Cold rain dripping from his campaign hat, Lt. Col. James “Jim” S. Fillebrown sat squarely in the saddle and watched the mucky chaos engulfing his 10th Maine Infantry Regiment on Wednesday, Jan. 21, 1863.
Until three days earlier, Fillebrown and his men had spent the early winter camping near Fairfax Court House in Virginia. Arriving there after an overland march conducted while Maj. Gen. Ambrose bloodied and shattered his Army of the Potomac on the Fredericksburg heights, the 10th Maine was assigned to the 1st Brigade (Col. Joseph Knipe), 1st Division (Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams), 12th Corps (Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum), and Grand Reserve Division (Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel).
All that gold braid — “shoulder straps” was the enlisted men’s euphemism for officers — leading up the Federal chain of command impressed not one iota the flint-eyed Fillebrown, a Lewiston resident who went to war in spring 1861 as adjutant of the 1st Maine Infantry. That measles-wracked outfit had spent only three months in service before heading home from Washington, D.C. to Portland.
Then, after a political dust-up involving Gov. Israel Washburn Jr. and several hundred former 1st Maine soldiers, Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon had reconstituted the regiment as the 10th Maine. The talented Fillebrown had signed on as lieutenant colonel, second-in-command to Col. George L. Beal of Norway.
But with the ailing Beal away in January 1863, Fillebrown took charge. On this damp, chilly Jan. 21, he exuded irascibility. His increasingly foul mood reflected the foul weather and the foul conditions in which his men labored.
After seeing 12,500 men slaughtered at Fredericksburg, Burnside had conceived a plan to slip past the Confederate defenders of that city and force a big battle somewhere on terrain more favorable to Federal forces. His Army corps currently camped in Stafford County would march on Monday, Jan. 19.
Meanwhile, Slocum would bring his 12th Corps south from guarding the Washington approaches to replace the troops heading out to fight Bobby Lee. The 10th Maine left its camp at 9.a.m., Jan. 19 and marched seven miles on frozen ground south toward Stafford County before camping for the night.
On Tuesday morning, Knipe and the 1st Brigade took the point at 7 a.m., and the 10th Maine “had a pleasant march” along the frozen “main or telegraph road, as the natives called it,” said Lt. John Mead Gould, an inveterate diarist from Portland.
“The ground is frozen hard as a rock and only in some places where the frost had thawed did we have any difficulty,” he noticed.
Burnside expected (more likely hoped) that the cold and dry weather of mid-January would continue. His infantry, cavalry, and quartermasters needed solid roads to travel swiftly pass the unsuspecting Confederate defenders watching their flanks outside Fredericksburg.
Slocum needed cold and dry weather so his 12th Corps could quickly reach Falmouth. Both he and Burnside got their wish on Tuesday, Jan. 20.
With the tidal Potomac River appearing on their left flank — Gould, who enjoyed sailing on Casco Bay, noticed “three schooners … coming up the bay in gay style” — the 10th Maine boys passed through Dumfries that afternoon. Called “Damn-freeze by the [Union] soldiers,” the “strange town” was “old, ruined, abandoned, worthless, hopeless and filthy,” Gould observed. Covering some 10 miles that day, the regiment “crossed Quantico Creek and camped in thick woods.”
Erecting their tents, the Maine boys drove the tent pegs as deep as possible into the frozen soil. A decent meal left Gould and his friends “lying down quite happy” as they settled in for a long winter’s nap.
As Tuesday faded into Wednesday, a slow-moving cold front drew a strengthening storm east across Virginia. Cold rain sheeted through the Union camps, and wind gusting from the south and southeast yanked tent pegs from soil thawed by the rising temperature.
Gould awoke on Wednesday “feeling somewhat wet on my face. The miserable little tent had blown over and a little heavier gust would have put us out of doors completely.”
Collapsing tents left their occupants cursing and kicking; when orders came at 7:30 a.m. to resume marching, “I felt like saying something in the line of profanity,” Gould admitted.
Fillebrown learned that the 10th Maine would guard an ordnance convoy, 57 wagons “well loaded with iron, lead and powder,” Gould said. The wagons and teamsters were commanded by Lt. William Augustine, an ordnance officer detached from the 29th Pennsylvania Infantry.
The Achilles heel of every Union army, road-bound supply “trains” proved particularly vulnerable to Confederate cavalry and guerrillas. Hired civilian teamsters (often escaped slaves) controlled mules and horses typically hitched four animals to a wagon.
Only mules hauled Augustine’s wagons today.
Even guarded by veteran regiments, a wagon train stretched out for miles offered a delicious target to hard-riding enemy soldiers. While guards could not be everywhere on the elongated flanks of a slow-moving Federal convoy, gray-clad riders could strike anywhere.
