Visiting the Battlefields of Central Virginia

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Battlefield Visits

Recently, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Wilderness and Fredericksburg. We also visited Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania earlier in the spring. These four battles were among the bloodiest of the Civil War. In the four battles over 108,000 men were killed, wounded, captured or missing. A huge amount of blood was shed in a small area. Today you see all four battlefields in one day. It’s just a short ride from the Wilderness to Fredericksburg, or from Chancellorsville to Spotsylvania.

Fortunately, these four battlefields are well-preserved from too much urban and suburban sprawl. The National Park Service and organizations like the Civil War Trust have seen to that. When Walmart announced plans to build a SuperStore right next to the Wilderness battlefield the public outcry was deafening. The company conceded when the saw the witness list. The first witness was Professor Emeritus James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech. Every major historian was on the list and personages like Robert Duvall, a direct descendant of General Robert E. Lee through his mother. Walmart threw in the towel before the trial even started.

Here are some images of the sights at the battlefields.

The Stone Wall at Fredericksburg (unfortunately, this section is a recreation). We’re on the Confederate side of the wall near the Spot where Brig. Gen. Thomas Cobb CSA, the commander of Cobb’s Legion was killed. he was mortally wounded in the thigh by a Union artillery shell that burst inside the Stephens house near the Sunken Road on Marye’s Heights. He bled to death from damage to the femoral artery on December 13, 1862. There is a small memorial to him on the other side of the wall.

The Stone Wall at Fredericksburg

The Wilderness hasn’t changed much since the battle. It is still dense woods but most of the landmarks are gone, replaced by signage. There is a small exhibit staffed by a NPS ranger with plenty of maps and brochures.

Wilderness Map at exhibit


Then I have a number of pictures that will give you a representative view of the battlefields and exhibits.

In addition to the sights on the battlefields both the visitor’s centers at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville have excellent museum complete with movies and interactive battlefield maps. The rangers in residence are knowledgeable and love to discuss their areas of expertise.



“Fighting Joe” Hooker

This entry is part 6 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Joseph HookerMaj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was elevated to the command of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Up to that point Hooker had a distinguished record of achievement both before and during the Civil War.

Hooker was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1837 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery. His initial assignment was in Florida fighting in the second of the Seminole Wars. He served in the Mexican-American War in staff positions in the campaigns of both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.

He received brevet promotions for his staff leadership and gallantry in three battles: Monterrey (to captain),National Bridge (major), and Chapultepec (lieutenant colonel). His future Army reputation as a ladies’ man began in Mexico, where local girls referred to him as the “Handsome Captain”.

Hooker left the army in 1853 after he had testified against General Winfield Scott in defense of Gideon Pillow who had been charged with insubordination. He left the army in California and settled in Sonoma County working as a farmer and land developer. In actuality, he was more devoted to gambling and liquor than to agriculture. In 1858, he asked to be reinstated but nothing came of his request. Instead, he served as a colonel in the California militia.

At the start of the war he again asked for reinstatement but was again rejected perhaps because Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief, harbored some lingering resentment from the Pillow trial. After the disastrous Battle of First Manassas he wrote directly to President Lincoln offering his services. This time he was reinstated with the rank of brigadier general in August 1861.

He commanded a brigade and then a division in the Army of the Potomac. During the fighting on the Peninsula he distinguished himself while leading the 2nd Division of the III Corps at the Battle of Williamsburg and throughout the Peninsula campaign and the Seven Days Battles. He was promoted to major general on May 5, 1862.

Ever the aggressive commander, he chafed under the cautious leadership of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. He openly criticized McClellan for his failure to take Richmond. Of his commander, Hooker said, “He is not only not a soldier, but he does not know what soldiership is.” During these campaigns Hooker became known for his devotion to the welfare and morale of his men, and his hard drinking social life, even on the battlefield.

Hooker’s division was transferred to John Pope’s Army of Virginia. He was appointed to the command of the III Corps after the defeat at Second Manassas replacing Samuel P. Heintzelman who was relieved of command and shunted off to  the command of the Washington defenses.

His corps was redesignated I Corps and returned to the Army of the Potomac in early September 1862. They joined the army for the fighting  at South Mountain and Antietam where Hooker and his troops distinguished themselves. At Antietam Hooker’s corps launched the initial assault of the day at the Cornfield against “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps.

Hooker’s men paid heavily in the fighting, suffering 2,500 casualties in the first two hours of the battle. It was estimated that the Cornfield changed hands no fewer than 15 times in the course of the morning.

Major Rufus Dawes who assumed command of the Iron Brigade’s 6th Wisconsin Regiment in comparing the fighting to latter battles said that “the Antietam Turnpike surpassed them all in manifest evidence of slaughter.”  When Confederate Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood was asked by a fellow officer where his division was, replied: “Dead on the field”, having suffered 60% casualties.

Hooker was wounded in the foot during the fighting and carried from the field. He later insisted that if he had not been wounded his attack would have succeeded. General McClellan’s caution had again cost the Union a clear-cut victory and Robert E. Lee had once again succeeded in extricating his smaller force to the safety of Virginia.

President Lincoln apparently agreed because he relieved McClellan of command when he did not pursue the enemy. In his place, Lincoln appointed Ambrose Burnside to the command of the Army of the Potomac. Recovering from his wound Hooker was at first given command of the V Corps and then a “Grand Division” of the of both III and V Corps. Hooker’s Center Grand Division had a total of 6 divisions of infantry and one brigade of cavalry.

Hooker thought that Burnside’s plan of attack was “preposterous”. His Grand Division suffered serious losses after 14 futile, frontal assaults against the Marye’s Heights defenses. After the humiliating Mud March in January Burnside proposed a wholesale purge of his commanders but instead Lincoln relieved him of command and replaced him with Hooker.

During the spring of 1863 Hooker set about reviving the morale of the Army of the Potomac. Among his changes were fixes to the daily diet of the troops, camp sanitary changes, improvements and accountability of the quartermaster system, addition of and monitoring of company cooks, several hospital reforms, and an improved furlough system (one man per company by turn, 10 days each).

Other orders addressed the need to stem rising desertion (one from Lincoln combined with incoming mail review, the ability to shoot deserters, and better camp picket lines), more and better drills, stronger officer training, and for the first time, combining the federal cavalry into a single corps.

Hooker said of his army:

I have the finest army on the planet. I have the finest army the sun ever shone on. … If the enemy does not run, God help them. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.

Hooker relieved a number of officers who had been McClellan’s favorites and sent Burnside’s old corps to the Virginia Peninsula. His headquarters acquired a reputation as a combination of a “bar-room and a brothel” according to Charles F. Adams, Jr.

Hooker had an elaborate plan for the spring and summer campaign against Lee. He first planned to send his cavalry corps deep into the enemy’s rear, disrupting supply lines and distracting him from the main attack. He would pin down Robert E. Lee’s much smaller army at Fredericksburg, while taking the large bulk of the Army of the Potomac on a flanking march to strike Lee in his rear. Then he would move on Richmond.

However, the execution of his plan required commanders as daring as he was. The cavalry was commanded Brig. Gen. George Stoneman who cautiously moved forward and met none of his objectives. The flanking march started off well but Hooker lost his nerve and pulled back to the small crossroads of Chancellorsville.

