In the Field What's it like under fire?

Peace Society

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January 17, 1863



The time between the bursting of a shell in front of you & the striking of the fragments on the ground, short as it is, gives rise to the most peculiar feeling I have yet experienced. To get the full benefit you should be standing or lying perfectly idle on the ground in the direction from which the shell is to come. First the sound of the gun, instantly followed by a noise between a whiz & a yell, then say 20 rods [330 ft.] in front and 100 feet in the air, there is the prettiest globe of dense, white smoke the size of a small haycock, eddying & unfolding in all manner of graceful shapes.

This is all you see but you know that from 10 to 200 musket balls and ragged pieces of iron will strike within the next two seconds on the acre of ground on which you stand. You hear the explosion, not so loud as the cannon but a round compact noise, then come the fragments each one according to its shape singing a different note, varying from a sharp whiz to a low, heavy bass. The senses are so wonderfully acute that you seem to hear each one distinctly. There is no use of dodging or moving about. But where will they all strike? Will that little bullet with the shrill, piping voice pierce your body? Will that triangular chap which screams so tear out your bowels with one of his sharp points? Will that big fellow which makes that low, rushing sound be satisfied with an arm or a leg or will he take your head? Will they skip you & take someone else? Perhaps they will go too high - no - too low - no. It is soon decided - thump, rattle, bang, smash, dirt & splinters fly on every side. You are safe but looking around you see from one to a dozen poor fellows rolling headless, or writhing in agony on the ground.

One could not write in all day the thoughts which pass through his mind in those two seconds. One does not need a better opportunity to test his religion. Misdeeds are sure to find their way to the surface. These two seconds explain his spiritual condition better than all the sermons ever preached. If he is afraid to die he knows it & he knows the reason with a certainty which admits of no doubt. Those two seconds may be worth more to a man than all his previous life. If one has done his duty toward himself and he has kept within the limits of his code of morals he will be very thankful. If he has not he will be more careful afterwards how he walks.

While this is passing through your brain you still see and hear all that is going on around you & have the most perfect presence of mind. Perhaps 10 seconds after you are laughing to see a comrade scratching the dust out of his eyes. What would I give if such activity of the mind & such clearness of perception could be continued & I had the power to express my thoughts in language. If you are in motion at the time or busied about anything you will feel nothing like this. It comes & goes instantly.







Journal entry, Charles B. Haydon, 2 MI infantry, 9th​ corps, Army of the Potomac



For Country, Cause & Leader:

The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Haydon


Ed. Stephen W. Sears

Ticknor & Fields, NY, 1993

p. 306-307



I made an effort to get hold of the printer/editor for permission to post. The publishing company is no longer in operation. It has been more than a year since I wrote for permission to the address in the book, hoping someone was still able to forward, or would at least have the editor still on file.
 

Peace Society

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Location
Ark Mo line
…the rebels began to shell the place where the pontoon bridge was being built, and I went hunting for a place to borrow an umbrella to hold over me, to ward off the pieces of shell. Then a battery of our own opened on the rebels, so near me that every time a gun was discharged I could feel the roof of my head raise up like the cover to a band box. It was the wildest time I ever saw. Cavalry was swimming the river to charge the rebel battery, shells were exploding all around, and it seemed to me as though if I was to lay a pontoon bridge I would go off somewhere out of the way, where it would be quiet. Finally my regiment was ordered to swim the river, and we rode in. The first lunge my horse made he went under water about a mile, and when we came up I was not on him, but catching hold of his tail I was dragged across the river nearly drowned, and landed on the bank like a dog that has been after a duck. I shook myself, we mounted and without waiting to dry out our clothes we went into the fight, before I could realize it, or back out. Scared! I was so scared it is a wonder I did not die. That was more excitement than a county fair. Bullets whizzing, shells shrieking, smoke stifling, yelling that was deafening. It seemed as though I was crazy. I must have been or I could never, as a raw recruit, with no experience, have ridden right toward those guns that were belching forth sulphur and pieces of blacksmith shop. I didn’t dare look anywhere except right ahead. All thought of being hit by bullets or anything was completely out of my mind. Occasionally something would go over me that sounded as though a buzz saw had been fired from a sawmill explosion. Presently the firing on the rebel side ceased, and it was seen they were in retreat. I was never so glad of anything in my life. We stopped, and I examined my clothes, and they were perfectly dry. The excitement and warmth of the body had acted like a drying room in a laundry. Then I laid down under a fence and went to sleep, and dreamed I was in hades, building a corduroy bridge across the Styx...



