Friday, March 30, 2012

Visit to the Battlefield

I was invited on Sunday morning, by Gen. McClernand, to take a ride over the battlefield.  I would be difficult to describe in a few words the scenes which met my view.  The battle-ground was chiefly confined to the space outside the rebel fortifications, extending up the river bank a distance of two miles, to the point where Gen. McClernand’s force rallied from the retirement which they were at first forced into by the impetuous charge of the enemy.  It must be remembered that it was here that the grand sortie was made by the rebels up the river bank with the intention of turning our right flank, and cutting their way out.  Some ten or twelve thousand men composed the force sent out for this purpose.  The advanced under cover of a deadly fire of artillery, and drove Gen. McClernand’s force before them a distance of fifty or sixty rods.  Our troops here made a stand, and having been re-enforced by one or two regiments, began the assault, before which the enemy were forced to retreat.  The ground was contested with desperation, and the slaughter on both sides was immense.  The whole space of two miles was strewed with dead, who lay in every imaginable shape and form.

Federals and rebels were promiscuously mingled, sometimes grappled in the fierce death throe, sometimes facing each other as they gave and received the fatal shot or thrust, sometimes laying across one another, and again heaped in piles which lay six or seven deep.  I could imagine nothing more terrible than the silent indications of agony that marked the features of the pale corpses which lay at every step.  Though dead, and rigid in every muscle, they still writhed and seemed to turn to catch the passing breeze for a cooling breath.  Staring eyes, gaping mouths, clenched hands, and strangely contracted limbs, seemingly drawn into the smallest compass, as if by a mighty effort to rend asunder some irresistible bond which held them down to the torture of which they died.  One sat against a tree, and with mouth and eyes wide open, looked up into the sky as if to catch a glance at its fleeting spirit.  Another clutched the branch of an over-hanging tree, and hung half suspended, as in the death pang, he raised himself partly from the ground.  The other hand grasped his faithful musket, and the compression of the mouth told of the determination which have been fatal to a foe had life ebbed a minute later.  A third clung with both hands to a bayonet which was buried in the ground, in the act of striking the heart of a rebel foe.  Great numbers lay in heaps, just as the fire of the artillery mowed them down, mangling their forms into an almost undistinguishable mass.  Many of our men had evidently fallen victims to the rebel sharpshooters for they were pierced through the head by rifle bullets, some in the forehead, some in the eyes, others  in the bridge of the nose, in the cheeks and in the mouth.  The circumstance verified a statement made to me by a rebel officer among the prisoners, that their men were trained to shoot low and aim for the face while ours, as a general ting fired at random, and shot over their heads.

The enemy, in their retreat, carried off their wounded and a great many of their dead, so that ours far outnumbered them on the field.  The scene of action had been mostly in the woods, although there were two open places of an acre or two where the fight had raged furiously, and the ground was covered with dead.  All the way up to their intrenchments the same scene of death was presented.  There were two miles of dead strewn thickly, mingled with fire arms, artillery, dead horses, and paraphernalia of the battlefield.  It was a scene never to be forgotten – never to be described.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, March 1, 1862, p. 2

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