by John Y. Foster
A suggestive scene was presented at Ascension Church, in Philadelphia, on the morning of the 5th of July, 1863. Two days before the great Battle of Gettysburg had been fought. The nation knew already that victory crowned our arms; but it stood yet on the tiptoe of expectation. As to the consequences of the rebel reverse suspense still prevailed. Hourly bulletins from the field announced the most terrible suffering among the wounded, and appeals for help—for nurses, surgeons, and stores—rung with painful pathos over the North. Thirty thousand men were lying on the field, helpless, dying, just as they fell. Ascension Church had acted upon this information. The hearts of its Christian men and women had been stirred by the sad appeal; and here, on this Sabbath morning, with the bells heating their morning psalms all around them, two hundred or more, nimble-handed women chiefly, were assembled, busily at work preparing supplies for the field. In place of a sermon the clergyman had brought a sewing-machine; instead of Sabbath-day finery each woman wore the more royal ornament of plain working-apparel. In every available niche a sewing-machine was shrined; even the pulpit-desk was removed, and a brood, noisy as so many canaries, clustered and chattered upon the platform. Here were some preparing lint; there were others cutting shirts, drawers, bandages; while in another place others were sizing rags—of all things on a battle-field most necessary and useful. Now and then young men staggered in under great burdens of material contributed at the houses in the vicinity, or poured into the treasury the gifts of friends and neighbors. The scene was a picture of wartime. Christian love and sympathy shone through it and over it like a benediction. There was a heart-beat in every click of the needle.
By the following noon, through the efforts of the women and young men, several tons of stores, including garments, delicacies, and medicines, with a large money collection, had been accumulated. With these a delegation of active workers was immediately dispatched to the field. It was my fortune to accompany these young men. It is the story of their experience, and something of my own, during Four Days at Gettysburg, that I propose to tell.
The journey to the scene of action was by no means without incident: bridges, railroads, every thing within rebel reach, had been destroyed; horses, wagons, and even cattle had been carried off and travel was difficult. Now and then some dilapidated vehicle crept cautiously along the highway; occasionally a company of returning refugees crowded to join our little caravan; but otherwise the pulses of life seemed to have stopped their beating in all the smitten region. Even sleeping accommodations were scarcely to be had; as we neared our destination every house seemed to be stripped of the most ordinary conveniences.
We arrived at Gettysburg in a drizzling rain, on the evening of Friday, July 10, and, reporting at the head-quarters of the Christian Commission, were immediately assigned to duty at the Second Army Corps field-hospital, situated on a wooded slope on the Baltimore pike, some four miles from the town. The scene which presented itself as we proceeded toward our destination no words can depict. Every where the scars and rents of the conflict which had raged along these hills were painfully visible. Every field was an Aceldama. Every tree was scarred and torn, a chilly blight resting upon its summer crown of beauty. Almost every bush was a lair into which some one had crept for refuge, and found it in agonizing death. Far and near along the hills and in the stretches of lowlands tents stood out against the gathering shadows, revealing where the wounded and dying lay. Here and there great girdles of fire blazoned the slopes, telling of slaughtered animals slowly consuming. Broken caissons, knapsacks, canteens, and small-arms were strewn on every path. Fences were prostrate, and blood sprinkled every tuft of grass which the feet of the contending armies had not trampled down. The houses presented marks of the conflict. One, which was occupied as a hospital, revealed a gaping wound in the second story, where a cannon-ball had gone straight through, shattering as it went a mirror handing on the wall, but leaving the frame without a blemish. What was yet more remarkable, the ball in its passage struck and shivered the head-hoard of a bed on which one of the occupants was lying, but had not brushed a hair from his forehead. Other buildings were riddled in a hundred places; and all, except those used for hospital purposes, were deserted, not a light flashing in the windows, not a child playing on the door-steps, not even a dog growling at the gate as we marched on toward our destination through the gathering night.
