A Classic Piece For Veteran‚s Day...
There were moments of waiting. The youth thought of the
village street at home before the arrival of the circus
parade on a day in the spring. He remembered how he had
stood, a small, thrillful boy, prepared to follow the
dingy lady upon the white horse, or the band in its faded
chariot. He saw the yellow road, the lines of expectant
people, and the sober houses. He particularly remembered
an old fellow who used to sit upon a cracker box in front
of the store and feign to despise such exhibitions. A
thousand details of color and form surged in his mind.
The old fellow upon the cracker box appeared in middle
Some one cried, „Here they come!‰
There was rustling and muttering among the men. They displayed
a feverish desire to have every possible cartridge ready
to their hands. The boxes were pulled around into various
positions, and adjusted with great care. It was as if
seven hundred new bonnets were being tried on.
The tall soldier, having prepared his rifle, produced
a red handkerchief of some kind. He was engaged in knotting
it about his throat with exquisite attention to its position,
when the cry was repeated up and down the line in a muffled
roar of sound.
„Here they come! Here they come!‰ Gun locks
Across the smoke-infested fields came a brown swarm of
running men who were giving shrill yells. They came on,
stooping and swinging their rifles at all angles. A flag,
tilted forward, sped near the front.
As he caught sight of them the youth was momentarily startled
by a thought that perhaps his gun was not loaded. He stood
trying to rally his faltering intellect so that he might
recollect the moment when he had loaded, but he could
A hatless general pulled his dripping horse to a stand
near the colonel of the 304th. He shook his fist in the
other‚s face. „You‚ve got to hold Œem
back!‰ he shouted, savagely; „you‚ve
got to hold Œem back!‰
In his agitation the colonel began to stammer. „A-all
r-right, General, all right, by Gawd! We-we Œll do
our˜we-we Œll d-d-do-do our best, General.‰
The general made a passionate gesture and galloped away.
The colonel, perchance to relieve his feelings, began
to scold like a wet parrot. The youth, turning swiftly
to make sure that the rear was unmolested, saw the commander
regarding his men in a highly resentful manner, as if
he regretted above everything his association with them.
The man at the youth‚s elbow was mumbling, as if
to himself: „Oh, we Œre in for it now! oh,
we Œre in for it now!‰
The captain of the company had been pacing excitedly to
and fro in the rear. He coaxed in schoolmistress fashion,
as to a congregation of boys with primers. His talk was
an endless repetition. „Reserve your fire, boys˜don‚t
shoot till I tell you˜save your fire˜wait till
they get close up˜don‚t be damned fools˜‰
Perspiration streamed down the youth‚s face, which
was soiled like that of a weeping urchin. He frequently,
with a nervous movement, wiped his eyes with his coat
sleeve. His mouth was still a little ways ope.
He got the one glance at the foe-swarming field in front
of him, and instantly ceased to debate the question of
his piece being loaded. Before he was ready to begin˜before
he had announced to himself that he was about to fight˜he
threw the obedient well-balanced rifle into position and
fired a first wild shot. Directly he was working at his
weapon like an automatic affair.
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look
at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member.
He felt that something of which he was a part--a regiment,
an army, a cause, or a country˜was in crisis. He
was welded into a common personality which was dominated
by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee
no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from
If he had thought the regiment was about to be annihilated
perhaps he could have amputated himself from it. But its
noise gave him assurance. The regiment was like a firework
that, once ignited, proceeds superior to circumstances
until its blazing vitality fades. It wheezed and banged
with a mighty power. He pictured the ground before it
as strewn with the discomfited.
There was a consciousness always of the presence of his
comrades about him. He felt the subtle battle brotherhood
more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.
It was a mysterious fraternity born of the smoke and danger
Presently he began to feel the effects of the war
atmosphere˜a blistering sweat, a sensation that his
eyeballs were about to crack like hot stones. A burning
roar filled his ears.
Following this came a red rage. He developed the acute
exasperation of a pestered animal, a well-meaning cow
worried by dogs. He had a mad feeling against his rifle,
which could only be used against one life at a time. He
wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers.
He craved a power that would enable him to make a world-sweeping
gesture and brush all back. His impotency appeared to
him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast.
Buried in the smoke of many rifles his anger was directed
not so much against the men whom he knew were rushing
toward him as against the swirling battle phantoms which
were choking him, stuffing their smoke robes down his
parched throat. He fought frantically for respite for
his senses, for air, as a babe being smothered attacks
the deadly blankets.
