I am a handsome soldier boy;
Now, don’t you think I’m grand?
I wear a pretty uniform
And strut to beat the band
I march along to drum and fife
As off we go to war.
I’d never trade the army life
For what I had before
There are a few things
We were all as innocent as newborn lambs here in Adams County before the rebel army came through. We thought we knew all about war, but we knew next to nothing, and when it came, it came down on us hard.
In late June of 1863, the armies of both north and south converged on Gettysburg with 170,000 men and 80,000 animals. In twenty hours of combat spread over the first three days of July, almost a third of those engaged, lay dead, wounded or were missing or captured. Besides the enormous task of disposing of the 7,000 bodies dead on the field, another 4,000 of the 21,000 wounded would later die, and five thousand dead horses were left to rot in the July sun for the citizens of Gettysburg to deal with. In the course of that monstrous event, much of our quiet, beautiful countryside was savaged and destroyed. Eventually, nature would take over to heal the land, but some things would never come back as they once were.
I wrote this book over most of my life. It has lain fallow for long stretches, years even, like an old, neglected friendship, separated by allowed distractions and by the beguiling daydream that a lifetime is forever. I began seventy years ago from notes I wrote down when I was twelve years old. Therefore, parts of this book will speak to you in the childhood eloquence of simpler times. Other parts will be drawn from across the spectrum of my life’s experience. The opportunities of the passing years have enabled me to fill in and clarify things unknown or not understood by me at the time of the battle. I hope you will find this passing from one voice to the other rather seamless and not confusing.
If anyone else had told me all he had seen and done, I guess I would have found it hard to believe, but I have never had to stretch the truth. It came already stretched to the limit that sane and ordinary men could do to one another such things as they did.
I have always striven to be accurate as well as truthful, unlike others who plump up a story to make it more interesting or dramatic, or to fill gaps in their knowledge, often with a seriously flawed imagination. My real life experiences were dramatic enough to stand on their own and were more far-fetched than anything my limited imagination could put up in competition. I saw horrors enough, and less often, acts of sublime courage and gallantry, but I never saw the need to fiddle with the truth about any of it. If there are inaccuracies in my report, they are likely due to the following reasons.
First, the passing of time will fog the memory to some degree and, what’s worse, will reinforce perceptions wrong from the start. Furthermore, after so many years, it is next to impossible to make all the pieces fit as well as they once did. Yet other things remain as fresh and clear to me now as if they had happened yesterday.
Second, in the extreme excitement of the battlefield, the mind can play strange tricks on itself. There were times I was so scared I felt my heart would pop out through my mouth. Other times, in the thick of the fight swirling around me, enthralled by extreme terror, a strange calm would descend about me. All fear would dissipate and give way to fateful, even peaceful, resignation. The scene before me would become crystal clear. The din of battle would go silent, and I would be suspended as if in a dream. In those instances, I’m not sure how well I separated what truly was from what appeared to be, but I’ve tried to do so here.
Third, no matter how wise in the ways of war and how high a rank a man attains, in most cases, he only can see what’s going on for maybe fifty yards. Most actions are obscured by terrain or smoke or trees and brush, or may be out of range of vision and out of control … or beyond comprehension altogether. Further, once a battle gets going, it quickly develops into a savage, indescribable free-for-all.
And no one person ever sees or knows it all.
As I review what I wrote so many years ago, I realize that some memories remain undimmed: the sharp spangs and dull whumps of the guns, the fitz! and crack! and concussion of bursting shells, the acrid smell of gunpowder, the deafening crash and roar of massed musketry, the obscene wreckage of the battlefield, the haunting cries of the wounded and the pale faces of resignation on men reaching out to take the hand of death.
Other memories are more elusive: the overriding private fear that I would never see home again, the sinking fear that we would not prevail against such a terrible and determined adversary, and the piercing, disorienting terror brought on by the chaos of the moment. These hang somewhere in a mist between knowing and forgetting, made gentler by a blessed clemency to survive such things and move on with life.
All the thousands of books about Gettysburg disagree to some extent. Certainly, none are the same. But this much is true and immutable: you cannot set foot upon this hallowed ground but that you feel a sense of drama with every step. These fields and pathways abound in gentle quietude now, yet here you feel the encompassing tension of history yearning to come forth and speak to you. The names of ordinary and anonymous country swatches of land have rung out with emotion down through the ages: Willoughby Run, The Railroad Cut, McPherson’s Farm, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, The Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield, The Valley of Death, the Little Copse of Trees, the low stone wall.
People by the millions from all over the world come to the stillness of this place and let its mystery descend about them and try to comprehend the enormity of what happened here.
Now for me, the writing is finally done, on this my eighty-second birthday, an age when old men rub their elbows, complain about the cold, and appreciate a comforting fire and a good cup of sassafras tea to thin the blood. The many years of my life have slipped quietly away, and it seems as though one day I just looked up and noticed they were gone. I know too well the sands are running out for me now, and I have no idea how many days I have left but not many, I think. Sometimes I feel finality rushing toward me like winter twilight.
So, I leave you these words to reflect upon … and to ponder.
C.R.B., November 6, 1932 – Fairfield, Pennsylvania