The Courage of a Soldier
“ AY, by my valor! ” quoth the belted knight. It was his favorite invocation, whether he were one of Arthur’s table round or hieing him to Syria for the last crusade. In this invocation was comprised all that he held most dear, as well as all that his companions did most value in him ; while for the defeated there was but one phrase expressive of human sympathy without the withdrawal of respect; it was, “ All’s lost but honor.”It meant, “ All that courage could do has been done; the rest is with fate.”
When the followers of William Penn gave utterance to the belief that now the words of their Master, the Prince of Peace, should find literal interpretation in that the blessed peacemakers should inherit the earth, little they thought how a century or so later the Pennsylvania mother in Quaker garb would be sending forth her sons to battle for a cause, while the tremulous blessing which fell from her faltering voice to the gesture of uplifted hands was couched in the “plain language.”
The appreciation of courage has no era, and is of all nationalities. There is probably no race of savages that we know of which does not assign a high place to this most needful virtue, while the most mawkish French novel seeks to vindicate its right to serious consideration by making its scorbutic villain die game in the inevitable French duel.
The art of war, although the oldest of which we have any record, and although its progressiveness as an art has been most certain and inevitable, is yet singularly primitive in its methods and its practices. The column closed in mass is scarcely much of an improvement upon the Macedonian phalanx. The mysteries of the commissariat have evolved only the meat sausage within twenty years! Anything more ineffective than the shelter tent could hardly have been devised by Xerxes himself; while at critical moments it has been a favorite device to ignore Friar Bacon, and “give ’em the steel,” as at Inkerman and Magenta, — in which latter juncture, it may be remarked, the bayonet is a poor substitute for the lance. But through all these changes, backwards as well as forwards, one absolutely necessary qualification has held the foremost place among the requirements of war, — the courage of a soldier.
The question is often asked, Are people less brave now, in these advanced times, than formerly, or is civilization on the whole inimical to the warlike spirit, and inclined to view with distrust, any victories except those of peace ? Individual gallantry must play a less conspicuous part in the colossal wars which now decide the destinies of nations than was the case in the olden days when the struggle was hand to hand and man to man, before the invention of gunpowder. All that part of physical courage which consisted of conscious strength coupled with a firm reliance upon defensive armor must be of little use to a man who seldom sees his enemy ; who fires always at the smoke of his adversary’s guns. It is easy to see that as the range of warlike projectiles increases, the fighters will by natural law be farther and farther apart. It has been remarked that the Spaniards were the bravest and best soldiers in Europe so long as weapons were made of steel and wielded by strong arms; but when the introduction of firearms forced a respect and consideration for unseen influences, the sceptre passed from the Spaniards to other hands, and in due time their own colonies declared independence, and successfully revolted.
We are told by that ruthless cynic, — who so often proves to be right, — Rochefoucauld, that jealousy lives on doubt, and dies upon a certainty. Whether this statement be true or not, it is quite certain that fear thrives upon suspense. I have more than once seen a man whose agony of terror when under fire was most pitiful stand up calmly to be shot on execution, the latter being a certainty. Indeed, I fail to recall any notable exhibition of fear at a military execution, of which I have witnessed many. We are told that even Admiral Byng, of the British navy, who was shot for cowardice, met his fate with composure. Desperation of the most reckless kind and of a sincerity that travesties bravery is often only a temporary reaction against the dominion of terror. One night, on the picket-line, a stolidlooking German soldier showed such signs of apprehension at the picket-firing as to draw a sharp reprimand from his captain, who had forced him back to his place on the line. On making the rounds an hour later, this man was found dead at his post. He had taken off his shoe, and had pulled the trigger of his musket with his toe, having taken the muzzle into his mouth. This man preferred a certainty.
One may be courageous because, from temperament, he feels no fear; another, because his morale keeps down the rising tide of apprehension. I have in mind a celebrated Federal officer, of great military endowment, who was obliged to benumb a too sensitive organization by the use of opium, under the influence of which he faced the greatest danger coolly, and preserved intact the presence of mind as well as the tactical proficiency that eventually made him deservedly famous. This officer was never known to resort to the device mentioned except on occasions of unusual peril, and he even learned to apportion the dose to the need of the hour. Some who were in the secret were wont to stigmatize the habit as a proof of timidity. Others, knowing how deliberately his purpose was maintained, how unflinchingly the awful risk was assumed, regarded the artifice as showing the highest order of courage. It may be added that the dignity of his character and the severity of his habits precluded the usual slang about, “ Dutch courage.”
