Tuesday, December 11, 2018

'Gone for nothing!': Those who died storming Marye's Heights

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights, the objective of Union soldiers on Dec. 13, 1862.
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After the armies agreed to a truce, the horrifying work of burying dead from the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, began in earnest. On the plain below Marye's Heights, Union burial crews found bloated and blackened bodies of comrades, some stripped of uniforms -- even of their  undergarments. Remains often could not be identified.

Granite markers for Union unknown buried in
Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
"As we approached the battle field," wrote a Federal soldier of the plain in front of the Stone Wall on Mayre's Heights, "the sight reminded me of a flock of sheep reposing in the field. But as we approached nearer, who can describe my feelings when I found them to be the dead bodies of our brave men, which had been stripped of their clothing."

More than 600 Yankee dead were buried in a 100-yard trench, a makeshift Union defensive position during the battle. Twenty-three were placed in another trench; 123 more were tossed into another.

Word of the fate of Union soldiers on the plain outside Fredericksburg soon filtered to Northern newspapers, Many publications expressed outrage over treatment of the dead.

"Persons who visited the battlefield of Fredericksburg with our burial parties," a Pennsylvania newspaper reported, "state the dead were all stripped of coats, pants, shoes, stockings, and in some instances drawers. The old garments of the rebels were strewed all over the battlefield. Evidently as they stripped our dead they took off their old 'duds' and put on the garments of the dead.

"Could anything exceed this in disgusting cruelty?"

Wrote a 7th Rhode Island soldier: "They are making a complete burying ground of Virginia. I cannot describe the scene."

Who were these Union dead, most of whom probably rest today in the national cemetery in Fredericksburg? Based largely on pension file documents, here are snapshots of soldiers who died storming Marye's Heights:


While Jesse Banker's pregnant wife agonized over his fate, Bennett Banker searched for his brother's body.

On Dec. 13, Bennett was by his 24-year-old brother's side when Company I of the 51st New York was ordered on the double quick into the fight for the heights. In the awful chaos, 19-year-old Bennett lost track of his brother. Before a 51st New York lieutenant left the battlefield, however. he saw Jesse fall, apparently from a bullet through the lungs.

During a truce, one of Banker's comrades found Jesse's cap on the plain -- Bennett was certain it was his brother's because part of his name as well as his regimental and company designations appeared inside it. Jesse was presumed dead, killed the day after his third wedding anniversary.

Based on a tell-tale scar on a body's knee, a soldier in Company I who was part of the burial detail believed he may have found Jesse's remains. The dead man was "naked," the hair on the head was gone and the body was "nearly rotten."  Many decomposing dead, their clothes stripped off, had gruesomely turned black, making certain identification almost impossible.

By the time Mary Banker's widow's pension application was winding its way through government bureaucracy, the Company I soldier who was part of that Fredericksburg burial crew could not be deposed -- he had died in a Confederate prison.

On June 5, 1863, Mary gave birth to a son. She named the boy Jesse.


John A. Kerr's promotion certificate to second lieutenant, found in his mother's pension file.
(National Archives via fold3.com)
Evidently impressing his superiors, Kerr was given a promotion from sergeant to second lieutenant in the fall of 1862. He was never mustered in at the higher rank.

 "His failure ... was not through neglect or refusal on his part," 53rd Pennsylvania Colonel George Anderson wrote, "but because he was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., on the 13th day of December, and his commission did not reach the Head Quarters of said Regt. until two days after he was killed."

When she sought an increase in her pension in 1866, John's mother included the promotion document in paperwork. During the war, Kerr sent home to Latrobe, Pa., part of his wages to support his parents -- it amounted to at least $80 within a year's period, according to his mother's neighbors.


No Union soldier reached the Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights on Dec. 13, 1862.
Danger lurked around every corner as Cole, Ratcliffe, Kenyon and the rest of their 7th Rhode Island comrades formed up in the streets of Fredericksburg for an attack on the heights. A shell exploded on a side street at the feet of Nicholas Matteson of Company F, "cutting off one foot at the instep as with a cleaver and mangling the other at the ankle," a soldier in the regiment recalled. He bled to death at a makeshift hospital nearby. Another Rhode Island private was struck by a bullet in the right temple, leaving a ragged hole and turning his face a gruesome shade of purple. He somehow survived.