While the Army of the Potomac sat immobile and on the defensive, Lee split his army twice and sent “Stonewall” Jackson on a flank attack against the Union right where they routed the XI Corps. In the midst of all this Hooker was knocked unconscious when a cannonball hit the porch where he was standing. He refused to turn over command of the army to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch.

Hooker ordered his army back across the Rappahannock. Meanwhile, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia set off for their second invasion of the North. Lincoln ordered Hooker to pursue Lee and forego any movement toward Richmond.

When the general got into a dispute with Army headquarters over the status of defensive forces in Harpers Ferry, he impulsively offered his resignation in protest, which was quickly accepted by Lincoln and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. On June 28, three days before the climactic Battle of Gettysburg, Hooker was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade.

However, Joe Hooker’s career was not over. He returned to combat in November, leading two corps from the Army of the Potomac to help relieve the besieged Union Army at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and achieving an important victory at the Battle of Lookout Mountain during the Chattanooga Campaign. He continued in the Western Theater under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, but left before the end of the Atlanta Campaign when he was bypassed for a promotion to command the Army of the Tennessee.


McClellan’s Failed Successors: Ambrose Burnside

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Ambrose BurnsideMaj. Gen. George B. McClellan was relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac on November 9, 1862. The main reason for his removal was his failure to us the instrument of war that he created. Commanders love the army but the great commanders must risk the destruction of the thing that they love to achieve victory. George McClellan was not a great commander.

McClellan was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. A West Point graduate in the class of 1847, Burnside had served in Mexico but by the time that he had arrived hostilities had ceased and he saw only garrison duty. He then served two years on the western frontier under Captain Braxton Bragg. In 1852 he returned east to Rhode Island where he met and married Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1853 Burnside resigned his commission and entered the business world where he devoted his time and energy to the manufacture of the famous firearm that bears his name, the Burnside carbine. He obtained government contracts and invested heavily in manufacturing equipment. But through devious means he lost the contracts and was ruined financially. He then moved west where became treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad. He worked for, and became friendly with, one of his future commanding officers, George B. McClellan.

At the start of the Civil War Burnside was a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia. He raised a regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, and was appointed its colonel on May 2, 1861. Within a month he was given a brigade which he led without distinction at the First Battle of Manassas. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers but relegated to training provisional brigades for the Army of the Potomac.

Burnside commanded the Coast Division, or North Carolina Expeditionary Force—three brigades assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, which formed the nucleus for his future IX Corps—and the Department of North Carolina, from September 1861 until July 1862. He conducted a successful amphibious campaign that closed over 80% of the North Carolina sea coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war.

He was promoted to major general of volunteers and his units were assigned to the Army of the Potomac as the IX Corps. After McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula Burnside was offered command of the Army of the Potomac, citing his lack of requisite experience. His corps was detached for service with Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia. After the defeat at Second Manassas, Burnside was again offered the command of the army and again refused due to lack of experience and loyalty to McClellan.

At Antietam Burnside commanded his corps which was placed at the southern end of the Union position. His corps was tasked with crossing the Rohrbach’s Bridge, a three-span, 125-foot (38 m) stone structure that was the southernmost crossing of the Antietam. His four divisions of 12,500 men faced a small Confederate force of 3,000 men and 12 guns. However, the superior Confederate defenses stymied Burnside’s men for critical hours until their eventual breakthrough. The Union casualties  at Burnside’s Bridge amounted to 20% of their strength.

After McClellan’s relief in November Burnside was again offered the command of the army. He reluctantly accepted when he was informed that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was the alternative. Disliking Hooker, Burnside accepted command. President immediately began pressuring Burnside to launch an attack on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Burnside formulated a plan to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg using pontoon bridges. But the plan was poorly executed and Gen. Robert E. Lee was given sufficient time to concentrate his army and repulse the Army of the Potomac. He ordered a series of bloody frontal assaults against Marye’s Heights. The Army of the Potomac suffered 12,653 total casualties while the Confederates sustained only 5,377. Detractors labeled Burnside the “Butcher of Fredericksburg”.

In January 1863, Burnside launched a second offensive against Lee, but it bogged down in winter rains before it accomplished anything and has been derisively called the Mud March. In its wake, he asked that several officers, who were openly insubordinate, be relieved of duty and court-martialed; he also offered to resign. Lincoln chose the latter option on January 26 and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, one of the officers who had conspired against Burnside.

It turned out that Ambrose Burnside was a better corps commander than an army commander. Lincoln refused Burnside’s offer to resign from the army altogether. He was placed back at the head of the IX Corps and sent to command the Department of the Ohio, encompassing the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. While in command of this department he clashed with the anti-war Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham.

Burnside’s IX Corps was heavily involved during the Knoxville Campaign. He occupied the city of Knoxville unopposed. At the Cumberland Gap he forced the surrender of 2,300 Confederate troops. He then clashed with James LOngstreet’s corps but he was able to outmaneuver him and return to the safety of Knoxville. Tying down Longstreet’s corps at Knoxville contributed to Gen. Braxton Bragg‘s defeat by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Chattanooga.

Burnside’s corps was returned to the Eastern Theater where it eventually became part of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside fought at the battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, where he did not perform in a distinguished manner, attacking piecemeal and appearing reluctant to commit his troops to the frontal assaults that characterized these battles. After North Anna and Cold Harbor, he took his place in the siege lines at Petersburg.

Troops under Burnside’s command suggested that they dig a mine under a fort named Elliot’s Salient in the Confederate entrenchments and ignite explosives there to achieve a surprise breakthrough. The fort was destroyed on July 30 in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. Because of interference from Meade, Burnside was ordered, only hours before the infantry attack, not to use his division of black troops, which had been specially trained for this mission. He was forced to use untrained white troops instead.

He could not decide which division to choose as a replacement, so he had his three subordinate commanders draw lots. The division chosen by chance was that commanded by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk well behind the lines, providing no leadership. Ledlie’s men entered the huge crater instead of going around it, becoming trapped, and were subjected to heavy fire from Confederates around the rim, resulting in high casualties.

Burnside was relieved of command for the final time and was never given another command. A court of inquiry later placed the blame for the Crater fiasco on Burnside and his subordinates. In December, Burnside met with President Lincoln and General Grant about his future. He was contemplating resignation, but Lincoln and Grant requested that he remain in the Army. At the end of the interview, Burnside wrote, “I was not informed of any duty upon which I am to be placed.” He finally resigned his commission on April 15, 1865, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War later exonerated Burnside, and placed the blame for the Union defeat at the Crater on General Meade for requiring the specially trained USCT (United States Colored Troops) men to be withdrawn.

Despite all of his failures Ambrose Burnside was elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island (May 1866 to May 1869).


The Sacking of Fredericksburg

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Sacking of FredericksburgThe town of Fredericksburg was at the center of fighting in Central Virginia from 1862 until 1864. Early on the town on the Rappahannock River was occupied by Union troops. The Union Army withdrew but returned to the area in December 1862.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside chose to cross the Rappahannock from his bases around Falmouth on the north side of the river. With this decision Robert E. Lee had no choice but to contest the crossing. The ensuing battle which ran from December 11th until the 15th led to artillery bombardments by both sides.

