Given the opportunity to join the looters pillaging shattered Fredericksburg in Virginia, the respectable Dr. Nahum P. Monroe grabbed what plunder he could.
And he admitted that he had done so.
Well after sunset on Monday, Dec. 15, 1862, Monroe (the chief surgeon of the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment) rousted at least 20-25 wounded Union soldiers he found sleeping in an abandoned Union field hospital somewhere in “downtown” Fredericksburg. Monroe pointed the men in the direction of the Rappahannock and the two pontoon bridges comprising the “Upper Crossing.”
With Union troops leaving the town, Confederate infantrymen would soon move into the town and scoop up Federal troops too careless or tired to escape.
His good deed done, Monroe lingered amidst the Fredericksburg ruins before recrossing the river to safety. He studied the broken buildings and debris-littered streets, where soldierly shadows flitted and the retreating Union regiments moved quietly toward the Upper Crossing.
“You can form no idea of the destruction and desolation of the city that night,” Monroe wrote his wife, Ann.
“A fine city, containing some ten thousand inhabitants, who have left everything just as they were living, jewelry, watches, and many valuable articles,” Monroe told her.
“The finest houses were perfectly riddled with shot and shell, through the sides and roofs,” and “splendid furniture smashed and broken into fragments, and everything scattered to the winds,” the country doctor from Belfast described what Fredericksburg had looked like after Union artillery had started shelling the town a few days earlier.
Tough and scrawny Mississippian veterans had dug into the buildings even as Federal shells tore them apart. Union infantrymen finally crossed the Rappahannock and winkled the Johnny Rebs from their spider holes.
Looting soon broke out, and Federal soldiers tore apart Fredericksburg about as effectively as their artillery had.
In a spasmodic vandalism that shocked staid Americans on the home front, Union troops plundered Fredericksburg more thoroughly than Comanches had looted Linnville, Texas during the Great Raid of 1840. Unhindered by personal shame or officers’ edicts, men in blue stole or destroyed just about everything not tied down.
And Nahum Monroe, a respectable physician, joined in the looting — but for a good cause.
“The soldiers carried off everything and anything,” Monroe noticed. “One fellow had 18 valuable watches.”
Sometime that Sunday or Monday, Monroe heard about a medicinal treasure trove and apparently ran as fast as he could to where it lay. “One large wholesale apothecary establishment I visited, to get medicine for my men,” he admitted.
The volume of human carnage created at Fredericksburg on Saturday, Dec. 13 is incomprehensible in a 2017 United States where the one-by-one losses of Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets in Iraq, in the war against ISIS, are considered almost unacceptable. In one day, Ambrose Burnside destroyed 12,500 of his men and accomplished absolutely nothing, except to write with American blood more heroic tales in American history books.
From Saturday afternoon through Sunday morning, Monroe worked desperately to repair damaged men in that field hospital where he found the wounded men sleeping on Monday night. Medical supplies ran low, so at one point Monroe hurried to a privately owned warehouse “to get medicine for my men.”
This Maine Visigoth wearing a surgeon’s blood-stained apron looted the”apothecary establishment” for the best reason possible: He wanted to save wounded soldiers.
Monroe, apparently along with other doctors and probably some hospital orderlies, made short work of the warehouse’s contents. “A stock [worth all] of $75,000 was all dispersed, with [surgical] instruments and other valuable things,” he told Ann.
Monroe took one more item from the Fredericksburg ruins. “I was too much engaged with the suffering [soldiers], to think of picking up anything as a trophy but an old Bible, printed in 1776, and valuable from associations connected with it — being read by some of our dying men,” he said.
“One poor fellow called for it to prepare him for his fate, and then gave me his watch to send to his friends, and a parting message,” Monroe told Ann.
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: “Letter From Dr. Monroe,” Republican Journal, Friday, Jan. 2, 1863
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.