On the Battlefield

From Stories, Anecdotes and Humor from the Civil War

A correspondent of a Southern paper gives the following description of the feelings of a soldier for the first time on a battlefield:

"No person who was not upon the ground, and an eye­witness of the stirring scenes which there transpired, can begin to comprehend, from a description, the terrible realities of a battle. And even those who participated, are competant to speak only of their own personal experience. Where friends and foes are falling by scores, and every species of missile is flying through the air, threatening each instant to send one into eternity, little time is afforded for more observation or reflection than required for personal safety.

"The scene is one of the most exciting and exhilarating that can be conceived. Imagine a regiment passing you at 'double-quick,' the men cheering with enthusiasm, their teeth set, their eyes flashing, and the whole in a frenzy of resolution! You accompany them to the field. They halt. An aid-de-camp passes to or from the commanding general. The clear voices of officers ring along the line, in tones of passionate eloquence, their words hot, thrilling, and elastic! The word is given to march; and the body moves into action. For the first time in your life you listen to the wizzing of iron. Grape and canister fly into ranks; bombshells burst overhead, and the fragments fly all around you. A friend falls; perhaps a dozen or twenty of your comrades lie wounded or dying at your feet. A strange, involuntary shrinking steals over you, which it is impossible to resist, you feel inclined neither to advance nor recede, but are spell-bound by the contending emotions of the moral and physical man. The cheek blanches, the lip quivers, and the eye almost hesitates to look upon the scene.

"In this attitude you may, perhaps, be ordered to stand an hour inactive, havoc meanwhile marking its footsteps with blood on every side. Finally, the order is given to advance, to fire, or to charge. And now, what a metamorphosis! With your first shot you become a new man. Personal safety is your least concern. Fear has no existance in your bosom. Hesitation gives way to an uncontrollable desire to rush into the thickest of the fight. The dead and dying around you, if they receive a passing thought, only serve to stimulate you to revenge. You become cool and deliberate, and watch the effect of bullets—the shower of bursting shells—the passage of cannon-balls, as they rake their murderous channels through your ranks—the plunging of wounded horses—the agonies of the dying—and the clash of contending arms—which follows the dashing charge, with a feeling so calloused by surrounding circumstances, that your soul seems dead to every sympathizing and selfish thought.

"Such is the spirit which carries the soldier through the field of battle. But when the excitement has passed, when the roll of musketry has ceased, the noisy voices of the cannons are stilled, the dusky pall of sulphurous smoke has risen from the field, and you stroll over the theatre of carnage, hearing the groans of the wounded—discovering here, shattered almost beyond recognition, the form of some dear friend whom only an hour before you met in the full flush of life and happiness---there, another perforated by a bullet—a third with a limb shot away—a fourth with his face disfigured—a fifth almost torn to fragments—a sixth a headless corpse—the ground ploughed up and stained with blood—human brains splashed around— limbs without bodies, and bodies without limbs, scattered here and there, and the same picture duplicated scores of times-then, you begin to realize the horrors of war, and experience a reaction of nature. The heart opens its floodgates, humanity asserts herself again, and you begin to feel.

"Friend and foe alike now receive your kindest ministerings. The enemy whom but a short time before, full of hate, you were doing all in your power to kill, you now endeavor to save! You supply him with water to quench his thirst, with food to sus­tain his strength, and with sympathizing words to soothe his troubled mind. All that is human or charitable in your nature now rises to the surface, and you are animated by that spirit of mercy 'which blesseth him that gives and him that takes.'

A battlefield is eminently a place that tries men's souls."