Following the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 11-15, 1862, Union soldiers who had survived, retreated across, the river and returned to their camps had to face devastating reality. The horrors they had gone through and witnessed crowned a year of mostly defeats for the Army of the Potomac. Places around their campfires were empty with comrades dead or desperately wounded.
Major Francis E. Pierce of the 108th New York Infantry wrote: “I am willing to go almost anywhere and endure anything but deliver me from ever being marched into such useless wholesale murder as that was. Crossing the river in face of an enemy in superior force, strongly fortified is an experiment that I don’t think Burnside will attempt again very soon. I don’t dare to express my opinions now—the whole army is disheartened and discouraged….”[i] While Sergeant Oscar D. Robinson of the 9th New Hampshire Infantry saw the return of injured survivors: “Witnessed today some of the horrors of war in a new form, or rather in a new light. About sunrise commenced removing the wounded to the Falmouth side My God! Spare us the pain of another such a sight…. The heart sickens at such a sight of suffering. Some are pale and ghastly, and all more less mangled. Some have lost their legs some their arms, hundreds with wounded heads, one poor fellow seemed to have lost both eyes.”[ii]
On the battlefield side of the river, even Confederate commented in their letters and diaries about the piles of bodies in blue laying on the fighting fields. Sergeant Charles C. Cummings of the 17th Mississippi Infantry penned: “The next morning, the 14th, the ground of this slaughter pen was covered in some places with as many as three deep, lying cross and pile, in cerulean hue.”[iii] And later described Lee requested Burnside to bury the dead Union soldiers in front of Marye’s Heights under a flag of truce.
Into this period of mourning and defeat came an onslaught of commendations and press reporting which irritated many of the common soldiers. They saw themselves and the horrors of Fredericksburg misrepresented. Even a message from President Lincoln put a different spin on the events they had lived through.
Executive Mansion, Washington, December 22, 1862.
To the Army of the Potomac: I have just read your Commanding General’s preliminary report of the battle of Fredericksburg. Although you were not successful, the attempt was not an error, nor the failure other than an accident. The courage with which you, in an open field, maintained the contest against an entrenched foe, and the consummate skill and success with which you crossed and re-crossed the river, in face of the enemy, who that you possess all the qualities of a great army, which will yet give victory to the cause of the country and of popular government. Condoling with the mourners for the dead, and sympathizing with the severely wounded, I congratulate you that the number of both is comparatively so small. I tender to you, officers and soldiers, the thanks of the nation.[iv] [Emphasis added]
How would this message fall on the ears of the soldiers who lost significant percentages of their regiments? Comparatively small losses? The open fields of Fredericksburg near Prospect Hill and in front of Marye’s Heights had allowed the survivors to see exactly what had happened and to many of them, the description seemed out of place and disconnected.
A New York Daily Herald article appearing on December 26, 1862, included this statement:
The soldiers, one and all, regard the affair at Fredericksburg as having been precipitated by the vicious idea of the radicals to rush upon the enemy, instead of circumventing them by adroit plans of campaign.
The radical journalists truly state that their issues are excluded from the camp; but they are excluded not by any order, but by the soldiers, who buy the HEARLD in the proportion of about eight to one of the Abolition organs. Nightly sales at the news offices here tell the story. The soldiers don’t want to read about successes which are massacres.”[v] [emphasis added]
Success which are massacres. Some of the soldiers felt betrayed and firmly believed that their tragedy was misrepresented in the halls of government and to the homefront population. They had been there, seen it, lain on the fields with the dead, or retreated unable to take their dead and injured with them. Their retreat back across the river and lack of military success sealed the gloom which accompanied the heavy losses. If there had been a victory of some sort to hold onto in their minds, perhaps the cost could have been justified easier.
George Tillotson of the 89th New York Infantry wrote to his wife on January 1, 1863, echoing anger about the newspaper report and misrepresentations. He also offered a solution: listen to the soldiers. [Spelling and grammar is original in the following excerpt]:
No; as I said before I dont believe this war will ever end by fighting It is not the rebels at the North that troubles us but the rebels here, as the irishman says “right [firenst] us”. You need not blame Burnside for not succeeding for he did as well probably as McClelan or any body else would, and his troops all fought well but the [inserted: Rebels] fought well too besides haveing impregnable fortifications to shield them You at the North, read our northen papers, and believe them. probably when they say the rebel army is nothing but a mob, without discipline, patriotism or hope of success, but we here know that they lie, and [inserted: we have] good reason for believeing that the rebels are as patriotic and concientious in [inserted: the] justness of their cause and as determined to defend it as the patriots of the Revolution were. theirs. But then you see the papers, are not allowed to tell the truth in such matters nor the telegraphs to transmit any news unless they make it all favora[strikeout]ble to our side. I tel you that the rebels will fight to the last and that they have got the advantage of position, and that they know how to keep it, and that if they are ever forced to submit, what blood has been shead, is only “a drop in the bucket” to what will have to be shead. I know it is not a very promising picture to contemplate still it may as well be looked at in the true light. You cant tell much about the true sentiments of our soldiers by the army newspaper corrispondents but then they have to missrepresent us in order to have their corrispondence published If the folks at the north find out what we soldiers think and talk among ourselves we shall have to write it ourselves.[vi] [Emphasis added]
Tillotson—like many other Federal soldiers—was not ready to give up the fight. He did not talk about desertion, but his frustration comes through clearly. Nobody seemed to know what the soldiers had gone through and how hard the war and battles really were.
Reading this small sampling of primary source excerpts is a reminder of the importance of listening to those who were there. What did they really experience? Was it a comparatively small loss? Or was it a devastating experience that left thousands bleeding and dying? When people feel unheard and their experiences unacknowledged, it can have a crushing effect on personal or group morale. Also, when people are asked to believe something different than what they are seeing or have experienced, it can have far-reaching consequences.
What type of reports should be listened to? The people on the frontlines of the experience or the favored reporting of the moment? The voices from the place of crisis may have details lacking or censored from the accounts of those crafted at a distance.
Fredericksburg was a place of crisis for the Army of the Potomac. Changing commanders, another battlefield defeat, and a feeling of misrepresentation plagued the camps afterwards and echoed into the soldiers’ letters until the rebuilding of the army and morale started with General Hooker’s arrival at headquarters as the new commander. Getting into the gritty, sorrowful, and even angry letters from the soldiers gives a perspective often missing in initial popular reporting or the snippet history accounts of the battle that fall silent after the Union army retreats.
Those short summary accounts often end with the casualty numbers. 12,653 casualties for the Army of the Potomac alone. Was it a number comparatively so small? Or a massacre that others tried to call a success? What did the soldiers on the front line say? Voices from the place of crisis might not be the final interpretation, but they provide needed insight needed and the emotions from those who went through the experience.
[i] Editors of Time-Life Books, Voices of the Civil War: Fredericksburg (Richmond: Time Life, 1997), page 142.
[ii] Ibid., page 141.
[iii] Ibid., page 139.
[iv] Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, A. Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989), page 419.
[v] New York Daily Herald, December 26, 1862. “A Dull Christmas In The Camps”. Accessed through Newspapers.com.
[vi] George Tillotson, January 1, 1863. Accessed at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/collection/glc04558060