Combat in the American Civil War III

An insouciant attitude toward death was highly esteemed among the officer class of both sides, and there are many examples of sangfroid in the face of extreme danger. Indeed some, such as George Custer, relished testing their staff officers in “an almost sadistic imposition of the leader’s courage on others,” by leading staff parades that exposed them to fire. Any who flinched were subjected to his withering scorn. Union cavalry general Alfred Torbert also insisted on dragging his staff on tours of the front line (his chief medical officer was killed on one such outing), and on the Confederate side, D. H. Hill liked to “treat” his staff to enemy attention. Grant (without any of the theatrics of a Custer, Torbert, or Hill) also displayed conspicuous coolness when he and his staff came under fire at Shiloh. Leander Stillwell saw him, “on horseback, of course, accompanied by his staff, and was evidently making a personal examination of his lines. He went by us in a gallop, riding between us and the battery, at the head of his staff. The battery was then broadly engaged, shot and shell were whizzing overhead, and cutting off the limbs of trees, but Grant rode through the storm with perfect indifference, seemingly paying no more attention to the missiles than if they had been paper wads.”

Although occasionally tarnished by ego and showing off, these displays also had a practical purpose—to get men to fight, either by encouraging them into willing emulation or shaming them into begrudging imitation. Confederate major general Richard Taylor (president Zachary Taylor’s son and a very gifted tactician), commanding raw troops who were being hammered by shot and shell as they cowered within their breastworks during an attempted relief of the siege of Vicksburg, realized that it was “absolutely necessary to give the men some morale; and, mounting the breastwork, I made a cigarette, struck fire with my briquet [cigarette lighter] and walked up and down, smoking. Near the line was a low tree with spreading branches, which a young officer, Bradford by name, proposed to climb, as to have a better view. I gave him my field glass, and this plucky youngster sat in his tree as quietly as in a chimney corner, though the branches were cut away [by bullets]. These examples … gave confidence to the men, who began to expose themselves.”

But there was often a price to pay. A Union officer, desperately trying to halt the retreat after the defeat at Chickamauga, “would walk deliberately up to the rail pile and stand erect and exposed till his men rallied to him. For hours he did this,” until he was killed. And with a higher chance of being killed compared with that which his men faced, an officer had to come to terms with it—one way or another. Fatalism helped. Hilary A. Herbert, colonel of the Eighth Alabama (wounded at the Wilderness and after the war, secretary of the navy), was asked if he dwelled much on the shortened odds of being killed due to his prominence on the field:

Yes, very frequently. But why do you ask?

Well, I thought from [the] fact that you never say anything about it, and then for the manner in which you expose yourself … recklessly, that you had an idea that you were in no danger of being killed.

O, no … I know that the probabilities are that a colonel of an infantry regiment … who does his duty, will in all probability be either killed or seriously wounded. I have … simply made up my mind that I must take my chances.… That is all there is to it.

Another motivation was of a very different order: simple ambition. Throughout the history of warfare the god of battle has flipped his coin: death on the tail, promotion on the face. During the terrible fighting for the “Bloody Angle” of the Mule Shoe salient during the battle of Spotsylvania, Brigadier General Abner M. Perrin of Jubal Early’s corps roundly declared, “I shall come out of this fight a live major general or a dead brigadier.” He was killed in a hail of bullets. Style was important. There are many accounts of what might be called a rhetorical flourish in the face of death, like that of a Louisiana captain: artilleryman Robert Stiles described how the officer, whose left arm was taken off at the shoulder by a shell, swung his horse around in order to spare his men the sight of the ghastly wound, and called out jauntily, “Keep it up boys, I’ll be back in a moment.” He then, considerately, fell dead from his horse when out of sight.

But for some, neither stoicism nor ambition nor the obligations of rank could overcome the fear of death. At Spotsylvania a Union officer was spotted lurking behind a log. He “took a cartridge out of his vest pocket, tore the paper with his strong white teeth, spilled the powder into his right palm, spat on it, and then, first casting a quick glance around to see if he was observed, he rubbed the moistened powder on his face and hands and then dust-coated the war paint. Instantly he was transformed from a trembling coward who lurked behind a tree into an exhausted brave taking a little well-earned repose.”

