Sumner's “right Grand division.”
On the evening of October 15th, 1862, a few days after McClellan
had placed me in command of the Second Corps, then at Harper's Ferry
, the commanding general sent an order for Hancock
to take his division the next morning on a reconnoissance toward Charlestown
, about ten miles distant. The division started in good season, as directed.
About 10 in the morning General McClellan
reined up at my headquarters and asked me to go out with him to see what the troops were doing.
Our people had met the enemy's outpost five miles from the Ferry
, and while artillery shots were being exchanged, both of us dismounted, walked away by ourselves, and took seats on a ledge of rocks.
After a little while McClellan
sent to an aide for a map of Virginia
Spreading it before us, he pointed to the strategic features of the valley of the Shenandoah
, and indicated the movements he intended to make, which would have the effect of compelling Lee
to concentrate in the vicinity, I think, of Gordonsville
, where a great battle would be fought.
Continuing the conversation, he said, “But I may not have command of the army much longer.
is down on me,” and, taking a paper from his pocket, he gave me my first intimation of the President
's famous letter.2
He read it aloud very carefully, and when it was finished I told him I thought there was no ill-feeling in the tone of it. He thought there was, and quickly added, “Yes, Couch
, I expect to be relieved from the Army of the Potomac, and to have a command in the West
; and I am going to take three or four with me,” calling off by their names four prominent officers.
I queried if “so and so” would be taken along, naming one who was generally thought to be a great favorite with McClellan
His curt reply was, “No, I sha'n't have him.”
This brief conversation opened a new world for me. I had never before been to any extent his confidant, and I pondered whether on a change of the commanders of the Army of the Potomac the War Department would allow him to choose the generals whose names had been mentioned.
I wondered what would be the future of himself and those who followed his fortunes in that untried field.
These and a crowd of other kindred thoughts quite oppressed me for several days.
But as the time wore on, and preparations for the invasion of Virginia
were allowed to go on without let or hindrance from Washington
, I naturally and gladly inferred that McClellan
's fears of hostile working against him were groundless.
However, the blow came, and soon enough.
On the 8th of November, just at dark, I had dismounted, and, standing in the snow, was superintending the camp arrangements of my troops, when McClellan
came up with his staff, accompanied by General Burnside
drew in his horse, and the first thing he said was:
Couch, I am relieved from the command of the army, and Burnside is my successor.
I stepped up to him and took hold of his hand, and said, “General McClellan
, I am sorry for it.”
Then, going around the head of his horse to Burnside
, I said, “General Burnside
, I congratulate you.”
heard what I said to General McClellan
; he turned away his head, and made a broad gesture as he exclaimed:
Couch, don't say a word about it.
His manner indicated that he did not wish to talk about the change; that he thought it was not good policy to do so, nor the place to do it. He told me afterward that he did not like to take the command, but that he did so to keep it from going to somebody manifestly unfit for it. I assumed that he meant Hooker
Those of us who were well acquainted with Burnside
knew that he was a brave, loyal man, but we did not think that he had the military ability to command the Army of the Potomac.
took leave on the 10th.
Fitz John Porter
sent notes to the corps commanders, informing them that McClellan
was going away, and suggesting that we ride about with him. Such a scene as that leave-taking
had never been known in our army.
Men shed tears and there was great excitement among the troops.
[See p. 104.]
I think the soldiers had an idea that McClellan
would take care of them,--would not put them in places where they would be unnecessarily cut up; and if a general has the confidence of his men he is pretty strong.
But officers and men were determined to serve Burnside
A day or two afterward Burnside
called the corps commanders together, mapped out a course that he intended to pursue; and, among other things, he said that he intended to double the army corps, and he proposed to call the three new commands — or doubles--“grand divisions.”
Under this arrangement my corps, the Second, and Willcox
's, the Ninth, which had been Burnside
's, formed the Right Grand Division under General Sumner
and I arrived near Falmouth
, opposite Fredericksburg
, November 17th, we found the enemy in small force in readiness to oppose our crossing the Rappahannock
Everybody knew that Lee
would rush right in; we could see it. If the pontoons had been there, we might have crossed at once.
[See p. 121.] Yet we lay there nearly a month, while they were fortifying before our eyes; besides, the weather was against us. Under date of December 7th, my diary contains this entry: “Very cold; plenty of snow.
Men suffering; cold outdoors, ice indoors in my room.”
's headquarters were at the Lacy House
, while the Second Corps lay back of the brow of the hill behind Falmouth
On the night of the 9th, two nights before the crossing, Sumner
called a council to discuss what we were to do, the corps, division, and brigade commanders being present.
The result was a plain, free talk all around, in which words were not minced, for the conversation soon drifted into a marked disapprobation of the manner in which Burnside
contemplated meeting the enemy.
seemed to feel badly that the officers did not agree to Burnside
's mode of advance.
That noble old hero was so faithful and loyal that he wanted, even against impossibilities, to carry out everything Burnside
should doubt if his judgment concurred.
It was only chivalrous attachment to Burnside
, or to any commander.
But there were not two opinions among the subordinate officers as to the rashness of the undertaking.
Somebody told Burnside
of our views, and he was irritated.
He asked us to meet him the next night at the Lacy House
He said he understood, in a general way, that we were opposed to his plans.
He seemed to be rather
The Phillips House, Burnside's headquarters: from a photograph taken while the House was burning.
severe on Hancock
,--to my surprise, for I did not think that officer had said as much as myself in opposition to the plan of attack.
stated that he had formed his plans, and all he wanted was the devotion of his men. Hancock
made a reply in which he disclaimed any personal discourtesy, and said he knew there was a line of fortified heights on the opposite side, and that it would be pretty difficult for us to go over there and take them.
I rose after him, knowing that I was the more guilty, and expressed a desire to serve Burnside
, saying, among other things, that if I had ever done anything in any battle, in this one I intended to do twice as much.
French came in while I was talking.
He was rather late, and in his bluff way exclaimed: “is this a Methodist camp-meeting?”
the heights on the morning of the 11th, before the bridges were thrown across, did not offer a very animated scene, because the troops were mostly hidden.
The bombardment for the purpose of dislodging the sharp-shooters who under cover of the houses were delaying the bridge-making, was terrific, while the smoke settled down and veiled the scene.
After the bombardment had failed to dislodge the enemy, the 7th Michigan and the 19th and the 20th Massachusetts of Howard
's division sprang into the pontoons, and rowing themselves over drove away Barksdale
This gallant action enabled the engineers to complete the bridges.
's division was the first to cross by the upper bridge [see map, p. 74], his advance having a lively fight in the streets of Fredericksburg
's brigade of Willcox
's corps occupied the lower part of the town on the same evening, and the town was not secured without desperate fighting.
I went over the next morning, Friday, the 12th, with Hancock
's and French
The remainder of Willcox
's corps crossed and occupied the lower part of the town.
There was considerable looting.
I placed a provost-guard at the bridges, with orders that nobody should go back with plunder.
An enormous pile of booty was collected there by evening.
But there came a time when we were too busy to guard it, and I suppose it was finally carried off by another set of spoilers.
The troops of the two corps bivouacked that night in the streets and were not permitted
to make fires.
Late on that day we had orders to be ready to cross Hazel Run
, which meant that we were to join Franklin
That was the only proper move to make, since we had done just what the enemy wanted us to do,--had divided our army.
The conditions were favorable for a change of position unknown to the enemy, since the night was dark and the next morning was foggy.
But it would have been very difficult to make the movement.
I was much worried in regard to building the necessary bridges over Hazel Run
and the dangers attending a flank movement at night in the presence of the enemy.
But the order to march never came.
The orders that were given by Burnside
showed that he had no fixed plan of battle.
After getting in the face of the enemy, his intentions seemed to be continually changing.
Early the next morning, Saturday, the 13th, I received orders to make an assault in front.
My instructions came from General Sumner
, who did not
cross the river during the fight, owing to a special understanding with which I had nothing to do, and which related to his supposed rashness.
