“My Last Night at Fredericksburg,” a poem

Placed in a coffin or covered by a blanket, at least six Union soldiers are laid out for burial outside a Federal hospital in Fredericksburg, Va. in mid-May 1864. (Library of Congress)

Decades after the bloody fight at Fredericksburg, Va. on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1862, Col. Elijah Walker of the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment penned a poem recalling that unit’s last maneuvers on the battlefield.

My Last Night at Fredericksburg” Walker titled his poem, read by him at the regiment’s 1889 reunion.

On Fredericksburg’s field, when fell the night,
We reckoned our dead of that dreadful fight,
And for those we held, of a score and two,
We hastened the last sad rites to do.

No pains could we take to mark the spot, —
It was near the place where we fiercely fought,
Now seven and twenty years ago;
I can see them yet, there lying low.

Yes, there lay our major, loved and true,
As brave as any who wore the blue;
But we left him not on that far plain,
And he sleeps to-day ‘neath the soil of Maine.

And he for whom all had a kindly word,
George Bourne, a lieutenant, whose trusty sword
Had carved for its bearer a niche in fame,
Would ne’er again follow war’s oriflamme.

Yet not for him could a grave be made,
Since his form from the foe we could not save;
But twenty comrades were laid in earth,
With many a tribute to each one’s worth.

Wide, but not deep, the grave was made,
Wherein, in their blankets, our men we laid,
With prayers sincere, though they were not loud,
While tears fell fast on each humble shroud.

Then the earth was heaped, with decent haste,
O’er this their drear last resting-place.
Thus ending the work of that dreadful day,
And the men were ready to steal away.

Then, for five hours more I walked that hill, —
Of war I felt that I’d had my fill, —
But until our flag should float supreme,
I knew that of peace we could only dream.

Now, the pickets collected, the line found right,
To cross the river before daylight
Was the one grand object for which we sought,
And to which our endeavors were duly brought.

Back, boys, to the road across the hill;
Be prompt and orderly, sure and still.”
And the men obeying with trust complete,
I thought we should make a good retreat.

Quickly we left that fatal ridge,
The river to cross by the pontoon bridge,
But, arriving there, what did I find?
That two hundred men had “straggled” behind.

T’was not to be thought we could leave them there,
To the chance of the enemy’s tender care;
So, turning back for the boys astray,
I found them half a mile away.

Then back to the bridge, at a pace not slow,
I forced those “errant knights” to go,
Who followed the rest, the river crossed,
And not one of the Third Corps’ pickets was lost.

Since that awful night many years have passed,
And my hair and beard are whitening fast;
But while life remains I shall ne’er forget
The boys there left, — nor the boys here met.

Our thanks to Peter Dalton for providing a printed copy of this poem, not seen for many years.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

 

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.