A Devil of a Rattle: With the Stretcher Bearers at Champion Hill
In 1884, Thomas Manning Page wrote his autobiography entitled Bohemian Life, or the Autobiography of a Tramp that gave a whimsical view of his life as a country-roaming urchin in the 1850s and 1860s. Page’s urchin tendencies followed him into the army where he enlisted in Co. C of the 83rd Ohio while tramping around Cincinnati in the summer of 1862.
The Civil War had been going on for months when Page, all of 15 years old and recently kicked out of school for mouthy impertinence, lied about his age and tried to enlist, but recruiters were quick to note his youth and turned him away. Page then learned to beat a drum. “I soon acquired a crude skill that was useful to a class of ambitious gentlemen who in those days were active in the recruiting service,” he wrote. “In this way, I became identified as a warrior wide the foundations of acquaintance with numerous officers. Meanwhile, I was unremitting in my efforts to merge my martial identity with that of a marching regiment, but it was not possible to disguise my youth.” Kirby Smith’s invasion of Kentucky in September 1862 threw the city of Cincinnati into a panic, and here was Page’s chance. “Then there was mustering in hot haste, without fastidiousness as to age or inches, and in the crisis of the rally I easily enlisted as junior drummer of the 83rd Regiment of Ohio Infantry. Thenceforward I was to turn my back on boyish things and cast in my lot with men,” he wrote.
Eight months later and Page found himself with his regiment on the east side of the Mississippi River as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s long-awaited offensive against Vicksburg. We’ll pick up his story on the evening of May 15, 1863 somewhere on the road to Vicksburg.
I easily found the fires of my regiment where I was promptly commanded by my captain to turn over my gun and accoutrements to the ordnance officer and report to the leader of the band for duty on the infirmary corps. This order was ominous of bloodshed.
When I woke the following morning, the road was already full of troops moving forward slowly with frequent brief halts and occasional cheers responsive to the short, slapping bangs of a lazy, invisible cannonade, and with the usual abundance of chaffing between the men in the column and those in bivouac. The woods were smoky and the fires of our own brigade were smoldering.
But something that was occurring on ahead consumed so much time that I had plenty to spare while enjoying a pipe after scorching my bacon on a switch and boiling café noir in my tin cup; and it was an hour past sunrise before the last creeping brigade and grinding un left the way clear for us. Then, after following the trampled road for two or three miles, we filed to the left into the woods and proceeded obliquely forward in column for half an hour; when, just as several solid shot went closely with a fluttering rush over our heads, we deployed on the right into line on the extreme left of an extended line of battle.
About 9 o’clock skirmishers swarmed forward into the underbrush where in a few minutes there was the devil of a rattle: and along our line intervals grew short between the spiteful “s-s-s” and the quiet “whit” of the hostile lead. At the first hint of the latter nature, the men in line lay down while those of us who wore infirmary badges bestowed ourselves snugly behind the biggest trees in that vicinity.
Soon the command was heard, “Stretchers to the front!” At the word, I shouldered the litter which a larger soldier had placed leaning against a neighboring tree and leaving who might to follow, darted towards the timber in which the rifles of our skirmish line were rattling. After doing about a quarter stretch at my best pace I came to a low fence and tumbled across it just as a couple of bullets pattered into the top rail over which I was rolling. Hurrying on a few yards further, I discerned through a maze of tender stems and foliage a number of our men scattered singly in the bushy forest to the right and left, standing behind trees, loading very deliberately and aiming and firing with rather more celerity.
While I was looking among the bushes for the wounded men, I was overtaken by an assistant and together we dragged and lifted a disabled soldier on the litter and started to the rear with the burden. At the fence, we met two more of the infirmary detail with another stretcher and while we were pulling down a panel, we heard a crashing among the small growth and perceived the line, not far distant, advancing into a little opening at the double quick led by a pair of rabbits whose lively participation in the onset had one delicately humorous aspect that inspired the brigade with intense and vociferous enthusiasm.
By the time we had surrendered our charge to the assistance surgeon of the battalion, our battery was at work on our right and the air was resonant with a diabolical chorus of curtly banging shells and whizzing or hissing missiles. But I was allowed a small leisure to be discomposed by the persistent medley for men began to drop along the moving front covered by our regiment with sufficient frequency to give me pretty constant and engrossing occupation for an hour. After which time the firing on both sides perceptibly slackened on the left, affording us a respite during which we looked about us and listened to the thrilling pulsations of a muffled crash and deep, continuous roar, distant but discomposing, toward the right which announced that gallant men were making fearful slaughter of each other in the breezy coverts of those pleasant spring-embowered woods.
