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Chapter 17:

  • The events of the 14th, 15th, and 16th December.

The events of December 14-16.

Darkness still prevailed when we mounted our horses and again hastened to Jackson's Hill, the summit of which we reached just in time to see the sun rising, and unveiling, as it dispersed the hazy fogs of the damp, frosty winter's night, the long lines of the Federal army, which once more stood in full line of battle about half-way between our own position and the river. I could not withhold my admiration as I looked down upon the well-disciplined lines of our antagonist, astonished that these troops now offering so bold a front to our victorious army should be the same whom not many hours since I had seen in complete flight and disorder. The skirmishers of the two armies were not much more than a hundred yards apart, concealed from each other's view by the high grass in which they were lying, and above which, from time to time, rose a small cloud of blue smoke, telling that a shot had been fired, before the report came feebly wafted to us by the light morning breeze.

As the boom of artillery now began to sound from different parts of the line, and the attack might be expected every minute, each hastened to his post. As on the previous day, our cavalry was briskly engaged with the hostile sharpshooters, and again the firing sounded loudest in the neighbourhood of [323] the straw stacks already mentioned. That these should no longer offer a shelter, some of Pelham's well-directed shells soon set the dry material in a blaze, and the squad of forty or fifty Yankees who had sought the protection of the stacks, finding the place too hot to hold, scampered off in a body, accompanied by a loud cheer from our men, and a wellaimed volley, which brought down several of the fugitives. Hour after hour passed away in anxious expectation of the combat; but though the skirmishing at times grew hotter, and the fire of the artillery more rapid, long intervals of silence again succeeded. As usual, the hostile batteries were not chary of their ammunition; and whenever a group of officers showed itself plainly within range, it was at once greeted with a couple of shells or solid shot. Having to ride over to Fitz Lee, who, with the greater part of his brigade, was in reserve, I met Dr J., whose acquaintance I had made during one of our raids.

He was just driving up to the General in his buggy, which, besides its hospitable inmate, contained an excellent cold dinner and a bottle of whisky for our solace. We had scarcely, however, begun to unpack the chickens and biscuits, and the cork was still on its way through the neck of the whisky bottle, when, instead of the “cluck” announcing its complete extraction, our ears were greeted with a sound never pleasing at any time, but at this particular moment more than ever awakening disgust — the whizzing of a shell which plunged into the soft ground not more than twenty feet off, covering us instantaneously with an abundant coating of mud. This was too much for the nerves of our peaceful host, who drove off, carrying with him the much-coveted refreshments, which had delighted our eyes only to delude our remaining senses. We followed him, however, in eager pursuit, and succeeded several times in overtaking and arresting the flight of the [324] precious fugitive, but each time our happiness was cut short by the enemy's artillery, whose aim pursued the buggy as tenaciously as ourselves, till at last we took refuge in a deep ravine, completely screened from the keen eyes of the Yankees, who, as we completed our meal, came in for a fire of maledictions for their want of common courtesy and consideration.

Thus did the day wear on to its close without any event of importance; and it becoming evident as the evening advanced that the attack would not be renewed on the 14th, we returned after nightfall once more to our short night's rest at headquarters. Things looked very little changed when, on the cold, clear morning of the 15th, we rode up to Jackson's Hill; and General Stuart deciding to remain until serious fighting should commence, we had an opportunity of having a good look at the devastations caused by the tremendous artilleryfire of the 3th. The forest was literally torn to pieces-trees more than a foot in diameter were snapped in two, large branches were shattered to splinters, and scarcely a small twig but showed marks of some kind of missile. In many places the ground was ploughed up by the cannon-balls, which together with pieces of shell, canister, and grape-shot, lay strewn in every direction. Most of our dead had already been buried, but the carcasses of the animals were still lying about in large numbers; the batteries of Walker's artillery on Jackson's Hill having lost not less than ninety horses during the first two hours of the terrific bombardment.

The morning passed slowly away, the anxious silence maintained being broken only but the firing from time to time of the heavy batteries; and many of our leaders, Stuart and Jackson foremost, began to give up any hope of a renewal of the attack. The latter general was still in favour of a night attack, and proposed that our men should be stripped naked to the waist, so that they might easily recognise each other in [325] the darkness and confusion of the conflict. About twelve o'clock two mounted officers, followed by a small squad of cavalry, bearing a white flag, suddenly appeared riding towards us from the enemy's lines, and soon after General Jackson received a report that a flag of truce had arrived, with a request on the part of the Federal generals to be allowed to bury their dead and look after the wounded. To this Stonewall did not think proper to accede, as the application was not signed by the Federal commander-in-chief, an omission which, on several previous occasions, had opened the way to serious misunderstandings. Accordingly the Federal officers retired to obtain the signature of Burnside, and did not return until after a delay of nearly two hours, when the permission which humanity dictated being applied for in due form, was readily granted.

