Friday, February 15, 2013

February 15 - TN Civil War Notes - "They would go r-r-r-r-rap; then came the scattered shots, rap, rap -- rap-rap; then some more fired together, rrrrrrap."

15, A Federal officer's description of the battle at Fort Donelson

The men took their arms, officers loosened their pistol holsters. I looked up my cavalry sabre, unbuttoned my great coat so that I could quickly throw it off, and I took my place beside the lieutenant-colonel with whom I was to act. Then there came a painful, unpleasant pause; we heard nothing -- saw nothing -- yet knew that something was coming; what that something was no one could tell. A messenger came from the general -- we were to move to the left and support the Second Iowa. We supposed the rebels were crossing a little higher up, and that the gap between us and the Second was to be closed. The colonel gave the order "left face," "forward march," and the regiment passed along through the thick trees in a column of two abreast. But the Second were not where they had been in the morning; we marched on, but did not come to them. In a few moments we passed their camp fires -- a few more, and we emerged on an open field.

At a glance, the real object of the movement was apparent. It came upon us in an instant. Like the lifting of a curtain. The Fourteenth [Iowa] were hurrying down through the field. The Second, in a long line, were struggling up the opposite hill, where two glens met and formed a ridge. It was high and steep, slippery with mud and melted snow. At the top, the breastworks of the rebels flashed and smoked, whilst to the right and left, up either glen, cannon were thundering. The attempt seemed desperate. Down through the field we went, and began to climb the hill. At the very foot I found we were in the line of fire. Rifle balls hissed over us, and bleeding men lay upon the ground, or were dragging themselves down the hill. From the foot to the breastworks the Second Iowa left a long line of dead and wounded upon the ground. The sight of these was the most appalling part of the scene, and, for a moment, completely diverted my attention from the firing. A third of the way up we cam under the fire of the batteries. The shot, and more especially the shell, came with the rushing, clashing of a locomotive on a railroad. You heard the boom of the cannon up the ravine -- then the sound of the shell -- and then felt it rushing at you. At the top of the hill the firearms sounded like bundles of immense powder crackers. They would go r-r-r-r-rap; then came the scattered shots, rap, rap -- rap-rap; then some more fired together, rrrrrrap. This resemblance was striking that it impressed me at the moment.

The bursting of shells produced much less effect -- apparent effect, I mean -- than I had anticipated. Their explosion, too, was much like a large powder cracker thrown in the air. There was a loud bang -- fragments flew about, and all was over. It was so quickly done, that you had no time to anticipate or think -- you were killed or you were safe, and it was over. But the most dispiriting thing was that we saw no enemy. The batteries were out of sight, and at the breastworks nothing could be seen but fire and smoke. It seemed as though we were attacking some invisible power, and that it was a simple question of time whether we would climb that slippery steep before we were all shot or not. But suddenly the firing at the summit ceased. The Second Iowa had charged the works, and driven out the regiments which held them. Then came the fire of the second upon our flying foes, and the loud shouts along the line, "Hurrah, hurrah, the Second are in -- hurry up boys, and support them - close up -- forward." We reached the top and scrambled over the breastwork. I saw a second hill rising gradually before us, and on the top of it a second breastwork -- between us and it about four hundred yards of broken ground. A second fire opened upon us from these inner works. We were ordered back, and, recessing those we had taken, lay down upon the outer side of the embankment.

The breastwork that sheltered the enemy now sheltered us. It was about six feet high on our side, and the men laid close against it. Occasionally a hat was pushed up above it, and then a rifle ball would come whistling over us from the second intrenchment. The batteries also continued to fire, but the shot passed lowered down the hill, and did little execution. Having no specific duty to discharge, I turned a soon as our troops reached the breastworks, and gave my aid to other wounded.
A singular fact for which I could not account was that those near the fool of the hill were struck in the legs; higher up the shots had gone through the body and near the breastworks, through the head. Indeed, at the top of the hill I noticed no wounded; all who lay upon the ground were dead. A little house in the field was used as a hospital. I tore my handkerchief into strips, and tied them round the wounds which were bleeding badly, and made the men hold snow against them. I then took a poor fellow in my arms to carry to the little house. "Throw down your gun," I said, "you are too weak to carry it." "No, no," he replied, "I will hold on to it as long as I am alive." The house happened to be in the exact line of one of the batteries, and as we approached it, the shot flew over our path. Fortunately, the house was below the range, but one came so low as to knock off a shingle from the gable lend. For a few minutes we thought they were firing on the wounded. We had no red flag to display; but I found a man with a red handkerchief, and tied it to a stick, and sent him on the roof with it. Within the house there were but three surgeons at this time. One of them asked me to take his horse and ride for the instruments, ambulances, and assistants; for no preparations had been made. It was then I passed Major Chipman carried by his soldiers.

When I returned, the ambulances were busy at the work; numerous couples of soldiers were supporting off wounded friends, and occasionally came four, carrying one in a blanket. The wounded men generally showed the greatest heroism. The hardly ever alluded to themselves, but shouted to the artillery that we meant to hurry; forward, and told stragglers that we had carried the day. One poor boy, carried in the arms two soldiers, had his foot knocked off by a shell; it dangled horribly from his limb by a piece of skin, and the bleeding stump was uncovered. I stopped to tell the men to tie his stocking round the limb, and to put snow upon the wound. "Never mind the foot, captain," said he, "we drove the rebels out, and have go their trench, that's the most I care about." Yet I confess the sights and sounds were not as distressing as I anticipated. The small round bullet holes, though the might be mortal, looked no larger than a surgeon's lanced might have made. Only once did I hear distressing groans. A poor wretch in an ambulance shrieked whenever the wheels struck a stump. There was no help for it. The road was through the wood, the driver could only avoid the trees, and drive on regardless of his agony.
You will perhaps ask how I felt in the fight. There was nothing upon which I had so much curiosity as to what my feelings would be. Much to my surprise I found myself unpleasantly cool. I did not get excited, and felt a great want of something to do. I thought if I only had something -- my own company to lead on, or somebody to order, I should have much less to think about. There seemed such a certainty of being hit that I felt certain I should be, and after a few minutes had a vague sort of wish that it would come if it were coming, and be over with. The alarming effect of the bullets and shells was less that I supposed it would be, and my; strongest sensation of danger we was produced by the sight of the dead and wounded. The thing I was most afraid of was a panic among our men, and when the Seventh Illinois was ordered to fall back down the hill, I so much feared that the men might deem it a retreat that I entirely forgot the firing, and walked down in front of them to their major, so that any frightened man in the ranks might be reassured by our "matter of course" air….

Nott, Sketches of the War, pp. 30-35. 

James B. Jones, Jr.
Public Historian
Tennessee Historical Commission
2941 Lebanon Road
Nashville, TN  37214
(615)-532-1550  x115
(615)-532-1549  FAX

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