About noon a lull of delicious quietude in our vicinity inspired me with a desire, natural to my years and temperament, to reconnoiter, so I walked without let or hindrance forward until I arrived at the end of an extensive clearing on our extreme front just then held by a slight fringe of sharpshooters. One of these specialists with whom I at once fraternized, was a long, lean Hoosier of rough but serviceable pattern. He pointed out a shady grove about 500 paces distant before us and assured me that there was one live and dangerous Rebel behind every one of those trees. The next moment a tiny puff of cloud-like smoke and the “ping” of a bullet not so widely sent considering the distance convinced me that there was some truth in the statement and started me skipping to the nearest trustworthy cover.
"The veranda, covered with blankets spread over straw, was filled from end to end with wounded men. And in all the rooms I saw wide swaths of bedding covered with more wounded, the only exception was an apartment that had been the dining room which then seemed to be a combination of a pharmacy and slaughterhouse. When I looked in, a man with the chevron of a sergeant was lying pale and motionless on the extended table. On the floor near the table was a washtub half-full of blood-red water. Beside the tub lay a naked, hairy, blood-stained leg. A number of strange-looking tools were scattered over one end of the table across from the ghastly implements. Beyond the litter in one of the chimney corners, I saw a heap of limp, meaty-looking arms and legs. Two surgeons were busy over a fresh, quivering stump. One held a bottle and a sponge, another grasped a pair of pincers and the third seemed to be tying a hard knot in a piece of thread. I shuddered and hurried from that door." ~ Musician Thomas M. Page, Co. C, 83rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry after the Battle of Champion Hill
My friend from Indiana promptly retaliated for what, in allusion to my infirmary badge, he jocosely denounced as an outrage on hospital immunity, and for some minutes a lively single combat was maintained between those two champions of antagonistic principles. Then, just as the contest had reached that point in which it was beginning to be farcical, a still, small voice, infinitesimal but articulate, came floating across the field and distilled into the vernal air the following soul-stirring conundrum. “Hello, you skulking blue belly! Why don’t you stand out like a man and give me a fair crack at you?”
Perhaps there was some occult potency in the articulation of the tiny taunt, but whatever the reason, my tall compatriot instantly leaned his gun against his tree, stepped out into the open and folded his arms against his breast with all the dignity attributable to an insulted Roman senator. After a momentary delay, due doubtless to the necessities of a deliberate aim and rest, the bullet of the butternut whizzed briskly by a cubit or two off the track of its earnest mission. And then the proud Hoosier stepped gaily back to his tree, took up his rifle, fingered its telescopic sight and in stentorian tones shouted, “Now Johnny! It’s your turn. Face front, fair, and stand still!” Once more the still, small voice was heard penetrating the sulfurous welkin, “Do you think I am a God damned fool?”
What the intrepid patriot from the banks of the Wabash thought posterity will never know, for his meditations were too profound for utterance at the moment and shortly thereafter took such a turn that he quietly thrashed the only two men who ever ventured to approach him in a spirit of investigation upon that subject.
About 2 p.m., our left wing was once more pushed forward. Until that time, the engagement of the Federal left had been a heavy demonstration on the Raymond and Edwards’ Stations road upon our part; and a harassing skirmish in force at long range on the part of the enemy. The smoke had risen from the field, but a villainous odor lingered in the air, and within the scope of my vision two or three lifeless steeds and several Federal corpses scattered in the strange and thrilling attitudes characteristic of carnage announced to the experienced eye that the dogs of war, though crouching in cover and creeping still, were ruthlessly unleashed.
Then out of a brooding silence rose a sound as of autumn foliage stirred the approaching tempest- a sound that deepened and widened in an oncoming tumult until a line of gleaming bayonets swayed above the crackling undergrowth crowning it with a coronet that fitfully blazed between flashes. Through the May verdure I saw our flag unfurl itself with a graceful flutter; then under it appeared a billow of towering felt hats and familiar faces, and in another moment, simultaneously with the swarming of my comrades around me, a hurtling volley of lead and iron swept the wood, filling that margin of it with death and confusion, and supplying me with an excess of arduous duty that narrowly restricted my subsequent observation of the historic episode.
I know that we charged across the field into the open timber scarred by the bullets of my tall friend, the sharpshooter, and found it to screen warm woods that concealed still warmer ones which we took hasty hold of and clung to until nightfall. We were rejoiced to learn that a sudden slackening of the furious fire we have ben breasting for four hours was due to the withdrawal of the line in front of us, the first fruits of a substantial victory achieved that day by our comrades on the right.
Page, Thomas Manning. Bohemian Life, or the Autobiography of a Tramp. St. Louis: Sun Publishing Co., 1884, pgs. 48-55
It's interesting how the history and legend of the Civil War still reasonates and fascinates today. I read an article recently on the leadership lessons that President Lincoln provided (https://bustin.com/executive-leadership-blog/lincoln-5-leadership-lessons/) and it mentioned leaders from both the south and the north. I truly think that most people fighting weren't even sure what they were fighting for. I think many if not most of the southern fighters were defending their homes and land. May we never repeat the horrors of the war between the states.ReplyDelete