by Patrick McDonald
Saturday, December Thirteen :
The Howl of the Banshee
The night of the twelfth had been one of the most dismal and miserable ever experienced by the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania. The cold was bitter and penetrating. The troops were massed so close that there was not room enough for the men to lie down on the ground. The cramped, cold conditions had made sleeping an impossibility.
Groups of officers occupied the parlors of some of the more fashionable residences. They spent the night singing patriotic songs accompanied by Southern pianos. Fires still lit up portions of the town.
When daylight came a few small fires were lit and some of the men were savoring their black coffee, appreciating how hard it was to come by. Many chewed their hardtack without a warm drink to comfort them. It was now thirty-six hours since the movement against Fredericksburg had begun. This had given General Lee ample time to get his two large corps together.
At nine o'clock, the sounds coming from the south proclaimed that the battle had commenced. General Franklin's Grand Division had become engaged with Major John Pelham's horse artillery. Pelham's guns fired quickly and with deadly effect at the small Union division led by General George Meade.
General Burnside had decided on a plan that would pierce the Confederate line near Captain Hamilton's house on Prospect Hill. General Meade's division was the spear point of the phalanx that would include the entire Left Grand Division.
Colonel Heenan, listening to the dull reports of the far off guns, gave the order to fall in. His Pennsylvania regiment stood in line until noon on one of the streets near the river and parallel with the river. Shaking his head, he looked at the deplorable shape of his men.
The regiment had arrived at Falmouth, Virginia, on the seventeenth of November with 650 men. Now, because of the exposure to the harsh Virginia climate, only 247 men were present for duty. 400 men had been placed in the brigade hospital suffering from colds, pneumonia, or dysentery; three men had died.
Confederate shells screamed overhead and frequently struck among the houses of the city, scattering the bricks and stones. The noise of the artillery, flying shells, and crumbling buildings was appalling. The ranks, however, remained silent and in perfect order.
General Couch ordered General William French to form his division and make ready for an assault on the Confederate Heights. His three brigades would attack with intervals of two hundred yards between them. The supporting division was assigned to Hancock. General Oliver Howard's Division would form on the right of the town to guard against a possible counterattack against the flanks of the advancing divisions. At eleven-thirty, Couch received the orders from Sumner to advance.
The sloping plain that awaited Couch's men was 750 yards wide. Looming ahead of the men was Marye's Height. At the base of this formidable barrier was the stone wall and sunken road. Though not very high, Marye's Height was terraced and lined with rifle pits and gun emplacements. The tiered line gave the men standing behind the shoulder height stone wall an extremely strong defense.
General French reported that he was ready and began placing skirmishers out in front of his lead brigade. This brigade then filed out of the town as rapidly as possible.
The advancing blue clad column reached a point nearly two hundred yards west of the town when they encountered the canal that Burnside had denied was there. It was fifteen feet wide and nearly six feet deep, which made it nearly impassable except at the street bridges.
The men were slowed when they were forced to cross in either columns of two or in single file, since the bridges had been damaged during the cannonade. There was a low ridge one hundred and fifty yards beyond the canal. Once across the canal, the attacking forces deployed under its bank bordering the plain over which they were to charge.
This plain was nearly four hundred yards deep and was obstructed here and there by houses and fences. Nearly one hundred and fifty yards in front of this position was a red brick house and a slight rise in the ground. This slight ridge afforded a small amount of protection against musket fire but would do little to stop the high arching cannon shot and shell.
Just beyond this house and ridge were Longstreet's men, hidden in two ranks in the sunken road behind the stone wall. General Couch's headquarters were on the field on the west edge of the town, overlooking the plain. This position would soon afford little vision in the upcoming battle.
General French's first brigade, having crossed the broken bridges, was now deployed in a line of battle. The skirmishers closed their ranks and then pushed forward. In front of them was the gray plain resting on the stone wall in front of the somewhat wooded heights.
The skirmishers cringed as they watched the white puffs of smoke erupting from artillery located on the hills toward which they were advancing. Their heads and shoulders were bent forward as they lunged into the canister and spherical case shot. They soon came to a series of post and board fences. Their silhouetted forms against the fence made excellent targets for the Rebel riflemen hidden behind the stone wall.
The canister and bullet riddled line reached a point nearly one hundred and fifty yards from the stone wall. Every gun on the nearby heights was aimed at the first brigade's crumbling ranks.
