Sunday, March 1, 2015

As night fell on Fredericksburg

Writing an official report of a Civil War regiment in battle was a daunting task. Battle was chaotic. No colonel could get all the facts or double-check everything his subordinates told him. No matter how omniscient he might seem to his men or perceive himself to be, he could not witness enough in the heat of battle to know how his men had performed or understand his regiment’s role in the larger outcome.

Col. Aaron F. Stevens was seriously ill at Fredericksburg.
Worse, the report was a deadline writing job with inherently conflicting goals: to give a narrative of what happened while making his troops – and by extension his leadership – look good.

Below you’ll find Col. Aaron F. Stevens’s report to New Hampshire Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry about the 13th New Hampshire’s role in the battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.  The battle was a debacle, with Gen. Ambrose Burnside sending wave after wave of Union troops uphill toward an impregnable Confederate position. Stevens submitted his report nine days after the battle.

In introducing it, it would be churlish to point out every inflated assertion or omitted fact. I will say that the casualty figures for Stevens’s regiment did not reflect the pitched, desperate battle his report described. And I will quote briefly from two other sources, a comprehensive history of the battle and a letter home written by one of his men.

The history, Francis Augustin O’Reilly’s The Fredericksburg Campaign, reports that Stevens “was too sick to keep up with his regiment, much less keep order.” He had lost 20 pounds and, to his men, looked 10 years older. Too sick to ride his horse, he had dismounted and walked until he plunged into a bog and was stuck up to his knees. One of his men pulled him out, and he lay on the ground to rest until his horse could be brought up.

A “jumbled mass” of Stevens’s men did attack the wall that protected the Confederate line at Fredericksburg. And because it was dark and the rebels thought the battle was over, the soldiers of the 13th New Hampshire managed to get close to the enemy before a rebel volley sent most of them tumbling back. But it was an inglorious retreat, successful mainly because the rebels could not see them in the dark and fired high.

Here is a report by a young private, Joseph Prime:

“Well, we formed in line of battle of our whole Brigade, the 25th N.Y. Reg., and the 13th N.H. Reg and the 10th N.H. next. Well we charged to within 20 yards of a battery (in the dark) when we were met by a regular blaze of rebel musketry and were shot down like everything when the 25th N.Y. broke and run through our ranks and caused the 13th to break and run and we received a destructive fire from one of the New York Reg or some other Union Reg.

Piece of piano key sent home from Fredericksburg by Private Joseph Prime.
“And we all pitched into a deep gulley or ditch after running some thirty yards and lay there until the firing ceased when we got out and run the best way that we could till we got behind a hill where we reformed and marched back to the city and slept on our arms that night. . . . I guess there is about 35 that is killed, wounded, or missing. . . . There was just four wounded out of our company and none killed. By the way there was a piano in Fredericksburg and I am going to send you a piece of the Ivory from one of the keys of that piano to remember Fredericksburg by.”

Here is what Col. Stevens reported to the governor of New Hampshire:

Headquarters Thirteenth Regiment N. H. Vols, Opposite Fredericksburg, VA., December 22, 1862.

To His Excellency Nathaniel S. Berry, Governor of New-Hampshire:

Gov. Nathaniel Springer Berry
Sir: I have the honor to report to you the operations of the regiment under in command since their departure from Camp Casey, near Fairfax Seminary, Virginia, including the battle of Fredericksburgh, on the thirteenth inst.

My regiment moved from Camp Casey on the first inst, with the First brigade of Casey’s division, consisting of the Fifteenth Connecticut, Thirteenth New-Hampshire, Twelfth Rhode Island, and Twenty-fifth and Twenty-seventh New Jersey volunteers, under command of the senior Colonel, Dexter B. Wright, of the Fifteenth Connecticut volunteers.

The first day we reached Uniontown, some two miles southerly from Washington City. We encamped the second day near Piscataway, and the third day about six miles northerly from Port Tobacco. We passed Port Tobacco about noon of the fourth day, and encamped for the night some six miles west of that place. The fifth day, in the midst of a cold and violent snow-storm, we encamped about one and a half miles from Liverpool Point, or Bluebank, as it is sometimes called, a point on the Potomac nearly opposite Acquia Creek. On the morning of the sixth day, we broke camp and marched to Bluebank, where we were detained some eight hours awaiting transportation; the soldiers during that time being exposed to a keen, cold, and piercing wind which swept down the river and across the plateau where they were halted.

