Before the Wall
By John Ames, Brevet Brigadier-General, USV
On Saturday, December 13th, our brigade had been held in reserve, but late in the day we were hurried to the battle only to see a field full of flying men and the sun low in the west shining red through columns of smoke, - six deserted field-pieces on a slight rise of ground in front of us, and a cheering column of troops in regular march disappearing on our left. lout the day was then over and the battle lost, and our line felt hardly bullets enough to draw blood before darkness put an end to the uproar of all hostile sounds, save desultory shell-firing. For an hour or two afterward shells from Marye's Heights traced bright lines across the black sky with their burning fuses. Then, by command, we sank down in our lines, to get what sleep the soggy ground and the danger might allow us. Experience had taught us that when the silent line of fire from the shells had flashed across the sky and disappeared behind us the scream and explosion that followed were harmless, but still it required some effort to overcome the discomfort of the damp ground, and the flash and report of bursting shells, and to drop quietly asleep at an order. We finally slept, but we were roused before mid-night, and formed into line with whispered commands, and then filed to the right, and, reaching the highway, marched away from the town. There were many dead horses at exposed points of our turning and many more dead men. Here stood a low brick house, with an open door ill its gable end, from which shone a light, and into which we peered when passing. Inside sat a woman, gaunt and hard-featured, with crazy hair and a Meg Merrilies face, still sitting by a smoking candle, though it was nearly two hours past midnight. lout what woman could sleep, though never so masculine and tough of fiber, alone ill a house between two hostile armies, - two corpses lying across her door-steps, and within, almost at her feet, four more! Se, with wild eyes and face lighted by her smoky can-die, she stared across the dead barrier into the darkness outside with the look of one who heard and saw not and to whom all sounds were a terror.
We formed in two lines-the right of each resting near and in front of this small brick house, and the left extending into the field at right angles with the highway. Here we again bivouacked, finding room for our beds with no little difficulty, because of the shattered forms of those who were here taking their last long sleep. We rose early. The heavy fog was penetrating and chilly, and the damp turf was no warm mattress to tempt us to a morning nap. So we shook off sloth from our moistened bodies willingly, and rolling up the gray blankets set about breakfast. The bivouac breakfast is a nearer approach to its civilized congener than the bivouac bed. Coffee can be made hot and good in blackened this; pork can he properly frizzled only on a stick over an open tire; hard-tack is a better, sweeter morsel than the average American housewife has yet achieved with her saleratus, sour-milk, ''empt'ins," and what not and a pipe! who can estimate what that little implement has done for mankind? Certainly none hotter than those who have sought its solace after the bivouac breakfast that succeeds a bivouac bed, in December.
We now began to take note, through tire misty veil, of the wreck of men and horses cumbering the ground about us, and a slight lifting of the gray fog showed us the story of yesterday's repeated assaults and repeated failures. When our pipes were exhausted we got rip to inspect arid criticize the situation. Just here was the wreck of a fence, which seemed to have been the high-tide mark of our advance-wave of battle. The fence was a harrier which, slight as it was, had turned back the already wavering and mutilated lines of assault. Almost an army lay about us and scattered back over the plain toward the town. Not only corpses but many of the badly wounded, hardly distinguishable from the dead, were here tee. To die, groveling on the ground or fallen ill the mire, is dreadful indeed. The pallid faces, and tire clammy hands clenching their muskets, looked ghastly by the fog-light. The new, bright, blue overcoats only made the sight the ghastlier.
About eighty yards in front the plowed field was bounded by a stone-wall, and behind the wall were men in gray uniforms moving carelessly about. This picture is one of my most distinct memories of the war - the men in gray behind this wall, talking, laughing, cooking, cleaning muskets, clicking locks, - there they were! -Lee's soldiers! - tile Army of Northern Virginia! We were so absurdly near this host of yesterday's vie-tars that we seemed wholly in their hands and a part of their great mass; cut off and remote from the Federal army and almost within the lines of the enemy - prisoners, of course. That was the immediate impression, as we stupidly gazed in the first moment of the awkward discovery.
But the sharp whistle of a bullet sounded in our ears, and a rebel's face peered through the puff of smoke, as he removed tire rifle from his shoulder; then rapidly half-a-dozen more bullets whistled by us, and the warning sent us all to earth. The order to lie down is theoretically infrequent, but practically it is often given in modern warfare.
Napoleon's maxim that an army travels on its belly" was metaphorical, but long-range and repeating rifles have gone far to make it true in a literal sense. Over double lines of battle sought the shelter of tire ground as soon as blood was drawn. This had the effect of hiding us from the enemy, or partially so, for the fusillade slackened.
it was irksome to keep ones position, even at frill length, but the watch over us was very vigilance; hardly a movement was made at any part of our line that did not draw fire from the wall. Necessity compelled us, however, to keep up something of a lookout upon the enemy at any risk. A cautions inspection showed great carelessness in their lines, the men still strolling around lounging - a group at cards, even, evidently ignorant or careless of our proximity.
What to do about it was a topic second only in interest to the probable action of the enemy. Could we long lie thus without waking up the big guns, whose black muzzles looked down at us from the hill-tops on our right. And if not, what then S From these gulls there would be 110 possible shelter. Retreat alone was more dangerous than to remain as we were, or even to advance. The field behind us stretched away toward the town, level and exposed-the focus of an arc of battery-crowned hills, with no inequality of ground to protect us from a convergence of fire that would be singularly effective.
The situation had already forced upon us a policy of masterly inactivity. which alone seemed to meet our immediate difficulties. So we drifted into a common understanding that no doubt an abler council of war would have approved. Shots might rouse the enemy from his carelessness or ignorance; certainly a volley from our line would not go unanswered, and the odds were great. Let them stick to their cards and forget us if they would! lout we arrived at this policy only as the least of many evils.
The enemy riddled every moving tiring in sight: horses tied tithe wheels of a broken gull-carriage behind it; pigs that incautiously came grunting from across the road; even chickens were brought down with an accuracy of aim that told of a fatally short range, and of a trotter practice than it would have been wise for our numbers to face. They applauded their own success with a hilarity we could hardly share in, as their chicken shooting was across our backs, leaving us no extra room for turning. lout this was mere wantonness of slaughter, not indulged in when the higher game in blue uniform was in sight. The men who had left our ranks for water, or for any cause, before we were pinned to the earth, came back at great peril. Indeed, I believe not one of them reached our lines again unhurt. Some were killed outright; others were mortally wounded, arid died within a few steps of us; and several who tried to drag themselves away fiat upon their faces were put out of their misery. This, too, showed us plainly what we might expect, and fixed our bounds to such segments of the field as were hidden from the enemy. This was not alike throughout the line. At one point the exposure was absolute, and stillness as absolute was the only safety. A slight barrier was afterward formed at this point by a disposal of the dead bodies in front, so that the dead actually sheltered the living.
After two or three hours of this experience we became somewhat accustomed to the situation, -for man becomes accustomed to almost anything that savors of routine, -and learned with considerable exactness the limit inside which we might move with safety, and the limit also of endurable constraint. it was somewhat curious to see how strong the tobacco hunger was with many, - perhaps with most. Men would jump to their feet and run the length of a regiment to borrow tobacco, and in so doing run the gauntlet of a hundreds shots. This was so rarely accomplished in entire safety that it won the applause of our line and hearty congratulations to any one fortunate enough to save his life and sweeten it with the savory morsel.
