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Reading 4: The Letters of John William DeForest
John William DeForest of Seymour, Connecticut, was a writer before the Civil War began. He joined the Union army and became captain of Company I, 12th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. The letters he wrote to his wife were published as A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War The following description of siege life is taken from that book.
Now came forty days and nights in the wilderness of death. Before we left that diminutive gully fifty or sixty men of the regiment had stained it with their blood, and several of the trees, which filled it with shade, had been cut asunder by cannon shot, while others were dying under the scars of innumerable bullets. The nuisance of trench duty does not consist in the overwhelming amount of danger at any particular moment, but in the fact that danger is perpetually present. The spring is always bent; the nerves never have a chance to recuperate; the elasticity of courage is slowly worn out. Every morning I was awakened by the popping of rifles and the whistling of balls; hardly a day passed that I did not hear the loud exclamations of the wounded, or see corpses borne to the rear; and the gamut of my good-night lullaby varied all the way from Minie rifles to sixty-eight pounders (a type of artillery gun).
In one respect our gully was detestable. Well covered in front, it was open at one end, and this end was exposed to the enemy. I often wished that I could turn the wretched hole around. From a distance of nearly half a mile the Rebel sharpshooters drew a bead on us with a precision which deserved the highest commendation of their officers, but which made us curse the day they were born. One incident proves, I think, that they were able to hit an object farther off than they could distinguish its nature. A rubber blanket, hung over the stump of a sapling five feet high, which stood in the centre of our bivouac [military encampment], was pierced by a bullet from this quarter. A minute later a second bullet passed directly over the object and lodged in a tree behind it. I ordered the blanket to be taken down, and then the firing ceased. Evidently the invisible marksman, eight hundred yards away, had mistaken it for a Yankee. Several men were hit upon this same hillock, or immediately in rear of it; and I for one never crossed it without wondering whether I should get safely to the other side.
Another fatal spot was an exposed corner in the narrow terrace which our men had made in the bank, as a standing place whence to fire over the knoll.
"Don't go there, Captain," a soldier said to me when I first approached the place. "That's Dead Man's Corner. Five men have been killed there already."
I understood that Hubbard and Wrotnowski of [Brig. Gen. Godfrey] Weitzel's staff both received their deathshots at Dead Man's Corner, on the 27th of May. Early on my first day in the gully, just as I had risen, smirched and damp, from my bed on the brick-colored earth, a still breathing corpse was brought down from this spot of sacrifice. A brave, handsome boy of our Company D, gay and smiling with the excitement of fighting, disdaining to cover himself, was reloading his rifle when a ball traversed his head, leaving two ghastly orifices through which the blood and brains exuded, mingling with his auburn curls. He uttered strong, loud gaspings; it seemed possible, listening to them, that he might yet live; but his eyes were fast closed and his ruddy cheek paling; in a few minutes he was dead.
We lost eight or ten men during that first day, partly from not knowing these dangerous localities, and partly from excess of zeal. Our fellows attempted to advance the position, leaped the knoll without orders, and took to the trees on the outer slope, and were only driven back after sharp fighting.
"Served me right. I'd no business there," said a suddenly enlightened Irishman, as he came in with a hole through his shoulder.
As the siege drew on and we found that there was plenty of danger without running after it, we all became more or less illuminated by this philosophy. It is a remark as old as sieges, that trench duty has a tendency to unfit men for field fighting. The habit of taking cover becomes stronger than the habit of moving in unison; and moreover, the health is enfeebled by confinement, and the nervous system by incessant peril.
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. J.W. DeForest, A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946), pp. 116-18.
Questions for Reading 4
1. According to Captain DeForest, what were some of the particular elements of life in the gully that made it so stressful?
2. What were the particular dangers for the men in the gully?
3. Some soldiers thought sharpshooting to be murder, while others considered it their duty or just another part of their job. Which position do you think is more accurate? Why?
4. DeForest wrote that "trench duty has a tendency to unfit men for field duty." What is the reasoning behind this statement? How accurate do you think it is?