Chapter 5: the battle of Fredericksburg
- The battle of Fredericksburg -- a day on the skirmish line -- the mud March -- Burnside relieved by Hooker -- President Lincoln's letter to Hooker
The weather was cool and the air crisp, rendering marching more agreeable, and we jogged along in eager anticipation of something better than that which we had left. We could see nothing ahead of us, but about noon the report of cannon was heard. During the afternoon we were passed by a lot of men having in charge a balloon which was up just above the treetops They were moving rapidly toward where the sound of cannon came from. It was the first balloon we had seen, and created a good deal of comment. It was said that the balloon had been of great service to McClellan on the Peninsula, enabling him to discover the movements of the enemy's troops, and locate their position, and that of their batteries. The next day when we reached the flat near the Rappahannock, we saw the balloon again up a considerable distance and occupied by an officer who was busily engaged in scanning the hills beyond the river with a glass. The Rebels fired several shells at the balloon but they burst a good way from it, and did not disturb its occupant at all. Off to our right there was heavy artillery firing and considerable musketry, and some also in our immediate front. The Rebel batteries answered ours occasionally but the range was evidently too great for effective work. We could see the spires of Fredericksburg and back of it a range of hills which reached from right to left as far as we could  see. The flats on each side of the river are much alike, and about the same width as those at Ilion and Frankfort. A road runs along the base of the hills toward Richmond, called the “Bowling Green Turnpike.” Along this road and on the high ground above, could be seen masses of the enemy moving along. Their guns in battery on the heights could be seen to be protected by earthworks and on the fort, or redoubt, back of the city a signal station was located, and the wigwagging of the white flag with a square black center was continuous.In reorganizing the Army Burnside had assigned Major General Sumner to the command of the Right Grand Division, Major General Hooker to command the Central Grand Division, and Major General Franklin to command the Left Grand Division. These Grand Divisions consisted each of two Corps. The Right of the Second and Ninth Corps commanded respectively by Major General Couch and Major General Wilcox. The Center of the Fifth and Third Corps commanded by Major Generals Butterfield and Stoneman. The Left of the First and Sixth Corps commanded by Major Generals Reynolds and W. F. Smith. In the Battle of Fredericksburg the position of these Grand divisions was, after crossing the river, in the order of their names. The Right and Central Divisions crossed the river directly opposite the city on pontoon bridges, which they had difficulty in building because of the sharpshooters concealed in the houses along the bank of the river. They were finally dislodged by troops ferried across in pontoons, and the two bridges were completed on which the Right and Central Grand Divisions crossed. The Left Grand Division crossed a mile and a half below the city at the mouth of a stream called Deep Run, with little difficulty, and the  place was afterwards known as “Franklin's crossing,” and is so designated in all future references to it. The First Corps crossed before the Sixth, and the most vivid recollection the writer has of that crossing, is the fact that the surface of the bridge was carpeted with playing cards, and the surface of the river was almost covered with cards that had been thrown away by those who had crossed on the bridges above. It was evident to all that a bloody battle was to be fought and few men wanted to go to certain death with gambling devices in their pockets. Since that time the writer has never doubted the essential wickedness of gambling. With death as the chief arbitrator there were no valid arguments in its favor. In the years since that day he has seen nothing to change his views on the subject. After crossing the river the First Corps bore off to the left and the Sixth advanced over the level plain next the river and entered the deep broad cut made by Deep Run, and followed it to within gunshot of the foot of the hills. Here it remained-or our part of it did-while the battle raged on the right and left, with disastrous results to the Union forces. The dreadful slaughter on the right in the effort to carry the Stone Wall, the repulse of Franklin's feeble effort on the left, and the repulse of Hooker's half-hearted attack on the heights behind the city, have been often described and much controversy as to the responsibility for the failure has resulted. The fact that General Mead's division of the First Corps broke through the line of the enemy's defenses, and if properly supported could have held the ground taken, throws no little responsibility upon General Franklin who tried to excuse himself behind the plea, that his orders were not to press the attack to an issue, but to feel of, and test the forces of the  enemy opposed to him. This General Burnside positively denied, and declared that Franklin's failure to press his advantage and General Hooker's reluctant advance when ordered to do so, were the real causes of the failure of the attack. The part which the Second Brigade took in this battle was comparatively unimportant. The hills in front were too steep to justify an assault, and the banks of Deep Run furnished shelter from the artillery of the enemy, so that the chief duty of the regiments of the Brigade was to do skirmish or picket duty. Of this duty the 121st had its full share, as vividly described by Comrade Beckwith.