The blue clad troops had been moving at the double quick and had not fired a shot in their advance to the heights. They pushed forward for another twenty-five yards, where they came to the last small ridge below the heights. They stopped and fired, and with that desperate gasp they laid down under the short ridge to reload and reorganize.
The Confederate sharpshooters, who were only one hundred yards from French's stalled advance, began looking for targets. The Union brigade had begun the attack in a tight line of battle. The men were now flat on their stomachs in pockets along the low lying ridge. The spaces between the pockets were filled with the dead and dying men who had tried desperately to maintain their line.
The low ridge offered little protection. To rise and retreat would be suicide. The fate of the first brigade now rested on reinforcements which were not far behind.
General French's second brigade, whose closed ranks had witnessed the destruction of the lead brigade, now realized it was their turn to march into Satan's deadly breath. They too came forward at the double quick. With a yell they surged up the low ridge where they were met by the killing scythe. In an instant the murderous harvest was over, sweeping most of this brigade back to the canal.
French's third brigade watched with horror as the second brigade fell apart. The men realized that the generals had made a serious error in putting the Second Corps on this field. Couch's men realized their duty and were inclined to meet their maker, knowing full well that they could not be successful. They reached the ridge and pushed forward into the musket fire. The gaping shattered regiments closed their ranks as they attempted to keep pushing forward.
A concerted lunge forward was met with a deafening roar of disapproval from the guns behind the stone wall. The devastated Union regiments recoiled in the limited protection below the slight ridge. The storm rose to greater fury. The struggle was hopeless. The attacking line wavered, recoiled, then broke. The shattered mass fell back amid the shouts and cheers of the men hidden behind the stone wall.
French's shattered division was scattered over the entire length of the field and town. Some 1,200 survivors till clung to the low ridge in front of the stone wall.
General Meagher, wearing his green and gold Zouave uniform, formed the brigade and addressed each regiment separately:
"Men of the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania!" the brigade commander yelled. "You are new to the fight! But you have been assigned to a most glorious brigade! I can assure you that the eyes of the entire army will be upon you! You are Irish by blood, and you are Americans either by birth or by expatriation! It is time to forge the two by blood and fire! Keep your eyes to the green Standard carried by the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts. It will be the center of the brigade! Faugh-A-Ballagh! Faugh-A-Ballagh! Faugh-A-Ballagh!"
"Good job, General!" General Hancock yelled as he came riding up on his tall black horse. "You certainly have got the most spirited brigade in the Second Corps."
"Good morning, General Hancock," Meagher shouted, surprised that he had not noticed his division commander earlier.
"General, I just wanted to make sure that you understand that your men will follow Colonel Zook's Brigade." Hancock's mood changed to a more serious tone. "Keep your intervals at two hundred yards. And you'll need to get rid of your horse. Mounted officers make nice targets," Hancock smiled.
"Sir, I beg to report that my knee is ulcerated and I will be unable to lead my troops today," Meagher reported.
"I have not heard you complain about your knee before today."
"I did not want to burden you with more problems," Meagher replied, apologetically.
"Find someone who will lead your brigade!" Hancock snapped as he glared accusingly at the Irish general. Spurring his horse, he rode back to the west part of town to report to General Couch that his division was ready to move.
"Colonel Nugent, lead the brigade to the front!" Meagher yelled at the commander of the Sixty-ninth New York. Meagher of the Sword would not lead his fabled brigade in its most important battle.
Maybe the rumors from Antietam are true, Lieutenant Colonel Mulholland thought to himself. Remembering the spirited talk that Meagher had delivered to Colonel Heenan and himself soon after the establishment of the winter campsite, he looked with scorn at the Irish commander as the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania filed past him on their way to the front. Maybe he did fall off his horse at Antietam as a result of too much whiskey.
The men of the Irish Brigade had witnessed the destruction of French's entire division. Marye's Height was now crowned with fire and smoke. A constant swishing and grating roar of cannon fire was bearing into the stalled division. Confederate reinforcements were hurriedly sent to the stone wall to take part in the blood bath in their front. This increased their ranks from two to four, which doubled their musket fire.
The wounded men from French's division filed back into town in great numbers. A German soldier sitting in a wheelbarrow with his legs dangling over the side was wheeled past the Pennsylvania regiment. His foot had been shot off and the blood was flowing from the stump. The man was quietly smoking his pipe. The barrow suddenly jolted to one side. "Ach, make right!" the sitting man called out to the comrade who was pushing. The bizarre spectacle was somewhat amusing and at the same time pointedly ominous.
