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Chapter 16:

  • The great battle of Fredericksburg.

  • 13th December 1862.

    The darkness of night was just giving way before the doubtful light of morning, which struggled with a dense, all-obscuring fog, when the bugle sounded to horse at our headquarters. In obeying the summons, every man girded his sword more tightly around his waist, and looked with greater care than usual to the saddling of his horse and the loading of his revolver, feeling well assured that the hour of the momentous conflict had indeed arrived. Our guest, Captain Phillips, believing that he should obtain a more extended and satisfactory view of the engagement from Lee's Hill than from the position of our cavalry on the right flank, made up his mind to separate himself from us for the day, and at an early hour we parted with this portly grenadier, whose engaging manners had endeared him to us all. Our parting had just that little admixture of sadness in it which came from the involuntary misgiving that possibly we were bidding each other a final farewell. Captain Phillips had worn in camp a narrow red and blue striped necktie, consisting of a bit of a ribbon of his regiment, the Grenadier Guards, which, at the moment of leaving us, he handed to Pelham, with the request [306] that he would wear it as a talisman during the battle, and return it afterwards to the owner to be preserved as a relique. The boy-hero, with the blush of modesty and pride suffusing his fair cheek, readily accepted the compliment, and, tying the ribbon around his cap, galloped off with us to the front, where we hastened to take our position on the extreme right. On our way we met General Maxey Gregg, a gallant officer from South Carolina, with whom I exchanged a few words of friendly greeting for the last time, as a few hours afterwards he was a corpse.

    Jackson had chosen his own position on an eminence, within a few hundred yards of Hamilton's Crossing, which rose above the general elevation of the ridge in a similar manner to Lee's Hill on the left, and which has ever since borne the name of “Jackson's Hill,” from its having been rendered historical by the presence of the great warrior during the fight. Here we first directed our horses, and here we found Stonewall and A. P. Hill, with their respective Staffs, looking out through the white mists of the morning into the plain below, from which arose an indistinct murmur, like the distant hum of myriads of bees, vaguely announcing to us its hostile occupation by thousands of human beings. Jackson and Stuart concurred in the opinion that it would be the best plan to make a sudden general attack upon the enemy under cover of the fog, which must have prevented the fire of the numerous Federal batteries on the other side of the Rappahannock, or caused that fire to be ineffective; but General Lee had decided in council of war against any offensive movement, preferring to fight behind his intrenchments and to inflict a severe blow upon the enemy without the risk of fearful loss of life, even should the material result prove a less decided one. After remaining for half an hour upon Jackson's Hill, we rode down to the lines of our cavalry, and found our sharpshooters all along the Port Royal road, [307] well posted in rifle-pits or behind the high embankments of the turnpike, the regiments themselves a little farther back in reserve, and Pelham's eighteen pieces of horse-artillery in favourable position, the young leader longing for the combat, and anxious to open the ball with some of his light guns.

    Nine o'clock came, and still the vaporous curtain overhung the plateau, still the brooding silence prevailed, which always seemed the deeper just before the furies of war were to be unchained; and we slowly returned to the Crossing, almost despairing that the decisive action would be fought on that day. Here we dismounted to rest our horses, and I found a convenient seat on a large box, one of many filled with boots and uniforms for our soldiers, which had been deposited near the station for distribution among the respective commands of our army. I had been seated but a few minutes, when suddenly it seemed as though a tremendous hurricane had burst upon us, and we became sensible upon the instant of a howling tempest of shot and shell hurled against our position from not fewer than 300 pieces of artillery, which had opened all along the hostile lines, with a roar more deafening than the loudest thunder. Hundreds of missiles of every size and description crashed through the woods, breaking down trees and scattering branches and splinters in all directions. I was just calling out to the orderly who held my horse, and had been walking the animal up and down at the distance of a hundred yards, to return to me at once, when, about thirty paces from me, a young officer of artillery, struck by the fragment of a shell, fell with a groan to the earth; I immediately rushed to his assistance, but reached him only to receive his parting breath as I lifted him from the spot. This incident, sad as it was, saved my own life, for, a few seconds after I had left my seat, a huge shell, falling into a pile of boxes and bursting there, shattered them to atoms, filling the air with the debris of wood, leather, and clothing. [308]

