From their mouths to your ears
I try to give a blend of “how to” and “how it was”. This week is “how it was,” direct from one of the fellows who was there.
In preparing a school presentation, I came upon the letters of Riley M. Hoskinson, commissary sergeant for the 73rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He was 43 in 1863 — one of the older fellows, for sure, but apparently his pre-war work as a stone mason gave him the kind of strength and endurance he needed. Here’s his detailed account of the battle of Chickamauga, where the 73rd was with Sheridan’s Division, McCook’s XX Corps. At the end there is an interesting description of the hospital; it appears a great many wounded were asking for things merely to reassure themselves that someone was there to take care of them, something to keep in mind if you’re part of a field hospital scenario.
Here you go:
“Camped near an immense spring, drew & issued beef to the men. Cook and ate some supper, pulled some Ragweeds and made a bed of them, used our canteens and boots for a pillow, covered with our oil blanket, slept soundly and sweetly, under the calm blue Heavens till morning.
… about 3 O’Clock of Saturday morning Sept. 19, we turned into camp, 15 miles south of Chattanooga in the valley of the Chickamauga, Georgia. I was too tired to hunt wood or make a fire so I tumbled myself down in some brush covered with my oil blanket and fell asleep for the balance of the night, although it was cold & frosty, was only awakened by our bugle calling for us to up and away. Ate a hasty breakfast and just as we expected to roll out, orders came that ours and the 1st Brigade would stay in camp till about Noon.”
“While I sit penciling these lines the constant roar of cannon & musquetry are distinctly heard in our front only a few miles distant. We expect our turn will soon come to join the deadly fray, as we are told, the Rebels are in great force just a little in front of us. About 10 O’Clock we slowly move forward, About X O’Clock in the afternoon we come to the battleground of the morning and still the sound is far to the front.”
“The conflict lasted till near 9 o’clock at night. I shall not attempt its description. I am not equal to the task. Language can’t do it. “
“Sabbath Morn … At 10 O’ Clock the cannonade becomes terrific in the Extreme, mixed with the incessant crash of musquetry. The work of death goes fearfully on. Our Brigade still not called, some few of them have lain down to sleep, some are writing letters to loved ones at home while scores of others are buying & reading the daily Newspapers and a general calm & seriousness pervades the rank & file. Just at half past ten O’clock orders come for our Brigade to rush to the combat, away they go on double quick down the hill and into the woods, out of sight, which is the last I saw of the Regiment, or ever will of many of them, “till Heaven’s last thunder shakes the world below.” … The cannon shots were so rapid as to be (most of the time) too frequent to count, and the musquetry resembled the crackling of a handful of salt thrown into the fire, add to this the constant screaming of officers and men, various bayonette charges. Men marching at doublequick in all directions trying to get better positions. Cannons & caissons being hauled at full gallop in every conceivable direction, couriers going at the topmost speed of their best horses. Then add the fearful wounds, bruises, cuts, slashes, groans & cries, bloodshed & death in all its forms, then imagine as much more as you can and then you will fall far short of a description of this Awful contest.”
” I forgot to be afraid, and became so vengeful as to pray God that the whole southern Confederacy might be annihilated, for causing so much needless suffering and death. Our doctors never made their appearance so we of course stood idle spectators, at last up came a poor fellow that had been struck on his left thigh by a piece of shell, and about half size of my hand of flesh entirely carried away. I took his handkerchief and bound it up to staunch the blood, in a few moments more many wounded passed by us and one a tall handsome young man, the blood streaming from his mouth, Stuart asked him if he were wounded in the mouth, he simply pointed to his left side, where his clothes were all tattered by a stroke from a piece of shell.”
“As we went to the Hospital, we noticed in some woods at about a quarter of a mile distant from the road, several Secesh cavalry skulking in the timber. As soon as we came opposite them they would step out and shoot, then dodge back and hide, then come out and shoot again, this was repeated several times, as much as twenty or more, when a cavalry man of our own galloped up to us and said “don’t you know these fellows are shooting at you: Get out of the way, as rapidly as you can.” I replied, if they are shooting at us I would not be afraid to bare my breast and let them shoot at it all the afternoon if they could do no better than they had been doing. Just at that moment some of them who had a long ranged gun, let slip and the ball said, “sleo, o,o,o” as it passed in a few feet of my head. We now went a little faster, and were soon out of their range.”
“Reached the Hospital in safety but had only time to unload our wounded when the whole premises, six Hospitals in number, were surrounded by two Brigades of Wheeler’s Cavalry and a Regiment of Infantry, yelling at the top of their voices as if Hell had suddenly erupted itself of all its contents. In a few moments, seeing we made no resistance, a tall fine-looking Texan rode up and told us we were all Prisoners of War.”
“The first duties assigned to me were to go around and take the names of all the wounded, their Co., Rank & Regiment. I found we had 146 then living, beside 19 that were so badly wounded as to die soon after coming in. One of these is shot through the Gullet, so that when he tries to drink, it runs out at the wound, another shot in the right eye and out at the ear. Two others shot through the hip and out through the Privates. Two others directly through the right Leg and yet able to walk unsupported. Many of the balance have fearful wounds in their thighs, and different parts of their bodies that will more than likely cause their death. … Strange as it may seem to you, I can now stand and hold one of a man’s legs while the other is cut off and not feel the least particle of that faintish disposition that troubled me so much in former life. Helping the Doctors cut off limbs and bind up wounds is now my daily duty.”
Sept. 23rd Calm, cold morning. Two more men died last night, some of the men are digging one vast grave for all at once, as we have not to date had time to bury any of them. We stored them in the cellar till we had our room almost covered. While I write a long cherished leg, belonging to a Capt. McIntire of the 51st, Ill. Now lies before me a catch for the flies as we cut it off yesterday. So it goes. It is much more easy to kill than make alive. Stuart & several others were sent with a Flag of truce over to the battle ground, and found not only all our dead (at least 500) unburied and near 100 more variously wounded but still living, lying right where they fell. They collected them together in little groups, gave them bread & water – all we could raise at this time, for our provisions were all out and those of us at the Hospital had to live on boiled wheat. There they had to leave them, as we had no means to get them away, but sent on Thursday morning, 24th, a detail to dress their wounds and do for them all they could. I will now try and describe some little of the sufferings.”
Sufferings of a Hospital
“The sound is very much like that of a lively revival meeting, where many pray in a low tone at the same time, mixed with loud exclamations, such as “O Lord” “O My God,” “Lord Save,” “Lord Help,” “Lord Have Mercy”, xc. Xc. Commingled with incoherent cries & groans. This is our doleful music, day and night, with the addition of the wants; such as “I want up,” “I want down,” “I want a drink,” “I want the pot,” “I want some medicine,” “I want my wound dressed,” “My wound is too tight,” “Mine is too loose,” “I am too hot,” “I am too cold,” “Doctor, how long can I live?” “How long must I lie thus?” “How long will it take to get well? “xc, xc, xc, xc. Then stretch imagination to its utmost and can form some faint idea of the reality. ”
He and Stuart, his 19-year-old son, managed to escape. His full story can be found here, at the University of Washington’s digital collection.
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