Being one of the officers appointed on our side to superintend the proceedings, I rode forthwith down to the plain, and thus had the first opportunity of inspecting the battle-field in our immediate front. The burial parties of the Federals were ready and in excellent order, and as soon as the truce was accepted, different columns, from 200 to 300 strong, moved forward in double-quick and went at once to work, taking up the wounded and burying the dead, assisted by a large number of our own men, who had long been anxious to bring help to the wounded sufferers outside our intrenchments, but were deterred from yielding to their humane impulses by the bullets of the enemy's sharpshooters. All had been going on thus smoothly for half an hour, when suddenly some of the batteries in the enemy's centre opened a heavy fire. The excitement and consternation caused by this was immense; the cry of treason ran along our lines; our men hurried back to their arms, while the Federal officers exerted themselves to maintain unbroken the peaceful relations which threatened for some little time to end in a sanguinary conflict. Fortunately, [326] however, the firing soon afterwards ceased, and full explanations being given, proving the apparently treacherous act to have been a mistake, the work of humanity proceeded.

The carnage had raged most fiercely immediately opposite Jackson's Hill, and many hundred dead and wounded lay there intermingled. We had considerable difficulty in discovering the body of the Federal General Jackson, and it was at last found in a small ravine. Beside him lay his adjutant, a very fine-looking young man, who, riding a grey horse during the action, had attracted the attention of our men, and frequently elicited their admiration by his conspicuous gallantry. His noble charger, only a few steps from him, was pierced by several bullets, and had probably fallen at the same moment with his brave rider. The poor wounded were in a miserable state after their long exposure to cold and hunger, and many were dying simply from starvation and neglect. We held long and interesting conversations with the Yankee officers, and were not a little surprised at the freedom and severity of the criticisms they passed on their commander-in-chief, and the candid acknowledgment of the heavy losses and severe defeat they had sustained. These gentlemen asserted that General Burnside was perfectly incapable of commanding a large army; that his splendid troops had been sacrificed and slaughtered uselessly, but that the General himself had taken good care not to endanger his own life, having observed and directed the battle from Phillip's House, a point of safety on the Stafford side of the river. There being but a comparatively small number of our dead, they were soon buried; but the Federal were occupied all day with their mournful task, and had not half finished when darkness put an end to their operations. The approaching night brought with it a heavy storm and rain, and we were wet to the skin and shivering with cold when at a late hour we returned to headquarters. Stuart was in a very bad [327] humour, and entertained no hope of a renewal of the fight the following day. “These Yankees,” he said, “have always some underhand trick when they send a flag of truce, and I fear they will be off before daylight.” This suspicion proved to be only too true. The next morning, when on our way to Hamilton's Crossing, we met a courier riding full gallop, who reported that the whole of the Federal army had disappeared from our side of the river.

The heavy rains and storm which raged all night favoured their enterprise. General Burnside had managed to remove his whole army over the three pontoon-bridges to the Stafford side; and his retreat was effected with such consummate skill, that our pickets had not the slightest knowledge of the movement until daybreak showed them that the whole of the large Yankee army, with all the artillery and waggon-trains, had disappeared from their front. On our arrival at the battle-field we found our men scattered over the plain, busy burying the dead, large numbers of which were still lying about. Reaching a place where about 300 corpses had been collected to be lodged in one common grave, some of our men showed a number of small torpedoes, which they informed us had been set in large numbers by the enemy all over the field. Fortunately the charge of powder with which these infernal machines were prepared had been so damped by the heavy rain that they did not explode, and by this failure a large number of our men were saved from destruction. Soon afterwards we were much amused by lighting upon the entire band of a Yankee infantry regiment, who, having encamped at some distance from their troops, had been quite forsaken, and were still fast asleep when they were taken prisoners to the last man by our Mississippians. They seemed but little troubled at their fate, and cheerfully struck up the tunes of Dixie, to the great delight of our men, who meanwhile set about preparing for them whatever comforts [328] our rough hospitality could afford. After about an hour's ride we reached Lee's Hill, where we found Captain Phillips again, whom I invited to join me in a little tour to Marye's Heights and the field in front of them, the horrors of which had been depicted in the most vivid colours by all who had visited the dreadful spot. As the Federal batteries on the opposite side of the river were firing on every horseman who showed himself, I took Pelham's mulatto servant, Newton, who happened to be there, along with us, and, leaving our horses out of sight in his charge, we descended on foot to the plain. Here we met General Ransom, who had commanded one of the brigades on Marye's Heights which had sustained the principal shock of the assault; and the General's polite offer to show us the battle-field, and give us a description of the fight, was gratefully accepted.

