Many people have a “bucket list”. A general bullet-point list of everything they want to do before they die. Some of these points can be pretty poetic like, “Find true love”, or “see my grandchildren graduate college”. Others are generic like “See the Grand Canyon” or “Swim in the English Channel”. One that tends to be on a lot of lists is “See the aurora borealis”. And why not? It’s breathtaking in pictures and videos. I’ve never seen it personally. But there are many people who got to cross that off their bucket lists during a very unusual time. And they didn’t have to drive to Canada or Alaska to see it.
In December of 1862, soldiers wearing both blue and gray uniforms looked up into the Virginia sky to see it ablaze with colors unlike most of them had ever seen. Theories abounded upon why it happened. Some thought it was an omen, whether good or bad, in response to the war and the heavy killing that had taken place during the daylight hours. Some thought it was the end of the world, since they could never fathom that this was a completely natural occurrence in nature. Others, like those Federals who had come from the far northern regions of the country, knew it had nothing to do with religion or the apocalypse.
Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led the green troops of the 20th Maine into battle on December 13th, 1862 at Fredericksburg. Their task was to try, as many other regiments had failed, and take Marye’s Heights from the Confederate army entrenched there. When they managed to only advance eighty yards from the stone wall, the men from the northernmost state of the Union laid down to take cover behind a slight rise on the slope that gave them ample cover from sharpshooters and artillery fire. That night, he remembered the sounds of the battlefield. “you could not locate the source… a wail so far and deep and wide, as if a thousand discords were flowing together in a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear.”
He, along with the other Union soldiers who had fallen injured or were ordered to hold the line through the night, suffered from the cold and damp and anxiety that they would be picked off by those Rebs still posted on the wall. December 14th passed less hectic than the day before, as no order was given to advance or retreat. This left them on the field for one more night.
Under the cover of darkness, the 20th Maine felt free to roam about and make an attempt to bury the fallen dead. While they did so, a miraculous witness to their task appeared in the night sky. Chamberlain accounts, “As we bore them, the forms of our fallen heroes, on fragments of boards born from the fences by shot and shell, to their honored graves, their own loved North lifted her glorious lights, and sent her triumphal procession along the arch that spanned the heavens. An Aurora Borealis, marvelous in beauty. Fiery lances of gold – all pointing and beckoning upward. Befitting scene! Who would die a nobler death, or dream of more glorious burial? Dead for their country’s honor, and lighted to burial by the meteor splendors of their Northern home!”
That, however, was not the general opinion of the south. They took it as “The heavens were hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our victory.” And to them, it was a glorious victory. With the exception of the breakthrough by Meade on the far right Confederate flank along the railroad, the Yankees had only succeeded in taking Fredericksburg, which they shelled unmercifully in the crossing on December 12th. Five Union attacks had been thoroughly repulsed upon Marye’s Heights. To say that they were confident would be an understatement.
A one-line account from Edward Porter Alexander, Confederate artilleryman, testified that “A brilliant aurora illuminated the night and much facilitated the work upon the entrenchments…” Edward had been ordered up with his guns to relieve some of the Washington Battery that had done a fair job of keeping the Union soldiers hunkered down upon the field for those two days.
But soldiers weren’t the only ones to see this show in the sky. Citizens from Charlottesville and Fredericksburg saw it too. In the days to follow the battle, Elizabeth Lyle Saxon wrote that an elderly woman told her, “Oh, child, it is a terrible omen. Such lights never burn, save for kings’ and heroes’ deaths.”
Word filtered back to the Confederate capitol where a Richmond Daily Dispatch writer suggested that the crimson columns of light signified “the blood of those martyrs who had offered their lives as a sacrifice to their native land.”
By Christmas, Fredericksburg was back in the hands of the southerners, but this would not be the last time that the northern lights graced their skies. Apparently, this wasn’t the only instance the aurora appeared during the war. More accounts from soldiers and citizens abounded in that four year stretch, as well as throughout the 19th century. And this century’s generation wasn’t the first to see these light so far south. In “Historical Storms of New England,” published in 1891, Sidney Perley wrote, “May 15, 1719, the more beautiful and brilliant aurora borealis was first observed here as far as any record or tradition of that period inform us, and it is said that in England it was first noticed only three years before this date. In December of the same year the aurora again appeared, and the people became greatly alarmed, not dreading it so much as a means of destruction but as precursor of the fires of the last great day and a sign of coming dangers.”
Why does the aurora even happen?
Paraphrased well by earthsky.org, “When charged particles from the sun strike atoms(gases) in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release a photon: light. This process creates the beautiful aurora, or northern lights.”
The different shades of light are accounted for by the different gases in the atmosphere that respond in this “excitement”. Oxygen gives off the green color of the aurora, for example. Nitrogen causes blue or red colors. The lights are also affected by altitude. The green lights typically appear in areas up to 150 miles (241 km) high, red above 150 miles; blue usually appears at up to 60 miles (96.5 km); and purple and violet above 60 miles.
The explanation for why the aurora borealis and its southern counterpart aurora australius doesn’t make a grand appearance in the countries closer to the equator has to do with the distribution of these charged particles and the magnetic field of the planet. Without getting too technical, the magnetic field is the weakest at the poles (north and south), so the particles float in those general directions. Then, these charged particles react to gases and voila! You have the aurora light show.
So, the reason we can see the aurora so far south, like in Virginia, has to do with the strength or fluctuation of the geomagnetic field that scatters these charged particles. The conditions, astronomically speaking, during December of 1862 must have been perfect for the aurora to occur.
So, sorry to burst the bubble of those who first saw it, but the aurora didn’t have anything to do with the “heavens celebrating”, nor was it an ill omen of the terrible bloodshed to come. That, however, doesn’t negate the fact that it seemed that way to the spectators. Their thoughts and beliefs about the aurora helped to shape their perception of the war and its victories (or defeats). It worked to bolster or to demoralize in its own way.
E.P Alexander’s Account – https://civilwarhome.com/alexanderfredericksburg2.htm