The brigade snaked slowly to the west edge of the town as General Meagher galloped along the entire length waving his hat in salute to his brigade. At the edge of town Meagher spurred his horse so as to cause it to rear. Tipping his hat to an old lady who was watching the action along Hanover Street, he noticed a boxwood garden across from the old lady's house. Maneuvering his horse to the garden he leaned from his mount and picked a sprig of green boxwood and placed it in his cap. Every officer and man followed his example, and soon great bunches of the fragrant shrub adorned the caps of everyone in the brigade. Wreaths were made and hung upon the National battle flags that were carried by the various color guards of the brigade. For many, this would be the last time they would see their brigade commander.
The troops then wheeled onto the road leading toward the frowning heights and the march of death began. Nearly a mile away arose the position that the troops were expected to carry. Not yet clear of the city, they felt the heated anger of Longstreet's artillery.
The fire of the Rebel batteries was concentrated to crush the heads of the column as it debauched upon the plain. Solid shot fired with light charges ricocheted on the frozen ground and went tearing through the ranks. Shot traversed the entire length of the streets and bounded over the river to be buried in the opposite bluff.
Shells began dropping with devastating effect. The first one that burst in the ranks of the regiment severely wounded Colonel Heenan, decapitated Sergeant John Marley of Company G and killed three others. The deadly explosion had been nothing more than a sharp report followed quickly by the puff of smoke, and four men lay dead.
With the exception of Sergeant Marley, the dead men appeared calm, their eyes mild and lifelike, no sign of suffering or indication of pain. The men of the regiment were struck by the instantaneousness of the deaths. Sergeant Marley had not fallen, but had dropped to his knees. His musket was clasped in both hands as his form rested upon the ground.
Advancing up the street in columns of four, the Irish Brigade soon became entangled at the torn bridge that spanned the canal. The Sixty-ninth New York crossed and immediately began to form in a line of battle to the right. It was compelled to stand its ground until the rest of the brigade was able to cross the bridge. This amounted to nearly a half an hour, during which time the forming regiments suffered many casualties.
The bridge on which the regiment was to cross had been shot away. Only the stringers remained. Some of the men plunged into the ice-cold water, others stepped quickly over the few remaining planks of the broken bridge. The shells screamed as they fell into the crowded ranks near the bridge.
Upon crossing the canal, a sharp rise in the ground hid the regiment from the enemy and gave the men a chance to catch their breath and to dress the ranks and prepare the column for attack.
The brigade formed with the Sixty-ninth New York on the right, the Eighty-eighth New York next in line. The Twenty-eighth Massachusetts with the green battle flag came next, followed by the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania, and finally the Sixty-third New York on the extreme left.
Hancock's lead brigade, Zook's, formed its line of battle as if they were on the parade ground. They rapidly moved forward crossing over the blue clad bodies of French's shattered division. Case shot and canister thinned their ranks, forming large gaps in the advancing line. Shot bounded through the blue column taking limbs and appendages in their wake. The white and amber puffs of shell rained shrapnel into the determined and still advancing force.
Zook's determination gave new life to the fallen men of French's division who picked themselves up and filled the gaps and joined in the push toward the deadly wall. The murderous fire from the Heights and the stone wall began to take their toll as the men dropped like autumn leaves. The advance moved to within one hundred yards of the wall, close enough now that the cannon on the Confederate right could not depress their guns low enough to bring any more enfilading fire on the dwindling force.
Hancock, realizing that Zook's force could not carry the wall without reinforcements, had already sent the Irish Brigade forward. Each man in this glorious brigade wore a sprig of boxwood in his cap and followed the proud waving emerald flag of the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts. A new wave of enthusiasm gripped the Second Corps as the Irish Brigade shouldered forward.
The brigade moved quickly up the slight ridge and the battlefield unfolded before them. The officers gave their orders in quiet subdued tones. There was no disorder, no charging cavalry or hurrying artillery. There were no groans, shrieks, or screams from the wounded. The regiments of the Irish Brigade maneuvered forward without flaw.
In this trying moment, the guides were ordered out and the alignment made as perfect as on dress parade. The absence of confusion and excitement only added to the dreadful intensity of the horror.
