Under Fire: The 17th Maine in “the immediate presence of death”

Pvt. John Haley

On the evening of December 12, 1862, Pvt. John Haley of the 17th Maine huddled around “the very smallest” of fires and tried to keep quiet. The regiment had moved into a reserve position along the Rappahannock River near the southernmost of three Federal pontoon crossings, an area that would be later known as Franklin’s Crossing. Fredericksburg was somewhere just upriver, with two other pontoon crossings there, although Haley wasn’t sure exactly how far.

“[I]t was dark and overcast, so we couldn’t tell anything as to our whereabouts,” he admitted. “I made coffee and then retired with dismal forebodings. What is before us? Possibly this might be my last night on earth. Even worse, ere the setting of another sun I might be mangled and bleeding.” Such thoughts crowded in on him and kept him from sleeping.

Brig. Gen. Hiram Berry

The 17th Maine had mustered into the service in August and spent two months around Washington, D.C., training and drilling. In late October, they marched southward to join the Army of the Potomac which was, by then, creeping its own way southward across its namesake river. They joined the army in time for Ambrose Burnside’s ascension to army commander—and just in time for what would be the Fredericksburg campaign. Folded into David Bell Birney’s division of George Stoneman’s III Corps, they served in a brigade commanded by fellow Mainer Hiram Berry, which gave the men some comfort.

Fredericksburg proved a daunting objective: Confederates had drawn up to give battle on a line of heights behind the city. “Lee’s army is commanded by Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, and A. P. Hill,” Haley later wrote. “On these cognomens the Rebel wit has made quite a pun. It runs thus: ‘Before they can get in here, they must go over a stonewall and up longstreet and climb two hills’ [referring not just to A. P. but also D. H.]. The worst part of all is that it is true; we must do these very things to succeed.”

When battle finally erupted on December 13, the Mainers were late to join the fray because of their reserve position, but they eventually marched forward in support. Upon arriving on the battlefield, Haley recounted seeing “a comparatively small force” engaging the enemy while “no less than four lines of troops” lay on the ground in the rear. “The small force [commanded by George Gordon Meade] . . . had accomplished prodigies of valor and had pierced Lee’s line,” Haley wrote. “At that moment, had it been supported by another division, there is no doubt a lodgement could have been effected. But they looked in vain for support and were compelled to fall back.”

Birney’s men, who’d been called in as that support, did not move forward because Birney himself refused to advance, all due to a matter of protocol. By the time an irate Meade peremptorily ordered them forward under his own authority, they were too late to save Meade’s men. Instead, Birney’s men could only help cover Meade’s retreat.

“[W]e came forward and fixed bayonets,” Haley wrote. “As soon as the Pennsylvania Bucktails, who were in front of us, cleared out, we charged on the advancing Southrons, giving them a volley as we moved. Shot and shell fire flew in all directions. . . .”

Southerners returned fire, and the Mainers found themselves “ducking and dodging in a lively and bewildering manner.” The first man down was Sgt. John Libby, wounded by a shell fragment that hit his hip. “He took it coolly and patiently, although judging from the nature of the wound, it must have been very painful,” Haley observed. “He smiled and tried to appear unconcerned, but it was a ghastly effort.” Comrades carried Libby to the rear.

“We were in the immediate presence of death,” Haley said.

The retreating Bucktails, “now thoroughly demoralized,” also flowed to the rear as the Mainers fought around them. “Our arrival was opportune and quickly showed Mr. Johnny that in the matter of charging, two could play the game,” Haley proudly recounted. “Our regiment is larger than many old brigades in both armies [due to its newness], and when we blazed away, we made a hole visible a long way off, as in the case of the [49th] Georgia regiment. The dozen or so left must have wondered what struck them—earthquake, tornado, or lightning.”

The Mainers, too, suffered casualties: some twenty men in all, including one man from Haley’s Company I.

The attack of Birney’s division discouraged the Confederates from any further advance and they instead fell back to their position in the far treeline. Hiram Berry, with an old slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, rallied his brigade and ordered them to lie down. The Mainers, who had “more curiosity than fear,” wanted to see what was going on, but Berry urged them not to expose themselves to unnecessary danger. “The State of Maine is looking at you and expects every man to do his duty today,” Berry said.

The speech, Haley recounted, “stirred us wonderfully, way down to the bottom of our boots, making us wish we were back at home.”

The brigade repositioned itself closer to a roadbed for cover, which proved helpful when a late-afternoon Confederate cannonade suggested a possible attack. The attack never came.

“Night soon settled over the scene of carnage,” Haley wrote,

and after getting something to eat we laid on the ground, but not to sleep. Our ears are continually saluted with the cries of the wounded left on the field to the mercy of weather and Rebels, their sufferings heightened by cold and thirst. Who can depict such horrors These wretched men lay crying, groaning, and begging for water and help in the most agonizing manner, and we unable to recuse them. The rustle of a leaf or the crackling of a twig might send a shower of Rebel bullets into our ranks.

Haley admitted, “I was mortally scared and could not imagine what I should do on picket on such a night. It is a dreadful night even for old and tried soldiers”—which Haley was not. He tried to rest, unsuccessfully.

“This day has been a most exciting and eventful one,” he wrote. “It was our regiment’s first experience under fire, and a whole lifetime has been crowded into it. It was expected that we should show the white feather. This formed no part of our plan; still, no man can tell as he sits in the chimney corner whether he is a brave man or a coward.”

The regiment withdrew across the Rappahannock on the night of December 15. Under the circumstances, Haley said, they were “not sorry to be there.”

“It isn’t often that men are subjected to such treatment on their introduction to war.”


Quotes in this post come from John W. Haley, The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer, edited by Ruth L. Silliker (Down East Books, 1985), 57-61.

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