How Private Geo. W. Peck Put Down the Rebellion: or the Funny Experiences of a Raw Recruit

George W. Peck, 1890, p. 150-152

4th​ WI Inf/Cav [Peck enlisted Dec. 1863 and mustered out May 1866. The 4th​ WI operated in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, though Peck talks as if he is in Alabama most of his time.]
 

Pat Answer

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“...somewhere between NY and PA”
You simply must have respect for these men.

"The people had heart, and you just don't realize it until you get out on the field and actually participate, wheel one of these guns around, then figure they had to load and unload these things by hand, put 'em over stone walls, over fences, and... then after you shoot one and have actually shot one live you can imagine the people walking into 'em and not running... just walking into a gun knowing what it's going to do to you..."
-- Artillery re-enactor, YouTube: "Gettysburg (1993) Making Of 2", 7:47 mark
 

Peace Society

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Location
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The practice of the rebel artillerymen was something wonderful in its accuracy; they dropped shot and shell right into our line repeatedly. They kept the air fairly filled with missiles of almost every variety, from shrapnel to railroad iron. The shrapnel or canister was very much in evidence. I saw one of our men in hospital afterward who had nine gunshot wounds in his right arm. I watched solid shot - round shot - strike with what sounded like an innocent thud in front of the guns, and, bounding over battery and park, fly through the tree tops, cutting some of them off so suddenly that it seemed to me they lingered for an instant undecided which way to fall. These round shot did not appear to be in a hurry, they came along slowly and deliberately, apparently, and there appeared no harm in them until they hit something. I was lying on my back, supported on my elbows, watching the shells explode overhead, and speculating as to how long I could hold up a finger before it would be shot off, for the very air seemed full of bullets….


Lt. Matthew J. Graham

9th​ NYI, Fairchild’s Brigade


Quoted in Voices of the Civil War: Antietam, Time-Life Books, 1996, p. 127
 
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Peace Society

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Ark Mo line
Letter home:
HQ Army of Potomac
Between the Rappahannock and Rapidan
Sept. 16, 1863

Presently I saw a puff of smoke, on a ridge in front of us, and then hm-m-why-z-z-z, bang! went the shell, right by General Buford's Staff, taking the leg off a poor orderly. Much pleased with their good shot, they proceeded to give our Staff [Meade's] a taste; and missiles of various kinds (but all disagreeable) began to skip and buzz round us. It was to me extraordinary to see the precision with which they fired. All the shot flew near us, and, while I had gone forward to the crest of the ridge to get a better view, a shell exploded directly in the midst of the Staff, wounding an orderly and very neatly shaving a patch of hair off the horse of Captain Hutchins. However, two could play at that game, and Captain Graham soon made the obnoxious guns limber up and depart to the next ridge, where they would again open and stay as long as they could.


Same letter:

It was a fine sight to see the column splashing along the wood road, lying between fine oak trees; but the fine sight was presently interrupted by a shell, which exploded about 100 yards ahead of me and right among the horses' legs, without touching me! The General [Meade] rode into the open field to reconnoiter the position, and I with him, because he wanted my glass; but Mr. Secesh has a sharp eye for gold cords round hats, and, in a minute, wh-n-n-g, flup! wh-z-z-z! a solid shot struck just in front of us, and bounced over our heads. The General ordered us to disperse about the field, so as not to make a mark; but, as I rode off, they sent a shell so near me that a facetious officer called out: "I guess they think you're somebody pretty distinguished, Kun'l." However, there may be a good deal of cannon shooting, without many hits; in proof of which I will say that we had a brisk fire of artillery from 10.30 to 2.30, together with a sharp spattering of rifles and carbines, and that our loss was five killed and fifteen wounded! [approx. 1 killed and 4 wounded per hour] Shells do not sound so badly as I expected; nor did I feel as I expected on the occasion. There is a certain sense of discipline and necessity that bears you up; and the only shell I "ducked" was the first one.


