Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 20

Camp-Fires of General Lee


THE withdrawal of the Federal attack on the Confederate right was accompanied by the thunder of Sumner’s assault upon Lee’s left. In obedience to Burnside’s order, this attack was made by a single division, supported by another division. General French led the former, and Hancock supported it.

It was about noon when the Federals debouched from Fredericksburg and made the desperate attempt to seize Marye’s Hill. From the moment they emerged from the town and came into fair range they were exposed to a severe fire, which. rapidly assumed the most murderous character. The Federals were mowed down and gaps opened in their ranks which Longstreet declared could be seen a mile distant. Still the brave men pressed steadily forward with a courage worthy of a better leader, until the discharge of musketry became a literal torrent of flame, as if from the mouth of hell itself. No living creature could stand such a concentrated tempest, and the shattered columns broke and fled, leaving the ground covered with dead and dying to the number of one-half the attacking force. This repulse was one of the bloodiest of the war.

Right behind French came Hancock, who was joined by the fragments of the first line, which still preserved its formation, and with the same dauntless courage as before they swept into the maelstrom of death. For five—ten—fifteen minutes they held their ground with the men melting like snowflakes in the sun, until of the five thousand whom Hancock led into the charge more than two thousand were dead or helpless on the ground. But the carnage was not yet complete, and Howard’s division now rushed into the crater, Sturgis’s and Gettys’s divisions of the Ninth Corps advancing to the help of the survivors of the Second Corps, who could go no farther, and yet would not retire. They succeeded in holding for a time their position, though they were subjected to a fire so destructive that the wonder is they maintained the ground at all.

It is hardly to be supposed that General Burnside had contemplated the bloody sequence to which he was committing himself when first he ordered a division to assail the heights of Fredericksburg, but, having failed in the first assault, and then in the second and third, there grew up in his mind something which those around him saw to be akin to desperation. Riding down from his headquarters, at the Phillips house, about a mile back from the river, to the bank of the Rappahannock, he walked restlessly up and down, and, gazing over to the heights across the river, exclaimed vehemently, “That crest must be carried to-night!” Already, however, everything had been thrown in except Hooker, and he was now ordered over the river.*

But Hooker had not parted with his brains, even though Burnside had done so. He crossed with his three divisions, carefully reconnoitred the ground, and saw that he had been directed to do that which was absolutely impossible: it was only taking his men forward and placing them where they were certain to be slaughtered without the power to do anything against their enemy. Hooker went to Burnside and begged him to withdraw his order, but the commander refused. Couch had already pushed his men forward, and was striving to open a breach large enough to permit the rush of the Federals. Nothing, however, was accomplished, and Humphrey’s division was formed in column of assault and ordered to charge. They dashed forward with unloaded muskets, and succeeded in advancing as far as Hancock’s men had done a short time before, when they nearly reached the stone wall. Four thousand were in the column of assault: in a few minutes seventeen hundred were stretched on the ground, and the rest broke and fled. The slaughter was appalling, and the generalship inconceivable in its stupidity. And yet, bloody as was the repulse, there is reason to believe that another “charge” would have been ordered by the commander had not the gathering darkness compelled a cessation of hostilities.

The night which closed in upon the scene was dreadful beyond conception. The Army of the Potomac had suffered the most terrible repulse in its history. Of the brave soldiers who had marched resolutely forward in obedience to the blundering orders, eleven hundred and eighty were dead, nine thousand and twenty-eight wounded and twenty-one hundred and forty-five were prisoners. They had stormed the impregnable heights of Marye with an unfaltering courage which commanded the admiration of the Confederates themselves; and when at last forced to flee, they left more than six thousand of their number either dead or wounded at the base of the hill. And the blindest private among the wounded and survivors knew that it never ought to have been!

When the different leaders met the commander in the gloom of the evening, they were unanimous in urging that the army should recross the Rappahannock without delay; but Burnside shook his head. He had determined upon another assault on the morrow, and had, indeed, issued orders to that end. There can be no doubt that his brain was overweighted by the enormous load of responsibility, and he was in no condition to command such an army. He announced his intention of leading his old Ninth Corps; fortunately, however, the counsels of his wise and intrepid lieutenants prevailed, and at the last moment he gave over the wild project.

The loss of Lee, including those of the 11th, were five hundred and ninety-five killed, three thousand nine hundred and sixty-one wounded and six hundred and fifty-three prisoners. This was less than one-half the Federal loss, and the moral effect of the achievement on the Army of Northern Virginia amounted almost to inspiration. It was anxious that the fight should be renewed on the morrow, and Lee expected that such would be the case.

But the Army of the Potomac had received a well-nigh fatal blow. The soldiers lay on their arms all the next day—which was Sunday—dispirited beyond expression and expecting an attack from Lee, who, had he known their demoralized condition, could have destroyed or captured them all. Indeed, he had the cannon-balls heated with which to bombard Fredericksburg, where the Federals were huddled together; but the Confederate leader wished to save his ammunition for the expected attack.

For two days the dead and wounded lay stretched on the frozen ground between the lines of the combatants. No more horrible picture of war can be imagined than that of the writhing and dying soldiers vainly begging for the help which could not be given them. Burnside finally asked for a few hours in which to carry off his wounded.

