- Guest Contributor
“I hope we shall whip them yet” – The 132nd Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg
“This city feels dark & blue today. The Cabinet seems tumbling to pieces & our armies do nothing, & despair is seizing hold of a great many people. The battle at Fredericksburg was a great disaster & a terrible loss of life to no purpose. If God is not with us in this fight, we are in trouble…We must have victories soon.”[i]
Writing to his brother-in-law and Northeastern Pennsylvania industrialist Joseph H. Scranton, Judge David Davis could not help but let the despondency hovering over the nation’s capital seep through the pages. The Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the most lopsided Union defeats of the Civil War and public support of Abraham Lincoln’s prosecution of the conflict had already been waning in the months leading up to the fight.
Failure to capture Richmond during General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and subsequent disasters at Second Bull Run and in the Shenandoah Valley soured much of the northern citizenry on the prospect of success. Even a tactical victory at the Battle of Antietam did not do much to help the issue as many saw the battle as a draw and just as many abhorred the president’s resulting Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln’s growing frustration with McClellan’s inability, or lack of want, to use the full force of the Army of the Potomac to bring decisive victory boiled over and in November the leader of the Union’s principal army in the east was removed from command and replaced by General Ambrose E. Burnside. This change of command came much to the chagrin of McClellan’s supporters. “McClellan has again fallen victim to Abolition intrigue and malice; the President has again shown that his pledges are unreliable – that he is a vane blown about by every breath of air – and the temper of the people is once more to be tried by an experiment which, if it should fail, will probably end the war without restoring the Union.”[ii]
Now needing a victory to help quell the negative turn of public opinion against his administration and the war effort, Lincoln prodded the new commander of the Army of the Potomac to get moving. Burnside devised a plan to cross the army over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia and make his own push south on to Richmond. Marching with the army was the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry, a unit composed largely of troops from Northeastern Pennsylvania. The unit had received their baptism by fire at Antietam where they experienced hard fighting for the very first time at the famous Bloody Lane. Now attached to the Army II Corps, Third Division and commanded by Colonel Vincent M. Wilcox, the 132nd prepared for the move on Fredericksburg at nearby Falmouth.
On sick leave back home in Scranton as the regiment had joined the campaign, Adjutant Frederick L. Hitchcock heard about the mass movement of the army and knew that it was time to get back in the game. “I was no means well, and the doctor was loath to let me go…but a grand forward movement of the army was reported a in progress and I felt that I must be at my post.” Upon arrival at Falmouth Hitchcock learned that “a big fight had taken place about lying the pontoon bridge over the river, and the Union forces had beaten the rebels back, laid the bridge and had crossed over and occupied the city.”[iii] The pontoon bridges that had been so important to the design of the campaign had been drastically late and this tardiness gave Lee the time he needed to mass his forces on the opposite side of Fredericksburg and wait for the Union attack.
Hitchcock had a rough go of trying to reunite with his regiment. Finally arriving in Fredericksburg on the morning of December 13, the adjutant was tasked with finding the 132nd amongst the chaos that was the streets of the Rappahannock River town. Confederate batteries sitting atop the stronghold of Marye’s Heights west of town had been exchanging fire with Union artillery on the opposite side of the river as well as targeting the troops occupying and making their way through Fredericksburg. “The air was filled with screeching, bursting shells, and a deafening pandemonium was in progress. It was not a very inviting place to enter under these circumstances, but it was as safe for me as for my regiment, and my duty was to them.”[iv]
While on the hunt for the 132nd, Hitchcock ran into Brigadier General Nathan Kimball of the Third Division’s 1st Brigade to which Hitchcock believed his unit was attached. Delighted to finally be seemingly on the path home, he was disappointed to find the regiment had been transferred to a different brigade. “You cannot possibly find it now, and it is a waste of time to try. I can give you plenty of work to-day. Stay with me and serve as an aide on my staff,” remarked the general. As good of an offer as this may have been, Hitchcock was determined to press on. “I felt that I must be with the regiment if it were possible to find it, and so declined what would have been a distinguishing service.”[v]
Shortly thereafter, with little hope left of the success of his mission, Hitchcock was reunited with the 132nd. “Just in time, adjutant, just in time,” remarked his comrades. The situation for the unit at this point was not a desirable one with Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Albright in command of the unit with the absence of Colonel Wilcox who was on sick leave and Major Joseph Shreve had made his way back to camp during the artillery battle the day before. Albright himself was in not in the greatest condition to lead men in the field thanks to a cold that had stripped the commander of his voice. On top of his other duties, Hitchcock was now responsible to be the voice of the 132nd.