"...the shot and shell from the enemy were falling around us" before the regiment moved out into the open, recalled Ethan Jenks, a 2nd lieutenant. "Men of the regiment were killed then & there."

By the time the 7th Rhode Island had crossed a railroad cut and advanced toward the Stone Wall, Jenks had lost track of Cole, a 33-year-old farmer and a close friend. "I never heard anything more of him," he recalled, "though I made a very diligent inquiry for him because of my long intimacy with him. He was a good soldier. From my long acquaintance with him & his general good character, I feel confident that he could not have have deserted but must have been killed that day ..."

Probably stripped of his clothing, as were many Union dead, Cole's body would have been impossible to identify, Captain George Durfee noted. In a post-battle report, he was simply listed as "missing." Cole left behind a widow,  Frances, and two children, Minnie, 7, and Georgianna, 4.

No one in the regiment knew what became of Ratcliffe or Kenyon either.

Perhaps Ratcliffe, an immigrant from England, was blown to atoms by artillery -- the fate of some other soldiers that awful Saturday.  "I testify that his name appears in the records of the regiment as missing after action & supposed to have been instantly killed during the progress of the battle of Fredericksburg," 7th Rhode Island Surgeon James Harris wrote nearly a year after the private's death. In her widow's pension claim, Ratcliffe's wife included a copy of the couple's 1849 marriage certificate. Married in England, Sarah and Richard had no children.

A farmer, Kenyon was "struck by a shell and both legs were shot off," Captain Rowland Rodman recalled of the married father of a 4-year-old son. "I saw him after he was struck & left him on the field. I have no doubt that he died that day from said wound."

1849 marriage certificate for "bachelor" Richard Ratcliffe and "spinster" Sarah Turner.
(National Archives via fold3.com.)


In the heat of battle, James McAneny was just a few steps from James Kennedy, a fellow private in the Irish Brigade regiment. Then a bullet crashed into Kennedy. "He did not move but once after he was struck," McAneny recalled, "and that was very soon after he fell." Presumed dead by comrades, Kennedy fell into the hands of the enemy; the 19-year-old soldier's body apparently was not recovered.

For Kennedy's mother Margaret, his death was another awful blow. A widow in her 50s, she had for years earned a meager living as a peddler of chinaware in Boston. In the two years before he enlisted in January 1862, James earned about $4-$5 weekly selling dishes and such for his mother. He gave half his earnings to Margaret, two close friends of the family recalled, and kept the remainder to buy himself clothing and other goods.

In poor health, Margaret could only work during the summer months. Neighbors claimed she had little use of her limbs for nearly two decades. Mrs. Kennedy's two daughters weren't old enough to help in the family business.


1851 marriage certificate for Charles and Abby Knowles.
(National Archives via fold3.com)
Killed by a bullet through the neck, Knowles was found rolled up in a blanket -- an ignominious end for the wheelwright from South Kingstown. Knowles was among the 150 casualties, including 38 killed, in the regiment of about 550 soldiers.

Born in Rhode Island on March 10, 1826, Charles was the eldest son of James and Ann Knowles. When he was 25, he married Abby Snow Baker on Sept. 21, 1851 -- she used the couple's marriage certificate as proof of their union when she filed for a widow's pension. The Knowles had five children: Kate, 9;  James, 7; twins Ella and Alice, 7; and Maggie, 1.

Charles' brother, John, a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Rhode Island, was killed at the Battle of the Crater, near Petersburg, Va., on July 30, 1864. The gravesites of the brothers are unknown.


Reilly's death was a staggering emotional blow for his family in Chelsea, near Boston. A significant financial hardship, too.

Before his enlistment in January 1862, Patrick worked odd jobs to help support his Irish-born mother, Catharine. A local storekeeper said Patrick, whom he described as "very steady," bought his mother groceries, often with his own money. After he joined the army, the 19-year-old soldier regularly sent home part of his pay, a major assist to a family that made do without paternal support.