No part of the extended field presented more conspicuous evidences of the grand and terrific struggle than Round Top Hill. Here one of the fiercest engagements of Thursday was fought. The enemy had attacked our left and centre with strong columns. The left, held by Sykes, rested on Round Top; and against that position first, at four o’clock in the afternoon, an overwhelming column was precipitated. Sickles threw himself in the way of the advancing avalanche, but was steadily pushed back, until Sykes, seeing his peril, hurried to his help. But even thus reinforced, our force was scarcely able to foil the purpose of the enemy, which was to break our left and flank us. Steadily the advancing column pressed up to the very summit of Little Round Top, and the day seemed lost. But after a contest of two hours—in which the belligerents had fought desperately hand to hand, taking and retaking guns—the Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Corps, until then held in reserve, rushed with a shout upon the foe, driving them in confusion down the rocky sides of Little Round Top, across the valley below, and over the hill beyond into the woods whence they came, leaving us masters of the position. The bloody testimonies of that struggle were for weeks afterward offensively apparent. The slope was one horrid waste; far and near unburied corpses were lying for days afterward, scores of wounded rebels crouching among them unable to move. In some places bodies, caught in the thickets as they fell, were still hanging midway between the summit and the hill’s foot, dense clouds of insects hovering over them. Broken guns, shells, cartridges, and fragments of rebel uniforms were scattered every where.
In front of the position held by Hancock in the fight of Friday a similar scene was presented. That position was assailed by the enemy in two massive lines, both of which, as they advanced, were shattered in pieces by our artillery and musketry; whole regiments disappearing before our canister as if blown away by the wind. The broken ranks of Lee never returned to the charge after that repulse. We needed but to look upon the field to understand why it was the battle was never renewed; no army could recover from such a blow.
It is said that Lee himself felt that his fate depended upon the result of the attack on this position. Before it had been ordered, he had reconnoitred the field from the college cupola, and had determined that the left centre, held by Hancock, was the weakest part of our lines. At every other point the battle had gone against him; here, therefore, he must strike and succeed, or his invasion would end in disaster. We were told that among the wounded who were picked up after the battle was a rebel officer, found lying directly in front of our defenses, who had on his person an order from Lee commanding him to carry the position if it cost him every man in his command.
The following morning our labors commenced in earnest. Stores had come up, and their distribution was a duty and a necessity. On all sides the wounded and sick were pleading for help. “Do carry me to a tent.” “Must we lie here forever?” “I am so weak; can’t you give me something to revive me?” “Please give inc a drink of water.” “I want something to eat.” “O God! must I die here alone?” Such were the appeals which sounded in our ears. Especially were the rebels in need of attention. While Lee, in retreating, had left a detail of men and a number of surgeons to look after his wounded, the necessity of effort was so urgent and immediate that, had they been disposed, they could hardly care for a tenth part of those who were actually suffering. To the care of our enemies, therefore, we devoted our chief attention. Their condition was horrible. All were dirty, many were filthy, while some were almost absolutely naked, and crouched in their tents, as if ashamed to look into any human face. Almost the first sufferer we encountered was destitute of every article of clothing except a torn shirt; he lay huddled in a heap, striving, in obedience to an irrepressible instinct, to hide his shame and nakedness. Many others we found stretched upon the ground, silent and helpless, with only blankets flung over them. All lay upon the ground, with pools of water all around them, often with channels the rains had made flowing under them in the hollow of the soil.
It may as well be said here as elsewhere that much in this distressing condition of the rebel wounded was owing to the neglect and indifference of their own surgeons. Many of these surgeons seemed altogether destitute of those sensibilities which lend a softening influence to the rugged necessities and always forbidding duties of this important office. Some were almost brutal in their treatment of the men left to their care. Indeed, among all the officers and men whom the rebel commanders had intrusted with this work, we saw but a single one—a captain— who appeared to appreciate the gravity and importance of his office. Night and day, regardless of personal comfort, indifferent to every thing except the welfare of his suffering soldiers, he planned and worked, facing bravely all emergencies, overcoming all obstacles, and so commending himself to those about him that every face kindled at his coming, and all felt the influence of his high example.
In that part of the field to which we were assigned there was a barn, which had been taken as a hospital by the rebel surgeons. The building was broad and strong, but was rather slatternly than otherwise, and by no means, in the matter of cleanliness, what was desirable for hospital use. The rebel surgeons, however, every thing having been removed by the rebel cavalry upon their first appearance, had piled the ground-floor with their wounded, placing them so thickly that it was almost impossible for one to stir without communicating a shock to all. In the centre of the floor time surgeons planted a table for amputating purposes; and there, in full view of hundreds of enfeebled wretches, the process of cutting, and carving, and butchering (for it was nothing else) went on day after day. The scene, as we saw it on more than one occasion, was horrible. It was torture for the faint, disheartened wounded to lie, hour after hour, perfectly helpless, compulsory witnesses of the atrocities which these surgeons dignified by the name of “operations.” During every minute of fifteen hours every day some sufferer was upon the table. Groans, shrieks, and curses constantly filled the air, the sound of the knife and crash of the saw blending continuously with the din of agony. Legs and arms falling from the table to the floor beneath were raked out in armfuls, with every eye fixed on the spectacle, and carried away for burial.