At fair Oaks, Antietam
, and on other battle-fields he had shown that he was a hard fighter.
He was a grand soldier, full of honor and gallantry, and a man of great determination.
As I have said, on that Saturday morning we were enveloped in a heavy fog. At 8:15, when we were still holding ourselves in readiness to move to the left, I received the following order:
French was at once directed to prepare his division in three brigade lines for the advance, and Hancock
was to follow with his division in the same order.
The distance between the brigade lines was to be about 200 yards.
Toward 10 o'clock the fog began to lift; French reported that he was ready, I signaled to Sumner
, and about 11 o'clock the movement was ordered to begin.
French threw out a strong body of skirmishers, and his brigades filed out of town as rapidly as possible by two parallel streets, the one on the right, which
was Hanover street, running into the Telegraph
road, and both leading direct to Marye's Hill, the stronghold of the enemy.
On the outskirts of the town the troops encountered a ditch, or canal, so deep as to be almost impassable except at the street bridges, and, one of the.latter being partly torn up, the troops had to cross single file on the stringers.
Once across the canal, the attacking forces deployed under the bank bordering the plain over which they were to charge.
This plain was obstructed here and there by houses and fences, notably at a fork of the Telegraph
road, in the narrow angles of which was a cluster of houses and gardens; and also on the parallel road just south of it, where stood a large square brick house.
This cluster of houses and the brick house were the rallying-points for parts of our disordered lines of attack.
The fork in the road and the brick house were less than 150 yards from the stone-wall, which covered also as much more of the plain to the left of the brick house.
A little in advance of the brick house a slight rise in the ground afforded protection to men lying down, against the musketry behind the stone-wall, but not against the converging fire of the artillery on the heights.
My headquarters were in the field on the edge of the town, overlooking the plain.
A few minutes after noon French
's division charged in the order of Kim-ball's, Andrews
's, and Palmer
's brigades, a part of Kimball
's men getting into the cluster of houses in the fork of the road.
followed them in the order of Zook
's, and Caldwell
's brigades, the two former getting
nearer to the stone-wall than any who had gone before, except a few of Kimball
's men, and nearer than any brigade which followed them.
Without a clear idea of the state of affairs at the front, since the smoke and light fog veiled everything, I sent word to French and Hancock
to carry the enemy's works by storm.
Then I climbed the steeple of the court-house, and from above the haze and smoke got a clear view of the field.
, who was with me, says I exclaimed, “Oh, great God!
see how our men, our poor fellows, are falling” I remember that the whole plain was covered with men, prostrate and dropping, the live men running here and there, and in front closing upon each other, and the wounded coming back.
The commands seemed to be mixed up. I had never before seen fighting like that, nothing approaching it in terrible uproar and destruction.
There was no cheering on the part of the men, but a stubborn determination to obey orders and do their duty.
I don't think there was much feeling of success.
As they charged the artillery fire would break their formation and they would get mixed; then they would close up, go forward, receive the withering infantry fire, and those who were able would run to the houses and fight as best they could; and then the next brigade coming up in succession would do its duty and melt like snow coming down on warm ground.
I was in the steeple hardly ten seconds, for I saw at a glance how they were being cut down, and was convinced that we could not be successful in front, and that our only chance lay by the right.
I immediately ordered Howard
to work in on the right with the brigades of Owen
, and attack the enemy behind the stone-wall in flank, which was done.
Before he could begin this movement both Hancock
and French had notified me that they must have support or they would not be responsible for the maintenance of their position.
, of Willcox
's corps, who had been supporting my left, sent the brigades of Ferrero
to the fruitless charge.
About 2 o'clock General Hooker
, who was in command of the Center Grand Division (Stoneman
's and Butterfield
's corps), came upon the field.
At an earlier hour Whipple
's division of Stoneman
's corps had crossed the river and relieved Howard
on the right, so that the latter might join in the attack in the center, and Griffin
's division of Butterfield
's corps had come over to the support of Sturgis
, of the latter corps, came to my support.