Our Brigade, as I remember, was commanded by Col. H. L. Cake of the 96th Penn., General Bartlett having another command temporarily, and the Division was commanded by General Brooks. We moved early on the morning of the 12th, which was Friday, up towards the heights, crossing a deep gully along the bottom of which a little stream ran towards the river. The sun rose and dispelled the fog, which was heavy and thick and covered the flats of the river like a blanket, also concealing from view the hills in our front, at the same time screening us from the enemy's observation. Looking back towards the river, there was a mass of troops in motion, including infantry, artillery and cavalry, equal in number to an army corps. In our front the fog was slowly receding toward the heights and as soon as it revealed some of our moving troops, they were greeted with a shotted salute from the Confederate batteries in our front. Almost at once Hexamer drove by on a gallop with his battery of three-inch steel Rodmans, and their sharp, fierce bark soon joined the chorus of other sounds; and this splendid, energetic artillery officer with his  able command soon quieted his adversaries in his immediate front. We remained several hours lying in the ditch or hollow at the roadside, which screened us from observation and sheltered us from the artillery fire of the enemy. I should think about 11 o'clock a battery of brass Napoleons, twelve-pound caliber, with brass handles or trunnions, came rattling up the road. We were ordered to fall in and moved out of the road, and the battery swung into position in front of us, on the highest part of the rising ground immediately before us, and unlimbered and went into action, firing rapidly and continuously for some time. To this the enemy replied with equal vigor. I should judge from the number of shot and shell that flew over, around and about us through it all, that those battery men worked with precision and regularity. The officer, Captain McKnight I think, moved among the gunners giving orders and directions. Our Colonel, Upton, went up to the guns and had some talk with the officer in command. All the while we lay close to the ground, and we could see very distinctly the working of the battery in all its details and hear the commands. The fire of this battery was replied to by the enemy, but I do not think their fire did any harm to our battery. Their shells seemed to burst nearer to us than to the battery. Some of them flew away beyond us. Each shell seemed to have a different note or tone and none of them could be called musical. Some were fiendish and seemed to say “I've got you, I've got you.” Several burst near us and the fragments knocked up the ground considerably. Finally a fragment from one struck Oscar Spicer of our company in the head and killed him instantly. I don't think he realized what struck him. We carried him back after the battery had ceased firing, to the edge of the road, and near a  small cedar, a row of which grew along the road, we dug a grave for him and gave him as good burial as we could. I think Joe Rounds, Chet Catlin, or Tarbell, read the Episcopal or Masonic burial service, I do not remember which. Spicer's death threw a gloom over us. He was a fine fellow and well liked by all of us. At dusk we moved back into the hollow by the roadside, got our supper and slept on our arms. In the morning before daylight we were roused up, told to get our breakfast and get ready to go on the picket or skirmish line. We had scarcely time to get a cup of coffee, toast a cracker, and broil a bit of pork on a stick, before we were ordered into ranks. Levi Doxtater had gone for water and had a number of canteens, among which was mine, to fill. He was late getting back and his brother Jerome called to him “Hurry up, Levi, we are going right away.” Levi said, “I don't care, I ain't going to hurry. I am only going out there to be killed anyway.” Sure enough, his prediction or presentiment proved true, for he had scarcely reached the advance line when he received a mortal wound. We moved up the creek that runs through the gully before mentioned, followed it a considerable distance toward the enemy until we came to a point where it turned toward the right. Here, under the bank it made, and the shelter it afforded, our picket reserve was posted. When we reached this point it was daylight and objects could be seen distinctly for some distance in the direction of the enemy, but a considerable fog still hung over the low ground. We moved rapidly past the reserve and out into the unsheltered field, deployed as skirmishers from our left squad, which was my squad, and ran forward on a double quick to our line, which I could not see when I started, but which we reached in going seventy yards. The  instant we got near them, the men on picket sprang up and began firing, and as we advanced beyond them they, the 15th N. J., which I remember as being the regiment we relieved, ran back under shelter, and we were left to face the enemy and hold the line that they had held. Nothing had been said to us, no orders had been given, and I doubt very much if our officers knew what was expected of them, or