All this would have been ludicrous but for the actual suffering indicted upon so many. Men were mortally hit, and there was no chance to bind up their wounds; they were almost as far beyond our help as if they had been miles away. A little was accomplished for their relief by passing canteens from hand to hand, keeping them close to the ground out of sight, and some of the wounded were where a little manipulation could be done in safety. it was sad to hear the cries fade away to low moans, and then to silence, without a chance to help. The laugh over a successful chase for tobacco would die away only to change into a murmur of indignation at the next cruel slaughter. A young officer, boyish and ruddy, fresh from a visit borne, with brighter sword arid shoulderstraps than most of us, raised his head to look at the enemy, arid a bullet at once pierced Iris brain. Without a word or groan his head sank again, his rosy cheek grew livid, and his blood crimsoned his folded hands. Next a leg or arm was shattered as it became exposed in shifting from the wearisomeness of our position. Presently a System of reporting the casualties became established; the names of the injured were passed from mouth to mouth; -" Captain M -, 17th, just killed"; "Private-, Co. C, 11th-, knocked over." Those who were fortunate enough to have paper and pencil, and elbow-room enough to get them from pocket-depths, kept a list of the names of the killed and wounded; the occupation this gave proved a blessing, for the hours were very long and weary.
I suppose ennui is hardly the word where nerves are on the rack, and danger pinions one to a single spot of earth, yet something like ennui or came over us. By chance I found a fragment of newspaper which proved a charm that for a time banished the irksome present with its ghastly field of dead men and its ceaseless danger. Through this ragged patch of advertisements I sailed away from Fredericksburg with the good bark Neptune, which had had quick dispatch a month before, - for the paper was of ancient date, -and was well on her way to summer seas, when I obeyed the printed injunction and applied on board for passage. And oh, pleasant summer meadows of the peaceful North! who would have suspected you to lurk in extracts of sarsaparilla and ointment for eruptive skins? But I found you there, and forgot the sunshine and the chill earth, the grim war, the rifle's crack and the bullet's whistle, - forgot even the dead hand that had stretched itself toward me all the morning with its clutch of grass.
I was called back to the dull wet earth and the crouching line at Fredericksburg by a request from Sergeant Read, who "guessed he could hit that cuss with a spy-glass," -pointing, as he spoke, to the batteries that threatened our right flank. Then I saw that there was commotion at that part of the Confederate works, and an officer on the parapet, with a glass, was taking note of us. Had they discovered us at last, after letting us lie here till high noon, and were we now to receive the plunging fire we had looked for all tIhe morning? Desirable in itself as it might be to have "that cuss with a spy-glass" removed, it seemed wiser to repress Read's ambition. The shootirrg of an officer would dispel arny doubts they might have of our presence, and we needed the benefit of all tlreir doubts. Happily, they seemed to think us not worth their powder and iron.
Were we really destined to see the friendly shades of right come on and bring us release from our imprisonment 5 For the first time we began to feel it probable when tire groups left the guns without a shot. I grew easy enough in mind to find that sleep was possible, and I was glad to welcome it as a silent refuge from the surroundings than tire scrap of newspaper. it was a little discouraging to see a sleeping officer near me wakened by a bullet, but as his only misfortune, besides a disturbed slap, seemed to be a torn cap and scratched face, Ire soon wooed back the startled goddess. I had enjoyed sleep for its quiet and rest, but never before for mere oblivion.
When I returned to consciousness I found the situation unchanged, except that the list of casualties had been swelled by the constant rifle practice, which was still as pitiless and as continuous as before. It was almost startling to see, on look. log at the brick house, the Meg Merrilies of the night before standing at her threshold. With the same lost look of helpless horror that her face had worn by candle-light, she gazed up and down our prostrate lines, and the disenchantment of day and sunshine failed to make her situation seem in any way prosaic and commonplace. The desolate part she had to play suited well her gaunt and witch-like features. Shading her eyes with her hand at last, as if to banish a vision and call her senses back to earth, she searched our lines once more; then, with a hopeless shake of the head, she moved slowly back into the dismal little tomb she was forced to occupy. In which army was her husband servings Did she search our lines and the dead ranks for any friend of hers 5 Was maternal anxiety added to the physical terrors of her forced isolation
Slowly the sun declined. He had been our friend all day, shining through the December air with an autumn glow that almost warmed the chill earth; but at his last half-hour he seemed to hang motionless in the western sky. His going down would set us free; free from the fire that was galling and decimating us; free from the fear of guns on the right, and advance from the front; free from numbness, and constraint, and irksomeness, and free from the cold, wet earth. Also it would bring us messengers from the town to call ire back from the exposed position and the field of dead bodies. lout he lingered and stood upon the order of his going, until it seemed as if a Joshua of the Confederates had caused him to stand still.