There are those who assert that physical courage is only deficient imagination. To this conclusion they are misled, doubtless, by the occasional coincidence of recklessness and shiftlessness. They would argue that a brave man is one who takes no thought for the morrow, or, as D’Artagnan puts it, " A man is brave because he possesses nothing.” They conclude hastily that a lack of anxiety as to the future must be an inherent quality in one who, having no imagination, can picture to himself no alarms nor impending dangers. Many, indeed, when the inexorable logic of events has shown that, instead of a heart of steel, they possessed but the usual measure of chronic apprehension, have laid the foregoing consideration as a flattering unction to their souls. The interests of truth, as well as justice to the many brave men who have written poems and painted pictures, require that this fiction be disallowed. Biography is frequent and eloquent in their vindication. What true boy has not thrilled with admiration at the youthful prowess of the daring Defoe, the future author of Robinson Crusoe ? Was not the most noted characteristic of young Keats his remarkable courage as a boy ? Has not the same characteristic been imputed, and with reason, to Byron and Burns and Scott, and even to Tom Moore when he stood up before Jeffrey’s pistol, which was not leadless, like his own ? The highest order of courage, that which combines the moral and physical, is attributed to Shelley. The picturesque figure of Daniel O’Connell, whose imagination so often fired the Irish heart, is frequently cited to prove the converse of all this; yet although his valor was questioned in one of the best epigrams in the English language, and although he was elsewhere alluded to as one who “showed more appetite for words than war,” be it remembered he stood up before the deadliest pistol in Europe, that of D’Esterre, and to some purpose. When Goethe rode upon the skirmishline in battle, he analyzed his sensations, but felt no fear. Körner, one of the noblest of lyrists, met his death in battle; and in most of those struggles for liberty which form the staple reading of history some young poet has sung of the sword and perished by the sword. To pass to the poets of earlier days, Calderon, Lope de Vega, and Cervantes were all soldiers, and honored ones. Camoëns lost an eye in the service of his king as gallantly as Cervantes lost a hand at Lepanto. It is an undisputed fact that during the siege of Paris there was scarcely a painter or poet or sculptor or musician who did not enlist in the army and do battle for his country at bitter need, and that, too, in the gay, indolent, self-indulgent capital of France. On one occasion, when I had been rather discouraged to find how few they were, the smoky and dusty handful remaining after an assault, I went for sympathy and counsel to the ablest soldier I knew. He had been an officer of great renown in the Mexican war, where he had served on General Scott’s staff, and army gossip credited him with numerous feats of successful daring in actions where his companions were Robert E. Lee, Peter G. Beauregard, George B. McClellan, and others of equal fame. As, in addition to sound claims of a military character, this man was reputed to be shrewd and to possess an abundance of common sense, I felt the more confidence in his views. He heard me with an indulgent smile, and replied as follows: “ My boy, you will find that in an assault most men are damned cowards” (I am afraid he said all men), “and you were lucky if you could get a third of your men up at all.” Somewhat taken aback, I ventured to question further, when there fell from the lips of this military pessimist such a tale of hurried pedestrinism and frequent retreat in Mexico as made my blood run cold. “ Why, did we not conquer ? ” “Yes, in the long run, thanks to our flying artillery and the masterly strategy of Scott; but the federal army did a deal of tall running which never got into the newspapers.” Somewhat bewildered by the pessimistic views of my informant, I proceeded to ask if he considered the Mexicans braver than our men. “ In many respects,” he replied. “A Mexican or an Indian is more ready to risk his life than any of our folks.