us. I stood where the Jersey men had left me for a little time. I looked in front of me. Along a sort of meadow ran a rail fence separating it from a piece of woods. From this fence sprang out puffs of smoke, and the instant hiss of a missile in our vicinity told us that we were the object of the rifleman's attention. Almost instantly I saw two on my right, Doxtater and Davis, tumble down shot, and on my left heard Delos Doxtater cry “I am shot.” I felt a fierce tug and numbness run along my left arm and side and felt I had been struck myself. Benny West sang out “Lie down,” and seeing I had been hit, I dropped down on my face and hands. In the brief time I had been standing there I saw that we were in a bare, unsheltered place, and several men of the regiment that we had relieved were lying in our front. I examined my arm and side, but found to my great relief that excepting a numbness, they were all right, and I immediately turned my attention to the fellows in our front who were seeking to assist us in shuffling off this mortal coil. We fired at them several times, but they returned our compliments with accuracy and earnestness. I got my tin plate out of my haversack for a starter and soon scooped out a hole which afforded some shelter from the sharpshooters in our front. In the meantime Delos Doxtater had crawled back to the reserve to have his wounds cared for. Word was passed down the line from my right that Levi Doxtater was mortally  wounded and Anabel Davis was killed, and one of Company G named Wilson, was killed. Shortly after Colonel Upton rode along the line and ordered some of the men and one officer up to the line. The Colonel was fired at a great many times, but rode along leisurely and showed no concern or fear, and finally went out of my sight. The fact is, my attention for many long, weary, perilous hours was taken up by the attentions of the devils down there in the edge of that timber. Benny West and I fired at the puffs of smoke many times in turn, but only succeeded in getting the dust spattered about us where the balls struck from the return fire, and the ping pang spoch sounds made by the bullets were not pleasant to the ear. A little way off one of our men, breathing through the blood that was choking him to death, made an awful sound. There were besides myself in my squad, Charley Carmody, Joey Wormoth and Benny West, all boys in our 'teens. I think I was the youngest of the group, having just then completed my sixteenth year, and here we were doing men's work and doing it well. I can recall now, as the continual flight of musket balls around, about and over us, and shells from the batteries on both sides passed over us for a time, what we did and said. First we wondered how long this thing would last, whether we would have to get up and charge those cusses in front, whether the rest of the fellows were in as bad a place as we were, and whether the battle would be fought about us. Then our attention was attracted by the terrific firing of all arms, both on our right and left — the terrific crash of musketry, the yelling and cheering of thousands of men, and the heavy thunder of artillery. The hours dragged terribly slow. After noon the firing in our front slackened and finally stopped, and after a time we hung up  a handkerchief in answer to one from their side; and we gathered and carried back our dead. Poor Doxtater and Davis were taken back and laid beside Spicer near the Bowling Green Road. Of course as soon as the firing ceased the strain under which we had been so many hours was off, and the future and its concerns occupied our minds. I looked about me and got something to eat from my haversack and talked with the other fellows. Of course we lay low, for the reputation of the gentlemen in our front was of such a character as to prevent us from giving them too much of an opportunity to kill us, and we all agreed that we did not want any more picket or skirmish line work, especially where the enemy was under shelter and we were lying exposed upon a bare field. We were too much in the position of the chicken at the chicken shoot. Further along to the right the line diverged and our fellows got along comfortably and had a chance for their lives. Now I have often been asked how it feels to go into battle, and I think I can say without qualification that it requires more, a heap more, nerve and sand to occupy the position we young fellows did on that bright December day, exposed to a deadly fire from marksmen for many hours, than to plunge headlong into the shock and din of any, after, battle in which we participated. I am speaking for myself and at a distance. Only two of those five are now living, and the other can speak for himself. (This was written over twenty years ago.) After the firing in our front ceased we got along quite comfortably, to what we had experienced, and took turns in looking after things in front of us. Around us growing among the grass were many little spears which looked like onions, but were called leeks. This vegetable was pungent  enough so that when eaten by cows it tainted their milk, and their flesh would taste of it when served to us as beef. I had experienced