The Tangled Skein of History Continued, or Frank Hall’s Impressions of War on the Eve of the Battle of Fredericksburg
When the last installment of the tangled skein of history concluded our hero, Frank Hall, chaplain in the 16th New York Volunteers, had just arrived in Virginia and purchased his trusted steed Zollicoffer. Frank’s “running account somewhat irregularly written” to his beloved Fannie provides personal impressions of the days leading up to the Battle of Fredericksburg. We now rejoin Frank at Belle Plain on December 9, 1862.
I went round among the men during the day and in the evening it was that I attended the first funeral, the funeral of the man who had died the night before. In the morning of the day he died, I was standing in front of headquarters looking at guard mount and as the troops moved off, one man stumbled and fell. I though he had tripped on a stump but it was not so, it was from weakness. He was the one who fell down dead at night. He was a Christian, said other men…Lieutenant [Albert] Barney came for me as soon as the coffin was done, part of which was made out of my saddle box. We walked down and crossed the ravine and rode and entered the woods beyond and just on a knoll they had dug the grave. They lowered the coffin and then I read a passage from 1 Corinthians 15:16-22 verse and some of the latter verses. I have not marked them in my Bible, only the 16-22 inclusive. After that, I made a prayer. The Colonel [Joel Seaver] was there but we did not have a salute fired. They have dispensed with that in these times. We placed a little board over the head with the name so that the body can be found if the friends wish to remove it.
I am sitting in a tent before a huge fire of logs and the high full moon is shining directly in front of the door and over the woods where the regiment is encamped. The camp fires are everywhere burning. In front of me among the trees and among the cracklings of the flames I hear the hum of the camp. Just at this moment away off in the distance I hear someone whistling “Dixie.” And near, another one has just passed the tent door whistling the same tune…It seems strange to me – marvelously strange – beyond description – stern – savage and yet fascinating in the extreme, yes, even sublime to me.
Well the next morning [December 10] we struck the tents and leaving the sick from necessity, moved on and bivouacked for half an hour where I write to you in pencil. Now I have given a running account somewhat irregularly written on camp letter, rolls of blankets and on horseback and amid bursting bomb shells. First, I was going to copy it off so that you could read it more distinctly, but then I thought you would rather have the letter written just as it was written, partly by sunlight and part by moonlight and amid vanities a few words were written right at about the middle of the pontoon bridge and one or two words just as the fine feet of old Zollicoffer stepped off the bridge on the other side of the Rappahannock…Major [Frank] Palmer also thought you would like the letter just as it is. Bomb shells have burst very near these very sheets when hubby was writing…
I left off writing last evening at about half past eleven for I supposed the Colonel might want to go to bed. So we turned in, the Major and I sleeping together on cedar boughs and under blankets. So warm we were just roasting…Captain Moore has detailed for me a first rate man by the name of Winslow. So soon my splendid old black horse Zollicoffer was brought around by Winslow…and we were ready in a very little while for marching…
The regiment was soon under way…We have marched a few miles and now the bugle has sounded a halt and the regiments are in a very pleasant woods where we will probably stay perhaps till tonight waiting orders to move. We are near the Rappahannock. The horses are already unsaddled and the axes sounding all around and many tents up. We have taken a lunch and the men are all around gathering boughs in case we remain here all night. Many are gathering grain in a field a short distance off which they expect to use as beds.
December 12, 1862. The musketry at the upper pontoon bridge has just commenced and the heavy batteries have just boomed and oh what a scene. Over this vast plain the multitude of regiments are spread and waiting to cross, artillery, cavalry and infantry everywhere. Oh how those guns sound. We are crossing [the Rappahannock River] under cover of a mist but the sun shining brightly all the while.
We came down in heavy columns from the woods to cross and several regiments were thrown across followed by the thundering wheels of the artillery regiments. But in the first regiments deploying their pickets they came suddenly upon the enemy. Live of battle – we are starting – we are waiting on the bridge – just over – General [William Buel] Franklin just pased – we are forming in line of battle and oh what a scene in this waste plain…Fredericksburg in flames and wild confusion of whirling platoons and heavy cannon.
The Major and myself were separated for a time…when we came back and it was perfect uproar, but my splendid horse Zollicoffer it seems as if I could put any where. He is perfectly trained. Oh if you had seen the signal fire from hilltop to hilltop last night. The whirling half circles of light and the return from the signal corps passed over. Oh it was beyond description. Oh soon they are gathering us up at the upper bridge. Our skirmishers are out in front of us. Now we move. There, just over there, a shell has burst, a beautiful little cloud of smoke against the blue sky.
The old chaplain of the 5th Maine Regiment has just ridden up to me and handed me an unexploded shell. I have just ridden over and am standing by the side of a dead rebel. His head is all torn open. Poor man, he has paid the penalty. Now I am standing by the body of another, fuse burned up. And there is a dead horse. Now I am by another dead body who they say is an officer. Work will probably commence soon. There, coming down the hill, is a regiment of rebels. Colonel Seaver, our Colonel, just passed and he said to me “notes on the field ah?”
A squadron of cavalry has just passed and my man Edo Winslow has just moments ago picked up a sword bayonet. Our Colonel has just cried out, “Premiers to the front.” There, way off to the left, go an immense body of our cavalry. There is a fellow looking through his glass, resting it on the back of a fellow soldier. The soldiers are all laying down or sitting and the skirmishers are going steadily forward, cautiously…
We gathered corn in the fields for the horses and we laid down on some under the hedges and built a small fire. Edo my man and the Major’s Pete, a like armed genius, a little tramp of the regiments, was with us…The Major gave me a piece of pork to roast on the end of his sword which I unfortunately dropped into the ashes. Oh, he said it would make it all the better. When I was done he took it and dropped it into the dirt and had to hunt for it for some time. He made it better still.
The Major and I…lay down spoon fashion as we have done for several nights under our blankets. I slept a little while lying on the corn husks with our feet to the fire and when morning came we visited the pickets again and as we were soon to move on, perhaps to the battle field, upon which we now are, I rode up to the extreme right and arrived at A company, or company A and had prayers…on the road…Now the skirmishers are firing briskly. Now we are not sure whether we are going to have another Antietam or whether the rebels have already or are going to skedaddle.
As we know and Frank was soon to find out, the rebels had no intention of skedaddling. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was positioned along a strongly fortified ridge west of the city known as Marye’s Heights. The two armies that met at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 – Ambrose E. Burnside’s 120,000-man Army of the Potomac (of whom 114,000 would be engaged) and Lee’s nearly 85,000-man Army of Northern Virginia (of whom 72,500 would be engaged) – represented the largest forces that confronted one another in combat during the Civil War. Frank Hall was a witness to the carnage, and in the next issue you will see the battle through Frank’s eyes.
Lightly Edited by John Krueger