A Baby Girl in the Crossfire of Fredericksburg

Barksadale’s men at Fredericksburg

The official reports for the 21st Mississippi Infantry Regiment in Barksdale’s brigade speak highly the soldiers’ courage in the streets of Fredericksburg in the battle on December 11, 1862. However, neither report mentions a remarkable interaction between soldiers and civilians that is recorded differently in two memoirs. The tough soldiers from the Gulf displayed a compassionate side when a baby or young toddler was caught in the crossfire.

Interestingly, there are two differing accounts that I have been able to track down thus far. There may be others, but I haven’t been able to access the possible archive hiding places due to library restrictions at this time.

The first account comes from Robert Stiles’s post-war writings, Four Years with Marse Robert, and seems to have been based on eye-witness accounts, though the text does seem a little glorified at times:

Buck Denman…a Mississippi bear hunter and superb specimen of manhood, was color sergeant of the Twenty-first and a member of Brandon’s company. He was tall and straight, broad-shouldered and deep-chestered, had an eye like an eagle and a voice like a bull of Bashan, and was full of pluck and power as a panther. He was rough as a bear in manner, but withal a noble, tender-hearted fellow, and splendid soldier.

The enemy, finding the way no clear, were coming up the street, full company front, with flags flying and bands playing, while the great shells from the siege guns were bursting over their heads and dashing their hurtling fragments after our retreating skirmishers.

Buck was behind the corner of a house taking sight for a last shot. Just as his fingers trembled on the trigger, a little three-year-old, fair-haired, baby girl toddled out of an alley, accompanied by a Newfoundland dog, and gave chase to a big shell that was rolling lazily along the pavement, she clapping her little hands and the dog snapping and barking furiously at the shell.

Buck’s hand dropped from the trigger. He dashed it across his eyes to dispel the mist and make sure he hadn’t passed over the river and wasn’t seeing his own baby girl in a vision. No, there is the baby, amid the hell of shot and shell, and here come the enemy. A moment and he had grounded his gun, dashed out into the storm, swept his great right army around the baby, gained cover again, and, baby clasped to his breast and musket trailed in his left hand, is trotting after the boys up to Marye’s Heights.

And there behind that historic stone wall, and in the lines hard by, all those hours and days of terror was that baby kept, her fierce nurses taking turns patting her, while the storm of battle raged and shrieked, and at night wrestling with each other for the boon and benediction of her quiet breathing under their blankets. Never was a baby so cared for. They scoured the countryside for mile, and conjured up their best skill to prepare dainty viands for her little ladyship.

When the struggled was over and the enemy had withdrawn to his strongholds across the river, and Barksdale was ordered to reoccupy the town, the Twenty-first Mississippi, having held the post of danger in the rear, was given the place of honor in the van and led the column. There was a long halt, the brigade and regimental staff hurrying to and fro. The regimental colors could not be found.

Denman stood about the middle of regiment, baby in arms. Suddenly he sprang to the front. Swinging her aloft above his head, her little garments fluttering like the folds of banner, he shouted, “Forward, Twenty-first, here are your colors!” and without further order, off started the brigade toward the town, yelling as only Barksdales men could yell. They were passing through a street fearfully shattered by the enemy’s fire, and were shouting their very souls out—but let Buck himself describe the last scene in the drama:

“I was holding the baby high…with both arms, when above all the racket I heard a woman’s scream. The next thing I knew I was covered with calico and she fainted on my breast. I caught her before she fell, and laying her down gently, put her baby on her bosom. She was most the prettiest thing I ever looked at, and her eyes were shut; and—and—I hope God’ll forgive me, but I kissed her just once.”[i]

Unidentified little girl (Library of Congress)

It’s an intriguing account, and the scenes and story captivated my interest. I wondered if it could be corroborated or if it was one of those great soldier stories that stand alone and open for belief or questioning until the end of time. Colonel Humphrey and Major D.N. Moody’s battle reports for Fredericksburg in the Official Records contain no reference for civilian interactions, much less the mention of a toddler or baby.

I started some midnight searching, combing through online primary sources for the 21st Mississippi at Fredericksburg. Private David Holt’s memoirs, A Mississippi Rebel in the Army of North Virginia, mentioned a baby, but the story read grimly compared to Stile’s account:

We held our position all night. A litter-bearer came up to the line from the field hospital, and told us this tale: “We had picked up one of our wounded fellows just in front of that cottage back there. He was asleep when we got to him, and when he awoke, his first word was, “Where is the baby? What did you do with the body of the baby’s mother?”