My regiment was ferried across the Potomac about six o‘clock Saturday evening. The weather was extremely cold, and the men suffered much from its severity. From Acquia Creek, where we landed, we marched about two miles and encamped in a ravine well sheltered from the northerly winds, but filled with snow. The baggage of the field and staff-officers, including their blankets, mess-chests, eatables, etc., was, through the inefficiency and neglect of the transportation officials, left on the Maryland side of the river, and notwithstanding the faithful exertions of brigade and regimental quartermasters, was detained from us nearly two days. Consequently we were without blankets or shelter for two nights of intense cold weather. The result in my own case was an attack of illness from which I have not yet recovered, though I have had the good fortune thus far to be able to be on duty. I was, however, only a sufferer in common with others. In this encampment we remained until the next Tuesday afternoon, when we moved to this point, reaching here Wednesday afternoon. Our brigade was then broken up, and my regiment was assigned to the First brigade, (Colonel Hawkins,) Third division, (Brig-Gen. Getty,) Ninth army corps, (Brig-Gen. Wilcox,) in Major-Gen. Sumner‘s right grand division. This brigade is composed of the Ninth, (Hawkins's Zouaves,) Eight ninth and One Hundred and Third New York, Tenth and Thirteenth New-Hampshire, and Twenty-fifth New-Jersey volunteers.

On Wednesday evening we received orders to be ready to move the next morning. Thursday we were in line all day, ready and waiting orders to move and listening silently to the heavy cannonading and sharp musketry, principally on our right, or watching the smoke, rising from the burning buildings of Fredericksburgh, directly in our front. Just after dark we moved to the river, and crossed, without opposition, the pontoon bridge near the lower end of the city. My regiment took up its position for the night in Caroline street, one of the principal streets of the city, and threw out two companies, company B, Capt. Dodge, and company E, Captain Julien, as pickets toward the enemy.

This position we occupied until Saturday morning, the two companies on picket-duty being relieved by company C, Capt. Bradley, and company G, Lieutenant Forbush commanding.
At an early hour on Saturday morning, the eventful and disastrous day of the battle, we took up our position with the brigade under the hill on the bank of the river, just below the bridge which we crossed on Thursday night. Here we remained under arms the entire day, our position being about a mile distant from the line of the enemy's batteries. Occasionally, during the day, fragments of shell from his guns reached us or passed over us, falling in the river and beyond, doing but little damage. One of our own guns, however, on the opposite bank of the river, which threw shells over us toward the enemy, was so unfortunately handled as to kill two men and wound several others in our brigade. After what your Excellency has read and heard concerning the battle of Fredericksburgh, I need not say to you that the fierceness of the fight during that long, bloody and disastrous day exceeds any description of which my pen is capable.

As yet all the accounts which I have seen or read from Union or rebel sources approach not in delineation the truthful and terrible panorama of that bloody day. Twice during the day I rode up Caroline Street to the centre of the city toward the point where our brave legions were struggling against the terrible combination of the enemy's artillery and infantry, whose unremitting fire shook the earth and filled the plain in rear of the city with the deadly missiles of war. I saw the struggling hosts of freedom stretched along the plain, their ranks ploughed by the merciless fire of the foe. I saw the dead and wounded, among them some of New-Hampshire’s gallant sons, borne back on the shoulders of their comrades in battle, and laid tenderly down in the hospitals prepared for their reception, in the houses on either side of the street as far as human habitations extended. I listened to the roar of battle and the groans of the wounded and dying. I saw in the crowded hospitals the desolation of war, but I heard from our brave soldiers no note of triumph, no word of encouragement, no syllable of hope that for us a field was to be won.

In the stubborn, unyielding resistance of the enemy I could see no point of pressure likely to yield to the repeated assaults of our brave soldiers, and so I returned to my command to wait patiently for the hour when we might be called to share in the duty and danger of our brave brethren engaged in the contest.

By stepping forward to the brow of the hill which covered us, a distance of ten yards, we were in full view of the rebel stronghold — the batteries along the crest of the ridge called Stansbury Hill and skirting Hazel Run. For three fourths of an hour before we were ordered into action, I stood in front of my regiment on the brow of the hill and watched the fire of the rebel batteries as they poured shot and shell from sixteen different points upon our devoted men on the plains below.

It was a sight magnificently terrible. Every discharge of enemy's artillery and every explosion of his shells were visible in the dusky twilight of that smoke-crowned hill. There his direct and enfilading batteries, with the vividness, intensity, and almost the rapidity of lightning, hurled the messengers of death in the midst of our brave ranks, vainly struggling through the murderous fire to gain the hills and the guns of the enemy. Nor was it any straggling or ill-directed fire. The arrangement of the enemy’s guns was such that they could pour their concentrated and incessant fire upon any point occupied by our assailing troops, and all of them were plied with the greatest skill and animation. During all this time the rattle of musketry was incessant.

