Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Language of Combat

I’m always on the lookout for vivid descriptions of Civil War combat, an experience not easily imagined. (In my opinion, the legions of yearly reenactments and badly-directed Hollywood motion pictures cannot do it justice.) For soldiers who fought in the war, the task of describing the graphic scenes they witnessed—fluid, swift-moving, jarring, dehumanizing—using only written words became an undertaking too difficult to manage. In short, words failed them. Many letter-writers came up short. They told their audience that nothing they could write could give a reasonable picture of what they had seen. Today, we live in a vastly different world, where combat can be imagined, even by those who have never experienced it. We have photographs and streaming videos of combat, all easily accessible. Even if veterans cannot give their audience an accurate description of combat, twenty-first-century technology paints a picture for us. Civil War veterans had no such advantage. They had only their language to describe the experience, and far too often, it could not rise to the occasion.

Of course, there were a few exceptions. Some writers—aging veterans, mainly—managed to summon the vernacular necessary to give readers a taste of the scenes of combat. The war had seared their souls, and after years of suppressing painful memories, they could no longer contain them. They just had to write about combat and its bone-chilling tableaus in order to come to grips with what they had seen. Corporal George Kimball was one such veteran. In 1883, he published a serial memoir in a privately-run Boston newspaper called, The Bivouac. When Kimball narrated his experiences with the 12th Massachusetts at the Battle of Antietam, he wrote a wonderful account of the combat that occurred just south of the D. R. Miller cornfield. The following passage is a spell-binding piece from that narrative. It offers readers a taste of what it was like to experience Civil War combat as a soldier in an infantry line-of-battle:

How terrible was the shock and how our men went down! What screams and groans followed that first volley! We loaded and fired at will as rapidly as we could. Our officers cried, “Give it to them, boys!” and the men took up the cry, too. There was a pandemonium of voices, as well as a perfect roar of musketry and a storm of bullets. Shells were bursting among us, too, continually. In the wild excitement of battle, I forgot my fear and thought only of killing as many of the foe as I could. . . . My ramrod was wrenched from my grasp as I was about to return it to its socket after loading. I looked for it behind me and the lieutenant passed me another, pointing to my own, which lay bent and unfit for use across the face of a dead man. A bullet entered my knapsack just under my left arm while I was taking aim. Another passed through my haversack, which hung upon my left hip. Still another cut both strings of my canteen and that useful article joined the debris now thickly covering the ground. Having lost all natural feeling, I laughed at these mishaps as though they were huge jokes and remarked to my nearest neighbor that I supposed I should be relieved of all my trappings. A man but a few paces from me was struck squarely in the face by a solid shot. Fragments of the poor fellow’s head came crashing into my face and filled me with disgust. I grumbled about it as though it were something that might have been avoided. My supply of cartridges was exhausted and I sought for more among the cartridge boxes of the dead. Many others were doing the same and nearly everybody had had experiences similar to mine. There were but few of us left now. The enemy’s line, which had looked so magnificent when we opened fire upon it, seemed as ragged as our own. We had fulfilled General Hooker’s prediction. We had “held it.”

You’ll notice how Kimball’s narrative moved from topic to topic, without transition, mimicking the quick, unpredictable flow of battle. His description, although masterful, gives us an answer to help explain why so few veterans could adequately describe the sights and sensation of battle, even if they had participated in it to its fullest extent. Words were incapable of meeting the task. Language, by definition, is organized; battle, by nature, is not.

This illustration by Winslow Homer was originally entitled, "Infantry Rifle Drill." It gives the viewer a sense of the confusing nature of infantry combat.

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