A contempt for human life or human suffering — their own and others’ — is the chief virtue of the sincere among them, and the affectation of all others; and it may be that people who have so little to lose may be readier for the risk. I thought of Machiavelli, who attributes the same sentiment to Castruccio - Castracani; also of the wholesale abandonment of human life which characterized the closing scenes in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
The phrase nascitur non fit is of course applicable to many arts besides that of poetry, — indeed, probably to all; and yet I think its illustration is always a surprise. A very large proportion of those whose physical courage has been of service to the state have acquired that valor which makes their uniform sit jauntily upon them by the combined influences of several moral and some physical agencies.
Self-respect has a great deal to do with a soldier’s willingness to stand fire. The scene in which he is an actor, even if a subordinate one, is to him not only a stage, but all the world. The first sweets of fame, those slight rewards for good conduct and proficiency in military exercise, are very dear to him because of the increased consideration he enjoys thereby among his fellow-soldiers. This consideration will become still further increased if he can add to his other claims a reputation for coolness under fire. The morale of English or American armies does not often require at the hands of any individual evidences of extravagant daring or dramatic recklessness ; but it does require that he shall do his duty. English literature, especially that part of it which deals with Jack Tar and Tommy Atkins, is piqué with allusions to Nelson’s favorite signal. For all purposes of garrison duty, for the march, or even for a stray skirmish here and there, this merely staple quality of courage will usually suffice. But when the exigencies of the service require a call for volunteers to attempt some desperate deed, whose failure would smell like murder, and whose success would seem nearly as fatal, then comes an opportunity for the “born” soldier. At this time, there will arise from unexpected places, nay, even from the purlieus of the non-combatants, — the meek-eyed denizens of the commissariat, from hospital or wagon - train, — men who will offer their lives so freely and so inexplicably that one is led to suspect they have waited for the occasion. A reputation for bravery once established is reluctantly foregone, a fact which many leaders of men have used for their own purposes. Such was the policy of Napoleon, whose custom it was to decorate his heroes liberally, praise them unstintedly, and keep them so busy lighting that promot ion was frequent, for vacancies came thick and fast.
Why are guards so often selected for their stature ? This preference for large and strong men is most easily understood as regards warriors of a former day. That such should have been the case before steel was superseded by gunpowder would seem natural enough; whereas now that a large, powerful frame only incurs the greater risk of being killed, the selection must be accounted for on the score of survival of tradition. Yet not only do kings and their congeners derive great comfort and moral stay from the presence of a bodyguard of giants, as witness Russia and England, but the admiration for large men has passed into English literature, especially, as shown by authors of the unwarlike sex. I fail to recall a fiction hero of woman’s make, from Adam Bede to Ouida’s Stalwarts, who would not be an ornament to the Broadway squad of police.
At sea it has always been a maxim that for all purposes of seamanship the middle-sized man is the best, and the preference for a figure which, as Cooper states it, is a happy combination of activity and strength would seem most reasonable, when the object of such choice is to battle with the elements on swinging cordage and slippery decks. Likewise, it seems to me, the hulking giant must he at a disadvantage either in the McClellan saddle, or when ploughing through muddy roads or powdering over dusty ones. As for the dwarf, he is ruled out by that inexorable statute of limitations, the standard of height.
