Civil War Journal
2010 7th-8th Grade Prose Honorable Mention
July 2, 1863
I woke today at 4 in the morning. I was tired, but I was also so nervous that I couldn't stay asleep any longer. We were positioned on a small ridge, which overlooked Emmitsburg road. Beyond that was a valley leading into Cemetery ridge where the Union troops were positioned. I could see that it would be very near impossible to attack the Union troops on their ground. The hill had no coverage and was very steep. Please dear God, I prayed, don't make me lead the men up there. Soon after breakfast we received orders that Longstreet's 1st corps were attacking the Union further down the line. As soon as they had passed us, we were to march down across the road and attack Cemetery ridge. Exactly what I had prayed not to happen. I drank a hell of lot of coffee after I heard that order, and maybe a bit of whiskey too. Longstreet hadn't even passed us yet, so I assumed we had a long wait. I was right. We waited on that ridge for hours. The men shared war stories or played cards. I sat near a group built up of some other men from the 8th Florida and listened to them talk. They started talking about the war and the reasons they were fighting. Most of them had clear ideas of independence, and I found myself nodding along as they talked of justice and fair treatment for all the states. I realized that this was what gave so many men the courage to fight; these noble reasons were their cause.
We finally prepared to march down to the road at 5 o'clock. I got my men in order, and tried my best to disguise my fear. With the rest of Perry's brigade, we marched down the hill toward the other side of the valley. The Union did not worry about wasting ammunition on us; we were under a hail of shot and shell and bullets the whole way. The terrain was flat and was covered only by a few shrubs and trees, and I could not help admiring my men as they plunged into the battle with such spirit. They inspired courage into me. Shouting and yelling we met the first line of the Union at the road. They were positioned in a line of Batteries and strongly supported by infantry. Most of the men who had to load up their heavy muskets were killed, and some of them back fired and exploded in their faces. I was glad to have a pistol instead.
We attacked that first line of troops with such power that they were swept back almost immediately. We fought on and on and slowly we crept up to the edge of Cemetery ridge, but many men were lost. I saw them fall to the ground with the quick ripping puncture of a mini ball, or fly through the air, blasted and torn with the power of canister or grape fire. Finally we reached the creek. We could see the top of the ridge and I almost believed it possible for us to take it. Nothing was in my mind right then but rallying the troops and taking that ridge. Lang came around to make sure we were all in position for this last attack, and then he gave the order to charge. The way had looked clear to me before, but there were a few Union soldiers in front of us. We drove them away effortlessly with a cheer.
We were fast approaching the ridge and we had just crossed over the creek, but I now realized that the few soldiers we had just driven away had gone for enforcements. We were walking right into them! There must have been 400 men waiting for us beyond the creek. They waited ‘till they must have been able to see our faces clearly, and then they fired with no mercy. I watched men being torn to shreds by the metal balls whirring past my face. A young color bearer was still leading the troops onward with a determined look on his face. I looked up into the enemy faces to see an officer point to a cannon then point to the young boy. He didn't have time to change the expression on his face. Suddenly an anger like I have never before felt came over me. I will tell you this: throughout all the battles I have been in these last years, I have shot and killed many men, but I have never wished them pain. I don't know why I have killed them before, but this time I knew I wanted that man to die. I gave him every bullet I had and, I stood there to watch him die. I can't get over that moment in my head. I felt so victorious but also so horrible. When you fight a war, you always assume you are the hero, but looking back on that moment, I think that maybe I'm not the hero.
We retreated because we were obviously being overpowered by these new enforcements. I led my men back to our positions and camp, but I wasn't paying attention really. I kept waiting for the guilt to come like a prisoner waits for the execution, but it didn't come. I'm going to bed. Oh, right. I was right last night. I do recognize the smell tonight; the smell of the second night at a battle field.
July 2—sometime in the middle of the night—1863
I've been thinking about that man I shot. I saw him go down, and clutch his chest in surprise and pain. There's no doubt that they couldn't have saved him. He died.
They say war is supposed to harden you. Most of the men out there are hardened; they cheer when they hit someone, and when they see them die in a bloody mess. In the beginning I just couldn't get used to it. I felt guilty about every man I shot, but today something changed. I haven't felt guilty about practically torturing him. Right now my lack of guilt is worse than the guilt was before. Am I finally “losing myself” out here?
July 3, 1863
I slept too late today, but when I did get up I was ready for battle. This is how I reasoned it out last night. This new attitude towards battle is generally a good thing. I realize now that I have adopted the other men's ways and I mow am fighting for myself and independence, not just my Pa. The new tolerance for killing is good now that I am fighting for my own reasons and I really have a cause. It wasn't O.K. before because I was killing for no good reason of my own. That's why I have been feeling so guilty. I had never thought of this war except as a chance to prove myself, but I now realize it is a lot more than that. These are human emotions and human rights we're fighting for.
I had a late breakfast, and I found myself talking easily with the other men. I met another captain from the 8th Florida regiment who had a lot in common with me. He was from a town near the one I grew up in, in North Florida. We talked until we were both called by General Lang for our orders.
Lang had called together the captains and Colonels of our brigade, and he explained the situation to us. Longstreet and his 1st corps had been ordered by Lee to attack the center of the union army. We were to be the supporting column for this attack along with Wilcox's Brigade. We were to follow Pickett's division and be his support when needed.
After I heard this I abandoned the other officers and went to think things over by myself. I knew, well, I could tell from the ground that this would be a very hard battle, if it was even a battle and not a massacre. I shuddered at the thought, but I was not afraid. A lone, premature tear ran down my cheek at the thought that most of my men would be gone by the end of the day; we were already down to 35 since yesterday. This battle was turning out to be fatal for my sorry little pack of Floridians.
We sat wallowing in our anticipation until 3:30, when Pickett was about to charge. Following Wilcox's lead, our Brigade began to make our way to where Pickett would attack. When we arrived we stood behind the attacking men someways and waited in positions ready to march. Then Pickett received the order to go, and they were on their way. I watched their bloody trail with the horrible knowledge that I would be following it soon enough.
Our Brigade's cheers soon turned to solemn silence and they watched good men being slaughtered. Longstreet's men marched bravely towards Cemetery ridge with the intention of taking it, but this aspiration was too much to hope for. Men were killed in droves; blasted off the ground by the long range artillery at first and then canister and musketry. It was the most horrible attempt at a battle that I have ever seen. The most bloody, cruel, useless waste of good men; I felt tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched.
20 minutes after they charged we were ordered to go in also. For a while we retraced their exact footsteps, stepping over bodies and limbs as we too were practically scattered. I could see my men dying by the minute, but I called the remaining together, and we marched onward through the smoke. The smoke, it turned out, was a big problem, for we soon lost our way. Instead of following Pickett as we had planned, our Brigade was separated from Wilcox, and we started to drift southward towards the place we had fought at yesterday. Stopping to rearrange our selves and get in order, I noticed that Brigade had shrunk majorly in the last 10 minutes. My own company was now down to 26 men, and we hadn't even had the chance to fire a gun.
The smoke was still horrible; it choked us and stung our eyes, and it was so thick we couldn't see 20 feet in front of us. All of a sudden, Union troops stumbled into view in front of us, not 30 feet away. Gathering ourselves up with a dazed feeling, we attempted to fight our way through this new attack, but it was simply too much for our wounded Brigade. Many of us fell to the ground, or were immediately killed. I felt a bullet rip into the skin above my cheek, and a spasm of pain shot through my face.
Reaching up, I felt the torn skin and put a handkerchief to it to stop the blood. Calling my remaining troops together, I signaled for a withdrawal. Slowly, we retreated in confusion, and the Union troops, who needed a rest also, did not follow.
In slow defeat, we retreated to our camp. I'm pretty sure that every single one of those men were seeing Pickett's horrible, gruesome charge play over and over again in their heads. I could not stop seeing corpses. My eyes were watering with the sorrow of it, and at that moment I could not think of a single happy thing in the world. How could they all die like that? Just wiped of their life at such a prime. Later I calmed down. I bandaged my face up with an old shirt, but I didn't bother to see a doctor. The wound isn't really that bad. Besides, I don't feel like having to talk to another human.
It was getting dark when I emerged from my tent, and I stood looking over the battle field. Through the dusk and remaining smoke I could make out the fleshy whiteness of bodies lying pitifully on the slope and in the field. It still didn't seem real. All those bodies lying there used to mean something to someone, but now they were just lumped together. Lumped together by the people who wanted the result. Wanted the result of the war no matter how it happened. All of them martyred for the cause but none of them sainted.