The Sublime Horror of the Occasion: Memories of a Rebel Officer at Corinth
The role of the 1st Mississippi Sharpshooters was to lead the division into battle and cover it in the event of a retreat. Assigned to General Mansfield Lovell's division of the Confederate army at the Battle of Corinth, “we were anxious to show our hand in the line of warfare set apart for is, for our small size made us the jest of the other regiments,” one of its members William Cox Holmes later wrote. Then serving as a lieutenant in Co. B, Lieutenant Holmes recalled the sights of the battlefield after the Confederates charged on a Union battery on October 3, 1862.
“Going up to the line just occupied by the 14th Wisconsin, there was presented to my gaze a sight that could but appeal to the heart of the hardest soldier: men dead, dying, and wounded, all in a line just as the regiment stood,” Holmes wrote. “The first man I saw alive had in his arms a man dead, shot through the head. ‘My friend, are you hurt?’ I asked. ‘No, but this is my poor dead brother and I could not leave him. I would not mind it for myself so much, but for his poor wife and little baby!’ I could stand no more of that and I went to the next man sitting down and gritting his teeth with pain. ‘Are you hurt my friend? I asked. ‘Oh yes,’ and he showed me a ghastly wound from a bayonet in his groin. “Well here is a grain dose of morphine I had for myself should I be wounded. Will you take it?’ ‘Oh yes, with pleasure and thanks.’ I gave it to him and I thought what ought to ring down the ages of humanity to great and small. ‘Well, what foolishness! Here we have been trying to kill each other, and now we are trying to do all we can to repair the damage done.”
After the war, Dr. Holmes moved to Texas and in 1909 wrote a memoir of his service in the Confederate army from which the following extract was pulled. It saw publication in the August 1919 edition of Confederate Veteran.
The battalion had assumed a new role in the great science of warfare. We had been drilled in the “skirmish drill” almost exclusively and our place in the army was in the front, leading the entire division in the advance, but always in the rear in the retreat. Individually, to a man, we were anxious to show our hand in the line of warfare set apart for is, for our small size made us the jest of the other regiments. [The battalion consisted of four companies.]
On October 2nd we were meeting with the outposts of the enemy and on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad were seen the wheels of an old sawmill sitting up very still, but looking to General Mansfield Lovell very much like a park of artillery. He rode up in front of the battalion in full uniform, drew his shining blade, and pointed us to it. In an instant we were scattered over all the ground we could cover at ten paces apart and advancing at a full run to drive in the enemy’s skirmishers, if there were any. I kept my eye on those wheels in their solemn stillness till I got so near that there could be no mistake of their reality. I turned and looked back and the entire brigade in line of battle was advancing in splendid array. I did not know what moment insanity might possess the entire brigade and they might fire on us, as there was nothing else to fire at; so I had the presence of mind to pull out my pocket handkerchief and tie it to the end of a cornstalk and wave as I went back. I struck the main body of the 22nd Mississippi and stopped them. If any surviving members of the glorious 22nd Mississippi remember the charge on the old sawmill, it was I that stopped you and saved further injury to that innocent old mill, to say nothing of the humiliation of capture by Van Dorn’s whole army!
|General Mansfield Lovell|
The day’s military experience was the subject of much merriment and coarse jest with the men all that night and the next day till noon when the frequent stops and slow marches told the knowing ones that something was about to happen. Sure enough, we crossed a creek and in it was a spiked cannon abandoned by the enemy; a little further in a little old field we halted and could hear the report of muskets and sing of the Minie balls flying through the air. Solemn feelings flew over us to a man. I know one thing. Never before had the perfect quiet and serene sacredness of home presented such clearness to my mind; there in all its sacredness appeared no place like home. A few straggling cavalrymen, pointing to the front and looking wistfully to the rear, told us the time was up for us to play our hands.
We were quickly deployed as skirmishers in the woods and cautiously felt our way to the front when all at once, with no warning, an entire battery turned loose solid shot whose unearthly screams through the air set up the most gigantic dodging I have ever seen in the dense woods, and no one could give censure or sympathy. On we went, thought, and muskets shots were added to the horribly sublime music for such it verily was, till suddenly an exhilarating frenzy seemed to take possession of every man and with a rush we swept away the enemy’s skirmishers, despite the huge limbs of trees cut off by the solid shots of the heavy battery we were destined soon to charge and capture.
