I began a discussion here about the Whitworth Rifle used as a sniping arm by both sides in the American Civil War. I promised an excerpt from An Eternity of Four Years that featured Ethan “interacting” with that rifle. Here it is. The scene takes place during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
I left Pepper in the care of Blue at the Johnson home and made my way down South Stratton Street to find Hays. Aware of the threat of the sharpshooters, as I got closer to Winebrenner’s Run, I moved more cautiously from cover to cover to present as small a target as possible for them to take any interest in. At the end of South Stratton, I asked some Rebs taking potshots at Cemetery Hill from an abandoned building where I could find General Hays.
“He is in Winebrenner’s Run, sir. You ain’t planning on going down there are ya?”
“You sure you need to do that, Captain? They’ll be takin’ shots at ya with them Whitworth rifles with the telescopic sights all the way down to the run. You’ll be a big fat target from here on.” He gestured towards the back corner of the building, and I saw a dead Confederate slumped against the wall with the top of his head shot away. “Ask him; he’ll tell you. He stuck his head out to just have a little peek, and splat! Them Whitworths are deadly. You’ll know when you have been shot at by one, ‘cause the bullet makes a shrill whistling sound on account of its hexagon rifling.”
That was sobering.
I nodded, and he shook his head. “It’s your funeral.”
I took several deep breaths to steel myself to run the “Whitworth gauntlet.” No use waiting any longer, I thought and pushed off. I had at least sixty paces of open ground exposed to observation from Cemetery Hill before I had any more cover, a small shed sitting forlornly out in the open. I was not even halfway there, when a ball kicked up dirt not two paces past me. Before I was to the little shed, a shot went past near my head, making the shrill whistling sound just described to me. Any slower, and I would have been hit. I reached the shed just as another round chipped wood splinters from its edge.
Some of the boys down in the run saw me coming under fire and began to cheer. I sank down behind the shed to catch my breath. For good measure, one of the Yanks put a round through the flimsy little building to remind me of the difference between cover and concealment. The ball whistled through the wooden structure right over my head. Had I been standing instead of crouching down as I was, I would be dead.
I peeked around the building to see my next objective, and they put a ball into the edge of my little shed just as I withdrew my head. I was most impressed with both their rifles and their shooting skills. I did see enough to know this next leg was going to be a long one. There was a sizable oak tree about ninety paces away. I took two deep breaths and then stuck my head around the left side of the shed to draw their attention but quickly withdrew it and ran around the other side and headed for my oak tree.
The ruse worked. They put three balls into the edge of the building where I had stuck my head out, but they were not prepared for me to show myself at the other side. I ran like I was headed for the Baltimore Pike then cut back in the other direction. They fired two more shots at me just as I changed directions. I made it to the tree as another ball chipped bark off its side. The stout oak was more than concealment; it was cover. The cheering from Winebrenner’s Run grew louder as others joined in, but I was getting tired.
One last dash left to go. This one was only about forty paces and then the relative safety of the run’s high sides. Even though I was getting winded, I could not afford to wait and allow the Yankee sharpshooters time to reload, so I took one quick breath and broke from behind my tree and headed for the run. I ran left then zigzagged right, then left again with balls hitting all around me. As I neared Winebrenner’s Run and leaped into the air to clear some brush on its bank, I felt a ball tear through my shell jacket. I landed in a heap against the far side of the run and pulled myself up against its protection as close as I could get. Cheers went up and down the line. I even heard a cheer from the Yankees on Cemetery Hill.
I examined myself to make sure I had not been perforated and only found entry and exit holes in my shell jacket but none in me.
“They ventilated your jacket, Captain?” asked a familiar voice. I looked up and realized I had landed almost in Hays’ lap.
“My apologies, sir. With the compliments of General Ewell…”