This tale is really gross. (Also, it is a little bit of a stretch for my blog’s theme. It involves the 5th Connecticut, a regiment that once belonged to the Army of the Potomac, but served with the 20th Corps during the Atlanta Campaign. But of course, this my blog; I do what I want.)
On May 15, 1864, the 5th Connecticut found itself occupying the front lines at the Battle of Resaca. In the afternoon, it endured an artillery bombardment and an infantry assault delivered by A. P. Stewart’s division. Years later, a soldier remembered a singular incident from that battle:
After our boys had captured the open ridge and driven the rebels back into the woods, as a preparation for another charge upon the ridge, the Confederates turned all their artillery within range upon our boys along that ridge, making it an extremely hot and uncomfortable place, and our boys were ordered to lie down and hug the ground as close as they could. They lay down flat, the rear rank men lying between the legs of the front rank men, about as close as it was possible to put men; the rear rank men firing between the heads of the front rank men.
At first the artillery firing at this line was extremely high and wild, and served only to amuse the men, but-by degrees they depressed their guns more and more and their shells came nearer, till finally, just as the rebel line came out of the woods to make the second charge, a shell came and struck the line in Company I, taking off the top of the head of James E. Richards in the front rank, and passing along down his back passed under the rear rank man, John Bates, bursting when it was about under the center of his body. Bates and Richards were of course killed outright by it, and four others were wounded by the pieces of the shell and pieces of the skull from Richards. Corporal Wm. H. Kerr had several pieces of the skull driven into his face, also Private James Tuttle’s face was filled, and Tommy Graham, from fragments of the shell or skull, had both eyes cut out of his head and then left hanging on his cheek. Lieutenant Stewart, commanding Company I, sprang up and helped to pull the dead men, Richards and Bates, to the rear from their places in the line in order to fill the gap with living fighting men, for the rebel column was coming on again charging and yelling. He saw that Tommy Graham could not see at all, and that while Corporal Kerr’s face was badly cut up, still that he had his eyesight remaining. He asked the corporal if he could see well enough to take himself to the rear and lead Tommy, totally blinded as he was. He said he thought he could, and thereupon the Lieutenant told Graham to go to the rear with Kerr and started them off; but Tommy had not moved two steps to the rear before he stopped and cried out, “Lieutenant, Lieutenant, what will I do with my gun?” and the brave man did not stir a step further until his officer had come to him and taken his gun and relieved him from this final responsibility.
If this picture could be imagined as it was, and as the comrades of poor Tommy saw it, then something of the true stuff of the man could be conceived, artillery roaring from all directions,—shells screeching past, and now coming so low that every one of them ricocheted along the ground and raked the earth from front to rear; a yelling line of rebels fast coming towards him, his eyes just closed forever to all the beauties of this earth and the glories of the skies, never to behold wife or children again, and still, when ordered to the rear in care of another, standing there with those sightless eyes dangling at his cheeks, and calling upon his officer to relieve him of his trusty gun, the last obligation remaining upon him, as he understood his duty to his country as a soldier; and then whoever can imagine this scene as it was, can begin to understand something of the truth and faithfulness of the nature of such private soldiers as Thomas Graham.
Today, I am fairly convinced that Civil War historians have trouble painting a clear picture of Civil War combat. For instance, academics love to remind readers of the graphic bloodshed—the bloated corpses, the severed limbs, and the unearthly smell of death. By contrast, amateur historians (and limited edition artists, especially) prefer to focus on the glory of battle—the fluttering flags, the stentorian shouts of commanders, the rampaging lines of troops, and the famous last lines of the war’s heroes. Thus, after many years of trying, we have fashioned two images of war, one supremely gruesome, the other imperiously glorious, and rarely do the two images meet.
This account from the 5th Connecticut suggests that these two pictures of battle might, in fact, encounter each other on common ground. Here, we see graphic violence and celebrated valor going hand-in-hand. In this incident, it all revolved around one simple question: “What will I do with my gun?”
(Pvt. Thomas Graham, the soldier who lost his eyes to a piece of flying skull, had his name etched on this monument, the Soldiers' Monument in New Hartford, Connecticut. Image by ctmonuments.net)