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  • Codie Eash

“Like snow coming down on warm ground” – What a future Pennsylvania commander saw at Fredericksburg

Amid the Civil War’s most famous campaign in the summer of 1863, one of the preeminent military figures in Pennsylvania was New York native Darius N. Couch, a disaffected United States major general who had recently commanded the Second Corps in the Army of the Potomac.

Prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, Couch was transferred to the newly created Department of the Susquehanna, which he would lead until December 1864. As head of that unit, Couch was responsible for defense of the Commonwealth in all parts east of Johnstown, served as chief guardian of the state capital at Harrisburg, and responded to threats during the Gettysburg Campaign in June and July 1863 and the Burning of Chambersburg in July 1864.

Despite the prestige and importance of his role as the Keystone State’s de facto chief defender, however, perhaps Couch’s most personally unforgettable wartime moment came several months earlier. That distinction likely belonged to his time at Fredericksburg, Virginia, the preceding December, during which time he viewed one of the most lopsided battles in American military history from a prime observation perch.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought almost exactly halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, less than two weeks before Christmas 1862. From December 11 to 15, more than 172,000 soldiers gathered upon a battlefield which neighbored the Rappahannock River, making it the largest engagement of the Civil War (though tens of thousands never fired a shot in anger). The costliest fighting occurred on the 13th, and overall the slugfest resulted in at least 18,000 casualties, two-thirds of which were killed, wounded, or captured Union soldiers.

In an article published a quarter-century afterward as part of Century Magazine’s popular Battles and Leaders series, Couch’s ghastly memories of Fredericksburg remained strong.

Upon a field “enveloped in a heavy fog,” on the morning of December 13, “I received orders to make an assault in front,” he recalled. The directive came from Maj. Gen. Edwin “Bull” Sumner, the Federal army’s Right Grand Division commander and Couch’s immediate superior—a figure who the latter looked up to as “a grand soldier, full of honor and gallantry, and a man of great determination.”[1]

At 11:00 that morning, one hour after “the fog began to lift,” Couch ordered his Second Corps forward. As the various “brigades filed out of town as rapidly as possible by two parallel streets,” they moved “direct to Marye’s Hill, the stronghold of the enemy,” he remembered. “On the outskirts of the town the troops encountered a ditch, or canal, so deep as to be almost impassable except the street bridges, and, one of the latter being partly torn up, the troops had to cross single file on the stringers.”[2]

In Sumner’s words, the corps’—and, by extension, the remainder of the army’s—goal was to seize “the heights in rear of the town,” an eminent five-mile string of hills and ridges defended by approximately 72,500 Confederate soldiers, half of whom, under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, were positioned at Marye's Heights. (The other half, in the corps of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, maintained a presence on the southern end of the line at and around Prospect Hill, which many consider to be the key—but greatly overlooked—ground on the battlefield.)

After Couch’s body of men crossed their “canal,” he mentioned that they encountered “fences,” “gardens,” and a “cluster of houses,” as well as a “fork in the road” that served as a last vestige before 150 yards of open plains between them and the Rebel position. Near a small “brick house a slight rise in the ground afforded protection to men lying down, against the musketry behind the stone-wall, but not against the converging fire of the artillery on the heights,” he noticed.[3]

“A few minutes after noon” Couch’s leading division progressed across the terrain in earnest, and advanced “nearer to the stone-wall than any who had gone before.” As the morning phase of battle on December 13 transitioned into afternoon, it was becoming wholly evident that for the more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers who were tasked with taking Marye’s Heights, the job would be far from easy. The plan to gain the formidable Confederate-held ground was the brainchild of Potomac army commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, a man who Couch described as contemplative but also irritable, and “cheerful” while somehow simultaneously “greatly oppressed.”[4]

Initially, “My headquarters were in a field on the edge of town, overlooking the plain,” General Couch reported. But later, “Without a clear idea of the state of affairs at the front, since the light fog veiled everything,...I climbed to the steeple of the court-house, and from above the haze and smoke got a clear view of the field.” Alongside one of his division commanders, Brig. Gen. Oliver Howard (the former leader of the famous Philadelphia Brigade, comprised of the 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania Infantry regiments), Couch utilized the 10-year-old courthouse as a means by which to observe the slaughter beneath him from his observatory overlooking Princess Anne Street below.[5]

“I remember that the whole plain was covered with men, prostrate and dropping, the live men running here and there, and in front closing upon each other, and the wounded coming back,” Couch lamented. “The commands seemed to be mixed up. I had never before seen fighting like that, nothing approaching it in terrible uproar and destruction.”

