Over the past weekend, I’ve been reading the newly released book Rebel Correspondent, transcribed and annotated by Steve Procko. The highlight of the book is the post-war reminiscences of Private Arba F. Shaw who served in the 4th Georgia Cavalry. With the “First Experiences Under Fire” series in mind, I waited to see how Shaw chose to write about that battle moment. But it was a long wait until he fired his first shots in combat…
Shaw enlisted on September 27, 1862, just seven days after his eighteenth birthday. He waited in various camps and took on courier duty during his early months of service. Describing the early weeks of spring in 1863, Shaw wrote: “Now were ready for war. We went to McMinville and on the way I saw the first blood shed by gun shot in the regt. One of the boys in another company in dismounting, shot himself through the foot. I saw him get down. He got down on the right hand side and had the gun musle[sp] turned down instead of up.” Accidental (or purposeful) injuries were not uncommon for Civil War soldiers, but it is interesting that decades after the war, Shaw noted the scenario particularly as the first blood he had ever seen from a gunshot wound.
During his first year of military service, Shaw was sick much of the time — in and out of hospitals and getting leave to go home. He returned to duty just after the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, but was left behind with the other convalescents during Wheeler’s Raid. He wrote: “By this time cool weather had come and I was ready for duty. Now one year of my war experience had passed and my regiment had been in lots of fights and yet I had not fired a gun battle, but the time was no close at hand…”
Moving through East Tennessee not far from Maryville, Shaw had his first under battle fire experience, later writing:
“Now we are in for it. When we topped the hill south of the bridge the yanks on top of the hill north of the creek saw us and began shooting cannon at us, and the skirmishers in the swamp along the north side were shooting at us. We were not long in facing in line and counting of 1,2,3,4, and 1,2,3,4, dismounting to fight and to the rear with the horses. All ready, Colonel Avery in front gave the command forward march, and down that long hill in an open field at a regulation step, Colonel and his orderly Sam Latimer, in front mounted, and at every step we met heavy charges of grape and canister and minnie balls from the yanks in the bushy swamp, and strange to say that Harrison Dalton was the only man hurt. As we went down the hill a piece of shell struck him on the breast on his testament in the breast pocket. The testament saved his live. Dalton was about two steps directly behind me. Somebody cared for him. We went on to the creek, where Latimer’s horse was shot. The creek was eddy at that place and deep, and filed to the right up to the bridge where it was shallow and crossed. By that time we got the first sight of the yanks that shot so much in the swamp. They saw we were on the flank move, and they came out and gave us room. By the time we got sight of them they were foo far to shoot at, and we kept our ammunition, but went on and crossed a lane. Lieutenant G.D. Allen, was in front of me. A yank shot at him as he jumped off the bank into the road and the ball cut out a notch in the top rail of the fence and passed on. My right hand was only far enough above for safety. On across the land and the hollow, and up on top of the hill where their line of battle had been, but they were all gone. Then the Texas rangers came in mounted, raised the rebel yell, and gave them a send on to Knoxville, and we went back to our horses and camped for the night.”
While it can be tempting to look for the dramatic stories of green regiments, perhaps there is much to consider and reevaluate with the first fire experiences of soldiers going into combat with previously initiated comrades. In Shaw’s case, illness absented him from the regiment “first fire,” and this would have been probably for quite a few other soldiers in other units. Another situation of inexperienced marching in with veterans developed as regiments recruited refill their ranks.
Shaw remembered remarkable details about that dismounted advance under fire in 1902 when he wrote about it. From his place in the battle line to who was shot and how the unit moved across the topography, it was still a vivid moment decades later. Often, it is easy to look for the “big moments” and stories of baptism by fire at the early battles or with famous regiments, but in accounts like Shaw’s rests the reminder that many soldiers had their first combat experiences in unnamed firefights.
Steve Procko, Rebel Correspondent, (Ocala: Steve Procko Productions, LLC, 2021), Pages 50, 72, 76-77.