The sight was indeed a fearful one, and the dead bodies lay thicker than I had ever seen before on any field of battle. This was chiefly the case in front of the stone wall which skirts the sunken road at the foot of Marye's Heights. The dead were here piled up in heaps six or eight deep. General Ransom told us that our men were ordered not to commence firing until the enemy had approached within a distance of eighty yards; but that from the moment they advanced within this, the hostile ranks had been completely mowed down by our volleys. The nature of the ground towards the town is open and flat, broken only by some plank fences, and dotted with a few wooden houses scattered here and there, All these objects, and even the very ground, were so thickly riddled with bullets that scarcely a square inch was without its dint; and it became incomprehensible to me how even that small few of the most dashing assailants, who had run up within fifteen paces of our lines, could have survived this terrific fire long enough to do so. Many of the Federal soldiers had found death seeking shelter in the small courtyards of the houses [329] behind the wooden plank fences surrounding them, but which, of course, offered not the slightest protection; and heaps of the corpses of these poor fellows filled the narrow enclosures. On a space of ground not over two acres we counted 680 dead bodies; and more than 1200 altogether were found on the small plain between the heights and Fredericksburg, those nearest the town having mostly been killed by our artillery, which had played with dreadful effect upon the enemy's dense columns. More than one-half of these dead had belonged to Meagher's brave Irish brigade, which was nearly annihilated during the several attacks.

A number of the houses which we entered presented a horrid spectacle-dead and wounded intermingled in thick masses. The latter, in a deplorable state from want of food and care, were cursing their own cause, friends, and commander-in-chief, for the sufferings they endured. As we walked slowly along, Captain Phillips suddenly pressed my arm, and, pointing to the body of a soldier whose head was so frightfully wounded that part of the brain was protruding, broke out with, “Great God, that man is still alive!” And so he was. Hearing our steps the unfortunate sufferer opened his glassy eyes and looked at us with so pitiable an expression that I could not for long after recall it without shuddering. A surgeon being close at hand, was at once called to the spot to render what assistance was yet possible; but he pronounced the man in a dying condition, and observed that it was totally opposed to all medical experience, and could only be considered in the light of a miracle, that a human being with such a wound should have lived through nearly sixty hours of exposure and starvation.

In the mean time our little company had attracted the notice of the enemy on the other side of the river, and several shells had already bowled over our heads, when soon the firing grew so heavy, and the missiles struck and exploded in [330] such increasing proximity to us, that we decided on getting out of range. So, shaking hands with General Ransom and thanking him much for his kindness, we returned to the place where we had left our horses; but mulatto and chargers had disappeared together; and after a lengthened search, we had nearly made up our minds that we must return on foot, when the fugitives were found at a considerable distance and hidden in a clump of bushes, the worthy Newton still trembling, and completely “demoralised” with the fright inspired by some of the shells which, fired too high, had exploded in his neighbourhood and induced his rapid retreat.

On our return to Lee's Hill we found a great number of the generals assembled around our Commander-in-Chief, all extremely chagrined that the Federals should have succeeded in so cleverly making their escape. The tranquillity in which the day passed off was interrupted only by the firing from the enemy's batteries, which, by the way, very nearly proved fatal to our friend Vizetelly. In the town of Fredericksburg a great many Yankees had been found straggling and lurking in the houses, either with a view to desertion, or too overpowered by the liquor they had stolen to leave with their army; and a body of those captives marching along the turnpike road escorted by a detachment of our soldiers, attracted the curiosity of Mr Vizetelly, who immediately rode down to meet them. Having reached the column, he had just entered into conversation with a corporal from a South Carolina regiment who commanded the detachment, when the hostile batteries, mistaking their own men for enemies, opened fire, and one of their very first shells, passing quite close to our friend, tore the head of the poor fellow with whom he was talking completely off his shoulders, scattering pieces of skull and brains in every direction. Horror-stricken at this sad incident, and having no call of duty to remain, the artist at once put spurs into his charger's flanks, and galloped off as [331] fast as the noble steed could carry him. But the hostile gunners seemed to take particular pleasure in aiming at the flying horseman, and ever closer and closer flew the unpleasant missiles about his ears, while we who from Lee's Hill were spectators of the unenviable position in which our guest was placed, were for some time seriously alarmed that we should never again hear his merry laugh and joyous songs; but at last he reached us in safety, though much exhausted, and was received with loud cheering in our midst.

During the afternoon General Burnside renewed his request for the burial of the dead, which was at once granted; and the Federal troops destined to this duty, having crossed the Rappahannock in pontoons, went to work without delay. Having been again ordered to assist in the superintendence of the proceedings, I was painfully shocked at the inevitably rough manner in which the Yankee soldiers treated the dead bodies of their comrades. Not far from Marye's Heights existed a hole of considerable dimensions, which had once been an ice-house; and in order to spare time and labour, this had been selected by the Federal officers to serve as a large common grave, not less than 800 of their men being buried in it. The bodies of these poor fellows, stripped nearly naked, were gathered in huge mounds around the pit, and tumbled neck and heels into it; the dull “thud” of corpse falling on corpse coming up from the depths of the hole until the solid mass of human flesh reached near the surface, when a covering of logs, chalk, and mud closed the mouth of this vast and awful tomb.

On my return to Lee's Hill I saw President Davis and Governor Letcher with our Commander. They had come from Richmond to congratulate him and the troops under him on their success, and had been greeted all along the lines with the utmost enthusiasm. It was late at night when we returned to headquarters, where I stretched my weary limbs [332] along my blankets, intensely soothed with the balmy reflection that I was about to enjoy a long spell of rest for my body, and relief for my mind from the racking anxiety and emotion with which the too familiar but never familiarised sight of death and destruction had so long and deeply affected it.

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