The Color-Guard

Author: James Kendall Hosmer  | Date: 1864

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On the Firing Line (1863)


[June 16, 1863.] WE have had a battle. Not quite a week ago, we began to hear of it. . . . We knew nothing certain, however, until Saturday. (It is now Tuesday.) Toward the end of that afternoon, the explicit orders came. The assault was to be made the next morning, and our regiment was to have a share in it. We were not to go home without the baptism of fire and blood.

Before dark, we were ordered into line, and stacked our arms. Each captain made a little speech. "No talking in the ranks; no flinching.

Let every one see that his canteen is full, and that he has hard bread enough for a day. That is all you will carry beside gun and equipments." We left the guns in stack, polished, and ready to be caught on the instant; and lay down under the trees. At midnight came the cooks with coffee and warm food. Soon after came the order to move; then, slowly and with many halts, nearly four hundred strong, we took up our route along the wood-paths. Many other regiments were also in motion. The forest was full of Rembrandt pictures,—a bright blaze under a tree, the faces and arms of soldiers all aglow about it; the wheel of an army-wagon, or the brass of a cannon, lit up; then the gloom of the wood, and the night shutting down about it.

At length, it was daybreak. . . . We were now only screened from the rebel works by a thin hedge. Here the rifle-balls began to cut keen and sharp through the air about us; and the cannonade, as the east now began to redden, reached its height,—a continual deafening uproar, hurling the air against one in great waves, till it felt almost like a wall of rubber, bounding and rebounding from the body,—the great guns of the "Richmond," the siege-Parrotts, the smaller field-batteries; and, through all, the bursting of the shells within the rebel lines, and the keen, deadly whistle of well-aimed bullets. A few rods down the military road, the column paused. . . . The banks of the ravine rose on either side of the road in which we had halted: but just here the trench made a turn; and in front, at the distance of five or six hundred yards, we could plainly see the rebel rampart, red in the morning-light as with blood, and shrouded in white vapor along the edge as the sharpshooters behind kept up an incessant discharge. I believe I felt no sensation of fear, nor do I think those about me did. . . .

. . . We climb up the path. I go with my rifle between Wilson and Hardiker; keeping nearest the former, who carries the national flag. In a minute or two, the column has ascended, and is deploying in a long line, under the colonel’s eye, on the open ground. The rebel engineers are most skilful fellows. Between us and the brown earth-heap which we are to try to gain to-day, the space is not wide; but it is cut up in every direction with ravines and gullies. These were covered, until the parapet was raised, with a heavy growth of timber; but now it has all been cut down, so that in every direction the fallen tops of large trees interlace, trunks block up every passage, and brambles are growing over the whole. It is out of the question to advance here in line of battle; it seems almost out of the question to advance in any order: but the word is given, "Forward!" and on we go. Know that this whole space is swept by a constant patter of balls: it is really a "leaden rain." We go crawling mad stooping: but now and then before us rises in plain view the line of earth-works, smoky and sulphurous with volleys; while all about us fall the balls, now sending a lot of little splinters from a stump, now knocking the dead wood out of the old tree-trunk that is sheltering me, now driving up a cloud of dust from a little knoll, or cutting off the head of a weed just under the hand as with an invisible knife. . . . "Forward!" is the order. We all stoop; but the colonel does not stoop: he is as cool as he was in his tent last night, when I saw him drink iced lemonade. He turns now to examine the ground, then faces back again to direct the advance of this or that flank. Wilson springs on from cover to cover, and I follow close after him. It is hard work to get the flag along: it cannot be carried in the air; and we drag it and pass it from hand to hand among the brambles, much to the detriment of its folds. The line pauses a moment. Capt. Morton, who has risen from a sick-bed to be with his command, is coolly cautioning his company. The right wing is to remain in reserve, while the left pushes still farther forward. The major is out in front of us now. He stands upon a log which bridges a ravine,—a plain mark for the sharp-shooters, who overlook the position, not only from the parapet, but from the tall trees within the rebel works. Presently we move on again, through brambles and under charred trunks, tearing our way, and pulling after us the colors; creeping on our bellies across exposed ridges, where bullets hum and sing like stinging bees; and, right in plain view, the ridge of earth, its brow white with incessant volleys. . . .

. . . Down into our little nook now come tumbling a crowd of disorganized, panting men. They are part of a New-York regiment, who, on the crest just over us, have been meeting with very severe loss. They say their dead and dying are heaped up there. We believe it; for we can hear them, they are so near: indeed, some of those who come tumbling down are wounded; some have their gun-stocks broken by shot, and the barrels bent, while they are unharmed. They are frightened and exhausted, and stop to recover themselves; but presently thei officers come up, and order them forward again. From time to time, afterwards, wounded men crawl back from their position a few yards in front of where we are. . . .

. . . We began to know that the attack has failed. . . . We know nothing certainly. There are rumors, thick as the rifle-balls, of this general killed, that regiment destroyed, and successful attempts elsewhere. The sun goes down on this day of blood. We have lost several killed. . . .

At dusk, I creep back to the ravine, where I am to sleep. . . . For food to-day, I have had two or three hard crackers and cold potatoes. We have no blankets: so down I lie to sleep as I can on the earth, without covering; and, before morning, am chilled through with the dew and coldness of the air.

James K. Hosmer, (Boston, 1864), 187–195 passim.

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Chicago: James Kendall Hosmer, The Color-Guard in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed December 8, 2023,

MLA: Hosmer, James Kendall. The Color-Guard, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 8 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Hosmer, JK, The Color-Guard. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 8 December 2023, from