“Men go to war to kill or to get killed … and should expect no tenderness,” declared General William Tecumseh Sherman. For senior officers there was another intimacy with death in battle—they were responsible for unleashing it. Some were utterly hardened (at least superficially) to the carnage for which they were responsible. Sherman, for example, could recognize, in a detached way, the horror of battle. After the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), he said, “For the first time I saw the carnage of battle, men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way; but this did not make a particular impression on me,” for he knew that the “very object of war is to produce results by death and slaughter.” During the Atlanta campaign he even affected a jaunty callousness, saying: “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash.”

Ulysses Grant was not insensitive to the death he orchestrated but suppressed the pity, perhaps out of self-preservation. After the bloody battle of Champion’s Hill (1863) during the Vicksburg campaign, he recorded: “While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.” But he had to harden his heart, recognizing that the side “that never counted its dead” would achieve the ultimate victory. On the Confederate side, Lee could be deeply affected by the death he visited on his men, as shown by his anguished reaction after the failure of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimball assault on the third day of Gettysburg. On the other hand, Stonewall Jackson adopted a Cromwellian sternness as far as the deaths of his own men were concerned. He was doing God’s work, and that absolved him from all responsibility: “He places no value on human life,” George Pickett wrote of Jackson, “caring for nothing so much as fighting, unless it be praying.” Jackson once looked upon a line of his own dead as unaffected as if he were at a review. “Not a muscle quivered,” Confederate artillerist Robert Stiles records. “He was the ideal of concentration—imperturbable, resistless.” To an officer who had protested that the attack Jackson had just ordered was suicidal and “my regiment would be exterminated,” Jackson snapped back: “Colonel, do your duty. I have made every arrangement to care for the wounded and bury the dead.”

Other generals were undone by their tender hearts. George McClellan suffered the tortures of the damned: “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses and poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me while purchased at such cost. I shall be only too glad when all is over.” And on another occasion: “Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunts me! … I have honestly done my best to save as many lives as possible.” His concern for minimizing casualties endeared him to his men, if not to his political masters, who had a war to win and needed sterner stuff with which to do it.

And how did ordinary soldiers view death on the battlefield? Two concepts fought with each other. On the one hand was the idea of death as noble, heroic, and redeemed by sacrifice, with the body itself lying, as though as evidence, in peaceful repose. On the other hand, there was the irredeemable and meaningless waste, the bodies mutilated beyond any possibility of sentimental embalming. It was, of course, a religious age, perhaps more fundamentally in the South (whose army was periodically swept with fervent bouts of revivalism) than the North. For both sides, religion provided most, though by no means all, the solace that acted as an inoculation against the horror. (Many others found that booze did more to reconcile them to mortality than religion ever could.)

The first contact with violent death was like a smack across the face. On the second day’s fighting at Shiloh, a Union soldier recorded the shock:

The first dead soldier we saw had fallen in the road; our artillery had crushed and mangled his limbs, and ground him into the mire. He lay a bloody, loathsome mass, the scraps of his blue uniform furnishing the only distinguishable evidence that a hero there had died. At this sight I saw many a manly fellow gulp down his heart.… Near him lay a slender rebel boy—his face in the mud, his brown hair floating in a muddy pool. Soon a dead Major, then a Colonel, then the lamented Wallace [General W. H. L. Wallace, who died from his wounds three days later], yet alive, were passed in quick and sickening succession. The gray gloaming of the misty morning gave a ghostly pallor to the faces of the dead. The disordered hair, dripping from the night’s rain, the distorted and passion-marked faces, the stony, glaring eyes, the blue lips, the glistening teeth.… Never, perhaps, did raw men go into battle under such discouraging auspices as did this division. There was everything to depress, nothing to inspirit, and yet determination was written upon their pale faces.

