“Well, go then quick,” or Frank and Zollicoffer Take a Midnight Ride
As this fifth installment of Frank Hall’s account of his Civil War experiences opens, the Battle of Fredericksburg has ended and Frank is tempting fate. We rejoin our heroic chaplain on the morning of December 14, 1862.
At daybreak, we all rose, took coffee, port, and hard tack. And when it began to be quite light, right on our left, the cannons opened. However, there was no opening of action. Soon, an order came to move out further and stand posted behind an old barn and cabins – the identical barn where Pete and I gathered the cornhusks. When we had all, by small parties, arrived there in safety, Colonel Seaver called the men to attention for prayers. It was Sabbath morning. I read, standing in the midst of the regiment as they lay upon the ground, the 51st Psalm and sang one verse of the Rock of Ages, the first verse, and then prayed. All were very attentive. The Colonel joined in the singing.
We had not been there long before we were moved to where another regiment [was] on the right, lying under the curl of a hill. The Colonel and I had a very interesting conversation there. He seems to be very thoughtful and soon I joined Doctor Murphy for a few moments, when I received a message from the Colonel saying if I had nothing to do, I would oblige him very much by riding over to the hospital for the tobacco that Doctor Crandall had promised them the night before, through me.
I at once rode off and reached the hospital in a little while. Saw my rebel victim spoken of before. He was yet living, laying down in the lower corridor and by his side another, a comrade of the same regiment. The latter shot in the abdomen, both mortally wounded. I took their names and addresses and names of wives and children so that after the war perhaps, I might give some comfort through a letter to the poor wives and children. Then I find another who also was dying with whom I did the same and in the room were two rebel officers, a Colonel and a Captain. The Captain was a very fine looking young man and a cousin of ours, a VanValkenburgh, his father having removed to Georgia from Albany. I was polite, but dodged more than civility and passed on.
Then I saw a dying Lieutenant of our army and next a soldier bending over the body of his dying brother, just in the last gasps. [I] had met the men bringing him on a stretcher. I conversed with him and then helped him to draw a ring off of the dying man’s hand. Says he, “I am not strong enough, will you not help me.” I took soap and removed it in that way, one of the nurses telling me to do so and handing me a piece.
It was hard to go but my place was with my regiment. The Doctor before going gave me a little Latin book as a memento of the hospital. I rode back to the lines and Colonel Seaver was in advance of the column on the top of the crest and I was just about riding out on Zollicoffer when the men stopped me, saying as they lay on the ground, “Chaplain, don’t go out there on horseback.”
So I descended and joined the Colonel on foot when just at that moment a sharpshooter shot at us, the ball striking somewhere about our heels. The Colonel took the tobacco and thanked me and as I nearly reached the line, another ball singed right by my ear. The men told me it went right between the Colonel and I.
Shortly after I received own dear wify’s letter warning me on every page to keep out of danger and it made me feel bad to think that perhaps I had done more than I should have done. Still it will not do for me to show the least timidity with the men. In the first place, I don’t feel it you know, and in the next place it would injure my influence. The men themselves…don’t want me to go into action with them, but all know that their chaplain is ready to go any where duty calls…The probability is that now we are going into winter quarters and we will have little or nothing to do that has any danger in it. I slept with Doctor Murphy that night…The men were yet in the lines.
Monday, December 15th
There was some firing but very little. There was a mysterious quiet throughout the whole lines. Some picket firing but not much. Old Mr. Buse has just brought in the mail into Doctor Murphy’s tent, where I am now writing today, December 24th, so I may have a letter. No there is no letter for me. I have not received one for several days. Well, all day during December 14th and for several days as the men had letters but no mailbag to send them in, they had given them to me, some desiring me to keep them till after the conflict and write “all well” on them if they were alive. This afforded me a good opportunity to see many men alone and speak to each apart from the rest. I find a great many thoughtful ones.
Well, during the day, Hastings, our cook made his appearance, much to the gratification of all. It now began to look like rain and as I had only one rubber blanket and three other ones, I concluded to get a pass from the Colonel as the work for the day was now done it being then about seven o’clock. I concluded to go over the river down to White Oak Church and get my three other blankets that I had down there and the second India Rubber one, my poncho etc. Doctor Murphy wanting me to go get some things for him also.
