Excerpt from "How Does One Feel Under Fire?"
Covering events from 1862; first published in 1898
A soldier writes about his fears on the battlefield
"The worst condition to endure is when you fall wounded upon the field. Now you are helpless. No longer are you filled with the enthusiasm of battle. You are helpless—the bullets still fly over and about you—you no longer are able to shift your position or seek shelter. Every bullet as it strikes near you is a new terror."
During the course of the American Civil War, approximately 620,000 soldiers (360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate) lost their lives. As these troops died, surviving soldiers struggled to conquer their fears and conduct themselves with honor. Most soldiers believed in the cause for which they were fighting, and many entered the war in order to prove their manhood. But even the bravest of men sometimes found it difficult to continue fighting when friends and comrades were falling all around them.
Many factors influenced a soldier's performance in battle. Certainly, individual beliefs and motives could have a big impact on a soldier's behavior while under fire. For example, Union soldiers who were fiercely devoted to the cause of abolitionism (putting an end to slavery) or restoration (a return to a former condition) of the Union sometimes went into battle more willingly than comrades who did not feel the same way. Similarly, Confederate soldiers who believed strongly in the South's right to secede from (leave) the Union showed a great willingness to go into battle in order to defend that right. The deaths of friends and loved ones also affected the battle-readiness of individual soldiers. Some men felt a greater reluctance to go into battle after witnessing the death of a good friend or learning of the death of a brother. Others, though, rushed into combat in order to take revenge on the enemy. In fact, hatred of the enemy became a major motivation for thousands of soldiers during the later stages of the war.
Still, countless Civil War diaries and journals make it clear that no matter what their motivation was, soldiers on both sides always struggled with fear. "I don't pretend to say I wasn't afraid," stated one Union officer who fought at the Battle of Antietam in western Maryland in 1862. "And I must say that I did not see a face but that turned pale or hear a voice that did not tremble." A veteran Confederate officer confessed similar emotions. "[I am always] badly scared. . . . I am not as brave as I thought I was. I never wanted out of a place as bad in my life." Nonetheless, many soldiers were even more scared of being viewed as a coward. Determined to avoid this shame, they marched into battle again and again.
Emotions of fear were often greatest in the minutes or hours before battle, when soldiers wondered if they would survive to eat another meal or see another sunrise. During this time of growing tension, each soldier struggled to stay calm. But few soldiers felt comfortable discussing their fears because of concerns that they would be treated as cowards. "Some Civil War soldiers [realized that] . . . courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it," wrote James M. McPherson in For Cause and Comrades. "Nevertheless, to admit fear openly, even to family or close friends, came hard for them." For many soldiers, this inability to talk about their fears increased their pre-battle anxiety to the point that they were actually relieved when combat began. The fighting gave them an opportunity to release the emotions and nervous energy they had bottled up inside.
Military leadership also had a major impact on the morale and emotions of soldiers. Both Union and Confederate troops were willing to fight under officers whom they respected. But their performance often declined if they did not like or respect their commanders. In fact, officers sometimes had to display special courage in order to keep the respect of their troops. "When once the troops lose confidence in the bravery of their Commander, they necessarily have an utter contempt for him," confirmed one Confederate soldier.
Soldiers who were treated badly or indifferently by their commanding officers were also less likely to perform at a high level on the field of battle. Both Union and Confederate troops resented receiving harsh punishments for minor rule violations. They also hated officers who took advantage of their status to secure good food and comfortable camp lodging at times when ordinary soldiers under their command were hungry and cold. "The two most important criteria for a good officer," wrote McPherson, "were concern for the welfare of his men and leadership by example—that is, personal courage and a willingness to do anything he asked his men to do."
Many military officers did show their men that they were willing to risk their lives in battle. In fact, as a percentage of total casualties, officers were killed more often than enlisted men. Approximately 8 percent of all Union generals who served in the Civil War were killed in battle, compared to less than 6 percent of all Union soldiers. In the Confederate army, 18 percent of all Confederate generals were killed in action, while only 12 percent of the entire rebel army died in battle.
Regiments often became fiercely devoted to officers who performed bravely in combat and showed concern for their troops. In fact, some young soldiers came to view their commanders as father figures. They worked and fought hard in order to gain the approval of their commanders, and felt a great sense of loss when these officers died. At times, these relationships also took a heavy toll on officers. Many commanders, for example, found it emotionally exhausting to order their soldiers into battles that were sure to claim some of their lives.
In most cases, soldiers who were ordered into battle managed to conquer their fears and doubts. Despite desperate periods of homesickness and the ever-present fear of being wounded or killed, they conducted themselves honorably. Sometimes, though, military officers had to resort to threats and various forms of punishment in order to make sure that troops followed orders to go into combat. Some army units used the threat of violence to force frightened soldiers forward, while others threatened reluctant troops with public humiliation. Most officers did not like to use such harsh measures. But they realized that entire regiments might fall into attitudes of panic or disobedience if such behavior was permitted.
Military success was another important factor in the performance and attitudes of Civil War soldiers. "Victory in battle pumped up their internal morale and gave them a more positive attitude toward the next battle," noted McPherson. "Defeat lowered morale and caused many soldiers to wonder whether it was worthwhile to continue risking their lives." Victories and defeats that soldiers experienced personally had the greatest impact on morale, of course. But the outcomes of distant battles often had a major impact on military morale, too. During periods of the war when the Confederacy seemed to be winning, for example, the letters and diaries of Union soldiers contained countless expressions of self-doubt and discouragement. Rebel troops, meanwhile, wrote excitedly about their victories and expressed optimism about securing independence for the Confederacy. But when the Union Army claimed a series of major victories in 1863 and 1864, excited Northern soldiers expressed new enthusiasm for the fight even as the morale of battered Confederate troops crumbled. "The soldiers are all discouraged," admitted one Confederate soldier after fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in 1863. "And they dread the thoughts of meeting the yankees again & [losing their] lives in a cause they consider to be nearly hopeless."
Battlefield experience was another important factor in the military performance of many Civil War soldiers. Young recruits without any wartime experience often expressed great eagerness to prove themselves in battle. But when they actually faced enemy gunfire and heard the boom of enemy cannons, these "green" (inexperienced) soldiers sometimes became overwhelmed with fear and confusion. The sight of dead comrades and enemy soldiers also made many green recruits wonder how they could possibly survive the war. But as time passed, many of these soldiers learned how to control their fear and develop their military skills. These veteran (experienced) troops became the backbone of both the Union and Confederate armies.
Frank Holsinger was one of thousands of Civil War soldiers who wrote about their wartime fears and experiences in journals and letters to loved ones. A Union captain who commanded the Nineteenth U.S. Colored Infantry, Holsinger retired from the military at the end of the war with the brevet (honorary) rank of major. In the following excerpt from his journal, Holsinger writes about how it felt to be shot at and discussed the many factors that influenced soldier morale.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "How Does One Feel Under Fire?":
- • A number of the experiences that Holsinger talks about took place at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland (September 1862), in which Union forces halted a major Confederate advance towards Pennsylvania. This one-day clash produced more casualties (twenty-three thousand) than any other single day of the war. In fact, historians note that more than twice as many Americans were killed or wounded at Antietam as in the War of 1812 (1812–15), the Mexican War (1846–48), and the Spanish-American War (1898) combined.
- • Holsinger notes that Civil War battles were so violent and bloody that many soldiers wondered how they could possibly survive. In fact, many soldiers went into battle convinced that they would die within the next few hours. Despite these terrible feelings, though, thousands and thousands of brave Confederate and Union troops willingly marched into battle to fight for their cause.
- • Holsinger relates one incident at Antietam in which General George Meade (1815–1872)—who would later lead Union forces to victory at Gettysburg—physically attacks a frightened soldier. Commanding officers did not like to resort to such measures, but they sometimes felt that they had no other choice. In fact, both armies eventually established special units that were ordered to prevent frightened soldiers from hanging back during a battle. These units were sometimes given orders to shoot troops who refused to join the fight.