    As this cannonade was in all probability to be immediately followed up by a general attack, we galloped to our post with the cavalry, which as yet had suffered not at all from the heavy fire of the enemy, this being concentrated chiefly upon our main line. And now the thick veil of mist that had concealed the plain from our eyes rolled away, like the drawing up of a drop-scene at the opera, and revealed to us the countless corps, divisions, brigades, and regiments of the Federal army forming their lines of attack. At this moment I was sent by Stuart to General Jackson with the message that the Yankees were about commencing their advance. I found old Stonewall standing at ease upon his hill, unmoved in the midst of the terrible fire, narrowly observing the movements of the enemy through his field-glass. The atmosphere was now perfectly clear, and from this eminence was afforded a distinct view of more than two-thirds of the battle-field, and the larger part of the whole number of the advancing foe, extending as far as the eye could reach — a military panorama, the grandeur of which I had never seen equalled. On they came, in beautiful order, as if on parade, a moving forest of steel, their bayonets glistening in the bright sunlight; on they came, waving their hundreds of regimental flags, which relieved with warm bits of colouring the dull blue of the columns and the russet tinge of the wintery landscape, while their artillery beyond the river continued the cannonade with unabated fury over their heads, and gave a background of white fleecy smoke, like midsummer clouds, to the animated picture.

    I could not rid myself of a feeling of depression and anxiety as I saw this innumerable host steadily moving upon our lines, which were hidden by the woods, where our artillery maintained as yet a perfect silence, General Lee having given orders that our guns should not open fire until the Yankees had come within easy canister range. Upon my mentioning [309] this feeling to Jackson, the old chief answered me in his characteristic way: “Major, my men have sometimes failed to take a position, but to defend one, never! I am glad the Yankees are coming.” He then gave me orders for Stuart to employ his horse-artillery, and open fire at once on the enemy's flank.

    Pelham was accordingly directed to prepare for action, but, being exceedingly anxious to go to work without a moment's delay, he begged Stuart to allow him to advance two of his light pieces to the fork of the road where the turnpike branches off to Fredericksburg, as from this point the masses of the enemy offered him an easy target. The permission being giving, Pelham went off with his two guns at a gallop, amidst the loud cheering of the cannoneers, and in a few minutes his solid shot were ploughing at short range with fearful effect through the dense columns of the Federals. The boldness of the enterprise and the fatal accuracy of the firing seemed to paralyse for a time and then to stampede the whole of the extreme left of the Yankee army, and terror and confusion reigned there during some minutes: soon, however, several batteries moved into position, and, uniting with several of those on the Stafford Heights, concentrated a tremendous fire upon our guns, one of which, a Blakely gun, was quickly disabled and compelled to withdraw. I was now sent by General Stuart to tell Pelham to retire if he thought the proper moment had arrived, but the young hero could not be moved. “Tell the General I can hold my ground,” he said, and again and again pealed out the ringing report of his single gun, upon which at one time 32 pieces of the enemy's artillery were brought to bear in a sweeping cross-fire, which killed and wounded many of the men, so that at last Pelham had to assist himself in loading and aiming it. Three times the summons to retire was renewed; but not until the last round of ammunition had been discharged, and after spreading [310] carnage for two hours in the ranks of the Federal infantry, did the gallant officer succumb to necessity in abandoning his position.1

