The battle of Fisher's Hill.
[from the Richmond Dispatch, June 14, 1891.]
Thrilling incidents of, by a Private Soldier
—‘I say, men!
for God's sake let us stop and fight them right here’—The song that saved an army.
The Confederate soldier gave four of the best years of his life to a cause that was too poor to pay him and did not live long enough to honor him. Often clothed in rags and frequently suffering the pangs of hunger he was pushed on in the discharge of his duty by patriotism
, a fickle and uncertain master, whose very name was changed by defeat into that of a crime, for which, if he has been forgiven, he has also been forgotten.
If we take into consideration the fact that all he has, or ever had, as the fruits of his privations and hard-fought battles, is stored up, not in this world's goods or even in the gratitude of his fellow-man, but in his memory alone, surely he may be indulged in the weakness an old soldier has for boring other people by fighting his battles over again.
And this is my excuse for attempting to scribble my recollection of some of the incidents connected with the battle of Fisher's Hill
I hope this may meet the eye of some of my old comrades in arms, whom I am sure will recognize the picture.
The morning of September 22, 1864, two days after our defeat at Winchester
, found General Early
's little army occupying the position
known as Fisher's Hill
, with its right resting on or near the Massanutta mountains
, while the extreme left of his infantry line reached no further than the termination of the ridge of Fisher's Hill
, in the direction of North mountain.
The interval was protected only by a small body of cavalry.
There may be some inaccuracies in the above description, but that was the situation as it appeared to me—a private soldier occupying the humble position of ‘No. 6,’ or fuse-cutter, in Captain Massey
's battery of artillery.
While a private soldier's opportunity for knowing the general arrangement or disposition of the whole army at the commencement of or during an engagement is very limited, yet it must be confessed that the veterans of the Confederate army had all become generals in experience at the time of which I write.
The battery to which I belonged was placed in position on the top of a high hill at the extreme left of the infantry line.
The army having arrived on the ground and been placed in position the day before, the men had fortified to the best of their ability with the poor tools they had to work with.
had been put in command of the division of the heroic and invincible Rodes
, who had fallen two days before at Winchester
This division occupied the breastworks to the right and left of our battery.
That General Ramseur
was as brave a man as ever drew a sword in defence of the South
no one can deny, but that he was wanting in those qualities which could estimate the numbers or penetrate the designs of the enemy had been but too apparent on several previous occasions.1
Awaiting the attack.
All having been done that the time and means at our disposal would enable us to do to strengthen our position we waited for the coming of the enemy, knowing then that he outnumbered us at least four to one.
With the defeat of two days before still fresh in our minds, with our ranks thinned by the absence of so many of our brave boys whose bodies were left on the field at Winchester
, is it any wonder that the private soldiers began to look around and to examine with a critical eye our means, or rather our want of means, of defence?
The gap left open between us and the North
mountain was seen at once, and the men, experienced as they were, came to the conclusion that the real attack would not be made in our
front but on our left flank.
, who, as I have mentioned, was in command on that part of the line, did not anticipate any flank movement of the enemy.
He had ordered his skirmishers to the front and placed them in position on a hill about half a mile in front of the line of battle.
They made temporary fortification by piling up some fence-rails fifteen or twenty yards apart.
This was all in plain sight of the line of battle, as the country in front of us was open.
This line of skirmishers was composed of men selected by General Rodes
for that purpose and never required to do any other duty.
Braver men and better marksmen could not be found in the army, and bravely did they sustain their reputation that day.
The enemy saluted us with his three-inch rifle guns pretty early in the day from a distance too great for us to reply to with our twelve-pounder Napoleons, and continued to pay his respects to us in that way until 12 or 1 o'clock, when he showed a heavy body of infantry in our front.
A line of battle was sent forward at a double-quick to dislodge our skirmishers behind the rail-piles, whom we, of course, expected to see swept away without any trouble.
But to our surprise and admiration, and amid the cheers of the whole line of battle half a mile behind them, they manfully held their ground, although a storm of bullets was rapidly thinning out this little band of tried and true men. Each little puff of white smoke that arose from behind the rail-piles told the tale almost surely of the fate of one advancing foeman.
