Alfred Davenport.

Camp and field life of the Fifth New York volunteer infantry. (Duryee zouaves.) online

. (page 29 of 39)
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would against a fortification, and endeavored to breach a hole
sufficiently large for a forlorn hope to enter/ He continued the
cannonading on the selected spot until sunset. He made no im-
pression upon their works, ' no more than you could make upon
the side of a mountain of rock. '

*' Humphrey's division formed under shelter of the rise, in col-
umn, for assault. They were directed to make the attack with
empty muskets ; there was no time then to load and fire. The
officers were put in front to lead. At the command they moved
forward with great impetuosity ; they charged at a rim, hurrah-
ing. The foremost of them advanced to within fifteen or twenty
yards of the stone wall. Hooker afterward said : ' No campaign
in the w^orld ever saw a more gallant advance than Humphrey's
men made there. But they were to do a work that no men could
do.' In a moment they were hurled back with enormous loss.
It was. now just dark ; the attack was suspended. Three times
from noon to dark the cannon on the crest, the musketr\' at the
stone wall, had prostrated division after division on Mange's
Hill. And now the sun had set ; twilight had stolen out of the
west and spread her veil of dusk ; the town, the fiat, the hill, the
ridge, lay under the ' circling canopy of night's extended shade.'
Darkness and- gloom had settled down upon the Phillips House,
over on the Stafford Heights, where Bumside would after a while
hold his council of war."

About three o'clock Sykes' division was ordered to move
toward the bridge leading direct to the city ; it being one of
five built of pontoons by the engineers, the other four lying to the left, three of which led to the oiK'n country.
As they ainuoaclied in its vicinity, they met the enemy's
shell, who was aiming his guns so as to reach the slope of
the hill running down to the foot of the bridge and the plains

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344 Fifth Nezv York Vohniteer Infantry.

beyond. They saw numerous sights that reminded them of
what was going on in the front ; pale-looking men limping
to the rear, and long lines of ambulances carrying their bur-
dens of suffering humanity, and here and there a surgeon
and assistants, with implements in hand performing their
duties, with the wounded and the dying lying about them ;
terrified-looking stragglers skulking behind trees, where they
thought themselves safe from flying shell.

Before crossing the river they met General Burnside, who
appeared to look anxious and not well satisfied as to how the
battle was progressing. Who could realize the fearful re-
sponsibility then resting on him alone? His last troops
were going into action ; the desperate assaults against an
impregnable position had been disastrous failures, and this
was the decisive moment. The division crossed the bridge
and hurried through a business street, where whole blocks of
stores had been destroyed by fire ; desolation and destruc-
tion were visible on all sides. They turned into Caroline
Street, which was lined by the residences of the wealthy, and
as they passed up this street on a run, they saw many corpses
lying about in the street and on the sidewalks, and met
wounded men coming from the battle, reeling like drunken
men. Once in a while one of them would fall from weak-
ness occasioned by loss of blood. Two soldiers came out
of a drug-store with ashy pale countenances, having been
poisoned in their search for whisky.

The din of battle was now terrifying, as nearly all of Gen-
eral Hooker's command, the 3d and 5th corps, were en-
gaged, and for two miles along the font it was one sheet
of thune, but the result was uncertain. On the outside of
the city was a plain about one-third of a mile in width, op
the other side of which were the enemy, covered by a stone
wall, which was banked with earth, ritle-pits, and batteries
on the heights, with another line of earthworks on high
ground to the rear of thetn ; all these nmst be overcome at


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Battle of Fredericksburg. 345

that point, to insure a victory. The division continued up
the street on a double-quitk, the regulars being in advance ;
they came to the end of it, which debouched on the out-
skirts of the city, on the border of the open plain before
mentioned, and thi "regulars" went into the battle now
raging fiercely, relieving Humphrey's division. The Con-
federates knew who were facing them at the first volley.
Warren's brigade formed a second line in their rear. It was
now dark, and the heavy firing ceased ; occasional volleys
from companies or battalions lit up the darkness for a mo-
ment, but it soon dropped off to a heavy picket firing.