    The rest of our horse-artillery had in the mean time joined in the cannonade, and the thunder soon rolled all along our lines, while from the continuous roar the ear caught distinctly the sharp, rapid, rattling volleys of the musketry, especially in the immediate front of General A. P. Hill, where the infantry were very hotly engaged. The battle was now fully developed, and the mists of the morning were presently succeeded by a dense cloud of powder-smoke, out of which rose ever and anon the dark column from an exploding caisson. At intervals above the tumult of the conflict we could hear the wild hurrah of the attacking hosts of the Federals, and the defiant yell of the Confederates, as the assault was repulsed. Directly in our own front the cavalry sharpshooters had become occupied with long lines of hostile tirailleurs, and a vivid fusillade raged all along the Port Royal road, the shot and shell of our horse-artillery, which was in position in our rear, crossing in their flight the missiles of the enemy's batteries high in air above the heads of our men. The firing grew most animated near a number of stacks of straw, which a body of Federal infantry had taken possession of, and which offered them so efficient a shelter that all attempts to dislodge them had proved in vain. I had just been ordering our men not to waste their ammunition, and to fire only when they saw the person of a Yankee completely exposed, when close at hand I heard the dull thud of a bullet striking home, and turning [311] round saw one of our soldiers, a gallant young fellow whom I knew well, throw up his arms and fall heavily to the ground. Dismounting at once I hastened to his side, but finding that the ball had struck him right in the middle of the forehead, I regarded him as a corpse, and deemed all further assistance wholly unnecessary. Not many minutes had elapsed, however, before the apparently dead man began to move, and when the surgeon, who had already arrived, poured some brandy down his throat, to our infinite amazement he opened his eyes. A few hours later, miraculous to relate, when the bleeding from the wound had ceased, he had recovered sufficiently from the severe shock to return to his post of duty. According to the surgeon's statement, the ball, striking obliquely, had glanced, passing between cuticle and skull all around the head, emerging at last from the very place it had first entered!

    The fury and tumult of the battle lasted all the forenoon and until two o'clock in the afternoon along Jackson's lines. A comparative quietude then succeeded, the infantry firing died away, and only a regular intermittent cannonade was kept up in our immediate front; but from the left opposite Fredericksburg there came to us the heavy boom of artillery and the distant rattle of small-arms, and we knew the fight still raged there with undiminished vehemence. So far all had gone favourably for us. The division of A. P. Hill had sustained the first shock of the Federal attack, which for a while had promised success to the enemy. On the left wing of this division, under cover of the fog and protected by the triangular piece of wood already described, the hostile column had fallen rather suddenly upon our men, the first line of whom, consisting of a brigade of North Carolina conscripts, [312] gave way, reaching the second line in their retreat at the same moment nearly with their pursuers, with whom they became indiscriminately mingled, whereby was caused inevitable confusion and great loss of life on our side. Here the gallant General Gregg fell mortally wounded while attempting to rally his men. Our reserves speedily coming up, however, with the right wing of Early's division, the Yankees were repulsed with severe loss, and pursued far into the plain. The whole of Early's and Hood's divisions now soon became engaged, and after a short but sanguinary contest succeeded in driving back the enemy in like manner with fearful slaughter. Again and again, with the most obstinate courage and energy, did the Federals renew the attack, bringing more and more fresh troops into action; but their dense lines were so much shattered by the appalling fire of our artillery that, upon coming within range of our infantry and being there received with a withering hail of bullets, they broke and fled time after time, leaving the ground strewn with hundreds of their dead and wounded. Our men could with difficulty be held back in their intrenchments, and more than once followed the flying host far out upon the plateau, until the sweeping fire of the Yankee batteries put an end to their pursuit. Immediately in front of Jackson's Hill the fight had for a considerable period been fiercest, and our antagonists, repeating the onset with the greatest bravery, had on several occasions come up to the very muzzles of our guns. Here, opposite his great namesake, fell the Federal General Jackson. The troops under his command broke into disorderly flight after his death, and one of his regiments, from the State of Pennsylvania, was captured to the last man in the railway cut in front of our position, where they sought shelter from the tremendous fire of artillery and musketry that poured down upon them.

    While the Yankees were thus suffering reverses in this [313] portion of the field, large masses of their troops had been concentrated near Fredericksburg, opposite Marye's Heights, where that stern and steady fighter Longstreet awaited their attack with his accustomed composure, and where our great leader Lee himself inspired the troops by his presence. This portion of our lines was unquestionably the strongest, and the folly of the Federal commander in sending his men here to certain death and destruction is utterly incomprehensible. All along Marye's Heights runs a sunken road, fenced in with a stone wall on either side, which in itself constituted a most formidable defensive work for our troops; a little higher up the hill there was a regular line of intrenchments, the defenders of which might fire over the heads of those below them, and the crest was occupied by the numerous pieces of the famous Washington Artillery, under their gallant commander Colonel Walton; so that the assailants were received with a triple sheet of fire, which swept them away by hundreds. The Federals certainly behaved with the utmost gallantry. Line after line moved forward to the assault, only to recoil again and again from the murderous tempest of shot, shell, and bullets, and to strew yet more thickly with dead and wounded the crimsoned field, which was afterwards most appropriately named “the slaughter-pen.” Pickett's division was but little engaged here, the wider open space of ground giving ample opportunity to our artillery to play upon the hostile columns, scattering them and throwing them into disorder even before they could form their lines of attack.