Toward 3 o'clock I received the following dispatch:
headquarters, right Grand division, army of the Potomac, Dec. 13th, 1862.--2:40 P. M. General Couch: Hooker has been ordered to put in everything.
You must hold on until he comes in. By command of Brevet Major-General Sumner. W. G. Jones, Lieut., Aide-decamp, etc.
note to illustration.--The Artillery Reserve posted on the eastern bank of the river comprised four commands, as follows: the Right Division
, under Lieutenant-Colonel William Hays
, extending from Falmouth
down to the ravine, about 500 yards below Falmouth
(see map, p. 74), and consisting of 40 rifled guns; the Right Center Division
, under Colonel C. H. Tompkins
, consisted of 38 guns; the Left Center Division
, under Colonel R. O. Tyler
, occupying the crest of the ridge from the middle bridge southward to the wooded ravine near the center of the ridge, and consisting of 27 guns; the Left Division
, under Captain G. A. De Russy
, numbering 42 guns.
When the order was given to fire upon the town, only the guns of the Right Center
and Left Center could be brought to bear effectually.
's batteries delivered a few shots.
's guns opened fire, doing but little execution.
reported that his batteries opened at 12:30 P. M. under orders to burn the town, and ceased firing at 2:30 P. M., at which time several buildings were burning.--editors.
Crossing the River in pontoons to dislodge the Confederate Sharp-Shooters. |
was the ranking general, and as I understood that he was to take command of the whole fighting line, the putting in of his fresh men beside mine might make a success.
His very coming was to me, therefore, like the breaking out of the sun in a storm.
I rode back to meet him, told him what had been done, and said, “I can't carry that hill by a front assault; the only chance we have is to try to get in on the right.”
replied, “I will talk with Hancock
He talked with Hancock
, and after a few minutes said, “Well, Couch
, things are in such a state I must go over and tell Burnside
it is no use trying to carry this line here,”--or words to that effect,--and then he went off. His going away left me again in command.
was nearly two miles distant. It was not much after 2 o'clock when he went away, and it was about 4 when he returned.
This was after Humphreys
had made his charge and the fighting for the day was substantially finished.
We were holding our lines.
left word that Humphreys
, whose division was ready to advance,
should take his cue from me. Butterfield
also gave Humphreys
orders to that effect.
After a lull in the battle General Caldwell
, a brigade commander under Hancock
, sent word to the latter that the enemy were retreating from Marye's house.
It was probably only a shifting of the enemy's troops for the relief of the front line.
But, assuming that the report was true, I said, “General Humphreys
reports the enemy is falling back; now is the time for you to go in!”
He was ready, and his troops around him were ready.
The order had evidently been expected, and after an interval of more than twenty-five years I well recollect the grim determination which settled on the face of that gallant hero when he received the words, “Now is the time for you to go in!”
Spurring to his work he led his two brigades, who charged over precisely the same ground, but who did not get quite so near to the stone-wall as some of French's and Hancock
The musketry fire was very heavy, and the artillery fire was simply terrible.
I sent word several times to our artillery on the right of Falmouth
that they were firing into us, and were tearing our own men to pieces.
I thought they had made a mistake in the range.
But I learned later that the fire came from the guns of the enemy on their extreme left.
Soon after 4 o'clock, or about sunset, while Humphreys
was at work, Getty
's division of Willcox
's corps was ordered to the charge on our left by the unfinished railroad.
I could see them being dreadfully cut up, although they had not advanced as far as our men. I determined to send a battery upon the plain to shell the line that was doing them so much harm; so I ordered an aide.to tell Colonel Morgan
to send a battery across the canal and plant it near the brick house.
came to me and said: “General, a battery can't live there.”
I replied, “Then it must die there!”
took his battery out in gallant style and opened fire on the enemy's lines to the left of the Marye House
Men never fought more gallantly, and he lost a great many men and horses.
came he ordered Frank's battery to join Hazard
But this last effort did not last long.
In the midst of it I rode to the brick house, accompanied by Colonel Francis A. Walker
, Lieutenant Cushing
, and my orderly, Long.