Colonel Theodore Lyman
Meade's Headquarters 1863-1865
Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1922
 

Peace Society

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Letter home:
HQ Army of Potomac
Feb. 7, 1864

… the two Generals [Warren and Humphreys] went some 150 yards to Morton's house on the crest of the ridge, where they no sooner got than a sharpshooter fired at them and the ball flew harmless over our heads, though it came close to General Warren. But hang it all! We had not been there five minutes when that infernal old sound came, whing-z-z-z-z, and over went a spherical case! "Fall in, fall in!" shouted the colonels, and the men took their arms. Whing-z-z! Bang! came another, right into the infantry, killing a poor man. "Steady! Steady!" roared the colonels. Whing-z-z-z-z! Bang! and one of the pieces struck close to me, while one of the bullets struck the scabbard of the orderly next me, who coolly picked up the missile. We were a little sheltered by the road, but, I don't care who knows it, I did duck when that spherical case came over.


Colonel Theodore Lyman
Meade's Headquarters 1863-1865
Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1922
 

Peace Society

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Letter home:
HQ Army of Potomac
June 4, 1864

Let me see, I left the party sitting, as it appeared to me, an unnecessarily long time at Baldy Smith's. I say "unnecessarily," first, because it was several hours, and General Meade had nothing to discuss of any moment; and, secondly, because a round-shot would, every now and then, crash through the neighboring trees, or go hoppity-hop along the open field on the edge of which the tents were. You ought to see them skip! It would be odd, if it were not so dangerous. When they have gone some distance and are going slower, you can see them very plainly, provided you are in front of, or behind them. They pass with a great whish, hit the ground, make a great hop, and so go skip, skip, skip, till they get exhausted, and then tumble - flouf - raising a puff of sand. That is the reason round-shot are more dangerous than conical, which strike perhaps once, vault into the air with a noise like a catherine's wheel, topple over and over, and drop without further trouble.


Colonel Theodore Lyman
Meade's Headquarters 1863-1865
Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1922
 

Peace Society

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Letter to Auntie, July 21, 1863
Camp 118th​ P.V.
Near Upperville, Va.

July 3, 1863
About 1 o'clock, there suddenly burst forth the deafening crash of what appeared to me to be the whole of the enemy's artillery. I went to my post [on Big Round Top] to see what was the occasion of this sudden concentration of the enemy fire that was making the ground rock as in the throes of an earthquake. The air was soon filled with a hissing, bursting torrent, while the men crouched low along the line. Standing on a rock I could see the smoke rising up along the whole of the enemy's position, and supposed they were about to try and beat us out by the weight of their artillery. The sun shone gloriously, making objects quite distinct in the distance, and I could see puffs of smoke from our own guns which were now replying. Retiring to the rear of our line, I sought shelter from the screaming and exploding shells, but could find none, so was compelled, along with many others, to sit still and endure this trial of the nerves for at least two hours. There was scarcely a second that we were free from shot or shell, and I never remembered to have seen so many solid shot thrown before. The missiles were sent one after the other so rapidly that a constant, prolonged and connected whizzing was maintained. Shells were exploded in front, now in the rear of us and frequently over our heads, solid shot came rushing madly, crashing and tearing among the trees, while the air was filled with fragments and the suspense was horrible to endure. During this time Capt. O'Neill and myself were sitting together on a piece of shelter tent which protected us from the damp ground. We had very little to say to one another and were very close together for protection, as it were. A shell bursting rather nearer than usual over our heads caused us to huddle still closer, while our very hearts ceased to beat as we listened to the singing of a fragment that seemed to be coming rapidly towards us. With one look we read in each others faces the alarm both felt, and saw the impossibility of avoiding the terrible death dealing missile. As we sat motionless - breathless, - it dashed furiously between my knees, and with a thud and splash of dirt, buried itself deep into the ground. I dug up the ragged piece of metal, felt its sharp edges and put it into my haversack as a memento of the narrow escape I had made.
After enduring the fire of the rebels for at least two hours there was again a lull in the storm of battle, the artillery gradually slackened and finally ceased altogether. …