“We said that we had not seen either mother or baby, but as many of the ambulance corps were on the field taking back the wounded and burying the dead, it might be possible someone had found them before we came. After we had gotten him back to the hospital, dressed his wounds and fed him a little, he asked us to please find the baby. While running to the front he said, and just as he arrived in front of the cottage, a shell burst, wounding and knocking him down. He fainted and when he came to, found himself helpless and miserable. While he lay there on the ground another shell passed over him and struck the house, and to his horror, a woman with a baby in her arms came rushing out. She seemed terrified and ran rapidly, toward the line of battle. Just as she passed him a bullet struck her with a dull thud and she fell, turning half around, so that she would not fall on her baby. The baby rolled, unhurt, on the ground, and began to cry and crawl back to the mother, where it clung to her breast and nestled in great fright, while all the time calling ‘Mamma!’ Its hands, face, and clothes became red with the mother’s blood. Helpless to aid in any way, the wounded man witnessed the tragedy until his mind became so obsessed that all he thought of was the dead mother and her crying infant.” The litter bearer went on, trying to locate the couple.[ii]

Were there two lost little ones in the same area of Fredericksburg battlefield? Or do the two accounts combine? Who was the mother? If she died as the stretcherbearer heard from the wounded man, then who was the woman who came for the little one in Stiles’s account?

I think with a few more pieces of this puzzle it could be solved, and my “gut feeling” is that those pieces might exist. But since I’ve hit a research road-block at the moment and may have to wait weeks or months to head to the archives, here’s part of a “working hypothesis.”

Stiles gives a very “clean” and heartwarming account. Little child running into danger is saved by kind warriors, but it is remarkably lacking details other than the child was “fair haired” and alone except with a dog. Meanwhile, Holt’s memories come from a story from a wounded man and are crimson stained with a dead or at least injured mother and a little one covered in blood. Both Stiles and Holt record their stories from other eyewitnesses and after the passing of time.

Is it possible and even probably that both sides might be true? Could the little one have left her mother, been joined by a friendly dog and started running down the street? The innocence in Stiles’s account could have been terror and not childishly chasing a cannonball. Perhaps Holt’s account precedes Stiles’s and elements of both are true?

The endings for the mother do not seem to reconcile and examining a list of civilians injured or killed would be extremely helpful and necessary in the future. But, for the moment, working with what I have at this time… The wounded eyewitness said he saw the mother injured, bleeding, and lying in the street; then he doesn’t know what happened. The mother is not mentioned in Stiles’s account until the presumably end when a woman runs out to claim the child and faints, presumably without saying a word to the soldier who reunites mother and child in a heartwarming scene. Perhaps the injured woman recovered and reclaimed the child? Or perhaps another woman—relative or neighbor—saw the little one as the regiment returned to town after the fighting, carrying the child like a prized standard.

Yes, I’m looking forward to examining this historical puzzle of soldiers and civilians a little more and am secretly hoping the answer hasn’t already been discovered so I can have the fun of a research “chase” to look forward to.

Perhaps Holt’s writings offers a way to tie together the stories and a takeaway at this time. Recalling what it was like to be under fire in the darkness at Fredericksburg, he penned: “…some [soldiers] are tempted to cry, ‘Oh, mamma, I want my mamma.’ Some of our feelings never grow up. Or maybe they are originally at their best and do not degenerate. The consolation of mother’s love and presence is one of the most persistent and best. I was sure of my mother’s love and knew she was thinking of me…. You cannot keep out the personal feelings for self at such times….”[iii]

The small child who seems to have been put in harms way and likely rescued by the soldiers brought out that need for the warriors to show kind love and care. Battle and shrieking shells had wrecked her home and someone how incapacitated her mother or caregivers to allow her to be in the streets, but the rough Mississippians rescued her and offered her protection until she could be returned to civilian safety at the end of the battle. Personal feelings do indeed exist, even among soldiers in the war-torn streets of a town in a crossfire.

Unidentified Union soldier and child – one of my favorite photos from Library of Congress.

Sources:

[i] Stiles, Robert. Four Years with Marse Robert. 1903. Accessed via Google Books. Pages 130-131

[ii] Holt, David. edited by Thomas D. Cockrell and Michael B. Ballard. A Mississippi Rebel in the Army of Northern Virginia. (Louisiana State University Press, 1995). Pages 143.

[iii] Ibid., Pages 145-146

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Battles, Civilian, Common Soldier and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Baby Girl in the Crossfire of Fredericksburg

  1. The song I was trying to remember was written by Jed Marum, a recently deceased writer and performer of Irish and Civil War Songs. This song was called Mama’s Lily and was about a young girl who had been shot in the Battle of Fredericksburgh.

  2. As much as I love Stiles’ feel-good story, I’m inclined to think it’s fictional. It sounds like something plucked from the pages of a novel that was looking to paint a specific picture of the Mississippi regiment, or something added into a memoir to sensationalize the account for marketing purposes. I would love for primary sources to prove me wrong, though. Fold3 yields records for three “Denman” soldiers with the 21st MS. One was dismissed in 1861 for health reasons, but Freeman Denman (private) and Cicero Denman (3rd Lt?) of Company G could have been at Fredericksburg. I’d guess “Buck” is a nickname, so that’s not entirely helpful.
    My gut is to think the second account was a hallucination of a wounded soldier, but it’s still more likely to have occurred than the first story. Maybe it’s the realist in me that wants to assume the more gruesome, horrific story is truthful.
    Whatever you find out, I hope you’ll share it!

  3. Pingback: Week in Review: August 23-30, 2020 | Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!