Sunday, May 17, 2009

Push Those Yankees Back!

Another letter has surfaced from Private Christopher of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, one detailing the Battle of New Market in May 1864. This letter appeared in the Williamsburg Star a few weeks later. We note here the soldier did not write expressly for publication, as was his common practice, but for family. His brother, still running the paper in Christopher's absence, no doubt felt compelled to run the letter anyway as was the practice with many letters from both the Union and Confederate forces.

See color daguerreotypes from the battle here.

New Market --
May 17, 1864

My Dearest Family, loyal supporters in our cause,

I write to you with great relief and joy, as our Confederate brethren have once again demonstrated their superiority against the aggressors of the north. The hand of the LORD was surely with us on this day, as the victory was sealed by a group of first-year cadets from our Virginia Military Institute. I am quite aware these young men are labeled rats by their upperclassmen, but I would suggest their superiors find a more germane term.

Our commanders dispatched us to battle upon hearing General Siegel had advanced into the Shenandoah, and he positioned us behind the artillery. Hundreds of men stood shoulder to shoulder in several battalions awaiting the order to advance as we saw a line of Federal skirmishers in the fields of tall green grass below the ridge.

"Now that's a beautiful sight," a compatriot remarked to me as we marveled at the line of cannons pointed towards the enemy. However, it was not as beautiful as the thunderous booms as they fired one at a time along the lines, peppered with rebel yells from the ranks. I do believe we greeted the bluebellies with appropriate hospitality.

In a moment of inspiration, our commander offered a song to rally our company, not the "The Bonnie Blue Flag," but something else. "I'd like to get the Doxology in once," he said.

"Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!"

Our voices sang in perfect unison with not a sour note among us. We sang as bravely as we fought, proclaiming our Ultimate Allegiance, and the troops surrounding us hushed in reverent silence. Tears welled in eyes.

Minutes later the sergeants told us to keep the formation tight as we advanced on the double-quick through the mud of last night's rain to meet them. I am glad we did not trip over one another as we sprinted in our full gear to a skirmish line, yelling all the way. Before any chance to catch our breaths, we heard the orders to load and fire, and we were enveloped in volley after volley amongst the shouting of the officers. Our commanders shouted, "Independent company fire!" and the order echoed down the line for us to fire at will.

The barking of the commands and echoes of the soldiers grew as loud as the firing itself, and I could barely make out the line of Federals in the distance between the calls to load and fire. I stood crowded in lines of staggered files, and I struggled to safely take aim. Captains from the adjoining companies somehow found time to critique my technique.

"Make sure you're coming back to a 'T' so you can get that second band through!" one barked to me, referring to the necessary foot posture for firing over the first rank's shoulder. At that moment, I was not concerned with my feet, or any letter of the alphabet save for one: D, as in death to tyrants.

We advanced towards the Bushong farmhouse, chasing the Yanks bank. We met another line of them across a yard from the barn, on the other side of a picket fence, and our ranks formed up again. The zing of musket balls echoed with terrifying volume from the sides as the building as we exchanged fire once more, loading and firing with building fervor.

Our advances left the formations ragged, and often I would find myself unable to lower my rifle over the right shoulder of the man in front of me, for another rifle barrel was already there. I hesitated on some orders to fire, fearing for the safety of my compatriots in our tight and haphazard lines, although in frustration I chose to take one shot over the left shoulder, clear of obstructions, to the mild rebuke of my captain. Other times we were told to make ready only to advance instead.

The rush caught me half-loaded on occasion between advances, and sometimes half-cocked. Several times, the din of shouting and gunfire faltered my concentration on my given task, in the midst of concern for my brethren and hovering eyes of the captains contradicted one another. I would raise my rifle and squeeze the trigger to find the hammer on my Springfield pulled back only partially. I would make ready again, and again I would find myself foiled by the same mistake.

"Are you all right, Private Christopher?" our captain called.

"Yes!" I reiterated, not giving any hint of distress, determined to carry on in spite of any difficulty.

We kept pushing the Yankees back, watching them appear before us and then duck back without warning, even though their numbers suggested they could weather several of our volleys. I later heard a Federal fife and drummer separated from their company only to fall directly into the sights of our advancing line. They quickly began playing "Dixie" with wide smiles upon their faces, and the attempt at appeasement did not go unappreciated. The aggressors managed to pick off a couple of our company, who crumpled to the ground only to be rousted again to the line by the urging of our captain, if not the fervor of their will.

Having chased the bluebellies out of the farm, their lines fell back into a dip beyond a split rail fence. Here we formed again, ducking behind whatever piece of wood would offer us safety and camouflage. I struggled to find an open spot to crouch and fire.

"Let him through!" a captain shouted. I pushed my way into position and awkwardly loaded from my knees as the Federals fired as us through the tall grass. We needed only a couple of volleys to push them back even more.

By this time, the dozens of shots had nearly depleted my cartridge supply. Six shots remained.

"I'm out, Captain!" a fellow soldier shouted.

My compatriots were down to their last rolls of powder, digging into the boxes of others to resupply themselves or taking ammunition from the fallen. Our commander ordered us to make sure we had enough for one more volley. We would have to make sure every shot counted.

We prepared to push the Yanks back again, but as we loaded once more, we received the order to halt. The Institute cadets, who had marched more than 80 miles to this point and were the last resort of Gen. Breckinridge, took the fight to the retreating enemy.

The victory left us heartened at the righteousness of our cause, and our officers noted our bravery and tenaciousness. "You boys looked damned good today," one told us as we stood in formation after the bluebellies fled.

I continued to marvel at the courage of the cadets, and how they possessed more than I shall ever have in their storehouses of strength, courage, and bravery. I had the honor of meeting two of them the day before this battle, and I am reassured our country's armies will be led by capable and competent hands.

I look towards the day when I shall rejoin you once again in Williamsburg, and in this victory we pray that day might soon arrive.

Your Servant In The Cause,
Pvt. Christopher Francis
1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry

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