Not Silent Battlefields: Researching for Wreaths Across America

It’s just two days until Emerging Civil War’s fundraiser tour at New Market Battlefield to support Wreaths Across America. There are a few tour spots left if you’d like to donate and join us on Sunday, October 1! Details and registration here…along with information about the virtual program option available on October 7. (In case you’re wondering, New Market Battlefield is a state park and will not be directly affected if there is a federal government shutdown.)

One thing that has really stood out to me over the last few weeks of interpreting the research is the reminder that battlefields were not silent. During the studies for our tour, Jon Tracey and I have come across quite a few quotes that were supposedly shouted or said on the New Market battlefield. While we suspect the veterans “cleaned up their language for publication” in some incidents, it’s still been interesting to see how battlefield words revealed relief jokes, honor, fear of capture, or even political commentary on the 1860 election. (Come to the tour or join us virtually to get those details!)

The following account from the 12th West Virginia’s regiment history offers a glimpse into some battlefield words, and the types of humor and tragedy that weave through the accounts of fighting and aftermath. This unit fought alongside the 34th Massachusetts, 54th Pennsylvania, and 1st West Virginia as part of the Second Brigade (Thorburn’s) in the First Infantry Division in General Franz Sigel’s Union force. During the battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, the 12th West Virginia positioned in support of Carlin and Snow’s batteries on Bushong Hill. 

Here is a humorous incident of the battle of New Market that was current among the boys afterward. As well as can be recalled, it was told thus: Col. Wells of the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts was a strict disciplinarian, but in defiance of this fact, the boys in his regiment would sometimes fire off their guns in camp. In such cases, he was want to say, “Orderly, orderly go and ascertain who fired that gun and report him to me immediately.”

This order of the Colonel’s having been repeated in the same stereotyped language at different times impressed itself upon the minds of the boys of the Thirty-fourth and became a matter of remark and jest among them. Well, at the battle of New Market when the battle was opening and the first gun or so was fired, some fellow [in] that regiment with characteristic American humor, who was bound to have his joke if it was to be his last on earth, yelled out, “Orderly, orderly, go and ascertain who fired that gun and report him to me immediately.”

Comrade Jas N. Miller, of Company A, taken prisoner at the battle of New Market tells of an incident of the battle….

The first man killed in Company A, if I remember rightly was John A. Christman. He was a recruit, who came to us at Harpers Ferry, in the winter of 1863-64. He was a light-hearted fellow, somewhat reckless, who carried a fiddle, often playing and singing. At the battle of New Makret as we were going into the fight, Christman and I were in file together. The battle had begun and the cannon were booming. He said to me in his jovial way, “Hickory” – that was the nickname the boys gave me because I was “tough” physically – I hope I will be killed today.” I said to him as calmly as I could for my heart was up in my throat like a great lump. “Christman, you oughtn’t to talk that way.” “Well,” he replied, “I don’t care.”

We lay down alongside of a battery which was firing, and I saw General Sigel on his horse, giving orders to “fire percussion!” The fortune of war threw Christman in the front rank, and he, being a large man, and I a slender boy, I crouched down behind him. The Rebels were charging upon us, and about the first ball that came near us struck Christman in the breast; and he died without a sound. After the fight in which I was captured, I helped to carry his body off the field and into a little stable or some kind of an out building, and I suppose it was buried by the Rebels….

John Christman’s name does not appear on the printed 1868 records for Winchester National Cemetery. However, unless his remains were sent to his family, it is a strong contextual conclusion that he lies in an unknown grave within that national cemetery with the other unidentified dead from New Market battlefield. 

These paragraphs from the 12th West Virginia’s regimental history offer the chaotic and individual moments of war. From teasing the strict colonel and making a joke to the quiet resignation and fears shared between two soldiers, I’m reminded that these battlefields were not silent places. Even as the sounds of rifles and cannon burst over the landscape and wounded cried out, soldiers were responding verbally and giving voice to their sudden or deeper thoughts. 

Two flags from the 12th West Virginia (West Virginia History OnView)


William Hewitt, The History of the Twelfth West Virginia Volunteer Infantry: The Part it Took in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (1892). Pages 116-118. Accessed through Google Books. 

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