Fifty-fifth Virginia Regiment, Confederate States Army

A question which is often asked of the survivor of the Civil War, when recounting the “battles, sieges, and fortunes he has passed,” is, “How does it feel to be in battle?” If he is in the habit of taking account of his sensations and impressions the answer is not so simple as might appear at first sight.

Much of the ground disputed by the contending forces in our Civil War was quite unlike the popular conception of a battlefield, derived from descriptions of European campaigns or from portrayals of the same, usually fanciful. The choice of a battle-ground in actual warfare is not determined by its fitness for the display of imposing lines, as at a review. As often as not, the consideration of concealment of those lines has much to do with the selection, or else there is some highway which it is important to hold or to possess, or again, some vulnerable point of the foe invites attack, in which case the actual terrain is such as may happen, and the disposition of the forces is made to conform as far as possible thereto.

The first engagement in which the writer took a modest part had been entirely foreseen, yet its development refuted all preconceived ideas of what a battle was like. It was the beginning of the series which resulted in frustrating McClellan's campaign on the Peninsula and raising the siege of Richmond, in 1862. We had been holding the left of the Confederate line on the Meadow Bridge road, picketing the bridges spanning a fork of the Chickahominy at that point – a union picket-post being at the crossing of another branch, about a hundred yards distant, and in plain view from our outpost.

At the date of the opening of the battle, June 26, 1862, it was the turn of the regiment for this duty, our company holding the advanced post at the bridges. But we had supposed that we were to receive an attack from the foe, being ignorant of the fact that the Federal force on the north bank was “in the air,” owing to the retention of McDowell's corps, before which we had retired from Fredericksburg, and which was to have joined and extended this flank on the Rappahannock. Thus, when the advance began, we were the first to cross the river. For some distance the road was a corduroy through the swamp, which our company traversed at double-quick and without opposition until we came into the open and approached the small hamlet of Mechanicsville, at the intersection of a road leading to Richmond and the Old Cold Harbor road, running almost parallel with the Chickahominy.

Thus far we had seen no Federals except the picket, which had promptly retired before our advance. Nor was the country about us in any way distinctive – just an ordinary eastern Virginia landscape of fields, farmhouses, and commonplace woods, and seeming peaceful enough in the light of a summer's afternoon. Before opening this vista the column, marching in fours, was halted in a shallow cut of the road, and some one ahead called back an order to “clear the road for the artillery!” A wild scramble up the banks ensued, under the apprehension that we were about to be raked by McClellan's guns. But the real intent was to advance a section of our brigade battery traveling in our rear, to “feel” a thin belt of timber intervening between us and the village. This was our first scare; number two was soon to follow.

Meanwhile, we had formed line on the right of the road and approached the wooded camp-site in which, as we supposed, the foe was concealed and awaiting us. When almost up to it, some excited soldier discharged his musket; at once, and without orders, the entire right wing of the regiment blazed away at the numerous collection of tent-poles and cracker-boxes, reminders of its late occupation. At that time there probably was not a Federal soldier nearer than the further side of Beaver Dam Creek, nearly a mile distant. But we were to hear from them before long.

Having passed through the straggling little village we were halted again just beyond, in a dip of the ground through which coursed a small rivulet, and some of us took the opportunity to fill canteens. It was while waiting there that we received the first hostile shots from the guns beyond the creek. They soon got our range and it began to look like real war at last.

It was at this point that, for the first time, I saw a man killed in battle. We were standing to arms awaiting orders to advance; another regiment of the brigade was supporting us a short distance in the rear – the Sixtieth Virginia, under Colonel Starke, who was killed later while commanding a Louisiana brigade at Sharpsburg, in September, 1862. A shell plowed the crest of the elevation in front, and our line made a profound obeisance as it passed over; it seemed as if it must clear us but about reach the Sixtieth, and as I ducked I glanced back that way and witnessed its effect in their ranks. The body of a stalwart young fellow suddenly disappeared, and on the ground where he had stood was a confused mass of quivering limbs which presently lay still-the same shell, as I learned afterward, carried away the top of a man's head in our own regiment.

