As Confederate infantry engulfed Col. Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine Infantry at Fredericksburg, Va., Brig. Gen. Hiram Berry scurried to help.
So did Pvt. John W. Haley and the 17th Maine Infantry.
In mid-December 1862, Ambrose Burnside sent his Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg to attack Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Union bumbling warned Lee about the impending battle; he quickly anchored the Confederate defenses along Marye’s Heights overlooking Fredericksburg and along a ridge stretching several miles southeast to Hamilton’s Crossing near Massaponax Creek.
Confederate troops also dug in behind the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, which ran between the ridge and the river. From the foot of the ridge, fields and scattered woods spread north and east toward the Rappahannock.
The 3rd and 4th Maine infantry regiments belonged to the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward. Haley served with Co. I, 17th Maine Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 3rd Brigade led by Berry, who hailed from Rockland. Both brigades belonged to a division commanded by Brig. Gen. David Birney.
That division arrived near Fredericksburg by Nov. 21. For the next 20 days, Union troops waited for Burnside to order an attack.
Then “while it was yet dark” on Thursday, Dec. 11, “we were suddenly startled by the boom of a cannon, quickly followed by another,” recalled Haley, a Biddeford native. “These were the prelude to an ever-memorable battle.
“Instinct told us what was coming,” he wrote. “The ball had opened, and we should soon be dancing.”
As Federal artillery — Haley estimated “nearly two-hundred guns” — pounded Fredericksburg, the 17th Maine Infantry shifted downriver, camped that night, and “didn’t move for the day (Dec. 12)” and “kept out of sight of the Rebels until after dark,” Haley noted. The soldiers built “only the very smallest fires,” and he boiled coffee “and then retired with dismal forbodings.
“What is before us?” Haley thought. “Possibly this might be my last night on earth. Even worse, ere the setting of another sun I might be mangled and bleeding.”
As Union troops bravely charged Confederate infantry and artillery fortifying Marye’s Heights and the Sunken Lane outside Fredericksburg on Saturday, Dec. 13, other Union divisions assailed the ridge southeast of the city. Under heavy fire, 15 Pennsylvania infantry regiments assigned Gen. George Gordon Meade’s division crossed the fields and the railroad and burst through Confederate defenses.
The Pennsylvanians crested the ridge and briefly cut Lee’s lines. Confederates counterattacked; realizing his men might be trapped, Meade organized a fighting withdrawal.
Enemy infantry surged forward as the Pennsylvanians retreated; Meade contacted nearby Union commanders, and Birney sent Ward and his brigade to help. The 4th Maine was about to plunge into the fight.
In late morning, the regiment spent “about 30 minutes” deployed “in rear of a Battery in support,” Walker reported. A “shell … from a rebel gun” killed two 4th Maine soldiers there.
“At this time I received orders to follow” two New York infantry regiments, the 38st and 40th, “which were about to charge and take possession” of the railroad embankment, he noted.
“We went in where Gen. Meade’s division had been driven out,” recalled Walker, a Rockland resident who led 21officers and 190 men into the actual battle that warm Saturday; he had left scattered details elsewhere while approaching the fighting. “The Fortieth New York, on the left, was the first to advance, then the Thirty-Eighth New York, Fourth and Third Maine and Fifty-Seventh Pennsylvania, each regiment one hundred yards in rear on the one on its left.” This placed his regiment to the right of the two New York regiments.
Placed “about 35 rods in advance of us,” the “Fortieth and Thirty-Eighth were in the open field, driving the enemy’s skirmish line and advancing to the railroad embankment, where they received a murderous fire,” Walker wrote.
Gunfire knocked down many New York soldiers; the Empire State regiments “became panic stricken … and retreated,” he reported.
“The Third Maine and the Fifty-Seventh Pennsylvania, realizing the futility of the attack [farther to the right], did not advance as far as we did,” Walker wrote. The 4th Maine “struck a point of woods which was filled with the enemy’s advanced line, which retired before us to the railroad, where we met them at close quarters. Officers used their pistols and the men their steel [bayonets].”
Fighting alongside his men — Walker had advanced at his regiment’s right flank during the attack — he realized that the New Yorkers’ withdrawal had left “my right and left flanks … exposed” and enemy infantry lapping around them.
The 4th Maine must fight and die or give up. “It might have been a saving of a life at that time to have surrendered, but I could not see it,” Walker decided.
The Midcoast men of the 4th Maine Infantry would fight — and die they did. “The men resisted the hail of lead as they continued their tedious task of loading and firing, loading and firing,” wrote Peter P. Dalton in his 1998 “With Our Faces to the Foe.”
In just a few minutes “dozens of men fell, struck not just once, but repeatedly. The 4th Maine was rapidly disappearing before their colonel’s eyes,” Dalton wrote.
Confederate bullets killed Maj. William Pitcher of Bangor and 1st Sgt. Moses Ford of Co. F and all but obliterated Co. C; of its 18 men, five died this bloody afternoon, six suffered wounds, and five went missing. Only two men would be described as “OK” in the after-action report.
No Co. E men died, but Co. F lost four men killed and one missing — and Pvt. J.W. Clark suffered a fractured skull. Bangor lost another soldier as 2nd Lt. Walter Goodale died while fighting with Co. H.
“I attempted to bring my regiment off by the left flank,” Walker described the maneuver that he hoped would save his men. “When I gave this order the right wing was driving the enemy and was so hotly engaged that the order was not understood.”
He halted the left wing, already in motion in adherence to Walker’s order. “My left wing nobly held the [enemy] force” that “had put the two [New York] regiments to flight.” Meanwhile, the beleaguered right wing, “which had advanced to the [rail] road,” finally connected with the left wing, he reported.
