How a Man Feels in Battle

“How a man feels when in battle is a question that our volunteers have doubtless frequently asked themselves,” wrote a columnist for the Philadelphia North American early in the war. Many on the home front undoubtedly shared that curiosity. The newspaperman published his account of meeting a soldier furloughed after the battle of Bull Run–a rare veteran in the fall of 1861–who spoke of his metaphysical transformation on the battlefield. The soldier claimed to be neither patriotic or courageous, who only joined the army due to having no other job at the time, and one who freely admitted to dreading confrontation with the enemy: “He disliked the idea of the sudden sensation by a bayonet thrust in the abdomen, while only second to this was his horror of being cut down with a rifle ball like an unsuspecting squirrel.”

The article described the soldier’s experience at Bull Run:

When his regiment was drawn up in line he admits his teeth chattered and his knee-pans rattled like a pot closet in a hurricane. Many of his comrades were similarly affected, and some of them would have lain down had they dared to so so. When the first volley had been interchanged, our friend informs us every trace of these feelings had passed away from him. A reaction took place, and he became almost savage from excitement. Balls whistled all about him, and a cannon shot cut in halves a companion at his side. Another was struck by some explosive that spattered the brains over the clothes of our informant, but so far from intimidating, all these things nerved up his resolution.

“In the roar of musketry and the thundering discharge of artillery there is a music that banishes even innate cowardice,” claimed the story’s writer. “If these things are so–and we incline to think they are so–the best cure for cowardice is to crowd a man into a fight and there keep him.” Another editor agreed early in 1862: “The more he is exposed to fire, the better he can bear it; and the timid being of today is the hero of tomorrow; and he who runs from danger on the first battle field will run into it on the next, and court the hazard he once so dreaded.” Mighty lofty armchair generalship from comfortable offices back in Philly, but accounts from the tail end of the war confirm the relief felt when finally allowed to charge even into the gates of hell.

The modern expression “hurry up and wait” rang excruciatingly true on the eve of a charge. As the Sixth Corps waited in the darkness for hours before the final assault on the Petersburg earthworks a comrade of Anson Ryder’s heard him complain “I would rather charge than lie here in this suspense and misery.” After the assault began, most motivated themselves further with wild shouts, but the anticipation of battle rendered Private Clark F. Barnes mute, as he wrote years later to the National Tribune: “When I started on that charge I was not feeling very well; there was something the matter with my throat. I thought my heart would jump clear out of my mouth. The boys were yelling and charging all around me. I think I went more than half way across before I yelled, and then I felt so much better that I was sorry I had not yelled when I started. I was much surprised at the great change in feelings. After that whoop I think I could have tackled the whole so-called Southern Confederacy.”

Even the shocking losses of a defeat like Fredericksburg seemed to promote the notion on the surface. A Massachusetts infantryman with the initials C.H. wrote of his time at Fredericksburg as correspondent for the Springfield Republican:

There can be nothing more puzzling than the analysis of one’s feelings on a battle-field. You cannot describe them satisfactorily to yourself or others. To march steadily up to the mouths of a hundred cannon, while they pour out fire and smoke and shot and shell in a storm that mows the men like grass, is horrible beyond description—appalling. It is absurd to say a man can do it without fear.

During Hancock’s charge at Fredericksburg, for a long distance the slope was swept by such a hurricane of death that we thought every step would be our last; and I am willing to say, for one, that I was pretty badly scared. Whatever may be said about “getting used to it,” old soldiers secretly dread a battle equally with new ones. But the most difficult thing to stand up under is the suspense while waiting, as we waited in Fredericksburg, drawn up in line of battle on the edge of the field, watching the columns file past us and disappear in a cloud of smoke, where horses and men and colors go down in confusion, where all sounds are lost in the screaming of shells, the cracking of musketry, the thunder of artillery, and knowing that our own turn comes next, expecting each moment the word “Forward.”

It brings a strange kind of relief when “Forward” comes. You move mechanically with the rest. Once fairly in for it, your sensibilities are strangely blunted—you care comparatively nothing about the sights that shocked you at first—men torn to pieces by cannon shot become a matter of course. At such a time there comes a latent sustenance from within us, or above us, which no man anticipates who has not been in such a place before, and which most men pass through life without knowing anything about. What is it? Where does it come from?

Some newspaper accounts got carried away with themselves, promoting a braggadocio that turned the army invincible in the eyes of many back home. If another correspondent’s beliefs are any indication, neither side would have ever backed down in battle:

A reasoning man at first feels alarmed, and his impulse is to run away; and if he has no reason to stand, he does run; but at each exposure, he grows less timid, and after hearing canister and grape about his ears a dozen times, begins to think he is not destined to be hurt.

He still feels rather uneasy, perhaps; but the danger becomes fascinating, and, though he don’t wish to be hit, he likes to have narrow escapes, and so voluntarily places himself in a position where he can incur more risk.

After a little while he begins to reason the matter; reflects upon the doctrine of probabilities, and how much powder and lead is necessarily wasted before a man is killed or wounded. Why should he be, he thinks, so much more unlucky than many other people; and he soon can hear the whizzing of bullets with a tolerable degree of equanimity… In the afternoon he is quite a different creature from what he was in the morning, and involuntarily smiles to see a man betray the same trepidation which he himself exhibited a few hours before.

The early 1862 correspondent concluded that most soldiers began despising “what has often threatened them without causing them harm.” If their risky behavior resulted in a wound, “they learn wounds are less painful to bear than they supposed, and then the doctrine of probabilities teaches them once more they are less liable to be wounded again.”

Reality proved otherwise.

C.H.’s Fredericksburg correspondence ran on January 26, 1863. Soon many editors nationwide decided to pick up the popular story. It carried another glimpse into the mindset of a soldier to civilians in St. Johnsbury (Vt.), Gallipolis (Oh.), and Milwaukee (Wi.). Southern editors also offered the account—without comment—to their readers. Atlanta’s Southern Confederacy, the Wilmington Journal, and the Staunton Vindicator all ran the piece that spring. The article’s message stretched out to western audiences as well, with the Los Angeles Star and Walla Walla’s Washington Statesman publishing the correspondence in the summer of 1863. Erskine Church, a Connecticut soldier, read the account and so agreed with its description of battle that he copied it verbatim as his own in a letter sent March 15, 1863 to his mother.

Yet many chose to omit the soldier’s concluding paragraph of the cost of the battle of Fredericksburg. Of the sixteen newspapers I found who reprinted the article, only two chose to publish the final paragraph:

Those who say they would like to visit a battle-field seldom know what they are talking about. After darkness has put an end to the struggle, a hush settles over the field; such a contrast to the roar of the fight! Never is silence more oppressive, more eloquent. You hear the cries of the wounded, which are never distinguished while the work is going on. A stray shot hurtles through the darkness overhead. You hear the ambulance wheels chirr heavily along, grinding through the soil with a sullen, muffled sound, like some monster crushing the bones of his victims. You see the outline of forms gliding through the gloom, carrying on litters pale, bloody men. You stumbled over—perhaps your friend—with his hair matted in blood over his white face, and his dead eyes staring blindly up to the sky. You are startled by the yells of those lifted about, after becoming cold and stiff in their blood. Follow to the hospital, and see those, whose lives clung to them on the field, dissected alive, and butchered. They write a few hours or days, are tumbled into a trench, their graves unknown, forgotten forever.

Then talk about the horrors of war.

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