Nearly every shot must have told, for the line of battle halted, wavered, and fell back in disorder.
Then the wild yell that went up from our lines must have made that little band of Spartans feel good.
I felt like I could have hugged every one of them.
But well they knew, as did every soldier who saw the situation, that this could not last.
The enemy's artillery had gotten their range and was tearing up the piles of rails.
Another heavy line of battle was thrown against them and the poor fellows had to give way and run half a mile to get inside our lines.
To run that distance in an open field under fire is a fearful thing to do. Many of them never lived to reach the line, and many of those who did, not a few were wounded.
One poor fellow fell over the breastworks by me with the blood spurting from a bullet-wound in his head.
The above was a little battle in itself.
This is the unwritten
These things the historian will never record.
And yet they constitute the real history of the war.
While the interesting preliminary engagement which I have attempted to describe was going on in our front an important movement was in progress on our left, which was to end disastrously to our little army on that eventful day. While this movement seemed to be a complete surprise to those in command on that part of the line it had been generally spoken of by the veteran private soldiers in
the line as a movement of such obvious advantage to the enemy that he certainly would not neglect it. And so it proved.
The flank movement.
As General Ramseur
passed along the line some member of our battery called his attention to what seemed to be a column of men moving along on the side of North mountain, to which the General
replied carelessly that he ‘supposed it was nothing but a fence row,’ but the same time he threw his field-glass up to his eyes and looked for a few moments and exclaimed: ‘My God! Two lines of the enemy's infantry!’
But even then no disposition that I could see was made to meet this flank movement.
Perhaps there were no troops to spare for that purpose.
The heavy body of infantry in our front continued to move up so slowly as to make it evident to my mind that they were only brought to hold our attention until the troops moving to our left were in a position to strike us immediately on our left flank, which it did not take them long to do. Several heavy volleys of musketry were heard to the left and rear and a few minutes afterward our little squad of cavalry broke through the woods near our position and did not tarry long enough to tell us the news.
An effectual attempt was then made to get our infantry from behind the breastworks to meet this attack on the left, but it was too late.
A large body of the enemy had commenced to pour their fire into us from that direction, while heavy masses of infantry were now advancing rapidly from the front.
In the mean time a remarkable change had taken place in the battery to which I belonged.
Two guns left.
All the guns except two had been limbered up and taken to the rear, together with the limbers and caissons belonging to the two pieces which had been left on the line.
The ammunition had been poured out on the ground behind each of these guns.
I have never
been able to account for the singular order, except on the supposition that these two pieces, together with the cannoneers belonging to them, were left to be sacrificed—to be fought to the last, and by that means to give the infantry and other troops on that part of the line a chance to get out of the trap.
After this unsuccessful attempt to change front under such a heavy cross-fire our infantry had been withdrawn, and the two pieces of artillery, with the detachments of cannoneers necessary to work them, were left alone.
Of course I had no means of ascertaining the number, but I believe that at the least ten thousand of the enemy's infantry were advancing on us from two different directions.
Thick with bullets.
The air seemed to be thick with bullets.
It may perhaps be thought strange that twelve or fourteen men would stay there under such circumstances, but we had been trained to stand to our guns until we had orders to leave them, or they had been taken by the enemy.
One of our guns had been pulled out of the breastworks and was pointing down the line of now empty fortifications to our left, and was pouring canister into the ranks of the advancing Yankees
, with as much vim as if we could have hoped to drive them back, and the other gun was hurling shell with equal rapidity into the line of battle which was closing in on us from the front.
This was a strange looking battle.
Two guns fighting perhaps ten thousand men. It was very much like the combat between David and Goliath; except that Goliath had so many lives this time that David's ‘smooth stones’ made very little impression.
Our cannister was now gone and I was sitting on a pile of ammunition behind the gun giving out shells and case-shot in which no fuse had been fixed, because the enemy was now so close on us that fuse could not be used to any advantage.
‘Number four’ fell dead across me and the pile of ammunition on which I was sitting.
