The following incidents were given in a narrative sermon preached by Rev. Robert Collyer, at Chicago, a few days after the terrible battle at Fort Donelson:
“After leaving home our great desire was, of course, to get to Fort Donelson and to our work in the shortest possible time; and I am sure you will not thank me for a full account of Cairo, historical and descriptive. I will merely say, when you want to solicit a quiet place of retirement in the summer, so not even go to look at Cairo. I assure you, it will not suit. It is notable here only for being the first point where we meet with traces of the great conflict. The first I saw were three or four of those long boxes, that hold only and always the same treasure; these were shells nailed together by comrades in the camp, I suppose, to send some brave man home. As I went past one lying on the sidewalk in the dreary rain and mud, I read on a card the name of a gallant officer who had fallen in the fight; and as I stood for a moment to look at it, the soldier who had attended it came up, together with the brother of the dead man, who had been sent for to meet the body. It seemed there was some doubt whether this might not be some other of the half dozen who had been labelled at once, and the coffin must be opened before it was taken away.
“I glanced at the face of the living brother as he stood and gazed at the face of the dead; but I must not desecrate that sight by a description. He was his brother beloved, and he was dead; but he had fallen in a great battle, where treason bit the dust, and he was faithful unto death. He must have died instantly, for the wound was in a mortal place; and there was not one line or forrow to tell of a long agony, but a look like a quiet child, which told how the old conficence of Hebrew David, ‘I shall be satisfied when I wake in thy likeness,’ was verified in all the confusion of the battle. God’s finger touched him, and he slept; and
‘The great intelligences fair
That range above our mortal state,
In circle round the blessed gate,
Received and gave him welcome there.’
“One incident I remember, as we were detained at Cairo, that gave me a sense of how curiously the laughter and the tears of our lives are blended. I had hardly gone a square from that touching sight, when I came across a group of men gathered round a soldier wounded in the head. Nothing would satisfy them but to see the hurt; and the man, with perfect good nature, removed the bandage. It was a bullet wound, very near the centre of the forehead; and the man declared the ball had flattened, and fallen off, ‘But,’ said a simple man, eagerly, ‘why didn’t the ball go into your head?’ ‘Sir,’ said the soldier, pudly, ‘my head’s too hard; a ball can’t get through it!’
“A journey of one hundred and sixty miles up the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers brought us to Fort Donelson, and we got there at sunset. I went at once into the camp, and found there dear friends, who used to sit in these pews, and had stood fast through all the thickest battle. They gave us coffee, which they drank as if it were nectar, and we as if it were senna
“A body of men drew up to see us, and demanded the inevitable ‘few remarks;’ and we told them, through our tears, how proud and thankful they had made us, and what great tides of gladness had risen for them in our city, and wherever the tidings of victory had run; and how our hands gave but a feeble pressure, our voices but a feeble echo of the mighty spirit that was everywhere reaching out to greet those that were safe, to comfort the suffering, and to sorrow for the dead.
“The ‘own correspondents’ of the newspapers describe Fort Donelson just as if a man should say that water is a fluid, or granite a solid. I have seen no printed description of it that will make a picture in the mind. I think there is a picture graven on some silent soul that will get itself printed some time. But it took years to get a word-picture of Dunbar, and it may take as long to get one of Donelson. If you take a bow and tighten the string until it is very much overbent, and lay it down on a table, with the string towards you, it will give a faint idea of the breastworks–the river being to them what the cord is to the bow. At the right hand corner, where the bow and cord join, is the famous water battery, commanding a straight reach in the river of about a mile, where the gunboats must come up; and at the other end of the cord, up the river, lies the town of Dover.
“It was my good fortune to go over the entire ground with a number of our friends, and to wander here and there alone at rare moments besides. The day I spent there was like one of our sweetest May-days. As I stood in a bit of secluded woodland, in the still morning, the spring birds sang as sweetly, and flitted about as merrily, as if no tempest of fire, and smoke, and terror had ever driven them in mortal haste away. In one place where the battle had raged, I found a little bunch of sweet bergamont, that had just put out its out its brown-blue leaves, rejoicing in its first resurrection, and a bed of daffodils, ready to unfold their golden robes to the sun; and the green grass, in sunny places, was fair to see. But where great woods had cast their shadows, the necessities of attack and defence had made one haggard and almost universal ruin–trees cut down into all sorts of wild confusion, torn and splintered by cannon ball, trampled by horses and men, and crushed under the heavy wheels of artillery. One sad wreck covered all.
