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The cause of a silent battle.1

by Professor John B. De Motte, De Pauw University, Ind.
Reference has been made to the supposed effect of the wind in preventing, as in the case of the heavy cannonading between the Merrimac and Congress, the transference of sound-waves a distance of not over three and one-half miles over water; and at another time, during the bombardments of the Confederate works at Port Royal, a distance of not more than two miles. “The day was pleasant,” says the writer, “and the wind did not appear unusually strong.” Yet “people living in St. Augustine, Florida, told me afterward that the Port Royal cannonade was heard at that place, 150 miles from the fight.” 2

It occurs to me that the effect of the wind is greatly exaggerated in these instances. How an ordinary breeze could “carry all sounds of the conflict away from people standing within plain sight of it” and yet carry the same sound 150 miles in the opposite direction, is rather too strongly opposed to scientific fact to remain on record undisputed.

In all of these cases, is it not probable that the varying density of the air had much more to do with this strange acoustic opacity than the wind?

These statements call to mind the prevalent belief that fog, snow, hail, and rain, indeed, any conditions of the atmosphere that render it optically opaque, render it also acoustically opaque; which, up to the time of Mr. Tyndall's experiments in the English Channel, off Dover, had scarcely been questioned. His tests made in 1873-74 proved conclusively, as is now well known, that on clear days the air may be composed of differently heated masses, saturated in different degrees with aqueous vapors, which produce exactly the deadening effects described above.

I submit as a case in point a similar effect, and its explanation as furnished by Mr. R. G. H. Kean to Professor Tyndall, and considered by the latter of sufficient value to find a place in his published works:

“ On the afternoon of June 27th, 1862, I rode, in company with General G. W. Randolph, then Secretary of War of the Confederate States, to Price's house, about nine miles from Richmond. The evening before General Lee had begun his attack on McClellan's army, by crossing the Chickahominy about four miles above Price's, and driving in McClellan's right wing.

The battle of Gaines's Mill was fought the afternoon to which I refer. The valley of the Chickahominy is about one and a half miles wide from hill-top to hill-top. Price's is on one hill-top, that nearest to Richmond; Gaines's farm, just opposite, is on the other, reaching back in a plateau to Cold Harbor.

Looking across the valley, I saw a good deal of the battle, Lee's right resting in the valley, the Federal left wing the same. My line of vision was nearly in the line of the lines of battle. I saw the advance of the Confederates, their repulse two or three times, and in the gray of the evening the final retreat of the Federal forces. I distinctly saw the musket-fire of both lines, the smoke, individual discharges, the flash of the guns. I saw batteries of artillery on both sides come into action and fire rapidly. Several field-batteries on each side were plainly in sight. Many more were hid by the timber which bounded the range of vision.

Yet looking for nearly two hours, from about 5 to 7 P. M. on a midsummer afternoon, at a battle in which at least 50,000 men were actually engaged, and doubt-less at least 100 pieces of field-artillery, through an atmosphere optically as limpid as possible, not a single sound of the battle was audible to General Randolph and myself. I remarked it to him at the time as astonishing.

Between me and the battle was the deep, broad valley of the Chickahominy, partly a swamp shaded from the declining sun by the hills and forest in the west (my side). Part of the valley on each side of the swamp was cleared: some in cultivation, some not. Here were conditions capable of providing several belts of air, varying in the amount of watery vapor (and probably in temperature), arranged like laminae at right angles to the acoustic waves as they came from the battle-field to me.


1 for references to the phenomena of irregular transmission of sound at the battles on the Chickahominy, see the articles of Generals Joseph E. Johnston, Gustavus W. Smith, and Wm. B. Franklin, pp. 213, 244, and 368, respectively. In Vol. I., p. 713, General R. E. Colston, mentions the interesting fact about the engagement between the Congress and Merrimac, at the mouth of the James River, March 8th, 1862.

2 The Port Royal incident was related in a communication to “The century” magazine by Mr. S. H. Prescott, of Concord, N. H., in part as follows: “At the bombardment of the Confederate works at Port Royal, South Carolina, in November, 1861, the transport my regiment was on lay near enough inshore to give us a fine view of the whole battle; but only in some temporary lull of the wind could we hear the faintest sound of firing. The day was a pleasant one, and the wind did not appear to be unusually strong; but I noticed then and afterward that a breeze on the coast down that way was very different from the erratic gusts and flaws I had been used to in the New England States, the whole atmosphere seeming to move in a body, giving sound no chance to travel against it, but carrying it immense distances to the leeward. People living at St. Augustine, Florida, told me afterward that the Port Royal cannonade was heard at that place, 150 miles from where the fight took place. A portion of the siege-batteries at Morris Island, South Carolina, were not more than two miles from our camp, but at times the firing from them and the enemy's replies could only be heard very faintly even at that short distance, while at others, when the wind blew from the opposite direction, the sounds were as sharp and distinct as if the battle were taking place within a few rods of us.”

3 General E. M. Law, of Lee's army, in the “Southern bivouac” for May, 1887, speaks as follows of the “silent battle” of Gaines's Mill: “To the troops stationed near tile river, on the Richmond side, the action at Gaines's Mill was plainly visible, that part of it, at least, which took place in the open ground. I have been told by an eye-witness that from Price's house, on the opposite side, he could distinctly see the Confederate lines advancing to the attack through the open ground beyond the Chickahominy swamp, and could distinguish the direction of the lines of battle by the volume of smoke arising from the woods farther to the Confederate center and left. But it was all like a pantomime; not a sound could be heard, neither the tremendous roar of the musketry nor even the reports of the artillery. As they saw our assaulting lines recoil from the onset, as they were several times compelled to do early in the fight, the anxiety of our friends ‘over the river’ to help was intense; but the enemy was in their front also, and their time for action would soon come.” Editors.

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