The 16th Maine boys know that if they charge those distant hills, they will die.
So do the Johnnies awaiting them.
And today, just 12 days before Christmas 1862, there can’t be a more miserable place to die than on these muddy farm fields about 2 miles downriver from a Virginia town called Fredericksburg. Robert E. Lee has strung his Confederate artillery and infantry all along the heights outside town, and it’s up those heights that Ambrose Burnside hurls his Yankee divisions on this cold Saturday, Dec. 13.
Led by Lt. Col. Charles Tilden, the 16th Maine Infantry crosses the Rappahannock River on a pontoon bridge about noon on Friday. The regiment forms into line behind the 105th New York and the 107th Pennsylvania and occasionally shifts position to avoid enemy artillery.
After the sun sets, the Maine boys shiver and shake the rest of the night as a clammy Virginia fog enshrouds them. Officers roust the chilled soldiers before dawn; the roll call enumerates “some four hundred fifty Officers & men,” notes Tilden, who hails from Castine.
He has orders to be ready to march by 8 a.m. His regiment steps off even as Confederate shells start raining down.
All of the Confederacy’s up on those wooded heights or dug in behind the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, which runs between the heights and the Bowling Green Road nearer the river. Confederate gunners have pre-sighted their cannons, so wherever Union blue maneuvers today, enemy artillery on Prospect Hill has the range.
“We had scarcely gone a dozen rods before the enemy opened on us with shot and shell,” says 17-year-old Pvt. Thomas S. Hopkins of Co. C. He laughs as Capt. Daniel Marston “dodges the shells as they came over our heads, but I soon learned to do it myself.”
The regiment maneuvers toward the Bowling Green Road until stopped by the Virginia woods. As the fog rapidly dissipates beneath the dim winter sun, the 16th Maine’s pioneers [engineers] swing their axes to clear a path through “a thick growth of brushes,” as Tilden describes the obstacle. “Pieces of shell from the enemy’s guns” lightly wound two soldiers.
The Maine boys wait patiently while the pioneers work. Hopkins studies his comrades’ faces; “there was no outward sign of fear or doubt about the terrible struggle” awaiting the soldiers, he remembers, and “many of us I know thought of our loved ones at home and in our hearts bade them a silent farewell.”
The brigade commander, Col. Adrian Root, wonders how Tilden’s regiment will perform today. Raised last August, “the regiment is a new one” that will soon receive its combat baptism, Root acknowledges.
“I felt some apprehension lest the terrible fire from the enemy’s concealed rifle pits would be too severe a trial for its men,” he remembers.
Tilden keeps his men focused. The regiment shifts position and crosses the Bowling Green Road to form “in line of battle” facing the weapons-bristling railroad embankment and heights, he recalls. The artillery fire is too heavy and too accurate; Root now orders all his regiments to recross the road and lay down in its sheltering ditch.
A hellish racket engulfs the Maine boys. Hopkins calls the chaos “a wild scene” as he listens to “the sharp rattle of musketry, the almost continuing booming of cannon, the neighing of horses,” blaring bugles, and rattling drums, all “mingling with the cries of the wounded.”
Thousands of Union troops have already charged across the farm fields interlaced with drainage ditches and turned glutinous with ankle-deep mud after the sun warmed the frozen soil. Fields are strewn with blue bundles representing the men who already paid today for Burnside’s folly.
Far beyond any earthly cares, the lucky ones lie silent. The wounded men scream in agony, sob or moan in pain, shout for water, beg for mercy, call for their mothers or wives. Hopkins listens as “high above the awful din arose the shrill cry of some poor soul who had received a mortal wound.” Then a cannonball kills a Co. C soldier, the first 16th Maine boy to die today.
He won’t be the last. He, at least, receives “a hasty burial before we moved forward,” says Hopkins, a Mount Vernon resident.
Around 1:30 p.m., Tilden receives an order to attack the Confederates at a distance estimated between 500 yards and a half mile. Along with the 105th New York and 107th Pennsylvania, the 16th Maine must first capture the railroad and its bordering woods, then push uphill to break the secondary Confederate defenses. Two New York regiments, the 94th and 104th, will support the attack.