One circumstance alone which fell under my personal observation will quite suffice, without elaborating further this unpleasant topic, the utter insensibility and want of feeling on the part of the rebel surgeons.
The day after our arrival the wife of a rebel officer, who was supposed to have been wounded, rode up to the place we have described, thinking that possibly she might there discover her husband. The groans and screams of agony which saluted her were quite sufficient to fill her mind with dread and sickening fear; but she was doomed to see in a worse form still the barbarous nature of the treatment which might possibly fall to the lot of the one she sought. Hardly had she stated to an officer the object of her visit, when a rebel surgeon, with a knife in his hand, leaving a victim on the table, came to the door, and in a loud voice directed one of the hospital detail to “fetch him a carving-knife,” adding that he would like to have also a razor-strop, as his “instrument was getting dull.” The scene was too much for the smitten woman. Covering her face, she urged the driver to his quickest pace, and, with the unutterable wail surging in her ears, was hurried away.
The effect upon the enemy of the kindly ministrations of the representatives of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, who thronged the field, in such marked contrast with the treatment of their own nurses, was most marked and palpable. At first many did not seem able to understand it; but when the fact dawned upon them their surprise knew no bounds. They had been taught to regard Northern men as savages; but they found that they had tender hearts, and carried blessings instead of curses in their palms, and for the most part they accepted the kindness frankly and thankfully in the spirit in which it was offered. Scores of men said to us daily, “We are disappointed in you Northern men; you are doing more for us than we deserve, and much as you are doing, we see that you would gladly do more if you could.” In all my conversations I found only one man who was willing to admit that he had deliberately taken aim at a Union soldier; he confessed he had done so repeatedly, and avowed that he would do so again.
The Georgians uniformly declared, and our own soldiers confirmed the statement, that they never engaged in picket-firing; they held the practice to be little less than murder, and they could not stain their hands unnecessarily with blood. They added that in battle or out they only did what their officers commanded, which suggested the inference that it is most probably true there is much of the old leaven of Unionism still in Georgia.
It was touching to see how the suffering victims who had faced batteries vomiting death and slaughter melted and were subdued at the mention of home. In one of our rambles over the field we found a soldier who, although not apparently a severe sufferer, was anxious to rehearse his ills. The surgeon of our party, after some cursory examination of his wounds, remarked,
“You must have that limb examined, my good fellow; I will send for you to-morrow and have you brought up.”
A look of unutterable longing came into the soldier’s face. He knew the thought of the surgeon’s mind; that examination meant amputation, and he exclaimed, half-savagely, but with a childish entreaty mellowing the defiance of his voice,
“I can’t lose that leg—I can’t, can’t!”
“But why?” we said.
He paused a moment, and a startled look passed over his face, as if in a flash he had thought of his dear ones at home and their dependence upon him, and his possible inability to care for them in the future. Then he answered, haltingly,
“Because, because, Sir, I have use for it.”
Yes, poor fellow, doubtless he had use for it. At home, possibly, there were little children clustering around a wan-faced, feeble mother— children with want and suffering written in the lines on their young faces, but with great depths of love in their hearts. They were thinking, maybe, this very hour of the father, upon whose knee they used to sit at twilight, and wondering when he would come again to bless them with his love.
There was another case that affected us not a little. A soldier from Georgia was brought to our hospital greatly prostrated from the loss of his left leg. We at once saw that his case was hopeless, and bestowed upon him the closest care possible under the circumstances. From the first his mind seemed full of images of home, and he talked of little else besides his relatives. “I have an old father at home,” he would say, “and brothers and sisters; oh, if I could only go to them and sit in their midst once more!” Then his thoughts would seem to go back to the beginning of the war, and he would bemoan his folly in having entered the army, declaring, with despairing voice, that his heart had never been in the contest—that he would give years of his life if he could only go back again and be as he was before he took up arms.