“Of course, it was not possible to cover all the ground, or to cut down all the trees. But here and there, where the defenders would sweep a pass, where our brave men must come, all was bared for the work of death; and where the battle had raged, the wreck was fearful.
“Our every-busy mother Nature had already brought down great rains to wash the crimson stains from her bosom; and it was only in some blanket cast under the bushes, or some loose garment taken from a wounded man, that these most fearful sights were to be seen. But all over the field were strewn the implements of a, with garments, harness, shot and shell, dead horses, and the resting-places of dead men. Almost a week had passed since the battle, and most of the dead were buried. We heard of twos and threes, and in one case of eleven, still lying where they fell; and, as we rode down a lonely pass, we came to one waiting to be laid in the dust, and stopped for a moment to note the sad sight. Pray look out from my eyes at him, as he lies where he fell. You see by his garb that he is one of the rebel army, and, by the peculiar marks of that class, that he is a city rough. There is little about him to soften the grim picture that rises up before you, as he rests in perfect stillness by that fallen tree; but there is a shawl, coarse and homely, that must belonged to some woman; and
‘His hands are folded on his breast;
There is no other thing expressed.
But long disquiet merged in rest.’
“Will you still let me guide you through that ce as it comes up before me? That long mound, with pieces of board here and there, is a grave; and sixty-one of our brave fellows rest in it, side by side. Those pieces of board are the gravestones, and the chisel is a black lead pencil. The queer straggling letters tell you that the common soldier has done this, to preserve, for a few days at least, the memory of one who used to go out with him on the dangerous picket guard, and sit with him by the camp fire, and whisper to him, as they lay side by side in the tent through the still winter night, the hope he had before him when the war was over, or the trust in this comrade if he fell. There you see one large board, and in a beautiful flowing hand, ‘John Olver, Thirty-first Illinois;’ and you wonder for a moment whether the man who has so tried to surpass the rest was nursed at the same breast with John Olver, or whether John was a comrade, hearty and trusty beyond all price.
“And you will observe that the dead are buried in companies, every man in his own company, side by side; that the prisoners are sent out after the battle to bury their own dead; but that our own men will not permit them to bury a fellow-soldier of the Union, but every man in this sacred cause is held sacred even for the grave.
“And thus on the crest of a hill is the place where the dwellers in that little town have buried their dead since ever they came to live on the bank of the river. White marble and gray limestone, and decayed wooden monuments, tell who rests beneath. There stands a gray stone, cut with these home-made letters, that tell you how William N. Ross died on the 26th day of March, 1814, in the twenty-sixth year of his age; and right alongside are the graves, newly-made, of men who died last week in a strife which no wild imagining of this native man ever conceived possible in that quiet spot. Here, in the midst of the cemetery, the rebel officers have pitched their tents; for the place is one where a commander can see easily the greater part of the camp. Here is a tent where some woman has lived, for she has left a sewing0machine and a small churn; and not far away you see a hapless kitten shot dead; and everywhere things that make you shudder, and fill you with sadness over the wreck and ruin of war.
“Here you meet a man who has been in command , and stood fast; and when you say some simple word of praise to him in the name of all who love their country, he blushes and stammers like a woman, and tells you he tried to best; and when we get to Mound City, we shall find a man racked with pain, who will forget to suffer in telling how this brave man you have just spoken to, not only stood by his own regiment in a fierce storm of shot, but when he saw a regiment near his own giving back, because their officers showed the white feather, rode up to the regiment, hurled a mighty curse at those who were giving back, stood fast by the men in the thickest fight, and saved them; and, says the sick man, with tears in his eyes: ‘I would rather be a private under him, than a captain under any other man!’