Well, then, if we cannot tell a brave man by his stature, are there any signs by which he may be recognized, or at least inferred as a probability ? Marveling upon this theme, I one day attended a festival at Harper’s Ferry, near the close of the war. General Sheridan had ordered that on this occasion all who had captured battle flags or performed any remarkable feat of daring should repair to the parade ground to receive such decoration as they deserved ; which was done to the accompaniment of martial music and many cheers. I looked with great pride upon the motley collection of the bravest of braves, and with no little interest; for I hoped to discern among the elect some sign which would segregate these companions-in-arms from their congeners of lesser renown. Alas ! they were of every hue and shape, and almost of every nationality, the American types predominating (for we were four to one against all other nationalities). They were for the most part a quiet-looking body of young men, displaying as much coolness in this the supreme hour of triumph as had been shown on the occasions which had led to it. One type of soldier was conspicuous by its absence, — I mean the stalking, self-conscious, more-than-erect sort of person, having the practiced frown and quick flash of the dark eye, the ideal soldier in time of peace. But there were present some picturesque-looking fellows of the Buffalo Bill kind, presumably from the plains. All were clad in Uncle Sam’s uniform of blue and Virginia’s uniform of swarthy tan. All looked hardy and weather-worn, and, as they passed in review before General Max Weber’s headquarters, the one distinguishing characteristic of these youths was expressed by a Virginia lady who stood near me, and who, as the reigning belle of Harper’s Ferry, doubtless considered that she spoke ex cathedra : “ What a handsome group of boys, Yanks though they be! ” Not many moons before this, a writer who sees so clearly that his veriest prose knocks at our hearts with the magic privilege of poesy, had remarked upon the woman’s mouth so often found upon the face of the youth whose courage made sure martyrdom. Yes, the French philosopher has with truth said that where bravery amounts to madness there is always something womanish about the face and bearing. I bethink me now of the masculine comeliness of our own Argonauts of ’49, so much insisted on by Bret Harte, and I can only repeat what I said then, “ Is this all ? ”
That human courage has no nationality, but is to be found in every clime and often in most unexpected places, must be freely admitted ; but the differentiation as to the varying qualities of the same, as well as the widely diverse ways dissimilar peoples have of displaying their warlike qualities, has passed into a proverb. Some who find comfort and finish in the tripedal form of this condensed wisdom are wont to say, “ Spaniards to build a fortress, French to attack it, and English to defend it; ” and that proverbial pluck varies in different nationalities I shall endeavor to illustrate.
During the last days of the occupancy of Malvern Hill and Harrison’s Landing, the Irish brigade was found posted on an extreme outpost, in view of the church steeples of Richmond. It was drawn up in skirmishing order near a small brook, on the other side of which crouched the pickets of the enemy. The younger officers of this brigade were wont to while away the hours of enforced idleness by a rather dangerous pastime, by them called “ bantering.” This was a momentary exposure of the person to the rifles of the watchful foe. They would carry on this amusement all the afternoon, enjoying with boyish glee the occasional sensation of a stray bullet through the hair or uniform or canteen. They were seldom wounded, and appeared to experience the gay delight of schoolboys who, during a thaw, venture farther and farther, in emulative bravado, upon what they call rotten ice, until somebody “ slumps in.” A little to the left, I noticed some officers of a Massachusetts regiment similarly disposed along the bank. These lay still, anxious, pale, discontentedly resolute, and I could see the cold sweat of something worse than anxiety trickle down the faces of several of them ; casual death from a sharpshooter, death without the éclat of intrepid daring, they evidently dreaded. This serious behavior was in marked contrast with the boyish levity displayed by the men before mentioned. That night there was a sudden and fierce attack on this position, and while the “boys” of the Irish brigade fled precipitately, and were with difficulty reformed, the men of the Massachusetts regiment grimly held their ground. A few days later, the men of both organizations stood side by side under a shattering fire, with equal fortitude and suffering an equal mortality.
A writer well skilled in the recital of all the accidents that pertain to the chances of war avers that “ all large-brained races are superstitious,” especially their soldiers and sailors. As he fails to tell us whether he refers to the gamblers’ superstitions which deal with the proverbial blindness of Fortune, or to the larger fatalism of those who complain of strange prodigies, we are forced to refer the answer to a committee on definitions. Certain it is, however, that the soldier derives great comfort from his cheerful fatalism. I well remember how, one beautiful September day, which was devoted to one of the fiercest battles as yet known, the color-guard of a conspicuous regiment had been repeatedly shot down and replaced, until sixteen men had fallen, most of them mortally hurt. At this juncture, a captain of gigantic stature, the largest among ten thousand men, seized the colors, and continued to wave them defiantly until the position was carried. He escaped untouched, even to his uniform, while away in the rear rank, in the least exposed position on the line, a little Irish fishpeddler, known as “ Mickey the fish,”received two serious wounds. Mickey was a dwarf, whose enlistment had been regarded as a capital joke, and whose immunity was taken for granted. Somewhat puzzled by the elation shown by the comrades of giant and dwarf, I inquired concerning their blithe confidence, and found that they regarded the double event as clear proof that all casualties were foreordained ; and I am well assured that out of this tranquilizing belief grew a great peace in many hearts, which served them well when the storm of battle shut out all ordinary means of refuge. In illustration of a kind of fatalism more serious than the foregoing, I will relate the following.
We were at Snicker’s Gap. The eighth corps, under the White Wolf (as the Indians loved to call General Crook), had crossed the Shenandoah at Island Ford. No serious opposition was encountered,— a fact which was viewed with suspicion by those who knew what was in front of us. The water was little more than waist-deep most of the way over, as just, at this place the river wound around an island. A goodly portion of the afternoon was spent in effecting a crossing, which was cautiously done, although it seemed impossible that any considerable force could be in front of us. It was a beautiful summer afternoon in .July, breezy and cool for that climate, and the many hundreds who then looked their last upon the sunlighted landscape certainly witnessed as enchanting a spectacle as wood and mountain, river and sky, could afford even in that most picturesque region. The sun went down in a sea of delicious crimson, and even the most cautious were so influenced by the metaphor of peace suggested by the heavenly stillness that they began to regard as needless the precautions taken by our chief, the White Wolf. Fires were lighted on the river bank ; coffee, the soldier’s elixir of life, was prepared and drunk. The twilight crept slowly on, and was deepening into the gloaming, when a staff officer rode down from an old farmhouse in front of us with a report that General Gallatin Jenkins was advancing upon us with a heavy force. A few minutes later, there was a scattering fire as of pickets, and a mounted officer was ordered to call in our skirmish-line. Just before mounting, the young fellow detailed for that purpose turned to me, saying: “I feel strangely to-day. I wish you’d do this for me. I cannot explain my reluctance ; but none who know me will think me afraid.” His face was ashy white ; his lips looked dry. I saw that he was ill. Mounting his horse, I rode rapidly to the skirmishline and gave the order to fall back. On my return, I found this young officer seated at the foot of a tree, propped up against it. His eyes were fixed on the sky above him, and between his parted lips was a bubble of crimson foam. A bullet had passed through his chest, and he had but a few moments to live. What premonition had possessed him, from what mistaken motive he had chosen this place of safety, which proved so treacherous, will never be known. He was killed by a sharpshooter from such a distance that his death might be considered accidental.
Meanwhile, the sounds of strife increased, and in the deepening darkness could be seen the flashing of musketry fire seemingly all around us ; for the enemy had crossed the river both above and below, with the purpose of cutting off all the fugitives. Soon the reverberations of cannon on both sides added terror to the scene ; for the sixth corps, having come up on the heights behind us, were cannonading our position, being unable, amid the deepening night, to discriminate friend from foe. The loyal Virginia regiments under Crook and Thoburn now formed behind a stone wall which skirted the river, and these, with stubborn courage, for a time seemed to stem the torrent of attack, until a goodly proportion of the forces were conveyed across the river in orderly retreat. Just as the crash and chaos of the scene were at their height, I noticed a soldier stealing from the rear rank and making for the river. The eyes of his captain discovered the movement, and, catching the fugitive by the neck, he dragged him back to his place on the line, with a bitter expletive, exclaiming, “You deserted us once in Baltimore; you sha’n’t do it again.” The youth stood still for a moment, and I noticed in the gathering gloom that his eyes had a wild look, which I attributed to fear. He began to tremble, and, dropping his musket, fell forward slowly on his face. On attempting to raise him,
I perceived that he was hurt. He sank back to a kneeling position, muttering some incoherent words, while with his right hand he fumbled in the breast-pocket of his blouse, from which lie presently drew a handful of torn paper, already soaked with clotted blood. “ Dear captain,”said he hoarsely, “ this is my bounty. I ‘m afraid it’s too far gone to pass. Throw it away. Good-night.” And a little fainter came, “ This desertion is none of my doing. So long.” Then came the “ Rebel yell,” the too familiar sounds of a successful charge, and we were all swept into the river, a bleeding, struggling, writhing mass. And now it was dark.
