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“rocked In The Cradle Of Consternation”
A black chaplain in the Union Army reports on the struggle to take Fort Fisher, North Carolina, in the winter of 1864–65
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
And thus the contest raged from that time until about 10 o’clock at night on our left toward the sea-shore. Finally the marines and sailors came off the gunboats and war-ships, and helped to charge the fort. They were cut down in frightful numbers. They fell so thick and with such destruction that the marines at one time broke and fled; but the sailors stood their ground. Thus the sailors actually evinced more courage and bravery than the marines. The land forces on the left, however, in no instance broke nor exhibited any cowardice, yet they were terribly slaughtered. Never had I seen grape and canister used so effectively as the rebels used it on our troops on this occasion. At one time I thought they could never stand it; neither do I believe they would have stood, but for the fact that they knew the black troops were in the rear, and if they (the white troops) failed, the colored troops would take the fort and claim the honor. Indeed, the white troops told the rebels that if they did not surrender they would let the negroes loose on them. But it was a noble sight to see our troops hanging on to the sides of the fort like so many leeches sticking to an afflicted man. Each embrasure was formed by high mounds of earth being thrown up on each side of the guns; and after our troops gained a foothold on the fort, each party would stick to those mounds and fight around them. You would constantly see them, by two’s and three’s, fall off and roll to the bottom and there lay weltering in their blood and gore, manifesting the greatest agony amid the death heaves which, too often, lasted but a few moments.…
The battle raged amid the terrific fire of deadly missiles until after dark, when I was so exhausted that I could no longer stand up, for I had been seeing after our killed and wounded up to that time. About this time I retired some distance from the scene of conflict and lay down until about ten o’clock, when the news spread that Fort Fisher had surrendered. The guns then ceased firing, and a great shout rang through every camp. … At this news I jumped up and went to survey the fort and behold the results of our conquest.
And great was the scene. The fort had been ploughed by our shells until every thing looked like a heap of destruction. All the barracks had been burned to the ground, and dead bodies were lying in desperate confusion in every direction. In some places they were lying in piles and heaps. Several rebels had been utterly buried by our shells. Guns of the largest caliber had been broken to pieces and their carriages swept from under them. The wounded were groaning and begging for assistance. The soldiers were ransacking every nook and corner in search of trophies and other memorials, such as tobacco, segars, clothes, pistols, &c. The surrendered rebels were standing in the centre of the fort and speaking in audible tones of the bravery of the Yankee soldiers. Many seemed glad they were in our hands, while others seemed anxious to know if we were going to kill them. Yet we all talked and laughed so freely with the rebels that they soon came to the conclusion that we would not kill them and seemed quite well pleased after a short time.
After walking around the fort for some time, viewing it by the light of the moon, I found myself shot at twice from some unknown corner. This led me to believe there were rebels still secreted in some undiscovered spot whom we had not found. Others were similarly fired upon, but could not tell who had done it. So I left for camp and told several to stay away, otherwise they would be blown up. Nothing disastrous, however, occurred that night. But at an early hour the next morning, my attention was attracted by an awful explosion which I perceived had taken place toward the fort. The said earth was seen flying in great banks towards the very heavens, and the debris were spreading like monster wings, and the shafts of vengeance seemed to be flying from the mouth of an awful crater to the summit of the angry elements.… This threw every body in anxious suspense, and many speculations were indulged in. But a few minutes only intervened before the intelligence spread every where that one of the magazines had blown up. This circumstance cast a more serious gloom over our army than all the casualties which had happened on the previous day and caused more oaths to be uttered than I ever heard before in the same length of time. Many were for killing all the rebel prisoners, while others were for blowing them up, too, &c. I immediately started for the fort to see for myself the dreadful scene of carnage. I found the news true. A magazine had exploded, and hundreds of our men were, apparently, the deadly victims of the misfortune.…
It fell to my lot to bury with religious ceremony many of our noble dead, which I did with a sensation not felt in any previous instance since I have been connected with the army. It would be impossible to describe what I witnessed among the wounded. But one thing I must mention as a fact. I found twice the number of rebels calling upon God for mercy to what I found among our own wounded soldiers. One rebel particularly, whom I passed, was saying in a most pathetic tone, “O, Lord God, have mercy on me! Please have tender compassion on one who is a sinner, and comfort me in this my hour of trial! O, Lord, have mercy on me this one time more.” When I commenced talking with him, and he discovered I was a chaplain, his countenance seemed to be illuminated with joy. But the prayers that went up from the rebel wounded completely bought off my prejudice, and I rendered them every comfort in my power.…