Skip to main content.


This is the archive for December 2006

Monday, December 25, 2006

Middleboro Gazette and Old Colony Advertiser, Saturday January 11, p. 2, column 4


Camp Barnes, Hall’s Hill, Va
Jan. 5, 1862

Mr. Editor,

Will have the kindness – through the columns of the Gasette – to express to the Ladies of the Soldier’s Aid Society, and others of our Middleboro friends, the grateful acknowledgments of myself and command, for this bountiful “Christmas Dinner” provided for and forwarded to us by them, and which, though not received in searson for discussion on the day intended, was none the less highly appreciated at a later date.

The mittens and other articles were also opportune in their arrival, and are now doing good service in protecting us from Virginia frosts, which at times are as piercing as those of New England. These, and similar expressions of regard, of which the members of Co. D, have so often been the recipients are, I hardly need say, prized not only for their intrinsic value and as promoting our health and comfort, but from their associations and as tokens of remembrance from those at home – friends to whom it may not be the privilege of us all again to extend the greeting hand, but whose sympathy with, and efforts in aid of the cause of right, will not pass unrewarded.

S. Thomas, Capt. Co. D

Thursday, December 21, 2006


What quality mercy for the wounded and dying? Which cries touch the hearts of those within earshot? What moves one and not others toward compassion? What steels the conscience to revel in the dead and strip them naked? Which cries are most often repeated from the muck of mud, blood, and human fiber? The cries for a God, a wife, a mother, or water? Who is alive and who is dead? The dead do not move and neither do the living for a night, through a day, and on until darkness falls again. This, the aftermath of Fredericksburg, and they are the Union dead, the Union dying, the Union wounded, and the Union living. They are the decapitated dead, the wide-eyed dead, the dead with exposed entrails, and the dead whose hearts have been penetrated by a minie ball and, strangely, whose lips form into a smile. Arms and legs once part of a whole now scattered like twigs broken off from a tree. Entire branches from family trees that have passed from a present and the promise of a future into a netherworld where future never was to be. This is the aftermath, a trash heap of sorrow and broken humanity, a smorgasbord for rooting pigs.

Did a man whose side whiskers become a declaration of fashion “throw the bones” on the head of a drum, or read tea leaves in his morning cup, or tarot cards, or lines in the palm of his hand? Did he interpret an oracle or gaze into a crystal sphere before he sent his glistening massed bayonets against a wall, against artillery so arrayed a single chicken could not have survived to scratch the ground? Did the heavens speak to him of victory, of Franklin’s left rolling up Jackson’s right, of breaking through to a sunken road and ascending higher and beyond to Richmond? One more brigade and it is ours, one more brigade and it may be ours, one more brigade and it may be, one more brigade and it may, one more brigade…until there are no more to urge forward for flag, for cause, for country. And there a voice whispers the knowledge from civilizations and empires extinct, that it is well we witness such realities, of splintered dead and shattered dying in unfiltered sunlight, lest our appetite for sending more of the living to their heaven or hell grows increasingly more ravenous.

Sunday, December 10th

They were Irish lads, émigrés and first generation born, members of a vaunted Brigade who once stood where now we stand. The hands of re-enactors from Company B of the 28th Massachusetts take boxwood sprigs and affix them to their kepis. Their eyes glance downward as Francis Augustin O’Reilly recites words aged by 144 years of history, words of Col. Thomas Francis Meagher that carried along the banks of the Rappahannock. Addressing the 88th New York Infantry, Meagher’s words ring clear and concise. “In a few moments you will engage the enemy in a most terrible battle, which will probably decide the fate of this glorious, great and grand country – the home of your adoption!…and I know this day you will strike a deadly blow…and bring back to this distracted country its former prestige and glory…If I fall, I can say I did my duty, and fell fighting in the most glorious of causes.” In keeping with the events of December 13, 1862, these modern day keepers of the flame remove their knapsacks and deposit them on the ground before reforming, snapping to attention, and facing right.

Company B, in column by twos, marches north on Sophia Street, trailed by a throng of spectators who have come to hear the words, and pauses after 200 yards. Here, O’Reilly, as he has done year after year, tells of men who fall victim to screeching shells whistling down the thoroughfares of the city, Confederate gunners using the steeples of churches as their guidance system. This is a place where doubt and fear joust with courage and a willingness to go on, where words must reassure and give courage back to the faint and the most doubtful that courage exists inside. It is the place where they first see survivors of the waiting carnage making for the rear, where a leg dangling by a single tendon off the side of a shutter, on which rests the maimed, is severed with the stroke of a blade and falls to the ground with a thump. It is the same place that a man loses his head, to a cannonball, and continues to stand at attention until the knees slowly give way and the body sinks to a frozen upright position.