The question is frequently asked,
Why do not men more often acknowledge the fact of fear ? Why must it nearly always be inferred from circumstantial evidence or unintentional admission ? ” The reply is simple. Such is the popular admiration of courage, especially in time of war, that no brave man can find it to his profit to confess what every coward will deny, namely, that all men are more or less frightened when the danger is imminent and real. That all soldiers are at some time liable to panic was often asserted by Napoleon, and as often proved by the “Brigands of the Loire " who served under him. Both he and Cæsar needed the force of example to reinforce the verguenza negra which kept the Spanish knight from retreating. A frequent remark of our own day (in confidence) was, “ I was badly scared, but did n’t dare to run.” And indeed it would require a certain amount of moral courage to enable one to face the obloquy which would follow the act of desertion in the presence of comrades. Most persons would prefer a moderate risk of sudden death to the certainty of the contempt of all among whom they were obliged to live.
A few, a very few men maybe found who are wholly without either enthusiasm or apprehension of any kind ; to whom bereavement brings nothing but loneliness, and to whom the most violent of deaths is a mere tragic inconvenience. Some there are who affect to feel—some, moreover, who really do feel — on the subject of death the insatiable curiosity, the morbid interest, cultivated by the agnostics among the German students. Even Shelley, when he speaks of the “ slow necessity of death,” in Queen Mab, depicts the subject of such necessity as
And full of wonder, full of hope as be.”
I am by no means sure that it is always a normal sign to be without some mild measure of apprehension when under the menace of serious danger. Sailors tell us that perfect immunity from seasickness is rarely enjoyed by persons whose health is perfect, while consumptives and most other sufferers from mortal disease seldom experience this malady ; in short, it would seem that it is natural and wholesome for one to be seasick when the centre of gravity is constantly being disturbed. May we not likewise safely infer that it is an indication of a healthy, if not of an heroic organization, when the hesitation to encounter unknown peril can be put aside only by some moral effort ? The risking of life wantonly and for no cause beyond the gratifying of personal vanity has long been held to be the characteristic of a very dubious civilization ; and the gentleman who in his country ’s Senate asserted that he “ was born insensible to fear ” betrayed more of the provincial rhetorician than of the bravo, even if he spoke the truth.
All the world wondered when a regiment which represented the rampant rowdyism of New York city broke and ran at the first fire. Another force of pseudo-bravoes, made up of professional criminals, behaved similarly in Santa Rosa Island. But grateful as are these facts to those who would fain regard physical courage as a manly virtue, the possession of which would imply noble and heroic qualities, nevertheless it would be folly to deny that the vast hordes of military adventurers and soldiers of fortune who inundate history are usually made up of men possessed of no virtues save those which go to strengthen courage and to maintain a merciless energy; while a goodly proportion of those braves who defend our frontier, and of the toughs who adorn our cities, are deficient in no vice save that of cowardice. The sententious inhibition imposed by Sir Lucius O ‘Trigger on the sentiment of Ireland, “ Never turn your back on a friend in distress nor on a foe in fight,” might, if put in coarser garb, be cited as the decalogue of the dangerous classes ; and indeed, I am told by one much experienced in that kind of folk lore that ingratitude and fear are the only two faults to which a convict will plead guilty never ! Is the creed of our red man much broader ?
In conclusion, we must infer that courage is a certain hardihood of spirit, a quality quite by itself; at least not of necessity implying the possession of any other admirable traits. More than one person whose bravery is the property of history has shown that this gift can stand unaided by kindred virtues, and is quite often the accompaniment of much unscrupulousness, perfidy, and every cowardly vice.
