"The Cries of the Wounded were Piercing and Horrible"

By Lt. Thomas H. Evans

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Copyright 1967/1968, Civil War Times Illustrated
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In earlier issues of CWTI we have presented extracts from the journal of Thomas H. Evans, a Welshman who came to the United States eleven years before the Civil War and enlisted in the Regular Army. On the outbreak of the war he was made sergeant major of the newly organized 12th U. S. Infantry. After taking part in the Battles of Gaines's Mill and Malvern Hill, he was commissioned second lieutenant, and later was promoted to first lieutenant. During the remainder of his service he commanded a company. This, the final installment of his memoirs, describes the march of his unit, in Sykes's division, from south of the Potomac to the Rappahannock, and the Battle of Fredericksburg. Evans' papers were furnished to us by Mrs. Mary Evans Todd, Lieutenant Evans' granddaughter. -Editor

On November 2, Sunday, we passed through Snickersville and bivouacked on the side of Snicker's Gap, well screened from observation of the enemy by thick woods, which covered the whole mountain, but had occasional openings from foot to summit. Our division was on both sides of the gap, and we could see the turnpike for miles till it became a mere thread. We had splendid moonlight nights, and used to climb the mountain to watch the enemy's campfires beyond the Shenandoah River. The opposite mountain was held by the 2d Brigade, and our artillery was planted below, so that it could sweep the gap completely. But no attempt was made to force a passage, though we could see the enemy pickets on the road within a mile of us.
On the morning of the third day we were here, reconnaissance was ordered to feel out the enemy. Our men marched down without opposition till we nearly reached the bank of the river. The reserves left the woods and kept too near the skirmishers. As soon as they were well in the open, the enemy's sharpshooters opened a galling fire from the opposite bank and from a ridge beyond, a field battery was run up and commenced vigorously with shell and spherical case. The pieces were loaded behind the ridge, run up to be fired, and run back to be reloaded. We had several men wounded, then the party returned.
On the 6th we left the gap and marched through Middleburg. We had to halt near White Plains and bivouac on the side of a hill, in a sharp fall of snow. My company and Company E were out for the night on picket. We did not receive orders to withdraw the pickets until the regiment had left, and had then hard work to catch it. We bivouacked in the woods near New Baltimore on the next night.

On November 9 we went on to Warrenton, and in the evening learned that McClellan had been relieved and ordered to Trenton, and that General Burnside would succeed him in command. This news had a depressing effect upon officers and men. After the battle of Bull Run McClellan had taken command of the army. We had passed through Washington, into Maryland, and in little more than fourteen days had fought the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam, were again well on our way to Fredericksburg, and now the chief under whom we had served was to command us no more. We had fought our last battle together, tramped our last march under him, and I don't think that night anyone had very hopeful thoughts or dreams of the future. On the 10th the army was paraded to take a last look at our general, and my own feelings are better if roughly described by what I wrote that night, than anything I could write now. On the 11th we had brigade inspection, and were all day at it, a more tiring affair than a two-days' march.

On the 12th there was a parade again, for Fitz John Porter taking leave to abide his trial, and dishonorable dismissal from the Army, whether justly or unjustly I am afraid to give an opinion. The proceedings have been published and are open for the perusal of everyone. Everyone must judge the evidence for himself, but this I must and will say that if he had any traitorous proclivities, never had a general officer a better chance than had Porter at the Battle of Gaines's Mill. He commanded the rear guard of our army. To him was left the duty of checking the advance of the enemy, an enemy flushed with their success at Mechanicsville, be it remembered. They did not press on in disorderly masses, but were united and skillfully led. We found no child's play about it, for they fought like devils, and only abandoned the attack when night closed in. Not only the rear guard and our supplies were in peril, but the whole army might have been disorganized by a false movement at that important time and point. The impression among us, I remember, was that some ill-feeling did exist between General Pope and many officers to an extent that militated badly against unity of purpose and zealous cooperation without which no great victories are won.

On November 17, after dawdling about in the rain from 5 a.m. till noon, we marched to Warrenton Junction, and took up our post after dark.

On the l8th we were ready to march before sunrise. There was the same dawdling as of yesterday in starting. The roads were good. We made a long march and halted again after dark. It rained all night.