Confederate “guerrillas … infested this country,” Gould learned as the 10th Maine boys bundled their baggage and tents into the regiment’s own wagons. Throughout that Jan. 21, many a Maine lad would nervously eye the road-bordering forest, where every wind-stirred shadow could be an enemy cavalryman intent on mayhem and pillage.
The low-hanging clouds alternately poured rain and spit drizzle; dusty in dry weather, the dirt road deteriorated into “pudding” in the incessant precipitation. Despite their large spoked wheels, heavy wagons mired in the goo; by mid-morning William Augustine’s convoy literally ground to a halt in Virginia ooze.
Ax-wielding soldiers felled trees, hacked off the limbs, and laid the logs side by side to “corduroy” the road. Experienced blue-clad loggers — and many Maine regiments contained such men — could build several miles of corduroy road a day. Horse-drawn ambulances and wagons could bump and jolt along a corduroy road.
But not this rain-soaked day in the border country between Prince William and Stafford counties, however. “We came to a long reach, where all the rails, logs and brush that we could find [to cover the muck] failed to make a bottom for the wheels to rest on,” Gould described the glutinous muck.
Shouldering their muskets, Maine lads pushed against the wagon wheels as teamsters cracked their whips and hollered at their mules. “Wagon after wagon was helped along,” Gould said. When mules and men failed to budge a particular wagon, 10th Maine soldiers carried “the boxes of musket and gun ammunition … through the slough.”
Dragged by the weary mules, the emptied wagon would follow suit.
During the day a horse-drawn supply train belonging to the 2nd Brigade (of the 2nd Division, 12th Corps) gradually overtook Augustine’s supply train. Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Kane commanded the 2nd Brigade.
Aware that the oncoming supply train would block his ordnance train, Fillebrown “told the driver of an approaching team to halt.” Immediately there materialized the lieutenant colonel commanding Kane’s supply train; he evidently told Fillebrown that Kane’s train had priority.
Steering his mud-splattered horse alongside the “Kanainite” (as Gould called him), the cold, rain-soaked, and thoroughly irascible James Fillebrown unleashed such an acerbic “blessing that for the moment we forgot the rain and mud,” the astonished Gould said.
But “the Kane officer” proved “adroit at back talk,” and the two officers raised the threat level to the point of arresting each other. One man or the other likely wore a great coat concealing his silver lieutenant colonel’s leaves; suddenly the two angry men “learned, to his surprise, that the other was a lieutenant-colonel, as well as himself,” and “the battle of words subsided,” Gould said.
An Augustine wagon and its “six-mule team” stood “stuck in the mid exactly in the middle of the road” at that moment, Gould noticed. Kane’s convoy commander “saw this and very wisely held … his tongue.”
Maine lads threw “rails, logs and boughs by the cord” on the road, but the filler material “floated in the salve-like mud” and tripped the frightened mules. The elderly black teamster “mounted the nigh pole mule” and seized its reins, according to Gould.
Soldiers spread more logs and leafy debris on the rapidly vanishing road surface; then men formed a line “to push, pull, pry and lift the wagon, and to whip, club and sweat at the mules,” he said.
Working “his one rein to perfection” and applying his spurs, the teamster hollered, “Yea-wa-ha mule!” Their hooves and legs sucking into the bottomless mud, the struggling mules failed to move the wagon.
Then the nigh pole mule sat back on its haunches, and off jumped the teamster. Gould noticed that while the soldiers and mules on that side (right) of the wagon gave up, “the whippers and clubbers on the near (left) side kept on their pounding.”
The two lead mules “countermarched by file right, and doubled up on the wagon” while dragging along the other four mules, including the nigh pole mule that had dropped into the mud.
The mired mules frantically kicked and brayed, “and the way that brush and rails and mud flew then was frightful,” Gould said.
Leaning toward Fillebrown, the Kanainite lieutenant colonel sarcastically asked, “How do you like mules?”
Throwing more brush atop the road, the 10th Maine boys gradually freed the stuck mules and wagon. As it rolled onto more solid ground, Fillebrown’s nemesis “pushed … one or two of his teams” onto the main road, Gould noticed.
Most 2nd Brigade wagons were drawn by four horses. Soon a Kane wagon went belly to soup in the road. Gould watched in awe as “the white horses went down in the mud and came up sorrel.” Wagon chains broke, and the stamping and kicking horses splattered mud on Kane’s officer.
“The yell of the 10th Maniacs was deafening,” Gould expressed his Schadenfreude as his comrades heaped scorn on the discomfited lieutenant colonel.
Jim Fillebrown pushed his horse through the muck, stopped beside the Kane officer, “and O! so mildly inquired, ‘How do you like horses?’” Gould recalled.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.