“You can never know,” he said, “what we have suffered in our army. We thought when we enlisted that the life of a soldier was full of charms—even those of us who volunteered purely in obedience to popular clamor and not from any principle, thought we should not after all be so very badly off; but we have all long ago found out our mistake.”
As the time slipped on, and it became apparent that the poor fellow must die, all agreed that it was our duty to apprise him of his danger. So one evening, sitting down at his side, I said to him,
“William, you have often spoken of your home and friends; if you have any thing to say to them, I think you had better write them as soon as you can.”
He comprehended in a moment what I meant. For the first time the thought that he might die presented itself distinctly to his consciousness. He was young; he had a long way yet to walk, as he had dreamed, in life’s pleasant paths; and now, right in the June of his years, death looked out from their bloom and pointed downward to the grave. In one moment all this and more seemed to flash through his mind; then he said,
“You mean, then, that I must die?”
I answered him that such was the opinion of the surgeon, adding that probably he could survive but a day or two at furthest. Then I asked him if he was ready to die.
“Oh no!” he cried, with a great sob, “I am not prepared to go. My mother taught me, long years ago, my duty to God; she died praying for me, but I have forgotten it all, and now I am to die and be shut forever from her presence.”
I shall never forget the agony that throbbed in that last sentence. It was the cry of a smitten soul, yearning and feeling in the deep dark after God and heaven, and despairing of finding the boon it sought.
I told him life was still his, and it was not yet too late. Then prayer was offered, and the exhausted soldier lay for a time perfectly silent.
But after a while he roused himself and begged me to write what he should dictate. Then all the love in his heart poured forth. He told his father how he had suffered on the field; how he had been wounded and cared for by strangers and enemies; how he was dying with no hands but theirs to soothe and minister to him. Then he implored the father never to permit his younger brothers to go to the field, telling him they would but go to their death, and it would be in vain; victory could never be theirs. Then, when all else was said, he bade me write a word of farewell to each of the dear ones by name, concluding all with: “Father, brothers, sisters, I hope to meet you in heaven—a sob lying between each word as he gave them to me to write.
The following day William was much worse, and it was clear he could not survive many hours. During all the morning, tightly clasping my hand in his as if afraid of losing a friend in that last hour, he talked of death and the judgment, weeping over his wayward life, sometimes giving way to paroxysms of despair. Toward noon, as he lay calm and silent for a moment, a lady visiting the tent came to his side and soothed him a while with her gentle speech, bidding him lay hold upon the Hand that carries the keys of the Celestial City. That womanly hand seemed to touch his deeper nature; and he wept as he had never done before, with a flash of joy shining through his tears. So the hours with muffled step passed on. The afternoon faded down the slopes and grew dim in the valleys, and the night crept up starless and grim. At last William Yeargan’s hour was struck. Clasping my hand closely still, he whispered,
“Turn me over, please, and put me on my knees.”
I did as he requested, holding him as best I could, so that the stump of his leg might not touch the ground. The movement must have pained him, but he seemed unconscious now of suffering. Half erect, leaning on my arms, he stretched out his own, spreading his palms heavenward, lifted his eyes with an inexpressible longing upward, as if he would appease, in one last absolute surrender, divine justice; and so, without a word, he died, his head falling on his breast, his hands dropping limp and prone, life going out as softly as a summer dream flits its wing over the sleep of a babe. Though dead the pressure of that hand lies still in my palm.
I clipped a lock of hair, as he had requested, from his pallid temples, wrote upon it the day and hour of his decease, and sent it with his small effects, by an officer of his regiment, to the friends he was never again to see.
I have said that the rebel wounded displayed the warmest appreciation of the efforts in their behalf. In most cases it was a pleasure to contribute to their comfort. One day, in walking over the field, we heard a weak, pitiful voice calling us to stop; we turned aside, and in a little hollow discovered an old man, with long white hair, lying upon his back with a sharp, splintered rail for his pillow.
“I have waited so long,” he said, with an emphasis on the “so,” as we bent over him, “for some one to come to my help; but all have seemed too busy to listen.” Then, half-apologetically, he added, “It isn’t much I want; only that you will get something soft to put under my head: this rail is so hard it has almost worn off my poor scalp.”
Of course so little a service was most cheerfully performed. One of us, after a diligent search, obtained a quantity of old rags, and these we fashioned into a sort of pillow, and lifting his head, thrust the support beneath.