The Union artillery bombed the private residences to prevent their use by Confederate sharpshooters who attempted to prevent the completion of Union pontoon bridges. Eventually Union troops crossed the river in pontoon boats and laboriously cleaned out the Confederate sharpshooters from the buildings in the town.

During the fighting Union troops sacked the town, something that was quite in the Middle Ages. Fredericksburg was the first American town or city to be sacked during the American Civil War. The fact that an American town sacked by Americans was not lost on either side. It would not be the last.

The Union troops crossed the river on the pontoon bridges under enemy fire. Dozens of Union soldiers were wounded by shrapnel. They would be the lucky ones. Early on they were met by an enterprising undertaker who busily handed out cards to all takers. Eventually he was run off but his appearance made the Union troops realize that this might be a one-way trip.

Once across the river Union troops began an exhaustive search for tobacco, food other items. Minor pilfering quickly degenerated into wholesale pillage.  For several hours discipline and order vanished as soldiers dashed from building to building, stealing whatever they could find.

“The ladies [of Fredericksburg] said before the battle they would sooner see the city destroyed & their homes made desolate forever than to see it surrendered to us,” crowed one Union soldier.  “We have accommodated them in every particular for there is not a building left untouched in the whole city.”

Soldiers took whatever caught their fancy , not even thinking about how they would get it home. A Connecticut soldier saw his comrades leave houses carrying absurd plunder: a stuffed alligator, a pair of brass andirons, an apothecary’s pestle, musical instruments, and even mouse traps—“everything that was ever made to eat, drink, wear or use.”

Financial institutions were a favorite target of the thieves.  A group of particularly determined soldiers managed to crack the safe at the Bank of Virginia, where they found silverware, half dollar coins, and a large quantity of currency.  “…Everything valuable was carried away,” wrote an approving lieutenant.

Theft gave way to outright vandalism and systematic destruction of private property. Soldiers bayoneted paintings, smashed mirrors and china, hurled glasses through windows, pulled down draperies, and tore up carpeting.  Books from private libraries were hurled into the muddy streets; barrels brimming with flour were turned over and poured onto the floor.  “The soldiers seemed to delight in destroying everything,” wrote one witness.

Furniture was dragged into the street and smashed for kindling. Pianos were carried into the streets and battered into pieces. “Vandalism reigned supreme,’ wrote one disgusted artilleryman.  “Men who at home were modest and unassuming now seemed to be possessed with an insatiate desire to destroy everything in sight.”

Some soldiers donned women’s clothing and paraded down the street with parasols and bonnets, adding a bizarre twist to the chaotic events of the day.  “It was a rich scene” thought a Minnesota man.  “There was a dirty soldier dressed in the choicest silks, escorted by other soldiers dressed in long tail coats, and plug hats…. One of the boys picked up a violin, and a soldier was soon found who could play it, so they took positions for a cotillion…. But I cannot do justice to the scene.”  A chaplain put the best face on the matter, claiming, “This was simply the spirit of eternal youth exemplified, the thing that kept men’s hearts from ‘failing them.’”

Sketch artist Arthur Lumley described the deplorable behavior of Federal soldiers on the eve of battle fittingly: “Friday Night in Fredericksburg. This night the city was in the wildest confusion sacked by the union troops = houses burned down furniture scattered in the streets = men pillaging in all directions a fit scene for the French revolution and a discrace [sic] to the Union Arms. this is my view of what I saw. Lumley.”


The Importance of Chancellorsville to Each Side

The Wounding of Stonewall JacksonThe Battle of Chancellorsville took place from April 30 to May 6, 1863. It was a clear Confederate victory yet it had significance for both sides.Like the waves that are created by dropping a pebble in a still pond, the battle and its aftermath would impact both sides for the balance of the Civil War.

Let’s look at the obvious results of the battle. Chancellorsville is often called Robert E. Lee’s “Perfect Battle.” He was able to defeat the much larger Union Army that had an over 2-to-1 numerical advantage. By skillfully using the terrain, both the dense forest around Chancellorsville and the hills to the east near Fredericksburg, Lee negated the larger Union numbers.

In the dense forest he was able to channel the Union forces and keep them bottled up on the restrictive road net. Meanwhile, using superior military intelligence, Stonewall Jackson was able to surprise the Union Army with a surprise flank march and deliver a mighty blow to the enemy.

In any battle, there are always conditions that need to be met for victory. In the case of Chancellorsville flank march and attack, historians have laid out four conditions that the Confederates needed for victory. In each and every case they accomplished each one successfully. This was a rare case of everything going just right for one side.

To the east around Chancellorsville, Jubal Early was able to fend of the timid attacks launched by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick who outnumbered him 4-t0-1: 40,000 to 10,000. Early was able to fend off Sedgwick’s weak attacks and protect Lee flank and rear. Again, everything went right for the Confederates.

Those are the obvious results: Lee was better than Joseph Hooker when it came to tactics and control of his troops. He repeatedly gambled and won. However, his solid victory was to have consequences beyond this battle.

On the night of May 2nd, Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s self-described right arm, went out on a scouting mission with General A.P. Hill and members of their respective staffs. In the dark they were mistaken for Union cavalry and Jackson was badly wounded by the ensuing musket fire. Jackson’s three bullet wounds were not in themselves life-threatening, but his left arm was broken and had to be amputated. He contracted pneumonia and died on May 10.

Jackson’s death was a devastating loss for the Confederacy and a corresponding gain by the Union. Some historians and participants—particularly those of the postbellum Lost Cause movement—attribute the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg two months later to Jackson’s absence. In the short term Lee was able to replace Jackson but he could replace Jackson’s audacity in the offense.

Both armies suffered severe casualties at Chancellorsville: 17,197 for the Union Army and 13,303 for the Confederacy. The difference was the considerable number of prisoners captured by the Confederates. However, based on the original 2-to-1 Union advantage, it was a distinct disadvantage for the Army of Northern Virginia with a 22% casualty rate. When comparing only the killed and wounded, there were almost no differences between the Confederate and Federal losses at Chancellorsville.  These were men that Lee would be hard-pressed to replace.

Here’s the subtlest, yet most important significance of Lee’s victory at Chancellorsville. After his greatest victory Robert E. Lee had the mistaken belief that his army was invincible. He felt that they could defeat any force that the Union could send against them. On July 3, 1863, Robert E. Lee was proved wrong when he sent 15,000 men against the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. They were crushed at great loss to the Confederacy.



The Union Withdrawal From Chancellorsville

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

While “Fighting Joe” Hooker sat ineffectually at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee felt comfortable with his position and ordered Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s division to join the battle against Sedgwick. Lee ordered Early and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws to coordinate an attack against Sedgewick’s force on the afternoon of May 3rd but his orders arrived too late to be executed.

By the following morning, Sedgwick’s force was entrenched in a strong defensive position that was “u-shaped”. Both of his flanks were anchored on the Rappahannock River with his line extending south of the Orange Plank Road.  Early’s plan was to drive the Union troops off Marye’s Heights and the other high ground west of Fredericksburg. Lee ordered McLaws to engage from the west “to prevent [the enemy] concentrating on General Early.”