There was a blare of heated rage mingled with a certain
expression of intentness on all faces. Many of the men
were making low-toned noises with their mouths, and these
subdued cheers, snarls, imprecations, prayers, made a
wild, barbaric song that went as an undercurrent of sound,
strange and chantlike with the resounding chords of the
war march. The man at the youth‚s elbow was babbling.
In it there was something soft and tender like the monologue
of a babe. The tall soldier was swearing in a loud voice.
From his lips came a black procession of curious oaths.
Of a sudden another broke out in a querulous way like
a man who has mislaid his hat. „Well, why don‚t
they support us? Why don‚t they send supports? Do
The youth in his battle sleep heard this as one who dozes
There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men
bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every
impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged
with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into
the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes
were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each
movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the
shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke
or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon
the field before the regiment had been growing larger
and larger like puppets under a magician‚s hand.
The officers, at their intervals, rearward, neglected
to stand in picturesque attitudes. They were bobbing to
and fro roaring directions and encouragements. The dimensions
of their howls were extraordinary. They expended their
lungs with prodigal wills. And often they nearly stood
upon their heads in their anxiety to observe the enemy
on the other side of the tumbling smoke.
The lieutenant of the youth's company had encountered
a soldier who had fled screaming at the first volley of
his comrades. Behind the lines these two were acting a
little isolated scene. The man was blubbering and staring
with sheeplike eyes at the lieutenant, who had seized
him by the collar and was pommeling him. He drove him
back into the ranks with many blows. The soldier went
mechanically, dully, with his animal-like eyes upon the
officer. Perhaps there was to him a divinity expressed
in the voice of the other - stern, hard, with no reflection
of fear in it. He tried to reload his gun, but his shaking
hands prevented. The lieutenant was obliged to assist
The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain
of the youth‚s company had been killed in an early
part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the
position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there
was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought
some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man
was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely
down his face. He clapped both hand to his head. "Oh!"
he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had
been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and
gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite
reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a
tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately
he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both
arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and
crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold
upon the tree.
At last an exultant yell went along the quivering line.
The firing dwindled from an uproar to a last vindictive
popping. As the smoke slowly eddied away, the youth saw
that the charge had been repulsed. The enemy were scattered
into reluctant groups. He saw a man climb to the top of
the fence, straddle the rail, and fire a parting shot.
The waves had receded, leaving bits of dark "debris"
upon the ground.
Some in the regiment began to whoop frenziedly. Many were
silent. Apparently they were trying to contemplate themselves.
After the fever had left his veins, the youth thought
that at last he was going to suffocate. He became aware
of the foul atmosphere in which he had been struggling.
He was grimy and dripping like a laborer in a foundry.
He grasped his canteen and took a long swallow of the
A sentence with variations went up and down the line.
"Well, we've helt 'em back. We've helt 'em back;
derned if we haven't." The men said it blissfully,
leering at each other with dirty smiles.
The youth turned to look behind him and off to the right
and off to the left. He experienced the joy of a man who
at last finds leisure in which to look about him.
Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless.
They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent
and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that
the dead men must have fallen from some great height to
get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out
upon the ground from the sky.
From a position in the rear of the grove a battery was
throwing shells over it. The flash of the guns startled
the youth at first. He thought they were aimed directly
at him. Through the trees he watched the black figures
of the gunners as they worked swiftly and intently. Their
labor seemed a complicated thing. He wondered how they
could remember its formula in the midst of confusion.
The guns squatted in a row like savage chiefs. They argued
with abrupt violence. It was a grim pow-wow. Their busy
servants ran hither and thither.
A small procession of wounded men were going drearily
toward the rear. It was a flow of blood from the torn
body of the brigade.
To the right and to the left were the dark lines of other
troops. Far in front he thought he could see lighter masses
protruding in points from the forest. They were suggestive
of unnumbered thousands.
Once he saw a tiny battery go dashing along the line of
the horizon. The tiny riders were beating the tiny horses.
From a sloping hill came the sound of cheerings and clashes.
Smoke welled slowly through the leaves.
Batteries were speaking with thunderous oratorical effort.
Here and there were flags, the red in the stripes dominating.
They splashed bits of warm color upon the dark lines of
The youth felt the old thrill at the sight of the emblems.
They were like beautiful birds strangely undaunted in
As he listened to the din from the hillside, to a deep
pulsating thunder that came from afar to the left, and
to the lesser clamors which came from many directions,
it occurred to him that they were fighting, too, over
there, and over there, and over there. Heretofore he had
supposed that all the battle was directly under his nose.
As he gazed around him the youth felt a flash of astonishment
at the blue, pure sky and the sun gleamings on the trees
and fields. It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly
on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.
The Red Badge of Courage, Ch. 5