The assaulting troops, as we have seen, had succeeded in
getting near the stone wall, but they were met with such a
withering fire from the Confederates, who were repeatedly
reinforced, and from the nature of their defenses could
mass their men four files deep and fire, that our forces were
so decin\ated tliey could advance no further, and were
obliged to fall back.

The position of the Fifth happened to be in a garden, the
soil being wet and muddy, from the heat of the sun dur-
ing the day, which had melted tb.e frost in the ground. 15iit
there they were compelled to wait, being the next in turn
for the trying ordeal. The men pulled down a i)icket fence
and portioned what there was of it among themselves to lie
on, and keep part of their bodies from the damp, cold earth,
each man's share consisting of a space about two and one-
half feet long by one and a half broad, and ciulcd t'nein-
selves up to keep warm, 'I'he bullets whiz/ed o\er their
heads from the firing just in front of them, and some o{ them
were hit ; occasionally the shrieking of shell was hc.ud, a
httle over their heads. Few there were that closed then- eyes
tliat long December night, which seenieil as if it wonKi never
end. As thc-y l.iy, they thought ol tiie n)oiro\v— hosv many
of them would live to come out of the conllict— of home —
ot eternity.


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34^ Fifth Nezu York Volunteer Infantry.

But worse than all wore the cries of the wounded, lying
helpless between the lines and on that bloody slope, without
any one to help them. They could hear theui cry, "Water !
water ! water ! O God ! help ! " Some of them called out
their names and regiment, and sometimes a chorus of shrieks
and groans went up on the chill midnight air, telling of
human agony beyond the power of endurance. But to
quote again from the same writer :

" The dead would not remain unnoticed. The dying cried out
in the darkness, and demanded succor of the world. Was there
nothing in the universe to save ? Tens of thousands within ear-
shot, and no footstep of friend or foe drew near during all the
hours. Sometimes they drew near and passed by, which was an
aggravation of the agony. The subdued sound of wheels rolling
slowly along, and ever and anon stopping; the murmur of voices
and a cry of pain told of the ambulance on its mission. It went
off in another direction. The cries were borne through the
haze. Now a single lament ; again voices intermingled and as if
in chorus ; from ever\' direction, in front, behind, to right, to left,
some near, some distant and faint. Some, doubtless, were faint
and were not distant — the departing breath of one about to ex-
pire. They expressed ever}' degree and shade of suffering, of
pain, of agony ; a sigh, a groan, a piteous appeal, a shriek, a
succession of shrieks, a call of despair, a prayer to God, a demand
for water, for the ambulance, a death-rattle, a horrid scream, a
voice as of the body when the soul tore itself away and alian-
doned it to the enemy, to the night, and to dissolution. The
voices were various. This the tongue of a German ; that wail
in the Celtic brogue of a poor Irishman. The accent of New-
England was distinguishable in the cry of that boy. From a
different quarter came utterances in the dialect of a far-eft
Western State. The appeals of the Irish were the most pathetic.
They put them into ever)- form — denunciation, remonstrance, a
pitiful prayt-r, a perempton.- demand. The German more
]iati(nt, less denionstr.itive, withdraw i:^g iiito himself. One m.m
raised his body on his left arm, and extending his right aim up-
ward, cried out to the heavens and fell back. Most of them lay
moaning, with the fitful movement of unrest and pain.


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Battle of Fredericksburg. 347

" It was on the ground over which the successive charges had
been made that there appeared to be a thin line of soldiers sleep-
ing on the ground. They seemed to make a sort of row or rank ;
they were perfectly motionless ; their sleep was profound. Not
one of them awoke and got up. They were not relieved either.
Had the fatigue of the day completely overpowered all of them,
officers and privates alike } They were nearest the enemy,
within call of him. They were the advance line of the Union
army. Was it thus that they kept their watch, on which the
safety of the whole army depended, pent up between the ridge
and the river? The enemy might come within ten steps of
them without being seen. The fog was a veil. No one knew
what lay, or moved, or crept, a little distance off. Still they did
not waken. If you looked closely at the face of any of them, in
the mist and dimness, it was pallid, the eyes closed, the mouth
open, the hair was disheveled ; besides, the attitude was often
painful. There were blood-marks also. These men were all