Concealed behind the railroad embankment and in the adjacent woods are five North Carolina infantry regiments — the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd, and 37th — from the brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. James Lane. The embankment provides a natural parapet; the North Carolinians can squat and shoot while exposing only their heads and shoulders to Yankee fire.
Cannonballs whoosh overhead as the 16th Maine boys form ranks along the road; watching the men instinctively duck, Root rides along the line and shouts, “Boys, don’t dodge when —”
“Before he could finish the sentence, a shell whizzed so close to his head that he himself dodged very emphatically,” Hopkins chuckles.
The brave Root laughs and yells, “But you may dodge big ones like these!” Maine men cheer.
Then the 16th Maine shuffles forward 12 yards before Tilden remembers an impediment. “Halt! Unsling knapsacks! Fix bayonets!” officers shout his orders. He wants his men unencumbered by the additional weight and details 13 men to guard the precious knapsacks, each of which contains its owner’s minimal possessions.
As one Co. C trooper wiggles his shoulder straps, a shell fragment strikes the rolled blanket tied atop his knapsack. Hopkins watches incredulously as “for a moment man and knapsack revolved around each other and then they parted company,” with the soldier uninjured.
“Forward!” shouts Tilden, and the Maine boys march toward the distant railroad embankment. Other Union regiments march on the flanks.
Aware of the 17-inch, three-edged bayonet that he just slotted on his rifle’s muzzle, Hopkins “knew that we were to fight the enemy with cold steel.” The Maine boys struggle to maintain their alignment in the fields that he describes as “miry and treacherous”; although the mud often causes men to sink “half-way to our knees,” thus slowing the advance, Hopkins knows the worst is yet to come.
“The bullets now begin to sing angrily about our ears, and our men begin to fall,” he remembers. “The one with whom I touched elbows on my left was among the first victims. The ball entered his leg with a sickening thud which I will never forget, and he fell to the ground with a cry of ‘I’m shot!’”
Today Co. C serves as the color company, responsible for guarding the national and regimental standards and their bearers, men from Co. E. Confederate infantrymen target the bearers, who “as soon as the order to move forward was given, stepped out in the ranks in advance of the others, and maintained that position during the charge,” Hopkins says.
Under fire for the first time, the Maine boys acknowledge their fear. A “nervous” Hopkins feels his knees trembling, but “being afraid and yielding to fear are two different things.” Then “when I saw my comrades falling on either side,” he let “all my angry passions” overwhelm his fear of dying.
Now he wants only to fight.
“About half the distance between the turnpike and the enemy,“ the Maine boys approach other Union troops who, unable to reach the railroad, are firing at Lane’s well-concealed Confederates, Hopkins reports. The Maine men stop and “a dozen or more rounds ourselves,” he remembers. A bullet almost clips his nose, other men collapse; the regiment cannot stand here.
“Cease firing!” Tilden passes the order. “Charge bayonets!” The Maine boys growl as they lower their rifled muskets and point their bayonets at the railroad embankment.
“Forward double-quick!” the officers shout. The 16th Maine launches a controlled charge across “a quarter mile of muddy ground” and “deep ditches to leap down into and clamber out of,” with the enemy delivering “a terrible fire,” Hopkins describes the terrain.
The Maine boys charge through “bursting shells, grape and canister, and minie bullets” striking the muddy soil “so thickly … that the dirt was constantly spattering in my face,” he says.
“Instinctively we bowed our heads to this fierce storm as we swept on,” Hopkins recalls. Enemy fire creates “great gaps in our ranks as one after another“ falls,” but the 16th Maine boys reach “the few remaining yards of ground” as Confederate rifles belch “smoke and death.”
Adrenalin hurls the Maine boys up the railroad embankment; screaming “one wild, determined cry,” they leap atop the embankment and take the cold steel to those North Carolinians too slow to flee, Hopkins remembers.
