Remembering Fredericksburg

Battle of Fredericksburg
speech by Henry Seage
2 March 1899

Companions:

At the close of the disastrous and bloody battle of Groveton, or as we call it, “The Second Bull Run,” McClellan was called to supersede Pope in command of the Army of the Potomac, and under his lead the army marched into Maryland, and there met the same old enemy, Lee, on the battlefield of Antietam. I will not dwell here but ask you to cross the Potomac with me in pursuit of Lee’s retreating hosts. Down the Valley we go by easy marches, gradually pushing our enemy back until Warrenton, Va., is reached. Here the Army comes to a halt and takes a rest.

On the 10th of November, 1862, we receive orders for a Review by Corps, and we begin the preparation for a general “clean-up.” Guns and bayonets are cleaned, brasses polished, army shoes “shined” by the application of a pork rind, a strong requisition is made on the Company barber, who armed with an empty cracker box as a chair and a razor that has long outlived its usefulness takes position in the Company street and awaits the coming of his victims. “None but the brave deserve a shave” is his motto, and brave they must be who voluntarily face such a torture. But the skinning process is at an end, guns and bayonets glisten in the sunlight as we take position, while the bugle sounds the assembly.

Out in front of the little village of Warrenton, on the crest of a range of hills, we take our position in the Corps. Down the pike is seen a cloud of dust and shortly after “Little Mac” (as he is called by the boys) accompanied by a full staff halts to the front and right of the corps, and as he passes, in company with our “Fitz John,” each Brigade massed in close column gives them a cheer.

After the review there is read to each regiment Little Mac’s “farewell of the Army,” and we return with sad faces and hearts to our camps to speculate as to who will succeed to the command. But at parade we are relieved from further speculation by the reading of general order of Gen. Burnside, who “with doubts and misgivings assumed command” by order of the President. Under our new commander we break camp on the 16th of November, 1862, and continue our march southward and on the night of the 23rd, in a drenching rain, we halt near Falmouth. Here we remain till December 11th, when at 4 A.M. we break camp and head for the River and Fredericksburg.

What a train of thought does the mention of Fredericksburg bring to each of us! As we file out of camp we hear the signal gun and then follows a heavy cannonade. Then we realize in part what is in store for us. Arriving at the River opposite the town, we halt and learn that the pontoon bridges have not been laid. But first the pickets and sharpshooters who have taken refuge in the houses along the bank must he dislodged. So thirty pieces of heavy artillery are placed in position and hurl their deadly missiles upon the city; the lighter batteries join in the fearful din and uproar and for a time all other sounds are lost in their thundering reverberations.

The fire slackens and the engineers attempt to lay the bridges, but in vain. Back they come, leaving their dead and dying. Then all the available batteries are brought up and join the thirty great guns and begin their work of destruction. The roar is indescribably awful, the city walls of brick hurl back a thousand echoes which beat up against the bluff and roll back again, convulsing the earth as though the heavens were rent asunder.

Once more the fire ceases and silence succeeds the fearful din of battle. Slowly the cloud of smoke rolls back and there stands the city in utter desolation. A huge column of black smoke towers above the city, while livid flames leap and hiss with fiery tongues from roof to roof.

But still the pits are held by the “Johnnies,” and it is apparent that the artillery cannot dislodge them and the bridges cannot be laid unless the Rebs are driven out by a bold dash. Volunteers are called for to cross in boats and the 7th Michigan Infantry offers its services and is soon on its way, while the enemy rain upon them a storm of leaden hail. Unflinchingly the old 7th presses forward and, gaining the opposite shore sweep the rifle pits and houses and capture several prisoners. The bridges are then laid and the Army crosses and takes position in the streets of the city. But to the old 7th Michigan Infantry belongs the glory of opening up a highway for the army and making victory possible and retreat sure. The occupation of the city having been accomplished, the next move is to drive the Rebels from their stronghold in the rear of the city. The Rebel lines extend from the River, six miles above the city, in the form of a semi-circle to Port Royal below, and occupy a very strong position, guarded by a range of low hills. Immediately in the rear and only about half a mile from the city was the center of the Rebel line of battle and was known as “Marye’s Hill.” On the crest of this, Lee had planted several guns and at its foot was a heavy stone wall, behind which the Rebel Infantry was posted. About one hundred yards in front of this stone wall was a deep ditch, which had been filled with water by tapping Hazel Creek.

