The Stone Wall at Cemetery Ridge
South of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
July 3, 1863
It was near to one o’clock as far as Tom could tell when the Confederate artillery began a fresh bombardment. Tom watched the guns pummel Cemetery Ridge and the Union forces mustered behind a low, stone wall there.
For long minutes Tom recoiled with each belch of the enemy artillery—while he and the rest of the men waited for the Union guns to respond. After what seemed like forever, although it had only been fifteen minutes, the Federal guns finally answered from a grove nearby. What he knew to be eighty Union cannon exploded in unison, adding to the cacophony of noise in the usually quiet countryside. Dirt and rocks flew like projectiles thrown up from the bowels of the earth, mingling with the solid shot and detonating hollow cannon shells that sent flying musket balls and shrapnel through any unfortunate man in its path. Thankfully, B Company was still hunkered down in the ditch along the Emmitsburg Turnpike and out of the line of fire—for now.
Time stretched on and, as far as Tom could tell it was almost three o’clock when the artillery barrages on both sides quieted. He looked out over the field in front of him, littered with the dead and dying, took a deep breath, and knew what would come next—a full Rebel infantry charge.
“Get ready, boys,” he told Collins, Baker, and the rest of his men, all gripping their rifles and ready.
The Rebs charged from the tree line at Seminary Ridge—their Rebel yell preceding them—and headed straight toward the Eighth and B Company.
Tom waited, his rifle at the ready, as the enemy advanced, screaming like wild Indians.
“Fire!” resounded down the line.
The sound of guns exploding in unison was deafening and line after line of Confederates fell, their screams of pain echoing the scream of rifles. Their lines broke. Men who didn’t fall dropped their weapons, threw their hands up and surrendered—or ran from the battlefield.
Prisoners were taken and rushed away, rifles reloaded, and the enemy sighted again as another charge headed straight toward the Eighth.
Sweat beaded on Tom’s brow and rolled down his face. He used his already wet sleeve to wipe it away, while keeping the next line of charging Confederates in sight. Beside him his two friends stared wild-eyed and ready.
“Fire!” came the order again.
Again their guns discharged, dropping more Rebels in their tracks. More men screamed, surrendered, ran, and died.
Tom’s blood was up as men fell around him. He fired and reloaded, fired and reloaded, surviving this battle the only thing driving him.
Time felt as thick as the humid afternoon air blanketing the countryside as surge after surge of yelling Rebels raced up the hill, only to be shredded by rifle fire and bursting cannon.
Tom blinked, stopped firing, and shook his head in disbelief. A lone Confederate officer on horseback urged his men up the hill toward certain death. The men of the Eighth cheered and waved their own colors in response to the man’s courage and fortitude.
The honorary flag waving didn’t last long and quickly Tom and the Eighth continued their assault on the men running toward them. They fell by the dozens from the onslaught of guns and cannon. Rushing toward the threat of imminent death Tom watched cartridge boxes and haversacks thrown away as the Rebs turned and ran. Those that didn’t run, or couldn’t run, fell to their knees in surrender.
More Rebel yells reverberated through the air when another swell of Confederates ran into the wide open field to Tom’s right and up the gentle slope—straight into more Federal fire.
Union artillery shredded the Confederates as they climbed a split-rail fence. Those who managed to breach the fence ran into the open field and up the hill toward the waiting Yankees. The Rebel yell became a shriek of pain as more men were hit with the solid shot and hollow shells from the cannon that sent hundreds of men to their deaths in a red cloud of smoke and left nothing of the man that had just stood there.
Tom swung toward the newest threat, moving as they moved. He fired and reloaded the black powder and mini-ball of his Enfield, now adept at the task and getting off two or three shots a minute, each minute like a mere second as the battle raged around him.
To his disbelief, and horror, the Confederates continued up the hill, regardless that hundreds had already been mowed down like a scythe cutting grass. He’d seen the Fourteenth Tennessee Volunteers’ flag shot down and picked up so many times, he’d lost track. Could any of the men from the Fourteenth still be alive? His brother-in-law, Henry? Other men from Clarksville? The place he’d called home most of his life. A sick feeling washed over him as he sighted and fired at a man coming up the hill. Could the man he’d just shot be someone he knew? Henry?
Tom pushed the unwanted thoughts from his head. He was a soldier doing his duty and that duty was to hold this position. He reloaded and fired. Again and again until the wave of men running toward him became less and less. The battle was waning. The artillery had stopped and rifle fire was sporadic, but there was still intermittent fighting here and there.
The Rebel lines had been devastated, but a few still made their way toward the stone wall below Cemetery Ridge. Tom had moved with the fight and found himself alone and in the open between where the Eighth was taking prisoners and the wall giving the Union troops cover. He scanned the area. Where were Collins and Baker?
Afraid to get caught alone in the open, he ran toward the wall. His Yankee brothers cheered him on until he scrambled over the wall and plopped down behind it.
Breathing hard, glad to be alive, he poked his head up. A Rebel with long gray hair and long beard, a man who looked like any of the other hundreds of Rebs, was coming toward the wall and right into Tom’s line of fire. But there was something familiar about this particular Reb, staying Tom’s hand from loading and firing. Instead he watched the man whirl in a circle and dive to his right when he spotted a Union soldier aiming his rifle at his head. The bullet whizzed past. The Reb lifted his rifle and shot the Federal in the shoulder, who fell to the ground screaming.
Unable to fire, Tom watched the Confederate push to his feet and duck just in time to keep from being clubbed by the stock of a Yankee rifle. He turned and swung his own rifle by the barrel and caught the Federal in the side of the head. The man crumpled to the ground.
The Reb fought like a mad man. He whirled, went down on one knee, and reloaded. He stood up and was looking in front of him when a bayonet was thrust into his thigh from behind. He dropped to his knees, screaming, before he whirled and shoved his own bayonet into the belly of his attacker—a boy as young as Collins or Baker!
Tom couldn’t watch any more. Union men were dying at the hands of this crazed rebel! It didn’t matter who he was, it was time to stop him! Tom had been so intent on watching he hadn’t reloaded. With an empty rifle he started toward the unknown, yet familiar, man his bayonet ready.
Tom worked his way through the dead and dying knowing the battle was nearly won, but this Reb was still killing and it was his turn to die. The moans of the men around him spurred him on to kill this Confederate still dealing death in this already lost battle.
He stood over the man, on his back on the ground, his eyes closed. Was he already dead? Or playing possum like they said back in Clarksville? Tom raised his bayonet, ready to drive it into the man’s chest, but again something stayed his hand. Something tugged at him, told him not to do it.
The Reb’s eyes opened—and Tom knew.