The smoke lay so thick that we could not see the enemy, and I think they could not see us, but we were aware
The Ninth Corps crossing by the pontoon-bridge to the steam-boat Landing at the lower end of the town. |
of the fact that somebody in our front was doing a great deal of shooting.
I found the brick house packed with men; and behind it the dead and the living were as thick as they could be crowded together.
The dead were rolled out for shelter, and the dead horses were used for breastworks.
I know I tried to shelter myself behind the brick house, but found I could not, on account of the men already there.
The plain thereabouts was dotted with our fallen.
I started to cross to the fork of the road where our men, under Colonel John R. Brooke
, were holding the cluster of houses.
When it became dark the wounded were being brought off the plain, and Hooker
was talking about relieving my men in front by putting in Sykes
's division, and I said, “No!
No men shall take the place of the Second Corps unless General Sumner
gives the orders.
It has fought and. gained that ground and it shall hold it.”
Later the order came for Sykes
to relieve the Second Corps, which was done about 11 o'clock.
That night was bitter cold and a fearful one for the front line hugging the hollows in the ground, and for the wounded who could not be reached.
It was a night of dreadful suffering.
Many died of wounds and exposure, and as fast as men died they stiffened in the wintry air, and on the front line were rolled forward for protection to the living.
Frozen men were placed for dumb sentries.
My corps again bivouacked in the town, and they were not allowed fires lest they should draw the fire of the enemy's artillery.
At 2 o'clock in the morning Burnside
came to my headquarters near the center of the town.
I was lying down at the time.
He asked me to tell him about the battle, and we talked for about an hour.
I told him everything that had occurred.
“And now,” I said, “General Burnside
, you must know that everything that could be done by troops was done by the Second Corps.”
He said, “Couch
, I know that; I am perfectly satisfied that you did your best.”
He gave no intimation of his plans for the next day. He was cheerful in his tone and did not seem greatly oppressed, but it was plain that he felt he had led us to a great disaster, and one knowing him so long and well as myself could see that he wished his body was also lying in front of Marye's Heights
I never felt so badly for a man in my life.
The next day, Sunday, the 14th, our men began digging trenches along the edge of the town.
We were on the alert, for there was some fear of an
Of course there is no need of denying that after the battle the men became strained.
The pressure of a fight carries you through, but after it is all over and you have been whipped you do not feel very pugnacious.
The men, knowing that they had been unsuccessful, were in a nervous state, and officers suffered also from the reaction, the worst of it being that the mass of the army had lost confidence in its commander.
About midday of the 14th Burnside
called a council of war, in which it was decided to fall back, but to hold Fredericksburg
No attack was made by us that day, though Burnside
had said that he should renew the assault on Marye's Hill, with his old Ninth Corps, and that he would place himself at its head.
of that corps, a very gallant officer, touched me as I passed him and said: “I understand that Burnside
has given out that he intends to lead seventeen regiments to the attack.”
He urged me strongly to dissuade him if possible, as it would be a perfect slaughter of men.
At the council Hooker
expressed himself as against the movement of retreat, saying, “We must fight those people.
We are over there and we must fight them.”
But, as I remember, he did not advocate the plan of holding Fredericksburg
if we were not to renew the fight.
I urged that the army was not in a condition, after our repulse, to renew the assault, but that we ought to hold Fredericksburg
at all hazards.
I had an argument with General Burnside
upon that point, telling him that I was willing to have him throw all the responsibility upon me; that if we held the town we should
The ground between Fredericksburg and Marye's Heights.
From a War-time photograph.
The portico of the Marye mansion is faintly marked among the trees of the hill in the middle-background.
The road on the right is the end of Hanover street and the beginning of the Telegraph road, by which most of the attacking troops crossed the canal, or ditch, and, filing to the left, formed line under the low bank.
In the middle-ground, to the left of the road, is seen the square brick house mentioned by General Couch.
Part of the troops crossed the canal by a street on the left parallel with Hanover street, and a few waded.
Most of the dead lay a short distance beyond the brick house.