Death could come with stunning swiftness. Leander Stillwell would never forget “how awfully I felt on seeing for the first time a man killed in battle … I stared at his body, perfectly horrified! Only a few seconds ago that man was alive and well, and now he was lying on the ground, done for, forever!” Stillwell was transfixed by how swiftly the human could be transformed into a mere object. The writer William Dean Howells also describes the existential shock of what might be called the “absoluteness” of the battlefield dead. It was a spiritual gutting: “At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of his lifetime, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.” Union cavalryman Charles Weller reflected on the battle of Chickamauga with despair: “What at the present time is a man’s life worth! Comparatively nothing[;] he falls and is forgotten except by his immediate friends.” A soldier of the Sixth Iowa mirrored Weller’s sentiment; war forced him to “estimate life at its true value—nothing.”

There were two main ways of combating this emptiness. One was to invest death with religious and patriotic significance; it was transformed from something final or meaningless into an act consecrated by patriotic nobility and Christian sacrifice. The dead passed over to a better world, not only released from the tawdriness of temporal existence but blessedly rewarded in the afterlife. Stonewall Jackson’s last words are a lyrical evocation of that premise: “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” A devout Confederate at Gettysburg was hit during the last gasp of the battle, and one of his comrades describes how “a terrific fire burst, thundering, flashing, crashing [and] there lay our noble comrade … limb thrice broken, the body gashed with wounds, the top of the skull blown off and the brain actually fallen out.” But no matter how appalling this was, it could be redeemed because a “chariot and horses of fire had caught [him] up into Heaven.” A nurse wrote to the mother of a deceased soldier that he “had been conscious of his death and … not afraid but willing to die … he is better off.” The age revered the cult of dying well—the ars moriendi. Much popular literature and art was devoted to it, and inevitably a good deal was of the maudlin tie-a-yellow-ribbon variety. Joseph Hopkins Twichell, a Union soldier, was no stay-at-home bleeding heart. He had seen “a hideous nightmare … too piteous for speech … as if the universe would stop with the horror of it,” during the Peninsular campaign of 1862, but turned to the plangent sentimentality of the period to deal with it:

They’re left behind!

Our steps are turned away:

We forward march, but these forever stay

Halted, till trumpets wake the final day:—

   Good-bye! Good-bye!

They’re left behind!

The young and strong and brave:

The sighing pines mourn sweetly o’er their grave;

Mute, moving grief the summer branches wave,

   Good-bye dear friends!

They’re left behind!

Comfort!—our heavy souls!

Their battle shout forever onward rolls

Till God’s own freedom gathers in the poles!

   Good-bye! Farewell!

The other way to deal with death in battle was to embrace and revel in the nihilism, disarming death by a rebellious refusal to sanctify it. Cynicism born of experience became a way of flipping the bird at the fates. Charles Wainwright, a Union colonel, reported that when a mortally wounded man fell against him, he had “no more feeling for him, than if he had tripped over a stump and fallen; nor do I think it would have been different had he been my brother.” A Confederate soldier described how “we cook and eat, talk and laugh with the enemy’s dead lying all about us as though they were so many hogs.” A Federal soldier echoed the sentiment: “We dont mind the sight of dead men no more than if they was dead Hogs.… The rebels was laying over the field bloated up as big as a horse and as black as a negro and the boys run over them and serch their pockets … unconcerned.… I run acros a big graback as black as the ase of spade it startled me a little at first but I stopt to see what he had but he had been tended too so I past on my way rejoicing.” Men’s souls became annealed by repeated exposure to death: “By being accustomed to sights which would make other men’s hearts sick to behold, our men soon became heart-hardened, and sometimes scarcely gave a pitying thought to those who were unfortunate enough to get hit. Men can get accustomed to everything; and the daily sight of blood and mangled bodies so blunted their finer sensibilities as almost to blot out all love, all sympathy from the heart.”