Now onward, the tramp of brogans on the pavement, the quieter footsteps of those who follow, further north on Sophia, until ordered left onto George Street. Upward past Caroline Street, past churches on corners, past traffic that has halted to honor this funeral procession’s passing, until we pause again at the Corporation Cemetery grounds. This place, as O’Reilly describes, is the last refuge, the last protected pocket in the city before the vaunted Brigade will emerge from comparative safety onto an exposed killing field.

The re-enactors pick up their march and we our walk, but we cannot see Marye’s Heights, our view blocked by the cluster of houses. The vaunted Brigade would have had an unobstructed view, a clear sight of what had transpired, of what was happening then, of what awaited them. There was no hesitation in their step and certainly not in ours, but we ask ourselves now, would we have hesitated where they did not. Were our sights fixed on the same images as theirs would we have been willing to sacrifice on the same level? Were we 1200 strong, and knowing that only 250 of our number would return to the city unharmed, would we have continued onward? We trust we would have without knowing the truth of where our own courage lies.

Now we are closer, where once a sluice ran through this city. On that day it was eight feet wide, seven feet deep, and filled with four feet of water, to be crossed one man at a time by tight rope walking across narrow wooden stringers. For those who could not maintain their balance, there was a headlong plunge and drenching, while for a whole regiment came the order to wade in and cross to the other side. For half an hour the vaunted Brigade tight roped, plunged, and waded until they finally reformed and turned their attention to the object of the Union army’s desires.

The wall is still unseen, still blocked from view, but the next stop is to where men, who were still able to do so, retreated and took shelter from the storm behind a slight, barely perceptible rise in the ground. It was here on the flats of their bellies that the prostrated cried to those marching past to “Lie down! Lie down!” But the marchers marched into the breech, insistent that with one more brigade it would be ours, with one more brigade it may be ours…

At two o’clock a crowd gathered in a park where a statue dedicated to Sgt.Richard Rowland Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry stands. Kirkland provided a quality of mercy, heeding the cries of dying Union soldiers, by leaving the safety of the Sunken Road and ministering to the wounded, anointing their parched throats with water from a canteen. His act of mercy drew no fire from his enemy for in the quality of his mercy there were no foes.

Cricket Pohanka, the widow of Brian, a noted Civil War historian who died at Alexandria, Virginia on June 15, 2005, after a two-year battle with cancer, was the guest speaker at a ceremony sponsored by the National Park Service, which annually commemorates the battle of Fredericksburg. She spoke of Brian’s contributions, his passion, individuality, and uniqueness. She is being asked to carry on that legacy, but pointed out that she is not Brian. There was a very brief moment when her composure wavered, when the polished, steady voice exposed the bewilderment of loss. It flickered in the warmth that enveloped the gathering, before self-assuredness returned and she announced recent successful efforts by the Civil War Preservation Trust Fund, of which she is a Board member, to preserve 200 acres of the Slaughter Pen Farm near the Spotsylvania battlefield.

The presentation of wreaths by the Order of the Southern Gray, the Loyal Order of Hibernians, 48th Virginia Infantry, Company B of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, the18th Massachusetts Infantry Historical and Preservation Society, and other heritage groups followed, each presenter engaging in a slow and somber walk toward the Kirkland Memorial, where the wreaths were lain. It was a moment of reconciliation by descendants of men who fought there 144 years ago that would have met with the benevolent approval of a rail-splitter and native son of Kentucky.

Co. B, 28th Mass Re-enactors

Cricket Pohanka

Richard Kirkland Memorial

Loyal Order of Hibernians

48th Virginia Re-enactors

Order of the Southern Gray

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fredericksburg, Virginia is a uniquely remarkable place if you’re interested in the Civil War. With four major battlefield sites located within a 15-mile radius of the city, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, there’s no other part of the country which bore witness to so much carnage over such an extended period of time.

The events leading up to the battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought on December 13, 1862, were unique unto themselves. Those events marked the first time that an entire civilian population was caught in the epicenter of urban warfare and forced to evacuate enmass. Civilian flight from the city cleared the way for vicious street and house-to-house fighting to be baptized and given a Christian name. Nothing remained sacred in Fredericksburg. Not personal property, not cemeteries, not churches. All were fired upon with muskets and shelled with equal and purposeful abandon by both sides.