Map of Chancellorsville, May 4-6Early’s attack on the morning of May 4th cut off the greater portion of Sedgwick’s force from the town of Fredericksburg, leaving Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division isolated inside the town. Early’s force retook the high ground of Marye’s Heights in the attack. However, McLaws was reluctant to press his part of the attack even after Lee arrived with Anderson’s Division at about noon.

With Anderson’s arrival, Lee’s force slightly outnumbered Sedgwick’s but it took all afternoon to ready the attack. At about 6:00 PM the Confederate attack finally began. Two of Early’s brigades (under Brig. Gens. Harry T. Hays and Robert F. Hoke) pushed back Sedgwick’s left-center across the Plank Road, but Anderson’s effort was a slight one and McLaws once again contributed nothing. Throughout the day on May 4, Hooker provided no assistance or useful guidance to Sedgwick, and Sedgwick thought about little else than protecting his line of retreat.

The following morning before dawn, Sedgwick began his withdrawal across the Rappahannock River at Banks Ford. Gibbon also ordered his division back to the north side of the river. When he learned that Sedgwick had retreated back over the river, Hooker felt he was out of options to save the campaign.

He called a council of war and asked his corps commanders to vote about whether to stay and fight or to withdraw. Although a majority voted to fight, Hooker had had enough, and on the night of May 5–6, he withdrew back across the river at U.S. Ford.

It was a difficult operation. Hooker and the artillery crossed first, followed by the infantry beginning at 6 a.m. on May 6. Meade’s V Corps served as the rear guard. Rains caused the river to rise and threatened to break the pontoon bridges. Maj. Gen. Darius Couch was in command on the south bank after Hooker departed, but he was left with explicit orders not to continue the battle, which he had been tempted to do.

The surprise withdrawal frustrated Lee’s plan for one final attack against Chancellorsville. He had issued orders for his artillery to bombard the Union line in preparation for another assault, but by the time they were ready Hooker and his men were gone.

The Battle of Chancellorsville is often called Lee’s “perfect battle” but it was a costly one for the Army of Northern Virginia. “Stonewall” Jackson had been mortally wounded and would die several days after the end of the battle. With only 60,000 men engaged, he suffered 13,303 casualties (1,665 killed, 9,081 wounded, 2,018 missing), losing some 22% of his force in the campaign—men that the Confederacy, with its limited manpower, could not replace. James Longstreet was highly critical of Lee’s strategy, claiming that the Confederacy could not win a war of attrition.

The Union Army of the Potomac with 133,000 Union men engaged had 17,197 were casualties (1,606 killed, 9,672 wounded, 5,919 missing), a percentage much lower than Lee’s, particularly considering that it included 4,000 men of the XI Corps who were captured on May 2. When comparing only the killed and wounded, there were almost no differences between the Confederate and Federal losses at Chancellorsville.

The Union was shocked by the defeat. President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “My God! My God! What will the country say?” Hooker relieved Generals George Stoneman and Oliver O. Howard after the defeat. Accusations of incompetence flew left and right throughout the Union high command.

President Lincoln chose to retain Hooker in command of the army, but the friction between Lincoln, general in chief Henry W. Halleck, and Hooker became intolerable in the early days of the Gettysburg Campaign and Lincoln relieved Hooker of command on June 28, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Confederate public had mixed feelings about the result, joy at Lee’s tactical victory tempered by the loss of their most beloved general, Stonewall Jackson. Following the death of Jackson, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia from two large corps into three, under James LongstreetRichard S. Ewell, and A.P. Hill. The new assignments for the latter two generals caused some command difficulties in the upcoming Gettysburg Campaign, which began in June.

Of more consequence for Gettysburg, however, was the attitude that Lee absorbed from his great victory at Chancellorsville, that his army was virtually invincible and would succeed at anything he asked them to do. Pickett’s Charge would put paid to that belief.


Hooker’s Corps Commanders (Part II)

This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series The Chancellorsville Campaign

When Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac he changed some of his corps commanders to reflect his personal bias. Several either resigned or were reassigned. In their place, he promoted a number of division commanders to the corps command level.

General John SedgwickMaj. Gen. John Sedgwick was a division commander who had commanded first the II Corps, then the IX Corps and finally, the VI Corps of the army. His troops affectionately called him “Uncle John”.

Sedgwick was yet another West Pointer, having graduated in 1837. During the years leading up to the outbreak of the war, he fought in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War  the Utah War against the Mormons and various Indian Wars. At the start of the Civil War, Sedgwick was serving as a colonel and Assistant Inspector General of the Military Department of Washington.

He missed the early fighting due to the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. Promoted to brigadier general on August 31, 1861, he commanded a brigade in the Army of the Potomac, then his own division, which was designated the 2nd division of the II Corps for the Peninsula Campaign. In Virginia, he fought at Yorktown and Seven Pines and was wounded in the arm and leg at the Battle of Glendale. He was promoted to major general on July 4, 1862.

At the Battle of AntietamII Corps commander Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner impulsively sent Sedgwick’s division in a mass assault without proper reconnaissance. His division was engaged by Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson from three sides, resulting in 2,200 casualties. Sedgwick himself was hit by three bullets, in the wrist, leg, and shoulder, and was out of action until after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard was the young 32-year old commander of the XI Corps. General Oliver O. HowardHoward had graduated from West Point in 1854 after first graduating from Bowdoin College at the age of 19. His only antebellum service was in Florida during the Seminole Wars.

At the outbreak of the war, he commanded the 3rd Maine Infantry regiment and at First Manassas he was in temporary command of a brigade. After the Union defeat, he was promoted to brigadier general and given permanent command of a brigade.

On June 1, 1862, while commanding a Union brigade in the Fair Oaks, Howard was wounded twice in his right arm, which was subsequently amputated. He received the Medal of Honor in 1893 for his heroism at Fair Oaks. Returning to duty for the Battle of Antietam, he led a division.

In November 1862, Howard was promoted to major general and in April 1863 he was given command of the XI Corps, replacing Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel. The corps was composed largely of German immigrants, many of whom spoke no English, the soldiers were resentful of their new leader and openly called for Sigel’s reinstatement.

General Henry W. SlocumThe Union XII Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum. The 35-year old New Yorker was a 1848 graduate of West Point. Slocum only active fighting, like Howard’s, was during the Seminole Wars. In fact, by 1856 he was out of the army and was admitted to the New York State bar in 1858.

At the start of the war, Slocum was appointed colonel of the 27th New York Infantry which he led at First Manassas where he was wounded. In August 1861, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and commanded a brigade during the Peninsula Campaign and a division at the Seven Days Battles, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill.

On July 25, 1862, Slocum was appointed major general of volunteer, the second youngest man in the Army to achieve that rank. He led his division  covering the retreat of Maj. Gen. John Pope after the Second Battle of Bull Run.

At Crampton’s Gap during the Battle of South Mountain, he and his subordinate officers overrode their indecisive corps commander, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, assaulting the enemy line behind a stone wall and routing it.

On October 20, 1862, he assumed command of the XII Corps after its commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, was killed at the Battle of Antietam, a battle where Slocum’s division was kept in reserve. He led the corps in the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he fortunately arrived too late on the scene to see any real action in that Union catastrophe.

We have already met Maj. Gen. George Stoneman who commanded the Union Cavalry General George StonemanCorps. Stoneman was an 1846 graduate of West Point who was initially a dragoon. Mostly, he saw service in the West before the outbreak of the war.

