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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Account of Pvt. Henry T. Johns

Henry T. Johns was a private in Company C, 49th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. His letters to relatives and friends back in Pittsfield were printed in Life with the Forty-ninth Massachusetts Volunteers (Pittsfield, Mass., 1864), from which this account is taken (pp. 252-55).

At last we were ordered to fall in. The fascine-bearers [fascines were bundles of sticks used to fill the ditches in front of earthworks so attackers could cross] were in advance. General [Christopher C.] Augur said: "Now, boys, charge, and reserve your fire till you get into the fort; give them cold steel, and as you charge, cheer! Give them New England! A Connecticut regiment is inside, but they have exhausted their ammunition. In fifteen minutes you will be there. Press on, no matter who may fall. If ten men get over the walls the place is ours." We answered only by grasping tighter our guns. Lieut.-Col. O'Brien appeared in a state of intense excitement: "Come on boys; we'll wash in the Mississippi to-night." We emerged from the woods, turning to the right up a main road. A small belt of timber to our left hid us from the foe. The artillery had ceased firing; all was quiet till we passed that small belt and came in full view of the rebels. Then bullets, grape, and canister hurtled through the air, and men began to fall, some crying, "I am hit!" and one, "Oh, God, I'm killed!" Advancing a few yards, we wheeled by the right flank and started across the fatal field. Then we could see our work. Full two-thirds of a mile distant we saw the parapet lined with rebels, and great volumes and little jets of smoke, as muskets and cannon bade us defiance. For a few yards the field was smooth, but difficulties soon presented themselves. A deep ditch or ravine was passed, and we came to trees that had been felled in every direction. Over, under, around them we went. It was impossible to keep in line. The spaces between the trees were filled with twigs and branches, in many places knee-high. Foolishness to talk about cheering or the "double-quick." We had no strength for the former, aye, and no heart either. We had gone but a few rods [a rod is 16.5 feet] ere our Yankee common sense assured us we must fail. You could not go faster than a slow walk. Get your feet into the brush and it was impossible to force them through, you had to stop and pull them back and start again. As best we could we pressed on; shells shrieked past or bursted in our midst, tearing ground and human bodies alike; grape and canister mowed down the branches, tore the leaves, or lodged in trees and living men. Solid shot sinking into the stumps with a thumping sound or thinning our ranks, minie balls 'zipping' past us or into us, made our progress slow indeed. As the storming party was less heavily loaded than the fascine-bearers, we would get ahead of them and had then to tarry until they got in advance. They were our bridge. If they failed or fell, we were helpless. With anxiety and despairing sorrow we saw them fall, some from bullets and some from sheer exhaustion. Seeing Callender down, I said: "For God sake, up, my boy! We can do nothing without you." He cried, "Go on! go on! I'm wounded." Turning my eyes I saw Lieut. Siggins drop his sword and put his hands to his mouth, from which the blood was gushing in torrents. It was no time to help him, so on we pressed. Soon a bullet came tearing through the left sleeve of my blouse. I thought but little of it. My one thought was, will enough of the fascine-bearers be spared to bridge the ditch? Again we had got in advance of them. They looked more like loaded mules than men. Nearly all of them were behind. They could not keep up. As I watched I could see one after another drop, and round me voices moaned out, "O, God! O, God!" and bleeding men dragged themselves to the safe side of the felled trees. Some, too badly wounded, lay where they fell, all exposed to the deadly rain. I saw no more of the fascine-bearers, but, the white flag of Massachusetts passing by, I followed. It was the State colors of the Forty-eighth Massachusetts. Soon the standard-bearer was killed; an officer grasped the colors and waved them aloft. In less than half a minute his blood had dyed the white silk of the banner. We had then got within forty rods of the parapet. Save a few scattered soldiers, we were alone. Officers we saw none, so down we lay. Five of us together, and were congratulating each other on our safety. One poor fellow had just put down his canteen, from which he had been drinking, when a bullet passed through it into his leg. He sought the protection of the nearest log. In less than five minutes I was the only unwounded one of the party, and a bullet had rent my blouse right over the heart.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Define the military terminology you may be unfamiliar with such as "grape," "canister," and "parapet."

2. What natural and man-made difficulties did the Federal troops attacking Port Hudson encounter?

3. Emotions are known to peak during an assault. What emotions did the soldiers exhibit during their attack?

4. Why did the officer pick up the flag of the 48th Massachusetts?

5. At what point does Johns say "common sense assured us we must fail?" Why does he think that? If he expected failure, why does he continue to press forward in the fight with full force?

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