A Civil War soldier’s terrifying nightmare reflected chaos of the battlefield

As the fighting swirled near Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, Private Charles Johnson found himself trapped in a disastrous situation. His unit, Hawkin’s Zoauves, approached the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland when a Confederate counterattack stunned the Union Army and sent it reeling backwards.

In the chaos of battle, Private Johnson witnessed a horrible sight that deeply unnerved him. “A projectile came along with its deafening death-cry, and took [a soldier] right in the groin, severing his limbs completely from his body,” wrote Johnson in his diary. “If I could have heard his shriek, it would not have been so horrible, but to see him seize at his limbs, and fall back with a terrible look of agony, without being able to catch a sound from him – Oh God! May I never be doomed to witness such a sight again!”

Charles Johnson Self Portrait
Private Charles F. Johnson’s self-portrait in his Zoauve uniform

Confederate forces under the command of General A.P. Hill swept onto the battlefield and wreaked havoc on advancing Federal troops. In the confusion, an officer in the Johnson’s 9th New York mistook Confederate infantry for friendly troops and ordered his men not to fire. He quickly realized his mistake when bullets began tearing through the ranks of the New Yorkers.

In these desperate moments, Johnson found himself suddenly alone between his regiment and a neighboring unit. His bright red fez cap attracted the attention of Confederate infantrymen just a few hundred yards away.

“I was warned in a polite strain… by the hissing of two “Minie” balls as they came in rather too close proximity to my head, and as if to convince me that it was an earnest game, the third arrived,” Johnson recorded. “Lower than the first, higher than the second, skipping along the ground with an angry noise, it entered my flesh sideways in the left hip, causing a sensation from which I might with reason think my whole side was annihilated.”

The young soldier let out a shout as the bullet impacted, which he later regretted. “Had the wound been mortal, I would have died uttering with my last word a horrible curse.”

After the stunning impact, Johnson found he could stand and hobbled to the rear in search of medical attention. He ducked and dodged as bullets and shells raked the field. He sought cover beneath the folds of the battleground as he approached Antietam Creek. He took time to examine his own wound, and found that the offending bullet lodged itself just beneath his skin and had not caused serious injury.

Antietam Bridge
Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam, as sketched by Private Charles F. Johnson (The Long Roll)

As he reached a hospital feeling dispirited and faint from blood loss, the sights he witnessed chilled him further and left a lasting impression of the human horror of Antietam. “There were already over a hundred of our boys alone, lying on straw and cornstalks, with wounds of all imaginable shapes and sizes,” Johnson observed. “Our tireless Doctor Humphreys and his assistants were very busy, I can tell you, bandaging, sewing, and cutting human flesh. The sights were terrible, but the sounds were more so…”

When the hospital came under a brief artillery barrage, Johnson and the others in the hospital were evacuated to the rear. And that’s where Private Johnson settled down to rest after a day filled with unimaginable visions and unforgettable sounds. But, with the bullet still lodged in his hip, sleep did not come easy to him. In his fitful slumber, the sickening events of September 17, 1862 played again in the dreams of the young New Yorker. He recorded his ghastly nightmare:

Slept a little last night, and was troubled by a dream in which demons, rattlesnakes, Hell, brimstone, cannon-balls and railroad iron, bayonets and pitchforks, powder and smoke were all conglomerated into one shapeless, endless whirl, with me in the midst, though suffering no particular harm. I finally woke up with a severe cramp in my stomach…

After waking from his fitful slumber, Johnson called on an assistant surgeon who walked among the wounded soldiers. “I showed him where I felt the ball and his butcher knife was out in a twinkling… What was my surprise when the soft-handed little Doctor showed me a good-sized ‘Minie’ ball before I even thought I felt the incision of his sharp-edged tool…” Johnson wrote. “After this easy operation, the wound was dressed and bandaged, and I felt better, of course.”

Charles Johnson Photo
A post-war image of Charles Johnson.

Charles Johnson was evacuated from the battlefield later that month and taken to Frederick, Maryland. Beneath Frederick’s famed “clustered spires,” wounded soldiers were collected before being sent on to hospital facilities in coastal cities. Johnson’s recovery went smoothly, but slowly. He returned to his regiment in February 1863 and was discharged later that year. He returned home to New York City, happy to leave the battlefield behind him.

“The vividness of wartime dreams made an indelible mark on nearly all who kept a record of them,” writes historian Jonathan W. White in his book Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War. “Nightmares of battle could be as jarring as dreams of home were pleasant.” Johnson’s nightmare on the night of the Battle of Antietam is the only dream recorded in his diary covering more than three years of service in the Union Army. There are no doubts it left a lasting impression and followed him into civilian life.

Featured Image: Union troops fighting at Antietam (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

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