The experience of battle was a major change for most of these new soldiers. Green recruits wanted to get into the fight quickly, worried that the war would end before they saw combat. Stimulated by desires to prove their honor and manhood, new soldiers wanted to experience their first battle in order to prove themselves. Their eagerness would soon change as they experienced the worst anxiety before battle, as they moved into the vicinity of combat. Seeing the wounded streaming to the rear, the refuse of war strewn on the ground, and hearing the sounds of combat while not being personally engaged was tough on men preparing themselves for battle. “It is worse for a soldier to wait for a battle to begin than it is to do the fighting,” admitted one man. Artillery bombardments were especially intense for waiting soldiers. “Nothing is more trying to the nerves,” wrote infantryman William P. Lyon, “than . . . to have to remain silent and motionless under a fire which they are not permitted to return.” The explosion of shells was great and visible to the men, and they could not move or react in any way. An ideal expression of courage was to receive such fire without moving, but many soldiers instinctively ducked at each shell.
Once they entered into the surreal world of combat soldiers stepped into an environment of chaos and disorder. The smoke, terrain, and confusion made it difficult for them to see the enemy, or even where they were going, and, in some cases, made it difficult to maintain battle lines and command structure. Coming under fire, especially if a near-miss was experienced, could feel almost unreal. Soldiers were amazed that they could come out of such an environment unscathed, sometimes with bullets having passed so close to have left holes in clothing or equipment. Sounds assaulted their ears, the varying sounds of shot and shell and the sounds of their comrades yelling or dying. Deaths on the battlefield were shocking and disillusioning to many soldiers. Civil War era men were used to death as it occurred in the civilian world: comprehendible, neat, orderly, respectful and surrounded by ceremony and family. The deaths they now witnessed were the opposite: chaotic, random, sudden, and gruesome.
The impact of battlefield fatality could be particularly severe when soldiers witnessed the close range deaths of family members, friends, or close comrades. Austin Carr of the 82nd New York went to war with a friend from home, and their friendship continued through their military service. Fred was standing in front of Austin in battle when a bullet ripped through his side and bowels, a wound that Austin knew was fatal. Austin leaned over his friend and heard his last words, but had to leave him behind. Expressing a sense of brokenness and anguish at the thought of his friend lying ruined on the battlefield, Austin volunteered for burial duty the next morning in the hope of finding Fred’s body. Unlike so many, he was fortunate enough to locate the remains: “And then—there he was—lying so still, my buddy, Fred, He had given all that was possible for a man to give, somehow I felt bitter in my heart against this thing called war.” Fred was lucky enough to be buried by a friend in an individual grave on the side of the hill away from the others, unlike most soldiers during the war. Austin would never forget the death of his friend: “I could scarcely bring myself to look upon his crude grave,” he wrote, “tears gushed down my face in spite of all my efforts to stop them, and so I bid him goodbye and left him there to sleep. The bitter wound in my heart to last forever.”
Many soldiers reported feeling no fear in the midst of battle—the anxiety disappeared and they were able to focus on their tasks, ignoring danger, bodily needs, and the passage of time. While dreading battle as it approached, a New Hampshire private stated that “it isn’t long before you won’t think or care whether you are in it or not . . . for a man in the heat of battle thinks nor cares for nothing but to make the enemy run.” As James McPherson points out, this was probably due to a rush of adrenalin produced from the high level of stress resulting from battle. Those men who overcame the initial “flight” reaction, turned into fighting machines so committed to battle that their actions have been labeled combat frenzy, fighting madness, or battle rage. Civil War soldiers did not know about the body’s chemical reactions to stress or about adrenaline, but they did recognize when men were “fighting crazy” or performing almost inhuman feats on the battlefield. In the fighting around Petersburg, William Phillips was astonished by his response to battle: “My eyes saw it all, in red and flame, but I could not digest it somehow.” Rushing forward, led by “some other power than myself” he ran straight into the Confederate works. This “combat narcosis” definitely assisted soldiers in battle, making them almost numb to the events around them, even though they were still witnessing and experiencing them. “During that terrible 4 or 5 hours that we were there I had not a thought of fear or anything like fear,” wrote a Massachusetts lieutenant about Malvern Hill, “on the contrary I wanted to rush them hand to hand.” He had been dreading the battle the entire day before, he admitted, “yet it seemed as the moment came all fear and all excitement passed away and I cared no more than I would in a common hail storm.” Once soldiers were on the field of battle they relied on the absence of fear and the simplification of battle to a “common hail storm” to do their job.
The absence of fear in battle helped men fight, but it also heightened the reality of the aftermath when they began to inspect the battlefield. The debris of war was scattered over the ground, which itself bore the marks of battle, but the worst sight was the dead and wounded men. There was no time to give each casualty the attention usually given to the dead in civilian life; instead, remains were buried hastily, sometimes in mass graves, or neglected completely. Remains left uncovered for days before burial crews could reach them were almost unrecognizable as men; soldiers detailed to burial duty had to deal with these scenes in addition to the experience of battle. Men described being unnerved and sickened by the sights seen after battle, wishing they would never have to see them again. Some retained mental images of certain deaths that they could not forget. The trauma of these experiences came at a vulnerable time for soldiers, when they were feeling the physical and psychological collapse after the rush of battle. A man’s supply of adrenalin is not unlimited; the end of a battle, or even a lull or retreat in the midst of battle, could cause severe reactions as the body tried to restore its chemical balance. The physical and mental impact of what they had just done finally set in; they realized how tired, dirty, sore, and thirsty they were and could feel depression, low morale, and sudden vulnerability. Surveying the damage and feeling physically affected by battle, the fears men had pushed aside in the heat of battle returned even more intensely than before. Men who witnessed battlefield casualties, the treatment of remains, and the very real possibility of an anonymous death felt the inevitability of their own demise, and the fear of the time they too would become a casualty. The impact of a battle could linger for weeks, months, or years as bodies and evidence of combat remained visible to soldiers marching through or camping on old battlefields. Even more personal, names absent at daily roll call were a constant reminder of the losses they had suffered, and those they might suffer in the future.
Kathleen Logothetis graduated in May 2012 with an M.A. in History from West Virginia University. Her thesis, “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army,” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. After a third summer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, she will be continuing at West Virginia University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in History. Her research interests include the Civil War and American Revolution, military history/soldier experience, and commemoration/memory/monuments. ©