Thus the night wore through. Toward morning a thick
mist hung over the ground, which made the situation more
gloomy, if possible, than ever. The men fully expcctotl to
face the Confederate hosts in battle array as soon as day-
light should appear. Each man felt as if he was passing his
last niiydit on earth ; but each brave heart had inwardl;.'
resolved to obey orders unflinchingly, and preserve the
reputation of their regunent in whatever jiosition it rni'^ht
be placed ; and if it was the fortune of war that they wore to
die, they would meet their fate like men.

"In the meantime the troops that had been in the front we.e
withdrawn into the streets of the town, and rested on their arms.
Some sat on the curbstones, meditating, looking gloomily at the
ground ; others lay on the pavement, tr}ing to forget the events
of the day in sleep. There was little said ; deep d.jeclion bur-
dened the spirits oiali. The incidniis .if the !)attle were r.i.t r<-
hearsed except now and then. .Vl\\ays when anyone
was of a slain comrade — of his virtues or of tlie manner ot his
death ; or of one missing, with many conjectures respecting him.



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348 Fifth Neiv York Volunteer Infantry.

Some of them, it was said, had premonitions, and went into the
battle not expecting to survive the day. Thus they lay or sat.
The conversation was with bowed head, and in a low manner,
ending in a sigh.

" It was December, and cold. There was no camp-tire. But
no one mentioned the cold ; it was not noticed. Steadily the
wounded were carried by to the hospitals near the river. The
hospitals were a harrowing sight ; full, crowded, nevertheless
patients were brought in constantly. Down-stairs, up-stairs,
every room full. Surgeons, with their coats off and sleeves rolled
up above their elbows, S3wed off limbs or administered anaes-
thetics. They took off a leg or an arm in a twinkling, after brief
consultation. It seemed to be, in case of doubt — off with his
limb. But the sights and scenes in a field-hospital are not to b2

The Conipte de Paris says, in his " History of the Civil War
in America" (pp. 596-7) :

"This night of December I3th-I4th was probably the most
painful ever experienced by the Army of the Potomac during its
whole existence ; its losses amounted to 12,500 killed and wound-
ed, and over 2,000 prisoners, sacrinced uselessly to carr}^ out an
idea ; 6,300 lay killed or wounded on the slope of Marye's Hill,
but there was not a soldier in the ranks who did not believe that
their blood had been shed entirely in vain.

" The Confederates, secure in their Gibraltar, had only lost at
this point 952 in killed and wounded, and in all parts of the field
less than one-half of the Union losses."

At daylight the men were ordered to fall in ; they had no
sooner done so than the enemy opened on them from their
rifle-pits. The bullets flew around them thick, and began to
tell ; one long line of flashes told where the Confederates
were posted, for it was yet quite tkirk. The regiment was
hurried off, and went up the same street they had come down
the night before, ami closed \\\^ en masse in a garden partially
covered bv a dwelling-house and fences, which somewhat

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, ' • • ' Battle of Fredericksburg. 349

screened them from observation ; but they wore still under
easy rifle range. Some of the Fifth were wounded, and a
piece of a shell broke the leg of a member of the 146th New-
York, after crushing the wheel of a caisson. Three men of
the 140th New York were also wounded. The regiment had
not been long in this spot before some of the wild spirits,
whom nothing seemed to tame or overawe, strayed otf througli
the fence toward the enemy, although the bullets were
whistling about them. They soon returned with \-arious
articles of luxurious diet and clothing. It was a ludicrous
profanation of the terrible drama to witness the grotesque
appearance of some of the men. But this by-i)lay soon came
to an abrupt termination by the interference of the officers.