At the start of the war, Stoneman was stationed in Texas where he refused to surrender to Confederate authorities there. He escaped to the North with most of his command. Stoneman served in cavalry from the beginning of the war but Maj. Gen. George McClellan had little appreciation for the use of cavalry in large formations, relegating it to assignment in small units to infantry brigades.

After the Peninsula, Stoneman was an infantry commander, commanding a division in the II Corps and the III Corps. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Stoneman commanded the III Corps. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862.

Following Fredericksburg, a new commanding general took over the Army of the Potomac: Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Hooker had a better understanding of the strategic value of a centralized Cavalry Corps and he named Stoneman to lead it. The centralized corps could undertake long raids into enemy territory, destroying supplies, and gathering intelligence about the enemy forces. They were no longer subject to the commanders of small infantry units.





Burnside’s Mud March

The Mud MarchFollowing the disastrous attempt to take the Confederate positions around Fredericksburg, Virginia, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, planned a desperate attempt to retrieve his reputation and restore the morale of his troops.

What followed was the another disaster which came to be known as the “Mud March”. It was a plan by Burnside to make a series of feints at the fords upstream of Fredericksburg to distract the Confederates while he took the bulk of the army across the Rappahannock River seven miles south of town.

Burnside and the Army of the Potomac had already broken new ground by executing a winter offensive at Fredericksburg. Most 19th century armies were loathe to attempt ambitious offensives in the winter. They usually used the winter months to rest and refit their troops in preparation for spring offensives.

The pressure from Union authorities in Washington on the newly-minted commander had pushed him into an ill-conceived assault on the formidable Confederate positions at Fredericksburg. Now, it was happening again with the authorities in Washington imploring Burnside to do something.

Mass movement in the winter months was slowed by the weather and the state of the roads in 19th century America. Most roads were dirt and the freezing-thawing cycle tended to make them into rivers of clinging mud that was guaranteed to slow an army on the march. The winter of 1862-1863 was no exception.

On top of his infantry feints and movements, Burnside’s plan called for cavalry movementsGeneral Ambrose Burnside that were supposed to distract the enemy. Burnside detailed 1500 troopers for this planned operation.

Five hundred of them would create a distracting feint in the Warrenton-Culpeper direction and then withdraw back to Falmouth. Meanwhile, the main force was to cross at Kelly’s Ford and swing south and west in a wide arc, all the way around and south of Richmond and ultimately arriving at Suffolk on the coast

The cavalry action was stopped at Kelly’s Ford by micromanaging from Washington. Burnside received a telegram from President Lincoln that stated,  “No major army movements are to be made without first informing the White House.”

How the President knew about Burnside’s plan was a mystery to him. Burnside hadn’t informed a large number of officers on this aspect of his plan. It seems that two officers, Brig. Gens. John Newton and John Cochrane had taken leave and journeyed to Washington.

They initially met with Secretary of State William Seward who after hearing their report arranged for a meeting with the President. It was at this meeting that they give a grim report to Lincoln on the state of the army.

Newton related that conditions had gotten to the point where the army would disintegrate in the event Burnside lost another battle along the Rappahannock. The two then left while adding that Lincoln ought to look into things himself.

Map of the Mud MarchUpon receiving Lincoln’s telegram, Burnside immediately rushed to Washington where he met with the President and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. After much discussion, Burnside protested that the two officers, who had remained unknown to him, ought to be court-martialed. Halleck agreed with him. Burnside then offered to resign from both army command and the army itself.

Click Map to enlarge.

After Burnside’s departure, Lincoln ordered Halleck to Falmouth to reason with the angry general. Halleck met with Burnside but gave him vague instructions to destroy the Confederate army while taking as minimal damage as possible.

Burnside revived his plan but reversed the original sequence. Instead of crossing the Rappahannock south of Fredericksburg, he initially planned to move upstream and cross at U.S. Ford, due north of the Chancellorsville crossroads.

Burnside, with a head start, altered his plan to aim at Banks’ Ford, a closer, quicker crossing. At dawn of January 21, 1863, engineers would push five bridges across the river. Following that, two grand divisions would be over the river in four hours. Meanwhile, another grand division would distract the Rebels by repeating the December crossing at Fredericksburg.

During the night of the 20th, the rain began, and by the morning of the 21st, the earth was soaked and the river banks had the appearance of a quagmire. Already, fifteen pontoons were on the river, nearly spanning it, and five more were amply sufficient.

Burnside began at once to bring up his artillery, which had the effect of making a perfect mortar bed. For a considerable area around the ford all day the men worked in the rain but to little purpose. Quite a number of cannon were advanced near the ford, but the 22nd only added to the storm, and the artillery, caissons and even wagons were swamped in the mud.

The storm had delayed Burnside’s movements, giving Lee ample time to line the other shore with his army, though there was no attempt to interfere with his crossing except from the sharpshooters, who peppered away on all occasions.

No doubt Lee was hoping Burnside would effect a crossing; with a swollen river in his rear, it would have been a sorry predicament for the Union Army indeed, but Burnside finally became resigned to his fate and gave the order for the army to retire to its quarters, and  ended the famous mud march.

It also marked the end of Ambrose Burnside’s career as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln replaced him with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker on January 26, 1863.


General Thomas J. Jackson: “Stonewall”

Stonewall JacksonThomas Jonathan Jackson, the officer that came to be known as “Stonewall”, was born in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia in 1824. Orphaned by 7 years old, Jackson was raised by various relatives until he entered West Point in 1842.

Jackson had very little early schooling but he worked hard at the military academy. Jackson graduated 17th out of 59 students in the Class of 1846. It was said by his peers that if he had stayed there another year, he would have graduated first.

Jackson began his career as a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment and was sent to fight in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. He served at the Siege of Veracruz and the battles of Contreras, Chapultepec, and Mexico City, eventually earning two brevet promotions, and the regular army rank of first lieutenant. It was in Mexico that Thomas Jackson first met Robert E. Lee.

Jackson was praised by General Winfield Scott for earning more promotions than any other officer during the three-year war.

In 1851, Jackson began his career at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He became Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery. Parts of Jackson’s curriculum are still taught at VMI, regarded as timeless military essentials: discipline, mobility, assessing the enemy’s strength and intentions while attempting to conceal your own, and the efficiency of artillery combined with an infantry assault. Jackson was to use all of these during his two-year meteoric career.

Jackson was designated to lead a contingent of VMI cadets to Charles Town for the hanging of John Brown on December 2, 1859. He saw only “unflinching firmness” in Brown’s actions on that prophetic day.

When Virginia seceded, Jackson was promoted to colonel and ordered to become the drillmaster for new recruits to the Confederate army. On April 27, 1861, he was ordered to Harpers Ferry by the governor. There, he was to form the infantry brigade that later became famous as the “Stonewall” Brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th, and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments. All of these units were from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, where Jackson located his headquarters throughout the first two years of the war.

Jackson was promoted to brigadier general in June after a spectacular raid on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on May 24th. Jackson’s operations were aimed at disrupting a critical railroad used by the opposing Union Army as a major supply route and capturing the maximum number of locomotives and cars. In June, General Joseph Johnston ordered Jackson and his brigade to join the main Confederate Army confronting the Union forces around Manassas.

