Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Hot Corner
By Silas Weir Mitchell (18291914)
[Roland Blake. 1886.]
TOWARDS evening Francis received a hasty order to take three companies of the provosts guard to the front as reinforcements. Blake asked leave to join the party, as for the time his duties did not detain him. Receiving permission, he hastily rejoined his friend.
A short march through dense woods and mud brought them into a position indicated by an aid. It was for the time out of danger, and Blake, despite his experience of war, began to look about him with the interested curiosity which never left him. Before them rose a little elevation, from which the ground fell away to the front; behind them, from a still higher eminence, a number of guns were throwing shells over our lines into those of the rebels, who were replying in like fashion. The earth was covered with the early green leaflets, twigs, and branches, mowed by bullets which flew in constant flight overhead. The whoop and scream of shells and the howl of solid shot made a chorus wild as the orchestra of hell, and now and again the increasing fire of small arms added the whir and whistle of their balls to the tumultuous din of war.
A half hour later an order to advance to the top of the slope carried them forward under fire. Francis watched his men anxiously as they fell into line on the summit of the hillock, aware that some of them had seen but little service. Meanwhile a fragment of a brigade passed by them, having fallen back in order to renew its ammunition. The infantry men chaffed the dismounted troopers as they passed.
Still the leaves and branches dropped as from unseen scythes in air, and about them the bullets flew, now with a dull thud on the trees and now with a duller sound on limb or trunk of man. A half-dozen men dropped in as many minutes, and, as usual, the soldiers began to tend into groups, with some instinctive sense of obtaining protection by neighborhood to their fellows.
The signs of nervous excitement were visible enough: one man incessantly wiped his gun-barrel, another buttoned and unbuttoned his coat a third stood, pale and tremulous, looking hastily to left and right, whilst a tall soldier attracted the attention of Blake by talking volubly.
They passed the torn abatis and slashes which before dawn lay in front of the rebel lines and now within our own, and in a few moments were at the front, behind the breastworks to the left of the murderous Angle. Kneeling in double rows, they took the places left vacant by a part of a regiment sent back in turn to replenish its cartridge belts.
The Hot Corner to the right and the adjoining lines, which Lee had lost at dawn, had been furiously contested in repeated charges all that long day of May. But now for a brief season there was a respite.
The firing ceased a few moments after they reached their station, and Blake had leisure to observe the effect of the most ferocious struggle of the war. The lines were straight to left and right, but to the westward of where he stood was the Hot Corner, better known as the Angle. Its open side looked towards the rebel lines. Originally a well-built breastwork, it had been continually strengthened as chance allowed, and was now a mass of earth, tree-trunks, and rails. The woods were dense on each side, and in them during the brief pauses in this awful day the combatants of either side lay close to the disputed barrier. Blake walked down the lines to the left, crouching low to avoid a shot. Before him lay a broad clearing, and twelve hundred yards distant a thick wood, which sheltered the rebel lines and ran towards and up to the bloody angle. The smoke lifted slowly, as if reluctantly unveiling the countless wounded and dead in the open. The dusk was gradually deepening. For an hour or two there had been no serious assault; yet those who had met the gallant Confederates knew but too well their habit of a final and desperate onset just before nightfall. Officers came and went, ammunition was distributed, tired men rose from brief repose, new brigades came up, and a relative stillness of grim expectation fell on the close-set lines behind the torn field-works. Then there was stir and movement in among the distant woods. Forms of men dimly seen filled the dark interspaces of the far-away forests across the clearing, and swarmed out of them until long gray lines, one behind another, in close formation, told to those who watched them what was coming.
Standing behind Franciss men, glass in hand, Blake awaited the onset. His friend passed him, smiling as ever. The gray lines grew nearer, advancing slowly; the officers well in front, marking time, then pausing and at last falling into and behind the moving mass. Then they came faster. Just in front of Blake a single officer, in a gray shirt and without a coat, kept his place before his men. The long gray line, five hundred yards distant, broke with wild yells into a rush; a fury of musketry burst forth at the angle to the left in the denser woods; officers cried out, Keep cool! Steady! Hold your fire!
Then the fury of fire and smoke began,an inconceivable tumult of shouts, cries, oaths, the ping-ping of minie and musket-shot, and a darkness of gray death-mists flashing venomous tongues of fire. Through torn smoke-veils Blake saw the near faces, black and furious. Of the awful struggle, as men were shot, stabbed, pulled over as prisoners to either side, beaten down with clubbed muskets, he knew little that he could recall a day after. There was a pause, confusion, wild shouts, hurrahs, to left and right, a sense of having won,he knew not how or why,and he found himself leaping down from the top of the breastwork with an amazed sense of victory, in his left hand an empty revolver, still smoking, in his right a broken musket. He drew a long breath, and, perfectly exhausted, looked about him. He was unhurt. Around him were prisoners, dead and wounded soldiers, men afoot tottering, men on the ground convulsed, and a mere mob of smoke-begrimed soldiers, with alert officers swiftly moving to and fro, swearing, and howling orders in an effort to get their people together.
The smoke lifted or blew away, and Blake stared half dazed at the broken columns melted to a mob on the plain, some staggering, some crawling away wounded, some in broken groups, the greater mass huddled together and making for the sheltering forest.
The fight was over; but not a hundred yards distant the colonel who had led the immediate attack was seen in the dusky twilight walking calmly and scornfully away. As he became visible, shots went by him. Then a soldierly emotion touched some heart as brave as his own; an officer leaped on to the breastwork and called out, Damn it, dont fire! Three cheers for the Reb! A wild hurrah rose from the Northern line. Whether the officer concerned understood it or not were hard to say, but he wheeled suddenly, faced our breastworks, saluted formally as if on parade, and again turning, renewed his walk, while cheer on cheer thundered along our lines.
It was now getting darker; but Blake noted well where he fell. Victory is only less confusing than defeat. Threading his way through the thickly-lying dead and wounded gray and blue,for thrice the Confederates had been within the captured lines,he moved slowly along among perplexing masses of intertangled brigades and regiments in search of his friend. At last, returning, he found Francis. They shook hands warmly. Both felt the immense sense of relief which the close of a battle brings to the bravest.