Colonel John R. Brooke, of Hancock's division, was sent on the fourth day after the battle with a large detail to bury the dead.
In his official report he says: “Those bodies nearest the enemy's works were recognized as belonging to Kimball's brigade of French's division and to the different regiments of Hancock's division.”
In the two days occupied by the burial he says he “found and buried 913 of our soldiers, and brought to this side of the river the bodies of five officers, making a total of 918.
Nearly all the dead were stripped entirely naked by the enemy.”
A woman who lived in one of the houses near the stone-wall has related that “the morning after the battle the field was blue; but the morning after the Federals withdrew the field was white.”--editors. |
have a little something to show for the sacrifice of the day before; that the people would feel we had not failed utterly.
It was agreed that Fredericks-burg should be held.
dismissed us and sent Hooker
and myself to Fredericksburg
to arrange for the defense.
We held a council at the corner of Hanover street.
It was decided that Hooker
's troops should hold the town.
The question was how many men would he leave for that purpose, opinions varying from ten to eighteen thousand.
My limit was ten thousand men. General Tyler
turned to me and said: “Make it higher, General.”
We compromised on twelve thousand.
We remained in the town on the 15th, and that evening my corps and the Ninth Corps recrossed the river.
Next morning we found that Fredericksburg
had been evacuated.
and I left, we thought, of course, it would be held.
The talk was that during the night Hooker
prevailed upon Burnside
to evacuate the town.
Our wing of the army thought the failure of the campaign was due in part to the fact that we were put in where we ought not to have been.
We were asked to achieve an impossibility.
We had something to do that was not possible for us to do.
After the battle Burnside
tried to regain the confidence of the army, and there is no doubt that Sumner
did a good deal to help him. Burnside
conceived the plan of crossing the Rappahannock
a few miles above Fredericks-burg, where the enemy were unprepared to receive us. The result was the “mud march” of January 20th-21st.
It was Burnside
's effort to redeem himself.
To start off in the mud as we did with the army in its discouraged
state was perfect folly.
There did not seem to be anything in the move to recommend itself.
If the weather had happened to turn cold, possibly he might have surprised Lee
and gotten across the river, above Fredericks-burg, but it was a hazardous move, with the army out of confidence with its commander and the enemy elated with brilliant success.
The general demoralization that had come upon us made two or three months of rest a necessity.4
, on January 25th, was placed in command of the army, many of us were very much surprised; I think the superior officers did not regard him competent for the task.
He had fine qualities as an officer, but not the weight of character to take charge of that army.
Nevertheless, under his administration the army assumed wonderful vigor.
I have never known men to change from a condition of the lowest depression to that of a healthy fighting state in so short a time.
with his wife came down to spend a few days with General Hooker
, and to see the different officers and talk with them.
To further that, General Hooker
gave a dinner party at
Stuck in the mud — a flank march across country.
From a War-time sketch. |
which all the corps commanders were present, and also Mrs. Lincoln
. Mr. Lincoln
would talk to the officers on the subject that was uppermost in our minds-how we were to get the better of the enemy on the opposite hills.
Before he went away he sent for Hooker
and for me, I being second in command, and almost his last injunction was: “Gentlemen, in your next battle put in all your men.
” Yet that is exactly what we did not do at Chancellorsville
We had a grand review of the army in honor of the President
The Second Corps paraded with Howard
's Eleventh Corps, I think, for after I had saluted at the head of my corps I rode to the side of the President
, who was on horseback, and while near him General Schurz
approached at the head of his division.
I said: “Mr. Lincoln
, that is General Schurz
,” pronouncing it Shurs,
after the American
turned to me and said: “Not Shurs, General Couch
, but Shoortz.
” But he did it very pleasantly, and I was just a little surprised that our Western President
should have the advantage of me. It was a beautiful day, and the review was a stirring sight.
, sitting there with his hat off, head bent, and seemingly meditating, suddenly turned to me and said: “General Couch
, what do you suppose will become of all these men when the war is over?”
And it struck me as very pleasant that somebody had an idea that the war would sometime end.