The Experiences of a Boy Soldier of the Confederacy:
Excerpts from and Comments on My Great-Grandfather O'Rourke's Memoir
Part Three

by

Warren F. O'Rourke
Birmingham, Alabama
December 16, 2010
E-mail: wofo@hotmail.com

Well, my Gentle Readers, if you are reading this, you must still be interested. So let's continue!

VI. Tom's Literary Style

Tom's typescript contains many pages of detailed descriptions of Confederate troop movements and many accounts of the Confederate order of battle for the various fights he was present at, i.e., what units were involved, who the commanders of these units were, how the units were organized into regiments, divisions, and corps, and the order in which these various elements of the Army entered and withdrew from battle. So far as the Battle of Atlanta is concerned, here is a very simplified account of what happened.

Under the overall command of General William Tecumseh "Cump" Sherman the huge Yankee Army approached Atlanta from the northwest in July of 1864. Under the overall command of General "Old Joe" Joseph Johnston the much smaller Confederate Army tried to protect the city on its northern side.

Gradually the Yankees began to surround the city and the Yankee artillery began lobbing shells into the heart of Atlanta. The city of Atlanta held out from mid-July until September 7, 1864, but at least 75% of the structures in Atlanta were damaged severely or totally destroyed. Oh, the Confederates fought back, but their commanding general, Joseph Johnston, was clearly losing ground every day. His hope was that 10,000 reinforcements and a lot of military supplies would arrive on the one railway that still delivered troops and supplies from Alabama.

At this point, the authorities back at the Confederate capital in Richmond (President Jefferson Davis and General Braxton Bragg) inexplicably decided to replace Johnston as commander of the army defending Atlanta. The new commander was Thomas Bell Hood, a man who had been so seriously in other fighting that he had to be strapped on his horse. (He had lost a leg and one of his arms was paralyzed.) The 10,000 troops and their supplies would never arrive from Alabama, and Hood would prove ineffective. The Battle for Atlanta would be lost, but the Confederates would be led by Hood to two more of their worst defeats -- the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. (We'll get to those massacres in Part Four of this story.)

Hood gathered what remained of the Army of Tennessee and headed northwest through Alabama toward Tennessee in the vain hope of driving the Yankees out of Nashville. General Sherman did not pursue the defeated army; he turned east instead and began his famous "March to the Sea."

Tom's account of his experiences is sometimes in ordinary colloquial English, but he often turns to the ornate, late 19th century journalistic style when describing what the last months of the war were like. This is not surprising; after all, in the days when he wrote the memoir, Tom was the editor-in-chief of a now defunct newspaper called The Mobile Item. Here's a sampling of Tom's "high style":

You see, dear readers, this all took place over half a century ago. Man's memory is short; and altogether too much of the saga has been to a great extent neglected, overlooked, and forgotten. I shall tell you then about the self-denial and self-forgetfulness, the deprivations, determination, tenacity, audacity, bravery, self-reliance, and independence of the individual private soldier of the Confederate States of America.

This endeavor to arouse, restore, create, and maintain interest in that soldier shall not be based on comparison. The only thing like the Confederate soldier that ever existed was himself. There is not now, nor was there ever, a standard to which he can be compared.

Yesterday a clerk, a salesman, a tradesman's apprentice, or the tradesman himself. Yesterday a student of divinity, law, or medicine. Yesterday a lawyer, physician, editor, professor, or just a boy at school. Yesterday a banker, an agriculturalist, a stock raiser, a ship's master, a riverboat pilot, deckhand, steward, or cook. Yesterday an alderman, a longshoreman, a delivery wagon driver, or a common laborer.

The very next day he is a soldier with no more than the rudiments of military training. He is unarmed, undrilled, undisciplined, and unrationed. (Indeed, his first lesson in the school of war was how to fast.)

He is a man, or -- equally likely -- a boy, leaving all the comforts of home, all the elegancies and luxuries of life, all the ties of love and affection. He is leaving behind all that bespeaks a land of industry and wealth for the untented fields of rude and rugged action.