- • The atmosphere before major battles sometimes became almost unbearably tense for soldiers. During these periods, soldiers often imagined that they would soon be killed or suffer terrible, crippling injuries. Occasionally, soldiers would try to joke around as a way of relieving this pre-battle tension. "The nearer we are to the enemy the greater seems the inclination [tendency] to jest and merriment," one Confederate officer noted. Holsinger writes about one soldier who managed to lighten the mood within his unit by joking that the horribly violent battle ahead was mere "skirmishing" (a minor encounter or clash).
- • As Holsinger confirms, experienced troops tended to perform much better in battle than soldiers who had never been under fire before. Inexperienced soldiers typically had very romantic ideas about war, and they sometimes became overwhelmed when they saw what war was really like. After being exposed to the war's violence and pain, however, soldiers improved their skills and reached a better understanding of the war's high cost. "I have seen enough of the glory of war," wrote one veteran soldier from Virginia. "I am sick of seeing dead men and men's limbs torn from their bodies."
Excerpt from "How Does One Feel Under Fire?"
The influence of a courageous man is most helpful in battle. Thus at Antietam, when surprised by the Sixth Georgia Regiment, lying immediately behind the fence at the celebrated cornfield, allowing our regiment to approach within thirty feet, and then pouring in a volley that decimated our ranks fully one-half; the regiment was demoralized. I was worse—I was stampeded. I did not expect to stop this side of the Pennsylvania line. I met a tall, thin young soldier, very boyish in manner, but cool as a cucumber . . . who yelled: "Rally, boys, rally! Die like men; don't run like dogs!" Instantly all fear vanished. "Why can I not stand and take what this boy can?" I commenced loading and firing, and from this on I was as comfortable as I had been in more pleasant places.
How natural it is for a man to suppose that if a gun is discharged, he or some one is sure to be hit. He soon finds, however, that the only damage done, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the only thing killed is the powder! It is not infrequently that a whole line of battle (this among raw troops) will fire upon an advancing line, and no perceptible damage ensue. They wonder how men can stand such treatment, when really they have done no damage save the terrific noise incident to the discharge. To undertake to say how many discharges are necessary to the death of a soldier in battle would be presumptuous, but I have frequently heard the remark that it took a man's weight in lead to kill him.
In presentiments of death I have no confidence. While I have seen men go into battle predicting truthfully their own death, yet I believe it is the belief of nine out of ten who go into battle that that is their last. I have never gone into battle that I did not expect to be killed. I have seen those who had no thought of death coming to them killed outright. Thus Corporal George Horton, wounded at South Mountain, wrapped his handkerchief around his wounded arm and carried the colors of our regiment to Antietam. Being asked why he did not make the best of it and go to the hospital, that he was liable to be killed, he answered, "The bullet has not [yet] been moulded to kill me." Alas! He was killed the next day.
My sensations at Antietam were a contradiction. When we were in line [passing through the woods], the boom of cannon andthe hurtling shell as it crashed through the trees or exploding found its lodgment in human flesh; the minies sizzing and savagely spotting the trees; the deathlike silence save the "steady men" of our officers. The shock to the nerves were indefinable —one stands, as it were, on the brink of eternity as he goes into action. One man alone steps from the ranks and cowers behind a large tree, his nerves gone; he could go no farther. General [George] Meade sees him, and, calling a sergeant, says, "Get that man in ranks." The sergeant responds, the man refuses; General Meade rushes up with, "I'll move him!" Whipping out his saber, he deals the man a blow, he falls—who he was, I do not know. The general has no time to tarry or make inquiries. A lesson to those witnessing the scene. The whole transaction was like that of a panorama. I felt at the time the action was cruel and needless on the part of the general. I changed my mind when I became an officer, when with sword and pistol drawn to enforce discipline by keeping my men in place when going into the conflict.