“Oh, that is paradise!” he said, and folding his hands and closing his eyes he was in a minute in a profound and peaceful slumber. Is it surprising that, as we walked away, we thought it was a royal ministry thus to be able to comfort and bless, at so little cost, the sufferings of brothers near to the River Crossing?
Another case, illustrating the gratitude of those to whom it was our fortune to minister, I can not forbear rehearsing here. Our ministrations, of course, did not consist merely in cleansing and binding up the wounds of the sufferers, or in providing them medicines and delicacies. It was our duty also to clothe them, where it was possible, in clean, sweet apparel, to furnish them hats, shoes, handkerchiefs, and whatever else was necessary to their comfort. Scores of men, who at home had never been considered “handy,” found themselves at once capable and willing nurses, washing and robing, as tenderly as a sister’s hand could do, the poor, limp, grimy fellows, to whom a wash was as essential as powders or salves. The work was not in itself a pleasant one; many of those who fell into our hands were almost loathsomely dirty; one felt a desire often to get between them and the wind; and, probably, had we followed our inclinations, we should never have performed, in a single case, the process of ablution.
One day, falling in with a sprightly, pleasant fellow—a mere boy in years, but intelligent beyond the average, who had sustained an injury compelling quiet, but not in any sense dangerous—he entreated me to find him some clean under-clothing, saying he was sure his hurts would mend much more rapidly if he could provided with such a change. His request was at once complied with; and a happier, more delighted being I never saw. Indeed, one found it almost impossible to comprehend how so small a thing should occasion such exuberant rejoicing as this poor boy exhibited over the acquisition of a simple pair of drawers and a shirt.
“Isn’t that grand!” he exclaimed, again and again, as he smoothed the sleeve of his shirt; “it makes a fellow feel like a king.” Then, as the sense of possession grew upon him, he insisted upon giving tangible form to his gratitude. “I have an old pipe,” he said; “it is all I have; it has gone with me all through the campaign; won’t you take it and keep it in proof that I am grateful for your kindness?”
I made light, of course, of my services, told him I had done nothing at all; that I didn’t want to rob him of his comforter; but he insisted, absolutely entreated indeed, that I should accept his offering.
“We have been taught,” he said, “to think of you Northern men as knaves and cheats, without any love or kindness in your souls; but I have found out it is all a lie; won’t you let me I show I am sincere? You think, some of you, that we are brutes; won’t you let me show you we can, at any rate, appreciate kindness, and are not ashamed to own up when we find we are mistaken? Come, now, do take the little I have to give.”
There was no getting away from importunity like this. I had in my pocket a meerschaum that had seen long service, and was about as worthless as the soldier’s; so finally I consented to an exchange, which occasioned the young fellow renewed satisfaction, since now, as he said, he “would have something to remember me by.” His pipe I have still; mine he put into his shoe on the spot, that being the safest place, he said, to carry it; and to-day, for all I know, at some rebel camp-fire or lonely picket-station he may be using it, seeing perhaps in its puffs of smoke pictures of that sultry July day at Gettysburg.
Upon parting with this light-hearted boy, who came from Columbia County, Georgia, one of the party, ascertaining that he was penniless, gave him a “greenback,” the bare appearance of which, without regard to its value, seemed to excite the liveliest emotions. Turning the hill over again and again, and examining it closely in all its parts, he exclaimed, “Isn’t it nice, though? And this is the money you have in; these parts?“ Then, with another look, “We never see any thing as handsome as that down our way. Our money is dirty and ragged, and sometimes the more you have of it the worse you are off.”
In the treatment of the wounded no preference was given, so far as we observed, by any on the field, to our own soldiers. Possibly in the matter of shelter they were somewhat better provided than the enemy; but this was the fault entirely of the rebel surgeons, who had failed to he avail themselves of the facilities at hand. The Federal wounded were for the most part placed in fly-tents, lying in rows of six on either side, where they were visited daily and their wants supplied. Generally the spirit of our men was much better than that of the rebels; they submitted more willingly and bravely to necessary operations, and often, in fact, made light of sufferings from which the Southrons seemed to shrink in dismay. Frequently we heard men say with the utmost nonchalance, when contemplating the loss of an arm or leg, “I’m going on the table tomorrow ;“ the sad necessity seeming to occasion no more fear or trouble than the possible prick of a pin to a child. The loyalty, too, of our wounded heroes was gloriously illustrated in their rejoicings, even in their sufferings, over the victory they had helped to achieve. One day a visitor was speaking of the horrors of the field in a tent occupied by some of our wounded. “It is awful,” said he, “to see what slaughter has been wrought, and the misery that has followed.” “Yes,” said a legless hero, “it is awful, but then the result is glorious”’ And in a hundred instances the same noble spirit was exhibited.
There was probably a reason for this exuberance of feeling in many minds which the casual visitor would not have observed. With very many a deep religious sentiment, upon close investigation, was found to underlie the moral nature, dignifying and enriching it, making even the dark hours bright, and soothing the sharpest pangs. To a certain extent this was also true of the enemy; there were many among them who seemed to be hearty, genuine Christians. Frequently they would he found at prayer or humming hymns in a subdued, quiet way. One brawny fellow, who occupied a place on the floor of the barn already mentioned, sang for hours together, apparently wholly unconscious of what was passing right under his eyes, his strong, clear voice of praise piercing like a bugle-note, even the tumult of the shrieking sufferers who were piled like so many bullocks all around him.
It would be impossible, of course, to describe at length the character of the wounds we were called upon to examine. However valuable such a description might be to physiologists and men of science, the general reader would find no pleasure in perusing the horrible details. The wounds were of every imaginable description, and upon all parts of the person. There were wounds in the head, the breast, the abdomen, the legs, the feet, the hands; there were wounds of the flesh merely, and others affecting the vital organism; in some cases legs and arms were shot away so closely to the socket that it was impossible to gather up the cords, and the hurts were necessarily cauterized or left to fester and eat away the life; in others, the face would be partly shot away, leaving, perhaps, only a single eye or row of teeth; while in others still, simply an ear, or finger, or part of the nose would be missing.
One case alone may be mentioned. In a little tent, as we pursued our investigations, we found a dead soldier lying on his face, his hands clenched, his eyes set, the earth all about him clotted with blood. Immediately in the centre of his back, just below the shoulders, was a ghastly wound made by a shell which had carried away a solid mass of flesh, and left exposed the vital parts. A rebel surgeon had attempted to dress the hurt by spreading over it a great batch of sticking plaster, but this had loosened, leaving the sore more ragged than before; the blood had poured out afresh, the agony had become too great to bear, and, with none to help, the poor sufferer had died by inches. In his agony he had clutched and loosened the earth as far as he could reach; and there, with his face fallen into the pit his own hands had made, he lay on the field where he had hoped, perhaps, to win distinction, and whence, it may be, he had expected to send news of victory.
Of course many of those whom we were called to nurse fell away and died, spite of all our care and watching. Often death came very suddenly, and, accustomed as we had become to look into its face, startled us by its unexpected presence. One evening we found a fair-faced young Virginian lying apart from the main hospital, who had received a ball through the knee. He was suffering terribly, and an examination of the wound showed that amputation ought not to be a moment delayed. He was carried to a tent and laid upon a table, the surgeons preparing meanwhile for the operation. Further examination, however, induced the belief that he was too greatly enfeebled to undergo the operation at that time, and it was accordingly determined to postpone it until the morrow. Placing a rude pillow under his head, and folding a blanket over his person, the poor fellow was left on the table to gather strength in repose, none of ns doubting that he would rally and finally be restored. The next morning, expecting confidently to find him better and stronger, we called again at the tent, passed in, and lifted the bloodstained blanket—he was dead.
Nothing struck us more forcibly than the entire absence of animosity and ill-will between the soldiers of the two armies; the moment the battle was done the men came together as naturally and unconsciously as though they had never stood in hostile array, each seeking the destruction of the other. One instance of this nature came to our knowledge on the Gettysburg field. A wounded Federal soldier, narrating his experiences, told us that, during the terrible engagement of Friday, he was struck down by a ball on a part of the field over which the hostile lines swayed to and fro with varying success. As he fell our forces were gradually falling back, and the enemy pushing forward occupied the ground where he lay. Discovering him, several soldiers set to work immediately in providing him a shelter, erecting about him as he lay a barricade of stones several feet in height, and two or three feet in thickness. Presently, under a menace from our lines, the enemy withdrew from that part of the field, leaving the soldier and his hastily-constructed castle about midway between the opposing lines. A steady fire of musketry followed for an hour or more; but, notwithstanding his exposed position, the occupant of the half-way house escaped without another scratch. “The balls,” he told us, “came with an incessant pet, pat, pot, against the stones, or whistled with a sharp cry almost continuously over my head. I felt every minute that the next would end my career; but after all, not a single bullet reached me, and I crept out, when the fight was over, with no other injury than I had sustained before the rebels put me under shelter.” Outside of the barricade thus constructed hundreds of flattened bullets were afterward picked up, fully confirming the truth of the soldier’s singular story.