the benefit of getting an overcoat and haversack at Warrenton. I could have gotten along much better during the day without the overcoat which I had on, the sun pouring down so fiercely. The knapsack with the blanket rolled on top served as a protection for my head until I could scoop up earth to reinforce it. When night came, and the moon came up and the fog rose from the marshy ground in our front and along the creek bottom, I had none too many clothes on to protect me from the penetrating chill of the damp, cold air and fog. We took turns watching the front. I do not think a sound escaped our ears, and I was very much vexed at one of our fellows who was off duty snoring for a time. Major Olcott went the round of the line and asked me quite a number of questions when he visited my post. I was on duty at the time. It was moonlight when the relief came, the 77th N. Y., I think. They came up so quickly and silently that I did not notice their approach from the rear until they were quite near to us, and unlike our friends of the previous morning, I briefly explained our position and gave them such advice as I thought would afford them some benefit. As we moved back and assembled in the rear of the reserve I was very glad the day's work was done. By daylight we reached the ravine south of the road and made ourselves comfortable for the exchange of the experiences of the day before, listened to tales of the battle and the terrible slaughter of our troops on the right and left flanks, and the report that the battle would be renewed during the day, and we had a part to take in it. But this did not happen. On Monday morning  we were over the river and in a camp in the woods back of the flats. While lying in the woods here, a single shot from a Rebel battery fell in our camp, and one of our boys got it so we all had a look at it. I think that but for its weight it would have been kept as a souvenir. The next day or two we moved back towards Belle Plain Landing. We were grateful when we filed off the road by the church at the roadside among the massive oaks, after which it was called “White Oak Church,” keeping on the right of it till we reached the heart of a dense oak forest and there formed our camp and were told to build log shanties. We were greatly pleased, and it was but a little time before we had a fine camp with comfortable quarters and the anticipation of staying there for the winter. One of our company, Lonnie Coon, died in the camp of the 149th Penn., and a number of us went over there and buried him. Poor Lonnie had died from hardship, exposure and homesickness. He never took kindly to army life, and at home had not lived or toiled to fit him for a soldier. During the winter his father came down and took up his remains and carried them home for burial. When disinterred he looked as fresh as when he was buried, except that where the blanket, which we had used to bury him in, had touched his flesh, it left the impress of its texture. Here our Sutler came to us. He was Sam Miller of our own company. He had been First Sergeant, then Color Sergeant, then Lieutenant, and then had been appointed Sutler after resigning his commission. He had Henry Underwood to assist him and we soon had a supply of good things. Among these was “milk drink” which was a combination of milk in an airtight sealed can holding about a pint, and somewhere in the composition some whiskey  concealed. Through the leniency of Lieut. Geo. A. May who knew of the great drought from which we were suffering, and the suspension of rigid orders by Sam Miller, and the currency with which I was supplied, I secured a liberal supply of the “milk drink,” and it was so deceptive and exhilarating that I was soon suffering from a good resemblance to a “milk drunk.” Its operation in this way, made it more difficult to get after that. (B.)In the Battle of Fredericksburg the 121st suffered a loss of eleven enlisted men, four killed and seven wounded. From Comrade Beckwith's account the most of this loss was in his company and squad on the picket line of which they held the most exposed section. That it was able to return to camp with so little loss is an illustration of the fact that up to this time battles had been fought by only a small portion of the forces available. The strategy of the Battle of Fredericksburg was the same as that of all previous battles in which the Army of the Potomac had been engaged. It was a battle of divisions and not of the entire army. Attacks were not made simultaneously, nor supported by adequate reserves. The result was a repulse with great loss to parts of the forces engaged, and few casualties among the rest. That the failure to drive the Confederate Army from the Heights of Fredericksburg was a bitter disappointment to General Burnside, there is no doubt, and it was no less bitter to the President. It also had a depressing effect upon the Federal army, which showed itself immediately after the return to camp at White Oak Church. This was felt even by the 121st although it had suffered comparatively little. Several officers resigned and some of the men deserted. The first site for the camp of the 121st at White Oak Church