Not every soldier is filled with patriotic fervour. William Stevenson narrowly escaped the hangman and was pressed into volunteering himself into the Confederate Infantry. There he found himself engaged in pitched battles in support of a cause for which he had very little sympathy. Despite his political views, he could not suppress his genuine fondness for his comrades, and his recollections of them on campaign make interesting – and humorous – reading. Incidents on a runaway train precede a transfer to Morgan’s Cavalry. The battle of Shiloh and its aftermath are described in graphic detail as the author plans his greatest adventure – his escape to the North.
Up to this time, the Federal force had driven the Confederates back from their camps, and threatened their annihilation, but Pillow’s arrival stayed the retreat. By ten A.M., Cheatham’s brigade of 2500 men, in which was my regiment, were also coming into the engagement. By eleven A.M., both armies were fully employed. In the mean time some of the guns on the fortifications at Columbus were trying their range upon the Federal gunboats, which lay about three miles distant, and replied fiercely to their challenges. But little execution on either side was done by this firing. The carelessness of the officers in our brigade nearly lost the day, early in the contest. The men had but ten rounds of ammunition, which was soon expended, and we were compelled to retire beneath the bank of the river until more was supplied.
This incident developed a strange, and to me a very sad, trait of human nature,—other illustrations of which I have observed repeatedly since,—an unusual disposition to witticisms in the most solemn circumstances, when it might be supposed that even the most hardened would reflect upon the fearful fate sure to seize upon some of them. One of the captains of our regiment, J.L. Saffarrens, ran into the river waist-deep, in his desire for safety, when one of his men called out, “Captain, dear, are ye off for Memphis? If ye are, tell the ould woman the last ye saw ov me I was fighting, while ye were runnin’ away.”
The gallant captain received a ball in the face, while stuck in the mud into which he had sunk, and was taken to Memphis with the wounded next day; but I never learned that he delivered the message to the “ould woman.” A curious little Irishman in our company, nick-named “Dublin Tricks,” who was extremely awkward, and scarcely knew one end of his gun from the other, furnished the occasion of another outburst of laughter, just when the bullets were flying like hail around us. In his haste or ignorance, he did what is often done in the excitement of rapid firing by older soldiers: he rammed down his first cartridge without biting off the end, hence the gun did not go off. He went through the motions, putting in another load and snapping his lock, with the same result, and so on for several minutes. Finally, he thought of a remedy, and sitting down, he patiently picked some priming into the tube. This time the gun and Dublin both went off. He picked himself up slowly, and called out in a serio-comic tone of voice, committing the old Irish bull, “Hould, asy with your laffin’, boys; there is sivin more loads in her yit.”
Another Hibernian called out to his men, “Illivate your guns a little lower, boys, and ye’ll do more execution.”
Such jokes were common even amid the horrors of battle. However unseemly, they served to keep up the spirits of the men, to which end other spirits contained in canteens were also freely added. A most reprehensible practice this, for men should go into battle free from unnatural excitement, if they wish to serve the cause in which they are engaged; and moreover, the instances of cruelty which sometimes are perpetrated on the wounded and dying, are caused by the drunkenness of such ruffians as are found in every army.
Our brigade, after receiving ammunition, executed a flank movement on McClernand’s left, next the river, while General Pillow was holding their attention in front; this came very near surrounding and capturing the Federal force. For five hours the battle raged with varying success, the Rebel forces on the whole gaining upon the Federals. Our regiment charged and took a part of the 7th Iowa.
A charge is a grand as well as terrible sight, and this one, to my inexperienced eyes, was magnificent. I had often witnessed, with wild delight, the meeting of thunder-clouds in our western storms, the fierce encounter, the blinding lightning, the rolling thunder, the swaying to and fro of the wind-driven and surging masses of angry vapour, the stronger current at length gaining the victory, and sweeping all before it. With an intenser interest and a wilder excitement, did I watch these eight hundred men, as they gathered themselves up for the charge. At the word, every man leaped forward on the full run, yelling as if all the spirits of Tartarus were loosed. In a moment comes the shock, the yells sink into muttered curses, and soon groans are heard, and the bayonet thrusts are quick and bloody. Brute strength and skill often meet, and skill and agility usually win.