Although the children of God are called to abstain from carnal fighting, many times incidents from human warfare illustrate aspects of our spiritual warfare. This incident from the Civil War, related by Major Whittle, an officer of the Union army, was just such a one. Those of you who are history buffs, please excuse any historical inaccuracies. Songwriter Philip Bliss, upon hearing this story, was inspired to write a hymn, Hold the Fort.
It was in 1864 on the morning of October 5th—I’ll never forget that date—I think that was one of the closest shaves we ever had. I was assigned to the regiment commanded by General Corse. It was situated in a post surrounded by earthworks on a hill, on the crest of which was a small fort. The place was called Allatoona Pass, down near Atlanta. Everything seemed comparatively peaceful for a change, when suddenly, one of my sub officers came running up to me….
Lieutenant: Major Whittle, sir, Major Whittle!
Whittle: Well, yes, lieutenant?
Lieutenant: Come over here, sir!
Whittle: What is it? I can’t leave my station.
Lieutenant: The enemy, sir.
Lieutenant: Yes, sir! Thousands of them.
Whittle: Impossible! General Sherman is stationed over there, on that other hill, with his entire army.
Lieutenant: If you think it’s impossible, sir, you just come with me.
Whittle: Huh! Very well, come along, I’ll have a look.
Lieutenant: Take this spyglass, sir. Look over there, down in that valley.
Whittle: Hmm, you’re right, Lieutenant! I’ll tell General Corse at once.
Corse: Why, that can’t be, Major; it’s not possible!
Whittle: But it is, sir! There seems to be quite a sizable force out there.
Corse: But General Sherman….
Whittle: That’s what I thought, too, General Corse. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
Corse: Hmm, quite a force, you say?
Whittle: Yes, sir!
Corse: And here we are, with some of the most valuable supplies of the Union Army in our care, and only 1500 men to combat…[knock at the door]. Come. [a sergeant enters] Yes, Sergeant.
Sergeant: A confederate officer is approaching, sir. He’s bearing a white flag.
Corse: Oh, I see. Very well. Come on, Major Whittle. We’ll soon see what this is all about. [they come to the gate]. Open that gate to receive an officer of the enemy. Attention!
[a Confederate Captain comes galloping in on horseback, and reins up in front of the general]
Captain: General Corse?
Corse: I am General Corse.
Captain: I enter your fortification under terms of temporary truce, sir.
Captain: I bear the compliments of General French, commanding a brigade of 6,000 men of the Confederate Army. General French commands me to inform you, sir, that you are completely surrounded by his forces.
Corse: Surrounded? Any further word from General French?
Captain: Yes, sir. He bids me to command you to surrender, sir.
Corse: Hmm. I presume General French will not be surprised to hear of my irrevocable refusal.
Captain: I’m sure he won’t, sir.
Corse: You may tell General French that as long as there is a man of us alive, there will be no surrender.
Captain: I shall carry your message to him immediately, sir.
Corse: Uh, just before you leave….
Captain: Yes, sir?
Corse: Would you mind telling me how General French accomplished this maneuver?
Captain: Not at all, sir. General Hood passed the right flank of General Sherman’s federal forces yesterday, and gained the rear of his lines. Several of your garrisons have been destroyed, and the railroad to the north burned.
Corse: Major!… Go on, sir.
Captain: Naturally, General Sherman was forced to send his army after General Hood. While he was so occupied, General French made the left flank maneuver, and—well, sir, here we are.
Corse: Hmm. Yes, so I see. Very well, you may also communicate this to General French. The next move will be his.
Captain: I understand, sir. Thank you, sir. [gallops off]
Corse: Close the gate! Come with me, Major Whittle. Not that I doubt the word of that young Confederate Captain, but I’d just like to see for myself. We’ll go to the other side of the fort—simply to find out just how much we are surrounded.
Whittle: Yes, sir.
Corse: At ease, men! [they go to investigate] Well, well. So Sherman has been outwitted at last! Heh, heh.
Whittle: General Corse, sir! How can you laugh at a crisis like this?
Corse: Ah, yes. There they are, Major. The enemy.
Whittle: Thousands of them!
Corse: Uh, six thousand, I believe the captain said.
[the Confederates begin firing on their fortification]
Whittle: They’ve started firing, sir. What shall we do?
Corse: Do? Do! Why give the command to return the fire, of course.
Whittle: Yes, sir. [to another officer] Commence firing. [the order is passed on and the sounds of battle commence]
Throughout the long, harrowing day, the sharp fighting continued. With ever-decreasing ammunition and depleted forces, General Corse and his men were impelled to retreat to the small fort at the crest of the hill. There, they barricaded themselves within the cramped enclosure, to await what seemed to be an inevitable fate of death or capture. Then, as the worn and haggard regiment of General Corse fought on through that painfully disheartening October afternoon….
Whittle: General Corse, General Corse, sir.
Corse: Yes, what is it, Major?
Whittle: We can’t hold out much longer, sir.
Corse: Major Whittle, you heard what I told that young Confederate captain, that as long as there stood a man of us here in Allatoona Pass, there would be no surrender.
Whittle: I know, sir, but—
Corse: That’s enough of that, sir. You’re an officer of the Union, Major. Your duty is clear.
Whittle: I—I’m sorry, sir.
[a lieutenant calls]
Lieutenant: General Corse, sir!
Corse: Yes, Lieutenant.
Lieutenant: One of my men reported seeing a signal flag from that hill yonder, sir.
Corse: A signal? Where?
Lieutenant: Off to the south, sir. There!
Corse: Have you your glass, Major?
Whittle: Yes, sir.
Corse: Try to find that signal.
Whittle: Yes, sir. [pause] I see it, sir! I see it!
Corse: Signal light handy?
Whittle: Yes, sir.
Corse: Signal, we are ready to receive.
Whittle: Yes, sir. They are coming back with a message, General Corse.
Corse: Read it as they send. Men! Listen!
Whittle: S H E R M A N—T O—C O R S E—
Corse: Sherman to Corse! [men start cheering] Wait, men, wait!
Whittle: H O L D—T H E—F O R T—I—A M—C O M I N G.
Corse: Hold the fort, I am coming! [wild cheering]
Well, the rest of that October day wasn’t a pretty one. We still had more than three hours to wait. More than half of our garrison were killed or wounded. But at last, the advance guard of Sherman’s army came up, and the Confederate forces of General French retired in retreat.