These were the materials out of which the Confederate soldier was molded, these the circumstances from which he was derived.

Neither man nor youth nor boy was hesitant. Each was alike in his readiness to serve.

Think of that!

In less than sixty days he is formed, drilled, inadequately armed, marched, maneuvered, and brought to the fields of war a welded, compact piece.

Or consider the following dramatic description of a typical battle in the 1864 Georgia campaign between the badly outnumbered Confederates and Sherman's seemingly infinite supply of soldiers. The passage captures the feel of what it was like to actually take part in the fighting. Here's Tom again:

The intention to fight is marked by the dispatching from General Joseph "Old Joe" Johnston's headquarters of couriers to the corps commanders who, in turn, dispatch orders from the corps' staff to the line officers in the field. Divisions begin to move into position; brigades and regiments begin to take their places in their assigned sectors.

Then there is a noticeable increase in the pace of the never-ending labor of the engineers, sappers, and shovellers throwing up breastworks and strengthening firing positions all along the line.

Then the chorus of commands from the line officers begins to ring out up and down the line as the men are moved into fighting position:

"Rest on your arms!"

"Examine your cartridge boxes!"

"Lie down and rest!"

"In place, rest!"

"Company, Attention!"

"Fix bayonets!"

"Rally by battalions in column!"

"Left in front!"

"Cavalry units move to the line!" (Even though most of Bedford Forrest's cavalry was off trying to disrupt the Yankee rear areas and flanks, he always provided us with several companies of saber-slashing horsemen to add weight to any charge we might make.)

"Platoon Chiefs! Take your places in column!"

"Color Guard, Forward!"

"Skirmishers, Forward!"

It has taken a few hours for all these evolutions, but there in the blazing Georgia summer sun, the grand line of battle is poised behind its pitiful defenses for the fighting to begin. Divisonal, regimental, and company flags fluttering in the breeze, sunlight glinting from private's bayonets and officers' swords. The sounds of drum rolls and the martial strains of music from various regimental bands. The occasional artillery explosions booming and then echoing from the surrounding hills. The sound of scattered rifle fire from the skirmishers to our front, trying feel out the exact location of the enemy's point of attack.

And then we see the skirmishers trotting back toward our lines, some of them stopping long enough to turn and fire another shot back toward the enemy. The main Yankee force will not be far behind the returning skirmish line.

This is when the first men fall in the battle that is swelling to a crescendo. (I sometimes noticed on these occasions that men die in many ways. A poor lad unlucky enough to be overtaken by a Yankee rifle ball would sometimes simply fall face forward; sometimes he would take a few steps forward and then sag to his knees and topple over; sometimes the stricken lad would fling both arms wide, his weapon hurtling through the air as he falls; sometimes the soldier would stagger backwards, sit down, and then fall flat on his back staring heavenward.)

As the surviving skirmishers return toward our line, some of them drill in behind us as regular infantry and some of them report to the nearest artillery battery in front of our line to serve as support for the gunners. The sergeants who led the skirmish line report what they have learned to our officers.

The battle is upon us! It is coming right our way!

If the enemy line of battle is attacking where "Old Joe" thought it would, why then our artillery would be placed in exactly the right position to "change the appearance" of the enemy's approaching front line with well-directed fire consisting of grapeshot and cannister rounds, each round upon explosion sending a cone-shaped spread of leaden balls sized from grape-size to lemon-size ripping through the advancing Yankee ranks. (I also observed in these battles in Georgia that the Yankees often placed their black soldiers in the front line. Our artillery killed a-plenty of those poor fellows. We killed them 'til it was a pity.)

When the enemy advance starts getting too close to the artillery, new orders go out to the batteries:

"Limber to the rear! Take up your next positions!"

"Skirmishers! See off your batteries and then drill in behind your nearest unit!"

The former skirmishers who are now supporting the artillery cover the withdrawal of the batteries until they are on their way to the new positions so that our guns will will not be over-run by the advancing Yankee line of battle.