Jackson earned his famous nickname at the First Battle of Manassas in July. Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee, Jr., exhorted his own troops to re-form by shouting, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Although there is some controversy about Bee’s rationale, he was killed shortly after and the name stuck.

After the battle, Jackson was promoted to major general and given command of the Valley District. It was here that “Stonewall” Jackson became famous. In a lightening campaign that lasted from March 23, 1862 until June 9th, Jackson’s 17,000 men marched 646 miles  in 48 days and won six out of seven battles as they successfully engaged three Union armies (52,000 men), preventing them from reinforcing the Union offensive against Richmond.

With the success of his Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson became the most celebrated soldier in the Confederacy (until his reputation was eventually eclipsed by Lee’s), and his victories lifted the morale of the public.

Jackson then joined the main Confederate army east of Richmond where he eventually became Robert E. Lee’s senior subordinate, commanding the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. His troops served well during the Seven Days Campaign but Jackson’s reputation fared rather poorly.

Victorious once again at the Second Battle of Manassas, Jackson would lead his veteran troops into Maryland. His corps commanded included four divisions of veteran troops with attached artillery for each division.

Jackson was assigned by Lee to capture Harpers Ferry so that there would be no threat to the Confederates’ supply lines back to Virginia. His troops surrounded the town and forced its surrender. The victorious Confederates captured mountains of weapons and supplies, besides almost 12,500 Union soldiers.

Moving on to Sharpsburg, Maryland, Jackson commanded the northern end of the Antietam battlefield, where his men bore the brunt of the early fighting. At the end of the day, Jackson’s subordinate, Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, prevented a Union breakthrough at the southern end of the battlefield. Hill’s troops were the last to arrive, having stayed at Harpers Ferry to arrange the surrender and parole of the captured Union troops.

In December, Jackson’s Second Corps held off a strong Union assault against the right flank of the Confederate line at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in what became a decisive Confederate victory.

The Battle of Chancellorsville was Stonewall Jackson’s final and perhaps, his greatest tactical achievement. Jackson’s famous Flank Attack broke the Union lines and forced a rout of the Union Army.The Confederates marched silently until they were merely several hundred feet from the Union position, then released a bloodthirsty cry and full charge. Many of the Federals were captured without a shot fired, the rest were driven into a full rout. Jackson pursued relentlessly back toward the center of the Federal line until dusk.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own troops while leading a party that was scouting the forward lines. The North Carolina troops thought that the group were Union cavalry. Jackson was hit by three bullets, two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Several other men in his staff were killed, in addition to many horses. Darkness and confusion prevented Jackson from getting immediate care. He was dropped from his stretcher while being evacuated because of incoming artillery rounds.

Jackson’s left arm had to be amputated by the chief surgeon of Jackson’s Corps, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire. The General’s condition was not helped by the rough evacuation to a farm some 18 miles from the battlefield. Jackson eventually succumbed to pneumonia.

A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks”—then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” Thomas J. Jackson died on May 10, 1863 at the age of 39.

His friend and commander, General Robert E. Lee on the night that he learned of Jackson’s death, told his cook, “William, I have lost my right arm” and “I’m bleeding at the heart.” 

The Confederacy never replaced Jackson’s superior command and tactical skills. Less than six weeks later, Lee was defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg.



Captain John Donovan and the Battle of Fredericksburg

Captain John Donovan, 69th New YorkToday is the 150th anniversary of the five-day Battle of Fredericksburg. The battle took place from December 11th to the 15th in 1862 at the city of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.

Sometimes, it is more informative to read first person accounts of battles and engagements. If the writer is good, it gives the reader a better view of the action and is far better than a third-person retelling of events. Unfortunately, there were not as many literate participants in the Civil War as one would have liked.

Fortunately, one of the participants at the Battle of Fredericksburg was a decent writer and we have his account to prove it. He was Captain John Donovan of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry.

Captain Donovan was a veteran soldier despite the fact that he was barely 21 when he was first wounded at Malvern Hill as a lieutenant. It was here that he lost an eye and part of his ear. He had then been captured by the Rebels, but had returned to his regiment by October, when he was presented with a Tiffany’s sword by friends from Plattsburgh, New York as a token of appreciation for his sacrifice.

At Fredericksburg, Donovan led Company G into what he later described as “Hell Personified.” Here is the full account of his recollection of the battles as it  printed in the New York Irish-American on 3rd January 1863. Although a rather long account, it provides us with an amazing amount of detail about the 69th actions during the battle.

Hon. And most esteemed Sir:- Although the left side and arm are yet powerless, I have still the use of the right arm and hand: and, resting against my pillows, by degrees, I have used that hand in giving you these few details of that terrible engagement fought on the banks of the Rappahannock. The battle of Fredericksburg was the bloodiest and most severe I have yet experienced, while, in the meantime, it has been the most void of good results to the nation. This battle came very unexpectedly on the troops. It has been believed almost to a certainty that the army before Fredericksburg were going- had virtually gone- into winter quarters; and it was not until the very latest order came, they could believe otherwise. For days and weeks the troops had been industriously engaged in erecting log huts and rendering themselves as comfortable as possible against the fast approaching cold weather. When the final order for three days’ cooked rations and sixty extra rounds of ammunition came, an involuntary cessation in the building line took place. A general feeling of disappointment ensued, – Some would fold their arms and look calmly on their handiwork; more walked round in apparent disgust; while others fell to work. In the excitement of the moment, and razed their shanties to the ground “for spite.” A magnificent Hall- erected by the Irish Brigade, in which was to come off the grand banquet on the reception of their new stands of colors- was abandoned. A new train of thought occupied the general mind; and new reflection seemed to pervade all.

At fifteen minutes to five o’clock on the morning of the 11th, the signal guns were fired, and soon afterwards the engagement commenced, which, on the eve of the third day, proved so reckless on the part of our Generals, so unsuccessful to our cause, and so destructive to our fine army. We marched from our encampment at day-break in the direction of the river, and, having gone some distance, halted in a favourable position, out of view of the enemy and reach of his shells- the cannonade on both sides was now terrific- almost equal to that at Malvern Hill, July 1st. The sun was hot and the atmosphere quite hazy. It remained so all day. Several casualties occurred to our troops engaged in laying the pontoon bridges, in which enterprise the most splendid bravery was exhibited under the eye of the General-in-Chief. The sun went down behind the hills, leaving a bright and beautiful red skein along the south-western horizon. This formed a magnificent background to the grand and awful scene before us. AUnion attack on Mary's Heights panorama, the grandeur of which has seldom, if ever, been witnessed here, met the gaze. The entire city of Fredericksburg appeared through a the haze and smoke of battle one prolonged sheet of flame, with nothing unconsumed but the spires of its churches, which, in solemn majesty, overlooked a supposed heap of ruin and a scene of desolation. The unabated fury of the cannonade rendered the scene more terrible and grand- the flash of battery after battery could now distinctly be observed through the dusk of evening, before the accompanying sound reached the ear- round shot went whistling and crashing in every direction; shells burst on the ground and in the air- their dark fragments shooting off in every direction from the massive volumes of fire and smoke, while the thunders of the discharges and the explosions rolled along the bosom of the Rappahannock, the reverberations crashing and rambling in prolonged echo for miles through the surrounding hills and valleys. In view of this splendid panorama we received orders to bivouack for the night. The boys felt in excellent spirits. The supposed intended plan for the capture of Richmond and the utter destruction of the Confederate army was circulated freely around, and it appeared so plausible and expedient that a great many believed it. The plan in circulation was, that General Banks and the army of Fortress Monroe were marching on Petersburgh and Richmond; that General Sigel had crossed the Rappahannock further up, with the intention of falling on General Lee’s left flank and rear, with a view to turn it and prevent a retreat of the rebel army to Richmond; that General Franklin was coming up on the left, and that one grand and simultaneous attack of all the Union forces in and around Virginia was intended.

