Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Mangled Heap of Carnage

With his 35th birthday a few weeks away, Frank Aretas Haskell marched north with the Army of the Potomac. The blue-clad men picked up the gauntlet General Robert E. Lee had thrown down and now covered 20 to 30 miles a day in search of their familiar adversaries. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, somewhere in the vast mountainous countryside, had broken away from their lines near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The oft victorious Rebels pushed forward onto northern soil, their aims and goals entirely unknown. As the Union Army fanned out in pursuit, Frank Haskell noted, "The people of the country, I suppose, shared the anxieties of the army, somewhat in common with us, but they could not have felt them as keenly as we did. We were upon the immediate theatre of events, as they occurred from day to day, and were of them. We were the army whose province it should be to meet this invasion and repel it; on us was the immediate responsibility for results, most momentous for good or ill, as yet in the future. And so in addition to the solicitude of all good patriots, we felt that our own honor as men and as an army, as well as the safety of the Capitol and the country, were at stake."

86th New York MonumentHe could not know that in a few short days, after colliding with their elusive foe, thousands would lay dead aside the tens of thousands wounded like so many ashes born of this sanguinary, windswept conflagration. In a description of events that Haskell penned for his brother, he conveyed the grim visage presented in the aftermath of the bloodshed of July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

"The fight done, the sudden revulsions of sense and feeling follow, which more or less characterize all similar occasions. How strange the stillness seems! The whole air roared with the conflict but a moment since-now all is silent; not a gunshot sound is heard, and the silence comes distinctly, almost painfully to the senses. And the sun purples the clouds in the West, and the sultry evening steals on as if there had been no battle, and the furious shout and the cannon’s roar had never shaken the earth. And how look these fields? We may see them before dark-the ripening grain, the luxuriant corn, the orchards, the grassy meadows, and in their midst the rural cottage of brick or wood. They were beautiful this morning. They are desolate now-trampled by the countless feet of the combatants, plowed and scored by the shot and shell, the orchards splinted, the fences prostrate, the harvest trodden in the mud. And more dreadful than the sight of all this, thickly strewn over all their length and breadth, are the habiliments of the soldiers, the knapsacks cast aside in the stress of the fight, or after the fatal lead had struck; haversacks yawning with the rations the owner will never call for; canteens of cedar of the Rebel men of Jackson, and of cloth-covered tin of the men of the Union; blankets and trowsers, and coats, and caps, and some are blue and some are gray; muskets and ramrods, and bayonets, and swords, and scabbards and belts, some bent and cut by the shot or shell; broken wheels, exploded caissons, and limber-boxes, and dismantled guns, and all these are sprinkled with blood; horses, some dead, a mangled heap of carnage, some alive, with a leg shot clear off, or other frightful wounds, appealing to you with almost more than brute gaze as you pass; and last, but not least numerous, many thousands of men-and there was no rebellion here now-the men of South Carolina were quiet by the side of those of Massachusetts, some composed, with upturned faces, sleeping the last sleep, some mutilated and frightful, some wretched fallen, bathed in blood, survivors still and unwilling witnesses of the rage of Gettysburg."



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References for this article:

The Harvard Classics, American Historical Documents, P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, New York 1969

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