Wads of Tobacco, Songbooks, and Other Battlefield Tales
Battlefield annals are replete with incredible tales of bravery and cowardice, cool-headed resoluteness and wild, demonic fury, with strong doses of preparation, execution and adaptability. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, are the stories of chance and luck—heightened all the more in the context of life-and-death situations.
The Battle of Pea Ridge, an early clash in the Western Theater of the Civil War, was no exception. This battle, waged in northern Arkansas for control of the swing state of Missouri on March 7-8, 1862, involved over 26,000 men and resulted in well over 3,000 casualties. There was much close contact and fierce hand-to-hand fighting. A correspondent witnessed this battle and reported some fascinating details from the battleground.
This report was published by the Wooster Republican (Wooster, Ohio) on the front page of its March 27, 1862, issue:
A Life Saved by Tobacco
A private of the Twelfth Missouri was advancing toward the head of the Hollows on Saturday with his regiment, under a heavy fire from the enemy on a hill above, when he was struck by a musket ball near the heart and thrown heavily to the ground.
The poor fellow thought no doubt his last minute had come; but after lying for some minutes on the ground, and feeling no pain, he thought he would see if possible where he was hit.
He rose, and opened his vest, and discovered a large bullet half embedded in a large, thick, moist layer of tobacco, which he had stole the day before and placed under his garment for concealment.
The moist condition of the tobacco had prevented the leaden messenger from fulfilling its fatal mission.
A Song Book a Life-Preserver
For the sake of the time-honored tradition and all Sunday Schools, I am sorry to say I have heard of no instances in which a life was saved by a Bible; and I am bound to believe the fact is owing to the great scarcity of the sacred volume in the army, rather than to any want of preserving power of the Holy Book itself.
Of a secular song book I can relate a different story:
One of the 36th Illinois troops carried a volume of this sort in his cap, and a small rifle ball passed through the cloth and stunned him. He afterward found the bullet had gone through one of the covers of the book, and when he removed it the metallic fate fell from the leaves. I can only account for this phenomenon, that the verses of the song were so execrable that the ball, like any reader of good taste, could not, by any possibility, get more than half way through the extremely stupid contents.
Can it be said hereafter of the Illinois volunteer that his life is not worth a song?
Marvelous Instance of Sympathy
A very strange example of the influence of sympathy is reported to have occurred during the battle on Friday. Hiram P. Lord of the Twenty-fifth Missouri, Col. Phelps, while charging up a ravine fell as if dead, and his companions ran to him and asked if he was hurt. He did not answer, and it was soon discovered he had swooned. On reviving, he said he must have been struck by a ball, for he felt a pain in his left side, and had distinctly experienced the stunning and numbing sensation that results from a gunshot wound. His person was examined, and no mark or indication of injury was perceptible. He could not comprehend the mystery, but soon after resumed the fight, and forgot the sensation until he had returned to his camp, when he learned to his surprise and sorrow that his twin brother, George, was among the dead.
George had been in another part of the field, and had been shot in the same part of the body, and at the same time that Hiram had believed himself mortally wounded. The sympathy between the two brothers had ever been complete, and the illness of one was usually accompanied by the sickness of the other.
Strange, if true, say many; but the stranger the truer, say the students of Nature.
Painful Fate of a Brave Lieutenant
A melancholy incident occurred to a Lieutenant (whose name I could not learn) in one of the Iowa companies, that I cannot forbear mentioning. He had been shot in the leg, and had fallen. He rose and supported himself upon a stump, cheered his company, whose Captain had been killed, to push on to the then important crisis toward the reinforcement of Gen. Carr.
While the Lieutenant was waving his sword, an artillery wagon was driven madly along the road, by the side of which he was standing. The wheel struck him, threw him to the ground and the heavy carriage passed over his neck, causing instant death. Poor fellow! I saw rude men weep over his corpse, and they proved themselves braver and truer for their tears.
A Heroic Indianian
A private in the Eighteenth Indiana had been left behind for some reason, when his regiment was ordered to the upper part of the Ridge. Before it reached there, it became engaged with the rebels, and was cut off from the following troops. The Indianian desired to join his companions in arms, though persuaded not to do so, as it was madness to make the attempt. He heeded not counsel, but hurried forward, and was last seen contending with a score of foes. His fate is unknown, but he must have perished like each of the three hundred at the pass of Thermopylae.
Fate of a Coward
Where there was so much valor, there were some individual instances of its opposite, but very, very few; for timidity is a quality little known to American soldiers, fighting in the cause of Freedom. A soldier whose nerves, poor fellow, were weaker than his will, climbed into a tree during the severe fight of Friday; and while there a round shot accidentally struck him, and hurled him a bloody and unrecognizable mass to the ground.
Had the soldier remained where his duty ordered, he would probably have been living still. The poet sung truly:
The coward often finds the death he shuns
In that his drunken fear his sober judgment clouds.
A Magnanimous Rebel
Even Secession cannot crush the noble instincts of the heart. Even a rebel often has the generous qualities of nature and the lofty instincts of gentlemen. A case in point:
A Colonel of one of the Louisiana regiments saw a poor private, a Federal, lying wounded alone by the roadside, and begging for a drink. The Colonel dismounted, and, taking the soldier’s canteen, went to the creek and filled it; gave him a drink and placed him in an easier position—all this while our bullets were flying in his immediate vicinity.
I am very sorry I do not know the gallant Colonel’s name. He never did a nobler act on the battlefield. He has some reason to boast of chivalry, though I doubt if he does so. If the South comprehended chivalry as he comprehends it, their assumption of that high attribute would not render it a subject of merriment and an object of scorn.
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