Orders sent Col. Adelbert Ames, Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain, and the 20th Maine Infantry up the body-strewn slope of Marye’s Heights in late afternoon on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1862.
Orders and Confederate bullets kept the surviving Maine boys there until early Monday, Dec. 15.
During the human slaughter known as Fredericksburg, Union troops repeatedly ascended the long slope rising to Marye’s Heights outside the battle-wrecked town. Confederate gunners and infantry dug in along the heights or behind the soon-to-be-legendary Stone Wall below its crest had unobstructed views of the approaching Yankee lines.
They could not miss.
“Lines first steadily moved forward in perfect order and array, the flag high poised and leading,” Chamberlain reported as he and other 20th Maine troopers watched from across the Rappahannock River. Departing the Fredericksburg ruins, Union regiments crossed a canal that, while not sufficiently deep to drown a man, pushed soldiers onto narrow footbridges.
Then the regiments reformed their lines to march uphill “checked and broken somewhat on each successive rise under the first range of shot and shell,” recalled Chamberlain, born and raised in Brewer and later claimed by Brunswick.
As Confederate solid shot plunged through their ranks, the first Union soldiers reached “the last slope before and beneath the death-delivering stone wall, suddenly illumined by a sheet of flame.” Confederate infantrymen crouching behind the Stone Wall loosed deadly volleys, and “the whole [Union] line” sank “as if swallowed up in earth, the bright flags quenched in gloom, and only a writhing mass” of wounded and dying men “marking that high-tide halt …”
The blue-coated survivors slowly withdrew, according to Chamberlain, and attempted to carry with them the “broken bodies of the brave.”
Throughout the attacks, “…our batteries poured a rapid and destructive fire into the dense lines of the enemy as they advanced to the attack, frequently breaking their ranks and forcing them to retreat to the shelter of the houses,” Robert E. Lee wrote in his “Official Report.”
“There we stood for an hour, witnessing five immortal charges,” Chamberlain said. “Tears ran down the cheeks of stern men, waiting, almost wishing, to be summoned to the same futile, glorious work.”
In planning his battle strategy, Gen. Ambrose Burnside had envisioned a two-pronged assault on Lee’s lines. Some divisions would attack Marye’s Heights; others would attack Prospect Hill and other wooded summits downriver. The simultaneous assaults should force Lee to weaken his line somewhere to reinforce threatened positions elsewhere.
The strategy failed, as even a novice could predict. The downriver attack did break Southern lines, but went unsupported. Downriver, from where “the boom of guns and a dull roar” told Chamberlain that a serious fight was occurring, Confederate infantry sealed the broken lines.
Rather than call off the futile charges up Marye’s Heights, Burnside dispatched his reserve brigades to make a sixth assault in late afternoon. Thousands of men marched across “the middle pontoon bridge” spanning the river; under heavy bombardment, the 20th Maine moved in a “crowding, swerving column” that “set the pontoons swaying, so the horses reeled and men could scarcely keep their balance,” Chamberlain said.
“We went into the fight about three o’clock in the afternoon,” Pvt. Hezekiah Long of Co. F. recalled. He hailed from South Thomaston.
Amidst the ruins, the Maine boys dropped their knapsacks to be guarded by the quartermaster. The Maine men stepped off with the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin; the 20th formed on its brigade’s right side and moved “straight forward, toward the left of the futile advance we had seen so fearfully cut down,” Chamberlain said.
This position placed the regiment below the Stone Wall’s southwestern end; if the Maine boys had reached the wall, they would have passed near where the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Visitors’ Center stands today.
Chamberlain marched past shattered bodies as “our men began to fall.” When the 20th Maine emerged into a field, “we saw to our right a [Confederate artillery] battery swing into position to sweep our front,” he recalled. Ames told him to “take the right wing,” and together they led the way “amid bodies thickly strewn,” the dead, dying, wounded, and frightened survivors intermingled.
The 20th Maine climbed the slope in “the last [assault, which] occurred shortly before dark,” Lee wrote. “This effort met the fate of those that preceded it, and, when night closed in, the shattered masses of the enemy had disappeared in the town, leaving the field covered with dead and wounded.”
“On we pushed, up slopes slippery with blood” and left muddy from the earlier charges, Chamberlain said. As darkness fell, the Maine boys “reached that final crest” below the Stone Wall and “exchanged fierce volleys” with the almost hidden Confederates.
There the last charge stalled, and there the survivors went belly to earth amidst the human carnage.
There the 20th Maine boys would stay for more than 24 hours.
Chamberlain remembered that “it was a cold night. Bitter, raw north winds swept the stark slopes. The men, heated by their energetic and exciting work, felt keenly the chilling change.”
After forcing Union troops to retreat from battlefields, victorious, but poorly clad Confederate troops often stripped dead Federals of their clothing. Rag-tattered Johnnies needed the overcoats, shirts, pants, shoes (called “brogans”) and even socks and underwear, but Union survivors considered the behavior ghoulish.
They felt otherwise on this frigid night outside Fredericksburg. “Many of them had neither overcoat nor blanket, having left them with the discarded knapsacks. They roamed about to find some garment not needed by the dead,” Chamberlain explained.
“Mounted officers all lacked outer covering. This had gone back with the horses, strapped to the saddles. So we joined the uncanny quest,” he wrote.
“Necessity compels strange uses,” Chamberlain recalled. “For myself it seemed best to bestow my body between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds…
“…and, still more chilling, the deep, many-voiced moan [of wounded men] that overspread the field,” he said.
“It was heart-rending; it could not be borne,” Chamberlain admitted. “I rose at midnight from my unearthly bivouac, and taking our adjutant for companion went forth to see what we could do for these forsaken sufferers.”
As the Northern Lights played above the battlefield, the two officers carefully worked their way along the body-strewn slope. Nervous Confederate pickets fired at unnatural noises, so the two men moved slowly and silently.
“The deep sound led us to our right and rear, where the fiercest of the fight had held brave spirits too long,” Chamberlain remembered. “As we advanced over that stricken field, the grave, conglomerate monotone resolved itself into its diverse, several elements: some breathing inarticulate agony; some dear home names; some begging for a drop of water; some for a caring word; some praying God for strength to bear; some for life; some for quick death.”
Many Union soldiers attempted to aid the wounded that horrible night. Although not trained doctors or hospital stewards, rescuers often performed rudimentary first aid.
“Our best was but to search the canteens of the dead for a draft of water for the dying; or to ease the posture of a broken limb; or to compress a severed artery of fast-ebbing life that might perhaps be so saved, with what little skill we had been taught by our surgeons early in learning the tactics of saving as well as of destroying men,” Chamberlain said.
“We did what we could, but how little it was on a field so boundless for feeble human reach!” he recalled. “It was a place and time for farewells. Many a word was taken for faraway homes that otherwise might never have had one token from the field of the lost. It was something even to let the passing spirit know that its worth was not forgotten here.”
As Chamberlain and his companion examined the dead and wounded, “it was a relief at last to see through the murk the dusky forms of ghostly [Union] ambulances gliding up on the far [downhill] edge of the field.” Medical orderlies flitted “here and there” and often held “the low-hovering, half-covered lantern, or blue gleam of a lighted match … close over a brave, calm face to know whether it were of the living or the dead.”
Because they “had taken bearings to lead us back to our place before the stone wall,” the two Maine officers rejoined their comrades huddling not far from the Confederate pickets. As he lowered himself among the dead, Chamberlain noticed the wounded Mainers “lying there also, who had not lacked care.”
These men lay too far upslope for medical evacuation that night. Chamberlain realized that despite their collective pain, “it was interesting to observe how unmurmuring they were.” He attributed the quiet to “that old New England habit so reluctant of emotional expression.”
The Union troops trapped on the slope received no orders to withdraw that night. Slipping into his cadaver bunker, Chamberlain tried to sleep. “Once a rough but cautious hand lifted the dead man’s coat-flap from my face” as a cold and frightened soldier checked to see if Chamberlain were alive or dead.
The wind blew hard all night, and a window blind banged and flapped in an abandoned “brick house,” he recalled. The shooting resumed at dawn on Sunday, Dec. 14; startled awake, Chamberlain disturbed his “restful though strange pillow,” and from a breast pocket fell “a much-worn little New Testament” with the dead man’s name and hometown written in it. The “pillow” was a Pennsylvanian; his mother later received the New Testament as proof that her son had died at Fredericksburg.
Under artillery and rifle fire all day, the Union survivors “laid up a breastwork of dead bodies” to block bullets fired from the left by 200-300 enemy soldiers who had emerged from the Stone Wall to outflank the Union boys, Chamberlain said.
Men lay flat; those who raised a limb or a head took a bullet. “We lay there all the long day, hearing the dismal ‘thud’ of the bullets into the dead flesh of our life-saving bulwarks,” he recalled.
“ … we were laying full length on the ground in front of the enemy not daring to stand or even to set up for fear of getting a bullet in our heads,” Long told his wife, Sarah.
Late on Sunday, orders finally reached the survivors to withdraw. “We … were not relieved from our position in front of the Enemy until ten o’clock Sunday night,” Long said.
Digging “with bayonets and fragments of shell of muskets,” the 20th Maine boys buried their dead in shallow graves marked with “low head-boards, made of broken fence-rails or musket-butts, rudely carved under sheltered match-light, marked each [with the buried soldier’s] name and home,” Chamberlain said.
He and his men reached the relative safety of ruined Fredericksburg in the early hours of Monday, Dec. 15. They had conducted “a dreary retreat down those wreck-strewn slopes” past dead men whose “pales faces, fixed and stark, and … open eyes that saw not … sent a shiver through us,” Chamberlain said.
About dawn, the 20th Maine boys recrossed the pontoon bridge. Through the rain “we now looked back across at Fredericksburg and saw the green slopes blue with the bodies of our dead,” he recalled.
Dec. 27: A 17-year-old private crosses muddy fields to reach a fiery hell