Night On The Battlefield

Fredericksburg National Cemetery Luminary.  (Photo courtesy of Chris Mackowski)
Fredericksburg National Cemetery Luminary.
(Photo courtesy of Chris Mackowski)

When the major fighting ended at the First Battle of Fredericksburg, the survivors on the plains of Marye’s Heights huddled in the earthen depressions, using fallen comrades’ bodies for protection and shelter as they tried to live through the night. Charges and battle actions usually get the lion’s share of attention in history books, leaving some readers wondering what it was like when the fighting was over. What was it like for the wounded and unscathed on the Fredericksburg killing field during the night and aftermath of December 13, 1862?

Say what you like about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. He was a superb writer. (Arguably, to tell the story the way he wanted it remembered). His reminiscence of Fredericksburg gives an eloquent and dark image of the wintry battlefield as the attacks ceased. He – like many others – was pinned on the battlefield, unable to retreat or move because of lack of orders and the danger from the Confederate sharpshooters eyeing the field from the Sunken Road.

These are Colonel Chamberlain’s words describing the experience of hundreds of Union soldiers, stuck and almost abandoned on the bloody slope. Let him “speak” and tell the story of the immediate aftermath in front of Marye’s Heights:

It was a cold night. Bitter, raw north winds swept the stark slopes. The men, heated by their energetic and exciting work, felt keenly the chilling change. Many of them had neither overcoat nor blanket, having left them with the discarded knapsacks. They roamed about to find some garment not needed by the dead…

Necessity compels strange uses. For myself it seemed best to bestow my body between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and still more chilling the deep, many-voiced moan that overspread the field. It was heart-rending; it could not be borne.

I rose at midnight from my unearthly bivouac…to see what we could do for these forsaken sufferers. The deep sound led us to our right and rear, where the fiercest of the fight had held brave spirits too long. As we advanced over that stricken field, the grave, conglomerate monotone resolved itself into its diverse, several elements: some breathing inarticulate agony; some dear home names; some begging for a drop of water; some for a caring word; some praying God for strength to bear; some for life; some for quick death. We did what we could, but how little it was on a field so boundless for feeble human reach!

He continued to describe searching for full canteens of water, easing the positions of the badly wounded, and taking messages to send to far-off homes. When the “dusky forms of ghostly ambulances” arrived at the edge of the field, Chamberlain and his companion returned to their original positions and hunkered down again.

Window of the Innis HouseAll night the winds roared. …One sound whose gloomy inisistence impressed my mood was the flapping of a loosened window-blind in a forsaken brick house to our right, desolate but for a few daring or despairing wounded. It had a weird rhythm as it swung between the hoarse-answering sash and wall. To my wakened inner sense it struck a chord far deepening the theme of the eternal song of the “old clock on the stairs”: “Never – forever; forever – never!”

With the coming dawn on December 14th, Confederate fire swept the field. The colonel and the regiment built a protective barricade on their flank, using dead bodies. They crouched there through the winter day.

Night came again, and midway of it the order to remove and take respite within the city. Our wounded were borne to shelter and care back near the pontoon bridge. We got our bodies ready to got, but not our minds. Our dead lay there. We could not take them where we were going, nor would we leave them as they lay. We wwould bury them in the earth they had made dear. Shallow graves were dug with bayonets and fragments of shell and muskets that strewed the ground.

They tried to mark the graves with fence-rail headboards or musket butts before retreated toward town and the river.

We had to pick our way over a field strewn with incongruous ruin; men born and broken and cut to pieces in every indescribable way, cannon dismounted, gun-carriages smashed or overturned, ammunition chests flung wildly about, horses dead and half-dead still held in harness, accoutrements of every sort scattered as by whirlwinds.

It was not good for the nerves, that ghastly march, in the lowering night!

Fredericksburg. Maryes Heights. Fields of death. There were survivors who left the dark battlefield, but the memories of what they had seen and experienced would haunt them for days or years to come. “Never – forever” would they forget their comrades’ sacrifices and how they had survived that aftermath night.


“Bayonet! Forward” My Civil War Reminiscences, “My Story of Fredericksburg,” Joshua L. Chamberlain, Stan Clark Military Books, 1994. Pages 7-10, excerpts.

6 Responses to Night On The Battlefield

  1. Chamberlain was a brave man who suffered much for his cause. But never trust anything he wrote! His account of Fredericksburg is all fiction!

    For Chamberlain’s imagination, see Ellis Spear, _Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear_ (Orono, ME: 1970) and Abbott Spear and Ellis spear, _The 20th Maine At Fredericksburg, And Other Titles. The Conflicting Accounts Of General Joshua L. Chamberlain And General Ellis Spear_ (Union, ME, 1989)

    Ellis Spear, who started as a captain and ended as the last colonel of the 20th, was a supporter of Chamberlain but too honest a Maine native to exaggerate. Read Chamberlain’s account of Fredericksburg then Spear’s rebuttal – the latter with references to the ORs! And you will also discover Charles Gilmore, the 20th’s first major. Gilmore was ignored by both Pullen and Shaara! He did not fit into their mythology. Perhaps someone ought to do a new regimental on the 20th!

    1. I would agree that much of Chamberlain’s writing needs to be viewed and used with care. I presented his Fredericksburg “musings” to give an appreciation for what many soldiers must have experienced during that night on the battlefield.

      1. While worth mentioning Ellis Spear is necessary, his account of Fredericksburg is just as fraught with errors and his anti-Chamberlain bent makes him even contradict himself sometimes.

  2. Chris,

    I would be very interested in a review of Timothy Egan’s Immortal Irishman by you or one of your professional historians.

    Bill Donohue

  3. Some of the toughest duty to pull at Fredericksburg was the U.S Regular Division, which stood picket the night of 13-14 Dec 1862. The men stood to it in the finest traditions of the United States Army. This post points that out well.

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