While under the shelter of the homes in town, Hitchcock couldn’t help but note the destruction and looting that had been ravaging the town since the beginning of the Union occupation. Residents of the town had fled in haste and left much behind for the troops to rifle through. “I was told that in some houses the boys found and ate meals that had been prepared and left in their flight…Flour was plentiful, and the night after the battle there were army flapjacks galore.” Food was the number one commodity for the hungry troops. Two members of the 132nd went so far as to steal the breakfast of their own General Oliver Otis Howard. “The trick was a neat one.” As one soldier distracted the cook, another (both soldiers remained unnamed in Hitchcock’s retelling of the story) dumped the entire meal, hot and all, into his haversack and disappeared. “These rascals said it was the best dish of ham and eggs they ever ate.”[vi]
The destruction of the town, according to Hitchcock, was the result of the Union soldier’s attitude that the looting and damage was warranted due to the south bringing on the war. “It is safe to say that there was little left of valuable bric-a-brac to greet the fugitive people on their return…This was not due to pure vandalism, although war creates the latter, but to the feeling of hatred for the miserable rebels who had brought on the war and were the cause of our being there.”[vii] Historian John Hennessy noted that “The Confederates who cautiously crept back into town found devastation unlike anything they had ever seen, from a cause unprecedented in America.”[viii]
The bombardment continued and the 132nd had taken position in front of Fredericksburg’s courthouse. The steeple of the courthouse held the flags of Union signal-corps which made it a very dangerous spot to be in. Hitchcock marveled at the bravery of the signal-corps officers that had braved the flurry of artillery to continue their job. He was especially happy to hear that the audacious soldier was fellow Scrantonian and good friend, Lieutenant Frederick Fuller.
The attack of Marye’s Heights began at approximately 10 am. It was a formidable position with rebel batteries commanding the heights themselves as well as earthworks filled with Confederate troops. At the bottom of the heights was a stone wall that protected “a massed double line of Confederate infantry. To enter either street leading out to those heights was to face the concentrated fire of that mass of artillery and the deadly work of those three lines of infantry. Yet that was just what we had before us.”[ix]
The Third Division of Major General William H. French was tasked with leading the assault. The open ground that needed to be covered in order to approach the heights was already strewn with the dead bodies of the units that previously attacked the position. As the line of battle moved forward, Hitchcock turned around to make sure that everyone was in position only to find that only one company had advanced. Responsibility fell on Hitchcock to go back and rally the rest of the troops. This would require him to turn around and cover a distance of about 400 yards of open ground. Hitchcock didn’t like his prospects.
“I can truthfully say that in that moment I gave my life up. I do not expect ever again to face death more certainly than I thought I did then. It did not seem possible that I could go through that fire again and return alive…It may be possible to see the humorous side at this distance, but it was verily a life and death matter then. One may ask how such danger can be faced. The answer is, there are many things more to be feared than death. Cowardice and failure of duty with me were some of them.”[x]
After successfully putting the 132nd into position, Hitchcock found himself lying prone amongst his comrades in the open field in front of the heights, “a fearful slaughter pen.” While the experience at Antietam’s Bloody Lane had opened the eyes of the regiment to the horrors of war, the intensity of the fighting at Marye’s Heights took on a life of its own. “The atmosphere seemed surcharged with the most startling and frightful things. Death, wounds, and appalling destruction everywhere.”
It was not just the amount of fire the regiment was under nor the mounting casualties that made the situation at Marye’s Heights particularly fearful, but also the exposure to these things that left the feeling of certain death. “We were now exposed to the fire of their three lines of infantry, having no shelter whatever. It was like standing upon a raised platform to be shot down by those sheltered behind it…to be sent close up to those lines to maintain a firing-line without any intrenchments or other shelter…was simply to invite wholesale slaughter.”