    About three o'clock in the afternoon there seemed to be a new movement preparing on the enemy's left, and General Stuart, suspecting it might be a movement on our right flank, ordered me to proceed with twenty couriers to our extreme right, reconnoitre the operations of the Yankees as closely as possible, and send him a report every five minutes. Captain [314] Blackford, who possessed a very good field-glass, volunteered to accompany me, and we at once trotted off together upon our hazardous expedition. Near to the point where the Massaponax Creek falls into the Rappahannock, and at about one hundred yards' distance from the larger stream, there rises a small elevation of ground thickly covered with cedar and pine trees, from which we were well assured there might be obtained a good view over the river, and the whole left wing of the Federal army. This hillock was quite outside of our lines, and there had been pushed forward towards it only a small body of our sharpshooters, whom we found lying concealed in the bushes below, for the Yankees, perfectly aware of the importance of this point of observation, had cleared the summit of its occupants by a severe fire whenever a grey uniform had been seen there. Leaving the couriers at the foot of the hill, Blackford and I dismounted and climbed cautiously up to the top, creeping along through the bushes and concealing ourselves behind some pine-trees that grew on the way. The view which here presented itself to our eyes far exceeded our-expectations. The Yankees, not more than a thousand yards distant from us, were evidently enough preparing for a new advance; reinforcements were moving up at a double-quick and forming into line of battle as they arrived; troops that had been engaged in the battle and been repulsed were marching sulkily to the rear; wounded men were being carried off by hundreds, while there galloped up and down the lines general officers with their Staffs, some of whom we could personally recognise through our glasses. To the right we looked down upon the river for a considerable distance, and could plainly see and count the heavy guns on the opposite bank, and could even hear the conversation of the cannoneers. Cautious as we had been, however, the Yankees quickly discovered our presence, and a number of their sharpshooters, sent forward to dislodge us, commenced [315] a sharp fire of exploding bullets, which, striking the objects around us, burst, with the noise peculiar to these projectiles, and scattered their fragments in every direction like smallshot. Well protected by the pine-trees we paid little attention to this fusillade, when suddenly I observed two pieces of artillery moving into position, and before Blackford finished uttering the words, “Von, the Yankees are going to shell us out of this,” a missile, whizzing towards us, struck the topmost branches of one of the pines, and, exploding there, rained down upon us a shower of limbs and splinters. Other followed in rapid succession with increasing accuracy of aim, so that we concluded to evacuate the spot and seek shelter for a time on the opposite side of the hill. Breaking at once through the bushes, we thought it would be an easy matter enough to get to a place of security, but the enemy's gunners followed our movements with a nicety of calculation so admirable that shot after shot came yet nearer and nearer to us, and at the very moment that we supposed we had got out of their reach, a shell passed so near to our heads that my gallant friend and myself were precipitated headlong by the force of windage at least fifteen feet down the hillside, where we both lay motionless for a brief space, and then rose in a fit of uncontrollable laughter as we looked each in the other's blank and astonished face. Returning, as soon as the firing had ceased, to the spot we had so suddenly abandoned, we saw the Federal lines moving forward to their new attack, which was introduced and supported by a cannonade of several hundred pieces equal in fury to that of the morning. The balls fired from the opposite side of the river howled and hissed in their course over our heads, each shot of the heavy guns reverberating from the cliffs like rolling thunder, while the musketry soon became audible again, giving proof by its increasing vehemence that the hostile parties were now hotly [316] engaged. An hour of anxiety and doubt passed away, until at five o'clock we saw scattered fugitives straggling to the rear, their numbers augmenting every moment, until whole regiments, brigades, and divisions, in utter confusion and bewildered flight, covered the plain before us. Blackford, as excited as myself, jumped from his hiding-place, and, throwing his hat in the air, cried out, “Thank God, they are whippedthey are running!” Yes; there was no doubt about it-they were running; and all the efforts of their officers, whom we could distinctly see using their sabres against their own men to check the precipitate retreat, were unavailing. All discipline was lost for the moment, and those thousands of troops whom an hour before we had seen advancing in beautiful military order, now presented the spectacle of a stampeded and demoralised mob. Having kept Stuart constantly informed of the enemy's movements, I was at this moment more careful to send courier after courier to apprise him that the Yankees were routed, and that in my judgment the time for our attack had arrived; but my general did not fully credit my report, until at my urgent request he galloped up to us in person to see, just a little too late, how correct my account of affairs had been. Off we now hastened to Jackson, who at once sent to General Lee the request that he might leave his intrenchments without further delay, fall upon the enemy, and render the victory complete. A single cannon-shot fired from our centre was to be the signal for the general attack by our whole line, at which movement Stuart was to press forward with his cavalry and horse-artillery vigorously upon the enemy's flank.

    Returning to our position on the Port Royal road, we awaited in anxious silence the so much desired signal; but minute after minute passed by, and the dark veil of night began to envelop the valley, when Stuart, believing that the [317] summons agreed upon had been given, issued the order to advance. Off we went into the gathering darkness, our sharpshooters driving their opponents easily before them, and Pelham, with his guns, pushing ahead at a trot, firing a few shots whenever the position seemed favourable, and then again pressing forward. This lasted about twenty minutes, when the fire of the enemy's infantry began to be more and more destructive, and other fresh batteries opened upon us.2 Still all remained silent upon our main line. Stuart himself, as usual, was always in the extreme front, exposing his person to the hottest fire; one bullet had already pierced his haversack, and another torn the fur collar off his cape, and the wonder was that any one of us had escaped unhurt.

    Our situation had become, indeed, a critical one, when a courier from General Jackson galloped up at full speed bringing the order for Stuart to retreat as quickly as he could to his original position. Our commander-in-chief, adhering to his earliest idea, still objected to a forward movement, for which, in my judgment, the golden moment had now passed, had he inclined to favour it. Under cover of the darkness of the night, we conducted our retrograde movement in safety, and reached our old position on the Port Royal road with but slight loss.

    The division of D. H. Hill had now arrived at Hamilton's Crossing, and had been placed at once in the open field upon Jackson's right, where might be seen the glare of their hundreds of camp-fires, and where they were busily engaged in throwing up intrenchments. On our left wing the assault of [318] the enemy had been renewed at dark, and had been attended with the same fatal result to them with their efforts elsewhere, and the ground in front of Marye's Heights was heaped with dead bodies, chiefly those of the brave Irishmen of Meagher's brigade, which went to the attack 1200 strong, and left 900 of their number upon this dreadful spot. About seven o'clock the battle ceased for the day; only random cannonshots were still interchanged, the flight of the shells distinctly marked in flaming curves across the dark firmament, and the shadows of evening fell upon a battle-field, the nameless horrors of which none of us had even measurably conjectured — a battle-field where thousands of mutilated and dying men lay in hopeless anguish, writhing in their wounds, and pitilessly exposed to the sharp frosty air of the winter's night.

    Not one of our generals was aware of the magnitude of the victory we had gained, of the injury we had inflicted upon the enemy, and of the degree of demoralisation in the hostile army, everybody regarding the work as but half done, and expecting a renewal of the attack the following morning. Of our own army only one-third had been engaged, and our loss did not exceed 1800 in killed and wounded. Most of these belonged to A. P. Hill's division, and had fallen during the first attack in the morning on the spot where our lines had for some time been broken. We had to mourn the loss of two general officers, Maxey Gregg of South Carolina, and Thomas R. R. Cobb of Georgia, who fell on Marye's Heights. At his side General Cooke, a brother of Mrs Stuart, was dangerously wounded in the forehead. The Federal loss was not less than 14,000 in killed and wounded (we took only 800 prisoners), and in this frightful aggregate of casualties was to be reckoned the loss of many officers of rank. Among these there was the much-lamented General Bayard, a cavalry [319] officer of great promise, who, far in the rear of his lines, was torn to pieces by one of our exploding shells while in the act of taking luncheon under a tree.