It was sad to reflect how desolate these happy and com-
fortable homes were made through the terrible consequences
of a war brought about by the treasonable acts of a few am-
bitious leaders, the majority of whom did not care to hazard
their own lives on the battle-field, but were willing that their
deluded followers should stand as a bulwark between them
and physical danger_ and hardships. It was surely not
strange th'at it was so difficult to conquer such people, when
they were willing to sacrifice everything, the houses and
homes in which they were born and brought ui), and per-
chance their parents before them, rather than surrender them
willingly and ask protection of a forgiving invader, who had
been forced to lay aside the arts of peace, to take u[) arms
to preserve the unity of the States, under one confederation
and one flag.

In the afternoon the regiment was marched down the street
a short distance toward the river, and turned into a yard in
the rear of a large brick mansion, one of several others, with
piazzas, gas-fixtures, and water-pipes, the supjily to the lat-
ter having been cut off by the Confederates. Tlic kitchen, a
small brick house, was connected with the main building by
a covered way. Behind the kitchen were rows of neat huts for

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350 Fifth Nczu York Volunteer Infa7itry.

the colored servants. Everything gave evidence of the wealth
and rank of the owners. A bell hung out at the rear of the
house to waken the "people" in the morning. The officers
occupied one of these mansions as their headquarters, from
which was heard occasionally some favorite air played on
the piano. The men made a fire in the large kitchen stove,
and made some unleavened cakes, prepared from flour and
water, a barrel of the former having been unearthed. This
proved to be a God-send, for the bacon distributed to them
the succeeding night, either by accident or design was utter-
ly unfit for consumption. The regiment stayed in this posi-
tion two days and a night, all of the time under fire of the
guns of the enem}% and under great suspense, not knowing
at what moment they would receive orders to advance to the
front, to battle, and they knew well that such an order meant
practical, if not total annihilation.

The regulars were obliged to hold the position assigned to
them on the night of the 13th, which was discovered in tlie
morning to be a slight hollow. It was a doleful jilace.
They were obliged to hug the ground, lying on their backs
or stomachs ; they could not move ; when one turned, he
was sure to be hit in the shoulder, and the wounded were
obliged to lie and sutter. Many who attempted, by permis-
sion, to run to the rear, were immediately pierced by minie
balls and fell lifeless. In this desperate position they laid all
day until it was dark, in the same place they occupied all
of the previous weary night, amid the scenes already de-
scribed. They were comiiletely at the mercy of the Con-
federates, who were apparently secure in their eartiiworks.
They were out of water, anil suftered terribly. At night,
when they were able to creep away under the veil of dark-
ness, they left 97 of their number stark and stitT. This is
the position that Warren's brigade escaped being placed in,
by a mere chance, as the order of march was right in front ;
A\'arren's brigade held the left of the division.

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Battle of Fredericksburg. 351

On the third day, Monday, the 15111, the condition of
aftairs looked ominous of evil, as the enemy were advancing
their rifle-pits nearer the city every night, and the troops were
being hemmed within its limits; the bullets were continually
flying up the streets of the city ; there was no commanding
position for the artillery, and in "the front" death stared them
in the face, and the wide Rappahannock flowed in their rear
between them and a place of refuge. If the enemy, regard-
less of the many women and children who remained in the
city hiding in the cellars of the houses, should shell the i^lace
from the fortified heights commanding it, on which were
posted two hundred pieces of artillery, a panic would prob-
ably ensue among the troops massed in the city, which in-
cluded the greater part of Burnside's forces, and the army
would be lost, and possibly the cause for which they were

It is now a matter of history that Stonewall Jackson pro-
posed to General Lee to bonibard the city at night, and then
in the midst of the confusion that would naturally ensue, to
steal down and attack with he bayonet.

General Franklin gained a mile on the left the fuat day,
but was then checked, and could not advance any further.
It was rumored that General Burnside pro[)osed to storm the
works en masse with the 9th army corps in advance, but
was overruled by the other officers. It miglit possibly have
resulted in a temi)orary success at a terrible sacrifice of men.
but what would follow ? A great many charges had beei:
made the first day, but to no puri)ose e\re[)t to sacrifice men.
The dead strewed the heUl ; a whole brigade of them in num-
ber could be seen lying on the slopes of the hills ; it was
sure destruction to face the Confederate batteries, aiul man\-
of the wounded were left to die a lin-eiing death \<-\\y- en
die lines, the enemy shooting any wlio ventured to br;i-.g
them oft". No truce was asked or granted.

