Sometime in latter November 1863, Capt. Wyer Bradbury opened a letter from home.
The news was bad — real bad.
A merchant ship’s skipper, Wyer lived in Machias with his wife, Eliza, and the Bradburys had raised at least two sons, James and Willie. Twenty when he enlisted in Co. C, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment in spring 1861, James had been a seaman.
By autumn 1863, he had evidently transferred to Co. B, commanded by Capt. Levi L.L. Bassford, initially a sergeant in Co. D. On Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863, the 6th Maine participated in one of the rare nighttime attacks launched during the Civil War.
The Rappahannock River separated Union troops (north bank) and Confederate troops (south bank). For reasons that remain murky 150 years later, Gen. Robert E. Lee left a bridgehead north of the Rappahannock at Rappahannock Station, an Orange & Alexandria Railroad whistle-stop.
Lee later claimed that from this bridgehead, connected to the river’s south bank by one pontoon bridge, he could rush troops over the Rappahannock to strike at disparate Union formations wandering too near the river.
Three North Carolina infantry regiments reinforced the under-strength Louisiana infantry brigade holding the two redoubts and interconnecting trenches comprising the bridgehead on Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863. Up came Union Maj. Gen. Albion Howe and his division, assigned to the VI Corps of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick.
Howe brought with him the 5th and 6th Maine infantry regiments. The latter unit abutted the O&A tracks running south toward Rappahannock Station. Discovering the 20th Maine Infantry on the other (east) side of the tracks, the 6th Maine boys got to talking with their fellow Mainers.
When Sedgwick ordered a sudden attack on the enemy bridgehead soon after sunset, off went the 6th Maine boys, and a few dozen 20th Maine boys disobeyed orders and charged with ’em.
James Bradbury of Machias charged with the 6th Maine lads as they took the “cold steel” (a romantic wartime reference to bayonets) over the parapets of the easternmost redoubt and into the Confederates defenders. Heavily outnumbered and initially unsupported, the 6th Maine soldiers liberally applied bullets, bayonets, rifle butts, and fists during wild hand-to-hand fighting.
Supporting regiments (including the 5th Maine) soon came up on the right flank and into the western redoubt, and Union boys suffered only 419 casualties while capturing around 1,600 Confederates and killing another 70 or so.
Machias paid a price for the victory.
“Dear Husband,” Eliza Bradbury wrote Wyer Bradbury on Sunday, Nov. 15. “I … write you and Willie (apparently a son) a few lines. I want you to read this with all the calmness and composure you can.”
Saturday night — less than 24 hours earlier — Eliza had opened an arriving letter and read “that James was shot and was dead. No particulars only …”
Imagine the moment when Eliza unfolded the letter and read those lines about James, shot dead seven days earlier in Virginia. No warning, no friend carrying the news from the 6th Maine, shot, bludgeoned, and bayoneted at Rappahannock Station.
“Now if this is true[,] do bear it calmly for my sake[,] for your sake[,] and for our dead children,” Eliza wrote. “Dear James loved so well[.] If he could speak to us he would tell us not to mourn.
“I hope you will soon be home, try and bear up under it, I shall do the best I can,” she wrote. “We thought I had better write [because] I could not bear to telegraph such news.”
The letter from an unidentified 6th Maine survivor informed Eliza that James “was shot in skirmish fighting” and that he “was hit in the head with a [musket] ball.” She would “rather have him go” that way then be “run through with a bayonet or some ways.”
So James might have died during the preliminary late afternoon skirmishing that saw Union troops drive enemy skirmishers into the redoubts.
The Bradburys had evidently shipped to James via Boston a box containing many items, such as “his sacred clothes” and “the knife with his dear name on it,” Eliza informed Wyer. Could he wire Boston and have the box returned “by the same express”?
Eliza hoped that “the box has not left Boston.”
Hoping that additional information about James’ death might arrive on Monday, she set aside her letter. No matter, “we must bear it with a noble spirit as he [James] has the burden of war.” she wrote on Monday.
“I hope you and Willie will soon be at home where we shall be able to bear each other up,” Eliza expressed her need to see her husband and son. “May you both reach home safe.”
She signed her letter, “From your afct [affectionate] wife … E. Bradbury.”
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble.
Source: Nov. 15, 1863 letter from Eliza Bradbury to husband Wyer Bradbury, courtesy of John Thompson, whose 6th Maine ancestor was Capt. Levi Bassford
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.