How We Fight at Atlanta.
HERE in the trenches before Atlanta, on this 15th day of August, I propose to give you some idea of the actual manner in which we fight. With us the pomp and show of war has become a matter of poetry rather than of fact. We need no gay dress or nodding plumes to inspire a soldier's pride. Practical utility is what we look at in matters of dress and equipment. Look at most of the pictures. Two-thirds of the pictures in books and papers represent the soldiers with enormous knapsacks neatly packed; officers leading the charge in full dress uniform, with their sabres waving in the most approved style. Now this makes a pretty picture; but let me tell you that soldiers don't put on their well-packed knapsacks to double-quick over a half mile of open ground in the hot sun at the pas du charge. Limited transportation soon exhausts an officer's stock of white collars. The most elegant dress uniform will become torn and spotted, and the brightly polished boots will become soiled with mud, when one is reduced to marching in line-of-battle through swamps, thickets, and brier patches, and then sleeping night after night on the bare ground with only heaven's clouds for an over-coat. Know ye, then, ladies all, yonder pretty-looking officer, with his spotless dress, resplendent with gold lace, will present a very different spectacle after a few months of campaigning. Dusty, ragged, and unshaven, his appearance is far more in accordance with his surroundings, far more becoming the earnest fighting man that you really suppose he is, than if he were arrayed as you
664formerly saw him, or as the pictures represent him to be.
Of course, in a war like this, upon which we all entered with the art yet to learn, the science has been progressive. Each succeeding year has developed new phases, and under such schooling our soldiers are indeed veterans; men whom practice has perfected in all the mysteries of military life. Each soldier knows that where he used to lie upon his arms all the time, in the face of the enemy, only seeking cover from the shape of the ground, he must now make a strong fortification, to enable him to hold his position, and must arrange it to stop pieces of shell from the flank as well as bullets from the front. Had the army been as experienced at Shiloh as it is now, Beauregard would have come up and broken his army to pieces on our fortifications, instead of finding our whole army lying exposed to his attacks on the open field. At Fort Donelson, too, where we had to attack fortifications, we ourselves had no sign of a work upon which we could fall back after each day's repulse; nor did the enemy seem to realize the value of his own works, for instead of quietly waiting the attack, he threw away his army by fighting outside his works.
It is now a principle with us to fight with movable breast-works, to save every man by giving him cover, from which he may resist the tremendous attacks in mass of the enemy. Thus at least we fight in Georgia, in the Atlanta campaign.
Wherever the army moves, either in gaining the enemy's work, or in taking up a new line of attack, the first duty after the halt is to create defensive fortifications — rude, indeed, but effective in enabling us to hold our ground against any force. In forming these field-works every man is to some extent his own engineer. The location of the line is selected by the officers, and each regiment fortifies its own front, each company its own ground.
Generally the situation will not allow of finishing the works at once, for the enemy will probably attack soon after you take position, which is on a commanding hill or some similar point. So you cause a hasty barricade to be constructed. The front rank take all the guns and remain on the line, while the rear rank goes off in double-quick to collect rails, logs, rocks, any thing that can assist in turning a hostile bullet. These they place on the front of the front rank, and in five minutes there is a hasty barricade, bullet-proof and breast-high, along your whole line; not a mere straight work, but one varied with its salients and re-entering angles, taking every advantage of the ground, and cross-firing on every hollow. You can do this after the enemy forms to charge you, while he is feeling you with artillery. Thus it takes just five minutes to prepare for an assault; and you can hold your line against an attack by three time! your number — and that, too, with but slight loss to yourself — if your men be veteran soldiers.
It may be that when your barricade is done you have yet time. Shovels and picks are always carried by your men, and to work they go to complete the frail works. A ditch is speedily made on the inside to stand in. The earth is thrown on the outside of the barricade, and the ditch deepened, so that, standing inside, your head will be protected by the parapet. Thus you speedily have a pretty substantial earth-work, with a step inside to stand on when firing, and a ditch to stand in while loading. If you are in the woods, you want to give range to your rifles, and have all the thick undergrowth and small trees cut away for fifty paces in front. By felling these all the same way, the bushy tops all turning outward, and trimming off the smaller twigs and leaves, and tangling the tops together, you have a formidable abattis, through which it shall lie next to impossible for a line to advance alone, let alone against the showers of bullets from your men at short range. This done, you can be making any amount of additions to your work as you have time, all tending to make it impregnable. Even after you have pronounced the job finished, your men will fuss and dig and tinker about the works to make them sure protection. They have no notion of taking a position, and then having it taken from them by a sudden assault. They will cut huge logs eighteen inches through, and place them on the parapet to protect the head while they shoot through a space left between the log and the parapet. They have also an ingenious plan for preventing these "head-logs" from being an injury to the service. Experience has taught them that a cannon-ball will sometimes strike one of these huge logs, and throw it off the parapet on to the troops inside. As a preventive skids, or stout poles, are placed at equal distances along the rifle-pits, extending from the parapet across the ditch. The logs being knocked off the top of the breast-work are supposed to roll along these skids, over the heads of the soldiers in the ditch, until they lodge safely on the bank beyond.
