Going Forward Again

As the 155th of the Battle of Fredericksburg passes, I cannot help being struck by an aspect often overlooked, one involving the latter waves of attackers against Marye’s Heights. Joseph Galloway wrote once that  it is a supreme test to re-enter a battle, which I extend to include going into a place where others have failed before – yet that is exactly what these men did, again and again, all afternoon and against all odds and hope.

After Blinky French’s division was shattered before Marye’s Heights, each succeeding Federal division faced the detritus of what went before (as they did again attacking over the burial trenches in 1863). It had to take the measure of each man to see what was happening, knowing that shortly they would too be going in to that place. What made these men go forward?

Something sent them forward – the same force that sent the Royal Navy ships back to Dunkirk again and again, the Marine waves across the bloody reefs of Tarawa and through water red with blood, the latter waves of infantry onto Omaha Beach and up the heights, or the American troops again and again into the maw of Okinawa.

What was it? Discipline? Esprit d’corps? Not wanting to let their buddies down? A sense of victory or immortality? Was it as simple as Mark Rylance’s famous line in the film Dunkirk, “We have a job to do”? Or was it a combination of all of these?

I leave it to you to ponder for your own answer. Nonetheless, we must pause and consider this question, for it tells us much about the men of 1862.

Image: U.S. infantrymen survey Omaha Beach as their landing craft prepares to disgorge them into the battle. The smoke from gunfire and wreckage from the first waves is plainly visible. (U.S. Army photograph.)

3 Responses to Going Forward Again

  1. Conjecture is all we have as to their motives and/or inspirations, especially since none of them are alive any more to ask. Are there any interviews with soldiers from that time or afterwards who participated that offers any insight? Is it possible that they saw a real chance to end the war if they took those positions, in that they could start the process that would take Lee’s army down and out?

    1. Two quick things:

      First, I’d recommend James McPherson’s “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War” for an excellent exploration of the many motived men had for fighting in general.

      More specifically to Fredericksburg, most of the men were not privy to the commander’s intent, so they had to way to know that the assaults against the stone wall were intended as merely a diversion for the main attack at the south end of the field (an attack that unraveled and fizzled after brief success). So, from their perspective, it was just a matter of going forward and doing your duty as ordered. Frank O’Reilly’s “The Fredericksburg Campaign” has a ton of great accounts from soldiers involved in those assaults.

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