Wednesday, 27 September 2017
Our man in the field. Part one.
The Battle of Antietam.
As told by Wiener Zeitung correspondent, Herr Wilhelm Schmetterling.
A strange premonition came upon me as I stood at an old gate looking across to the first row of army tents, that I would be caught in a suppressed chaos, a primordial trial that men fought to harness, to unleash the best, and the worst in men. War, for I had been caught on the edge of it before, back in '59 at a place called Solferino.
There was much bussle but I was not challenged, even as I paused to sketch a half dressed man beneath a flag I did not recognise but I learnt it was Southern by the hints of grey apparel and collection of hats in circulation. Although in truth when men speak of 'The blue and the grey' they might as well add a hue called butternut to the Confederate, along with cheque and various wallpaper samples. A white whiskered fellow hailed me and enquired what I was about and I feared my accent and dark attire might make him think me a Northerner but he soon satisfied himself I was not, as did a cloud of his fellows attracted by a stranger in their little town. I did think it prudent not to ask for directions to the Federal lines but took off in the direction that the camp seemed to guard against like a dog on a porch.
Union camp. Seemed a little more on the European model, rows of near identical tents, many stencilled with italics. I felt some wary eyes on me and smiled, moving on. Maybe this was not the right time for a tour as more tents rose up, then a call hailed me, Captain Story of the US navy whom I had bumped into on my travels. I hoped the acquaintance would boost my status and soon I was also in conversation with the main surgeon.
With dusk drawing in I realised I had no place to rest and spread my meague things, it had been mentioned men with modest shelters were bivouacked in the opposite woods, but back in Confederate country. I made the wood as a shower fell and like a turtle drew myself under canvas for its brief duration. Then found my camp mates, one of whom, Lloyd, was most interested in my work and I felt in gaining his trust I was welcome to live amongst these hardy souls.
Whilst I came with bread and cheese and a hip flask tucked between my notebooks, apples and corn were in abundance in the region even with such a host that lined either side of Antietam creek, a brewery in Sharpsburg had also sent liquor and men visited in small bands and with little rancour, maybe the proximity of battle had made men seek solace in their campfires. One of those nearest my nest was populated largely with French speakers from Louisiana.
Apparently it rained, quite heavily, in the night but I do not recall waking until low voices and the hint of dawn crept into my consciousness, and the shout for roll call summoned a small host in earthy shades.
All became motion and I felt rather like a fifth wheel and excused myself to wander freely, and sketch.
Attracted by a meandering of officers towards a commandeered building I found myself attached to the high staff rather as a stray dog follows men, everyone assumed I was invited along by someone else. To wit I was privy to the plan of battle for the day unfolding.
Drums, bugles and much shouting was putting that plan into action. Companies were forming up. I threaded my way through the camp and joined the union forces between the 18th Missouri and the 19th Indianapolis, just a few yards from the colour party, directly ahead of us was a cornfield, the crops taller than a man. Marching forward, even with several pairs of feet trampling through the crops ahead of me I still struggled occasionally and if a man fell back more than a few paces he would see the fellow ahead disappear, swallowed up. A whole regiment could be hidden in such a field!
Emerging from the far side we saw a wooden fence about twenty yards ahead, and the far treeline, and then something else, men rising up as if sown from hydras teeth! the rebels were here and opened a galling fire. The sharpshooters soon had to fall back and the blue line poured out fire. Men fell and were dragged aside or replaced. I instinctively ducked and took what scant cover I could, only too aware of the valiant nature of those around me who stood unflinching whilst shot and shell filled the air. Those firing at least had a distraction but those in the colour party could only stand and abide their fate. One of the flag bearers suddenly pitched forward, body breaking through the splintered wood of the fence, one leg projected awkwardly backwards. A man instantly stepped in to take up the fallen colour.
My professional observations were forfeited about now to aid the fallen, one can not simply observe whilst men die and for the rest of the battle I helped move the wounded to a safer spot or to the aid station, on more than one occasion I moved to help a soldier who had fallen just feet away only to discover he was already a corpse.
A different species of scream now caught everyones attention, the confederates were coming forward over their own tidemark of fallen, giving their yowl, and suddenly our line seemed pitiable. The charming young medical officer advised me I might want to vacate the field, using much the same tone as he might advise a man of the best place to buy a dependable watch.
Back through the corn I came upon a small party of soldiers working their way to the right flank and out they poured to give a volley, but against them was such a number of rebels that one volley was all they fired into the flank before swiftly retiring.
I however felt as an observer that I could not do justice to the affair without recording something of the scene once the fighting was done, and passed back onto the field, only to be met by a line of confederates all with their guns trained on yours truly, fearing I was but the vanguard of another surprise attack! Much flapping and a mime of note scribbling convinced them I was not a belligerent but for a moment my life had flashed before my eyes. All that was left for me to do was help a limping soldier, pale and silent, to the aid station where I witnessed a pile of dead, gone beyond mortal help.
I needed to compose myself and found my feet drawing me back behind the lines, towards Sharpsburg, I should have been writing notes but I felt numb and knew I would recall more later, I had never been so close to the fire at Solferino. I picked up an apple and ordered a drink from Newark brewery before the days victors in grey and butternut could return.
Despite the fallen that night seemed more animated than that before the battle, maybe it was the drowning of sorrow or the celebration of survival, and a regimental band later struck up what I took to be popular tunes. Mozart was not amongst them. I gravitated to where the white whiskered sentinel had hailed me the day before and met up with the same party, listened to their tales and wondered with a writer's mind about whether these heroics, or comedies, were embellished for the audience. In time I returned to the quiet scenes of the camp beneath the trees where men sat more typically around a fire, orange flames lighting their faces and I sat for a while too before bidding them goodnight and falling into the oblivion of sleep. I thought of the men I had met and marched into the corn with just that morning, where were they now? Some thought the Union army would be gone tomorrow, cautious McClellen woud never stand, others foretold another battle to come...
End of part one, to be concluded in the next issue of Die Wiener Zeitung.