Then the Yankee line is closing fast on our main line. Here and there, through gaps in the thickening clouds of gunsmoke and reddish Georgia dust, we see the enemy's front line pause to fire a volley at us and start reloading their rifles and fixing their bayonets in preparation for a charge.

This is just the moment our officers have been waiting for, and all along our line of glistening bayonets and flashing swords the commands are heard.

"Fire low, boys! Then we shall charge!" (At the distance we would most often be firing from in such encounters, a low shot would either hit its target or would ricochet from the ground and strike a Yankee target anyway. A .54 caliber ball, even though rebounding from the earth, does pretty complete and thorough destruction to flesh and bone.)

"Present arms! Ready, aim, fire!"

"Give 'em hell, Mississippi! Let's go! Charge!"

Then it's "all hell broke loose in Georgia and thereabouts!"

We let go our withering volley and then -- with a yell the most unearthly, like nothing ever heard before in Christendom, more like the screeching of demons than any sound ever uttered by human beings -- we surge forward from our works, and -- at that moment -- it would take far more than the Unionist infantry in front of us to stop our charge. (After all these years have passed, I still wonder why I was never hurt in such an affair. My mother would say in later years, "Arrah, Tommy O., we brought the luck with us across the seas. Ye must have taken more than yer fair share with you to those turrible times in Georgia." Perhaps she was correct. In any event, I was never trampled by a loudly neighing and blood-smelling cavalry horse; I was never impaled on a Yankee bayonet; I was never slashed by a saber; I never met my fate from a Yankee rifle ball; and I never had my head crushed by the butt of a battle-mad Ohio or Michigan soldier's rifle wielded in club fashion. Nonetheless, many another Irish lad on both sides of these frays "met his Maker" in such charges. Running beside me in such a clash just a few miles above Kennesaw Mountain was one of my old colleagues from the Montgomery Capitol Guards. His name was either Sean or Seamus O'Brien. He took a Minie ball in the forehead. I was splashed by his blood and brains.)

The first line of the enemy gives way, and our line follows them, not giving them a chance to recover. A sort of demoralization seizes them, and it takes their second line to keep them from fleeing the field entirely. The first and second enemy lines are thoroughly jumbled together. Our line stops, quickly reloads, and fires a volley into the mixed-up mass of confused men, "disturbing" them even further.

But we never have enough men to pursue the matter further, and Yanks are in endless supply. A third and a fourth line of Yankee infantry are already entering the field of combat, and we are already being recalled to our original starting point by bugle calls and drum rolls amid shouted orders reminding us to pick up anything useful as we retire to our breastworks. Enemy haversacks, cartridge boxes, weapons, canteens, and shoes, especially the sturdy Yankee-made boots, are collected from the dead who will never use them again.

During our desperate and furious charge, our artillery batteries have re-positioned themselves and are now firing canister and grape over our heads and into the still disordered first and second enemy lines. More swathes of Yankees are mowed down. On reaching our original line, we deposit our "findings" in a waiting quartermaster wagon and file back into the breastworks. The firing gradually slackens. In less than half an hour we will repeat the whole business until one side or the other has "had enough."

To truly appreciate all that I have just described, you would have to bring before your mind's eye almost the entire state of Georgia turned into breastworks and rifle pits and artillery emplacements scattered through a land nearly entirely despoiled of its forestry, possessing only ruined farms and wrecked farm houses destroyed mills, blown-up salt works, fields littered with dead horses and mules, and -- after the dead and wounded are carried from the field and the armies have begun to march towards new locations -- a specter-like human, wounded, who has made his way into the light of open space, unprotected and unaware, deranged and wandering, seeming to be looking for something or someplace that late he knew. Picture all this and you will have some slight idea of a battle and a battlefield. No pen can picture more than a part of it.

Imagine, if you can, yourself or your son at barely fourteen years old. Imagine yourself running alongside Tom in the headlong charge against the Yankee line of battle. Imagine walking and fighting your way from Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga to Marietta to Atlanta in shoes that were falling apart. Imagine marching in defeat through Alabama as one of the coldest winters ever in those days was setting in. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Part Four will cover what happened after the fall of Atlanta.

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