Sunday, April 02, 2017

Voices from Slaughter Pen: Fredericksburg's forgotten field

The Civil War Trust purchased the 208-acre Slaughter Pen Farm for $12.3 million in 2006.
(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
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Only a few visitors were at the 208-acre Slaughter Pen Farm on the afternoon of my visit in late March.

A man shot photographs of the old post-war barn. A father and daughter walked the farm path, apparently deep in thought. Sweating, a woman jogger twice wound her way along the 1.5-mile trail on the beautiful, sunny day. Another man read the explanatory markers about the battle, then stared toward the treeline.

I just needed to walk the ground to understand what happened here.

A Virginia ditch fence was an obstacle for the 
attacking Federals on Dec. 13, 1862.
The mostly flat farmland, which encompasses a fraction of the battlefield on the Union left flank at Fredericksburg, leads to a stretch of woods and railroad tracks. (Much of the battlefield in the immediate area here has been lost to development.)  A Virginia ditch fence, an obstacle for the attacking Federals during the battle on Dec. 13, 1862, slices through the landscape, though it's not nearly as deep as it was during the Civil War.

On the morning of the battle, a strong force of Confederates held ground near the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad tracks and the high ground beyond. To the northwest, Telegraph Hill bristled with Confederate artillery. To the southeast  "Gallant"John Pelham, the 24-year-old artillery officer from Alabama, set up cannon to pump iron into the Federals' left flank, delaying the Yankees and buying valuable time for Robert E. Lee's army.

George Meade's division swept over the railroad tracks and through the woods, briefly breaking through Confederate lines before it was forced to retreat. Five Federal soldiers received a Medal of Honor for their actions at Slaughter Pen Farm.

The Civil War Trust purchased the property in 2006 for $12.3 million, saving from development the scene of savage fighting in this decisive, and often-overlooked, portion of Fredericksburg battlefield.

Listen closely and you can hear voices from the past.

(NOTE: Click at upper right to view panoramas full screen.)

'BUT YOU MAY DODGE BIG ONES LIKE THESE!'


Fredericksburg was the first major battle of the war for the 16th Maine, which suffered 228 casualties here, more than half its number.

"About half-past one P. M., came the word to advance. Between us and the enemy, a distance of half a mile, lay an open field where corn had been planted the preceding summer. The ground, frozen the night before and thawed again at noon, was miry and treacherous, and we often sank half-way to our knees. At intervals deep ditches had been dug for drainage. (See above panorama.) Just before the order came for us to advance the brigade commander [Adrian Root, 94th New York] rode down the line and spoke words of encouragement to us. 'Boys, don t dodge when ----.' but before he could finish the sentence, a shell whizzed so close to his head that he himself dodged very emphatically. He added with a laugh, 'But you may dodge big ones like these!' And we gave cheers for our commander, who, if he would dodge a shell, was a brave man."

-- 16th Maine regimental history, published in 1886.

'KNEW A FEARFUL SLAUGHTER MUST TAKE PLACE'


A soldier in the 13th Massachusetts, which suffered few casualties at Fredericksburg, described his position on the Slaughter Pen Farm: 

"We were now about five hundred yards from the thick woods which completely surrounded the plain upon which our Army lay. The Rebels had not fired a shot in answer to our tremendous cannonading of Thursday and a doubt was felt whether they were there in force or not. But there lay the woods and if they were there we knew a fearful slaughter must take place before they were routed." (Woods in the distance in panorama.)

-- 13th Massachusetts Corporal George Henry Hill, Dec. 17, 1862 (excellent 13thmass.org site)

'THE MEN YELLED LIKE DEMONS'


On Jan. 16, 1863, the Buffalo Advertiser published a lengthy letter from 94th New York Colonel Adrian Root, commander of the 1st Brigade, describing the fighting. "I have felt little disposition to write home," he noted, "having, in fact, somewhat distrusted my ability to speak or write calmly concerning that distastrous affair." An excerpt from Root's letter:

"I remember distinctly catching a glimpse of Capt. Ed Lee's countenance, as the Brigade started, and its expression said, as plainly as words could, 'Good bye old fellow -- it's all up with you.' As the Brigade approached the woods, it encountered a fire of artillery and musketry, which exceeded in severity anything I had previously experienced. The men fell rapidly, and many of those in the front line, unable to restrain their impatience, commenced, without orders, firing in return. When infantry begin firing during a charge, they almost invariably halt, and a halt here would have been sure death.

"By strenuous exertions of the officers, the firing was checked, and the advance accelerated. The men yelled like demons and the Brigade swept like a living torrent across the field, over the dead and wounded, over the rifle pits, the railway and the breast-works, and carried the enemy's position triumphantly. Numbers of enemy were killed, and here occurred the first instance that I have observed during the war, of men being killed with the bayonet."

The panorama is a Confederate's view looking toward the 1st Brigade's charge.

'ALMOST TIRED TO DEATH'


The 88th Pennsylvania, which had fought at Chantilly, Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Antietam, pushed across the railroad tracks in the distance before it was thrown back. 

"About one o'clock a spirited charge was made upon the works along the railroad (see above panorama), some of the regiments, especially the 107th Pennsylvania and 16th Maine, capturing many Johnnies; but the Confederate line was too strong for [General John] Gibbon to make any impression on, and the entire line was forced back over the railroad, after sustaining much loss."

-- 88th Pennsylvania regimental history, published in 1894.