The men will also amuse themselves with devising some new entanglement or snare to annoy the advance of the enemy. They drive palisades — stakes set in the ground with their sharpened points directed outward at an angle of forty-five degrees, and so close together that a man can not pass between them. In front of the palisade they place a strong wire so arranged that it can not be seen but will trip all comers. They will then imagine how astounded will be the rebels in charging the works to be suddenly tripped up and to fall forward on the sharp palisades.
Your main works being completed you can rest secure, only putting in an embrasure for a howitzer or two here or there. These howitzers are a fine thing to repel an attack, for they throw nearly a bucketful of small balls at a charge. Your skirmish line has, in the mean time, fortified itself sufficiently for protection, and can hold an attacking column long enough for you to form
665line in the main works before the enemy can get there.
One reads in the papers of the assaults on earth-works, of the repulses, and yet one does not know what is contained in those words — "Assault repulsed." You make up your mind to assault the enemy's works. You have formed line of battle, with a second and third line behind you for support. You march forth filled with the determination to accomplish the object, yet feeling the magnitude of the undertaking. Two hundred yards brings you to the picket-line, and here the opposition commences. You dash across the space between the two lines, you lose a few men; and the enemy's pickets, after making as much noise as possible, ran back to their main works. By this time the enemy are sure you are really coming, and open on you with artillery, besides a pretty heavy fire of musketry. This artillery throws the shell screaming through your ranks, producing more moral than physical effect, or throws shrapnell which, bursting in front, scatter myriads of small bullets around. You commence to lose men rapidly. The ball is opened. "Forward, double-quick!" again; and while the whole line of the enemy open fire from behind their works, your men, mindless of this — mindless of the death intensified, the bullets and the shells, they dash on with wild cheers. The abattis with its tangled intricacy of sharpened branches snares your line. Tripping, falling, rising to fall again, the men struggle through this abattis. Yon get through this abattis, though the minutes are drawn out interminably, and though in each step are left brave men to pay for the ground. You get through a part of you and still rush on: the firing grows more fierce, the men grow more desperate. Your three lines have been almost reduced to one, and you strike another line of abattis. In this abattis are the palisades, which must be uprooted by force before a man can pass. You stumble, fall, tear your flesh on these stakes, and must stop to pull them up — stop, when every instant is an hour — stop, when you are already gasping for breath; and here open up the masked batteries, pouring the canister into that writhing, struggling, bleeding mass — so close that the flame scorches, that the smoke blinds from those guns. Is it any wonder that your three lines are torn to pieces, and have to give back before the redoubled fire of an enemy as yet uninjured comparatively? And then the slaughter of a retreat there! Oftentimes it is preferable to lie down and take the fire there until night rather than lose all by falling back under such circumstances.
This war has demonstrated that earth-works can be rendered nearly impregnable on either side against direct assault. An attack on fortified lines must cost a fearful price, and should be well weighed whether the cost exceed not the gain. This, then, is what an assault means — a slaughter-pen, a charnel-house, and an army of weeping mothers and sisters at home. It is inevitable. When an assault is successful, it is to be hoped that the public gain may warrant the loss of life requisite. When it is repulsed tenfold is the mourning.
It was a long time before the men could appreciate the value of these field-works. They would grumble and growl, recalling instances without number where the most charming little traps, the most elegant cross-fires, had been prepared with great labor, and had never been attacked. I saw some men most beautifully satisfied as to the necessity for defensive works the other day. On the 22d of July, before Atlanta, while these men were engaged in grumbling over some newly-finished works which the enemy would not charge, Hardee struck the Seventeenth Corps in flank and rear. His furious onset crushed the flank, and the Second Brigade of the Third Division, to which these grumblers belonged, found themselves suddenly forming the unprotected left of the corps and attack from the rear in those very works they grumbled so about building. When this attack was made they jumped the works to the front, or outside, and fought that way. This attack repulsed, they jumped back and repulsed an attack from the outside, or real front. Thus they fought, looking for all the world like a long line of these toy-monkeys you see which jump over the end of a stick. Thus they fought for four long hours, cut off from all commanders, corps, division, and brigade, cut off from ammunition-trains, and only cheered by the noble example of General Giles A. Smith, whose command, broken by the first onset — all except one brigade — had rallied behind the works of the Third Division. Firing to front and rear, and to either flank, they held their works, only changing front by jumping over the parapet as five assaults were made upon them, successively from front, rear, or flank, until the rebel onset was checked long enough to make sure the safety of the immense wagon-trains already saved by the Sixteenth Corps.
The next works of these men I saw, and seeing them, laughed. Experience had taught the utility of fortifications, and they fortified not only the front, but facing the rear and every way, so that they could hold out if surrounded. They were not going to be caught without ammunition either; for each company had its little powder-magazine in a safe place, well stored with ammunition gathered from the battle-field. No grumbling was heard about building the works. All the spare time of the men was devoted to finishing up their pet works, standing off and regarding the effect of each addition with something of the same paternal feeling that an artist exhibits in regarding the power of each master-stroke in finishing his picture.
We hear a great deal about hand-to-hand fighting. Gallant though it would be, and extremely pleasant to the sensation newspapers to have it to record, yet, unfortunately for gatherers of items, it is of very rare occurrence. This year's campaigns have probably seen more of it than any other of the war. When men can kill
666one another at six hundred yards they generally would prefer to do it at that distance, than to come down to two paces. Still as each army grows wiser in military matters the fighting must naturally become closer and more desperate, and those who have the firmest endurance, the greatest self-control, must win. This war is not one between mere military machines as soldiers are in Europe, but of rational, thinking beings, fighting with the highest of motives on our side, and with the belief that theirs is the highest of motives on the part of the enemy. When such men are thrown in deadly personal contact with each other the strife is deadly indeed. On the 22d of July, in that part of the battle to which I have already alluded, it chanced that I saw hand-to-hand fighting in that same Second Brigade afore mentioned. A man was actually well-nigh dismembered, the rebels pulling his feet, to take him prisoner, and our boys pulling his head to save him. Men were bayoneted, knocked down with the butts of muskets, and even fists were used in default of better weapons in that deadly strife. Officers used their dress swords, which they had hitherto considered as mere playthings for the parade, to hack down a troublesome enemy. A rebel colonel, who had laid hold of the colors of the Twentieth Ohio Regiment, was bayoneted by the color-guard, who at the same instant saved the colors of the Seventy-eighth Ohio, their bearer, shot through the heart, having dropped the precious nag among the enemy. Men begged for more cartridges as they would for bread, and made every one count, as the horrible sight in the ditch testified the next morning.
So much for hand-to-hand fighting. While there are thousands of such brave men in the field our country can never go to ruin, and the honor of our flag will be upheld against traitors, enemies, at home or abroad.
In a protracted attack like that on Petersburg or Atlanta, although not actually a siege, still the operations have to be carried on more or less after the principles of one. The works are more solid, more substantial, than mere field-works. The men make their bunks right behind the works so as to be protected from the pieces of shell and bullets. The parapets are made thicker and higher to resist the heavy artillery fire of the enemy, and batteries are erected at commanding points to keep up a constant fire upon the enemy. These batteries are made very strongly, and are often casemated, or roofed with a heavy bomb-proof of logs and earth. It is amusing to watch the operations of these batteries. They are arranged with the most consummate skill, so far as regards position, etc. No sooner does a rebel battery dare to speak than you will hear a volley from all the guns that can see it, and a dozen or more shells of every shape and size will strike exactly in the embrasure of the hostile fort. This practice of concentration of fire renders the enemy exceedingly chary of using his guns unless he thinks he has us at an advantage.
Sharp-shooters play an important part in the operations of our army. Hiding themselves in a good position they soon build a little pit, digging with the bayonet and tin cup, if they can not stand up to use a spade, from which they annoy the enemy most immensely. Their keen eyes readily detect the slightest portion of an enemy exposed, and they generally mark it with a quick bullet. Many a trick is resorted to by them to induce the enemy so to expose himself. Sometimes they will all raise a tremendous shout, and when the enemy bob up to see what is going on they give them a telling volley, and then roll over and kick up their heels with joy. Nothing short of an actual attack in force will dislodge these sharp-shooters; and it is rarely that one of them is killed. They take the same pride in their duty that a hunter does in the chase, and tally their victims in three separate columns — the "certainly," the "probably," and the "possibly" killed — thinking no more of it than if it were not men they hunt so diligently. The enemy also have efficient sharp-shooters who climb high trees and with their long-range rifles soon make themselves felt in our camps.
Besides the fighting population of our camps there is a population constitutionally opposed to warfare — cooks, ambulance nurses, stretcher-bearers, shirks, and sometimes surgeons, who all come under the class technically called bummers. These are treated by the fighting men with a sort of cool contempt, no matter whether necessity or inclination keeps them to the rear, and they have a hard time. Frequently the rear of the army is a much more dangerous locality than the front line, for the missiles passing over the front line must fall somewhere, and often demoralize whole hosts of "bummers," who build miniature fortifications to live in, and collect together in crowds; for misery loves company. Any favorable ravine thus peopled immediately becomes denominated "Bummer's Roost." Here they spend their days in cooking for their nurses, if they are cooks, or attending to their own business, if their object be to escape duty and danger. Among them originate all sorts of marvelous reports of immense success or terrible disaster. They always know just what General Sherman said about the situation at any given time; and from them start many of the wild stories which penetrate the columns of our best papers.
To watch these cooks, freighted with the precious coffee for the men in the trenches, as they go out to the front three times a day, is amusing. From continually dodging the passing shells or stray bullets their forms become bent and stooping. As they approach the line, the men in the trenches commence shouting. "Hey, bummer! Run quick, bummer!" "A man was killed just there, bummer!" With such encouragements the coffee at last reaches its destination, and being distributed among the eager men the bummer is soon at liberty to hurry back to the "Roost."