A “Most Solemn Spectacle,” or Comforting the Wounded at Fredericksburg
As this fourth installment of Frank Hall’s account of his Civil War experiences open, the bloody battle of Fredericksburg is finally drawing to a close. We rejoin the chaplain of the 16th New York Volunteers on the late afternoon of December 13, 1862.
The Colonel [Joel J. Seaver] has just come up and sends his compliments to you and tells me to tell you that he was just standing on a hill at a little distance off and the rebel battery on the hill opened [fire] and as he moved off a shell struck just about where he had been standing and “Oh! Oh! Busted.” Oh, the cannonading is awful now to the left. The Doctor [Assistant Surgeon Charles C. Murphy], Colonel, Major [Frank Palmer], Adjutant [Robert P. Wilson] and myself are now standing together. Now the rebels open in front again from the fort (it seems to be). Captain [William W.] Wood has just joined the party with a jar of sweet meats and says, “There is no joking gentlemen, this is most excellent plum sauce.” “There is no need of joking,” says the Colonel, “I will try it sir as soon as I get a hard cracker…”
There is a beautiful cloud in the air; a bomb burst over there to the left. There are two beautiful bombs in the air. A long line of our first troops is moving over the plain over to the left and the musketry seems to be creeping up the line to our center.
Little Pete [Major Frank Palmer’s contraband manservant] has just come up with a canteen of water and I have taken a drink out of my little India Rubber cup for the first time. I just remembered it was in my pocket. We generally drink right out of the flasks. I am getting out of paper. I must send Edo [Winslow, Frank’s contraband manservant] among the men for some more.
We have heard cheers descending in different places but don’t know what they indicate. Now the pickets are firing closer up the line towards us near some cannon…It is now three o’clock. Now there is cheering closer up toward us. Now the musketry is fierce…The cannon are firing now nearly in front and three stretchers have come into the ravine. Now one of our own batteries is firing at the mountains just over our heads. One cut the limbs off a tree right above us on the crest of the ravine. The enemy has all the advantages of position.
Oh, here come our rations. The cook of our mess has sent things over to us. Oh, hear that musketry nearly in front…Now they are firing right over our heads again. Dr. Murphy’s first wounded now is brought in. The infantry in front are waiting. Oh, how the man’s arm is cut. Now our men go. There are the tattered colors of the 16th. I am standing by Captain [Pliny] Moore. The lines are all lying down behind the hedge. The Jerseys have taken a redoubt.
Well now wify, my next place to continue on from is the evening of the 13th, Saturday evening, where I left off by saying the Jerseys had taken a redoubt. The old 16th had been in the ravine, but the order had come for them to unsling napsacks and mount the hill. Now we thought the time had come. I had only been with the regiment a few days, but felt so identified with it that the tears came trickling down when the noble fellows went up the hill. When we reached the top, Captain Wood seemed to take notice of me, of my feelings and he turned round and I shall not forget his expression. He looked earnestly and said “Chaplain, we will give a grand account of ourselves.” They all lay down behind a hedge and waited and waited, but the enemy did not approach. The pickets kept firing but no enemy came. The sun went down and we made ready to lay down and get some rest, kindling little fires…soon it came to be about half past ten o’clock at night.
Just then it occurred to me that there might be some work for me coming [with] the multitude of wounded and dying at the hospital and I suggested to the Major that I should ride over there for an hour or two and see if I could be of service. He said yes; he thought it would be well. So, I mounted old Zollicoffer and cantered off in the darkness, guided by the bivouac fires of the various regiments and crossed the plain by the aid of sundry directions of sundry soldiers, reaching at last the old stone Virginia manor house [Mannsfield, built in 1766] of Mr. [Arthur] Bernard, then used as a division hospital. It so happened that our own surgeon Dr. [William B.] Crandall had been detailed as the general superintendent of the hospital of which I speak. So, on riding up before the portico and tying my horse to a tree, I inquired immediately on the stoop from the sentries for Dr. Crandall.
