An excerpt from Thirty Years After:
An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War
By Edwin Forbes
Edwin Austin Forbes (1839 – March 6, 1895) was an American landscape painter and etcher who first gained fame during the Civil War or his detailed and dramatic sketches of military subjects, including battlefield combat scenes
“The passage of years makes more remote the events of army life, the veteran’s memory grows stronger in recollection; but no reminiscence, however treasured, will take him back in thought and feeling like the familiar sound of the old bugle-calls. From a keyless instrument the notes were necessarily of simple character, but clear and sweet; and the rollicking calls of the cavalry and artillery, and the sober but not less musical calls of the infantry will always arouse the old spirit of the war-days.
And who that has lain blanket-wrapped in camp or on battlefield will ever forget the sweet “Reveille” that floated like a dream to the weary sleepers, often coming as a harbinger to a bright, jolly day in camp, but many times as a forerunner of desperate conflict! I have often recalled the scene of one picture, when the army was lying in line of battle confronting the vigilant enemy, from whom we were expecting an attack. Our troops were drawn up on a long range of hills, where quite an open country with fences and occasional groves of trees stretched in front. We had full reason to suppose that the enemy was in strong force and made ready to give them a soldier’s reception.
During the early night troops were placed in position; batteries were posted on every hill, with infantry supports in the rear, and cavalry was massed on both flanks of the line to prevent a surprise in that direction. By midnight everything was in readiness for an attack that the coming dawn might bring. The great army, which covered a line eight miles long, and which by daylight had swarmed about like one great hive of bees, was now lost in sleep. Long lines of infantrymen in gray blankets lay in rear of stacked muskets – some had secured cornstalks enough for bedding, but the great majority were stretched on bare ground, with knapsacks and fence-rails for pillows. The artillerymen were sleeping around the rear of their unlimbered guns, except the solitary guard, who moved quietly to and fro and kept an anxious eye toward the enemy. In rear of the guns, limbers and caissons, with horses attached, stood ready for any unexpected movement.
The excitement of apprehension had driven sleep from my eyes, and I watched by the camp fire and listened to the night sounds. From far off in the front came the steady, plaintive call of a whippoorwill, who had evidently been roused into unusual activity by the great army, and this, with the ominous cry of a screech-owl, made the darkness seem weird and strange. The hours passed slowly. At last, with the first gray streaks of dawn, a few faint musical notes came from far down the line. It was the Reveille! Other and still other bugles followed in quick succession, until the whole air was alive with the inspiring blasts, and in almost an instant – with the instinct of watchfulness – the sleeping host was aroused, awake. Then, as far as the eye could reach, multitudes of men arose, rolled their blankets and packed their traps. Men and horses next had to be fed. Thousands of camp-fires soon blazed in every direction, and fragrant coffee simmered merrily in kettle and can. A great canopy of smoke hung over the country, and the sun in crimson glory rose above the bustling throng.
But scattering shots of musketry, far in front, had already caused the coffee to disappear in urgent haste, and in time more brief than could be imagined the scene of apparent confusion had become one of order and quiet. The gunners at the batteries took position; the drivers mounted their horses; the infantry stood rigidly exact, with anxious ear strained toward the enemy.
Soon, a scattered skirmish-fire commenced, and just as the sun rose the battle began. Ere long, wounded skirmishers began to come back, and were indifferently glanced at by the men in position, for such sights were common ones now. Some were leaning on their guns; others were supported by branches of trees; one used a pitchfork for a crutch, while an officer was carried in a blanket by four of his men. The enemy’s batteries had sent disastrous fire among our troops. Here and there a solid shot would be thrown, whose action of ploughing a trench in the earth and then bounding out was more destructive than the conical missiles from the rifled guns, which bored into the ground and burst.
But while the Rebs were doing their worst our batteries were not inactive, and the interchange of compliment became so animated that I thought best to seek for my art-material in a quieter spot. So, dashing toward the rear, I ran the gauntlet of the flying missiles, and did not halt until a mile away. Many brave fellows of whom I knew not fell on both sides that day; and the Blue and the Gray in a common sleep await the Reveille of the Resurrection.”