When the nerves are thus unstrung, I have known relief by a silly remark. Thus at Antietam, when in line of battle in front of the wood and exposed to a galling fire from the cornfield, standing waiting expectant with "What next?" the minies zipping by occasionally, one making the awful thud as it struck some unfortunate. As we thus stood listlessly, breathing a silent prayer, our hearts having ceased to pulsate or our minds on home and loved ones, expecting soon to be mangled or perhaps killed, some one makes an idiotic remark; thus at this time it is Mangle [one of the soldiers], in a high nasal twang , with "D——d sharp skirmishing in front." There is a laugh, it is infectious, and we are once more called back to life.
The battle when it goes your way is a different proposition. Thus having reached the east wood, each man sought a tree from behind which he not only sought protection, but dealt death to our antagonists. They halt, also seeking protection behind trees. They soon begin to retire, falling back into the cornfield. We now rush forward. We cheer; we are in ecstasies.
While shells and canister are still resonant and minies sizzing spitefully, yet I think this one of the supreme moments of my existence. . . .
The worst condition to endure is when you fall wounded upon the field. Now you are helpless. No longer are you filled with the enthusiasm of battle. You are helpless—the bullets still fly over and about you—you no longer are able to shift your position or seek shelter.Every bullet as it strikes near you is a new terror. Perchance you are enabled to take out your handkerchief, which you raise in supplication to the enemy to not fire in your direction and to your friends of your helplessness. This is a trying moment. How slowly time flies! Oh, the agony to the poor wounded man, who alone can ever know its horrors! Thus, at Bermuda Hundreds [a Union base in southeastern Virginia], November 28th, being in charge of the picket-line, we were attacked, which we repulsed and were rejoiced, yet the firing is maintained. I am struck in the left forearm, though not disabled; soon I am struck in the right shoulder by an explosive bullet, which is imbedded in my shoulder-strap. We still maintain a spiteful fire. About [noon] I am struck again in my right forearm, which is broken and the main artery cut; soon we improvise a tourniquet by using a canteen-strap, and with a bayonet the same is twisted until blood ceases to flow. To retire is impossible, and for nine weary hours, or until late in the night, I remain on the line. I am alone with my thoughts; I think of home, of the seriousness of my condition; I see myself a cripple for life—perchance I may not recover; and all the time shells are shrieking and minie bullets whistling over and about me. The tongue becomes parched, there is no water to quench it; you cry, "Water! water!" and pray for night, that you can be carried off the field and to the hospital, and there the surgeons' care—maimed, crippled for life, perchance die. There are your reflections. Who can portray the horrors coming to the wounded?
The experiences of a man under fire differ materially between his first and subsequent engagements. Why? Because of discipline. "Familiarity with death begets contempt" is an old and true saying. With the new troops, they have not been called on to train or restrain their nerves. They are not only nervous, but they blanch at the thought of danger. They want education. What to them, on joining the service, was a terrible mental strain, is soon transformed into indifference. It is brought about by discipline.
What happened next . . .
Both Civil War armies experienced great difficulty in keeping unhappy or frightened soldiers from deserting (leaving the army before their term of service ended). Historians estimate that as many as two hundred thousand soldiers deserted from the Union Army during the war, while more than one hundred thousand troops deserted from the smaller Confederate military. Many of the Confederate soldiers who deserted did so very late in the war, when the Confederacy suffered numerous military defeats and its civilian population began to experience great hunger and poverty. "Hundreds of men are deserting nightly," wrote Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) in early 1865. "I don't know what can be done to put a stop to it."
Did you know . . .
- • During the course of the Civil War, several colorful phrases were used to describe actions and experiences on the field of battle. For example, both Northern and Southern troops referred to a soldier's first experience in combat as "seeing the elephant." Soldiers or military units who showed cowardice in battle, meanwhile, were accused of "showing the white feather."
- • Many Civil War soldiers died of wounds that would not have been fatal if they could have received treatment in a modern medical facility. Back in the 1860s, however, infections and disease were much more widespread. Doctors of that period did not understand how diseases like malaria or typhoid fever spread. They did not even know that they should sterilize surgical instruments in order to prevent wounds from becoming infected.
For Further Reading
Commager, Henry Steele. The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950.
Holsinger, Frank. How Does One Feel Under Fire? Leavenworth, KS, 1898.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952. Reprint, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.