A Lurid, Horizontal Volume of Flame
The headline in The Chattanooga Gazette:
The Whole Eighteenth Missouri Regiment Stunned and Blinded - Two Men Killed and Eighteen Severely Wounded
Just what caused these casualties? A Confederate artillery barrage? An explosion in camp? Bad cooking leading to uncontrollable outbreaks of flatulence?
The Eighteenth Missouri, a three years regiment organized at Laclede, Missouri on November 14th, 1861, began its formation in August under command of fifty-year-old Mercer County, Pennsylvania native Colonel Madison Miller. Miller had seen service as a captain in the First Missouri Infantry before transferring to Battery I, First Missouri Light Artillery.
The Eighteenth would see heavy action at Shiloh, where Colonel Miller was captured (and later exchanged). By the early months of 1864, the regiment had been mounted, and then would see action at Resaca and other actions during the Atlanta Campaign. The regiment was now led by Charles S. Sheldon, who had been born in Morristown, New Jersey. In mid-July the Eighteenth found itself in camp near Rossville Georgia. It was here that a "lurid, horizontal volume of flame" ripped through the camp.
A most remarkable stroke of lightning occurred in the Camp Fuller Brigade, near Rossville, Ga., July 14, 1864, killing and wounding about fifteen soldiers, and killing and shocking severely several teams, & description of which may be interesting to your readers.
Mr. Pollock, regimental wagonmaster, a scientific gentleman, who observed the beginning of the storm closely, relates that at about 6 o'clock P. M, the heavy clouds gathering in the west divided, and one part passing southward and the other passing northward, both emitting lightning and rain, and finally coming together again right over the Sixteenth Army Corps, camped on the hills on the south bank of the Chattahoochee, at Rossville bridge. At the moment of the union of the two clouds, the most vivid and incessant flashes of lightning were emitted, followed by thunder peals almost equaling our own cannon, with deafening, stunning, almost appalling effect.
The discharge that did the principal damage in the Eighteenth Missouri Infantry, an observer relates, descended from the cloud at a very low altitude, and shot across the road, a lurid, horizontal volume of flame, about the thickness of a man's body. It struck a tall oak about ninety feet high and thirty inches thick, on a high point of ground, and descended, splitting it from the heart, but throwing no splinters. At the base of the tree, where a large number of soldiers had bivouacked, the fluid seemed to leave the tree and its roots and dart out in every direction in a great number of lurid jets, similar to those of a large mass of pig iron at a white heat under the trip hammer, except, instead of flying in sparks, they were in continuous streams. All this was only the work of an instant. Nearly the whole regiment was stunned and blinded. Many lay shocked to insensibility. A whole six-mule team, at the distance of twenty yards, were thrown down. Just at this juncture the discharge of the cloud seemed to strike in rapid succession at other places in the brigade, I have since learned, killing and wounding men and animals,
Now for a description of freaks. Those little jets running from the trunk of the column of the electric fluid, something like the roots and fine rootlets of a large tree, penetrating everything they came in contact with, more penetrating than a bullet; and some of them were no larger than a knitting needle. In their punctures they made no indentation like a bullet, but burst their way. Everything they touched - blankets, clothing, hair, skin, paper, &c., - had the appearance of vitriol sprinkled over them. The appearance of the vicinity generally was that of a large quantity of vitriol having burst and sprinkled in fine jets around. I examined one soldier's knapsack and contents. One little jet, about the size of a buckshot, had entered it, penetrated 20 folds of his blanket, penetrated through his portfolio. through letters, envelopes, quires of paper, daguerreotypes and the brass clasp of his portfolio. Several men were burned, and the appearance of the skin is like that of scalding water having run from the head to the heels, singing hair, and burning the skin to a blister, and in some instances deep into the flesh.
Eight guns standing by the tree were discharged without injury to the guns. Corporal John Taylor, Company I, and private John Hensel, Company L were killed. Eight members of the same company were severely burned. Those near the tree received currents of fluid, which ran along bodies. Those at a distance bore the appearance on their skins of having stood in the spatters and corruscations of molten iron from a trip-hammer. Three men of the Second United States Battery were killed. A white four mule team, with driver and a negro man, on the opposite side of the river, were killed.
Examining the topography of the country, I am of the opinion that the vast number of arms, muskets and steel cannon, drew those two clouds together over that spot, as it was no higher than many other hills in their course in the vicinity. The clouds passed low in their whole route for miles, but did not unite nor discharge until arriving over the Sixteenth corps, which was camped close together.
Yours, WM. HEMPSTREET.
Captain Eighteenth Missouri Infantry.