Eyewitnesses claim that the first 16th Maine soldier to cross the embankment and take the fight to the enemy is Pvt. Thomas Kenneston of Kenduskeag. He and his brother, Leonard, belong to Co. H, which is commanded by Capt. John Ayer of Bangor.
Hopkins races toward the embankment, but a bullet strikes him perhaps less than 20 feet away. He finds “myself flat upon the ground,” and a passing officer yells at him to stay down.
“Soon the pain in my groin” reveals “where I was hit,” he realizes, and he does not “examine my wound for fear I should faint.” Hopkins remembers passing so many dead or wounded Union soldiers just getting this far, so he decides “to make a desperate effort to get off the field.”
Desperate hand-to-hand fighting occurs as the 16th Maine survivors bayonet or shoot every Confederate they can see.The 16th Maine has broken Lee’s outer defense line; pushing aside the 37th North Carolina, Tilden leads his men perhaps a short distance up the slopes still alive with enemy troops.
He looks right and left and sees there are no other Union regiments near the 16th Maine boys. While attempting to advance, adjacent regiments fell back under heavy fire, and now Tilden sees gray-clad infantry swarming in the woods beyond his left flank. If those Confederates cut off the 16th Maine, the regiment will die here.
“I gave the order to retire,” Tilden reports. As his men retreat, they retrieve as many wounded comrades as they can and herd 60 captured Confederates toward the Union lines.
Converting his rifle to a crutch, Hopkins “slowly and painfully” limps across fields covered with “the dead and wounded,” including many from Maine, and crosses the Bowling Green Road. There, “beneath the sheltering embankment,” he examines his wound.
Hopkins is “overjoyed to find that the wounded was only a very severe bruise!” A minie bullet had struck the “army cup” tied outside Hopkins’ haversack before punching through the hardtack in the haversack and striking a tin plate inside it. The plate stopped the bullet “just short of my flesh,” Hopkins notes. He will convalesce in a “hospital for a few days,” but he will live to fight again and to survive this miserable war.
As his shattered regiment reaches safety in the road’s ditch, Tilden cannot accurately estimate the butcher’s bill. He lead 450 men into battle; he knows that many lie out where Confederate artillery now pounds the farm fields.
Although immersed in the last hour’s fighting, Root has watched the 16th Maine wreak havoc on Confederate infantry; “the gallant manner in which the regiment charged the enemy’s position excited my surprise and admiration, and reflected the highest honors” upon Tilden’s men, Root will write in his after-action report.
Surviving company officers question the men they command. Soldiers report whom they saw die or fall wounded; at least six men are missing, and every company reports double-digit losses. Of the 10 companies, Co. C has lost the highest number at 33 men; Co.’s G and H tie for second place at 28 casualties apiece.
On Tuesday, Dec. 23, Tilden writes a letter telling Gov. Israel Washburn about the 16th Maine’s performance during “the disastrous engagement near Fredericksburg.
“Since my last communication, the condition of the Regiment has been very much changed as you are probably aware,” Tilden writes in consummate understatement.
Repeating that he led 450 men into the slaughter, Tilden stresses that his men “went into the fight & performed their duty like true soldiers.” For amateur warriors, the 16th Maine boys had fought well.
“The result Sir … foots up to some two hundred & twenty-eight killed wounded & missing,” he reports. “More than fifty percent of the whole number engaged.
“I can truly say that I never witness’d troops perform their duty better & come up to the work more readily than did the 16th at this time. Every mans heart & soul seemd [sic] bent upon having a chance at the enemy,” Tilden writes.
“We were the first regiment to make the charge and the last to leave the field,” he reports. The Regt. has certainly done credit to itself & the Old Pine Tree State altho’ at a great Sacrifice.”
For Charles Tilden and the shattered 16th Maine Infantry, a greater sacrifice will occur on another battlefield only seven months later. Having covered itself with blood at Fredericksburg, the 16th Maine will cover itself with glory at Gettysburg.
Jan. 3: A fallen hero comes home to his final resting place