Directly to the center of the regiment and nearly twenty yards to the front was Colonel Heenan, who was suffering from the wound that he had received as the regiment had departed the town. To his left, nearly in front of Company H was Major Bardwell, who was third in command of the regiment. To Colonel Heenan's right was Lieutenant Colonel Mulholland.
Company H held the left of the regiment as it marched up the slight embankment to face the horrors of Marye's Height. Corporal Slavin held the far left of the company with Daniel McCarty on his right. Charles and William were next in line, Sergeant Farley was in the center of the company, with Lieutenant Quinlan directly behind him. Captain Smith was on the right flank. To the right, directly in the center of the regiment, Tyrrell with the state colors, marched alongside the national colors, both surrounded by the eleven men who made up the color guard.
Just before moving from this spot Lieutenant Seneca Willauer of Company A was badly torn by a shell which stripped the flesh from his thigh and left the bone bare for five inches. Approaching Colonel Heenan holding the bleeding limb for inspection, he said, "Colonel, do you think that I should go on with my company or go to the hospital?" Heenan sent him to the hospital.
Then the advance was sounded. Colonel Heenan grimaced in pain as he called out the order, "Right shoulder!...shift arms!...battalion forward!...guide center march!"
The long lines of bayonets glittered in the bright sunlight. No friendly fog hid the Union brigade from the Confederate artillery emplaced along the slopes of Marye's Hill. The brigade advanced up the slope to come within full view of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
The noonday sun glittered and shone brightly on the frozen ground as the Confederate batteries fired upon the advancing lines. The line of Longstreet's defenders could be traced by the fringe of blue smoke that quickly appeared along the base of the hills. The brigade marched into an arc of fire. Fire in front, on the right, and on the left.
Shells raked the advancing line directly and with wide arching trajectories. The gaps made were quickly closed. The brigade colors often kissed the ground, but were quickly snatched from dead hands and held aloft by others who soon would be either wounded or killed. The regimental commanders marched out far in advance of their commands, and they too fell rapidly as company officers ran to take their places.
Men fell in rapid succession. Lieutenant Garrett Nowlen, who had just taken Willaur's place in command of Company C fell with a ball through the thigh. Major Bardwell fell, badly wounded. A ball whistled through Lieutenant Bob McGuire's lungs. Lieutenant Christian Foltz fell dead with a ball through his head.
The men of Company H were now struggling over many bodies near the first post and board fence.
"Watch where yore goin'!" Corporal Slavin yelled at Daniel, who had just tripped over a blue clad body. This had caused him to lunge into the corporal sending Slavin sprawling against the fence.
"Wait till I git up to the top of thet hill," Daniel exploded. "I'll knock ye down with me musket!"
"Bad luck to ye. I'll poke me bayonet down yore throat!"
"And I'll knock ye both down if'n ye don't quit thet infernal squablin'!" Sergeant Farley yelled as he climbed over the fence. Quickly sliding over the top plank, Farley stood awkwardly and wheeled around as if to gaze upon Lieutenant Quinlan. A great stream of blood poured from a large hole in his face. The blood splattered over the young officer, and the sergeant fell dead at his lieutenant's feet. The men watched in horror as the man who had been their leader lay dead on the frozen ground. He stuck awkwardly in between the lower planks of the fence.
"Keep it moving!" Captain Smith yelled as the company seemed to stall.
The line pressed steadily forward. The men were dropping in twos and threes. Captain John O'Neill of Company K was shot in the lungs, the ball passing completely through his body.
There were no cheers or wild hurrahs as the brigade pushed toward the heights. The line withered as every man knew the desperation of the undertaking, but no one faltered or turned back. Still in good order, the brigade pushed forward to within one hundred and fifty yards of the stone wall.
The hills rained fire and the men advanced with heads bowed. Still through the deadly shower the ever-thinning lines pressed on. The plain over which they had passed was thickly covered with the dead and wounded men of the Second Corps. The gaps in the lines had become so large and so numerous, that continued efforts had to be made to close them. The command "Guide center!" was frequently shouted.
The brigade came to the last line of fences that separated the two opposing forces. The men threw themselves at the barrier, trying to wrench it from the ground. The four ranks of Rebels behind the stone wall realized that this new push could destroy their ranks. They desperately poured on the fire, aiming at the barrier that had slowed their foes.
