- Jul 23, 2017
- Southwest Missouri
On August 29, 1861, as men, young and old, scrambled to serve in Missouri, those who had not seen combat at Wilson's Creek, shared the same question as we do today - what was it like to be in a battle? The Randolph (Missouri) Citizen tried to answer this question by quoting from the book "Henry Howe’s Adventures and Achievements of Americans" with an eyewitness account of the Battle of Palo Alto. Many of its readers would learn for themselves the very next month, in a battle in nearby Lexington, Missouri, just 90 miles to the west.
When all was ready, both armies stood still for about twenty minutes, each waiting for the other to begin the work of death, and during this time, I did not see a single man of the enemy move; they stood like statues.
We remained quiet with two exceptions; General Taylor, followed by his staff, rode from left to right at a slow pace, with his right leg thrown over like a woman, and as he passed each regiment, he spoke words of encouragement. I know not what he said to the others, but when he came up to where we stood, he looked steadily at us; I suppose, to see what effect the circumstances in which we were placed had upon us, and, as he gazed, he said: "The bayonet, my hardy cocks! the bayonet is the thing!”
The other occasion was that of Lieutenant Blake, of the Engineers, who volunteered to gallop along the enemy's line, in front of both armies, and count their guns ; and so close did he go, that he might have been shot a hundred times. One of the officers of the enemy, doubtless thinking he had some communication to make, rode out to meet him; Blake, however, paid no attention to him, but rode on, and then returned and reported to Taylor.
Thus stood those two belligerent armies, face to face. What were the feelings of those thousands! How many thoughts and fears were crowded into those few moments! Look at our men! a clammy sweat is settled all over faces slightly pale, not from cowardly fear, but from an awful sense of peril combined with a determination not to flinch from duty. These are the moments in which true soldiers resign themselves to their fate, and console themselves with the reflection that whatever may befall them they will act with honor; these are the moments when the absolute coward suffers more than death—when, if not certain he would be shot in his tracks, he would turn and flee. Fighting is very hard work; the man who has passed through a two hours' fight, has lived through a great amount of mental and physical labor. At the end of a battle I always found that I had perspired so profusely as to wet through all my thick woolen clothing, and when I had got cool, I was as sore as if I had been beaten all over with a club.
When the battle commences, the feelings undergo a change. Reader, did you ever see your house on fire? if so, it was then you rushed into great danger; it was then you went over places, climbed up walls, lifted heavy loads, which you never could have done in your cooler moments; you then have experienced some of the excitement of a soldier in battle. I always knew my danger—that at any moment I was liable to be killed, yet such was my excitement that I never fully realized it. All men 'are not alike; some are cool; some are perfectly wild or crazy; others are so prostrated by fear that they are completely unnerved—an awful sinking and relaxation of all their energies takes place, pitiable to behold; they tremble like an aspen, slink into ditches and covert places, cry like children, and are totally insensible to shame—dead to every emotion bat the overwhelming fear of instant death. We had a few, and but a few, of such in our army.
As the two armies were facing each other, it was remarkable to see the coolness of our men ; there they stood, chewing bits of biscuit, and talking about the Mexicans—some wondering if they would fight ; others allowing that they would, and like demons,;- etc. I kept my eye on the artillery of the enemy, and happened to be looking toward their right-wing, when suddenly a white curl of smoke sprang up there from one of their guns, and then I saw the dust fly some distance in front where the ball struck. Instantly another, and then another rich curl of smoke arose, succeeded by a booming sound, and the shot came crashing toward us. The enemy fired very rapidly, and their balls knocked the dust about us in all directions— some went over our heads, others struck the ground in front and bounded away.
Our batteries now went to work, and poured in upon them a perfect storm, of iron; Lieutenant Churchill and his men began with his eighteen-pounders, and when the first was fired, it made such a loud report that our men gave a spontaneous shout, which seemed to inspire us with renewed confidence. I could hear every word the lieutenant said to his men. When the first shot was fired, lie watched the ball, saying, " Too high, men ; try an other !"—"too low, men ; try again—the third time is the charm !" The third shot was fired, and I saw with my own eyes the dreadful effect of that and the following shots. "That 's it, my boys!" shouted Churchill, jumping up about two feet; "you have them now! keep her at that!" and so they did, and every shot tore complete lanes right through the enemy's lines; but they stood it manfully. The full chorus of battle now raged; twenty-three pieces of artillery belched forth their iron hail.
We were ordered to lie down in the grass to avoid the shot; this puzzled the enemy, and they could not bring their guns to bear upon us, making our loss very small. While in this position, a six-pound ball grazed the head of Wickes, of G company, who yelled "I'm killed!" Many were the narrow escapes: one ball came within six inches of my left side. The force of the shot was tremendous; a horse's body was no obstacle at all; a man's leg was a mere pipe-stem. I watched the shot as it struck the roots of the grass, and it was astonishing how the dust flew. In about an hour, the grass caught on fire, and the clouds of smoke shut out the opposing armies from view. We had not as yet lost a man from our regiment. In the obscurity, the enemy changed their line, and the eighteen-pounders, supported by our regiment, took a new position on a little rise of ground.
As we moved on to the spot, a six-pound shot carried away the lower jaw of Captain Page, and then took off a man's head on the right, as clean as if with a knife. The blood of poor Page was the first blood I saw; he was knocked down in the grass, and as he endeavored to raise himself, he presented such a ghastly spectacle that a sickly, fainting sensation came over me, and the memory of that sight I shall carry with me to my dying day.
Corporal Howard was literally covered all over his back with the blood and brains of private Lee's head, and Lieutenant Wallen, who was near Page, had a tooth either out of the head of Page or of Lee, driven clear through the back of his coat so that it pierced the skin; he thought he was shot.
A little later, Major Ringgold was mortally wounded, at his battery; I saw him just after it. The shot had torn away a portion of the flesh of his thighs; its force was tremendous, cutting off both his pistols at the locks, and also the withers of his horse—a splendid steed which was killed to relieve him of his misery. The enemy tried hard, but without avail, to hit our eighteen-pounders. The battle continued until night put an end to the scene. We bivouacked where we were, and laid on our arms ; we slept, however, but little, thinking that we might be attacked in our sleep.