Read CHAPTER III of An Echo Of Antietam 1898, free online book, by Edward Bellamy, on ReadCentral.com.

There was to be a great battle the next day.  The two armies had been long manoeuvring for position, and now they stood like wrestlers who have selected their holds and, with body braced against body, knee against knee, wait for the signal to begin the struggle.  There had been during the afternoon some brisk fighting, but a common desire to postpone the decisive contest till the morrow had prevented the main forces from becoming involved.  Philip’s regiment had thus far only been engaged in a few trifling skirmishes, barely enough to stir the blood.  This was to be its first battle, and the position to which it had been allotted promised a bloody baptism in the morning.  The men were in excellent heart, but as night settled down, there was little or no merriment to be heard about the camp-fires.  Most were gathered in groups, discussing in low tones the chances of the morrow.  Some, knowing that every fibre of muscle would be needed for the work before them, had wisely gone to sleep, while here and there a man, heedless of the talk going on about him, was lying on his back staring up at the darkening sky, thinking.

As the twilight deepened, Philip strolled to the top of a little knoll just out of the camp and sat down, with a vague notion of casting up accounts a little in view of the final settlement which very possibly might come for him next day.  But the inspiration of the scene around him soon diverted his mind from personal engrossments.  Some distance down the lines he could see the occasional flash of a gun, where a battery was lazily shelling a piece of woods which it was desirable to keep the enemy from occupying during the night.  A burning barn in that direction made a flare on the sky.  Over behind the wooded hills where the Confederates lay, rockets were going up, indicating the exchange of signals and the perfecting of plans which might mean defeat and ruin to him and his the next day.  Behind him, within the Federal lines, clouds of dust, dimly outlined against the glimmering landscape, betrayed the location of the roads along which artillery, cavalry, infantry were hurrying eagerly forward to take their assigned places for the morrow’s work.

Who said that men fear death?  Who concocted that fable for old wives?  He should have stood that night with Philip in the midst of a host of one hundred and twenty-five thousand men in the full flush and vigor of life, calmly and deliberately making ready at dawn to receive death in its most horrid forms at one another’s hands.  It is in vain that Religion invests the tomb with terror, and Philosophy, shuddering, averts her face; the nations turn from these gloomy teachers to storm its portals in exultant hosts, battering them wide enough for thousands to charge through abreast.  The heroic instinct of humanity with its high contempt of death is wiser and truer, never let us doubt, than superstitious terrors or philosophic doubts.  It testifies to a conviction, deeper than reason, that man is greater than his seeming self; to an underlying consciousness that his mortal life is but an accident of his real existence, the fashion of a day, to be lightly worn and gayly doffed at duty’s call.

What a pity it truly is that the tonic air of battlefields-the air that Philip breathed that night before Antietam-cannot be gathered up and preserved as a precious elixir to reinvigorate the atmosphere in times of peace, when men grow faint of heart and cowardly, and quake at thought of death.

The soldiers huddled in their blankets on the ground slept far more soundly that night before the battle than their men-folk and women-folk in their warm beds at home.  For them it was a night of watching, a vigil of prayers and tears.  The telegraph in those days made of the nation an intensely sensitive organism, with nerves a thousand miles long.  Ere its echoes had died away, every shot fired at the front had sent a tremor to the anxious hearts at home.  The newspapers and bulletin boards in all the towns and cities of the North had announced that a great battle would surely take place the next day, and, as the night closed in, a mighty cloud of prayer rose from innumerable firesides, the self-same prayer from each, that he who had gone from that home might survive the battle, whoever else must fall.

The wife, lest her own appeal might fail, taught her cooing baby to lisp the father’s name, thinking that surely the Great Father’s heart would not be able to resist a baby’s prayer.  The widowed mother prayed that if it were consistent with God’s will he would spare her son.  She laid her heart, pierced through with many sorrows, before Him.  She had borne so much, life had been so hard, her boy was all she had to show for so much endured,-might not this cup pass?  Pale, impassioned maids, kneeling by their virgin beds, wore out the night with an importunity that would not be put off.  Sure in their great love and their little knowledge that no case could be like theirs, they beseeched God with bitter weeping for their lovers’ lives, because, forsooth, they could not bear it if hurt came to them.  The answers to many thousands of these agonizing appeals of maid and wife and mother were already in the enemy’s cartridge-boxes.