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

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

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

June 25, 2013

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

June 25.—The next day, — Sunday, — when we found life enough to open our dust-filled eyes and crawl about a little, we found the engineers, during the previous twenty-four hours, had been pushing matters. Just by us here is a bank, covered with trees and bushes, and really very much exposed to the enemy’s fire. We often venture to pause, however, in the brush, and look at their earthworks, which can be seen from this point to advantage. Here I stopped on Sunday, and saw to my surprise, on a hill just opposite the enemy, that a deep, broad trench had been run within a few rods of them. In the sap were negroes digging it on still closer; and a company of infantry, returning, close at hand, the fire of the rebs. While I was taking my observations, suddenly Bivins turned up at the foot of the bank, cutting poles to pitch his shelter-tent with; and from him I learned that it was no other than our old Company D that I could see loading and firing; pushed up, to say the least, among the very whiskers about this old lion’s active and well-armed jaws.

You shall go with me into this outmost sap, and know what sights and sounds it is our business now to be familiar with. Into this sap I am obliged to go three times a day for my rations, out of the retreat of the colors. First we must creep out of our ravine, through the top of this prostrate tree, whose boughs catch our clothing; then up by the charred trunk, the feet slipping in the mud. Your head now comes within the range of riflemen in the trees over there. Sometimes they are in the trees, though not always. A few steps more, and we come within full range from the parapet; but do not stop to look. Stoop as low as you can, and run. This stump will shelter you; pitted with the striking of balls against it, as if it had the small-pox when a sapling. When you have caught your breath, run for that trunk. It is an ugly one to get over; for it is breast-high, and one’s whole body has to come into the enemy’s view. Once over this, and the road is smoother. We soon gain the cover of the woods, and are comparatively safe. The other day, I was twice shot at while passing the space we have just been over. I do not know how near the bullets came; only the first seemed as if it were sweeping my legs off at the knee with its sharp rush. I stooped, and labored through the brush; when the second came cold along the length of my spine, just above the vertebrse. We are to have a better road, however. One of Company E has just been shot through the head — dead in an instant — here, and we are to have a protected passage-way.

Down this little gully, and we enter the beginning of the sap, at the end of the military road. Behind the angle, just back there, is the station of the ambulance-men. They wait there, day and night, with stretchers ready. These stretchers are now all blood-stained. Three or four a day, out of the brigade and working party, are carried out. The ambulance-corps is made up largely of the musicians: but music! we never hear it now, not even the drum and fife. It is too stern a time for that.

We pass out into the sap. Here is the most dangerous point of all, just at the entrance, where the first man from our regiment was killed the day of the assault. You see how the rebel parapet commands it. We are going considerably nearer to it; but we shall be better sheltered. ‘Tis just in front, with an old shot-pierced building behind it, and white sand-bags lying on top of the tawny slope. That old building might be a ruinous mill, and those bags might be grist, laid out there along the wall until the miller was ready for it; but, every bag or two, there is a sharp-eyed Mississippian with his rifle pointed through some chink. Let us” go at a good pace, so that no one of those fellows will have a chance to draw a-bead on either of us. The trench goes under a large trunk, stretching from bank to’ bank; and from here we are tolerably safe. Only tolerably: for the other day, close by here, one of our company was hit in the face by a glancing ball; and Sergt. Bennett, of Company K, was mortally wounded by a fragment from one of our own shells, which flew back into our lines from over the rebel parapet, where the shell exploded. We are coming close, you see. Climb a steep pitch now, and we reach the station of Company D. The sap is here about six feet wide and four deep, dug out of the hard soil, the dirt being thrown out on the side toward the enemy; forming a bank rising about five feet from the surface, and therefore about nine feet above the bottom of the trench. Here now are our boys, the few that are left, —barely twenty. Along the top of the ridge of earth, logs are placed; into the under side of which, notches are cut at intervals of three or four feet; leaving, between the earth below and the timber above, a loop-hole, four or five inches in diameter, for the men to fire through. McGill has just sprung down, after discharging his piece. Before he loads again, let us climb up, and take a view of the world through the hole. Carefully! Lay your body up against the steeply sloping bank, resting the feet on the edge of the sap. By all means, take care that the top of your head does not project above the narrow timber. Your face is at the hole now. From the outside, a groove runs along the top of the thick bank; then comes the open air; and opposite you, within call easily enough, is the deadly ridge; the two or three tents behind it; the old, ruinous chimneys, the one or two shattered buildings, — so near, you can plainly see threads and bricks and splinters. Do not look long. Every yard, perhaps the intervals are less, behind the sand-bags, there is a rifleman. Mellen, of Company F, has just been shot while aiming his piece through one of these holes. The ball entered through the hole, hit the band of his gun, then the lock, splintering wood and steel, then crashed in through his chest.

McGill is capping his gun. Try one more look before he jumps up for another shot. Can you see any one? No head, I’ll warrant; for, though they are brave enough over there, they are not often careless. The most you will be likely to see will be a hand put up for a moment, with a ramrod, as the charge is pushed home; or a glimpse of butternut as a fellow jumps past some interval in the sand-bags. Now let McGrill and Buflum and Wivers and the others, whose place it is, blaze away at whatever they can see. Little Gottlieb offers me his piece to try a few shots: but I am not anxious to kill a man; and, so long as it is not in my place to fire, I decline it.

You duck your head now as the balls whistle over. It is a nervous sound; but you would soon get over that here. They go with a hundred different sounds through the air, according to the shape, size, and velocity of the projectile. Two strike the bank. It is like two quick blows of a whip-lash. That went overhead, sharp as the cut of a cimeter; another goes with a long moan, then drops into the earth with a “thud.” It comes from some more distant point, and is nearly spent. A shot comes from some great gun in the rear, — an earthquake report; then the groaning, shuddering rush of the shell, as if the air were sick and tired of them, and it was too much to be borne that they should be so constantly sent.

Sit on the edge of the trench now, with your feet hanging down, and your back leaning against the pile of earth. The boys have built shelters of boughs, just on the other side, to keep off, a little, the intolerable sun. A line of men goes along the sap, each carrying a fascine. Then comes a party rolling hogsheads filled with cotton. These are built into the bank beyond to give it strength. Steve and Tom, the cooks, come up with dinner, which is cooked back in the woods to the rear. Coffee and stewed beans to-day. There! — a shower of dirt falls over us, dinner and all, from a ball that hit near the loop-hole: but to dirt and balls alike we are growing indifferent; so we only laugh.

But let us go out to the end of the sap. We pass the young captain of engineers, who is in charge here; a pleasant, active young fellow, who nods back to us as we give him the salute, make several turns, and presently are at the end. Negroes are making the trench here wider. We push through them to the cotton-stuffed hogshead at the extremity. They roll this forward a foot or two, then dig out behind it, and so on. A lieutenant of engineers, and a negro, have just been shot here. From this crevice we can get a peep. Is it not near? You can easily throw a hard-tack across. Looking back on to a side-hill, we can see some of the old wreck of the assault, — a rusty gun or two, mouldy equipments, and there a skeleton. Some regiments got very near on the 14th. Close by runs the little, disused path, among weeds and wild-flowers, along which, before we came, the garrison used to go from their works to the road. It looks innocent as the path up Pocumtuc; but what a way of death it would be to him who should get out of the sap, and try to walk in it! Our boys in the sap here have distinguished company. Almost every day, Gen. Banks comes through, — sometimes with quite a retinue, sometimes only with Gen. Stone.

“Well, boys, how do you stand it?” said he, the other day, to our men.

“Arrah, now, your honor,” said Pat O’Toole, “we’re most dead intirely for the want of whishkey.”

We wait and watch. When night comes, I climb out of the ravine on to the hillside, where the air is fresh. There is a bright moon now, and my vigil is sure to be well lit. I am often there at midnight; and on the rebel side, faint and far along distant roads, I hear the low rattle of wheels, and call of drivers; and the sound of the active mill too, whose location the batteries are crazy to know, that they may seal its doom.

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