On the 19th everything was wet and miserable. We marched at 9 a.m. The roads were very bad, and the rain continuing, we halted early in the afternoon, everyone dead beaten.
The 20th and 21st were two wretchedly wet days and nights during which we remained at the same place.
On the 22d we were all packed and ready to start, when orders were countermanded. The wagons were brought back and we camped. We got orders to move again, which we did for a short distance and camped for the night.
On the 23d (Sunday) we marched at 8 a.m. and camped near Stafford Court House.
On December 5 there was a fall of snow. The next day the battalion went on picket for forty-eight hours. The night was cold and dreary. Everything was frozen, and the water rattled in the canteens like bullets. We could not do without fires, though they were a great nuisance, the wood being wet, and the wind half suffocating us with smoke. The men were sorely in need of shoes and complained much about their feet.
What with previous exposure and long trying to keep up while really sick, I broke down, and had to go on the sick report.
On December 11 we started out of camp before daybreak to join in the attack on Fredericksburg, and halted in front of the city.

In the afternoon our batteries opened heavily and the engineers commenced laying the pontoon bridges, a long and perilous task, for the houses on the opposite banks of the river were filled with sharpshooters, as well as every spot that offered cover. The fire was galling, and it was found impossible to continue the work until these riflemen were dislodged. The houses were shelled and the 20th Massachusetts and 7th Michigan crossed in our pontoons and drove them out with the bayonet. These two regiments were quickly reinforced and the bridges were completed in a short time and our advance crossed. In the meantime Franklin had been busy about a mile below and had also got a good foothold in the city, though the progress of both columns was disputed step by step.

The next morning a dense fog enveloped everything and did not lift till towards noon. The cannonading was again resumed, and continued furiously by both sides for the rest of the day. After severe fighting the city was carried and we lay down that night knowing that the morrow would bring us hard work. We watched the progress of fires in various parts of the city, which lit up the whole horizon.
In the forenoon of Saturday the order came for us to cross and take part in the assault on the batteries, which covered the whole rear of the city, and were to be stormed. From the time of our arrival we had remained in the ranks, ready at a moment's notice.

The place where our bridges were laid had been well selected. We were partially screened from a concentrated and raking fire by intermediate houses, but not from their flank batteries, which annoyed us considerably.

The banks of the river are rough and precipitous in some places; in others steep slopes led down to the river from both sides. We halted for a while in a ravine adjoining Washington's Farm, and in the direct line of the wounded who were able to cross the river without assistance on their way to the field hospitals, not an encouraging sight.

We crossed, scrambling up the muddy banks as we best could, and found the main streets running at right angles to the river too hot for marching, being swept their whole length by artillery. We filed into the lateral streets and so pursued a zigzag course to the outskirts. Here the houses were greatly damaged, more by the enemy's fire than ours, in checking the advance of our troops. We had not much time for observation, but under such circumstances men see quickly what is going on without being fully conscious of it.

Taking the "double quick" while in direct line of fire, and resuming the ordinary step as soon as we reached a side street, we might have been half an hour marching to the rear of the city. We halted and piled knapsacks in Princess Anne's Street, then to our post. Here again we halted for orders, the most trying of all things to a man's nerves, under fire, but with none of the excitement of fighting. The noise was deafening. We were close to two of our own batteries, and the enemy's shot and shell were dropping among us pretty thickly.

Brigade after brigade charged up to the works, too much exposed and for too great a distance for men over such ground to maintain a compact formation. They came back, too many of them shattered and disorganized. The youngest troops went first, supported by old regiments, so that if the first line gave way the second could advance and give the others time to reform in their rear. Still, with all the energy brought to bear upon the assault, the defense was equally stubborn and energetic, more enduring and more successful.

We have not yet got a foothold on the outer line of works. Now comes the final effort; every regiment and every available man is ordered up. Our whole brigade, five regiments numbering about 1,200 men, are moving to the charge over half a mile of open ground, in face of a heavy fire, mingled with diabolic yells, through various obstructions, kicking aside abandoned knapsacks, arms, blankets, etc. - our road slippery with ooze, blood, and trampled earth, and sprinkled with dead, dying, and wounded men. There was no supporting column, only one regiment in sight, and that making for the city as fast as possible.

Someone saw that it would be a useless waste of life to press on, and the order to advance was countermanded. We were baffled at all points, the city in our possession, but out of which we could be shelled at leisure. Secesh gave us a final salvo, and a crowning yell, and the assault for the day ended, they to repair damages, and triumph at the result, we to know that from 10 to 15,000 men were killed and disabled, the rest worn out and by no means enthusiastic for a repetition of the work.

