A Sampler of Civil War Literature

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A Soldier's Story
Harper's Weekly, February 4, 1865
Mr. Editor,?I send you a bit of veritable history—a leaf from a soldier’s diary in the last campaign. The testimony of an eye-and-ear witness, the personal record and experience of one man is always valuable. But every man in the army has his story or report to give. Collect a hundred thousand such reports, and you have the history of a campaign. Not the dry official report of the general or corps commander, nor even the flaming rhetorical descriptions of "our correspondent." Here, as nothing was done for glory, so nothing is written for effect. But the simple incidents of a soldier’s life, told naturally as they fell out, are forever linked with the brightest and the darkest page in a nation’s history.

To the writer, of course, and to his family and friends, not to the great public, such a record is most valuable. It will instruct the present, and be an heir-loom to future generations. And to himself it remains a cherished memento of dear-bought experience. A note taken on the spot is a wonderful refresher of memory. The mere telling from day to day of what he did and where he was brings up a host of incidents, a thousand associations, just as the items of a business man’s experience lay open at a glance his whole plan and economy of life. All common men in the midst of great actions are poets, and write poetically; that is, truthfully. A bold stroke or two, no matter how rough the writing may be, paints the image to the mental eye, and gives the scenery of war and battle. And as the scene changes and shifts, and unrolls itself to the gaze of the actor and spectator, he is made a participant in all the fortunes of the fight, in all the passions of the combatants, while the glory or disgrace of the action is keenly felt as his own. In after-life he lives over again in memory the battles through which he passed, and how he fought all day and marched all night in one of those flank movements which his General was so famed for executing. He remembers that in such an action or skirmish a bullet ticked him, and a comrade was either wounded or killed; that on such a night he worked in the trenches in the rain, or was detailed as picket-guard; and that another time he lay with his regiment a long time under a broiling sun, and lay close to keep clear of rebel bullets and shells falling thick about him. He is fond of telling over "hair-breadth" escapes, his "moving accidents" by flood and field, and his particular "peril" in the "imminent deadly breach." In short, the whole art of writing or story-telling, to the private soldier, consists inputting the greatest quantity of life and action into the fewest possible words.

April 13.—Pleasant morning.—Left for our regiment at 8 o’clock; marched to Alexandria at 10 o’clock; took the cars, got to our regiment at Rappahannock station at 5 o’clock.

April 17.—Sunday.—Cloudy, cold morning.—Worked all day building our tents.—Cleared off in the afternoon—heavy fall of snow on the mountains.

April 18.—Cold morning.—Finished our hose and moved into it—four of us?all together.

April 22.—Frosty morning, but pleasant.—The regiment presented Colonel Woodard with a splendid horse, saddle, and bridle, worth $305.

May 4.—Started for the front.—Marched across the Rapidan at 9 o’clock; camped and got our breakfast; marched to the front and camped for the night.

May 5.—Drawn up in line of battle.—Marched into the woods and laid down.—Four companies went out skirmishing.—At 9 o’clock, drawn up in line of battle; 12 o’clock, charged the rebel lines.—Lost a good many boys.—Colonel Woodard wounded.

May 6.—Started at 4 o’clock;; marched out two miles to the rebel lines, formed in line of battle, and laid down.—Laid all day: shells passed over up pretty thick.—Rebs charged our right wing: drove it in.—Withdrew to our breast-works.

May 7.—At sunrise the rebs made a charge on our centre, but we drove them back: sharp-shooters firing at us, we charged on them and drove them back to their breast-works.—They shelled us all day.—Left at 9 o’clock to reinforce the left wing.

May 8.—Marched all night down through Spottsylvania.—Went into the fight at 10 o’clock, made two charges on the rebs, got drove back—loss very heavy.—Rested.—Ordered out in front: only 200 men left.—Stand picket all night.

May 9.—Pleasant morning.—Started early, marched out, formed a line of battle.—Laid down.—Laid all day in the hot sun, with our straps on.—Attacked the rebs a little before night, drove them back, then laid down and slept.

May 10.—Pleasant morning.—The battle commenced anew at noon, lasted till 9 o’clock, when we passed to the front to support the skirmishers.—Staid there until dark; drew back, lay down for the night.

May 11.—Cloudy, looks like rain.—Skirmish firing commenced early.—Just commenced to rain a little.—Ten o’clock, moved back into the woods, and stopped.—Laid there all day and all night, until 4 o’clock.—Rained nearly all night.

May 13.—Started at daylight, marched one mile, stopped and wrote a letter home at 11 o’clock.—Built a line of breast-works—rained a good deal—put up tents and laid down.—Called up at 10 o’clock, and marched all night in the mud.

May 14.—Stopped at 5 o’clock, made our coffee, and ate our breakfast.—Laid there all day and all night; rained a good deal.—Drew three days’ rations.—A good deal of fighting through the day: got shelled some.

May17.—Cloudy.—All quiet along the lines this morning.—Sick to-day: building fortifications.

May 18.—Warm morning.—The battle opened at sunrise; very heavy artillery firing.—Fired all the forenoon.—Got letters from home—sent a letter home.?Threatening rain.—Go on picket: rained some in the night.

May 19.—Cloudy.—All quiet on the line.—Our boys changed papers with the rebs this morning.—Wrote a letter home – Relieved from picket at 9 o’clock: laid behind breast-works all night.

May 23.—Cloudy and cool.—All quiet this morning.—We are in Bowling Green, beginning to move forward.—Marched nine miles, forded the North Anna River at 2 o’clock.—The rebs attacked us at 6 o’clock.—Fought an hour and a half: whipped them.

May 28.—Pleasant morning.—Started at sunrise, marched 10 miles, crossed the Pamunky River, and formed a line of battle: threw up breast-works.

June 3.—Rainy morning.—The battle opened at six o’clock.—Continual roar of musketry and artillery until evening: rained all the time.—I was on the skirmish line from 9 to 5: balls and shells fell thick all around me.

June 6.—Cloudy, but warm. Stopped at 6 o’clock near Cold Harbor.—Cooked our breakfast, washed, got a letter from home: ordered to pack up and go on picket at evening.—Got a good night’s sleep.

June 7.—Cool and cloudy.—The boys go in swimming in the mill-pond.—Went out on picket at 8 o’clock: relieved at sundown.—Marched five miles and bivouacked for the night.

That will do for the present. The notes have a sameness, like the duties which the soldier has to perform. But they give some idea of a campaign which the boys commonly describe as "forty days under fire." O ye civilians and pen-and-ink generals, who manage the war at home and sketch imaginary campaigns over cigars and wine and the daily papers, while you speculate on the rising glory of the country, and the great names of the war, never forget the poor private soldier, nor despise these "short and simple annals" of his existence!

Harper's Weekly, February 4, 1865


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