|Depiction of Union Army artillery unit at Fredricksburg, VA, December 13, 1862|
Thursday, December 13, 2012
RETRO FILES / WAR AIN’T PRETTY EVEN 150 YEARS LATER
FREDERICKSBURG 1862--A soldier in the Pee Dee Artillery of South Carolina wrote his father the night of the battle, describing his experiences in repelling the Union attack at Prospect Hill. This letter poignantly describes a firefight near Fredericksburg, VA the evening after the December 13, 1862 battle. This battle and the next one at Chancellorsville, VA in early 1863 staggered the Union forces but didn’t chase them from the war. By mid-war, the overwhelming Union advantage in men and materiel kept unrelenting pressure on rebel general Robert E. Lee.
While the south crowed over the victories, the Union methodically replaced fallen soldiers with fresh troops in overwhelming numbers. Confederate survivors of these two terrible battles were weakened by war and lack of food. At the prelude to the telling battle of Gettysburg, PA in July 1863, Lee’s men were starving. Hours before the Battle of Gettysburg began one of Lee’s finest cavalry units was still in the field being used to find food instead of gathering intelligence.
Though, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are in the history books as rebel victories, the cost in terms of manpower was the beginning of the end for the Confederate cause. The South did not have the ability to increase its ranks compared with that of the Union. The late Shelby Foote, an award Civil War scholar has written “for the most part the Union fought the Civil War with one hand tied behind its back.” When the other hand was untied (General Grant taking over command of the Union Forces for the remainder of the war) the South slowly and bitterly bled to death.
A LETTER FROM A CIVIL WAR BATTLEFIELD
“…Camp near Fredericksburg,
December 13, 1862
I promised to write you immediately after the fight. All day yesterday we lay in position. Today I have been in the hottest fight I have ever heard of. From ten o'clock this morning till an hour or two since shot and shell, and Minie balls, having been perfectly hailing around me. All the other fights crowded into one would hardly make anything to be compared to today's fight. Our battery has lost three men killed and sixteen wounded, eighteen or twenty horse, one limber and one caisson blown up, and one gun disabled . . .
“... A piece of shell went through my coat sleeve; it stung a little. A Minie ball went through the ramrod, and it or a splinter struck me on the head. I was by the gun looking at the Yankees when a great piece of shell, big as my two fists, came along and knocked a spoke out of the wheel, and it or a piece of the spoke, or something else, hit me square in the breast. I did not know whether I was mortally wounded or not, but after a while I opened my shirt, and found that the skin was not bruised. I saw a piece of shell go a "kiting" by my leg, missing it an inch or two. That is only a few of the narrow escapes that I made today. The trees around our guns were literally torn to pieces and the ground plowed up. I have been several times covered with dirt, and had it knocked in my eyes and mouth . . .
“…We were posted on a chain of hills. Just in the edge of the woods before us was a wide level plain extending to the river, some three or five miles wide. I could see fully half the whole Yankee army, reserves and all. It was a grand sight seeing them come in position this morning; but it seemed that that host would eat us up any how. I felt uneasy until I saw Gen. Lee, and right behind him the "Old Stonewall," riding up and down our lines, looking at the foe as cooly and calmly as if they were only going to have a general muster. The Yankee batteries came into position beautifully, and commenced shelling the woods we were in. It was hard to take it, but we had strict orders not to fire. Their infantry advanced in beautiful order.
“…When 1000 yards distant we poured a perfect storm of shell into them from 50 or 100 guns, but on they came. Our infantry was too much for them they had to leave. Oh! it did me good to see the rascals run; but here comes a fresh line. Far as the eye can reach the line extends. They have the fate of their predecessors, but another new line advances. I had been uneasy, perhaps scared before, but now had death or defeat been offered me I would have taken the former.
“…Some of our bravest were down . . . . Pegram's men (a Virginia battery stationed by our side on the right) had left their guns. Capt. Pegram wrapped his battle flag around him, walking up and down among his deserted guns. It was a time to test a man's courage. Our cannon flamed and roared, and the roar of musketry was terrific. The foe halts, wavers and flies. We double charging our gun, pour the canister among them. As they get out of range of that we send them an occasional shell to help them on. "Cease firing!" What means that yell to the right. No one answers, nor do we need an answer, for our gallant boys are seen pouring from the woods, double quicking on the charge. On they go, (Gregg's brigade leading) nearly up to the Yankee batteries. How my heart did beat then. My hat couldn't stay on my head. I would have hollered if I had been killed for it the next minute, simply because I couldn't help it.
Published in the Charleston Daily Courier, December 30, 1862
Editor’s note: The above URL takes you to an amazing—no punches pulled—narrative, an account so stunning and detailed that it is deserving of journalistic merit for public service. The website and account of the days leading up to the battle in early to mid-December, 1862 is some of the best Civil War reporting this editor has read. The National Park Service is to be commended for its coverage of the Civil War, 150 years later. The letter above is part of that coverage.
Fredricksburg Notes: Brendan Hoffman writing for the New York Times penned a story on historic Civil War items that were recovered from an excavation site for a new court house construction project in downtown Fredricksburg. That story can be located at the following address: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/us/construction-site-offers-fleeting-glimpse-of-the-civil-war-past.html