Biographical sketch here.
This letter was written by Major John M. Randolph to Major R. J. Barry and subsequently published in the 5 January 1863 issue of the Adrian Watchtower nespaper.
Headquarters 4th Mich. Regiment
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
Dec. 17, 1862
Major R. J. Barry,
Once again will I take my pen and write you a few lines to inform you of the events that have taken place with us during the last week. But I wish I could write so as to encourage the heart of every man in the Northern states. Again has the splendid Army of the Potomac, under command of General Burnside, attacked the enemy, and again have we been compelled to fall back to our old camp grounds, which we one week ago left with spirits good and hearts and minds confident of success.
On the evening of December 10th, we received orders to be ready at 6 a.m. of the 11th. With light hearts the regiment retired early to their tents, knowing that the morrow would be of great interest to them. Soon the camp was quiet and nothing could be heard save the measured tread of the faithful sentinel as he marched his beat to and fro, guarding the sleeping hosts that were sweetly reposing around him.
At 3½ o’clock a.m., on the 11th, the first thing that broke the stillness of the camp and caused every man to arouse, was the shrill tones of the fife and the rattle of the drums beating reveille. All were soon astir, and the roll called, and then breakfast was hurriedly prepared and eaten. About 5 o’clock two signal guns from the enemy were fired, they thinking probably that by our early movements an attack on our part was contemplated and that they were ready to meet it. But, be that as it may, long before daylight [we] were on the road to Fredericksburg. In a short time the cannonading became general, which too well told us that the awful scenes of the day had commenced. But on we went with hurried steps, anxious to be in the fray, unmindful of the dangers, only that we might lend our aid for our country and our country’s cause. Soon the sun, looking like a huge ball of fire trying to escape from the scenes which it must see through the day, arose, and struggling through the thick cloud of smoke that was before it, appeared to our vision — looking as though it were struggling to sink back to its early bed to hide itself from the horrid sights before it.
After a march of a few hours, we arrived in front of Fredericksburg. By this time the cannonading was terrible. Shot and shell went through the air on their death-errands, and in a great many cases, too well told. The engineers were endeavoring to lay a pontoon bridge, but the rebel sharp-shooters picked them off so readily that at one time it was impossible to work. Then, and not until then, did our cannon open on the city, and the destruction was awful. The rebels were obliged to abandon the city and fall back to their entrenchments, distant about ¾ of a mile. In short time the bridges were laid and a New York regiment went over, but were driven back. Then did old Michigan come to the rescue of their fellow soldiers. The Michigan 7th started across, drove the rebels back and held the place.
Our loss on the 11th was small and confined mostly to the engineers; they lost one captain and 16 or 18 men killed, and the other regiments quite a number. In all, perhaps we lost 50 or 75, in killed and wounded. Our division went into camp on this side of the river, and the night passed off without anything worthy of note, and the tired thousands slept, perchance dreaming of loved ones at home and of the joys and comforts they have left behing to fight for our country’s rights.
On the a.m. of the 12th we were again in motion toward the river. We moved up to within ½ a mile of the river and then halted. The roar of the cannon and the rattle of the musketry was incessant, and all were anxious to join in the affray that was going on — but we were denied the privilege, as Sumner’s Grand Division was the attacking party, and had possession of the city. Thus the day wore away, and we lay down again at night on the north side of the river.
On the morning of the 13th, we were up and in a short time ready for any orders that might come. About 9 a.m. the Colonels commanding the different regiments in our brigade were called together at our gallant Colonel’s tent (Colonel Sweitzer of the 62nd Pennsylvania, commanding the brigade) and received their orders. We were to be in constant readiness and when we started, we were to cross the river in forty minutes and be in line of battle on the other side. At this time the roar of cannon, the hissing of shot and shell, and the fierce rattle of musketry plainly told us that death was rioting among our brave soldiers across the river. But unmindful of the iron and the leaded hail that mowed them down by the hundreds, they advanced toward the enemy. Onward they pressed, while the cheer after which they sent forth could be distinctly heard far above the roar of the battle. Our brigade on this side of the river could distinctly see all the movements on the opposite side, and it was awfully grand, but terrible.