So, I started over the plain, just like I had an hour or two before to catch the mail boy with the mailbag. I rode past the same dead horse again and Zollicoffer again showing some disinclination to pass him, but soon we reached the pontoons together and the sentinel, on examining my pass, allowed me to go across at once and I started off across the country, regardless of roads, until I came to a ditch too big to leap and so I had to traverse the fields for some distance, at last coming to a fence and road. I asked a man some directions when to my surprise he said to me “Why Chaplain, is that you?’ It was Hastings with his wagon.
I was soon off again and after a good trot of some four miles, reached White Oak Church…The boys unpacked the officers’ baggage for me and got me all I wanted and being quite glad to see me too and then I set off to return by a different road and reached the bridge about 12 o’clock at night.
I can carry on old Zollicoffer all I want and more too. The fellows think my saddlebags quite an institution. It was nearly a week before I had any thing more than my valise and saddle box having been left behind.
On reaching the bridge or on a crossing near to it, what was my surprise to find infantry, cavalry, and artillery all coming over the three bridges. The wounded from the hospital had been all removed over the river during the afternoon, but it did not make us suspect anything. Also, the ammunitions had been coming across but we thought it only an expedient. Colonel Seaver told me afterwards that he had suspected something for several days.
Well, I now stood and looked at the scene…Some told me the 16th N.Y. had already come over and some again said the troops were recrossing at the upper bridges opposite Fredericksburg. Once I thought I would ride up two miles to the city and see, but then it seemed best not, but I should lose the 16th. I stood looking to the continuous streaming of troops for nearly an hour.
Then I finally determined to get across regardless of what the guards told me to the contrary, so I rode down to the bridge, when one of them seemed comparatively clear, and asked a guard if I could go across. He replied in the negative and directed me to an officer at a distance. Then I told him I was Chaplain of the 16th N.Y. and had gone down to the church some four hours before and now wanted to rejoin my regiment. He hesitates for a moment and then said, moving his hand quick, “Well, go then quick.”
So, over I went and was soon on the plain beyond. But then came the rub: all was dark and desolate, and on asking a few men standing round a campfire, they confirmed what I had learned on the other side – that it was a skedaddle. But, oh, so orderly and so well conducted; it was grand. But they told me that all had crossed, they thought, and they believed that even the pickets were in and advised me not to go forward, but I thought to myself what was to be done. No one could tell me anything about the 16th; some said one thing and some said another.
So, I finally concluded that it was my duty to make the adventure, anyway, so I stepped off old Zollicoffer cantering and slowly over the plain. It was nearly a mile over to where the regiment had been left, and I watched around. But at last I reached the ravine and looked down upon the smoldering campfires, but saw no men. Then I moved on and finally saw the legs of a man by a fire, but I went slowly down so as to be first sure whether it was friend or foe. He could not see me anyway as it was so intensely dark, so I went on a little way further and then caught sight of the tent of General Franklin.
Then I thought all was right again, so I rode down to the tent and an officer was standing in front…I asked him where the 16th was and he said he did not know. He asked me who I was. I told him I was Chaplain of the 16th, when he said, “Chaplain, you had better get back as soon as possible over the river.”
He said that he was momentarily waiting orders to move. I told him I thought I ought to be with my regiment and would try and see whether they were in the ravine to the right, so I asked him if I could tell Colonel Seaver what he had told me, when he said that probably Colonel Seaver knew it already. I rode slowly over to the ravine to the right, across the road and creek and to my great satisfaction found the boys there. I had someone hold my horse and crawled up with one of the boys to guide me where Colonel Seaver lay. He was fast asleep under blankets. The soldier left immediately and I bent down and whispered to Colonel Seaver what I had seen and heard. He said it was only what he had been expecting.
This installment, and the installment before that, and the installment before that, are all taken from Frank’s epic letter of 27 sheets finally finished on Christmas eve, 1862 and mailed to “dear wify” Fannie. How many of you have ever written a 27-page letter?
Lightly edited by John Krueger