I unbuckled the box of friction-primers from around him, fastened it around myself, and slipped in his place; and if my recollection serves me right only three men were then left at the gun. We did not have time to fire but a few more rounds when we heard the voice of our captain calling to us to make an attempt to pull one of the pieces off by hand.
We seized a prolong which
he had fixed on to the trail and pulled the gun down the hill perhaps one hundred yards, when the captain, seeing the Yankees
were so close on us that we must have been killed or captured in a minute or two more, ordered us to leave the gun and save ourselves if we could.
The first glance at the situation seemed to show that this was an impossibility.
We were surrounded.
They were behind us, on our right, and in front, but we noticed that the line of battle which was now advancing rapidly on our left (it had been our front) had not reached our deserted breastworks by one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards. That gap afforded us the only chance to escape.
There was nothing left for us but to surrender at once or ‘run the gauntlet.’
We chose the latter, so jumping over the breastworks we commenced the race.
If we could make it before the gap was closed up there might be some chance for us. Fortunately the firing had ceased because of the danger of killing their own men.
Running the gauntlet.
So the race was to the swiftest, that time.
It has been said that there are times in war when ‘soldiers' legs are more valuable than their guns,’ and so it proved for us then.
We soon made the top of the next hill, where we got into the woods and felt ourselves safe for the time.
But the adventures of the day were not over.
I have yet to relate an incident showing the conspicuous bravery of the men composing a small remnant of a Louisiana brigade, which had been formerly under the command of General Hays
There did not seem to be over one hundred men left in it at that time.
It had been our fortune to fight ‘side by side’ with these men in several preceding battles of the same year, and I had never seen them waver or give an inch.
Having become separated from the few members of my own command who had been with me up to that time, I overtook these Louisianians, who were retiring slowly (and if I should tell the exact truth I would also say sorrowfully) from the field.
As I overtook them I was surprised and also much affected by seeing one of them behind his comrades crying like a child, and with the tears running down his face he called to those in front of him, ‘I say, men, for God's sake let us stop and fight them right here!
We are ruined forever.’
Of course they did not stop, for it would have been madness for a hundred men to attempt to make a stand against the whole Yankee army in broad daylight.
I soon left them, but was destined
to see these brave men again that evening under circumstances that made my heart warm towards them and caused me to think if our whole army had been composed of such men, then it might truly be said that ‘we might all be killed, but never could be conquered.’
I hurried on in the direction of the turnpike, where I hoped to fall in with some of our troops, who might have spirit enough left to make some sort of stand against the victorious enemy, and at least try to prevent our demoralized army from being entirely destroyed.
Nor was I disappointed.
As I approached the pike the sun was setting.
I could see two pieces of artillery coming up the road.
These proved to be of Captain Kirkpatrick
's battery, from Amherst county
I again met with two members of my own company at that point, and we hurried on to get with the section of artillery which had halted and commenced to unlimber just as we arrived on the ground.
Five or six hundred yards distant a heavy mass of the enemy's cavalry was drawn up as if preparing to make a charge, and if that charge had been made, a large portion of our army must have been made prisoners, scattered and demoralized as the men were.
The two pieces of artillery having been unlimbered and pointed to the front, I and the two men spoken of joined the cannoneers and took our places at the guns.
It did seem to be the most extreme folly for two pieces of artillery alone to attempt to stop the advance of thousands of men flushed with victory; but circumstances favored us, and proved that the ‘battle is not always to the strong.’
Darkness was rapidly approaching.
We opened fire, and never were the ‘iron messengers of death’ hurled in quicker succession from the throats of two guns.
The song that saved the army.
Darkness was fast coming on, and objects at a distance were growing indistinct.
Our numbers were few, but our lung-power was good, and we made the hills ring with the regular old hair-raising ‘rebel yell,’ which was answered with a cheer just behind us, and my heart grew to double its usual size when I looked and saw the glorious old Louisianians coming to our support at a double-quick.
They divided as they came up, and taking position on each side of the guns they made their muskets sing the sweetest little song (to us) that ever fell on mortal ears, being a fit accompaniment to the bass notes of our two twelve-pounder Napoleons.
The enemy made no charge that night, and our little army was saved.