squads of recruits, convalescents from the hospital, special duty men going up to rejoin their regiments.
Each body has its route laid down for it each day, its time of starting set by watch, its place of bivouac or camp appointed, together with the hour of reaching it. If two roads come together, the corps that reaches the junction first moves on, while the other files out into the fields, stacks arms, builds fires, and boils its coffee.
Stand, now, by the roadside while a corps is filing past.
They march “route step,” as it is called,--that is, not keeping time,--and four abreast, as a country road seldom permits a greater breadth, allowing for the aides and orderlies that gallop in either direction continually along the column.
If the march has just begun, you hear the sound of voices every-where, with roars of laughter in spots, marking the place of the company wag — generally some Irishman, the action of whose tongue bears out his calling.
Later on, when the weight of knapsack and musket begins to tell, these sounds die out; a sense of weariness and labor rises from the toiling masses streaming by, voiced only by the shuffle of a multitude of feet, the rubbing and straining of innumerable straps, and the flop of full canteens.
So uniformly does the mass move on that it suggests a great machine, requiring only its directing mind.
Y et such a mass, without experience in battle, would go to pieces before a moderately effective fire.
Catch up a handful of snow and throw it, it flies to fluff; pack it, it strikes like stone.
Here is the secret of organization — the aim and crown of drill, to make the units one, that when the crisis comes, the missile may be thoroughly compacted.
Too much, however, has been claimed for theoretic discipline — not enough for intelligent individual action.
No remark was oftener on the lips of officers during the war than this: “Obey orders!
do your thinking for you.”
But that soldier is the best whose good sense tells him when to be merely a part of a machine and when not.
The premonitions of the night were not fulfilled next day. That day — the 14th of September--we crossed the Catoctin
range of mountains, reaching the summit about noon, and descended its western slope into the beautiful valley of Middletown
Half-way up the valley's western side we halted for a rest, and turned to look back on the moving host.
It was a scene to linger in the memory.
The valley in which Middletown
lies is four or five miles wide, as I remember it, and runs almost due north and south between the parallel ranges of Catoctin and South Mountains
From where we stood the landscape lay below us, the eye commanding the opposite slope of the valley almost at point-blank.
An hour before, from the same spot, it had been merely a scene of quiet pastoral beauty.
All at once, along its eastern edge the heads of the columns began to appear, and grew and grew, pouring over the ridge and descending by every road, filling them completely and scarring the surface of the gentle landscape with the angry welts of war. By the farthest northern road — the farthest we could see — moved the baggage wagons, the line stretching from the bottom of the valley back to the top of the ridge, and beyond, only the canvas covers of the wagons revealing their character.
We knew that each dot was a heavily loaded army wagon, drawn by six mules and occupying forty feet of road at least.
Now they looked like white beads on a string.
So far away were they that no motion was perceptible.
The constant swelling of the end of the line down in the valley, where the teams turned into the fields to park, gave evidence that, in this way, it was being slowly reeled along the way. The troops were marching by two roads farther south.
The Confederates fighting on the western summit must have seen them plainly.
Half a mile beyond us the column broke abruptly, filing off into line of battle, right and left, across the fields.
From that point backward and down-ward, across the valley and up the farther slope, it stretched with scarcely a gap, every curve and
zigzag of the way defined more sharply by its somber presence.
Here, too, on all the distant portions of the line, motion was imperceptible, but could be inferred from the casual glint of sunlight on a musket barrel miles away.
It was 3 o'clock when we resumed our march, turning our backs upon the beautiful, impressive picture — each column a monstrous, crawling, blue-black snake, miles long, quilled with the silver slant of muskets at a “shoulder,” its sluggish tail writhing slowly up over the distant eastern ridge, its bruised head weltering in the roar and smoke upon the crest above, where was being fought the battle of South Mountain
We were now getting nearer to the danger line, the rattle of musketry going on incessantly in the edges of the woods and behind the low stone fences that seamed the mountain-side.
Then we came upon the fringes of the contest — slightly wounded men scattered along the winding road on their way to the hospital, and now and then a squad of prisoners, wounded and unwounded together, going under guard to the rear.
The brigade was ordered to the left of the road to support a regular battery posted at the top of a steep slope, with a cornfield on the left, and twenty yards or so in front, a thin wood.
We formed behind the battery and a little down the slope — the 89th on the left, the 9th next, then the 103d.
We had been in position but a few minutes when a stir in front advised us of something unusual afoot, and the next moment the Confederates
burst out of the woods and made a dash at the battery.
We had just obeyed a hastily given order to lie down, when the bullets whistled over our heads, and fell far down the slope behind us. Then the guns opened at short range, full-shotted with grape and canister.
The force of the charge was easily broken, for though it was vigorously made it was not sustained — perhaps was not intended to be, as the whole day's battle had been merely an effort of the enemy to check our advance till he could concentrate for a general engagement.
As the Confederates
came out of the woods their line touched ours on the extreme left only, and there at an acute angle, their men nearly treading on those of the 89th, who were on their faces in the cornfield, before they discovered them.
At that instant the situation just there was ideally, cruelly advantageous to us. The Confederates stood before us not twenty feet away, the full intention of destruction on their faces — but helpless, with empty muskets.
The 89th simply rose up and shot them down.
It was in this charge that I first heard the “rebel yell” ; not the deep-breasted Northern cheer, given in unison and after a struggle, to signify an advantage gained, but a high shrill yelp, uttered without concert, and kept up continually when the fighting was approaching a climax, as an incentive to further effort.
This charge ended the contest for the day on that part of the line.
Pickets were set well forward in the woods, and we remained some time in position, waiting.
How a trivial thing will often thrust itself upon the attention in a supreme moment was well exemplified here.
All about us grew pennyroyal, bruised by the tramping of a hundred feet, and the smell of it has always been associated in my memory with that battle.
Before the sunlight faded, I walked over the narrow field.
All around lay the Confederate
dead — undersized men mostly, from the coast district of North Carolina, with sallow, hatchet faces, and clad in “butternut”--a color running all the way from a deep, coffee brown up to the whitish brown of ordinary dust.
As I looked down on the poor, pinched faces, worn with marching and scant fare, all enmity died out. There was no “secession” in those rigid forms, nor in those fixed eyes staring blankly at the sky. Clearly it was not “their war.”
Some of our men primed their muskets afresh with the finer powder from the cartridge-boxes of the dead.
With this exception, each remained untouched as he had fallen.
Darkness came on rapidly, and it grew very chilly.
As little could be done at that hour in the way of burial, we unrolled the blankets of the dead, spread them over the bodies, and then sat down in line, munching a little on our cooked rations in lieu of supper, and listening to the firing, which was kept up on the right, persistently.
By 9 o'clock this ceased entirely.
Drawing our blankets over us, we went to sleep, lying upon our arms in line as we had stood, living Yankee and dead Confederate side by side, and indistinguishable.--This was Sunday, the 14th of September.
The next morning, receiving no orders to march, we set to work collecting the arms and equipments scattered about the field, and burying the dead.
The weather being fine, bowers were built in the woods — generally in fence corners — for such of the wounded as could not be moved with safety; others, after stimulants had been given, were helped down the mountain to the rude hospitals.
Before we left the spot, some of the country people living thereabout, who had been scared away by the firing, ventured back, making big eyes at all they saw, and asking most ridiculous questions.
One was, whether we were from Mexico
Those belated echoes, it seemed, were still sounding in the woods of Maryland