If not for the left wing’s stout defense, “my right wing would have been lost for it was … flanked on the right,” Walker noted.
The 4th Maine boys rescued many wounded comrades while stubbornly retreating. “Sixty-three men were dragged to safety” as “in small, scattered groups, the men emerged from the woods and out onto the open field,” Dalton wrote.
The aggressively pursuing Confederates “were not checked in their advance” until Berry “who was near at hand arrived with his Brigade and drove them back, punishing them severely,” Walker recalled.
Berry, the 4th Maine’s first commander, saw his beloved regiment “come stumbling out of the thickets and across the field,” and he “quickly charged his [other] regiments across the open ground” to the rescue, according to Dalton.
This action apparently occurred as Berry also moved to drive away Confederates chasing Meade’s retreating men. Earlier that day Berry had positioned his 3rd Brigade “near a fine residence, the Barnard House,” Haley recalled. The 17th Maine endured Confederate artillery fire until Meade’s Pennsylvanians “looked in vain for support and were compelled to fall back.”
Confederates from the brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. E.L. Thomas chased Meade’s men to the railroad track, which the 49th Georgia Infantry Regiment crossed as shooting intensified. To cover the Pennsylvanians’ retreat, Berry advanced his brigade with his front line comprising the 37th New York Infantry on the right, the 101st New York Infantry in the center, and the 17th Maine on the left.
With “the Rebels in hot pursuit,” the retreating Union troops “approached our group. We came to a front and fixed bayonets,” Haley wrote. When the retreating Pennsylvanians — Haley made no mention about the 4th Maine — “cleared out, we charged on the advancing Southrons, giving them a volley as we moved.”
As the 17th Maine boys “blazed away, we made a hole visible a long way off,” particularly in the 49th Georgia, Haley noted. “The dozen or so [men] left must have wondered what struck them — earthquake, tornado, or lightning.”
Meanwhile, the 37th and 101st New York infantry regiments probably provided the actual covering fire for the 4th Maine, which retreated some distance to the right flank of Berry’s brigade. “We fell back to our former position where we remained until the next morning,” Walker reported.
While the 17th Maine apparently played no direct role in clearing away the enemy infantry chasing the 4th Maine, Haley and his comrades shattered other Confederate regiments, such as the 49th Georgia, that might have engaged the 37th and 101st New York infantry regiments.
Artillery shot and shell whistled into the 17th Maine’s ranks, and “we were in the immediate presence of death,” Haley recalled. “A fragment of shell smashed” the hip of Co. I’s Sgt. John Libby, who “took it coolly and patiently … he smiled and tried to appear unconcerned, but it was a ghastly effort.” The 17th Maine suffered another 19 casualties during the shelling.
Haley watched the charging Confederates, their ranks smashed by the 17th Maine volleys, retreat to the railroad embankment. The Maine boys lay flat for a while, then shifted into a ditch along the Bowling Green Road that “gave us a protection,” Haley remembered.
The 17th Maine left its temporary hiding place “about 4 P.M.” to support a Federal “rifled battery” that was trading fire with enemy artillery; “shells went whizzing over us so near that we hugged old Mother Earth most affectionately,” Haley recalled.
Sunset on Dec. 13 would find Haley still alive, but across the Fredericksburg battlefield some 12,500 comrades lay dead, dying, or wounded. “After getting something to eat we laid on the ground, but not to sleep,” Haley wrote. “Our ears are continually saluted with the cries of the wounded left on the field to the mercy of weather and Rebels, their sufferings heightened by cold and thirst.
“Who can depict such horrors?” he asked. “These wretched men lay crying, groaning, and begging for water and help in the most agonizing manner, and we unable to rescue them.”
On Sunday, Dec. 14, both sides agreed to a two-hour truce so that Union soldiers could remove wounded comrades from the fields along the railroad embankment. The 4th Maine re-crossed the Rappahannock after dark on Monday, Dec. 15, the 17th Maine by 3 a.m., Tuesday, Dec. 16.
Walker did not accompany his regiment. Assigned to command the army’s rear guard, he spent “the longest seven hours I have ever experienced, while waiting for the order to withdraw the  pickets” who “were guarding the retreat.”
As Union troops silently crossed the pontoon bridges to avoid alerting Confederate pickets about the withdrawal, Walker and two cavalrymen waited amidst campfires kept burning so the enemy would think that Union infantry still lingered along the road. Then a staff order quietly brought the order to retreat. “Leaving my horse with the [cavalry] orderlies, I walked the entire length of the [picket] line” and instructed the two assigned regiments to “assemble at the right” before leaving the battlefield, Walker remembered.
Only one regiment appeared at the assembly point. The officer commanding the withdrawal “said he could wait but a few minutes for the missing men,” wrote Walker, who must find or abandon them.
“The horrors of a rebel prison stared me in the face, but I resolved to find the lost troops or go to Richmond with them,” he decided. Dawn lay not far off as Walker searched the dark battlefield; he discovered the missing pickets “huddled together about a half mile away, and forced them to the bridge, which was reached not an instant too soon,” he recalled.
“I was the last man to cross the bridge, and when [I was] safely over daylight was rapidly strengthening,” Walker remembered.
When the roll was called in the 4th Maine camp after Fredericksburg, Walker reported three officers and 19 enlisted men killed in action; seven officers and 59 enlisted men wounded; and 36 men missing.
Eight of those missing men vanished forever.
Dec. 20: Joshua Chamberlain & the 20th Maine go belly to earth below Marye’s Heights