Another took effect soon after, as we were moving out by the left flank, knocking over several men and killing one of them. By this time the fire had grown quite brisk, and we lost more men as we lay in the open field before entering some woods still more to the left, where the regiment commenced firing, against an imaginary foe, I have cause to believe. Yet, these same skittish troops, under fire for the first time, just four days later charged and captured a regular battery of 12-pounder guns and were complimented on the field by General Longstreet – such progress had they made within that brief period in the “school of the soldier.”

We are coming to the period in this narration when we might fairly claim to have been soldiers indeed; when the disjointed fragments had at last been welded together into an army. We had been “shooted over” and even “blooded”; had heard the screech of shell and the hiss of minie balls, and had learned to discount their deadliness in some measure; had learned how to make ourselves snug and comfortable in camp, even though our wagons still might be miles in the rear; had learned to cook without utensils and to improvise a shelter without tents or, failing that, to take the weather as it came and say no more about it. We knew that a march meant much fatigue – agony, even – and accepted both as a matter of course and part of the work on which we were engaged. Blistered feet, we had come to learn, were indeed serious, and as a corollary, that it was wise to get a foot-bath, and to put on dry socks upon going into camp for the night, even if one were tired out, and felt more disposed just to lie down and rest. There was tomorrow's march to be considered, and we had come to recognize that to-day's exertion was by no means exceptional.

We knew how to make a fire which would last all night; that it was well to start out before daylight with just a bite, if no more, rather than upon an empty stomach, and to confine the consumption of water while on the road to what was in the canteen, though that might be lukewarm, instead of going out of ranks at a spring or well – the canteen's contents were just as wet – and one was not tempted to drink too much when overheated, and most important of all, he did not have to overfatigue himself in trying to catch up with his command in a road full of other troops, who had “troubles of their own” and were by no means disposed to get out of the way.

The soldier could find water in a perfectly unfamiliar country just by the lay of the land, and by a kind of prescience almost amounting to instinct, and, at a glance, could estimate the merits or demerits of a camp-site, at the end of a day's march. Also, we had grown weather-wise in forecasting the final events to which all the preliminaries tended, from indications whose significance the experience of service enabled us to read with a fair approach to certainty, however these might vary, as they did, with the outward conditions – accidents of locality, the immediate object in view, and the like.

Many of the early engagements, from the point of view of the man in the ranks and the officers of the lower grades, seemed quite impromptu. Of one of the most stupendous of these – that of Gettysburg – a Confederate officer of high grade has said, “We accidentally stumbled into this fight.”

It seemed so to the writer, then serving in Heth's division of the Third Army Corps, and which opened the engagement on the morning of July 1, 1863. Usually we knew there must be trouble ahead, but not always how imminent it might be. The column would be marching as it had been doing for perhaps some days preceding, the fatigue, heat, dust, and general discomfort being far more insistent upon the thought of the men than any consideration of its military objective. Perhaps the pace may have been rather more hurried than usual for some miles, and a halt, for any reason, was most welcome to the footsore troops, who promptly proceeded to profit by every minute of it – lying down on the dusty grass by the roadside, easing knapsack straps and belts, and perhaps snatching the opportunity for a short smoke (for which there had been no breath to spare previously) or for a moistening of parched throats from the canteen.

This might be of longer or shorter duration, often it was aggravatingly cut up into a series of advances or stops, more fatiguing than the regular marching swing. Getting up and down is rather tiresome when one is carrying the regular campaigning kit of a soldier and when muscles have been taxed until there is no spring left in them – quite another affair from the same process when fresh and unencumbered. It is then that the voice of a man with a “grouch” is heard in the land. There is sure to be one in every company, and his incessant jeremiads by no means tend to alleviate the discomforts of his fellows, and so receive small sympathy from them.

A mounted orderly comes riding back, picking his way through the recumbent ranks, and pretending indifference to the rough chaffing prescribed by custom in the infantry as the appropriate greeting for the man on horseback – good-natured on the whole, even if a little tinged with envy – or some general officer with his staff is seen going forward at a brisk trot through the fields bordering the road, or maybe a battery of guns directing its course toward some eminence. It becomes apparent that the check ahead is not due to such ordinary causes as a stalled wagon or caisson or to the delay occasioned by some stream to be forded; the objective aspect of the situation begins to assert itself; the thought of present personal discomfort gives place to that of prospective peril, and a certain nervous tension pervades the ranks.

