I See Through a Pink Mist

This letter was found in a sealed envelope in the papers of Henry Erastus Richmond, formerly of the New York Fourth Light Artillery. The envelope read, “To be opened by my children only after my passing and only in the event of war.” His children honored his request.

There is a prejudice in these parts against our misguided brethren from the South, and it derives from more than just our disagreement over secession. I will illustrate with an anecdote. When a solid round shot is fired from a battery against infantry in a field, it will skip along the ground like a rock on water and knock things down in its path much as a bowling ball does. It may appear to be moving slowly, as though one could catch it or knock it down by obstructing it. Doing so would be a mistake, as one of our Southern brethren discovered early in the war. You see, I have a friend who met this man in one of our hospitals. We will call my friend Bill and this Southern man John. When the two met, Bill was being treated for a minor flesh wound while John had a mangled leg that was to come off. The two got to talking and John confessed that he was to lose his leg and had been captured because, quoth he, “I am a damned ole fool. When the shootin started, I wanted to show them younger fellers that the balls and bullets wasn’t so bad. Along come a solid round ball a-bouncin over the field. It was movin so slow that I hollered, ‘Nothin to fear, boys!’ and I stuck out my right leg to knock it down. Well, it plum smashed my leg and I lay on that field in the hot sun all day until y’all come and fetch me. Still feel like a damned ole fool.”

And on this, we Unionists agree: you, Mr. John Reb, are a damned ole fool.


It is instinct for a man to duck when in an open field and suddenly subjected to an artillery barrage. But instinct is not reason. You have as much chance of having a shell fall on you in your prone position as you do of having one hit you bounding along while upright. Better to run and seek cover if survival is your only goal. Of course, survival is not the only goal of the infantryman, for he is frequently directed to cross open fields under artillery fire or he is directed to hold in place and wait for orders to march while artillery drops around him. I am told, but being an artilleryman myself cannot confirm, that it is an infantryman’s ultimate terror to sit still with little cover during an artillery barrage, particularly when his own artillery cannot answer.

Let us consider the horror tales that we have heard from our recent Civil War. Here is one from another of our unfortunate and misguided Southern brethren describing a moment at Second Bull Run:

I heard a thud on my right, as if one had been struck with a heavy fist. Looking around, I saw a man at my side standing erect, with his head off, a stream of blood spurting a foot or more from his neck. As I turned farther around, I saw three others lying on the ground, all killed by this cannon shot. The man standing was a captain . . . and his brains and blood bespattered the face and clothing of one in my company. This was the second time I saw four men killed by one shot. Each time the shot struck as it was descending—the first man had his head taken off, the next was shot through the breast, the next through the stomach, and the fourth had all his bowels torn out.

The description here serves to mortify, and many a man has been known to break from the ranks and run in terror as the shells fall around him. But fearing the artillery is not rational. One of our Southern artillerists on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg proclaimed that “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.” Indeed. Far more than a chicken survived, and most of those who didn’t were hit by rifle fire not battery fire. In a unit that loses forty percent in a battle, maybe twenty percent of those will be from artillery. And while the description above is ghoulish, the experience is far worse for the living than for the dead, for the man whose head is taken off is spared of suffering in an instant. Meanwhile, the man who suffers a minie ball to the thigh is likely to lose his leg, and if he takes sick, he will suffer in agony for days or weeks before succumbing. Now, I ask you: which way would you rather pass? Out with a bang, I always say.


It should go without saying, but I must note it anyway: artillery is powered by gunpowder and generates both fire and smoke. I point this out because I was in heavy action at the Battle of the Wilderness where the ground was covered in tangled thorn thickets and patches of scrub oak. We were around the Orange Plank Road, and being artillery, we provided fire support for the infantry. Naturally, because of the ground, we sent shells through the woods and thickets.

The positive for infantry in such situations is that the average man is unlikely to take a direct hit. We see far fewer tales of heads blown off or holes punched in torsos. The downside is that the shells shatter trees, which dump heavy limbs and splinters all over the men; the pieces distribute smoke ubiquitously, and the smoke gets trapped in the tangled landscape; and the guns’ blazes as well as the sparks that fly when shells hit trees start fires.

Here is Union artillerist Captain Frank Wilkeson explaining two different points near where I fought.

After Longstreet’s soldiers had driven the Second Corps into their intrenchments along the Brock Road, a battle-exhausted infantryman stood behind a large oak tree. His back rested against it. He was very tired, and held his rifle loosely in his hand. The Confederates were directly in our front. This soldier was apparently in perfect safety. A solid shot from a Confederate gun struck the oak tree squarely about four feet off the ground; but it did not have sufficient force to tear through the tough wood. The soldier fell dead. There was not a scratch on him. He died from concussion.

Such is the case with fighting in the woods. Generally, you are safer behind cover. Except when you are not. Now, on the matter of fires in the Wilderness, Captain Wilkeson notes this:

The wounded soldiers lay scattered among the trees. They moaned piteously….[They] were haunted with the dread of fire….I  saw many wounded soldiers in the Wilderness who hung on to their rifles, and whose intention was clearly stamped on their faces. I saw one man, both of whose legs were broken, lying on the ground with his cocked rifle by his side and his ramrod in his hand, and his eyes set on the front. I knew he meant to kill himself in case of fire–knew it as surely as though I could read his thoughts.

I advise that you not fight on equal terms in woods. They make for excellent ambush points, but the wretched ways to die are too numerous to name. If you must fight in woods, I advise that you carry a side piece or that you have a spare bullet for your main piece and that said bullet be held in reserve for one reason and one reason only: fire.


Legion are the stories of men storming a battery and then getting a blast of canister in their faces. I confess to being mystified by this. I will grant that it is essential for combatants to seize each other’s artillery, but the direct storming of a working battery is the most foolhardy of all exercises in assaults of fixed positions. Allow me to refresh the reader’s memory with an understanding of canister.

Canister is an anti-infantry projectile that is, essentially, a tin can filled with metal shards. When it is fired from an artillery piece, the can disintegrates, and the shards spray like buckshot from a shotgun. Except from a much bigger gun with a much wider range and with far deadlier force.

After our work was done at the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, we found an entire battery shot down in place—horses dead under their yokes, drivers dead in the wagon, men slumped over their piece, other men dead in place at the box of charges.

This is how you take a battery—kill its horses and men, and the gun will be yours if you so desire.

Let us now review the consequences of storming an operating battery. In the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee,

A drummer boy from Missouri, a 15-year-old Confederate, ran up to one of the cannons and stuffed the mouth of one of the cannons with a split rail from a cedar fence. It’s said they fired the gun and the drummer boy exploded like a ripe tomato in a puff of pink mist . . .


My dear children, I hope that you never have occasion to read this letter, but our great country was forged in fire and has been in near constant combat since its inception. Hence, I cannot help but think that your generation may face trials similar to those faced by mine. I have never detailed the things I saw nor recounted the nightmares I had, and even with this, I tell you those of others and withhold mine. I hope that the Lord our God may spare you such experiences and the need of this letter, but if He does not, I hope you will find this advice useful, as they do not teach you such lessons in training. I further hope that you are spared those scenes that are forever etched in my mind, that come alive with the roll of thunder or in the moments just after I have slipped from the day’s light, when my mind wanders and my vision is darkened and my hearing fades to the sound of a low hiss and I see through a glass covered in pink mist.

%d bloggers like this: