Thursday, December 14, 2006
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.