“I noticed one feature in this camp that I never saw before; the men do not swear and use profane words as they used to do. There is a little touch of seriousness about them. They are cheerful and hearty, and in a few days they will mostly fall back into the old bad habit so painful to hear; but they have been too near to the tremendous verities of hell and heaven on that battle-field, to turn them into small change for everyday use just yet. They have taken the eternal name for common purposes a thousand times; and we feel as if we could say with Paul, ‘The times of this ignorance God passed by.’ But on that fearful day, when judgment fires were all aflame, a voice said, ‘Be still, and know that I am God;’ and they are still under the shadow of that awful name.
“Now, friends, I can give you these hints and incidents, and many more if it were needful; but you must still be left without a picture of the battle-field, and I must hasten to the work we want to do. The little town of Dover was full of sick and wounded; and they, first of all, commanded our attention. I have seen too much of a soldier’s life to expect much comfort for him; but we found even less than I expected among those who were huddled togethere there. There was no adequate comfort of any kind; many were laid on the floor; most were entie unprovided with a change of linen, and not one had any proper nourishment hat we carried with us was welcome beyond all price. The policy of our commanders was to remove all the wounded on steamboats to Paducah, Mound City, and other places on the rivers; and it was a part of my duty, with several other gentleman acting as surgeons and nurses, to attend one hundred and fifty-eight wounded men from Fort Donelson to Mound City.
“I may not judge harshly of what should be done in a time of war like this in the West; it is very easy to be unfair. I will simply tell you that had it not been for the things sent up by the Sanitary Commission in the way of linen, and things sent by our citizens in the way of nourishment, I see not possibility by which those wounded men could have been lifted out of their blood-stained woollen garments, saturated with wet and mud, or could have had any food and drink, except corn-mush, hard bread, and the turbid water of the river.
“That long cabin of the steamboat is packed with wounded men, laid on each side, side by side, so close that you can hardly put one foot between the men to give them a drink, or to cool their fearful hurts. Most of us have been hurt badly at some time in our life, and rememberwhat tender and constant care we needed, and got. If you will substitute a rather careless and clumsy man for the mother or wife who waited on you, and divide his time and attention among perhaps forty patients, you will be able to conceive somehting of what had been the condition of these poor travellers, but for the Chicago Committee.
“Here is one who has lost an arm, and there one who has lost a leg. This old man of sixty has been struck by a grape shot, and that boy of eighteen has been shot through the lung. Here a noble-looking man has lived through a fearful bullet wound just over the eye; and that poGerman, who could never talk English so as to be readily understood, has been hit in the mouth, and has lost all hope of talking, except by signs.
“That man with a shattered foot talks in the old dialect I spoke whtn I was a child; and when I answer him in his own tongue, the words touch him like a sovereign medicine.
“The doctor comes to this young man, and says quietly, ‘I think, my boy, I shall have to take your arm off;’ and he cried out in a great agony, ‘O dear doctor! do save my arm!’ and the doctor tells him he will try a little longer, and when he has gone, the poor fellow says to me, ‘What shall I do if I lose my arm? I have a poor old mother at home, and there is no one to do anything for her but me.’
“That man who has lost his arm is evidently sinking. As I lay wet linen on the poor stump, he tells me how ‘he has a wife and two children at home, and he has always tried to do right, and to live a manly life.’ The good, simple heart is clearly trying to balance its accounts, before it faces the great event which it feels to be not far distant. As I go past him, I see the face growing quieter; and at last good Mr. Williams, who has watched him to the end, tells me he put up his one hand, gently closed his own eyes, and then laid the hand across his breast and died.
“That boy in the corner, alone, suffers agony such as I may not tell. All day long we hear his cries of pain through half the length of the boat; far into the night, the tide of anguish pours over him; but at last the pain is all gone, and he calls one of our number to him, and says, ‘I am going. I want you to please write a letter to my father; tell him I owe such a man two dollars and a half, and such a man owes me four dollars; and he must draw my pay, and keep it all for himself.’ Then he lay silently a little while, and, as the nurse wet his lips, said, ‘O, I should so like a drink out of my father’s well!’ and in a moment he had gone where angels gather immortality.
‘By Life’s fair stream, fast by the throne of God.’
