Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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The Color Guard, A Corporal’s Notes, James Kendall Hosmer.

July 6, 2013

The Color Guard, A Corporal's Notes, James Kendall Hosmer

July 6.—The interest of campaigning I find to be of a spasmodic sort, — a few days of excitement and intense labor, then long periods of tedious inactivity. The interval since the skirmish near Jackson has been an uninteresting period, because its experiences are of a sort to which we have become accustomed, and of which we have grown tired. Our life is a monotony of perilous exposure. The regiment remains in its advanced position, constantly under fire, and occasionally losing a member, killed or wounded. Meantime, the engineers have been pushing forward their work. What would have become of us, if the work of siege had fallen to us to do, I do not know: or, rather, it is easy to see what would have become of us,—hundreds and hundreds in hospitals, or silent under brown mounds; mounds which, as it is, have become numerous on hillsides, and wherever the ground is open and at all easy to the shovel.

Sambo, however, has saved us many lives. These big black fellows, with arms like our legs almost, and with muscle piled in great layers about rib and back, have done the main work. The soil through which the sap runs is very hard, —a tough, unyielding clay, upon which a shovel makes but little impression.

Almost every crumble of it, it has been necessary to hew out with a pickaxe. Sambo, however, is equal to it. He has the courage to stand close to the rebel rifle pits all the time, and the strength to handle this unyielding earth.

Every morning and every night, the long fatigue-parties from the black engineer troops relieve each other; and day by day, as we look out from our hiding-places, we can see that the line of our sap runs farther and farther. Two “cavaliers” have also been constructed. These are elevations, built up of hogsheads, tier above tier, designed to give sharpshooters a position from which they can fire well within the parapet. The brunt of the work the negroes do. There are white overseers; and fatigue-parties, too, are detailed from white regiments: but, for the most part, we have had it for our work to keep sharp watch from our cover, and never allow a rebel head to appear above the opposite parapet, without a pointed leaden hint to withdraw, insinuated without ceremony through a loophole.

We keep hearing of the new assault. The army began to prepare for it at once, after the 14th of June. It was then supposed it would take place almost immediately; but it has been deferred. Tuesday evening, June 30, I had been for an hour or two at the camp, in the woods back from the front, where the convalescents of the regiments are quartered. Returning to my post about sunset, I found the road full of troops. A division had assembled to hear a speech from the commanding general. The gloss of military show had all worn off. The men were brown, — attired as they chose to be, — shaggy and stained with their bear-like life in ravines and behind logs. There were no flags or music, no shining brass or glossy broadcloth and lace. If glory lies in these things, “Ichabod” was written in deep, emphatic lines on the whole company.

But these were the stout Fourth Wisconsin, and Thirty-first Massachusetts, and other decimated regiments, that had faced rifle-muzzles in the two previous deadly assaults, and had all the heart in the world for another. If glory lies in that, every tanned and uncombed platoon abounded in it. Presently there was a stir, and the general rode up, iron as ever, in rough, serviceable dress; the gray moustache on his upper lip cropping out like a ledge of the metal, almost pure. He made a speech: —

“We were close on another assault. It was sure to be successful, if the army would do as well as it had done. Then would come rest, and the campaign would close in light.”

Still we wait. A day or two after that, I walked down one branch of the sap to Duryea’s battery of regulars, — seven twelve-pounders, — which had been dragged in through the narrow trench to an advanced point, where they threatened the rebels close at hand. As I went along, a rebel shell exploded in the air overhead, the pieces falling here and there into the bushes and into the dust. In the air where the shell burst, a halo of white, compact smoke floated for a minute or two, — a round, perfect ring, from which depended a fringe of less compact vapor, that floated longer and longer, and swayed to and fro, beautiful as a bridal veil hanging from a crown. The battery lay behind its embrasures, silent. Before each piece, the embrasure was hidden by a plate of iron, in which was a hole of the size of the muzzle of a gun, temporarily covered with a sand-bag. A rain of rifle-balls was being showered on the spot. I did not stay long; for that morning the battery-men told us they had lost three. They were waiting and waiting, with their cartridges at hand, and their fierce shells in piles, ready for their deadly flight.

Another day, I went through another branch of the sap to the mine. The passage was guarded against all but workmen; but, fortunately, I met the colonel near the sentry, and he passed me in. I went through the zigzag passages, passed piles of fascines, and a pontoon bridge which lay ready to be put together across any ditch, when the day shall come for the charge.

At last I came to a turn, and found the parapet straight ahead. The sap ended in the mine, — a hole about four feet square, where a party of men were burrowing under the enemy’s earthwork. I stooped, and looked in at the mouth. Negroes, on their knees, were working there by candle-light, excavating a place in which are to be put kegs of powder. With these it is designed to blow the parapet into the air, leaving a passage for our troops. It was a perilous place. The workmen all spoke in whispers, as they do in powder-mills. Sometimes the rebs toss over hand-grenades. Capt. Morton, with a squad, was at work there, placing sandbags. A short time after, in this very place, his lieutenant and some of his men were marked for life by the explosion of a hand-grenade.

Still the days pass, and no order is given. We imagined 4th of July would be the day; but it was not. Nor was it Sunday, the day following; nor Monday, to-day. The regiment is growing blue. This week, our time is out; and the idea is spreading, that there is no going home for us till the place falls. There are some insubordinate threats; but many of us feel as if our personal honor is concerned, and are determined not to go till the place falls, no matter when it happens. To-day, Port Hudson seems more impregnable than ever. The space within those stubborn banks, gullied by the rains and baked by the suns, so terribly edged with fire, as yet is unapproached and unapproachable.

To-night, Company D have all been in tears. Cyrus Stowell, the “pleasant corporal,” so called for his unfailing amiability, on duty on our middle picket-post, thrown out upon the very mouths of the rebel rifles, suddenly, just at sundown, was shot through the head; his pure, sweet young life swept off in an instant. We dug his grave late this evening, by the light of tapers dimly burning, on the brow of a hill crowned by the old rifle-pits of the enemy, out of which we had forced them. Overhead was the clear light of stars.

On the horizon a tempest was gathering, — swelling accumulations of thunder-charged cloud lit up each moment from within with sudden luminousness, and rumbling with coming storm. Close at hand, through the agitated air, hurtled the constant roar of the siege. The body could not be brought out till after dark, as it was necessary to pass several exposed places.

It came at last, late at night, upon a stretcher borne by his comrades. We wrapped his young, tall figure in his tent, and laid him to rest. As we stood uncovered, during the service, close overhead swept the rifleballs, until we thought there would be some new victim to be buried beside him.

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