Letters From the War: Chapter Five
Our story continues as 1862 comes to a close. It was a horrific year of warfare, almost continuous during a three month period, and yet it was simply a warm-up for what was to come.
By the end of 1862 the war had transformed in the minds of the individual soldier, from a battle for principles to a battle of survival. Lofty philosophical discussions were shelved. In their place were discussions of weariness. Everyone, save the makers of weapons, was tired of the war and yet it was just hitting its stride.
Those in the trenches saw very little hope as 1863 approached.
DECEMBER 18, 1862
My Dearest Julia,
If I never again visit the town of Fredericksburg it will be too soon. The waters of the Rappahannock flow red from our blood, and the bodies of my friends litter the ground at the base of a hill called Marye’s Heights.
General Burnside’s plans seemed sound. We were to race through the city through an open door to Richmond before General Lee could rally his troops to stop us, but delay after delay allowed Lee to fortify in Fredericksburg. They were ready for us and it was murder. We laid pontoon bridges to cross the river upon, and they shot at us. We marched through the city and they shot at us. And then, dear God, we made charge after charge up that God-forsaken hill, them being entrenched on top and waiting for us, and their bullets tore through us like child’s play. We stumbled over the wounded and dead, racing for the bottom of that hill, foolishly trying to outrun the bullets, only to be told to get back in formation for another assault, and another, and another.
Julia, I now fear I will never again see your face.
Burnside will surely be relieved of duty. Who President Lincoln turns to for leadership is anyone’s guess at this point, but I’m sure Bobby Lee does not give a damn who he faces, so great is his confidence after the last battle. What we need, my darling, is a general who isn’t afraid of fighting. We get kicked in the face and then race back home to lick our wounds instead of following Bobby Lee and his men into hell before they can catch their breath. Everyone knows we have more men, so let’s fight them until we are the only ones with men left.
But that seems to be an unpopular opinion. I am just a soldier. What do I know about the grand plan? I go where they tell me to go and fight when called upon.
I suspect we will be inactive the remainder of the winter. The snows make marching a miserable activity, and the cold threatens to do what the Rebel bullets failed to do to the remainder of our army. We will march back to Washington and there we will spend a Christmas worth forgetting.
I send my love to you. Know I wish, with all my might, that I could be with you for Christmas, but Lincoln has other plans for your husband.
December 18, 1862
I wish to never see killing again, my love.
What just happened at Fredericksburg cannot be called a battle.
It was a slaughter!
I saw bravery from the Union soldiers, the type of which I have never seen before. How they mustered the will to continually charge up the hill, into the endless onslaught of our bullets, is beyond me to comprehend. When it was all over the bodies dressed in blue were piled on top of each other at the base of that hill, like cords of wood, some with ghastly looks of pain and horror, some with peaceful expressions, possibly seeing, in those last moments, their loved ones back home.
I will see their faces for the rest of my life, grizzled veterans, young boys probably too young to fight, all sons and husbands and fathers, now simply memories strewn across the blood-soaked ground of a city not worth a tinker’s damn. Twelve-thousand dead, maybe more, an equal number wounded, I could hear the moaning of pain even as we marched off after the battle, for what seemed miles the sounds of misery followed us, even visiting me in my sleep at night, my companions for the remainder of my life.
There will be no Christmas with you, Hannah, and for that I grieve. No furloughs will be granted, so sure is General Lee that the Union will follow us even in winter. And so we will set up camp outside of Richmond, dream of our loved ones, and pray that the New Year brings with it an end to this madness.
JANUARY 20, 1863
My Dearest Julia,
It is bitterly cold here in the nation’s capitol. I’m not sure I will ever be warm again, for I suspect part of the cold stems from the lost hope we all are trying to endure.
Is there a plan? I do not see it. All I see, in my sleep, are the ghostly apparitions of my fallen friends. Upon awakening, all I see are the blank stares of men who have lost faith. President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, and the newspapers are speaking in superlatives about it, but from my position, on this frozen camp ground, I see no difference in the war because of that proclamation.
As I sit here, by the campfire, rats race across the parade ground, some with four legs, others with two, all looking for a scrap to eat, feeding off of the great war machine. The streets of D.C. are filled daily with businessmen, weapons manufacturers, suppliers of machine parts, inventors, all looking to get rich from this war, all willing to pay a congressman for favors, and it seems obscene to me, Julia, that men get rich from war, line their pockets with shining coins while young men bleed out on frozen ground.
But these thoughts help no one, my love.
General Hooker is now in command of our army, and it is apparent we are going nowhere until a new spring campaign can be begun in more favorable weather conditions. That is perfectly fine with me. I am content to just sit here and watch others profit while I mend my uniform and daydream of you.
And so it continues!
There will be no more fighting until the spring. It is impossible to move cannons and supply wagons over the back roads, so the two armies have chosen to repair and rest. There will be time enough for killing when the cherry blossoms arrive and the wind doesn’t stab like a knife.
A friend of mine, Johnny Maxwell, I told you about him, a farmer from Atlanta, he took off for home. Said goodnight to me and the next morning he was gone, no hint of his intentions, no farewell note, just slipped out in the dead of night heading south, I’m sure.
Lincoln stirred up a hornets’ nest with that proclamation of his. The coloreds in these parts are acting pretty uppity the past few days, talking about freedom, sassin’ a few white men, a couple were shot, a couple hanged, getting’ the point across for those who gave witness to it all. No good comes from any of it, Lincoln had to know that, no sense to it at all.
The folks around these parts are good to us, feeding us when possible, mending our clothes, giving comfort within their means, and I’m reminded daily how happy I am that we are camped here, surrounded by folks who believe as we do. The Yankees will not find a warm welcoming if they decide to venture down here in the spring and that is for sure what they plan on doing.
So worry not for me, your Jedidiah. I am reasonably safe and sound here, and although I miss you terribly, I am surrounded by friends and well-wishers, and that small comfort makes a big difference.
The zenith of the war, for the South, is about to happen in the spring of 1863. The turning point in their fortunes will happen in the summer of 1863, in a sleepy little town in Pennsylvania . . . the highs and the lows of fate. Hope based on ideals is like that, so dependent on the vagaries of a thousand different factors, all out of our control.
The ultimate price will be paid by tens of thousands of “Americans” in 1863.
But what was the product purchased?
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)