It was no uncommon sight, as we made our daily rounds in different parts of the field, to see wounded men of both armies chatting pleasantly together, sometimes rehearsing— with a piquant forgetfulness of their peculiar relations, and as if members, indeed, of one family—the story of their achievements, one against the other, but scarcely ever directly discussing the merits of the grave controversy in which they were performing a leading part. Occasionally, also, on remote parts of the field, whence the more dangerously wounded had not yet been carried to the hospital, but were collected in groups, under such shelter as it was possible to furnish, rebels and loyalists were found lying side by side, apparently unconscious that any difference had ever put them in hostile columns. Those who insist that there is a radical antagonism between the masses of the South and of the North; who maintain that so violently have the passions of the two sections been excited that it will be impossible ever to allay the exasperation and bring the people into good fellowship again, will find nothing on a battle-field when the conflict has ceased, or in the camp when quiet reigns along the lines, to justify their vehemently-supported postulate. The truth is, this war has shown to the people of each section the exact character of the other; has especially discovered to the ignorant masses of the South the true moral qualities of the North, and a mutual respect has been thus produced, out of which, in the future, there will grow inevitably that homogeneity which constitutes one of the surest safeguards, as it is one of the main pillars of strength, of a nation.
One suspicion, which has been widely entertained at the North, found ample confirmation in the experience of all who mingled with the rebel wounded on this bloody field. The great central features of Federal policy were either grossly misinterpreted or altogether misunderstood by the common soldiers of the Southern army. In a majority of cases the latter was the fact. Thus many with whom we conversed, the Georgians especially, not a few of whom were men of some intelligence, denied utterly that the President had over issued an admonitory proclamation prior to his decree of emancipation, giving all men in arms a period of ninety days in which to abandon their resistance to legitimate authority and escape the consequences which it was solemnly affirmed would follow a persistence in revolt. When convinced by the emphasis of our declarations and the testimony we produced that such an opportunity had been actually offered every man in rebellion, every listener stood amazed, and almost invariably the discussion terminated with an admission that the Southern journals were dumb on all matters of this nature, affording the people no information whatever beyond that furnished in exaggerated statements, designed to influence the popular mind and keep alive the popular spirit in the prosecution of hostilities.
Akin to this ignorance of the actual position of the North, and its real policy and objects in prosecuting the war, was the stupidity of the average rebel understanding as to the causes of the conflict, and the grounds on which it was commenced by the South. Among the rank and file the belief was almost universal that the rebellion was inherently a struggle against oppression, a combat for independence. When told that the North had never injured, had never assailed nor thought of assailing the rights of the South; that the existing Administration stood solemnly committed to the maintenance of every right of every citizen in every State, these men uniformly responded that they did not so understand it; that they had been educated to believe that the North was deliberately resolved to overturn Southern society, blot out its cherished institutions, and reduce its people to vassalage. When asked if their condition under “Confederate” rule had been made better than it was in the days of Federal domination, they uniformly replied in the negative; but they believed that when society should be stably established their condition would be improved, especially in all the elements of personal independence. If to this you replied that the whole current of Southern policy was in the direction of an absorption in a privileged aristocracy of all the rights of the common people, and that the success of the rebellion would strangle liberty at the South, they were staggered indeed, but they clearly could not comprehend what was involved in your declaration. With comparatively few exceptions, all the outright rebels with whom we conversed during those four days of horror seemed incapable of understanding any argument which contemplated the contest as the logical outgrowth of moral as well as political antagonisms in our national life.
A volume would not be sufficient to set forth in detail half the memorable incidents which fell under our observation during these memorable four days. Those which we have sketched in bare outline are but specimens of hundreds equally worthy of record.
