Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part One)

This is the first of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death of Captain Charles W. Billings, Co. C., 20th Maine Volunteers, at Gettysburg in July, 1863.

From their position above, they could see through the battle smoke of the attacking line the indistinct shapes of gray-clad men moving en masse through the wooded valley to the left. Alerted to the movement, the left wing of the regiment shifted to the left and rear to meet the onslaught, moving into position among the rocks and trees. They had now formed a horseshoe-shaped line around the crest of the spur on this rocky ledge in the Pennsylvania woods.

The two hundred and fifty Alabamians scrambled up the slope, straight into the muzzles of more than a hundred rifles. The volley tore into the ranks of the appalled rebels, who were brought up short and hastily sought cover. When the southerners at last returned fire, the Maine men were grateful that they were on a height, shielded among the  boulders and trees.

In places, the contending forces were less than seventy feet apart.  The men dumped out the contents of their cartridge boxes and stuck their ramrods in the ground, signaling that they did not intend to be driven back. Soon after the line had settled in among the rocks, the company's Captain was hit by a bullet just above the knee. Relinquishing his command to his Lieutenant, he was carried to the aid station in the rear. The roar of musketry gradually receded and the clouds of burnt powder dispersed as he was brought down the back-side of the hill to where his comrades--battered and bloodied--were being tended to. 

The regimental surgeon applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and covered the wound with a bandage. To ease the pain, powdered morphine was sprinkled into the wound. He was given a drink of water and perhaps, to soothe his soul, a swallow of whiskey. It was now late in the afternoon. By early that evening, he had been taken by ambulance behind the lines to the old barn that served as a hospital.

to be continued...

(Battle Flag, Twentieth Maine Regiment, Retired after the Battle of Gettysburg; Maine State Museum; Augusta, Maine. I am indebted to Thomas A. Desjardin's Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign for details about this segment of the battle on Little Round Top; July 2, 1863)

No comments: