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Notes of a Confederate staff-officer.

by W. Roy Mason, Major, C. S. A.
Fredericksburg was the first great battle that I saw in its entire scope. Here the situation of the country — a champaign tract inclosed in hills — offered the opportunity of seeing the troops on both sides, and the movements down the entire lines. I witnessed the magnificent charges made on our left by Meagher's Irish Brigade, and was also a sorrowful witness of the death of our noble T. R. R. Cobb of Georgia, who fell mortally wounded at the foot of the stone-wall just at the door of Mrs. Martha Stevens. This woman, the Molly Pitcher of the war, attended the wounded and the dying fearless of consequences, and refused to leave her house, although, standing just between the advancing line of the enemy and the stone-wall, the position was one of danger. It is said that after using all the materials for bandages at her command, she tore from her person most of her garments, even on that bitter cold day, in her anxiety to administer to necessities greater than her own.

Mrs. Stevens still lives in her old home at the foot of Marye's Heights, honored by every Confederate soldier. Not long ago, hearing that she was very sick, I went out with a party of gentlemen friends who were visitors in Fredericksburg to inquire for her. Being told of our visit, she requested her son-in-law to ask me in. When jocularly asked by him if she was going to invite a gentleman into her sick-room, the old lady replied: “Yes, ask Major Mason in,--we were old soldiers together.”

After Burnside had withdrawn his forces across the Rappahannock, General Lee rode over to Marye's Heights, where I then was, and said to me: “Captain, those people [meaning the enemy] have sent over a flag of truce, asking permission to send a detachment to bury their dead. They have landed near your house, ‘The Sentry Box.’ Have you any objection to taking this reply down?” As he spoke, he handed me a sealed envelope directed to General Burnside. I accordingly rode into town and made my way down to the river-front of my residence, from which Burnside had only that morning removed his pontoons. There I found a Federal lieutenant-colonel with two soldiers in a boat, holding a flag of truce. I handed him the dispatch and at the same time asked where Burnside was. He answered, “Just up the hill across the river, under an old persimmon-tree, awaiting the dispatch.” Telling him my name, I said: “Give my regards to General Burnside, and say to him that I thought he was too familiar with the surroundings of Fredericksburg to butt his brains out deliberately against our stone-walls.”

“Do you know General Burnside?” inquired the officer.

“Oh, yes!” I replied, “he is an old acquaintance of mine.”

“Then will you wait till I deliver your message and return? He may have something to say.”

“I will wait then,” was my answer.

In a very short time the flag of truce returned with a request from Burnside that I would come over in the boat to see him. I thoroughly appreciated the fact that I was running the risk of a court-martial from my own side in thus going into the enemy's lines without permission; but being that rather privileged person, a staff-officer, from whom no pass was required and of whom no questions were asked, I determined to accept this invitation and go over. [101]

After passing the river and walking leisurely up the hill, the idle Federal soldiers, seeing a Confederate officer on their side and feeling curious about it, ran down in numbers toward the road. For the first time I was frightened by this result of my act, as I feared that our generals on the hills with their strong glasses, seeing the commotion, might inquire into it. As soon as I approached Burnside, who met me with the greatest cordiality, I expressed to him this fear. He at once sent out couriers to order the soldiers back to camp, and we then sat down on an old log, and being provided with crackers, cheese, sardines, and a bottle of brandy (all luxuries to a Confederate), we discussed this lunch as well as the situation. General Burnside seemed terribly mortified and distressed at his failure, but said that he wanted me to tell his old army friends on the other side that he was not responsible for the attack on Fredericksburg in the manner in which it was made, as he was himself under orders, and was not much more than a figure-head, or words to that effect.

We talked pleasantly for an hour about old times, Burnside asking me many questions about former friends and comrades, now on our side of the fratricidal struggle. When I expressed my wish to return, he wrapped up a bottle of brandy to give me at parting, and sent me under escort to the river. Having recrossed, I mounted my horse and rode back to Marye's Heights, but, enjoyable as this escapade had been, I said nothing, of course, about it to my army friends till long afterward.

That day I witnessed with pain the burial of many thousands of Federal dead that had fallen at Fredericksburg. The night before, the thermometer must have fallen to zero, and the bodies of the slain had frozen to the ground. The ground was frozen nearly a foot deep, and it was necessary to use pick-axes. Trenches were dug on the battle-field and the dead collected and laid in line for burial. It was a sad sight to see these brave soldiers thrown into the trenches, without even a blanket or a word of prayer, and the heavy clods thrown upon them; but the most sickening sight of all was when they threw the dead, some four or five hundred in number, into Wallace's empty ice-house, where they were found — a hecatomb of skeletons — after the war. In 1865-66 some shrewd Yankee contractors obtained government sanction to disinter all the Federal dead on the battle-fields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. They were to be paid per capita. When I went out to see the skeletons taken from the ice-house, I found the contractor provided with unpainted boxes of common pine about six feet long and twelve inches wide; but I soon saw that this scoundrel was dividing the remains so as to make as much by his contract as possible. I at once reported what I had seen to Colonel E. V. Sumner, Jr., then in command of the Sub-district of the Rappahannock. He was utterly shocked at this vandalism. I afterward heard that the contract was taken away from the fellow and given to more reliable parties.

One morning about this time I was at breakfast, when the servant, terribly frightened, announced a sergeant and file of soldiers in my porch asking for me. The ladies immediately imagined that this squad had been sent to arrest me, as they had heard more than once that charges would be preferred against me by the United States Government for extreme partisanship. Going to the door, I was told by the sergeant that Colonel Sumner had sent him to me to inquire as to the burial places of the Federal soldiers whom I had found dead upon my lot and in my house after the battle of Fredericksburg. I told him that I had found one Federal soldier stretched on one of my beds. In my parlor, lying on the floor, was another whose entire form left its imprint in blood on the floor,--as may be seen to this day. In my own chamber, sitting up in an old-fashioned easy-chair, I had found a Federal lieutenant-colonel. When I entered, I supposed him to be alive, as the back of his head was toward me. Much startled, I approached him, to find that he had been shot through the neck, and, probably, placed in that upright position that he might better breathe. He was quite dead. I had all these bodies, and five or six others found in my yard, buried in one grave on the wharf. They had been killed, no doubt, by Barksdale's Mississippi brigade, in their retreat from my lot. I made my report at Sumner's headquarters, after which I took the burial squad to the grave, and then returned home to quiet the apprehensions of my family. [102]

Newspapers in camp. From a War-time sketch.

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