With a rush we all seemed to come together out of the woods to an embankment near a deep cut on the railroad. We ran the enemy’s skirmishers from the embankment. As they went up the hill toward the battery, they were in plain view of our country boys as sharpshooters and but few escaped. At the embankment with this battery on the hill about 50 yards distant belching forth fiery destruction, simply grand in its sublimity, the whole battalion gathered and for a time kept up a promiscuous firing. I saw nothing to shoot at when inspiration infused itself in all of us and Captain Tom Adkinson who was commanding Co. C of Yalobusha County pulled off a tall white hat, mounted the embankment, waved it, and shouted, ‘Come on boys, let’s take it!’ The first one I saw follow him was Sergeant David J. Bailey of our company with his old hat in his left hand and his right holding aloft his old musket. ‘Come on boys, let us follow him up!’ he shouted. All seemed infused with the sublime horror of the occasion and to a man we rushed over that embankment, up the hill to the very mouth of the cannon, killing the gunners at the guns and silencing the battery.
This was done on orders from nobody and was not an acknowledged part as we were taught our duty, but we did it, and I know it did not enter my mind nor that of a single officer or man of the battalion that there was a brigade supporting the battery. But when we got to the battery, Captain Adkinson saw six strong regiments on their knees ready to receive us. My eyes were on Captain Adkinson when he turned back and with the volley turned on us, we went down that hill much faster than we ran up it. We were in no military order or line, presenting a solid front in the charge, but any and every way so we got there. In the run down the hill, it was more so but those behind going up were also behind getting back. I was then second lieutenant and carried no gun but was urging and shouting to the men to shooter the gunners. Running with and near me I saw William Wright of my company take aim and fire. The discharge of the cannon which blew smoke in my face was the last one for the gunners were all killed or driven away.
Halfway down the hill, we met the 22nd Mississippi; Captain James D. Lester commanding the regiment was detained by a telegraph wire getting caught under his horse’s shoe as he crossed the embankment on the railroad and as he galloped up the hill to catch up with the regiment, I could look down the line of the regiment into the faces of the Black Hawk company, the senior company, occupying the right. Many of them I recognized and they showed but the sublime courage of the whole regiment. No orders but shouts from one man to another to form on its left as it was rapidly advancing were echoed by every man and an effort was made to do so. But before many could reach the left, the 22nd had gone far ahead and had gotten so near the enemy that the firing commenced from the whole brigade of the enemy.
With an irregular mixture of the battalion, I took refuge in an old gully and for a few minutes a torrent of Minie balls passed over us, cutting the leaves and twigs from the trees. We were almost covered but we were out of danger and no one was hurt. When the firing ceased to some extent, I got out of my place of refuge and safety and went, with no one following, to where I thought the 22nd was or ought to have been. I found no 22nd: it had gone clear out of sight after the fleeing enemy but left behind a sure and terrible token of its work.
Going up to the line just occupied by the 14th Wisconsin, there was presented to my gaze a sight that could but appeal to the heart of the hardest soldier: men dead, dying, and wounded, all in a line just as the regiment stood. The first man I saw alive had in his arms a man dead, shot through the head. ‘My friend, are you hurt?’ I asked. ‘No, but this is my poor dead brother and I could not leave him. I would not mind it for myself so much, but for his poor wife and little baby!’
I could stand no more of that and I went to the next man sitting down and gritting his teeth with pain. ‘Are you hurt my friend? I asked. ‘Oh yes,’ and he showed me a ghastly wound from a bayonet in his groin. “Well here is a grain dose of morphine I had for myself should I be wounded. Will you take it?’ ‘Oh yes, with pleasure and thanks.’ I gave it to him and I thought what ought to ring down the ages of humanity to great and small. ‘Well, what foolishness! Here we have been trying to kill each other, and now we are trying to do all we can to repair the damage done.’
I soon found another man leaning up against a tree shot through the lungs, groaning at every breath. I gave him a dose and then found a poor boy crying with a mangled arm to whom I gave my last dose. I then went back to my bayoneted man and found him eased of his pain. He was an intelligent, talkative Yankee and from him I got what the generals in command do not and cannot know. He was the color bearer of the 14th Wisconsin. When the volley that poured in upon them by the 22nd proved so deadly, the whole regiment was paralyzed and could not run before the 22nd was upon it. The color bearer was bayonetted, but someone snatched the flag out of his hands and ran off with it. He also told me that six strong full regiments were holding that place, but none were there except the dead, wounded, and prisoners.
“The Battle of Corinth,” Second Lieutenant William Cox Holmes, Co. B, 1st Battalion Mississippi Sharpshooters, Confederate Veteran, August 1919, pgs. 290-292
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