"[On the] 13th extended our lines still further, through a ploughed field, about three quarters of a mile, all the time having grape and canister poured into our ranks; we were then ordered to lie down. The General then ordered our regiment to advance and give them from our battery one volley and retire, which we did. Shortly after that we had a general fight along the whole line. Getting out of ammunition, we retired behind the Artillery, almost tired to death; we were smeared with powder all over our faces and hands; we looked more like niggers than anything else."

-- 88th Pennsylvania Private Pearson O. Miller's letter to his father,  published in the Reading (Pa.)  Times on Dec. 25, 1862. Miller was killed at Petersburg in the summer of  1864.

'LAST I SAW HIM HE WAS FIRING AT THE REBELS'

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.
After the battle, the whereabouts of James Andrews, a 30-year-old private in Company E of the 16th Maine, were unknown.  Was he wounded or dead? A prisoner perhaps? "I think he was a Christian and if you should see him no more you will have the consolation that he will meet you in Heaven," Corporal George Williams of Company E wrote to Andrews' wife eight days after the battle. 

More than a month after Fredericksburg, his commanding officer wrote this letter to Sophronia Andrews, who anxiously awaited news in Bath, Maine, of her husband's fate. The Andrews had three children: Cora, 5; Emma, 4; and Everett, 2.

Camp near Belle Plain, Va,
January 18, 1863

Mrs. Andrews,

Captain Archibald Leavitt:
"I deeply regret the loss
of such a brave and excellent
soldier." Leavitt died
of battle wounds in the
 spring of 1864.
(Colby College collection)
In answer to your letter I will write you all I know in regard to your husband. He went into the fight near me and he kept in sight of me till about the time the order came for us to retreat. The last I saw of him he was firing at the rebels as fast as he could. When the order came to retreat I spoke to what few men I had left and told them to rally round the colors. Mr. Andrews started back at this command [and] as I learned from Lieut. [William] Brooks of my company he kept up with us till we had to cross the railroad where the rebels were concealed when we charged on them. (See above.) He had gone but a few rods beyond this when he was hit in the leg with a rifle bullet which disabled him from going farther. He asked my Lieut. to help him off, but he was at that instant himself wounded in the leg and could not render him any aid.

Your husband was severely though not dangerously wounded, and is without a doubt a prisoner, as he lay within the rebel lines so that we could not get to him when we returned after dark to carry away the wounded who were left on our retreat.

I deeply regret the loss of such a brave and excellent soldier. I have hope that he will soon return to his company and I feel quite sure that he is still living though a prisoner. Trusting that God will give you strength to endure the present loss of such a brave man as your husband.

I am, 
Yours truly.
Captain Arch D. Leavitt
Co. E. 16th Regt. Me. Vols.

Andrews, whose body was never found, was declared killed in action. Leavitt, his commanding officer, died in Washington on May 30, 1864, of wounds suffered at the Battle of Laurel Hill (Va.)

SOURCE: James Andrews widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, via fold3.com.

'I THOUGHT THE GOVERNMENT NEEDED ME ...'


Seriously wounded at Antietam, Corporal Martin Schubert of Company E of the 26th New York refused to accept a furlough and insisted on fighting at Fredericksburg, where he was wounded again. He picked up the colors after a color-bearer was wounded, carrying the flag at the head of his regiment at the Slaughter Pen. On Sept. 1, 1893, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor.

"My old wound, not yet healed, still gave me considerable trouble. I went into the battle with the regiment, however, against the protests of my colonel and captain, who insisted that I should use the furlough. I thought the Government needed me on the battlefield rather than at home. Within an hour I received another wound, this time in the left side. I still carry the bullet."

-- Schubert, quoted in The Story of American Heroism, Thrilling Narratives of Personal Adventures During the Great Civil War, published in 1897.

 The 26th New York pushed toward the railroad tracks in the distance before it was forced to retreat.

'SUBLIME COURAGE' OF MEADE'S SOLDIERS

       NOTE: Ground here part of national park, not Civil War Trust Slaughter Pen Farm.                                   (SEE MAP FOR DETAILS. STAY OFF RAILROAD PROPERTY.) 

On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 1862, General George Meade's 3rd division of the I Corps briefly punched through Confederate lines here. In The National Tribune on Sept. 19, 1901, a veteran  from the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves made a case that the effort should have received as much notice as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.

"In our immediate front the ground was an open field for a full half mile, through the center of which ran the railroad, through a shallow cut, on reaching which the regiment involuntarily made a momentary halt. It was for but a moment, but a fatal moment, the enemy having the exact range of the position and literally filling it with shot and shell. Still, 'Forward!' was the word, and we moved toward the summit of the hill at a double-quick, loading and firing as we ran."

Added Henlen F. Christy of Company C:

"Pickett's men at Gettysburg are 'heroes in history and gods in song.' Meade's men at Fredericksburg are forgotten by all except a few surviving participants and still fewer spectators of their sublime courage, all of whom linger superfluous on the stage of action, and when these have passed over to the 'silent majority' the episode will be forgotten."

Panorama shows area of the Union breakthrough through a gap in Stonewall Jackson's lines and the Meade Pyramid, completed in 1898 to serve as a reminder for railroad passengers that they were passing through the battlefield. For more on Pyramid, go here and here.

Close-up view of Meade Pyramid on Fredericksburg battlefield. 
(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

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