The men of the Irish Brigade tried in vain to tear down the fence, only to be shot away in the inferno that now consumed the post and board fence. Daniel fell across the broken top plank of the fence as a hail of minie' balls slammed into his body. Corporal Slavin, trying to pull the lifeless body of Daniel from the fence, was shot in the head. His body collapsed on Daniel's torn form, causing both bodies to fall to the ground. Charles looked with horror at the awkward contortion that a moment earlier had been his brother. William grabbed Charles by the collar of his coat and yanked him across the fence. Both men landed hard on the frozen ground.
'Never retreat from the Charge of Lances!' echoed within William's brain. "Keep movin'!" he yelled as he pulled Charles up from the frozen ground. He was immediately doubled over by a blow to his lower belly. William collapsed hard on his face. I'm dead, he thought to himself as he felt for the wound in his gut.
"William!" Charles screamed in disbelief.
William's entire body felt numb. He could not feel any blood, but he knew that he had been hit. He nervously looked down at his lower torso. To his surprise there was no wound. He reached to where he had felt the impact. His fingers felt the cold blade of Scarecrow's knife. He glanced at the wicked weapon and noticed that the ivory handle had been shattered. The bullet that had knocked him down had hit the knife.
"Give me yore hand!" William yelled at Charles. "I think I'm okay." Charles helped him to his feet and both men hobbled forward in an attempt to catch up with the regiment.
The brigade rushed past the red brick house. The regimental flags waved within twenty-five paces of the fatal stone wall. Then with a deafening roar of murderous fire, the brigade realized the full absurdity of the attempt to accomplish an utter impossibility. They had not fired a shot, yet forty percent of the brigade had fallen.
To the front, line after line of Confederate breastworks came into full view. Rifles and cannon were tiered along the terraced heights. To carry the assault further would be madness.
The Irish Brigade had reached a point within thirty yards of the stone wall. The field and staff officers of the Pennsylvania regiment were all wounded. Color Sergeant Tyrrell, one leg gaping and bleeding with a mini-ball wound, was down on his one good knee still waving the flag on the crest of the slight ridge above the fence. Five balls struck him in succession; a dozen pierced the colors; another broke the flagstaff; and the colors and the color sergeant fell together.
The orders to retire passed down the line and the brigade began falling back. The entire color guard was down. The flag, still in the grasp of Tyrrell was laying on the fire-swept crest. It was soon missed, and Lieutenant Quinlan ran back to save it. A hundred guns fired at him as he quickly seized the broken flagstaff. Throwing himself to the ground as the balls zinged and thudded around him, he clasped the flag tightly to his breast and rolled unscathed back to the point where the command had halted.
"Tyrrell's dead!" Quinlan yelled.
It was a long, dreadful afternoon that awaited the thousands of wounded who lay scattered over the sad and ghastly plain. The only place of cover was the red brick house near the slight ridge. Hundreds of the wounded dragged themselves to the house so that they might escape the fire.
The great heaps of dead bore testimony to the fierceness of the assault. Just in front of the stone wall lay a line of men of the Irish Brigade, with the green boxwood still in their caps. It was not yet one o'clock when the column retired. The wounded had nearly five hours to wait for darkness.
The Confederate sharpshooters soon got a position from which they could enfilade the brick house. When anyone moved among the mass of bleeding men, rifle balls began to whistle about. Few expected to live until night, when under the cover of dark, they could make their way back to the safety of their own lines. The stricken men huddled together behind the brick house as the bullets whizzed overhead.
Hancock, riding freely across the field, watched the gallant brigade struggling through the fence. He sent orders for his third brigade to advance. The new force surged forward in perfect formation and quickly reached the stalled line at the fence. They filed through torn gaps in the fence line. The intense fire delivered from the stone wall was directed on the shattered fence, and once again the assault was stymied. Hancock's division was spent. They could neither go forward, nor could they retreat. To rise on the plain meant instant death.
The red brick house was too far away from where Charles and William were lying. To move toward it would invite certain death. They decided to inch their way back to the slight ridge near the fence.
"Git to those bodies," William motioned with his head toward a stack of bodies lying grotesquely at the base of the fence.
"Thet's Daniel!" Charles grimaced as he recognized his brother lying beneath the body of Corporal Slavin.