was not  satisfactory to Colonel Upton. Being in the middle of a dense wood it did not give opportunity for instruction and drill, so he had it moved to the edge of the woods, looking out into an open field upon which he resumed his careful system of drill of the men and instruction of the officers. The occupation of these winter quarters was interrupted by the movement of the Army which has ever since been called “Burnside's mud March.” This began on the 19th day of January, 1863. The weather was pleasant, and had been for several days. The ground was frozen hard, and the roads in fine condition. The evident intention was to cross the river somewhere above Fredericksburg and flank the Confederate army out of the strong position on the hills behind the city. The movement began auspiciously, but an immediate change in the weather made a ridiculous failure of it. Heavy rain, with a warm southern wind took the frost out of the ground during the afternoon and night of the first day, and artillery and trains the next morning found themselves sunk hub deep in the soft earth. By doubling up their teams they could scarcely pull these guns and wagons out of the fields into the road, and the roads were soon so deep in mud that further progress was impossible. The third day the question became important how to get the army back into camp. Long ropes were used which, manned by men stationed along the road in difficult sections, were attached to the stranded gun or wagon to haul it upon firmer ground where the team could handle it. In this movement the 121st was one of the regiments that reached the vicinity of Bank's Ford, where the crossing was to have been made, and when the return to camp was ordered it formed part of the rear guard left at the ford to cover the withdrawal and observe the enemy. Every  one who took part in that movement must remember the misery of the two nights spent in rain and smoke, for the air was so full of water that the smoke hung close to the ground and tortured the eyes, and with what relief the army straggled back into camps to shelter and rest. Of the condition of the army immediately following the “Mud March,” or, as the Rebels humorously characterized it on a barn door near the river, “Burnside stuck in the mud,” the enlisted man's view of it is given in Comrade Beckwith's reminiscences. He says:
I with my squad was left behind (as guard at Brigade Headquarters Q. M. Dept.), and the first news we had of the result of the movement was the coming into camp of Mike Hartford, of my company, who gave us a description of the movement and the roads. I saw the engineers hauling the pontoon train by hand and soon we knew that the whole army was mired; and in a little while the worn out and exhausted battalions of our brigade came straggling by and continued to come for several hours. We made those of our regiment who came to us as comfortable as possible. Only a few stopped, because it was only a short distance to our old camp and they pushed on for their homes, and in a short time the camp put on an animated appearance. There is nothing on earth looks so dreary and cheerless to a soldier as a deserted camp without the white roofs on the shanties and the smoke issuing out of the chimneys. These soon gave the old camp a cheerful and comfortable appearance. This was the last attempt to utilize the two-year men that winter, and we felt confident that no further attempt would be made to inaugurate a campaign until the roads got into good condition again. Up to this time we had received no pay, and some mischief breeding cuss circulated a report  that under the article, of war, troops could not be held to their contract unless paid once in four months. Five months had gone by and we had not been paid, and some were punished for refusing to do duty. When the officers became acquainted with the state of affairs existing in the ranks, the matter was soon subdued and we were made acquainted with what we must do, and do it without cavil. This made many disaffected, and they, being sick of war, argued that the private soldier could get no justice; the government did not keep its contracts, therefore the soldier ought not to fight; it was a blanked nigger war anyway, and they were not going to fight for the negro, or “nigger” as they called him. Reports were circulated that there were men who made it a business to assist men north and would furnish them with citizens' clothes and money when once they got to the Potomac; and so, their minds heated with imaginary wrongs, filled with disgust for the war, homesick, discouraged and desperate, many deserted from the regiment, and made their way north and into Canada, and their names are today borne on the rolls of the company and regiment as deserters. I knew of one party that went and I was invited first, urged next, and damned last, because I would not go with them. It was said that one of them lost his life, being shot by a cavalry vidette, and one came back to the regiment, while the rest made their escape. While the camp at White Oak Church was well located for health, there was considerable sickness, many not being able to adapt themselves to the hardships of camp