Fredericksburg was America's Gallipoli, though less renowned in world history. It was a harbinger of modern warfare, where accepted military tactics were obsolete in the face of technology and doomed to fail. Not because of lack of will; not because of fleeting spirit; not because of an unwillingness to sacrifice; not because of a failure to duty; not because of a lack of bravery; but because of blatant stupidity, stubbornness, and the pressure to achieve victory where none could be achieved.

Although there were two distinct phases to the battle of Fredericksburg on the 13th, it is always the Union assault on Marye’s Heights that draws attention and remembrance. It is that terrible bloody place where wave after wave of Union brigades were thrown against cannon and men well protected by a stone wall, a place where over 12,000 fell, a place where entire regiments were decimated at the rate of more than three times the number of their Confederate foe. And it is that place, that slope of the field, that Capt. George M. Barnard of Company C of the 18th Massachusetts referred to in his letter two days later when he wrote “Col. [Joseph] Hayes threw his arms about me and almost cried at this wicked murder and it is no satisfaction to me that I led brave men to useless death.”

For the past nine years, on the weekend closest to December 13th, I’ve made a pilgrimage to Fredericksburg, always for the purpose of honoring the 18th Massachusetts Infantry during a Sunday ceremony sponsored by the National Park Service to commemorate the battle. For the past eight I’ve presented a wreath in tribute and in homage to the 350 officers and men of the regiment who marched into the halo of hell.

Saturday, December 9th

It was my intention to observe the re-enactment of the street fighting, but it instead turned out to be a lazy morning and by the time I left my motel room it was early afternoon. I drove to the National Park Service headquarters with the idea that I would try to find out once and for all where the 18th Massachusetts had been camped in Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, both before and after the battle. There was no information to be had there, but I was directed to the White Oak Museum in Falmouth and told to see the curator D.P. Newton. D.P., according to the Ranger, was the most knowledgeable person in the area on Stafford County, Virginia’s role in the Civil War and would have knowledge of the Union encampments. “If he doesn’t know it, nobody knows it.”

The White Oak Museum is one of those little gems of privately run museums that can usually be found near major Civil War battlefield sites. Located off the beaten path, about six miles east of Falmouth center down Route 218, “the museum exits to remember and honor the soldiers, from private to general, who suffered both in battle and in this area’s camps.”

When I entered the museum, housed in a former one room school house, I was greeted by the quizessential Southern belle, D.P.’s mother. Gracious, friendly, and blessed with a refined Southern drawl, she directed me to D.P., who was outside, engaged in the task, along with others, of raising a Sibley tent. The tent was part of a small recreation of winter quarters utilized by soldiers in the Fredericksburg area during the winter of 1862-1863.

After a brief introduction, during which time I stated my purpose in making the visit, i.e. to find information on Union camps in the area, D.P. asked if I could wait while he finished the tent. I had the impression that he was not necessary enthused by my presence, because he initially told me I could go online and find a map outlining where Union brigades were located. Occasionally he paused to ask a question and his demeanor seemed to change when I answered affirmatively that I had relatives in the 18th Massachusetts Infantry. He took to calling my great-great-great-grandfather my “great granddaddy,” and knew off the top of his head that the 18th had been in the same brigade as the 118th Pennsylvania.

During the time I waited for D.P., I took up conversation with two individuals. One was a Confederate re-enactor who asked me for the time. When I asked if he carried a pocket watch, he fell into character and informed me that only officers carried pocket watches.

I suppose because I’m terrible in remembering names, I didn’t ask the second gentleman his. But he told a fascinating story of owning a home built in 1808 that served as the headquarters for the 20th Massachusetts Infantry during their winter stay in Falmouth. The house, which is now a part of the National Register of Historic Homes, quartered about 25 members of “Bloody F,” or Company F, in it’s attic, while other members of the regiment stayed on lower floors. The attic still bears evidence of graffiti. Even in those days the men wanted to say in their own way “Kilroy was here.” One private, after purchasing a clothing stencil from a Sutler, twice attempted to ink his initials next to a peg he had driven into a brick wall, the peg being used to hold his belongings. The ink bled into the brick, possibly obscuring the identity of that Kilroy, until he made one last attempt and successfully traced his initials with a knife, carving them into a window sill. The soldier, according to the home’s owner, survived the war, but died shortly after returning to his home in Maine of war related illnesses.

Sibley successfully raised and anchored, I followed D.P. back to the museum, where he pulled out maps and notebooks, pointing to the area that the 18th and the first brigade of the first division of the 5th Corps would have lived. Although he couldn’t be certain, he rendered the opinion that the 18th was tented closest to the trash dump. Better the trash dump than the sinks, I suppose. He had explored the area and said there was still evidence of depressions in the earth where the regiments had built their camps and announced to his mother that he was going to show me where my “great granddaddy” had lived for a time in his life.