"We don't have any choice," William said as he pulled Charles' coat, and the two wormed their way through the pile of bodies. They crept through the smashed planks near the grisly heap. They could hear many dull thumps as Confederate minie' balls battered the lifeless blue clad carcasses that had now become fortifications for the many soldiers that lay quietly behind the rubble of the torn fence. Bullets and canister fire slammed into the fence just overhead.
Couch was now deeply concerned about a possible counterattack against his unsupported men near the fence. The Ninth Corps had finally gotten into the action of the Second Corps left, diverting some of the fire that had been wholly directed at the men near the fence.
The Second Corps commander could not see much of the battle with the tremendous amount of smoke that now covered the field. He decided to get back into town and climb the steeple of the courthouse to get a better view of the situation.
"Oh, great God! Our men are falling so!" Couch moaned as he looked out of the cupola of the courthouse. The whole plain was covered with men, prostrate and dropping. There were men running here and there while the wounded tried to hobble off the field. The mixed commands could not possibly succeed. To send any more troops onto the field would be nothing less than murder.
At two o'clock, General Hooker came upon the field. Hooker replaced Couch as the ranking officer on the Federal right. General Burnside had just ordered him to send in the Fifth Corps, which had been placed in reserve behind the Second corps.
Couch, hearing that the Centre Grand Division commander was on the field, decided to meet with him.
After a short ride, Couch found Hooker. "I can't carry that hill by a frontal assault!" Couch said as he tried to catch his breath. "The only chance we have is to try to hit them on the far right."
"I just talked with Hancock...he has the same opinion!" Hooker answered, showing his frustration. "Things are in such a state here...I must find Burnside...I'll tell him that we can't carry this line." Hooker turned his mount in the direction of the canalboat bridge. He looked over his shoulder at Couch. "Send Humphreys' Division in, if you find an opening!" He then spurred his mount to a gallop, leaving the field to find General Burnside.
Hancock and French had both sent messages to Couch saying that their situation was in doubt. They reported that unless reinforcements were sent forward their men would not be able to hold. The nearest supporting forces were two brigades from the Ninth Corps, who were reluctantly sent into the fray on the Second Corps left.
The appearance of these troops drew the fire of the batteries on the hills. Hundreds of deadly projectiles went screaming over the field of death and could be seen bursting in the midst of the advancing Ninth Corps. The somber wave of fire sent the two new brigades running back to where they had come from.
General Couch, still worried that his men near the stone wall were not receiving proper support, decided to send General Howard's Division forward to the right of French and Hancock. A movement to the northwest could possibly gain a flanking position on the sunken road behind the stone wall.
Couch had sent French's Division to Marye's Hill supported by Hancock's Division. These two divisions had been chewed up in front of the stone wall. Howard's division had been sent to the right flank, hoping that it would be able to support the stalled divisions and help hold the line until Hooker returned.
The Ninth Corps brigades stalled in their advance on the Second Corps left, having suffered terrible casualties. Couch, remembering the deadly maneuver that had cost his artillery section at Churubusco, quickly sent orders for his batteries to move closer to the fight. He hoped that by moving them forward they would attract the attention of the hidden enemy which would hopefully relieve the pressure on the infantry at the front.
Finding his chief of artillery, Couch ordered him to move a battery to the red brick house near the low ridge where Hancock's and French's men were located. The artillery chief was shocked by the order, knowing full well that the battery would become an easy target in such close range.
"General, a battery can't live there!" the artillery chief explained.
"Then it must die there!" Couch replied.
A battery was quickly wheeled out of the streets of the town toward the red brick house where they unlimbered with expediency and rapidly began their deadly fire into the faces of the Confederates behind the stone wall.
The battery quickly became the target of many of the defenders behind the wall. The ploy worked. The battery lost many of its number, but many of the men trapped along the slight ridge were able to escape.
The commanding general paced the parlor office nervously. He had received reports from both Franklin and Hooker. The news on the left was much more encouraging than the news coming from the right. General Meade's small division had broken the Confederate line near Prospect Hill.
Burnside thought of his many conversations with General Sumner as to whether Franklin would prosecute the attack once a breach had been made. He called for his orderly.
"You sent for me, Sir?" the young orderly answered.
"Send this order to Major General Franklin," Burnside penned out an order to the commander of the Left Grand Division. "Tell him to throw his entire force in immediately... we've got to take the pressure off Couch!"