When at last the great disc stood, large and red, upon the horizon, every face was turned toward it, forgetting constraint, thirst, tobacco, and rebel fire, in the eagerness to see the end of a day that had brought us a new experience of a soldier's life, and had combined the dangers of a battle-field and the discomfort of a winter's bivouac with many new horrors of its own.
At last the lingering sun went down. December twilights are short; the Federal line sprang to its feet with almost a shout of relief. The rebel fire grew brisker as they saw such a swarm of bluecoats rising from the ground, but it was too late to see the fore-sights on the rifles, and shots unaimed were not so terrible as the hated ground. So we contemptuously emptied our rifles at them, and before the smoke rolled away the coming darkness had blotted out the wall and the hostile line.
With our line rose also a few men from the ghastly pile of yesterday's dead, who hobbled up on muskets used as crutches. These poor fellows had bound up their own wounds, and the coffee we had given them had cheered them into life and hope. Their cheerfulness grew into hilarity and merriment as they foussd themselves clear, at last, from the dead, and facing toward home, with a hope not by any means so impossible of realization as it had seemed not long before. Poor fellows! their joy was more touching than their sufferings, -which, indeed, they seemed to have forgotten.
In our own brigade we found we had lost nearly 150, out of a present-for-duty strength of about 1000 men. This would have been a fair average loss in any ordinary battle, but we had suffered it as we lay on the ground inactive, without the excitement and dash of battle and without the chance to reply: a strain upon nerves and physical endurance which we afterward remembered as severer than many more fatal fields. In the midst of our buzz of relief and mutual congratulation, the expected summons came for us to fall back to the town. Once more we formed an upright line of battle, then faced by the rear rank and marched in retreat, with muffled canteens and many halts and facings about toward a possible pursuit. Reaching a slight bank, we descended to the meadow through which the Fredericksburg raceway was dug, and here we changed to a flank march and filed into the highway. The highway soon became a street, and we were once more in Fredericksburg.
We marched past the court-house, -past churches, schools, bank-buildings, private houses, - all lighted for hospital purposes, and all in use, though a part of the wounded had been transferred across the river. Even the door-yards had their litter-beds, and were well filled with wounded men, and the dead were laid in rows for burial. The hospital lights and camp-fires in the streets, and the smoldering ruins of burned buildings, with the mixture of the lawless rioting of the demoralized stragglers, and the suffering and death in the hospitals, gave the sacked and gotten town the look of pandemonium.
In our new freedom we wandered about for the first half of the night, loath to lie on the earth again after our day's experience. At last we spread our blankets on a sidewalk and slept in the lurid firelight with a sense of safety not warranted by our position. The next morning we made our toilets in wanton plenty. Water from a pump! and we bathed in the falling splash. Our contraband" brought us a box of soap and an uncut, unhemmed bolt of toweling from the despised plunder of a Store. Tire same source gave us a table-cloth for our breakfast. This we spread upon the sidewalk and furnished with variously assorted crockery from an ownerless pantry. Cabbage fresh from a kitchen garden, with vinegar from the deserted kitchen, added a welcome and unusual luxury to the meal. And at the end we rolled dishes and debris together into the paved gutter by a comprehensive pin at the table-cloth. Then we smoked the emblem of peace, tilted back against the buildings in borrowed chairs, and were very comfortable and happy. This was the holiday of war, - vastly better than yesterday! lout we were hardly safer here, though more comfortable. Lee might open his guns at any moment. The drum-beat made us tip down our chairs and fall into line. We had roll-call and something like a dress parade without music, then stacked arms along the curb-stone and mounted sentinels over them. A bright, beautiful day and the freedom of an uninhabited and plundered city were before us.