They gave me entrance to the great hall and it was filled with wounded lying upon stretchers. About the first man I saw was a poor fellow bruised and so cut and covered with blood that it was almost impossible to distinguish a human face. It was too late to speak with him. He was just hurting, but unconscious. He was dying. Wounded men were all about him and by the dim candles that lighted up the scene, there was certainly presented a most solemn spectacle. I turned from the hall to the left into the operating room, where they were busily at work, men already upon the tables and others waiting.
I was directed again to the left into an elegant old chamber where walls were hung with cheery paintings. Dido and Aeneas was one and another large one Obsession and the Cross. The room was paneled and with a large, old fashioned open fireplace. There were a number of physicians in it and in the recess of a window, lying down on some books (I think it was), I found Dr. Crandall. He was perfectly fagged out, he said. He was very glad to see me; jumped up and introduced me to several of the physicians and then in a darkened corner of the room, pointed out to me a pallet where a wounded man was lying. That is Colonel [William B.] Hatch of the 4th New Jersey. We have just amputated his leg, he says. As we went nearer, I saw the noble features of the Colonel and his superb uniform, just as he had been brought in from his field charge. He was wandering and talking incoherently and the Doctor said but a moment ago had, in his ravings, as if addressing his orderly, “Orderly, ask permission to charge again. I have a regiment that can not be overcome. Let us charge again.” Poor Colonel, he had made his last charge…He died a day or two afterwards. To the right in another corner lay another officer.
Crandall then led me out into the operating room and they were just bringing in a secessionist prisoner, wounded…[with] a sweet face and beautiful eyes – a young man from Georgia. I bent over him and whispered to him of Jesus and he told me his long hope was there, intending that he was a Christian. He was soon removed to the lower corridor.
We then went below through the vaults and rooms all around and all seemed to be full. Wounded, dead and dying. The building is… of solid stone and a number of bombproof vaults below.
Then we went up stairs…The Doctor wanted me to stay all night but I said I could only stay a short time. He then urged me to stay for supper, which I did and ate heartily of beef steak and I certainly was grateful.
After tea…we went into the 2nd story front room, left hand side and there lay poor [Brigadier] General [George D.] Bayard, the chief of the Cavalry, stretched upon the floor, his thigh completely blown to pieces. He died the next day. He had been struck near this hospital about 40 rods off, while standing quite near to [Major] General [William B.] Franklin. I tried very hard to have permission to say a few words to him, Dr. Kelly speaking to his aide, but the aide said he was all right and steadily refused to have him waked; that his father would be there in the morning and if he was willing to have him spoken to, he had no objections to my doing so. I could do nothing, so we came down stairs. The General died the next day, but his father never came. I was there the next day, but it was about the last of life with him. He was just passing away.
Well after a continuance of such sorrowful scenes, I started out about twelve o’clock to return to the regiment. I found Sam, the Doctor’s contraband, posted by old Zollicoffer just where we had left him so, bidding the Doctor good night, I rode off and after a while arrived safely in the midst of the 16th! One of the men led Zollicoffer in between the sleeping soldiers, lest in the dark the horse might have trodden upon muskets, or their owners. I crawled in beside the Major between the blankets under the hedge and there remained till day break [December 14]. Multitudes of troops passed during the night.
In the spring of 1863, while having his portrait painted, Stephen Crane, a twenty-two-year-old author without any battle experience, passed the time reading a series in The Century Magazine devoted to famous battles and leaders of the Civil War. “I wonder that some of those fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps,” Crane later wrote. “They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks.” Crane decided to write an account of the war. Two years later, The Red Badge of Courage was published to international acclaim. Frank’s descriptions of his feelings and emotions predated Stephen Crane’s American classic by more than thirty years. I suspect that Frank read The Red Badge of Courage, but I can’t prove it.
Lightly edited by John Krueger