Whether it was the summer of 1862, 1863, or 1864, early July is the climax of military campaigns in all three of those deadly summers. Soldier descriptions of what the experience of participating in a battle was abound in Civil War historiography. When I read excerpts of the below letter written by Henry Lyon of the 34th New York recounting the Battle of Fair Oaks, I was struck by the details he shared with his brother. It is one of the best accounts of what a Civil War battle must have been like and it places the reader not only on the firing line with Lyon but also in the mind of a soldier under fire on the battlefield. He wrote this letter on June 24, 1862.
I will simply say that it was our first time in the “fire” and although we came out scorched I thank God that we stood the test. I confess that before the hour of trial came, I sometimes questioned my own mind and even doubted our Regt. if she ever came into a hand to hand conflict with the Enemy…
Now I suppose you would like me to describe a battle and a battlefield, also a person’s peculiar sensations while engaged all of which I feel myself totally incompetent to do. As for the battle part or a man’s feelings while engaged in the fight I can only speak for myself–After the first prelude is played “the part that tries men’s souls” then Came a different feeling, a feeling totally at variance with anything I ever experienced. It is a total of disregard of danger and an enmity and feeling of revenge toward the foe that converts a man into a Demon. He hears the piteous cries of the mutilated and wounded human beings around him and is no more moved than he would be at home to hear an infant cry. His business is before him friends and foes alike are trodden under foot in his mad pursuit of the Enemy and as he Charges or Fires he does it with a will sometimes accompanied with an oath or a yell that in other times would sound decidedly Savage.
Oh! it is a sight that one will not be apt to forget in one lifetime at least. To see a Regt. advance under a galling fire from superior numbers, returning their fire steadily. Advancing until the enemy is seen to waver. Then charging upon them through mud that was in places half-leg deep driving them into the woods. And there meeting heavy reinforcements which only yielded after more than an hour’s contest and receiving one of the hottest fires on record from the pursuers and all this being done cool, calm and deliberate but with such deadly determination that was perfectly irresistible and all the time heading and obeying orders keeping in line as if they were on Dress Parade. After routing the Enemy falling back in just as good order and reposing upon their arms among the dead bodies which strewed the field. It makes brave men of cowards even to fight in a just cause and to have confidence in his leaders.
Confidence in Commanders and in fellow soldiers is every thing in Battle. A false movement producing a stampede will cause a panic that will appall the bravest-heart. It is not when the enemy charges upon us, that we are the most frightened. It is when from some cause or other some of our own men run, that will make a soldier pale and act cowardly, if anything will.
In the summer of battles, it is important to remember the stress these soldiers suffered through on the battlefield.
*This excerpt was copied from Henry C. Lyon, “Desolating This Fair Country”: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Lt. Henry C. Lyon, 34th New York, ed. Emily N. Radigan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999), 119-21.