About 1 p.m. the order came for our division to fall in. In a few minutes we were ready. Our regiment led — Lieut. Col. G. W. Lombard commanding — and in less time than I can write it, we were on our way. We hastily crossed the bridge, while our batteries on the hills this side of the river, threw shot and shell over our heads that screamed through the air like so many demons. But on we pressed, following our gallant leader, until we reached the main street running parallel with the enemy’s front. As we turned from this down the street leading to the front, their artillery — previously planted — opened upon us, and it seemed as though we were to be annihilated there. But it was of no use, on we went, following our brave Colonel (J. B. Sweitzer, as brave a man and officer as ever drew a blade or pulled a trigger), commanding our brigade, and our gallant Lieut. Colonel following closely upon him, with sword waving high over his head, cheering us forward.
But the brave 4th, taking a double quick and with a cheer, rushed forward with the spirit and enthusiasm which they only can do, hardly needing the encouragements which their officers gave them. Close behind came the brave and heroic 9th Massachusetts, and they followed by the 32nd Massachusetts, while the brave New York 14th, commanded by Lieut. Col. Davis — and for the last 18 months we have fought beside — brought up the rear. To march down those streets was like walking into the jaws of death. Shot, shell and bullets came crashing through our ranks, but not a man flinched but pressed forward, eager to get to the front where they might revenge themselves upon the enemy. We filed to the right around an old brick yard and proceeded to the extreme right, where we unslung our knapsacks and everything else that might impede our progress. And then, filling our canteens from a brook that was running near, we lay on our faces to escape the storm of lead that was hurled against us.
After resting for a few minutes, our colonel asked permission of our brigade commander to advance, but he wanted us to wait a few minutes. He asked him three times and the last time, in going to him, one of the 118th Pennsylvania, thinking he was going to leave us, drew his piece to shoot him. But before he had time to think, the soldier was seized by a squad of our men, disarmed, and I fear would have suffered for his folly only for the interference of our officers.. The order was then given to load. Every ball was rammed carefully home, guns capped, and we stood ready for the order forward.
About this time, General Humphrey led in his division in person accompanied by his entire staff, and bravely did they advance while the brave fellows fell by scores in almost every rod of the road. The sight was horrible and one I hope I may never see again. But — brave fellows — on they marched, bearing their breasts to the leaden hail that was poured into them. We moved our brigade to the left again and on the center. In a few minutes, all being ready, our brave Sweitzer, accompanied by his aids, Lieut. Cunningham, Plunket and Yates — as brave young officers as the world ever saw, and all [of] them mounted — rode to our front. The brigade lay at the feet of a small hill but not low enough to protect them, unless by lying down. We had to rise this little ascent, then cross an open space, but slightly ascending for some 25 or 50 rods. Then there was a small mound, as such as one as they build their fences on in Virginia, and the enemy some 30 rods from that protected by a strong stone wall, while the hills beyond were covered by their cannon. This open space the rebels swept with shot, shell, and cannister, while the musketry seemed almost to sweep everything before it.
As Col. Sweitzer rode to our front, and saw the energy and determination that was depicted on the countenances of his brave command, he took off his cap and waving it high above his head, in his clear and distinct voice, gave the command, “2nd brigade, forward — double quick — march.” With a cheer, we started — the brigade commander taking the lead. As we reached the crest of the hill, the leaden and iron hail was awful, and many a brave man fell. But quickly closing up our broken ranks, we marched into that terrible fire, and in a few minutes reached the little mound earth — fell behind it upon our faces — to escape the terrible fire we were exposed to. Our officers were everywhere, where their duty called them, and encouraged everyone by their own example. In a short time we were ordered to relieve the regiment on our front. As they fell back, our men took their places, and we opened fire on the enemy. And the men were ordered to keep down as much as they could. But as they became more and more excited they would get up and take deliberate aim as though they were shooting squirrel.
I was acting as Lieutenant Colonel, and had charge of the right wing. Captain Jeffords, of Company C, was acting Major, and had the left wing, while our brave and gallant Lieutenant Colonel had the center, commanding the whole. I cannot speak too highly of him — this being his first effort in taking the regiment into battle under his immediate command. But by his cool bravery and heroic bearing, he won the admiration of all — both officers and men — and the 4th need have no fears while under his command. He had established a name as a military man that will always follow him. And Captain Jeffords, although young in years, the prospect before him, if his life is spared, will be the envy of men older in military science and arts of war than he is. He is all we can wish for. Brave to a fault — cool in battle, he too is one of our favorites and the one that the boys will stick to.
The line officers all were heroes. Captains French, Hall, Lamson, Parsons, McLean, and Loveland. Lieut. Allen, commanding company G; Lieuts. Robinson, Gilbert, Vreeland, Gruner, Theil, Bancroft, and Rogers — all were everywhere where duty called them and acted nobly. But what shall I say of our lamented Adjutant, James Clark. But lately promoted to a Lieutenancy in the regiment and Adjutant of the regiment in full, and this being the first engagement he had been in as a commissioned officer, he was everywhere present, and by his cheerful voice encouraging his comrades on. He was the personification of heroic daring and cool bravery. After the action became general he came up on the right to company D of which he used to be a member, and smiling to his comrades and associates, says, “Boys keep your front ranks filled,” Sergeant Chester Comstock was between him and me. One of the boys told him to keep down, or so he would be hit. The words were hardly out of his mouth when a musket ball struck poor Jimmy on the third button of his overcoat, glanced to the left and went directly through him. He fell over toward where I was lying, and with a smile upon his countenance, he yielded up his young life without a struggle or a groan. I detailed four men from Company D to carry him to the rear, and put a guard over him, to protect his body from the robbers that follow in the wake of an army for no other purpose that to pillage the dead. Brave boy, although dead to us, your memory will live in our breasts. Kind and affectionate, to all, and by his gentlemanly ways he had won the respect and admiration of the whole regiment. I wish I had the pen to write his eulogy, but it is written in the hearts of all who knew him.
And what shall I say of Fred Wildt? He too, was instantly killed — shot nearly in the same place that poor Jimmy was. He was First Corporal in Company D, and one of the best and neatest soldiers in the regiment, ever ready to do his duty, which was always done cheerfully and willingly, and one who kept the neatest and cleanest equipments in the company. Brave boy! He too, has yielded up his young life upon his country’s altar. He too was carried to the rear and today Fred Wildt and James Clark lie side by side in Fredericksburg. Captain J. W. Hall, with the company and Chaplain of the regiment, Rev. Mr. Seage, buried them on a pretty little knoll in separate coffins, making their graves with a carved head board in order to find them again if necessary. Sleep on, brave soldiers and comrades, and while we who are left to fight our battles will revenge your death, sad hearts will be at home. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters will mourn your loss. But it will be consoling to them to know that they died brave and facing the enemy. How will this end? Am I not to lose all these brave and patriotic young men of Ann Arbor who left with me one year ago last May? I hope not. But it seems as though fate was against me. John Fisher was slightly wounded, but will be around in a short time. These are all the casualties in Company D. All the rest are here and well. I wish I could make mention of all this company, but suffice it to say they all did bravely. At last, night closed the scene, and the tired hosts of either army laid down and slept almost within hearing distance. The living laid down with the dead, and thus they slept. All night long could the groans of the poor wounded and dying soldiers be heard, as he wore the weary hours away in pain. One poor fellow belonging to 28th New Jersey was shot through both hips, and his groans for help were heart-rending. Our orders were to hold the position at all hazards. We were almost entirely out of ammunition, but about 12 or 1 a.m., that came, and we filled up anew, so as to be ready in the morning to renew the contest.
Sunday morning at last dawned upon us. The rebels during the night had dug some pits for their sharp-shooters, and if one of our men showed his head a dozen bullets would be after him. And thus they lay all the Sabbath, targets for each others sharpshooters. On that evening the regiment was relieved and fell back to the city, where they remained until about 3 a.m. on Monday, when the Division recrossed the river, being the last of the Grand Army of the Potomac to leave Fredericksburg.
While I am writing I will speak of a few from other regiments. Colonel N. E. Welch, one of the bravest of the brave, headed the Sixteenth, and carried them safe through the storm. He is as good an officer as there is in the army. A. Bliss, Dr. Crowell, Britain and all the Ann Arbor boys are safe. Lieut. Bedford of the first is wounded in the thigh. Captain Mogk and Lieut. Ladd are all right. Bliss got a slight scratch on the face, but nothing serious. He was in my tent today. Colonel Sweitzer, commanding our Brigade, had his horse shot from under him and he was wounded in the leg. Lieut. Cunningham, his A.A. General, was killed by a shell. Adjutant Yates was wounded in two or three places. Our regiment lost 53 in killed and wounded, our brigade 248, our division 1,168, and our army between 10,000 and 13,000. And what have we gained?
I could relate a thousand stirring incidents of personal bravery, but time and space will not allow. Give my best regards to all whom may inquire after me. Accept my kindest regards, and believe me to be, as ever,
Very respectfully your obedient servant, — John Randolph
Major 4th Mich. Regiment