Thursday, 28 September 2017

Our man in the field, part two.

The Battle of Antietam, part two by Wilhelm Schmetterling (see previous edition for part one). 

Roll calls sounded once more, I wondered how much shorter some of those lists of names were on this misty Sunday morning. Chewing stale bread I wandered along the leafy lane into the main camp, with an optimistic coffee cup. I was not disappointed by the Texans, whose coffee did not contain the whole coffee beans like that brewed in camp 'You have to drink it with your teeth' I was told.  By a long perambulation I took myself over to the federal camp in order to secure some more sketches.

It certainly seemed hostilities were to be resumed, and I again met with the excellent and well provisioned medical corp and tagged along as they surveyed the ground where it was believed the rebs might try to resolve the business began just yesterday. Drums rolled and bugles called again. I dashed north as it was my intention to be on the other side of the fence today, in the company of Southerners.

Like drops of oil flowing together the Confederates formed up, the droplet I was with were my camp mates, and they sang lustily as we marched to form up. Then the long wait that I wanted to last forever yet also be over with, even more so I wanted someone to blow a whistle and announce the war was over. You can all go home. But no, we were soon marching to more carnage.

A long, sunken road ran parallel to another corn field. I almost choked when I realised this was the very ground I had looked over with the medical staff and we were approaching just where they said we would, should I say something? Were the Yankees just waiting to fire? We stopped, lining the road, then the tips of union colours were seen baring through the cornfield. A wild cry went out as the first men in dark blue appeared, along with sharpshooters in green, who met their opposites. Three Union cannons also opened fire.


To be near a shell that impacts the soft earth is a strange thing, the initial blast is like the clap of a hand, a puff of smoke, black at its heart, throwing debris in a circle and gone before you can react. Then from above gravity brings down the clods of matted earth and then your eyes sting at the final act of thin soil floating back to earth. I was glad of my spectacles and saw men with eyes watering from having looked up too soon.

The company ahead could not stand the weight of fire, fallen men were dragged back into the corn into which the foray was disappearing, a lull in the storm. 
But what was that against a fence but a federal flag, just there, a hundred yards away. 'Go on Jimmy!' a man shouted and a lad in a slouch hat was running into the open land between the lane and the field, the cornfield from which a hundred guns might be poised to fire at any moment. As he drew close and seised the flag the cheering increased, was he going to make it? Back he ran with the cumbersome prize, a shell falling in his path, but no rifles sounded. He was here, he did it. Jimmy was a hero at that moment and what joy there was on his young face.

Drums quietened the moment, they were coming back, beneath the green flags of the Irish brigade. The intensity of the fire seemed to increase as the already depleted southern ranks were whittled away like one louder voice drowning out another. All alone the line which began as three ranks deep there were empty spaces or single men loading and firing, loading and firing, until the blue ranks had such an advanatge as to know a charge would win them the field, and so it was, I removed myself to a gap at the end of the lane and saw the Union troops break into a run that ended the last shred of resistance. The battle of Antietam was over. 

What was it all for? You may be aware by now that it was reported as a Union victory as the next day General Lee's army moved away south and that urged to give a heady pursuit General McClellan went exactly nowhere. 

As for myself I boarded a train, to a hotel with a type writer and a hot bath. I sit here now and reflect on the horrors I have seen but also on the nature of courage and I remember men laughing and joking. 
Laughter lost in the maelstrom.

Wilhelm Schmetterling, Maryland, USA.

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