Soldiers are but human, and the veterans who have been in battle before know what is implied in the work ahead and that some – and it may be one as well as another – will probably not answer at next roll-call. The “eagerness for the fray” of which we read so often, rarely survives the first battle; in all that follows, it is conspicuously absent, however the men may have gained in steadiness and have acquired self-possession under fire.

The troops in front are moving now, filing off to right or left, to take their allotted position in the line, or possibly beginning a flank movement; there may be no fight to-day after all – these things have happened before, without anything serious coming of it. The hostile force may be only a small one and we daresay will not give battle, but retire on its main body. For, in the field we live merely from day to day anyhow and “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” We are not in the confidence of the powers that be and know nothing of their machinations, however intimately these may concern our fortunes. We only know that we have “no orders” as yet.

This condition of affairs may continue for hours or for minutes. Meanwhile, the best thing to do is to make ourselves as comfortable as possible – the philosophy of the seasoned soldier, in all circumstances – and take the chance of being permitted to remain so, and we shall be all the better prepared for the work if it does come. But, hello! look yonder! the battery-men, who have been lounging about, are standing to their pieces now, and immediately become busy executing mysterious movements about the same, in the methodical fashion distinctive of their arm. Those about the nearest gun suddenly break away to right and left. A dense white stream of smoke leaps from the muzzle, and the crashing report strikes our ears a few seconds later, as the gunners step forward again, lay hold of handspike and spokes, and run the gun back into position. Another shot and another, and yet another, and the smoke thickens and we discern only vaguely the movements at the cannon – but the war-music has begun and we know the battle has opened.

From somewhere in front comes another and fainter report, and possibly in mid-air above our battery a round cloud jumps into view, snowy white against the blue sky; another remote, jarring growl, followed by a fluttering sound but too familiar to our ears and growing louder each moment, and a spurt of earth is projected into the air not far from the road we occupy. One finds the foe does not propose that the argument shall be all on one side and is rising “to a point of information.”

Evidently it is this road which is the object of their curiosity; just now we also are interested, but in the sense of wishing we were somewhere else before their aim shall have become more accurate – with practice – we don't like the talk to be too one-sided either, and they are beyond the range of our ordnance, while the ground in front which conceals from view what is beyond affords slight protection. Ah! there is a staff-officer talking in an animated tone to the brigade commander, motioning with his hand, while the other closely studies a folding map which has just been handed to him and which he presently returns, nodding the while to signify that he understands what he is expected to do. “Attention!” – but we are already on our feet in advance of the order, and most willingly leave the road, now growing momentarily more insalubrious, following the head of the column through fields of stubble or fallow or standing corn, the blades of which cut and the pollen irritates the moist skin. Or it may be through dense woodland, where nothing is visible a few yards distant, in which furious fighting may occur and many men fall with the opposing lines in close contact, yet entirely concealed from each other, the position of either being only conjectured by the smoke and the direction of the firing, as the bullets from the opposite side come rapping against the tree trunks and cutting twigs and leaves overhead.

Before this stage is reached, however, there may be numerous changes of direction, countermarching and the like to attain the position; long lines of battle require a good deal of space for their deployment, and in the woods, especially, it is not easy to determine in advance just how much ground any command will occupy. In each case, however, at some stage, the troops are in line, and we may suppose them there, awaiting the attack or about to deliver it, as may be.

It is perhaps the most ominous moment of all when the command is heard, “Load at will – load!” followed by the ringing of rammers in the barrels and the clicking of gun-locks – neither of which sounds, with the arms of to-day, has any significance, but it was otherwise when we loaded “in nine times,” as the manual prescribed. The modern soldier fails utterly to grasp the meaning of biting cartridges; a cartridge to him is essentially a brass shell with the fulminate enclosed in its base, requiring only to be taken from his belt and put in the chamber of his rifle – nowadays, indeed, they go in in “clips” of five. But we veterans managed to fight through the big war with the old muzzle-loaders, and they seem to have done some execution, too. It has “a strange, quick jar upon the ear,” the dry metallic snapping running along the line when it came to “prime,” and each man realized that when next heard it will be with no uncertain sound and closely followed by the command, “Fire!”

Once engaged, the soldier's attention is too much taken up with delivering his fire effectively to give heed to much else – it is hard work and hot work, in the literal, no less than in the figurative, sense, and extremely dirty work withal. The lips become caked with powder-grime from biting the twist of cartridges, and after one or two rounds the hands are blackened and smeared from handling the rammer; the sweat streams down and has to be cleared from the eyes in order to see the sights of the rifle, and the grime is transferred from hands to face.