The National Park Service Ranger didn’t exaggerate in his claim about D.P. The scope of the Union encampments at Falmouth boggles the mind. You don’t get a sense of how far they stretched until driving down backroads with D.P. pointing out that the Sixth Corps was located there, the first division of the Second Corps there, Sickles Corps there, the Ninth Corps there, the second and third divisions of the Fifth Corps miles beyond the White Oak Museum. All this off the top of D.P.’s head. His roots in Stafford County reach to the late 1600’s and he pointed out that Stafford County contributed more men to the Confederate cause based on population than any county in the South. D.P. admitted that he doesn’t study Civil War battles and is not particularly interested in the military or political practicalities of those days, but he is interested in the common soldier and has a particular interest in reading diaries. He also has empathy for the hardships encountered by the men who endured in the camps, thus his efforts to recreate those camps and conditions at his museum.

The first brigade, including the 18th Massachusetts, was encamped off Ashleigh Road. A dirt road leads to the site, but a chain and no trespassing signs block access to exploring the site. D.P. thought a family named Brown owned the land and we discussed the possibility he could find an address for me. If successful on that end I’ll write the owner and request permission to enter his property.

That was one of D.P.’s laments, how land is being lost to developers, how twenty years ago locals had free reign of fields and woods and no one seemed to care. Now, it seems like no one knows who owns what or who you would need to get permission from to roam like they did as kids. It was ironic, as D.P. pointed out, that the homebuilders were erecting new dwellings on the very parcels that men in blue and grey uniforms sat on while drinking their coffee or spitting their tobacco juice onto.

That evening at 6 p.m. I was standing, flashlight in hand, with a fairly large group of people at the entrance to the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg. The Park Service was sponsoring a candlelight tour of the Sunken Road and this was the inaugural event. As Greg Mertz, a Park Service Ranger, told me the next day, the tour was a dry run for next year’s 145th anniversary observance of the battle.

The tour began with an overview of the battle, told from the perspective of thoughts recorded by soldiers on the night before the full-scale bloodletting began. One Confederate soldier, returning from a scouting trip beyond the Sunken Road, unnerved a group of raw recruits by informing them that when the sun rose in the morning they would see such things as they had never dreamt about.

The tour now moved uphill, through the cemetery, the path outlined by luminaries. On the summit of Marye’s Heights the narrator changed and there were more tales of men wracked by doubt and fear in the quiet and darkness. It was remarked that the temperature on this night approximated that of the 12th and 13th, one hundred and forty-four years ago. With each sweep of the second hand around the dial the wind seemed to increase slightly and the night air became cooler. On the summit we heard tell of a Massachusetts native who had moved to New Orleans seeking his fortune prior to war. When open hostilities broke out he enlisted in the Washington Artillery and on the 13th of December, 1862, found himself helping to fire shot, shell, and canister on men who might very well have been former neighbors or distantly related. It’s unknown how long he swabbed down the barrel of his gun, but it is known that after being warned by his Lieutenant not to expose himself to Union gunfire and dismissing the warning he fell dead with a gunshot wound to the head.

At the Kirkland Memorial, which stands on hallowed ground at the bottom of Marye’s Heights, we were given the Union version. Those vignettes told of the aftermath, of Union dead that littered the ground like so many leaves in the fall, of men desperately crying for help and most importantly for water. With no greatcoats, no blankets, no food, and fearing to move, the Union living hunkered down under a harsh wind, some piling the bodies of their dead comrades closer to them to form some semblance of a windbreak for warmth. Aside from the wounded, those who suffered most were those who had either accidentally or through orders earlier that day entered four feet of water that filled a sluiceway and were still sopping wet. There was a tale of identifying and recovering the body of a New Hampshire colonel by his men, who crawled through mud, around and over bodies, touching as they went forward, searching with their hands for epaulets and a telling hole blown through their colonel’s chest by an artillery shell and after confirming their find by reaching into the wound, carried his body back to Union lines for burial.

When the tour was over I found myself alone on the Sunken Road, pebbles crunching underneath the slow stride of my boots, reflecting on the same quiet that would have blanketed Fredericksburg that night, December 12, 1862. I reflected on the fact that I knew the realities and horrors that would follow the next day for thousands of men. The furies were to break loose that next day, hell would rain certain from the sky, ground, and horizon, but for that one last night mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, sons, and daughters in distant places would take to their dreams the light of those still living and, who, on the morrow would be no more.