In all these considerations concerning the influence of courage upon the understanding and conduct of life, the most of our illustrations have been drawn from the barrack and the camp fire. The every-day régime of the army when at rest is monotonous, the chief ills with which men in these situations are afflicted being camp fever and homesickness ; that is to say, after the first novelty of out-of-door life, picnicking and roughing it, has worn off, people are apt to turn with something like regret to thoughts of home and that security which comes of a regular life. I will not stop to speak of Heimweh. that homesickness of the soul which even affects the body, and makes some melancholy-mad. The military romance is so much taken up with the jollity of the mess-room, the picturesqueness of the march, and the drama of battle that those who are experiencing their first campaign find themselves in an unknown world, concerning the dreary details of which literature is silent. The wearisome miseries of a soldier’s life, when actually encountered, are apt to strike the recruit with surprise. You never know how much it rains the year round until you come to live without shelter. You never know how much tough meat there is in the world until you bring a soldier’s appetite to bear ; you never know, indeed, how little meat a man can live upon until, during some hunger-bitten campaign, you are compelled to chew bitter leaves to assuage your hunger, as I have often done. You never know what thirst is like until you take your place, with battered canteen, among hundreds who are struggling for a dip in the muddy pool, and scrambling like beasts for a drop of the water. I have seen a squad of cavalry fight their fiercest with a small force of the enemy (simply because that enemy was in possession of water), until, as one grim enumerator remarked, “there was a dead man for every quart that we obtained.” The mere recruit could scarcely divine that in the sunny South, during the fighting season, the thermometer was 90° in the shade, and we were always in the sun ! Nor could he divine that on the march or the picket, almost everywhere during the campaign, the soldier
His fevered hand must grasp in waking,” —
which merely means that the accoutrements must be placed where you can find them in the dark. The common soldiers, of the same necessity, sleep by order, their heads within or against the musket-stocks. From all is required not reasonable, but implicit obedience ; hence small tyrannies are a matter of course. When at last, after much tribulation, the enemy is sighted and the column halted, let us see what the soldier will be called upon to face, and what will be the strain imposed upon his courage and his fortitude. I will now state what for the first two years of the war was a frequent, in fact an almost invariable experience, even where the total result was a victory for our side, — the manner of an attack and a retreat.
On the morning of the battle the soldiers are wakened very quietly by the non - commissioned officers. The long roll and the other signals are limited to safety camps and bomb-proof positions in the rear. Everything is done with secrecy, silence, and dispatch, the purpose being to conceal our movements and all sign thereof from the enemy. Slowly and noiselessly the men form in line, and proceed along the dusty country road in a sort of oppressive silence. The moral atmosphere is murky with misgiving; the officers of the higher rank have a troubled look, and are anxiously scanning the horizon with fieldglasses. The column halts frequently. Presently, having gone so far without accident that we are beginning to feel reassured, there comes the heavy boom of a cannon; a score of voices, mostly those of the younger officers, exclaim, “ The ball is open! ” The cavalry, who have hitherto preceded us. begin to pass to the l’ear, filling the air with yellow dust. There is a halt. The fences are thrown down, and the infantry begin to file off over the field to the right and left of the road. Orders are given with a certain concentrated, hushed intensity. Gaudily dressed aids-de-camp galloping over the ground in many directions add life and coloi’ to the scene : they are mostly West Point officers, just graduated, possessing all a boy’s enthusiasm for the romance of war. Watching the faces of the men, you will see but little of that delighted enthusiasm and (jaudia certaminis which are so universal in military novels. Depend upon it, the soldier of real life loves battles no more than the sailor (out of a novel) loves storms. Some of them — many, indeed — are affected physically, violent cramps being a prominent symptom. Almost all are more or less nervous; and in the pinched features, white lips, and wandering eye of even the brave who stand fast you will see evidence of much perturbation. The surgeon is usually beset with applications for tonics and other remedies. The officers busy themselves with the details of their charges, with ill-concealed anxiety, but as if glad to have something to do. Presently there is a crash of many wheels, a rush, and the artillery is hastening up to take position on a hill near by.
After the noise of the cannon has become continuous, its effects are better borne, to use a medical phrase; and here let me remark that the artillery, according to the observations of the most experienced veterans I have met, did comparatively little damage to the physical foe, but the noise which accompanied it was found to be exceedingly demoralizing. The cavalry trusted even more to moral influences, as is shown by the fact that all through the war a sabre wound was a curiosity in a military hospital. After several hours spent in loitering and wondering and speculating, a staff officer gallops along the line enshrouded in a cloud of dust, and, in a voice as hoarse as his young throat can command, orders up some particular battalion or brigade. By this time the men are somewhat seasoned, and while here or there may be observed the wandering eye and haggard look of one brave on principle only, in the main the men have come to accept fate with reasonable cheerfulness. If a shell happens to drop near us, throwing up the earth and frightfully mutilating a dozen or more of our comrades, there is a sickening pause, relieved by the hoarse call of the sergeants to " close up. ’ We pass on, and the maimed are left behind. Our movements are nearly always made running,— what the soldiers call “on the double-quick,” celerity being a prime necessity on the field, — the commanding officers being on horseback. When the allotted position is reached, we are told to lie down. We never see the enemy. When we fire, we fire at the smoke two or three fields away. We continue firing “ by file,” as it is called, in contradistinction to volley ; all the time wondering how many are in front of us, what we are going to do next, and what will be the outcome of all this.