"My husband is still living," Catharine noted in an affidavit for a mother's pension on Jan. 9 1863, "but he has not supported me for five years. During that time he has been confined in the house of correction as many as five times."

Friends of the family were scathing in their assessment of Phillip Reilly, whom Catharine had married in Ireland in the early 1840s. He was a "worthless character," two of them noted in January 1863 in a pension affidavit. A "common drunkard," another one called him.

Catharine's pension request eventually was approved at the standard $8 a month.


In a field beyond the Stone Wall, Warner Valentine was buried by comrades.
Before the war, Valentine was a college student at the Free Academy in New York, where the children of immigrants and the poor could get a good education. Because his father could provide sufficiently for the family at the time, Warner wasn't required to work. But sometime after the war started, Valentine's father suffered from paralysis and became bed-ridden. To support his Dutch-born parents, Warner sent home a portion of his army wages -- according to his mother Anna's acquaintances, he provided at least $150.

It's unknown whether Valentine was wounded during the 57th New York's storming of Marye's Heights or during the regiment's escape from the plain the night of Dec. 13. According to a 57th New York officer, artillery and gunfire from behind the Stone Wall was "so tremendous that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure."

"Within one hundred yards of the base of the hill we dropped down, and then flat on our bellies, opened fire while line after line of fresh troops, like ocean waves, followed each other in rapid succession," 57th New York Lieutenant Josiah M. Favill recalled, "but none of them succeeded in reaching the enemy's works."

After the battle, no one in the 57th New York saw Valentine. The 20-year-old soldier was presumed dead. Bodies of the regiment's fallen remained on the field for "two or three days,"  Sergeant John McConnell recalled, until a burial crew took care of the remains. A member of the detail -- a soldier in Valentine's Company D -- believed he saw Warner's corpse, but the remains were in such rough shape that he wasn't sure.


Marriage certificate of Owen and Margaret Gallagher, dated Sept. 4, 1859.
(National Archives via fold3.com)
A 24-year-old factory worker from South Kingstown, the Irish-born Gallagher died from a head wound. Married to Margaret Fagan in 1859, the couple had two sons, Francis, 2, and Owen Jr., born 22 days before his father's death. Apparently illiterate, Margaret signed a widow's pension affidavit simply with an "X."

A day or two after the battle, a 7th Rhode Island soldier wrote a searing account of the carnage he witnessed at Fredericksburg. Perhaps he summed up the feelings of other soldiers who stormed Marye's Heights:
"We were burdened with the thought that the glory of the starry flag was departing; that the Union, which had stood forth like the sun in heaven, was passing away with dishonor. During our brief absence at the firing line a terrible change had come over the city. The windows had been broken out or removed, the doors were utilized for stretchers, while parlor and cellar, corridor and garret, court-yard and garden were filled with the wounded and dying.
"The harrowing industry of the surgeons was conspicuous. Men with every degree of mutilation were lying around on bare boards with only a haversack or a canteen under their head, seldom a blanket. Most were suffering keenly, some were dying. The floors were stained with pools of blood. One of the saddest sights the author witnessed was that of a soldier whose leg had been amputated close to his body. Almost choking with grief he exclaimed, noting the compassionate look of the stranger, 'I should not care for this if we had been put in where we had the least chance. I would not have cared for my leg so much if we'd had any show. It's gone for nothing!' "

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Favill, Josiah Marshall, The Diary of a Young Officer Serving with the Armies of the United States During the War of the Rebellion, Chicago, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909
-- Hopkins, William Palmer and Peck, George Bacheler, The Seventh Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War, 1862-1865, Providence, R.I., Snow & Farnham, Printers, 1903.
-- Jesse Banker, Owen Gallagher, James Kennedy, John Kenyon, John A. Kerr, Charles Knowles, Richard Ratcliffe, Patrick Reilly, Warner Valentine pension files, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via fold3.com.
-- The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg (Va.), Sept. 22, 2001.
-- 7th Rhode Island Private William "Henry" Jordan letter to his parents, Dec. 28, 1862, accessed on eBay, Dec. 6, 2017.
-- Raftsman Journal, Clearfield, Pa., Jan. 21, 1863.

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