life, so that our regiment was greatly reduced in number, having less than six hundred men in the ranks. For example, my company, as I recollect, had lost by battle Spicer, Doxtater and Davis; by disease, John Murphy, John Bussey,  Whitmore and one other whose name I do not recall. Seven were on detail duty, four had deserted and twenty-seven were away sick-leaving only fifty-five men present for duty. To add to our discontent, our officers who had been uniformly kind and considerate, resigned. First Captain Holcomb resigned, being followed by Lieutenants Keith and May. We were exceedingly sorry to have them go, and would willingly have gone with them had we been permitted. But that was out of the question. Colonel Upton had instituted a rigid school of instruction, and subjected the officers to severe tests based upon West Point tactics and practices and the result was that very soon a great many of the line officers of the regiment resigned. Lieutenant-Colonel Clark also favored us with his resignation and we got a new lot of officers. Marcus R. Casler was made our Captain, so long before spring we were trimmed down fine enough to suit the critical eye of our Colonel. He worked constantly to improve the discipline, drill and military efficiency of the regiment, both officers and men. The results became so noticeable to the older regiments that they began to call us “Upton's regulars” and we soon became the best disciplined and best drilled regiment in the brigade. With the accession of “Joe Hooker,” as he was called, to command in place of Burnside there came a better feeling among the men. Hooker's order assuming command was well received, and the almost immediate activity throughout the army betokened the business for which we were there, and that another effort to crush the enemy was soon to be undertaken.It is needless to write that Colonel Upton exerted himself to the utmost to provide the regiment with every advantage possible, both for comfort and health. Food and clothing of good quality and in  sufficient quantity were insisted upon and the regiment rapidly recovered from the effects of the “Mud March” and during the rest of the winter improved in every way. By persistent effort the Colonel secured a promise from the state authorities, that no officer not approved by him should be appointed in, or assigned to the 121st. The changes that occurred in the regiment during the winter were as follows: Lieut. Col. Clark, Captains Holcomb, Moon and Olin, and Lieutenants Clyde, Ferguson, Staring, Park, Kenyon, Bradt, Boole and May resigned and were honorably discharged. Also later Captains Campbell and Ramsay and Lieutenants Story, Kieth and Van Horn. Asst. Surgeon Valentine was dismissed for incompetency after trial by court martial. Captain Angus Cameron died of typhoid fever, Major Olcott was promoted to Lieut. Colonel, and Lieut. Mather and Adjutant Arnold to Captains. Cleveland J. Campbell of Cherry Valley was commissioned as Captain in the regiment, and Henry Upton as 2d Lieutenant. Lieut. Sternberg was promoted to Quartermaster, and 2d Lieutenants Casler and Cronkite to 1st Lieutenants. Lieut. Casler was transferred to Company E, that company being without a commissioned officer present for duty. Sergeants A. C. Rice, Charles A. Butts, Thomas C. Adams, L. B. Paine, F. E. Ford, S. E. Pierce and G. R. Wheeler received Lieutenantcies. These changes had been made at different dates, the last being the resignation of Captain Douglas Campbell on April 28th from the hospital where he, for some time, had been under treatment for sickness. Changes had also been made in the organization of the army. General Burnside at his own request had been relieved from command and General Hooker appointed in his stead. The Grand Division  organization was abandoned and from that time the names of Generals Franklin and Sumner, no longer appear in connection with the Army of the Potomac. General Burnside quietly and patriotically resumed command of his old corps, and continued to do splendid service to the end of the war. The old corps formation was restored, and General Hooker did excellent work in restoring the efficiency and morale of the army. General Smith was transferred to the Ninth Corps, and General Sedgwick promoted to the command of the Sixth Corps. The letter by which President Lincoln transferred the command from Burnside is one of his remarkable literary productions. It is easy to read between the lines his deep anxiety, his anxious solicitude, his fatherly sentiments toward the officers of the army, and his keen appreciation of the abilities and weaknesses of the different commanders to whom he had to entrust the military affairs of the nation. The following is a copy of that letter.
On a subsequent occasion, just before the spring campaign began, in an interview with General Hooker, General Couch being present, Lincoln exclaimed twice in admonition to Hooker, “Put in all your men. Put in all your men.” This admonition showed that the President had come to realize that the strategy which uses only part of an attacking force is not sound. It invites defeat of the whole force in the defeat of its parts successively.