    General Lee has been much criticised, and chiefly by English writers, for not having assumed the offensive in this battle; but every one who knows how exceedingly difficult it had become, already at that time, to fill the ranks of the Confederate army, and how valuable each individual life in that army must have been considered, and, on the other hand, what reckless prodigality of life characterised the Federal Government and the Federal commanders, caring little that 20,000 or 30,000 men should be killed in a campaign, when as many more Germans and Irishmen could be readily put in their places,--I say that every one who bears in mind these facts will agree with me in thinking that our commander-in-chief acted with great consideration and wisdom. There was scarcely an officer in the whole army who did not confidently believe that the attack would be renewed the next day; and where an opportunity was likely to be afforded of again inflicting serious damage upon the enemy with trifling injury to ourselves, it surely cannot be censured as a fault to have speculated upon the incapacity of the adversary. General Lee, who had been careful to strengthen the weaker portions of his line during the night, said in my presence on the following morning, “My army is as much stronger for their new intrenchments as if I had received reinforcements of 20,000 men.” I regard it as almost certain that had the Federal commander been able to carry out his intention of renewing the struggle, the second day would have turned out even more disastrously to him than the first.

    It was a late hour of the night when we returned to headquarters for a short rest. There we found Captain Phillips, who congratulated us heartily upon having safely [320] passed through the perils of the day, and who spoke with enthusiasm of the magnificent view of the battle which he had obtained from Lee's Hill. With a modest smile, Pelham returned to the Captain the bit of regimental ribbon he had worn as a talisman during the fight, its gay colours just a little blackened by powder-smoke, for it had flaunted from the cap of the young hero in the very atmosphere of Death. Poor Pelham! he has been lying these three years in his early grave there in Alabama, whose Indian name, “Here we rest,” has a pathetic significance as applied to the “narrow home” of one so young and so full of promise; and the record of his services to his country fills a few pages in the melancholy story of an unsuccessful struggle for national existence; but his memory is green in the hearts of friends that survived him, and a brave English soldier cherishes the ribbon he wore at Fredericksburg as one of the dearest souvenirs of the past in his possession.

    We were greatly delighted at finding also at headquarters two of the younger members of the Staff, Lieutenants Hullyhan and Turner, who had just returned from a dangerous expedition into the enemy's lines on the other side of the Rappahannock. Several days before they had gone off with the hope of rescuing from the hands of the Yankees, Miss Mary Lee, the daughter of our commander-in-chief and a dear friend of General Stuart's, who, while on a visit to some friends in the county of Stafford, had been cut off from her home and family. This was an expedition after my own heart, but I was prevented from undertaking it by General Stuart's energetic opposition. The young lieutenants had reached in safety the house where Miss Lee was staying; but as her friends were afraid to allow her to accompany them on their return, they were compelled to come back without their expected precious charge-fortunately enough, indeed, for the lady, as they were very soon taken prisoners by a patrol of [321] Federal cavalry. During the night following their capture they found the opportunity of overpowering and killing two of their sentinels with their own carbines; and mounting, just in the nick of time, the horses of the Yankee guard, they made good their escape before the rest of their captors had recovered from their amazement at the boldness of the venture.

    1 For the gallantry displayed here, and his great services rendered during the latter part of the battle, Pelham was highly complimented in Stuart's, Jackson's, and Lee's reports, the latter of which styled him “the gallant Pelham” --a title which was adopted in a short time by the whole army, and which has often been employed in these memoirs. Several English writers have done justice to his heroism on this special occasion.--See Chesney's “Campaign in Virginia,” vol. i. p. 192; Fletcher's “History of the American war,” vol. II. p. 250.

    2 It must be remarked here that the division of Federal infantry opposite to us had not as yet gone into the battle, and therefore had not been included in the rout, and that the Yankees had gained time enough to replace their demoralised troops with reserves drawn as rapidly as possible from the other side of the river.

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