It was less a battle than a slaughter and the only parallel case I have seen was the Battle of Malvern Hill, the enemy now having the benefit of extensive, well constructed defenses in addition to the choice of ground, and we were now the assailants, and not the defenders of the position as then. Both were slaughter pens. Line after line of troops marched up to be mown down and replaced by others.

AS IT grew dark we marched up to the front and were posted in rear of a small stream running from a mill, and there awaited further orders. Here we remained for four mortal hours, about the dreariest I believe I ever passed. I had come against the advice of our surgeon, and was quite sick enough to have been in bed, but I could not let the regiment go without me, and I suffered bitterly for doing so, with out gaining any credit thereby, more than my own perhaps overstrained notion of duty. The night was dark and the cries of the wounded were piercing and horrible - groans, curses, prayers all mingled together, in the awful surrounding stillness, and the confused buzzing of the battle not yet out of our ears. I had been all night on the field after the Battle of Malvern Hill, but then I had been in good health, and borne up by excitement. Now I was shattered and unnerved by sickness. I had eaten nothing since morning. There was not a drop of drinkable water to be had, and my mouth and throat were parched. Hard biscuit tasted like compressed sawdust, and a pebble I used to carry in my mouth on many a day's march had been jerked out or swallowed. I don't know which, in passing over the uneven ground.

I threw my gum blanket on an old manure heap and lay down on it, trying to shut out the present by borrowing hopefully of the future, but it would not do. Nothing but the past would come and of that all that contrasted most disagreeably with the present. I felt that I should like to die, or be far away or die and be far away in that unknown beyond into which human strife and horror do not enter.

At last from sheer exhaustion I sank into a quiet sleep, and was awakened by Capt. R- touching my shoulder and telling me "We are for the next relief in front." All was quietly arranged and we marched up, groping rather than seeing our way, and taking the place of the 17th Maine. We threw out advanced pickets and lay down in the ranks.

I spread my blanket in the rear of the company and prepared to go to sleep, but rose again as I caught the dim outline of three or four men lying a few paces behind our line. I thought they had left the ranks and taken their places there for the night. I moved down and touched one of them with my foot. He did not move. I laid my hand where his breast should have been, intending to rouse him, but my hand went through.

Thank God I did not kick him. There would be no more arousing for him till the last trumpet shall sound. The whole of the breast had been torn away. All of the others had been struck down by shells, and from what I afterwards saw by daylight, all but one were instantaneously killed, and that one seemed to explain the cause of a shot being fired as we passed up, and which we attributed at the time to the carelessness of some one handling his rifle. The rifle in question was lying on this man's breast, and had been evidently so discharged, judging by the burnt appearance of his clothes. His head was shattered from his chin upwards. Poor fellow! He had probably mistaken our approach for a body of the enemy, and in his agony and horror of becoming a wounded prisoner, had blown out the remains of life by his own act, a thing that has happened more than once in our own field hospitals.

In the morning as soon as the fog cleared away we found that we were in direct line with one of the enemy's embrasures. In a few minutes they tried a short-fuzed shell among us, but we were too close for that to be effective. Instantly a man jumped into the embrasure to dig away the earth in front of the muzzle of the gun so that it could be depressed sufficiently to try grape and canister. This was altogether too plain and kind of intention to pass unheeded, so the whole line moved back a few paces into the shelter of a swale. We allowed the man with the spade and also an officer who spurred his horse on to the rampart to superintend the work, to escape unmolested. In fact the whole thing was done so quickly and boldly that no man thought of shooting, though of course every rifle was loaded and capped, and we could have riddled them both.

A few fence rails were lying about the slope and we laid them in the frozen mud, blood, and slush, and sat down. As the sun came out the ice melted and we found ourselves in a nice mud hole. Little springs trickled out of the sides of the slope and ran under us. We had only a few crackers in our haversacks and we had to scoop up a little of this water, repulsive as it was, in our tin cups, from little holes we made, let it settle and then drink as little of it as possible. Men had been fighting over this ground all day yesterday and here we had to stay all this Sunday, cramped and half famished, for if a hand was raised twenty bullets came whizzing at it, and some of our men lost their fingers by incautiously bringing them in sight of the enemy's sharpshooters.