“And so all day long, with cooling water and soft linen, with morsels of food and sips of wine, with words of cheer and tender pity to every one, and most of all to those that were in the sorest need, we tried to do some small service for those that had done and suffered so much for us. Some are dead, and more will die, and some will live, and be strong men again; but I do not believe that one will forget our poor service in that terrible pain; while to us there came such a reward in the work as not one of us ever felt before, and we all felt that it was but a small fragment of the debt we owed to the brave men who had given life itself for our sacred cause.
“Two or three things came out of this journey to the battle-field that gave me some new thoughts and realizations. And first, in all honor, I realized more fully than you can do, that in those victories of which Fort donelson is the greatest, we have reached not only the turning-point, as we o of this dreadful war, but we have plucked the first fruits of our Western civilization. I am not here to question for one moment the spirit and courage of our brothers in the East; the shade of Winthrop, noblest and knightliest man, the poor of Arthur for truth, of Richard for courage, and of Sidney for gentleness, would rise up to rebuke me. Ball’s Bluff was worse than Balaklava as a criminal blunder, and equal to it in every quality of steady, hopeless courage. America will never breed a true man who will not weep as he reads the story of those hapless Harvard boys, whose clear eyes looked out at death steadily to the last, and who scorned to flinch.
“But here on our Western prairies, and in our backwoods, we have been raising a new generation of men, whose name we never mentioned, under new influences, whose bearing we did not understand; and the first time they could get a fair field and no favor, they sprang into the foremost soldiers in the land.
“Good elderly New England ministers, of our own faith, have made it a point to speak, in Eastern conventions, of our hopeless struggle with the semi-savagery of these mighty wildernesses. My dear doctor, that boy of eighteen was born in the prairies, and went to meetings where you would have gone crazy with the noise of the mighty prayers and psalms: and he got the conversion which you do not believe in, and was a sort of Methodist or Baptist; but he stood like one of Napoleon’s Old Guard through all the battle; and when he was shot down, and could fight no longer, his mighty spirit dragged the broken tabernacle into the bushes, and there he prayed with all his might, not for himself, but that the God of battles would give us the victory. That rough-looking man was wounded twice with ghastly hurts, and twice went from the surgeon back to the fight, and only gave up when the third shot crippled him beyond remedy.
“‘I saw those “Iowa Second” boys come on to charge the breastworks,’ said our friend Colonel Webster to us. ‘More than one regiment had been beaten back, and the fortunes of the day began look very uncertain. They came on steadily, silently, through the storm of shot, closing up as their comrades fell; and without stopping to fire a single volley that might thin the ranks of the defenders, and make some gap by which they might pour into the fortress, they went down into the ditch, and clean over the defence, and there they staid in spite of all.’
“One quiet-looking officer saw his company sorely thinned in the beginning of the day; and that the cause might have one more arm, he took mukaammunition from one who could use them no more and fought at the head of his company, shot for shot, all day long; and, as a wounded soldier told me this through his pain, he added, ‘I tell you, sir, if that man ever runs for an office, I’ll vote for him, sure.’
“Secondly, from all these experiences, I have got a fresh conviction of the great mystery of the shedding of blood for salvation. We have been accustomed, especially in Unitarian churches, to consider Paul’s ideas about blood-shedding as the fruit of his education under a sacrificial Judaism, and that, again, as a twin-sister of barbarism; but as I went over this battle-field, and thought on the dead heroes, and of all they died for, I kept repeating over each one, ‘He gave his life a ransom for many;’ and I wondered, when I thought of how we had all gone astray as a people, and how inevitable this war had become, in consequence, as the final test of the two great antagonisms, whether it may not be true in our national affairs, as in a more universal sense, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.’ And so, by consequence, every true hero fallen in this struggle for the right is also a savior to the nation and the race.
“Finally, I came to feel a more tender pity for the deluded men on the other side, and a more unutterable hatred of that vile thing that has made them what they are. On all sides I found young men with faces as sweet and ingenuous as the faces of our own children,–as open to sympathy, and, according to their light, as ready to give all they had for their cause.
“I felt like weeping to see children of our noble mother so bare, and poor, and sad; to see their little villages so different from those where the community is not tainted by the curse and proscription of human bondage; and I felt more deeply than ever before how, for the sake of those men, who, in spite of all, are our brothers, this horrible curse and delusion of slavery ought to be routed utterly out of the land.”
Originally posted 2009-10-22 04:10:43.