About sunset there was a pause in the cannonading and musketry, and orders came for our brigade to fall in. Silently but unflinchingly the men moved out from under their cover, and when they reached the ground, quickened their pace to a run. As the head of the column came in sight of the enemy, at a distance of about three fourths of a mile from their batteries, when close to Slaughter’s house, it was saluted with a shower of shell from the enemy’s guns on the rest of the hill. It moved on by the flank down the hill into the plain beyond, crossing a small stream which passes through the city, and empties into Hazel Run, then over another hill to the line of railroad.

We moved at so rapid a pace, that many of the men relieved themselves of their blankets and haversacks, and in some instances of their great-coats, which in most cases were lost. By countermarch, we extended our line along the railroad, the right resting toward the city, and the left near Hazel Run. In the formation of the column, the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey had preceded my regiment, and at this point their line covered my front.

As we passed the brow of the hill, and moved down on to the line of the railroad, the enemy opened fire upon us from his batteries with renewed vigor. At the same time our batteries in the rear were answering his, and the heavens were illuminated with exploding shells from front and rear. Having extended our lines along the line of the railroad, the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey took the shelter afforded by the right embankment of the railroad, and my men the partial cover afforded by the left embankment.

It was for a moment only. The words, Forward! Charge! ran along the lines. The men sprang forward, and moved at a run, crossed the railroad into a low muddy swamp on the left, which reaches down to Hazel Run, the right moving ever higher and less muddy ground, all the time the batteries of the enemy concentrating their terrible fire and pouring it upon the advancing lines.

Suddenly the cannonading and musketry of the enemy ceased. The shouts of our men also were hushed, and nothing was heard along the line save the command: Forward, men — steady — close up. In this manner we continued to advance in the direction of the enemy’s batteries. I moved on the right of the regiment, Lieut.-Col. Bowers in the centre, and Major Storer on the left. From some cause the left wing of the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey separated from the right, and the left of my line passed forward and took the advance, the right of the Twenty-fifth still having the advance of my right.

In this way we moved forward, until within about twenty yards of the celebrated “stone wall" at the foot of the hill, on the crest of which, according to rebel accounts, was placed the well-known “Washington batteries.”

I do not speak at random of our position. I verified it by subsequent observation, and by the report of a brave and intelligent soldier, sent by myself on the Thursday following the battle, with our burial party, and who assisted in performing the last rite upon some of our dead who lay there. I am proud to say that the regiment which I had the honor to command, in connection with the right wing of the Twenty-fifth New-Jersey, gained a point much nearer the stone wall and the rebel guns than any of our forces during that unfortunate day and that the officers and men advanced firmly though rapidly to the attack, and were withdrawn only in the face of a fire which, during the whole day, had successfully repulsed the desperate bravery of chosen and veteran troops.

Before we reached the point of which I have been speaking, we came to an irregular ravine or gully, into which, in the darkness of the night, the lines plunged, but immediately gained the opposite side, and were advancing along the level ground toward the stone wall. Behind that wall, and in rifle-pits on its flanks, were posted the enemy‘s infantry — according to their statements — four ranks deep, and on the hill, a few yards above, lay in ominous silence their death-dealing artillery. It was while we were moving steadily forward that, with one startling crash, with one simultaneous sheet of fire and flame, they hurled on our advancing lines the whole terrible force of their infantry and artillery. The powder from their musketry burned in our very faces, and the breath of their artillery was hot upon our cheeks.

The “leaden rain and iron hail" in an instant forced back the advancing lines upon those who were close to them in the rear; and before the men could be rallied to renew the charge, the lines had been hurled back by the irresistible fire of the enemy to the cover of the ravine or gully which they adjust passed. The enemy swept the ground with his guns, killing and wounding many — our men in the mean time keeping up a spirited fire upon the unseen foe.

The firing at last gradually slackened; and as no further orders came to us, I withdrew my regiment with others, and re-formed it deliberately some few rods in the rear, taking with us such of our wounded as we could find on the field. We remained some half hour, until we received orders to fall back to the town, which was quietly accomplished without further loss.
On our return we halted at the railroad, and found that our wounded, under the care of Assistant-Surgeon Sullivan, assisted by Chaplain Jones and the members of the band, had been removed and placed under the shelter of the hill, in rear of the railroad. They were, as soon as possible, removed to the hospitals in the city, and properly cared for.

In looking back and reviewing the scenes of that memorable day, I am happy to assure your Excellency that I see no reason to feel otherwise than proud of the conduct of the officers and soldiers of my command. I know of no officer present on the field who did not come unmanfully and bravely to the duty with which he was charged. The men, with one or two exceptions, behaved admirably, not one leaving the field, though stricken with a fire so terrible and sudden.