On the right of where we lay was a mill, occupied by the 4th Infantry. In a field to the right of that, two companies of the 3d Infantry were lying down, deployed as skirmishers. Suddenly a volley was fired upon them from the ramparts, and it did not seem that a man escaped unwounded. Lieut. ---, the officer in charge, in getting over the fence was shot through, and fell forward on his face. Four men of the 4th left the shelter of the mill without arms, and ran to carry him off. This they accomplished successfully, but in returning one of them, the only one I saw come back, had regained the shelter of the mill within two or three yards, when he was knocked over by a rifle bullet.

The mill was next fired on from the rifle pits, the glass from the windows was shot away, and the 4th Infantry commenced forcing bricks out of the walls with their bayonets. As soon as this was accomplished they made the rifle pits too hot for their occupants, and those who survived scrambled inside the works. After this the day was comparatively quiet, but every blue jacket that appeared on the outskirts of the city was fired at from the ramparts. The distance was too great for close shooting and I did not see anyone hit, but one fellow got beyond the shelter of the houses without seeming to know it, till the bullets notified him, and then he leisurely took refuge behind a tree that fortunately was in the way, and deliberately proceeded to examine the works through a glass. He was a field officer in a soldier's overcoat, and report said that it was Burnside himself. A friendly cow, passing, aided to cover his retreat.

So passed this day. As soon as it was dark we passed a few paces farther back to drier ground and thankfully stretched ourselves to wait till we were relieved, which I believe was about midnight. We returned to the city, stacked arms in a side street, and went to sleep, that is, I suppose most did, who had not got on tight boots which refused both coaxing and violence to get off. I happened to be in that uncomfortable fix.

In the morning I managed to get a can of coffee, and felt better. After the men were inspected, and arms restacked, a sharp rattle of musketry was heard from the front, and the minies began to patter around us. I had just told the men to sit down when I heard the grating sound a ball makes when it hits a bone instead of the heavy thud when it strikes flesh. The man next to me was down, I thought killed, and it was uncommonly near that. He was hit, and painfully, the ball entering just above the peak of his cap, and making a deep furrow over the skull, which was of a good serviceable thickness. He had already stooped, to sit down, or the ball would have gone through his brain. Singularly this man had been wounded and made prisoner at Gaines's Mill, had been exchanged, and remained some months in the hospital. He had only rejoined the company a few days and was the only man in the regiment who was hit in the streets during the time we were in the city.

I went down into the city to see how things stood. I hope never to be in a sacked city again, if this was a favorable specimen of such a phase of war. The women and almost all of the inhabitants had removed. A few old servants here and there remained, and I saw no one molested, but it was bad enough in regard to the destruction of property. Our shells had done a good deal of injury, but comparatively nothing to that effected by the men.

Not much furniture seemed to have been removed by its owners. Pianos had been smashed, pictures torn from their frames, mirrors shattered, chairs and sofas broken up, book cases rifled and all used indiscriminately for fuel in the streets. Piles of valuable books in broken sets lined the sidewalks, and were openly offered for sale. Stores had been ransacked and their contents destroyed. The men were lounging around fires in the streets, cooking and joking. It seemed a complete saturnalia with the exception that I saw no one drunk, thanks to the good care the Rebs took of their own whisky.

After two or three hours of painful wandering (for my feet were again jumping) I returned to the regiment and found our officers comfortably quartered in a house opposite one of the temporary hospitals.

I threw myself on the floor and tried to read a book, of which plenty were scattered around, but could not fix my attention upon it. My mind was wandering back to the different appearance of the place when we marched through it a few months previously to make our junction with Pope before the Second Bull Run Battle. Then two theatres were in full blast and most of the inhabitants were in the city. I could not entirely stop wondering what would be our next move.

In the morning a rumor was afloat that the assault was to be renewed. Towards noon this had changed into another: That the enemy had notified our generals to remove the wounded, as it was their intention to shell the city in twenty-four hours. Which rumor was true? Or was either?

In the evening I went to my company, about a hundred yards from this house, and found them around a camp kettle of coffee, just ready. Of course I put in my tin cup for a share, and sat down to drink it, but as if envious of our creature comfort, the enemy plumped in among us a 24 pound shot, scattering our fire, and lodging in a woodpile behind us. It also threw more than a fair allowance of mud in our coffee. But being apprehensive that a near relative of our last visitor might unceremoniously deprive us of it entirely, we ignored the mud, scalded our mouths, and defied him. This evening we sent across the river to our trains and brought back every spade and pick that could be found. This looked like entrenching, and as I was not on duty at present, I took up my quarters on the floor of a house, the first roof I had slept under since leaving Washington, and the novelty of the position was so great that I did not sleep much.