Captain Francis A. Donaldson, 118 PA, Co. H

Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson
Edited by J. Gregory Acken
Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1998
p. 308-309
posted with permission
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
In a letter I found online, a CW soldier wrote home to his family that he was nervous as to how he was going to act when under fire, but after several engagements, he discovered that once the firing started he found his focus would be "one of the popular tunes" making the rounds in camp. While loading and firing, he would grind his teeth in time to the music running through his head, and afterward, although he had seen men fall and be blown to bits, the whole experience had an unreal quality to it, as if it had all been a dream.
 

Peace Society

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In a letter I found online, a CW soldier wrote home to his family that he was nervous as to how he was going to act when under fire, but after several engagements, he discovered that once the firing started he found his focus would be "one of the popular tunes" making the rounds in camp. While loading and firing, he would grind his teeth in time to the music running through his head, and afterward, although he had seen men fall and be blown to bits, the whole experience had an unreal quality to it, as if it had all been a dream.
That is really interesting!
 

Peace Society

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Ark Mo line
I can only imagine what the various coping mechanisms were... again, hat is off to combat veterans here and everywhere!

"We were a little sheltered by the road, but, I don't care who knows it, I did duck when that spherical case came over."

(Col Lyman, sir, you owe no one an explanation!)
Evidently, he felt he did, because everyone around him is apparently stoic thru it all. Some generals would admonish their men - no need to flinch. I remember a couple of instances where they said that and then did it themselves.
 

Peace Society

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1 TN, Co. H
Chickamauga 1863

This same brave chaplain rode along with our brigade, on an old string-haltered horse, as we advanced to the attack at Chickamauga, exhorting the boys to be brave, to aim low, and to kill the Yankees as if they were wild beasts. He was eloquent and patriotic. He stated that if he only had a gun he too would go along as a private soldier. You could hear his voice echo and re-echo over the hills. He had worked up his patriotism to a pitch when fliff, fluff, fluff, fluff, FLUFF, FLUFF - a whir, a BOOM! and a shell screams through the air. The reverend LL. D. stops to listen, like an old sow when she hears the wind, and says, "Remember, boys, that he who is killed will sup tonight in Paradise." Some soldier hallowed at the top of his voice, "Well, parson, you come along and take supper with us." Boom! whir! a bomb burst, and the parson at that moment put spurs to his horse and was seen to limber to the rear, and almost every soldier yelled out, "The parson isn't hungry, and never eats supper." I remember this incident, and so does every member of the First Tennessee Regiment.


1861 vs. 1882: "Co. Aytch," Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regiment
Samuel R Watkins, 1882

"Co. Aytch": A Side Show of the Big Show; Macmillan Publ. Co., 1962
Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War; Simon & Shuster; 1990
 

Peace Society

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Jun 25, 2019
Location
Ark Mo line
1 TN, Co. H
Zion Church, Ga.
July 4, 1864

It seemed that both Confederate and Federal armies were celebrating the Fourth of July. I cannot now remember a more severe artillery duel. Two hundred cannon were roaring and belching like blue blazes. … Sometimes a ball passing over would seem to be mad, then again some would seem to be laughing, some would be mild, some sad, some gay, some sorrowful, some rollicking and jolly; and then again some would scream like the ghosts of the dead. In fact, they gave forth every kind of sound that you could imagine.

1861 vs. 1882: "Co. Aytch," Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regiment
Samuel R Watkins, 1882

"Co. Aytch": A Side Show of the Big Show; Macmillan Publ. Co., 1962
Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War; Simon & Shuster; 1990
 
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