I desire to refer particularly to Lieut.-Colonel Bowers and Major Storer in terms of commendation for their intrepidity and coolness in the advance and attack. With particular pride and pleasure I call your attention to the services of Assistant-Surgeon Richardson, who, in those dreadful days, proved himself an honor to his profession and an invaluable aid to the army in its hour of suffering. While I look with shame and horror on the conduct of men calling themselves surgeons, attached to regiments of other States, I am proud to say that I know from personal observation that for two days and nights after the battle, and at times when the shells of' the enemy were falling around him, Dr. Richardson pursued his arduous duties in the hospital and out of it, unremittingly, and with a fidelity and ability that has endeared him to me personally, and gained him an enviable distinction among his professional brethren in the army.
Dr. Sullivan, though suffering from illness, was assiduous in his attention to the suffering of our regiment and the wounded on the field of battle. Surgeon Twitchell was not present, being detained in Washington and arriving here on Tuesday after the battle. I sincerely regret his absence at a time when his distinguished abilities and experience would have rendered him so useful to the poor and suffering victims of the day's carnage.

Sunday and Monday following the battle, we occupied our old position in Caroline street. I received orders on Sunday to be ready to move again to the attack, and the position of the battalion lines was assigned; but the plan of renewing the attack was abandoned during the day. Monday night my regiment was thrown out as pickets on the line of the railroad, and to the south of it, along Hazel Run, which position, aided by a detachment of two companies of Berdan's sharp-shooters, was held until half past two o'clock Tuesday morning, our pickets continually exchanging shots with those of the enemy. We were then withdrawn, and returned to our old encampment on this side of the river.

I have the honor to furnish your Excellency herewith a list of the killed, wounded, and missing, and also a list of officers absent at the time of the action. I will add that many of my men were injured and bruised by being thrown down and trampled upon by the lines in front, but are not included in the list of casualties.

I am happy to say that in most instances the officers and men of my regiment, though they have suffered severely from exposure to cold and in diet, are recovering their health, strength and courage, for the great work still before the army of the Republic—the suppression of the rebellion.

I have the honor to remain, very respectfully, your Excellency's obedient servant,
A. F. Stevens, Colonel Thirteenth Regiment, New-Hampshire Volunteers.

List or Casualties in Thirteenth regiment New-Hampshire volunteers, at the battle of Fredericksburgh, Va., December Thirteenth, 1862.

Company D, Private Lorenzo Phillips; Company H, Private James Knights.

Total, two.

Company A—Lieut. B. C. Carter, slightly in leg; Private N. W. Gray, thumb shot off.
Company B—Corporal Geo. Cochrane, shot through wrist.
Company G—Privates H. B. Neely, in leg; Wm. Bridgdon, in knee; L. F. Smith, in hand; Geo. V. Celburn, in back.
Company D—Sergeant A. J. Sherman, in foot; Corporal M A. Taylor, in ankle; Privates Thaddeus Quimby, in neck; James J. Young, in head; Charles Hoyt, in finger.
Company E—Lieut. James M. Durell, in head; Privates Henry Nutter, in arm; David Chapman, in head; David Hogan, in hand.‘
Company F—Sergeant E. E. Locke, in hand; Privates, A. Stevenson, finger shot off; Charles Leathers, in ankle; Gilman Hall, in foot.
Company G—Corporal Edwin Ware, in thigh; Private Jacob Chamberlain in side.
Company H—Private C. C. Fuller, in foot; A. Jordan, in head; C. Cilley, in leg; Wm. McKinnon, in finger.
Company I—Lieut. M. A. Shaw, in foot; Corporal Wm. B. Huncklee, in head; privates, L. G. Parker, in side; M. Tull, in leg; H. Butler, in back; K. J. Chaplin, in head.
Company K—Privates, II. Hunnefelt, in finger; John F. Mulligan, shot through leg.

Total wounded thirty-four.

Missing and not since heard from, company F; J. F. Welch; company H, privates, Alvah Warren, Henry M. Woodbury; company K, privates John K. A. Hanson, John Harmon, Henry G. Thompson. Total missing, six.

Officers Absent from the Battle: —Surgeon George B. Twitchell, detained at Washington; Captain N. D. Stoodley, sick in Washington; Captain Luther M. Wright, sick in quarters; Lieutenant G. Gillis, Adjutant, sick, and on furlough in Nashua, N. H., Lieutenant Edward Kilburn, sick in Alexandria; Lieutenant W. H. H. Young, sick in quarters.

[My thanks to Dave Morin, researcher extraordinaire, who sent me this report and the CDV portrait of Col. Stevens.]

No comments:

Post a Comment