I came across this reminiscence of an infantry attack and thought I’d post it as it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve seen not only of the tactics but of the feelings of the men making it. The attack appears to be part of the battle of Hatcher’s Run (5-7 February, 1865). I’ve been unable to identify the narrator, Captain Morrow, who seems to have commanded a company in a Virginia regiment, nor the only other man identified, Orderly Sergeant Klutts.
Also worth noting is the description of the sharpshooters, and the fact that Morrow uses the term interchangeably with skirmishers. The sharpshooters leave the ranks at the beginning of the engagement and run the Yankees out of the rifle pits covering their line.
I have posted the entire thing without putting it all into quotes.
A BRAVE MAN’S SENSATIONS IN BATTLE.
J. M. Waddill.
CAPTAIN MORROW is a quiet, matter-of- fact man, who came home from Virginia in ’65 with little or nothing of worldly goods to his name except the worn suit of gray in which he stood. Twenty odd years of industry finds him now with a good share of taxable property, an unsullied name, and a warm welcome to such as find pleasure in his society.
It was a fact known to all in his neighborhood, that the old captain made a fine soldier in his day, cool, steady, and reliable. We therefore selected him as a suitable and competent witness to testify in a dispute between myself and a friend concerning the sensations of a brave man in battle, and it was settled that his experience should be taken as evidence by which the question at issue should be finally decided.
We found him seated on his piazza after supper enjoying his pipe, and the question in dispute was laid before him.
“The testimony you wish, boys, involves a wide range of condition, varying very much in accordance with the circumstances; the state of one’s liver, stomach, and temper having a large bearing in the matter. I guess I can do no better than to try and give you my experience in one battle (and a very trying one to me) as in a general way illustrative of my sensations in others.
“This fight took place late in the war, in February, ’65, to the right of Petersburg, Virginia, where Grant was continually stretching his lines around our right wing in the effort to reach and destroy Lee’s railroad communication with the States of the further South. History has but little to say of this battle, though it was bloody for a brief time. We were in pretty good winter quarters, behind a line of low earthworks which extended continuously to and around Petersburg.
“On a cold, bleak morning in February, the long roll startled me from a sound sleep just before daylight. I seemed to hear the rattle of the drum for some seconds before I could awake; at least, that was my thought as I bounded off my bunk and felt around in the darkness for my clothing, sword, and belt. As I stepped out of my hut, half clad and shivering with the cold. I heard my orderly sergeant storming at the men to ‘fall in.’”
”In a few seconds the company was formed.and we took our place in the regiment. It was too dark to see, but the colonel’s voice could be heard as he gave the command, ‘Forward, march !’ and we moved off in rear of the earthworks in the direction of Petersburg. It was an intensely cold, misty morning, and it seemed as if daylight would never come. We stumbled on for half an hour in the darkness, over stumps and logs, until there were some signs of daylight, when the regiment was halted at a narrow opening in the works. Here we found some pieces of artillery, the horses harnessed, and the artillerymen sitting motionless in their saddles and on the caissons.
“In a few minutes we filed through the works into the open field beyond, where there were other bodies of troops waiting in silence, apparently lor orders. As these were passed, one of the men said to a comrade:
“‘So we’re to be the advance, it seems.’
“‘Of course,’ replied the other, in tones of disgust, ‘ain’t it always so?’
“‘Fold up your tongue, Williams, and pack it away till next summer; where’s your thirst for glory?’
“‘I thirst now for a warm bed and a good breakfast later,’ answered Williams.
“‘Don’t you know Mars’ Bob can’t make a mistake?’
“‘That’s so,’ replied Williams, ‘but some of his couriers made a whopper in waking us up too early.’
“With such chaffing we passed out of the open into a wood. The talking ceased, and the silence was broken only by the hurried tread of the men and the clanking of the canteens.
“A few hundred yards further on, and the column is again halted.
“‘Load your guns, men,’ is the order, and the ramrods are ringing in the Enfields as the cartridges are pressed home.
“The first command to load always gave me a slight shiver. The order is suggestive of blood. I have known of but few jests circulating among the men while obeying it, and now the wag of the company is as solemn as a judge.
“A short distance further, and the line of battle is formed. Scarcely a word is spoken, save the quick, sharp word of command, as the companies file into their places. Some of the men seem confused, though all are veterans, and appear to have partially forgotten the usual company commands.
“‘Skirmishers to the front!’ is passed down the column, and the thin line of sharpshooters trot away and in a few seconds are lost to sight.
“It is a solemn moment, and I find it necessary to keep my teeth clenched to keep them from chattering with something else besides the cold. I also have an involuntary ‘catch ‘ of the breath occasionally, such as you may have experienced or noticed in others, when by a fall the breath is for a moment lost.
“‘Forward!’ is the order, loudly repeated down the line, and the long double column, neither end of which can be seen, moves rapidly to the front. Soon it is broken and in disorder from the obstruction of the trees and, leafless undergrowth, and the order is passed to halt and reform. As the ranks are closed up, scattering shots are heard in front and to the right and left, which by the time we are again moving forward have rapidly increased in number. Our skirmishers have struck those of the enemy. We press on, and in a few minutes our sharpshooters are in sight, popping away at the bluecoats. who seem disposed to stand their ground. Minie balls are whistling about us by this time, and the men involuntarily dodge.
“An opening in the distance can be seen through the trees as we hurry on, crowding too near upon the skirmishers, who, with a yell, charge the opposing line, which, seeing our column, retreats toward the open.
“A gray-coated skirmisher passes through our line to the rear, with blood streaming from a wound in his face, over which both hands are pressed, and I step over a fallen body clad in blue.
