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  • Jake Wynn

"First fight" - George Snowden sees the elephant at the Battle of Fredericksburg

In the early morning hours of December 13, 1862, Lieutenant George Snowden rousted the men of Company I, 142nd Pennsylvania. He had orders to get these men of Venango County awake and ready to march from their encampment near the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg, Virginia. In truth, many of these young soldiers had difficulty sleeping in the frosty morning air - they knew that they were likely to face their first battle on this day.

In his meticulously kept journal, the 21-year-old Snowden recorded these anxious moments as he prepared himself and his men for battle. By daybreak, the 142nd Pennsylvania was awaiting orders to move forward against the Confederate foe. At exactly 9:30 by Snowden's watch, the 142nd Pennsylvania marched forward under the covering of artillery fire. The ranks took casualties at nearly every step and watched to their left as neighboring Pennsylvania units suffered heavy casualties.

The 142nd Pennsylvania was part of an assault against a Confederate position atop Prospect Hill, several miles south of Fredericksburg. To get to the Confederate position, Snowden and his comrades had to cross an open plain, a set of railroad tracks, and then ascend a steep slope. Despite this challenge, thousands of Pennsylvanians successfully reached and captured the Confederate position. For a brief moment, it looked like the Pennsylvanians may have won the day in the morning of December 13, 1862.

However, a furious Confederate counterattack and failure to support the Union advance doomed the assault to failure.

Thanks for Lieutenant Snowden's diary, we have a blow-by-blow account of the assault from the perspective of the 142nd Pennsylvania. Snowden's carefully chosen words reveal what it was like for a young officer to participate in combat for the first time on one of America's most infamous and bloody battlefields.

Pennsylvanians fighting on the southern part of the Fredericksburg battlefield on December 13, 1862. These units were adjacent to the 142nd Pennsylvania during the fight. The painting illustrates the ground over which the 142nd PA fought.(Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia)

The Battle of Fredericksburg

13 December 1862, Saturday

… the musket firing began at the edge of the woods. It sounds to me like the noise of chopping wood. Soon we moved forward under a murderous and destructive cross-fire of shells and rifle and cannon-balls, crossing deep ditches fringed with briers, and dragging ourselves along a muddy road and through deep mud-holes, passing an old log barn. The shells screamed around, over, among us, and the musket and rifle balls whistled in every direction near.

The regiment in our front just this time fought well and from their cheering we supposed were driving the rebels. We crossed the last ditch, many dodging. Here Capt. [John T.] Boyts of Co. C was wounded and not far from where he fell, the Colonel lost his horse. Our line was formed and we hugged the ground again.

Dead and wounded men were lying on all sides. The firing became more terrific. We were ordered to fire. It became lively and from the top of the hill our men had a fair aim at the “grey-backs,” a company of whom were being taken off prisoners on the right. An aid of Col. [Albert L.] Magilton rode up and directed us to cease firing… It was exciting.

When the line was formed Col. McCalmont rode in front of our line cheering us, exposing himself to the deadly fire. How brave he was! Major Bradley was badly wounded in the leg. Sergeant [Cyrus C.] Culver helped him off the field. Soldiers from the regiments who had reached the railroad came running through causing us to break.

At the command of the Col. we rallied the men, I took off my cap and waved to our fellows and in a minute the line was reformed and we held the position until ordered to fall back. The rebels cheered and increasing the fire, advanced and kept up the fire on us, our batteries and soldiers…Along in the evening the division returned to the place we left in the morning…[1]

In a moving and understated conclusion to this description, Snowden wrote simply: “First fight. How thankful I ought to be that I have come out safely.”

Snowden was right to be thankful. In less than an hour of combat, the 142nd Pennsylvania suffered 250 casualties.[2] The regiment went on to serve in numerous engagements, including at Gettysburg in July 1863. The 142nd Pennsylvania remained active until May 1865.

George Snowden was later promoted to captain of Company I and remained with the 142nd Pennsylvania until he was honorably discharged in 1864 when he returned home to Frankin, Pennsylvania. Snowden continued involvement with the local militia and later became a commander in the Pennsylvania National Guard. He passed away in Philadelphia in 1932 at the age of 91.




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