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  • Jake Wynn

"Supposed to be my death wound" - A Pennsylvania soldier's story of survival at Marye's Heights

Few moments in Civil War history capture the horror and chaos of battle quite like the scenes on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, when thousands of US Army soldiers were thrown time and time again against Confederate forces in a fruitless effort to break an impenetrable line.

Pennsylvania soldiers attacking Marye's Heights on December 13, 1862 (LOC)

These heart-rending scenes of hopeless slaughter have appeared countless times in prose and even made their way to the big screen.

But what was it like to be there with the Army of the Potomac as it assaulted across the plains of Fredericksburg? This question must have been asked to Frederick Hitchcock numerous times after the Civil War. In Hitchcock's Civil War memoir, War from the Inside, the veteran of the 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry addresses his experiences at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In it, he eloquently described "the moment I received what was supposed to be my death wound."

Hitchcock in 1863

This most vivid part of Hitchcock's remembrance comes when he described what it was like to be shot down amid the fighting at the foot of Marye's Heights. In the following excerpt, we are picking up the story as the 132nd Pennsylvania engaged in a firefight with Confederate forces lodged behind a stone wall on Marye's Heights. A fellow officer approached with some of the regimental colors, whose previous carriers had all been shot down:

He had one flag in his hand as I approached him, and he was in the act of handing it to me when a bullet crashed through his arm and wrist, splattering my face with his warm blood. I seized the staff as it fell from his shattered arm. The next instant a bullet cut the staff away just below my hand. An instant later I was struck on the head by the fragment of a shell and fell unconscious with the colors in my hand.

How long I remained unconscious I do not know, possibly twenty minutes or more. What were my sensations when hit? I felt a terrific blow, but without pain, and the thought flashed through my mind, 'This is the end,' and then everything was black. I do not remember falling. It takes time to write this, but events moved then with startling rapidity...

When I revived I was alone with the dead and wounded. The line of battle had been swept away. The field about me was literally covered with the blue uniforms of our dead and wounded. The firing had very perceptibly decreased. I had worn into the battle my overcoat, with my sword buckled on the outside. I had been hit on the left side of my head, and that side of my body was covered with blood down to my feet, which was still flowing.

My first thought was to my condition, whether mortally wounded or not. I was perceptibly weakened from loss of blood, but lying there I could not tell how much strength I had left. I did not dare move, for that would make me a target for the guns that covered that terrible wall, the muzzles of which I could plainly see. Many of them were still spitting out their fire with a venom that made my position exceedingly uncomfortable.

What should I do? What could I do?

To remain there was either to bleed to death or be taken prisoner and sent to Libby, which I felt would mean for me a sure lingering death. To make a move to get off the field would draw the fire of those guns, which would surely finish me. These were the alternatives.

I carefully stretched my legs to test my strength, and I made up my mind I had enough left to carry me off the field, and I resolved to take my chances in the effort. I determined that I would zigzag my course to the rear so as not to give them a line shot at me. So getting myself together I made a supreme effort and sprang up and off in jumps, first to the right, then to the left. As I expected, they opened on me, and the bullets flew thick and fast about me.

The first turn I got a bullet through my right leg just above the ankle. It felt like the stinging cut of a whip and rather accelerated my speed. About 50 yards back was an old slab fence to my right, and I plunged headlong behind that, hoping to find shelter from those bullets. I feel directly behind several other wounded men, two of whom rolled over dead from bullets that came through the slabs and which were probably aimed at me. This flushed me again, and by the same zigzag tactics I succeeded in getting back...where to my great joy, I found Colonel Albright with what remained of the regiment.

Colonel Albright grasped me in his arms as I came over, with the exclamation, 'We thought you were killed.' Sergeant-Major Clapp told me that he had rolled me over and satisfied himself that I was dead before they went back...

Colonel Albright stanched the flowing of blood from my wounded in the head by making a strong compress of my large bandana kerchief. The other wound in my leg did not give me much trouble then. In that condition, accompanied by another wounded man, I made my way back into the city. We found it one vast hospital.[1]

This photograph shows the open ground that the 132nd Pennsylvania fought over on December 13, 1862. (NPS)

Hitchcock survived both of his wounds and suffered no ill effects from either. The shell fragment that struck his head hit at a glancing angle, causing much blood loss but little serious damage. Hitchcock was among 150 members of the 132nd Pennsylvania who were killed or wounded at Marye's Heights, 44 percent of the regiment's total strength on December 13, 1862. [2]


[2] Francis Augustin O'Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, page 275.



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