Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Civil War correspondent C.C. Coffin on the horrors of war

The American Civil War, like many wars, has been romanticized endlessly in books and on film. For those observers who view from such safe and secure distances, the everyday toils and the absolute horrors of battle and death may become somewhat sanitized. Charles Carleton Coffin, Civil War correspondent to the Boston Journal witnessed firsthand the gruesome nature of war and the very real impact it has on young lives. Of this horror, Coffin writes:

But let me say if those who envy the war correspondent were once brought into close contact with all the realities of war — if they were obliged to stand the chances of getting their heads Knocked off by an unexpected shell, or bored through with a minie ball, — to stand their chances of being captured by the enemy, — to live on bread and water and little of it — to sleep on the ground, or on a sack of corn, or in a barn with the wind blowing a gale and the snow whirling in drifts, and the thermometer shrunk to zero,— and then after the battle is over and the field won, to walk among the dying and the dead and behold all the ghastly sights ... to hear all around sighs, groans, imprecations and prayers — they would be content to let others become the historians of war.

Courage of the color bearer

In other posts, we've dscussed the dangers related to carrying the regimental colors into battle. It took special person to fill the color bearer's shoes.

In his Reminiscneces of the Civil War, General John Brown Gordon describes in vivid detail a color bearer's courage and determination despite horrific injuries. Brown writes:

At Big Falls, North Carolina, there lived in 1897 a one-armed soldier whose heroism will be cited by orators and poets as long as heroism is cherished by men. He was a color-bearer of his regiment, the Thirteenth North Carolina. In a charge during the first day's battle at Gettysburg, his right arm, with which he bore the colors, was shivered and almost torn from its socket. Without halting or hesitating, he seized the falling flag in his left hand, and, with his blood spouting from the severed arteries and his right arm dangling in shreds at his side, he still rushed to the front, shouting to his comrades: " Forward, forward!" The name of that modest and gallant soldier is "W. F. Faucette.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In defense of John Burns, citizen soldier of Gettysburg

The story of John Burns, "citizen soldier" of the Battle of Gettysburg, is such a compelling one that it was even the subject of a poem by Bret Harte. The Pennsylvania Board of Commissioners on Gettysburg Monuments was so impressed with Burns's heroics that they saw fit to commission a monument of him on the Gettysburg battlefield (pictured here). Over the years some have come to doubt the actual role Burns played in the battle. Was the story of the old volunteer fact or fiction? Here, in A Califonia Tramp, and Later Footprints, author Thaddeus Stevens Kenerdine believes the latter as he quotes Sergeant George Eustis of the 2nd Wisconsin. Eustis states:

"If any of those who think that the old man took no part in the battle of Gettysburg had seen him on the 1st of July, 1863, they would change their opinion. I can't tell just what time he came up to us, having left my watch at home on the bureau that morning, but it was after we had captured Archer's Brigade, and while we were lying down in the timber to protect ourselves from the shot and shell flying around, about noon, say, that I saw a little old man coming up in the rear of our company, F. I remember him well. He had on a swallow-tail coat, with smooth brass buttons. We boys commenced to poke fun at him, thinking him a fool to come up where there was so much danger. I wanted to put a cartridge box on him to make him look like a soldier, telling him he couldn't fight without that. His reply was, slapping his pockets, ' I can get my hands in here quicker than in the box; I am not used to them new-fangled things.' More... In answer to a question as to what made him come up there, he said the rebels had either milked his cows or driven them away, and he was going to be even with them. All this while the shells were screaming and bursting over the protecting timber. About this time the " rebs " began to advance. Bullets were whistling around pretty lively. We hugged the ground closer and the old man got behind a tree. He surprised us all by not taking a double- quick to the rear, but he was just as cool as any veteran among us. We soon had orders to move a hundred yards to the right, and were shortly engaged in one of the hottest fights I was ever in. Foot by foot we were driven back. We made our last stand at the Seminary, where we did good work for a while and then retreated through the town to Cemetery Ridge. I never saw John Burns after we moved to the right. From some cause he did not follow, and we left him with his gun behind the tree. I learned afterward he was wounded in three places. General Callis was wounded and left for dead on the field."