“Our men were being swept away as by a terrific whirlwind. The ground was soft and spongy from the recent rains, and our faces and clothes were bespattered with mud from bullets and fragments of shells striking the ground about us, whilst men were every moment being hit by the storm of projectiles that filled the air.”[xi]
The regiment began to take heavy losses and Hitchcock himself was wounded while recovering the regimental flag from a fallen color-bearer, all of whom would be killed throughout the course of the battle. John Kistler of Company F had lost an arm thanks to a Confederate cannon ball. Determined to stay and fight, Kistler commented to Lt. Col. Albright after the bloody repulse of Union forces before the famous stone wall, “Colonel, I hope we shall whip them yet.”[xii]
Unfortunately for the men of the 132nd and the rest of the Army of the Potomac, the horrible carnage that they had experienced and survived was to no avail, and the Battle of Fredericksburg would be one of the costliest and, to many, inconsequential disasters that the Union suffered during the war. The 132nd performed bravely, however, and their efforts did not go unnoticed. General Howard, likely unaware that it was members of this unit who stole his breakfast, issued an order stating that “Not only no fault should be found with this regiment, but it should receive unqualified commendation.”[xiii] The battle would cost the already worn down 132nd a total of 150 casualties. When reflecting upon the Union attack of Marye’s Heights in 1896, Union veteran Alfred Darte compared the charges at Fredericksburg with another well-known military action. “The famous charge of the Union forces at Fredericksburg resembled Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg in its stupidity, only it was six times more so, because our men went up six times and Pickett only went up once.”[xiv]
Northeastern Pennsylvania papers were not shy in their questioning of what the massacre had produced. The Pittston Gazette reported that “The plains of Fredericksburg have been baptised with the blood of our neighbors and friends, and we have sorry and mourning on every side.”[xv] Tunkhannock’s North Branch Democrat commented that “The feeling throughout the country against all to whom blame attaches for the useless slaughter of brave men at Fredericksburg is intense. Almost every county in this State lost some of its best sons in that fearful bloody massacre, and a feeling of vengeance, we fear, is cherished against the authors of the revolting tragedy.”[xvi] Keeping his wife up to date on the unfolding events in Virginia, Martin Burch of another Pennsylvania regiment noted that “One would have thought it impossible for a single man to escape through the shower of shell, grape, and ball in which we were caught.”[xvii]
The questions surrounding the purpose of the slaughter at Fredericksburg’s would continue to plague those searching for hope going into the spring campaign season. The victories that Judge Davis so desperately looked for would not begin to come for months, and it would take the repulse of another Confederate invasion of the north for the ebb and flow of military matters to finally shift in favor of the Union.
By EJ Murphy - He is a middle and high school social studies teacher in Scranton, Pennsylvania and tour guide for the Waverly Community House’s Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour.
[i] Letter from David Davis to Joseph H. Scranton, December 19, 1862. Accessed via The Lackawanna Valley Digital Archives.
[ii] “The Deed is Done.” The North Branch Democrat, November 19, 1862.
[iii] Hitchcock, Frederick L. War From the Inside. Time-Life Books, Inc., 1985.
[viii] Hennessy, John J. “The Looting and Bombardment of Fredericksburg: ‘Vile Spirits’ or War Transformed?” The Fredericksburg Campaign, Gary Gallagher, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
[ix] Hitchcock, War From the Inside.
[xii] “Report of Lieut. Col. Charles Albright, One hundred and thirty-second Pennsylvania Infantry.” 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.
[xiii] Bates, Samuel P. “One Hundred and Thirty-Second Regiment.” Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65. Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.
[xiv] “Preserved the Union.” Wilkes-Barre Record, August 22, 1896.
[xv] “Letters From the Battle-Field.” The Pittston Gazette, December 25, 1862.
[xvi] “The Fredericksburg Massacre.” The North Branch Democrat, March 4, 1863.
[xvii] “Letter from Fredericksburg.” The Pittston Gazette, December 25, 1862.