The young orderly, realizing the urgency of the order raced from the parlor office to the telegraph station located in a wagon just outside the Phillips house. In his impatience he crashed into General Joseph Hooker who was running up the stairs of the front porch. The surprised orderly excused himself and ran toward the telegraph wagon.
"Hooker! This is a surprise," Burnside announced anxiously. "Do you have news from Couch?"
"General Burnside," Hooker replied out of breath. "We must call this thing off...we're getting shot to hell over there."
"I've just sent orders to Franklin...Meade's Division has broken through Jackson's line near Prospect Hill...I've ordered Franklin to send his whole force into the breach."
"It's too late, General!" Hooker replied angrily. "Couch has spent his entire corps."
"When Franklin sends his entire force into that breach I am sure Lee will have to weaken the line on Marye's Height," Burnside replied, hoping to spark confidence in his Centre Grand Division commander.
"General!" Hooker was beginning to lose his temper. "There is no army left on the right flank! The entire Second Corps has been routed!"
"We still must try, General Hooker. You still have the Fifth Corps in reserve...send them in!"
"And when shall I break it off? When will it be enough?"
"Use your judgment, General! Franklin will take the pressure off...you will see."
Shortly after Hooker had left the field, the fighting near the stone wall seemed to decrease. General Caldwell, perceiving the lull as a retreat, sent word to Hancock that the enemy was falling back. Hancock relayed the information to Couch, who perceived the lull as being only the shifting of troops.
Couch decided that if Caldwell was right, then a quick strike at the stone wall would be imperative. Sending for General Humphreys of the Fifth Corps, he informed him of Hancock's report and instructed him that it was time for him to go in.
Meanwhile, Hooker returned from his futile meeting with Burnside. The commanding general had not been on the field, nor had he seen the battle from his sheltered headquarters two miles behind the lines. Hooker, in a spirit of revolt spurred on by thinking of the useless slaughter that he had been ordered to continue, met with Couch on the arrangement of Humphrey's Division.
"That damn fool wants us to make another attack at that damn wall!" Hooker snarled.
"General Hooker," Couch explained, "I believe it would be useless to send Humphreys over the same ground as Hancock and French."
"Damn it, Couch, the whole damn plan is useless, but that fool wants another assault...then by gawd, he'll have it!"
"General, if we send Humphreys to the right of the wall we'll be able to divert the pressure on my men in front of the wall," Couch pleaded.
Hooker, not listening to Couch, motioned for his aide. "Tell Humphreys to find Hancock. Hancock will direct his troops onto the field."
The Grand Division commander looked squarely at Couch. "To hell with trying to flank anybody. We'll hit the center...then we'll get the hell outa there!"
Couch, having been on the field since the beginning of the battle believed that an attack against the Confederate left flank would prove successful in relieving the immediate pressure on the men who were holding the low ridge in front of the stone wall. He realized that Hooker was now revolting against Burnside in the only way that he knew how. Sadly, this way would prove just as disastrous as the earlier attempts against the wall. Knowing that his words were falling on deaf ears, he decided to join his embattled men in the field.
Evening came at last. The sun went down behind the terrible heights and the wounded anxiously watched the shadows lengthening across the field of blood, creeping slowly toward the torn houses of the city. The twilight deepened until it was difficult to discern objects.
The men near the fence and red brick house had thought that the battle had ended. They were surprised when Humphreys' Division loomed up through the gathering darkness. Nobly the Fifth Corps division advanced with empty muskets. They were to carry the position with the bayonet. The dark mass passed the brick house and arrived at the point that the Irish Brigade had reached. They had come in the gloaming unseen and surged against the base of Marye's Heights.
The Second Corps men, seeing the advancing troops, called for them to go back. Some even tried to physically prevent the assault by pulling and tugging at the advancing soldiers. The somewhat disordered line continued their rapid advance meeting the enemy's fire valiantly.
Humphreys' men closed on the stone wall. A sheet of fire ripped through the column dropping the front line in a grotesque windrow. The fire was so tremendous that the advance was completely broken up. After a minute of trying to reform, Humphreys' men slowly retired from the field.
General Hooker, watching the blood bath from the edge of town, turned to his aides, "I think I've lost as many men as my orders required." Franklin didn't press his advantage, he thought to himself. I knew he wouldn't. If he would have pressed, who knows, maybe Burnside would have been right.
The repulse of Humphreys Division closed the Battle of Fredericksburg .
This page last updated 02/16/02
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