Friday morning, Dec. 12th, arrived: the condition of the weather much the same as on the day previous. At an early hour the troops were under arms, prepared to make the passage of the Rappahannock. A clear and level plain stretched away to right and left, and down with gentle slope to the river’s bank. Here on this plain, in the beaming sun of early morning was presented a scene that made the breast of the soldier and the patriot grow big with emotion. The bright banners of innumerable battalions and the dazzling glare of the national ensign came sweeping down towards the river. In this manner column after column came pressing down from every direction, until the whole plain became covered and presented a mass of solid squares. This was Sumner’s grand division, the second and ninth army corps. Whomsoever would say to me at that time that anything else but certain victory awaited this army, I would have looked upon him with scorn and contempt. I was not aware that hell personified was so close at hand and ready for our destruction.

The troops crossed in three columns at a double quick, without opposition by the enemy, and were drawn up in line of battle by brigades on the south bank of the river, where they remained till late in the forenoon of Saturday, resting on their arms. This was decidedly unpleasant as well as uncomfortable to the troops who were obliged to remain so all night in the cold and without bivouack fires. The reason of so lengthy a delay in this awkward and unpleasant position began to grow somewhat mysterious. Some attributed it to the fact that Franklin had not got into position on the left, while others supposed we were only waiting the arrival of the moment for the combined grand and simultaneous attack. The former seemed to be the most correct, as a little before sunset Franklin appeared to be feeling his way up by a brisk cannonade on the left and was welcomed in loud style by the rebel batteries.

Everything was quiet during the night, and until late next morning a fearful calm ensued, but was only that calm that is said generally to precede a storm. The memorable Saturday had at length arrived. Preparations were made and everything got ready for the great work; every man in his place and every officer at his post.

The Irish Brigade was drawn up in line of battle at ordered arms and a parade rest. A green sprig was ordered by General Meagher to be placed in the caps of both officers and men, himself first setting the example. At about halfpast nine o’clock we were marched up to the centre of the city, nearer the enemy, and formed in line of battle on a street running nearly east and west. Here brigade and regimental hospitals were established. – General Meagher, accompanied by General Hancock and the members of his staff, now addressed his “little Brigade,” each regiment separately, briefly in his eloquent style, and in words of real inspiration. Each man was made aware of the great and terrible work before him, and each man measured in his mind the part he had to perform. The General’s remarks were responded to by the men with great spirit and acclamation. Map of the Union attack on Mary's HeightsCol. Nugent gave instructions to his “boys” in his usual calm and earnest manner, when every man stood in his place, with set lip and flashing eye, awaiting the word to advance.- French’s division was first to attach the enemy, supported by Zooke’s, Meagher’s and Caldwell’s brigades of Richardson’s division in succession. General French made the attack at about twelve o’clock M., when the battle became general. Zooke’s brigade moved up, followed by Meagher’s. The aspect is already terrible. Noonday is turned to dusk by the smoke and storm of battle. A ravine in rear of the town, through the centre of which runs a mill stream, seven or eight feet wide, over which we were obliged to cross on a rude bridge, was swept by a raking fire from the enemy’s batteries. Having crossed this, the Brigade halted in line of battle, the men relieved themselves of their blankets and haversacks, and awaited the order to advance. French’s division fire, fall, lie down, scatter, rally; but in vain- it is already placed hors-de-combat. Zooke’s brigade advance in fine style, but, God! Mark how they fall; see how its ranks are thinned; still on they go. – “Irish Brigade, advance,” is heard in bold, sweet accents above the clamor of battle.’ “Forward; double quick; guide centre;” and on it dashes through the corn field in the face of the most invulnerable point of the enemy’s works. We are greeted by a murderous fire of grape and canister and Minnie balls. Gaps are opened in the ranks, but they close again and move still onward. The first fence is gained and passed. (HereAdjutant Young of the 88th, fell on my left, wounded through the body- a brave, cool young officer.) The enemy now fall back from his first behind his second line of breastworks. We gain the second fence, within sixty yards of the enemy’s batteries, and are met by a most disastrous infilade and direct fire from the rebel artillery and infantry. We have not a single piece of artillery to support us, and yet we stand against shot and shell, grape and canister, Minnie and conical balls, to fight a formidable enemy, artillery and infantry posted behind stone walls and fortifications, with buck and ball fired from Harper’s Ferry muskets. It was impossible for human nature to withstand this, and yet were we left here all the afternoon unrelieved. No order to fall back came, and no order to do was [envisaged?]: the Irish Brigade was left to be sacrificed between the fire of the enemy from the front and flanks and the fire of our own troops, afraid to advance from the rear. The 88th joined the 69th on the left, and these regiments fought together like brothers: no brothers could have greater feelings of real brotherly affection. Their ranks are already horribly thinned, and still “leaden rain and iron hail” is streaming upon them; but in all of this, there is no terror for men whose choice is “death before dishonor.” The exasperated felling caused by the fact that we had not in our power the means to inflict ample retaliation on the enemy for the injuries we were receiving, was the most unpleasant feature of all. The 5th New Hampshire, of General Caldwell’s brigade, was the only regiment that came to our assistance during the entire engagement. – The men and officers of this gallant regiment and those of the 69th New York entertain for each other the friendship of brothers. They have been together on every march and almost every battle- and here, on this ever memorable day to those who shall survive it, together                

The fight and fall and bleed-                

And mingle blood with blood;                

A prayer ascends to Heaven, a sigh-                

God, Union, Flag, Liberty and Laws! – They die!