This narrative of Four Days at Gettysburg would be incomplete did it omit to record the disinterested kindness and untiring devotion of the people of that borough during all the fiery trial to which they were subjected. This people, it is true, have been repeatedly accused of apathy and a stupid acquiescence in the perils of their position; some, indeed, have charged them with a want of consideration, if not of ordinary humanity, in view of the sufferings which surrounded them; but no charge was ever more unjust or more capable of refutation. The people of Gettysburg, weak and powerless as they were, a mere village community, without any means whatever of resisting an army which came perfectly equipped and appointed, nevertheless maintained from first to last a resolute if not defiant attitude, making no concessions, consenting to no compromises with the enemy who stood at their gates. Every rebel, as all who were captured uniformly admitted, felt that the population was intensely hostile; and in all their intercourse with the inhabitants the enemy acted upon this conviction. During two nights Ewell’s corps occupied the very heart of the town, bivouacking in two of the principal streets, building their fires and devouring their rations at the very thresholds of the residents. During all this time conversation was freely carried on between the soldiery and the citizens, and the speech of the former bristled always with menaces and suspicions.
This fact also should always be remembered: The people of Gettysburg were practically prisoners from the moment that the rebel advance appeared on the outskirts on the morning of the 1st, until Lee withdrew his shattered columns on the night of the 3d. Shut within the rebel lines, they could only look on in silence while the battle flashed and thundered all around them. But as a community they did not cower nor shrink out of sight. Even the women, many after having been warned to leave, remained bravely in their houses. One of the most touching episodes of the invasion presents a direct illustration of this fact. Before the battle of Friday, and while our forces awaited assault, a woman named Wade was engaged in baking bread for our troops in a house situated directly in range of the guns of both armies. The rebels had repeatedly ordered her to quit the premises, but she had invariably refused to do so. At length the battle opened, and while still engaged in her patriotic work a ball pierced her loyal breast, and she fell. Was not that genuine heroism? Curiously enough, almost at the same moment a rebel officer of high rank fell near the place where Mrs. Wade had perished. The rebels, obtaining the body of the officer, immediately constructed a rude coffin in which to inter him; but it is recorded, hardly was it finished, when, in the surging of the conflict, a Federal column occupied the ground. The woman s body, discovered by our troops, was at once placed in the coffin awaiting an occupant; and so, as witnesses love still to testify, finally was buried, amidst the tears of hundreds who knew the story of ‘her valor.
As to the behavior of the people of Gettysburg after the battle hundreds of our wounded, and their friends who hurried to their help, will speak with eloquent tongues. Stripped as they were, their homes desolated, they opened their doors with generous hospitality to all who came; they flocked to the field, and gave themselves with assiduous zeal to the service of the wounded and the suffering; and many of them deprived themselves of the necessaries of life in order to relieve those who had been smitten at their doors.
To sum up all, our observation, and the confessions of men whom the presence of death made sincere, compelled these convictions, namely, that the rebellion was never the expression of the common people; that many who are serving under its flag in the army are there against their will; that even those who took up arms from choice did so under grave misapprehensions of their duty and the nature and objects of the struggle, and would now, if they could, leave the ranks; that all are losing heart, seeing that success is impossible, and even, if within their reach, would bring no advantage to the masses; and that the war has utterly disorganized Southern society, putting new thoughts into the minds and new impulses into the hearts of the people, setting to work new principles and influences, and sowing broadcast among the commonalty a distrust of the one central institution of Southern life, out of which inevitably, in the golden years to come, a harvest of blessings will blossom into life and beauty.
At Gettysburg a blow was struck which turned the tide of adverse fortune, saved the North from desolation, and lifted the people from the depths of despondency to new and serene heights of hope and duty. Let us not forget to commemorate the deeds of those who perished in achieving this sublime result. For the monument of Thermopylæ, in commemoration of the death of the brave three hundred who there nobly fell, Simonides wrote this epitaph: “Stranger! go and tell in Lacedemon that we fell here in defense of her laws. Shall we not be equally grateful, and tell to future time the story of that field in a monument on Cemetery Hill, with this simple inscription: “Pilgrim! go and proclaim at the Capitol and all abroad that we, soldiers of the Republic, fell here in defense of its laws, its liberties, and its life?“
Foster, John Y., "Four Days at Gettysburg," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 28, Issue 165, February 1864, p. 381 - 388, New York: Harper and Brothers
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