At 11 o'clock we were ordered to take up position on the left of a section of a battery, and proceeded to do so. A little after 2 we found another shelter, and lay down again. The furniture of this house had not been removed. Pictures and glass and books had been huddled together ready for moving, and had escaped plundering. It was somewhat close quarters, and the corners of chairs and sofas in the dark coming against one's head, or a tumble getting onto the small of one's back. did not promote unalloyed enjoyment, but before we had time to dwell upon this, fresh orders were received. The city was to be evacuated, and we again had the rear guard. Out again, and into the rain this time, coming straight down as if it had not rained for months, and did not intend to quit for a week or two.

Between 6 and 7 we passed down to the river, stumbling over knapsacks left behind at almost every step, and losing our way two or three times. It was getting light when we arrived at the river bank, and two of our companies were thrown out on the road nearest our bridges to watch the enemy's batteries. When the fog cleared away we could see the enemy on their breastworks, and bodies of their men ap-proaching the rear of the city, seeming uncertain of what they might meet, but probably guessing that we had taken the back track. On turning around an exciting picture came into view on the farther bank of the river. Right and left as far as the eye could reach it was lined with our batteries, and the men at their stations around the guns. The passage had been accomplished during the night by our army. We did not pass a man in the streets, coming down, and now it was to be seen whether we should be allowed to depart unmolested. If not, there stood our bull dogs, and we should cross under as glorious a salute as a soldier should wish to hear. The Zouaves and the 4th passed us, and then we scrambled down the muddy bank onto the pontoon bridge. The engineers had already removed one, and were lifting the planks of the other. The way they worked was a caution to idlers, and very quickly the pontoons were loose and moving away. But some had to return and take off stragglers who had crept away and fallen asleep in houses, or had been less innocently employed during the small hours.

On December 17 we marched back to and occupied our old camp near Falmouth, and here for the first time I became seriously anxious about the state of my health. A bad attack of camp dysentery had set in. My feet were almost black, and the skin commenced peeling. The weather was cold and stormy, and there were no hospital comforts, few necessaries, and the medical attendance was anything but creditable. Whisky, the curse of every army, became far too plentiful, and brawls were constantly arising between the officers, in one case carried to the extent of fighting a duel which was either unknown to or winked at by those in authority.

On the 25th December, Christmas Day, I sent in my resignation from the Army. It was a hard, bitter thing to do. It seemed as if for me the end of all things. I did not expect to live to see it accepted, but the attempt was made, and God speed it.

Lieutenant Evans resigned from the Army because of ill health and dissatisfaction with the rough conversation of his associates - he being a deeply religious man and apparently seriously affected by the dreadful scenes during and after the battle. On his return to Washington, D.C., he obtained employment as a civilian in a Government office, and soon recovered both in spirit and body. The following official order sets forth his subsequent career and death. -Editor.


It is with great regret that the Adjutant General announces to the office the death of Mr. Thomas H. Evans, chief of the Bounty and Claims Division, which occurred yesterday evening.

Mr. Evans entered the military service October 2, 1849, and served as schoolmaster sergeant at Governor's and at Bedloe's Islands until October 2, 1859; then as clerk to the superintendent of recruiting service, and from November 1, 1861, until May 25, 1862, as sergeant major of the 12th Infantry. On the latter date he was appointed 2d lieutenant, 12th Infantry, and was promoted to 1st lieutenant August 30, 1862. Wounded at Malvern Hill, he resigned his commission February 17, 1863, and entered the Adjutant General's Office as a sergeant of the General Service June 4, 1863, and was appointed clerk of class one December 1, 1865; to class two December 1, 1866; and class three August 5, 1882, which grade he held to the date of his death, having been placed in charge of the Disbursing (Bounty and Claims) Division January 16, 1879.

Modest and exemplary in deportment, conscientious in the performance of his duties, Mr. Evans won the esteem and confidence of all with whom he came in contact during his service of thirty-six years to the Government.

Adjutant General.

Washington, September 10, 1885.

Previous article

"There is No Use Trying to Dodge Shot"
At Malvern Hill, A First Person Account
"All was Complete Chaos"
"The Enemy Sullenly held on to the City"
"The Cries of the Wounded were Piercing and Horrible"

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