Here I take a look along the shattered ranks: – an awful sight. See that number of brave fellows now stretched in their gore, who but an hour ago were the personification of life and strength and manliness: who had marched up with stout hearts to the fray, – a march only from earth to eternity: they will never march again. The clouds grow darker, the storm is unceasing in its fury, the casualties increase- Col. Nugent is struck down wounded, and borne off the field. The command now devolves on Major Cavanagh, acting Lieutenant Colonel. “Blaze away and stand to it, boys,” cries the “little Major.”- Capt. Thomas Leddy, acting Major, who had arrived only the day before the battle from Washington, was wounded severely in the left arm. He had but recovered from the effects of a wound received at Malvern Hill. Lieut. Callaghan, First Lieutenant of my company, who had been detailed to command Co. H, was wounded in four different places. He is an “old veteran;” Fredericksburg, according to his own statement, was his fortieth battle, and nobly did he fight it. Second Lieut. David Burke, of my company, while bravely performing his duty, received a rather severe wound in the left shoulder. First Lieut. Bernard O’Neill, commanding Co. D. on my right, was severely wounded while in the act of discharging a musket at the enemy. One of my men remarked to me- “You are wounded, Captain.” “Where!” “In the head,” was the reply; but I found it to be my hat instead, which had been pierced with two bullets. – The greatest coolness and bravery were displayed by Generals Meagher, Caldwell and Zooke. General Hancock was also on the field, mounted, but only to witness the wholesale slaughter of his fine division in a reckless engagement not of his choice or style of fighting. My own turn, as I supposed, had at last arrived. I was struck with a piece of spent shell on the left breast, rendering me insensible to the scenes that transpired around me for about the space of an hour, and causing symptoms which, for a few days, appeared quite serious. I also received a flesh wound or bruise on the left shoulder from a rifle ball which was stopped in its otherwise serious effects by striking my (metalic) shoulder strap, after perforating the over-coat, and before going through the under-clothing. When sensibility returned, the battle appeared to me like a dream, until a shell bursted close by, tearing up the earth and covering me with mud, fairly awaking me to a sense of reality. I looked up only to see the sun go down behind the rebel breastworks on the hill, upon no pleasing shouts of victory, no flank of the enemy turned by Sigel, no Banks,-nor, from the firing on the left, no ground gained by Franklin- nothing of any good obtained, while night was soon to cast its shadow upon a field of carnage and slaughter, the most frightful and terrible ever experienced, and still the bloody fight goes on. I take another look around me. Who are these lines of men that lie stretched along to my right and left, as if asleep on their arms, with the exception of an occasional shot from their midst? “Is it possible that we have been relieved by a new brigade?” “No!” was the answer that greeted my ears, coming from the lips of my First Sergeant, Joseph Hoban, a brave young soldier who was still by my side. “They are the dead and wounded soldiers and officers of the 69th, 88th and 5th New Hampshire.” Where is Major Cavanagh? “Carried away either dead or wounded from the field.” O God! This is truly awful- our gallant and brave Colonel, Acting Lieutenant Colonel, and Acting Major, are all cut down. Nugent, Cavanagh, Leddy, the heads of the family, gone: and these occasional shots I see fired are from the last remnants of the 69th and 88th. Capt. Toal, Lieuts. Bermingham, Buckley, Brennan of Co. B, Scully, Kearney, Manser, Murphy- these brave young  men are all severely wounded; while to my left the same sad story is told of the 88th, 63d, 116th, and 28th Massachusetts. The fire of our friends from the rear is now almost as destructive as that from our foes in front; therefore I considered it certain death at this time to endeavor to get out what remained of the regiment. I gave the order to the men to lie flat till the firing in our rear would somewhat cease. One of my own company turned on his back, his side to the enemy. I inquired why he did so, and he coolly answered that “he did not want to be shot in the back.”

At dusk, the fire having slackened, I gave the order to fall back, when about a dozen men rose from amongst the dead and followed, three members of my own company and the first sergeant being a portion of the number. I got about half way between the fences in the corn field, and fell down from exhaustion, and the effect of my injuries, and as I rose again to go, my hat was shot off my head. I got through the first fence, and lay down to rest in rear of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers, where I remained until helped across the mill stream. Here I met Capt. P.K. Horgan, of the 88th, wounded in the shoulder and hip, and Capt. Clark, of the same regiment, wounded in the ankle. I now involuntarily did what before at any time I never could do- shed tears of gratitude for my own deliverance from instant death, and of sorrow for the many thousands of brave young fellows and comrades who fell that day, not martyrs to a cause, but victims to a grand blunder, and whom I shall never see again. To say that good generalship was displayed in the whole movement, would be to utter a falsehood, or to deny one’s self of the capacity or judgement to think or see differently; and while I this call it bad generalship, I look upon the whole affair as the result of political strategy, and the pressure of Radicalism on the actions and plans of a Good General. It appears of late to be the sole purpose of a certain class of politicians to sacrifice the army of the Potomac, for the design to kill certain Generals and to make room for others. How long this Infernal Radical conspiracy is to continue, remains for the army and the country to decide. The fires of this bloody conflagration have been fed too long, with the noble youth of the nation. I hope, sir, that I shall survive my wounds and injuries, and be able to fight again; but I trust in heaven, in the spirit of honesty and patriotism of the President, the army and the people; that the next battle will be fought for the Union, and not for the purpose of unmaking and making Generals.

I was delighted beyond expression to learn after the engagement, that Major Cavanagh was not killed, though severely wounded, and that Col. Nugent’s wound was not as serious as was at first reported. Both of these brave and gallant officers had gone through all the former engagements without a scratch, though in the very hottest of the fray, each time guiding and encouraging their men. Major William Horgan, of the 88th, was shot dead on the field. This brave and skilful officer is mourned by the surviving members of the brigade to a man. Captain Hart and Lieutenants Brady, Emmet and Roarty, of Gen. Meagher’s Staff, acquitted themselves with the most remarkable coolness, bravery and daring. Captains Handcock and Mitchell, and Lieut. Parker, of Gen. Handcock’s Staff, were also remarkable for their gallant display of their fine qualities of the true and brave soldier.

Since my arrival in this city I have heard several complaints made, to the effect that the heavy losses the Irish Brigade has sustained can be attributed in a great measure to Gen. Meagher, who has sent them, unnecessarily, into many of the fights in which they have been engaged. I have no doubt this report has spread to other parts of the State and country. The report is an unpardonable falsehood; and the contemptible set of poltroons who circulate it are neither friends of the General, his brigade or the good and glorious cause in which they have fought and suffered. On the contrary, as the General himself expressed it, in words of pathetic eloquence on the morning of the battle of Fredericksburg, within the hearing of every man of his brigade, he never sent them any place where he had not received orders to send them; and that he never had nor never would send them any place where he was not willing and ready to lend them aid and share with them in all their dangers. This, sir, is an indisputable fact; the General is a brave, noble and tender-hearted man, to which every surviving member of his brigade will give testimony if they speak the truth.

What the government intend to do with the remnant of the brigade I know not. I can only say that as an “Irish Brigade” it has “fought its last battle;” and could the spirits of its honoured and immortal dead, whose rude graves spot the soil of Virginia and Maryland, but have the privilege or power to look down upon the future of this Republic they can now tell whether or not the cause for which they have offered up their lives is to perish; and if it is to perish, better by far that the few and disabled fragments that remain of their comrades had perished too on the battle-field, than to have survived as cripples to experience the agony of the awful wreck. If it is not to perish, but, on the contrary, to triumph, these noble souls could not have offered up their lives for a more glorious cause or grander earthly heritage; and their surviving comrades, though deprived of sight and limb, will have ample reason to shed tears of joy and gratitude for having lent their aid and spilled their blood in defence of so great a cause and in the consummation of so grand and noble an object. In conclusion, I have the honor to remain, sir, your most obedient servant, J.H.D. 

The regiment was virtually destroyed in its uphill attack on the well-prepared Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg, suffering more casualties than they had at Antietam. Afterwards, the audacity of the attack was saluted with a rousing cheer by the Confederate defenders, many of whom were soldiers in the Confederate’s very own Irish Brigade. The day after the battle, the 69th was issued its famed “2nd Colors”.

Thanks to Damien Shiels and his excellent website for his original post on this subject.