At this time every man's heart had fiiled ; otiicers and

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352 Fifth Nezu York Volunteer Infantry.

men felt alike ; they tried to laugh and joke and cheer each
other as usual, but it was plain to be seen that they all felt
the serious position in which they were placed, and the men
looked at one another with compressed li[)s, but spoke not ;
f the language of the soul was impressive ; in their counte-

[ nances was written "forlorn hope."

I It was ai)parent to the most simple that General Buin-

i side's army had been drawn into a death-trap ; they all knew

and felt it, and wondered why they were idly kept there

without an effort being made to escape or to change the

I mode of attack. The suspense was worse than death itself;

: it was lingering torture ; and all felt as a man can be im-

I agined to feel the night before his execution. The army had

:* been driven to the sacrifice to satisfy the demands of the

j Northern press to "do something." It had been robbed of

its experienced commanders by political advisers and cliques

i in Washington, and here was the natural result — disastrous

I failure. The General should not be blamed, as the com-

j mand of the army was forced upon him, and he did the best

j he could with it under the circumstances. That which had

!been looked upon by the people of the North as so much
gasconade in the Richmond papers, was being fulfilled to tiie
letter. This was the sentiment of the soldiers at the time,
I and it has not been changed by any subsequent develop-

[. nients.

I On the night of the 15th the regiment fell in very myste-

I" riously, and was marched toward the front, down a street

i leading by the outskirts of the city. After some delay they

i were finally marched into a large grave-yard, with orders to

1 kee^) vciy (luiet ; all the orders were given in an utuK'rtone.

\ Here the men laid down for two hours among rhe graves ot

f the departed ; pieces of pork and hartl-tack were lying alunii

■ on the grave-stones, and all those wiio were hungry iiad .1

chance to satisfy their appetites. But no one was very hun-
gry at that time ; in fact, quail on toast would have been

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Battle of Fredericksburg. 353

no indnceaient whatever, everything looked so mysterious.
One of the men came to the conckision that they were on a
hunt for the bones of ^Vashington. It was an aristocratic-
looking grave-yard.

They were then marched into another grave-yard nearer
the front. The men looked at one another and then at the
Colonel, tapped their foreheads and nodded at each other
knowingly. Finally they were marched directly to the front
— all the orders being given in a whisper— and halted near
the borders of the canal. A part of the Fifth and the 140th
Regiments, aided by the regulars, dug ritle-pits and built bar-
ricades across the streets of the city, so that the enemy's ar-
tillery could not follow in their final retreat in the morning.
They were very near the enemy, worked with a will, and
succeeded in throwing up a line of intrenchments along
their whole front, which it appears completely deceived the
enemy in the morning as to the jjlans of General Burnside
and the movements of the army during the night. General
Warren, who had command at the front, worked indefatiga-
bly all night, both mentally and physically, as he always did,
and it seemed as if he was at all points at the same time ;
everything, even the slightest details, came under his eye
and supervision. Company A, under the command of Cap-
tain Whitney, was sent across the canal as an outer i)ickct,
and crept out to an old tannery very close to the enemy,
who were also digging. They could hear them talking, and
some of their pickets were on the other side of the tlnnciy ;
one of them was heard to say he believed tl.e "Yanks" were
near. The wind was blowing quite a gale from the south
and west, and therefore the enemy could be heard, but or.r
men were not ; and as the night was dark and cloud)-, boili
sides were shielded from observation.

Company I, under the command of Captain Montgomery,
was also sent out to the front, further to the left, near the
enemy;- (hey dug "fox holes" to cover themselves. Tlie

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Online LibraryAlfred DavenportCamp and field life of the Fifth New York volunteer infantry. (Duryee zouaves.) → online text (page 29 of 39)