“We are near the opening now, in the edge of which is our skirmish line, banging away at the enemy, who have taken possession of shallow rifle-pits, further out in the opening. Something rises in my throat, producing a choking sensation, and I can plainly hear my heart beat. Pallor may not be felt, but I think I must have been very pale.
“‘Great God, captain, look up there!’ exclaims, one of my lieutenants, as we reach the edge of the open ground, halting to again reform amid the whistling bullets from the enemy.
“I grow faint and weak, as I gaze at the sight before us. A long hill, smooth and bare. In front, to the right and left, as far as the eye can reach—the crest crowned with a long line of red earthworks dotted at fearfullv short intervals with black-mouthed cannon, while above the red ridge are thousands of bayonets glistening in the sunlight as it breaks through the morning mist. All eyes are fixed upon the unwelcome spectacle, and the faces of my veterans blanch as they read the task before them. The suspense is terrible. The men appear paralyzed, for it seems to everyone useless, hopeless slaughter.
“Without orders, firing has begun to our left, and my men are beginning to follow the example.
“‘Steady, men! hold your fire!’ I yell. ‘Don’t you see our skirmishers right before you?’
“‘Keep your men well in hand, captain, and hold your fire till we mount the works.’ says the colonel in passing, in a voice so cool and collected, and free from excitement, that for the moment I feel that I am, beyond doubt, the worst coward in the regiment. But his manner does me a world of good, and I ask the adjutant, as he hurries past, who our support is to be. ‘Archer, I think.’ he answers, and at that moment the command, ‘Forward!’ rings out above the din.
“Forward we go, helter-skelter! no time for reflection! It is death to which we hasten. Flesh and blood cannot accomplish the task assigned us, if those are men behind the works on the hill-top; but on we go. As the line shows itself in the field, the earth fairly trembles under the explosion of artillery and small arms from the crest of the hill, which disappears from view in the cloud of smoke. Onward we go, stooping and crouching from the tornado. The rush of shells and hiss of bullets is continuous. Right in our faces the shells are bursting. Men are falling in every direction, and those in the scattered line seem dazed, but on, on we go, up the incline, hurrying to our graves. All formation is lost in the headlong rush and by the gaps made by those who have fallen. The very earth seems as if it were swept by the rain of missiles.
“We haven’t fired a shot. It were death, seemingly, to pause for the aim. All depends on reaching the works as quickly as possible. Our column seems little more than a scattered group of skirmishers. On we scramble, and we are momentarily expecting the clash of bayonets when the works are reached. Now all fear is gone; it is horrible, but it is exhilarating. We are not men now; animals, beasts of prey, blood-thirsty devils we are. Desperation has routed fear, hope, and mercy.
“My sabre swings high in the air, and the yell of a fox hunter first at the death rises to my lips. Onward we go! Will the crest never be reached?
“‘It’s no use, captain. There’s nobody to our left,’ yells old Klutts, my orderly sergeant, in my ear, and the handful of men see it in a moment. True it is; there is no use in going further. My little remaining reason says plainly it is no use. The fire has slackened slightly; doubtless they are getting ready with the bayonet. Nothing remains but to get back as quickly as possible, and that means death for the few survivors.
“‘Back, men! back for your lives! ‘ and the dread retreat commences. The men in the works have heard the shout, and their fire is redoubled. Surely none can escape the storm of lead beating upon us. There is a slight ravine in our path, a mere wash in the hillside, barely deep enough to hide our bodies. With a common impulse, each one falls despairingly into it, lying prone in its bottom to escape the steady rain of the bullets. The less-favored portion of our decimated column, which formed our right, continue the fearful retreat, and we lose sight of them as we flatten ourselves in the ravine’s bottom. For some moments not a sound escapes our lips, each one realizing that a few brief minutes will decide whether death or a prison awaits us, for certainly the Federal line will soon advance.
“It was yet some 400 yards to the wood whence we had advanced to attack, and perhaps 150 paces to the enemy’s works. Momentarily I expected the shouts of the victorious Federals as their advance began. This meant a prison for us. Little time there is for consideration, yet I cannot make up my mind to risk further retreat. It seems madness, for I well know that our first appearance will be the signal for a hurricane of fire, which has just now greatly diminished.
“The thought of a Northern prison decides me, and in a moment of desperation I cry to the men, ‘Get ready! We can’t stay here! Be ready at the word to move, one at a time!’
“Either the order was misunderstood, or the men lost their heads, for when the man nearest me rose to go, every man followed instantly, and I joined them.
In a moment a perfect tornado of fire opened on us. Man after man tumbled headlong as we ran at the top of our speed for the woods. On we flew over the ground, over the fallen bodies of those of our comrades who fell as we advanced, down the long hillside, seemingly surrounded by a swarm of bullets.
A fearful price we paid in the alternative we had accepted, for more than one-half of those who started on the retreat lay on the frozen hillside to rise no more.
“As we entered the friendly shelter of the woods, a portion of our force lying flat on the ground, thinking we were the advance of the enemy’s skirmishers, opened fire on us and before their mistake was discovered, two or three of our little handful fell, wounded at the hands of friends. Out of forty-seven men in line at daylight, eleven only of my company remained. The others were dead or wounded on the field in our front. The Federals did not advance, and the miserable affair was over.”
“Captain” said my friend, “do we understand you to say that you were scared and fearful on that occasion, or that you simply dreaded the work of the day?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the old captain, vigorously, “scared and fearful both.” And he knocked the ashes out of his pipe. “And I wouldn’t believe a man on his oath who says he is not frightened under such circumstances.”
The captain’s verdict settled the dispute between us, and we bade him “good-night,” leaving him with a yet higher regard for a man who could and did gallantly do his duty on many bloody fields in spite of his fears.