While waiting for the firing to commence, I notice many of the young men taking from their breast-pockets letters or other tokens, frequently photographs. The soldier in line being usually a boy in his early twenties, it is his mother whose photograph is drawn from his breast. The field officer, who, a little farther back, sits on his horse, is an older man, and it is his children whose pictures are taken out and furtively kissed. Meanwhile, the booming of the cannon has changed in position, and is farther off. We are told to rise and advance. There is again a whirl of wheels ; the battery is being established, and we are told to support it. We lie down, while the bullets sing and whistle as they pass over us, for at this juncture we are but little exposed. More hours of this dreary lying in the dust, waiting for we know not what, while one by one our comrades are carried softly to the rear, bleeding and moaning. A few refuse to leave the line, though wounded, and remain where they are, with a handkerchief knotted sternly over the maimed limb. After some hours, the delirium, or intoxication, which has made us willing victims seems to have spent itself. The noise of conflict draws nearer ; the enemy’s cannon seem to have got our range, and every discharge pours destruction upon our battery. There is a faint cheer ; the men grow whiter; a staff officer gallops up with orders for ns to “ limber up.” A confused noise us of many voices comes now to be mingled with the heavy boom of the artillery, which is in front of us and drawing nearer. There are a few moments of bewildering suspense ; at last we see that for some time the men of our battalion have been dropping to the rear, — some on the pretense of carrying wounded comrades. some going for water, some feigning to be, and some really, sick. The field behind us grows black with fugitives. Presently we hear the command to “fall back,” which gives to the brave, who stood fast, the warrant to follow the example of the fugitives. Then comes the awful scene of a retreat, a panic, in which our whole army, or what we can see of it, seems stricken with the storms and thunderbolts of inevitable destruction. Now fear becomes canonized ! Men who but a few hours ago had nerved themselves for death can be seen lost to all sense of shame, conscious of nothing but the overpowering sense of deadly peril, fleeing disunitedly, officers and all. Here and there an effort is made to halt the panting fugitives and re-form the shattered lines, — an effort seldom successful, the most that can be hoped being the preservation of some form of organization, and a remnant of the discipline which but this morning was so absolute. Yet at times, after all this storm of disaster, after having been driven for miles upon miles, our forces have been grasped by a strong hand and led back to overwhelming victory. So frequent and inexplicable are the alternations of advance and retreat, so incessant is the commotion, that to the dizzied eyes of the common soldier or the subaltern there seems to be nothing in defeat but ruinous flight, nothing in victory but the beginning of another march.
Whether the young patriot has served his country as Jacob served for love of Rachel, or whether the sense of patriotic duty enlisted him for “ three years or the war,” when peace is declared and he sets his face homeward, he must not be disappointed to learn that the enthusiasm of his friends at home is somewhat war-worn; to find that those subjects so long of vital importance to him have lost interest for the non-combatant, who, by the way, has been replacing him in every field of industry. He will return in faded uniform, listless from malaria, only too happy if he find that his place is not wholly filled, and content that the honor of saving the republic must be divided with thousands of his countrymen who carried arms, and with many and many who did not. He will remember that the State owes him nothing, can owe him nothing, for he was a volunteer. The name and number of his regiment will soon cease to be ; and some years later he will be a sadder man to know that, although at Gettysburg some five thousand New Yorkers perished, the only monument erected to the New York soldiers is dedicated to a militia regiment that never fired a shot. But the soldier has merged his individuality for the general good, and that element of the heroic which has been made his own by hunger and vigil and danger must now be ignored by him almost as completely as by the comrade left upon the field of battle.
The soldier asked from the deep dark grave,
. ‘ Did the banner flutter then ? ’
‘ Not so, my hero,’ the Wind replied :
1 The fight is done, but the banner is won ;
Thy comrades of old have borne it hence, —
Have borne it in triumph hence ! ’
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave,
‘ I am content.‘ ”
S. R. Elliott.