“There was no cheering on the part of the men, but a stubborn determination to obey orders and do their duty,” Couch continued. “I don’t think there was much feeling of success. As they charged the artillery fire would break their formation and they would get mixed; then they would close up, go forward, receive the withering infantry fire, and those who were able would run to the houses and fight as best they could; and then the next brigade coming up in succession would do its duty and melt like snow coming down on warm ground.”[6]

“I was in the steeple hardly ten seconds, for I saw at a glance how they were being cut down, and was convinced that we could not be successful,” he concluded. By Howard’s recollection, Couch “exclaimed, ‘Oh, great God! see how our men, our poor fellows, are falling!’” For several more hours, the butcher’s bill grew higher, until finally, after 4:00 that evening, Couch was permitted to call off the assaults, having lost 3,900 Second Corps soldiers who were dead, maimed, or prisoners of war.[7]

“The smoke lay so thick that we could not see the enemy, and I think they could not see us...,” Couch concluded in his solemn reminiscences of the fighting on December 13. “The plain thereabouts was dotted with our fallen” throughout that “bitter cold...night of dreadful suffering. Many died of wounds and exposure, and as fast as men died they stiffened in the wintry air.”[8]

In his own memoir, General Howard elaborated on viewing the morbid sights with “my corps commander,” Couch. The next morning, December 14, “while matters were in suspense, I went up into a church tower with Couch...and had a plain view of all the slope where the severest losses of the preceding day had occurred,” he stated. “We looked up to the suburban street or deep roadway and saw the dead literally strewn with the blue uniforms of our dead.”[9]

In the aftermath of this dour defeat, Couch could not help but say of Burnside, “I never felt so badly for a man in my life,” for it was he whose strategic and tactical plans led to “a perfect slaughter of men.” Better days lay ahead for Couch and his comrades in the Army of the Potomac (including a moment when briefly the following summer, President Abraham Lincoln considered Couch for command of that very army, according to Sec. of the Navy Gideon Welles).[10]

For now, however, they would be forced to lick their wounds on the temporarily body-strewn and frozen plains of Fredericksburg.

A modern view of the courthouse cupola utilized by Couch and Howard during the Battle of Fredericksburg. (Codie Eash, July 2015)

[1] Darius N. Couch, “Sumner’s ‘Right Grand Division,’” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York: The Century Co., 1888), edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, vol. 3, 109, 110.

[2] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 111.

[3] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 110, 111.

[4] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 107, 108, 117.

[5] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 111, 113.

[6] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 113.

[7] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 113, 115. D.N. Couch to J.H. Taylor, “Report of Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, U.S. Army, commanding Second Army Corps,” January ___, 1863, in War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1888) series 1, vol. 21, 224

[8] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 115, 116.

[9] Oliver Otis Howard, Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General United States Army (New York: The Baker and Taylor Company, 1908), vol. 1, 345-346. Later in his memoir, Howard explained that it “was my habit in coming to a new field” to “examine the positions with the view of obtaining the best location in that vicinity for our troops.” When the armies clashed in Pennsylvania at the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, he enlisted the assistance of local store clerk Daniel Skelly, who led the general to the belfry of the Fahnestock Building. “Mounting to the top, I was delighted with the open view,” Howard (by then the Eleventh Corps commander) noted. “With maps and field glasses we examined the battlefield....We were noting the numerous roads emerging from Gettysburg and from our charts”; see Howard, Autobiography, 409, 412.

[10] Couch, “Sumner,” in Battles and Leaders, 115; Gideon Welles, diary entry for June 28, 1863, in Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), vol. 1, 348.

1 comment

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Stephen Dupree
Stephen Dupree
29 de jan. de 2020

This may not even be considered a battle although titled one. It was a shooting gallery for the Confederates, standing firing reloading by other soldiers behind the front line. To add cannons perched on the hill behind those gunners at the wall. I will never understand why this Burnside was in charge especially after Antietam and the bridge named after him there. Yes and to come the Battle of the Crater and his command there.

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