Think you of a gang of coal-heavers who have just finished putting in a winter's supply ordered by some provident householder in midsummer, and you get a fair impression of troops at the end of a day's fighting. The line soon loses all semblance of regular formation; the companies have become merely groups of men, loading and firing and taking advantage of any accident of ground-natural depression, tree, rock, or even a pile of fence rails that will give protection. But if the soldier is about where he belongs – to right or left of the regimental colors, according to the normal place of his company in line – he feels reasonably sure of resuming formation whenever the command may come to “cease firing” and to “dress on colors” preparatory to an advance or a charge. If the latter, though the move next may begin in perfect order, it is almost immediately lost.

The charge delivered by our brigade at Frayser's Farm – to which allusion has been made earlier in this chapter was, as seen by a Federal general who was captured there, “in V-shape, without order and in perfect recklessness.” This formation was in no wise intentional, the apex of the V in question being simply the brigade commander, General Field, who personally conducted the attack upon the battery and the slope of the sides, as the individual prowess of his followers might determine.

Even more characteristic of a Confederate infantry onset was the description of an officer of high rank on that side, “A tumultuous rush of men, each aligning on himself, and yelling like a demon, on his own hook.” The “yell” which has become historical, was merely another expression of the individuality of the Southern soldier, though as its moral force came to be recognized, it was rather fostered officially, and grew into an institution – it was the peculiar slogan of the Gray people. A gallant, accomplished staff-officer of General Meade's household, in a recent work on the battle of the Wilderness, pays the thrilling yell this tribute, “I never heard that yell that the country in the rear did not become intensely interesting!” And more than one Federal soldier has borne similar testimony.

This allusion recalls to mind a visit of two days' duration, made to that historic field in the summer of 1910, after an interval of forty-six years, which served to illustrate forcibly what has already been recorded in these recollections as to the absence of distinction in the features of a battle-ground per se. When last seen the blighting breath of war had but lately passed over those dense and tangled woodlands and the signs of strife, deadly and determined, were manifest everywhere. The forest trees were pitted and scored and backed and gnawed by the galling fire of musketry, in some instances, entirely felled from this cause alone, for the country afforded but little scope for the employment of artillery by either side, The underbrush, withered and reddened by the summer's sun, lay at all angles as the bullets had cut it down, as if some one had gone over the ground with a machete and given each little bush or sapling a stroke. In all directions, one came upon the rude breastworks hastily thrown up, of earth, logs, rails – anything that might serve to stop a bullet. They had failed to stop a good many, and all the failures were not recorded upon the natural growth.

In this sparsely settled region, but lately so populous, the dead occupants still outnumbered the living. The woods bordering the Orange plank road were thickly strewn with the mouldering bodies of Hancock's men who had furiously assailed Hill and Longstreet on that line. Here gallant old Webb, for whom “taps” have sounded, led his staunch brigade against Gregg's Texans and Law's Alabamans, almost up to the works, and the trefoil badges – the “clover-leaves” on the cap-fronts of the fallen covered the ground on the edge of the Widow Tapp's field where Lee attempted to lead the Texans' charge, and the men refused to go forward until he consented to go back. Cattle were quietly browsing the herbage in a little grass glade at this point, their pasture the aftermath of the grim harvest reaped there on that May morning long ago.

Today scarcely a trace remains of all that. In the intervening years beneficent Nature has been silently but unremittingly at work effacing the marks of man's devastation of her domain. The bark has closed over the bullet-scars on the trees, so that diligent search is required to detect them now; a new growth has sprung up to replace that leveled by the musketry; goodly trees, even, are standing upon the diminished earthworks. The others have long since rotted into mold. The traveler might easily pass along that quaint road, so hotly contested, with never a suspicion of what befell there – “grim visaged war has smoothed his wrinkled front,” indeed.

The war is definitely over. In its time it ravaged our fair land almost beyond recognition, put our young manhood to the uttermost proof, and left in its track many deeper and more poignant wounds than those in the Wilderness woods, but it ended at last. And time has been closing over the scars ever since and new growth springing into life all the while. Who was right; who was wrong? – the God above us “who doth all things aright” alone knows surely.