General Sumner commanded the right, Hooker the center and Franklin the left of our line, my regiment, the 4th Michigan Infantry, being in the center under Hooker. The disposition of the troops occupied the entire day and night of the 12th; and dawn of the 13th of December found us in line and ready for the signal. This was to be given by Franklin, who was to push the Rebels on the left flank, in the hope that Lee would take troops from our right and center and so weaken it that Hooker and Sumner could break through and gain Lee’s rear and communications and force a surrender. My recital must now be confined to the part of the line in which our regiment bore a conspicuous part. Our Corps filled the streets of the city, except those leading out to the Rebel’s position. Not a house escapes the prying eyes of our soldiers. Costly pianos were used to cook our coffee. Beautiful oil paintings were hung on the line of stacked arms. Captain Parsons’ darkey, boots and all, had found a resting place on a satin covered sofa, while here and there soldiers could be seen , taking solid comfort in beautifully upholstered furniture, studying and reading the many books taken from the deserted houses of the first families and so we put in the time, waiting for the signal gun.

About nine A.M. we hear the roar of battle, away off to our left, and we know that Franklin has crossed and is seeking to turn Stonewall Jackson, and about ten A.M. word comes that he has driven the Rebel line back nearly a mile. Then the order comes for us to advance – we fall in, “take arms,” right face, and at a double quick we turn the streets to the right, leading out to the Rebs’ position.

As the column comes into view the Rebs greet us with shot and shell and grape, but on we go at a double quick and are soon outside the city; swinging into close column by divisions the Corps moves on over the gradual slope up to the Rebel’s line. We are left in front and the 3rd Division is in the advance, followed closely by the 2nd. Soon we reach a little ravine or depression and we halt in support of the two divisions ahead. These are now fairly within the “horse-shoe” with Marye’s Hill the objective point. The Rebel artillery is concentrated and rain upon them a perfect storm of grape and canister. No troops can withstand such a tempest of ruin and the head gives way and falls back on the 2nd Division, and that, too, is thrown into disorder. Back these come on our division, will the first division catch the panic and it, too, fall back? Griffin, realizing the critical moment, orders: “Lie still, boys, and let them pass through.”

Soon the fleeing ones are jumping over us, but assured by Griffin’s words we lie flat and let them pass, when word comes, “Forward First Division” and away we go to the front on a double quick. Soon we are passing over ground just abandoned by the 3rd Division, and what a sight! Over the bodies of headless, armless, legless, disfigured men we pass. To the right and to the left are the lifeless forms of the slain. Oh! What a sacrifice, for what: History has yet to record how far that “slaughter pen” tended to bring to a close the war. But on we go, with a yell. Up to this time we have been sheltered in a measure by the smoke, but as we pass on and near the hill the smoke is above our heads and seeing a fresh column close to their works, the Rebels redouble their fire and add to the storm of grape the Infantry fire from the stone wal1, for we are now within musket range.

Before this terrible storm our boys go down in hundreds, but we press on, so close to the hill that we are soon out of the range of the cannon in front. But from the right and left our Division is plowed by the Rebel cannon.

Reaching the old R.R. or ditch embankment, we discover a new enemy – the ditch with water neck deep. One thought seems to move the whole Division, for we are now without general orders, and instead of attempting the passage of the ditch we lie down and refuse to make a further useless effort. If we succeed in crossing the ditch, then the stone wall must be scaled, then the batteries above taken at the point of the bayonet. All this flashes through our minds and we know that with our terribly thinned ranks and without support this is impossible. So we flatten ourselves on the ground and return the fire of the Rebs.

Shortly after taking position we hear the yell of the Irish Brigade on our right and witness that splendid charge of the 69th, 63rd, and 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania, five regiments composing this Brigade. With wonderful courage did these brave men charge against that stronghold, until two-thirds of their number strewed the ground. Never in the history of the Army of the Potomac was there such a pitiless, useless, hopeless slaughter. Never did men fight better, or die, alas, more fruitlessly than those thrown against these heights and stone walls, bristling with an hundred cannon. Night only put an end to the slaughter. About midnight we were recalled and we again stack arms in the streets of Fredericksburg; but now there are but a few. Thousands of brave men who, only a few hours before, had marched along these streets, had reveled in the luxuries of these deserted houses of the proud and aristocratic Virginians now lie dead only a few steps away.

It would seem incredible that on the very heel of this horrible carnage, Burnside should decide to renew the attack on Marye’s Hill the next day. But such was the case. But thanks to Hooker and Sumner, who refused to be a party to it, the orders were not issued.

So we remain in the city during the 14th and 15th and on the night of the 15th our Corps, the last to leave, was withdrawn and re-crossed the River and into its old camps it went, but with only a little over half the men that moved out of these camps on the morning of the 11th of December.

The next day (December 16th) the Rebels again occupied the town and thenceforth the Pickets fired across the stream with as business-like an air as though the Rappahannock had always been the boundary line of two hostile empires over which no armed force had ever ventured.