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

Post image for “I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other.” –Diary of Josiah Marshall Favill.

“I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other.” –Diary of Josiah Marshall Favill.

December 13, 2012

Diary of a Young Officer–Josiah Marshall Favill (57th New York Infantry)

[December 13th] Early this morning, the Thirteenth, our division, marched up the cut and filed off into the principal street to the right. Here we stacked arms and the men were dismissed. They immediately made a dash for the houses, and ransacked them from cellar to garret. Very soon the streets were filled with a motley crowd of men, some of them dressed in women’s clothes, others with tall silk hats, curiously conspicuous where nothing but caps are worn; many brought out sofas, chairs, etc., which were planted in the middle of the street, and the men proceeded to take their ease. Some carried pictures; one man had a fine stuffed alligator, and most of them had something. It was curious to observe these men upon the eve of a tremendous battle rid themselves of all anxiety by plunging into this boistrous sport. No attempt was made by the officers to interfere, and thus their minds were distracted, until summoned to fall in to storm the heights.

About 12 o’clock French’s division began filing out toward the rear of the town, to the assault which they were to lead. Our division formed next in order, massed on the side streets, about the railroad, waiting for French to advance.

About two o’clock French succeeded in deploying his lines, and our column immediately debouched on the plain in his rear, by way of the railroad depot. As the head of the column appeared in the open, the rebel batteries opened fire and pandemonium at once broke loose. The whizzing, bursting shells made one’s hair stand on end; our guns added to the confusion as they fired over our heads, and the two flights of shot and shell in opposite directions, made a noise above the roar of Niagara. We marched rapidly forward, passing a huge pile of bricks, which the round shot was scattering in every direction, then came a mill race, and on the other side of it a high board fence; clearing these obstacles in the face of a terrible fire, with considerable loss and obliquing somewhat to the right at first, then in full line of battle, we marched directly forward, in front of Marye’s house the strongest point of the enemys’ works. It seemed a terrible long distance, as with bated breath and heads bowed down, we hurried forward, the rebel guns plowing great furrows in our ranks at every step; all we could do was to close up the gaps and press forward. When within some three hundred yards of the rebel works, the men burst into a cheer and charged for the heights. Immediately the hill in front was hid from view by a continuous sheet of flame from base to summit. The rebel infantry poured in a murderous fire while their guns from every available point fired shot and shell and cannister. The losses were so tremendous that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure. Within one hundred yards of the base of the hill we dropped down, and then flat on our bellies, opened fire while line after line of fresh troops, like ocean waves, followed each other in rapid succession, but none of them succeeded in reaching the enemy’s works. A few passed over our line, but the bulk of them dropped down before they reached us. Looking over the field in rear, from where I lay, the plain seemed swarming with men, but it was easy to see that the attack was a failure, and that nothing that could henceforth be done would amount to anything. Our losses were heavy, while those of the enemy, sheltered behind superb works, were almost nothing, and no effort of ours short of carrying the works at the point of the bayonet could possibly avail anything. This being out of the question, the point was how we were to get away from our exposed position. Luckily for us the moving lines in rear attracted the most attention, drawing the bulk of the enemy’s fire, and it was impossible not to watch the advance of these troops and forget one’s own predicament. I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other. Just then there was no romance, no glorious pomp, nothing but disgust for the genius who planned so frightful a slaughter. Towards evening the attempt came to a halt, the firing ceased, and many of the troops withdrew. By this time the plain was covered with thousands of dead and wounded men, besides scores of lines of troops, lying on their bellies, utterly useless, but exposed to more or less continuous fire. We fully expected the enemy to leave his works and charge us where we lay, but very strangely they not only did not do this, but stopped their artillery fire, and by dusk it became almost quiet. Many of the columns were withdrawn, and the wounded were quickly gathered up. Zook was very wretched, quite sick and thoroughly disgusted. Broom participated in his first fight and thought he had had enough for a life time. Brooke was as usual up in front on the right looking after his men, one of the most unconcerned men in the crowd. During the evening all of our brigade save the Fifty-second was withdrawn into the town, and Colonel Zook took up his quarters in a house near the upper pontoon bridge, where we spent the night.

Previous post:

Next post: