A night on the battlefield

It’s worth remembering that, at this time, the 13th’s infantrymen were not hardened veterans. Malvern Hill was their first truly-difficult battle with high casualties.

Minutemen of Attala Private Peter F. Ellis, an 18-year-old clerk from Madison County when he enlisted in March of ’61, fell severely wounded. He was unable to walk and spent the night on the battlefield with thousands of the dead and wounded around him.

“The shrieks of the wounded could be heard on every hand,” Ellis recalled years later in a memoir for Confederate Veteran Magazine. “There were fervent prayers, bitter swearing, pitiful calls for water and for comrades by name of company….”

The dense powder smoke “which had obscured almost everything slowly lifted…and the surface of the earth as far as I could see appeared to be covered with a mass of wriggling, writhing men, some vainly endeavoring to get to their feet, others seeking less painful positions…men of the gray and the blue.”

Clouds gathered and obscured the stars. It gradually turned overcast until “a gentle rain was falling as if nature was weeping because of the human slaughter. The louder cries of the wounded had either been silenced by death or had given place to the low moaning of the helpless sufferer as the feeling of the chilling numbness came over every one who had bled profusely and was now wet to the skin by the falling rain.

William H. Osborne, a private in the 29th Massachusetts Infantry on the Union line atop the plateau that night recalled in 1877 seeing “the enemy in large numbers with lanterns and torches, were engaged in succoring their wounded, sometimes approaching almost to the muzzles of our guns, but not a shot was fired at them; their labor was one of love, and in this light our men regarded it.”

Ellis saw something more, “far into the night” the shadowy form “of a half-stooped man who…was robbing the dead turning pockets wrong side out and slipping the rings from cold and stiffened fingers….I saw four or five others similarly engaged. I was satisfied that they were soldiers but for the life of me I could not tell from which army.

“A feeling of utter loneliness came over me as I lay there unable to lift my head…My comrades who were near me were either dead or as helpless as myself. My command was gone, I know not where, and I am in the midst of a band of thieves.

“After a seeming interminable time, I saw a dim light at quite a distance in the direction from which we had come on the field….I saw that it moved and I knew it was the light of litter bearers gathering the wounded and conveying them to the field hospitals….the light now appeared closer and then farther off so my hope for relief rose and fell accordingly.”

Dawn came gray and he saw that he was near the Union guns and “could see quite a distance in every direction. There was a much greater number of dead on the field than I had thought and from the number of wounded between where I lay and the litter bearers were at work I calculated it would be two o’clock that afternoon before they would reach me.”

It began to rain in earnest. The rain continued all day. In the afternoon, according to Jess N. McLean, Ellis was finally taken to a field hospital where his right leg was amputated.

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Battles: Malvern Hill, Battles: The Seven Days, Jess N. McLean, The Minute Men of Attala and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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