The night of the 15th was marked by a violent tempest of wind and rain; in the unspeakable gloom and utter darkness the Federal army made its way back to the northern shore. On the following morning General Lee discovered what had taken place, though even then he suspected another attack upon him was intended. But the battle of Fredericksburg was over, and its result was a woeful disaster for the Union cause and a corresponding triumph for the Southern Confederacy. A few days were sufficient to show that no further demonstration would be attempted by the Federal army before the following spring. The Confederates established themselves in winter quarters along the Rappahannock, from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, and were as comfortable as possible in their rude huts.

On the last day of the “year of battles” General Lee issued the following:

December 31, 1862.

General Order No. 132.

The general commanding takes this occasion to express to the officers and soldiers of the army his high appreciation of the fortitude, valor and devotion displayed by them, which, under the blessing of almighty God, have added the victory of Fredericksburg to the long list of their triumphs.

An arduous march performed with celerity under many disadvantages exhibited the discipline and spirit of the troops and their eagerness to confront the foe.

The immense army of the enemy completed its preparations for the attack without interruption, and gave battle in its own time and on the ground of its own selection.

It was encountered by less than twenty thousand of this brave army, and its columns, crushed and broken, hurled back at every point with such fearful slaughter that escape from entire destruction became the boast of those who had advanced in full confidence of victory.

That this great result was achieved with a loss small in point of numbers only augments the admiration with which the commanding general regards the prowess of the troops, and increases his gratitude to Him who hath given us the victory.

The war is not yet ended. The enemy is still numerous and strong, and the country demands of the army a renewal of its heroic efforts in its behalf. Nobly has it responded to her call in the past, and she will never appeal in vain to its courage and patriotism.

The signal manifestations of divine mercy that have distinguished the eventful and glorious campaign of the year just closing give assurance of hope that, under the guidance of the same almighty Hand, the coming year will be no less fruitful of events that will ensure the safety, peace and happiness of our beloved country and add new lustre to the already imperishable name of the Army of Northern Virginia.

R. E. LEE, General.


CAMDEN, S.C., January 29, 1880.


Your Columbia correspondent referred to the incident narrated here, tolling the story as ’twas told to him, and inviting corrections. As such a deed should be recorded in the rigid simplicity of actual truth, I take the liberty of sending you for publication an accurate account of a transaction every feature of which is indelibly impressed upon my memory.

Very truly yours,

Richard Kirkland was the son of John Kirkland, an estimable citizen of Kershaw county, a plain, substantial farmer of the olden time. In 1861 he entered as a private Captain J. D. Kennedy’s company (E) of the Second South Carolina volunteers, in which company he was a sergeant in December, 1862.

The day after the sanguinary battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw’s brigade occupied the road at the foot of Marye’s Hill and the ground about Marye’s house, the scene of their desperate defence of the day before. One hundred and fifty yards in front of the road, the stone fating of which constituted the famous stone wall, lay Syke’s division of regulars, United States army, between whom and our troops a murderous skirmish occupied the whole day, fatal to many who heedlessly exposed themselves even for a moment. The ground between the lines was bridged with the wounded, dead and dying Federals, victims of the many desperate and gallant assaults of that column of thirty thousand brave men hurled vainly against that impregnable position. All that day those wounded men rent the air with their groans and their agonizing cries of “Water 1 water!”

In the afternoon the general sat in the north room, up stairs, of Mrs. Stevens’s house, in front of the road, surveying the field, when Kirkland came up. With an expression of indignant remonstrance pervading his person, his manner and the tone of his voice, he said,

“General, I can’t stand this!”

“What is the matter, sergeant?” asked the general.

He replied,

“All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water!”

“The general regarded him for a moment with feelings of profound admiration, and said,

“Kirkland, don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, “I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it!”

After a pause the general said,

Kirkland, I ought not to allow you to run a risk, but the sentiment which actuates you is so noble that I will not refuse your request. Trusting that God may protect you, you may go.”

The sergeant’s eye lighted up with pleasure. He said, “Thank you, sir,” and ran rapidly down stairs. The general heard him pause for a moment, and then return, bounding two steps at a time. He thought the sergeant’s heart had failed him. He was mistaken. The sergeant stopped at the door and said,

“General, can I show a white handkerchief?”

The general slowly shook his head, saying emphatically,

“No, Kirkland, you can’t do that.”

“All right,” he said; “I’ll take the chances,” and ran down with a bright smile on his handsome countenance.

With profound anxiety he was watched as he stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy—Christlike mercy. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever-scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of “Water! water! For God’s sake, water!” More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, “Here, too, is life and suffering!

For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field. He returned to his poet wholly unhurt. Who shall say how sweet his rest that winter’s night beneath the cold stars?

Little remains to be told. Sergeant Kirkland distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg and was promoted lieutenant At Chickamauga he fell on the field of battle in the hour of victory. He was but a youth when called away, and had never formed those ties from which might have resulted a posterity to enjoy his fame and bless his country, but he has bequeathed to the American youth—yea, to the world—example which dignifies our common humanity.


* Swinton.

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