In one of the fights before Atlanta, a rebel soldier, of large size, evidently a young man, was mortally wounded top of the head, so that the brains partially exuded. He lived three days, lying on his back on the spot where he first dropt. He dug with his heel in the ground during that time a hole big enough to put in a couple of ordinary knapsacks. He just lay there in the open air, and with little intermission kept his heel going night and day. Some of our soldiers then moved him to a house, but he died in a few minutes.
As I said, it's very straightforward and blunt. As you can see in the pictures on the right, a knapsack is not very large, but it is not very small, either. I point this out to say that it was no small accomplishment for this wounded soldier to dig a hole, with only the heel of his boot, large enough to fit two of these knapsacks. So, with that in mind, let's look a little closer at this text.
The campaign for Atlanta began on May 4, 1864 and ended on September 1 when General John Bell Hood abandoned the city followed by General Sherman's occupation. There is no way to know in which of the several fights before the occupation our rebel soldier was wounded, but one would think it would have to be in one of the skirmishes between May and early July, only because it would take some time for the story to reach Whitman in Washington. It really isn't important, other than to give some context and provide some detail to the scene of the tale.
The text is very haunting in its imagery. We see a stout Southern lad of probably 18 to 21 years of age lying on the ground with part of his skull blown off. His brain is exposed to the open air. When he falls to the ground, you can imagine that there is great shock, a) that he is still alive, and b) that he probably knows he is seriously wounded.
Our soldier's coping mechanism is the digging of this hole. I would imagine that he was in a great amount of pain and, like one wiggles down the dentist's chair, this was about all he could do to distract himself from it. What strikes me about this text is that despite it being so just-the-facts-ma'am, the soldier's suffering and situation is crystal clear. This soldier laid there for three days and two nights with part of his brain exposed to the elements and everything that crawls on the ground, digging a hole--quite possibly what he thought was his grave--with the heel of a well worn boot. None of his comrades came to take him to a camp for the wounded or to put him on a cart bound for a hospital, no one from the Union army came to help until moments before his death. All he could do was lay there and dig and patiently wait for death to come.
As is the case with many of these war writings, the heaviness of the text is sometimes suffocating. It is quite stunning that these relatively few words convey such hopelessness and suffering. This entry is a testament that the atrocities of the Civil War were so horrible that it only takes a few words to paint the scene.