For many “heart-hardened” soldiers, chaplains were despised as thinly disguised agents of army authority whose job it was to sell the men on the nobility of death in battle. Abner Small describes how before the battle of Chancellorsville the Union chaplains “were eloquent in their appeals to patriotism, and pictured in glowing colors the glory that would crown the dead and the blazons of promotion that would decorate the surviving heroes.” Suddenly, enemy shells start to explode: “The screams of horses, and the shouted commands of officers were almost drowned out by the yells and laughter of the men as the brave chaplains, hatless and bookless, their coat-tails streaming in the wind, fled madly to the rear over stone walls, and hedges and ditches, followed by gleefully shouted counsel: ‘Stand firm; put your trust in the Lord!’ ”107 And to those flag wavers back in the safety of the civilian world, battle-hardened soldiers were only too willing to prick their patriotic bubble: “We ain’t doing much just now,” writes Francis Amasa Walker, a Federal soldier anticipating the next attack, “but hope in a few more days to satisfy the public taste with our usual Fall Spectacle—forty percent of us knocked over.”

The ever-present possibility of being killed inevitably unhinged some men, who in their desperation looked to a different kind of magic for protection by investing some mundane object with totemic powers. Colonel C. Irvine Walker recounts how a Confederate private who had previously shown signs of cowardice and had been reprimanded for it took his place in the battle line, “his rifle on his shoulder, and holding up in front of him a frying pan.” He moved forward, from frying pan to fire as it were, and was killed.

But for others it enhanced life, making it sharper, more intense. Fear was replaced with an adrenaline surge of exaltation. Rice C. Bull, a Union infantryman at Chancellorsville, describes just such a transformation when the Confederate attackers finally came within range: “Most of us … held our fire until we saw the line of smoke that showed that they were on the ridge; then every gun was fired. It was then load and fire at will as fast as we could. Soon the nervousness and fear we had when we began to fight passed away and a feeling of fearlessness and rage took its place.” At Antietam (Sharpsburg), Captain Frank Holsinger felt a similar elation: “We now rush forward. We cheer; we are in ecstasies. While shells and canister are still resonant and minnies [minié balls] sizzling spitefully, yet I think this one of the supreme moments of my existence.” Major James A. Connolly described the sheer elation of death defied. Following a successful assault on a Confederate fortification during the battle of Jonesboro, the last such during the 1864 Atlanta campaign: “I could have lain down on that blood stained grass, amid the dying and the dead and wept with excess of joy. I have no language to express the rapture one feels in the moment of victory, but I do know that at such a moment one feels as if the joy were worth risking a hundred lives to attain it. Men at home will read of that battle and be glad of our success, but they can never feel as we felt, standing there quivering with excitement, amid the smoke and blood, and fresh horrors and grand trophies of that battle field.”

Taking sensual pleasure—eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping—among the carnage was, however bizarre it may appear, a gesture of affirmation of life. After Antietam (Sharpsburg), Union troops bivouacked among the dead Confederates. “Many were black as Negroes,” notes David Hunter Strother, “heads and faces hideously swelled, covered with dust until they looked like clods. Killed during the charge and flight, their attitudes were wild and frightful.… Among these loathsome earthsoiled vestiges of humanity … in the midst of all this carrion our troops sat cooking, eating, jabbering, and smoking; sleeping among the corpses so that but for the color of the skin it was difficult to distinguish the living from the dead.”

For some, killing was another dimension of joy, as though by taking a life the killer replenished his own. Byrd Willis, a Confederate, saw a comrade “jumping about, as if in great agony. I immediately ran up to him to ascertain when he was hurt & if I could do any thing of him—but upon reaching him I found that he was not hurt but was executing a species of Indian War Dance around a Poor Yankee (who lay on his back in the last agonies of death) exclaiming I killed him! I killed him! Evidently carried away with excitement and delight.”

Captured black soldiers and their white officers ran a considerable risk of being summarily executed. At the infamous Fort Pillow massacre of April 1864, the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest oversaw a systematic killing of black soldiers and some of their white officers, after their surrender. Texan George Gautier described his regiment’s actions after it had defeated black troops at Monroe, Louisiana: “I never saw so many dead negroes in my life. We took no prisoners, except the white officers, fourteen in number; these were lined up and shot after the negroes were finished. Next day they were thrown into a wagon, hauled to the Ouchita river and thrown in. Some were hardly dead—that made no difference—in they went.”

The defeated whites of both sides would be extremely unlucky to be put to death summarily. However, Confederates who had been involved in the Fort Pillow incident were killed. Although many white Union soldiers shared the racial prejudice of their Southern counterparts, Fort Pillow was an insult to the cause that would have to be paid for in blood: “At the battle of Resaca in May 1864, the 105th Illinois captured a Confederate battery. From underneath one of the gun carriages a big, red-haired man with no shirt fearfully emerged. He wore a tattoo on one arm that read ‘Fort Pillow.’ His captors read it. He was bayoneted and shot instantly. Another regiment in Sherman’s army was reported to have killed twenty-three rebel prisoners, first asking them if they remembered Fort Pillow. The Wisconsin soldier who recorded this incident claimed flatly, ‘When there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners.’ ”

On the obverse side of the coin, the fellowship of warriors, no matter which side they were on, could save the life of a captured soldier. Rice C. Bull of the 123rd New York was captured at Chancellorsville, and when a civilian threatened him and his fellow captors with harm, a Confederate soldier stepped in to remind the civilian that “these are wounded men. You have no right or business to insult them.” The point was that soldiers inhabited the world of soldiers, and only they could arbitrate its rules; no others had the right to intercede. The rules were, more often than not, respectful and compassionate. A Union soldier noted that Confederates captured at Port Hudson in July 1863 were brave fighters and “in the twinkling of an eye we were together.… The Rebs are mostly large, fine-looking men. They are about as hard up for clothes as we are.… They have treated the prisoners [Union soldiers captured earlier] as well as they could, giving them the same sort of food they ate themselves.”

Union soldier William Aspinall of the Forty-Seventh Indiana was wounded at Champion Hill near Vicksburg on May 16, 1863:

In the evening some of my comrades brought me blankets, doing without themselves, and made me a bed in a fence corner outside of the hospital. In a little while a Confederate soldier came along. He had been shot somewhere in the bowels and was in great pain. I said—“here partner, I will share my bed with you”—and he laid down beside me. He told me that he was from Savannah, Georgia, and that he could not get well. He wanted me to write to his wife and children and gave me a card with their address. I was to tell them that I had seen him and what had become of their beloved husband and father. Being weak and exhausted from the loss of blood, I dozed off to sleep and left him talking to me. In a little while I awoke and spoke to him two or three times, but he did not answer. I put my hand over on his face; he was cold in death. My foe and friend had crossed the river.

The problem was the marginals, the pathetic bar-stool warriors, who found themselves for a moment enjoying power beyond their expectations: “Whenever we fell into the hands of veteran soldiers who had fought us bravely on the battlefield, we received all of the kind and considerate attention due a prisoner of war, but whenever we were in charge of militia or that class of persons who, too cowardly to take the field, enlist in the home guard, we were treated in the most outrageous manner.”

The distinction between honorable and dishonorable extended to categories of killing. Killing pickets (sentries), for example, was considered a kind of assassination, perhaps because their role was essentially passive and they were too easy a target. There was an understanding on both sides that familiarity with each other’s pickets afforded protection, and killing them when no other general action was going on was denounced as “a miserable and useless kind of murder.” A Southerner who knew he was within range of the enemy felt safe because “we were now real soldiers on both sides and well knew that mere picket shooting helped neither side and was only murder.”

Sniping was also considered “dishonorable” and denounced as “murderous villainy,” but it was a villainy indulged in by both sides. As a Union private fulminated:

Sharpshooting at North Anna [in 1864] was exceedingly severe and murderous. We were greatly annoyed by it, as a campaign cannot be decided by killing a few hundred enlisted men—killing them most unfairly and when they were of necessity exposed.… Our sharpshooters were as bad as the Confederates.… They could sneak around trees or lurk behind stumps, or cower in wells or in cellars, and from the safety of their lairs murder a few men. Put the sharpshooters in battle-line and they were no better, no more effective, than the infantry of the line, and they were not half as decent. There was an unwritten code of honor among the infantry that forbade the shooting of men while attending to the imperative calls of nature, and these sharp-shooting brutes were constantly violating that rule. I hated sharpshooters, both Confederate and Union, in those days, and was always glad to see them killed.

As will be seen in the two world wars, “attending to the imperative calls of nature” could be one of the riskiest things a soldier could do.

The dead were able to offer very tangible benefits to the living. Joshua Chamberlain, later to become the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, found himself pinned among the corpses of the attack on Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, at Fredericksburg: “The night chill had now woven a misty veil over the field.… At last, outwearied and depressed with the desolate scene, my own strength sunk … I moved two dead men a little and lay down between them, making a pillow of the breast of a third. The skirt of his overcoat drawn over my face helped also to shield me from the bleak winds. There was some comfort even in this companionship.”

There was, of course, as there always has been, the stripping of corpses—the “peeling,” as they called it. And sometimes the dead continued their beneficence long after their demise. A Confederate, R. H. Peck, happened to pass over the ground of a particularly hard-fought engagement of nine months earlier: “He would always remember crossing a field where the Yankees had delivered a determined charge. It was only with difficulty that he could keep from stepping on bones still wrapped in torn bits of blue uniform.… While crossing the ghastly little field, Peck noticed a man from his regiment who had been a dentist before the war. Busy examining the skulls to see if they contained any gold fillings, he had already extracted quite a number and had his haversack completely full of teeth.”

In other ways, too, the ripple of economic benefit radiated from the killed. They provided a rich feeding ground for energetic entrepreneurs. There were search agencies like the official-sounding U.S. Army Agency (in fact a private company located on Bleecker Street in Manhattan) that for a share of the deceased’s back pay or the widow’s pension would locate the body of a loved one. Embalmers such as Thomas Holmes (who processed four thousand bodies at one hundred dollars each during the war), and the manufacturers of metallic coffins—“Warranted Air-Tight”—that could “be placed in the Parlour without fear of any odor escaping therefrom” (fifty dollars each), literally and metaphorically cleaned up.

Bodies were utilized in other, less physical ways: as agents of propaganda. Confederate surgeon John Wyeth describes how after Chickamauga, “most of the Confederate dead had been gathered in long trenches and buried; but the Union dead were still lying where they fell. For its effect on the survivors it was the policy of the victor to hide his own losses and let those of the other side be seen.” A Union soldier, Daniel Crotty, describes how one could “read” the facial expressions of the dead as justification of the righteousness of the cause: “The dead of both friend and foe lie side by side, but it is remarked by all that the pleasant smile on the patriot’s face contrasts strangely with the horrid stare of the rebel dead.” However, another Union soldier, Frank Wilkeson, dismissed the whole fanciful and self-serving notion: “I do not believe that the face of a dead soldier, lying on a battle-field, ever truthfully indicates the mental or physical anguish, or peacefulness of mind, which he suffered or enjoyed before his death.” Wilkeson concludes bluntly, “It goes for nothing. One death was as painless as the other.”

And long after the war, the “glorious dead” served yet another profitable function. The grim reality of their deaths was replaced by something altogether more palatable, more stirring … more suitable as a motivation for the next generation of warriors. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who after the war ascended to the Supreme Court, dramatically represents this transition. As a young officer he had been grievously wounded and almost died. He had been through the grinder and, in the process, lost his appetite for the rhetoric of patriotism: “He had grown weary of such words as ‘cowardice,’ ‘gallantry,’ and ‘chivalry.’ ” Disillusioned, he eventually resigned his commission. But by 1885 a complete transformation had taken place. Like some American samurai, he discovered a fervent belief in the mystical importance of a warrior’s unquestioning obedience unto death: “In the midst of doubt, the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt … and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he had no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.… It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine … our hearts were touched with fire.”