Reading about the Civil War can be a bittersweet experience. It’s fascinating and engaging, but can be heavy at times. I mean, reading about the monumental losses, the tragedy, the death tolls, the hardships, it can get pretty depressing pretty quickly. One thing that I enjoy about Shelby Foote’s Civil War Narrative series is that he throws just enough anecdotes and amusing tales to ground the reader. To remind them that the war wasn’t all about casualty numbers. There were real people, full of wit and personality, running these armies and fighting these battles. It’s the small stories, the ones that come from the soldiers, that I live for. It adds a new perspective to the battles and life of the common soldier in the army.
Stories from Edward Porter Alexander, for instance, never fail to captivate my imagination. At the battle of Fredericksburg, Alexander had just taken on his first role as artillery commander. He was the one who had reportedly said “A chicken could not live on that field” when speaking of Maryes Heights and the dominating nature of the artillery placements, which Alexander had a hand in. However, when reading his memoirs in “Fighting for the Confederacy”, Alexander denies ever saying such a thing. “As to the front of Maryes Hill, General Longstreet says that I reported to him that a chicken could not find room to scratch where I could not rake the ground. I don’t recall it, but very possibly I said something of the sort.”
Most of Alexander’s personal command was kept in reserves high above Maryes Heights, behind the left flank. The guns that would hammer the charging Federals belonged to the infamous Washington Artillery out of New Orleans, commanded by Colonel Walton. They comprised of three small companies manning only nine guns, according to Alexander. “His battalion and my 26 were called Longstreet’s reserve artillery.”
Alexander was privileged to watch all the action on December 11th and on as the battle commenced. When the Union artillery on Stafford Heights opened upon Barksdale’s brigade sharpshooting within Fredericksburg, Alexander wrote, “And I could not but laugh out heartily, at times, to catch in the roar of the Federal guns the faint drowned pop of a musket which told that Barksdale’s men were still in their rifle pits and still defiant.” It never occurred to me to put myself upon Maryes Heights and imagine the sounds that Alexander must have been hearing. It may be a bit morbid to say, but I can see where he’s coming from. The huge boom of the cannon followed by the weak and meager crack of the rifles does sound humorous. Or, at the least, an interesting contrast that I didn’t think of before.
The Union army under Burnside crossed the Rappahannock on their pontoon bridges that evening, occupying the town as Barksdale and his men retired to the heights. Burnside took his time and assembled his men on December 12th, but finally started the show the following morning. Alexander, from his vantage point, could also see the actions unfolding on the right Confederate flank where Jackson and A.P. Hill were holding the line. Which means, he could see Pelham’s daring feat. He had personally known John Pelham from West Point, but he didn’t call him John or “Gallant Pelham” as the others did. Alexander knew him as “Sallie”. “He was a very young looking, handsome, and attractive fellow, slender, blue eyes, light hair, smooth, red and white complexion, and with such a modest and refined expression that his classmates and friends never spoke of him but as ‘Sallie’ and there never was a Sallie whom a man could love more!” He, like many others that day, applauded Pelham’s daring move to pit one lone gun against the whole left flank of the Union army. It, of course, paid off.
Then came his part to play in the battle. The Federals began their rush for the high ground, which neither Lee nor Alexander had been expecting. They were so well fortified that it was unthinkable that Burnside would even attempt it. “Evidently more than half of Burnside’s whole army was preparing to assault us, and the assault too was not going to be where I had imagined it would be – up along the river bank – but it was going to come right out from the town, and strike where we were strongest. If we couldn’t whip it we couldn’t whip anything, and had better give up the war at once and go back to our homes.” That was the same sort of confidence that bolstered all of the generals later that day, saying they could hold out that line against the entire Yankee nation if they dared to come up.
Alexander was still in reserves, watching wave after wave of bluecoats coming up the hill. “They had hardly done so when one of the 30 pound Parrott guns, right behind me, roared out, and I saw the bloodiest shot I ever saw in my life. The gun exactly enfiladed the cut and it sent its shell right into the hearts of the blue mass of men where it exploded. I think It could not have failed to kill or wound as many as 20 men.”
In his memoir, Alexander compares the successfulness of the armies in the face of their adversities. In hindsight, he analyzes the lay of the field at a couple of other battles and how the Confederate soldiers met those challenges. “The difficulties do not begin to compare with what our men went through at either Malvern Hill or Gettysburg, where we went over the guns at the first go, charging those times as far and against five times as many men and guns. I don’t wish to seem to brag about our men unduly, but I think that any professional military critic will say that that ravine ought to have enabled the Federals to, at least, have crossed bayonets with us.”
It does make me think. The ravine Alexander’s talking about is a stretch of rising ground in the middle of the field leading up to Maryes Heights where Chamberlain’s 20th Maine and many other soldiers took cover before or after a failed charge of the stone wall on Maryes Heights. Alexander makes the case that they had a strategic advantage in using this ravine to help them actually reach the wall. Still, not one Union soldier came within forty yards of the Georgians and South Carolinians who mowed them down in deadly volleys all day long. Alexander uses the charges at Malvern Hill and Gettysburg as a comparison, both successful to the Confederacy in some ways because they at least reached their objective (if not achieved it). It’s a topic worth exploring by historians and “military critics” as Alexander suggests.
But then, around 3pm, Alexander’s time came. Colonel Walton sent him a message that the Washington Artillery needed to be relieved. “So I at once selected 9 guns – Woolfolk’s 4, Donnell Smith 2, and 3 of Moody’s – and started with them for Maryes’.”
He experiences one close call that had me cringing as I read it.
“As we came up to the Plank Road, I asked Joe Haskell to ride up to Rhett’s Battery, which was firing at the time right over the route we had to take, and order it to stop until we passed; as its shells sometimes exploded prematurely. As he spurred ahead we both saw a Parrott shell from the enemy coming which had struck about 100 yards off and ricocheted and was now whirling end over end like a stick. I was just in the line of it as we could both see. Haskell reined up his horses expecting to see me cut down. I merely realized that I had no time to dodge, and wondered where it would hit. It passed under the horse’s belly somehow – without touching and struck about fifteen feet beyond her.”
That. Was. Close.
This switch of artillery confused both Lee and the Federals on the field. Lee was ready to chew out Colonel Walton for pulling out, not knowing that Alexander was moving to take his place, while the Union commanders thought that the Confederacy was retreating some of their firepower. This might have been their chance to make some headway in the battle, but Alexander disappointed them. “So now we gave them our choicest varieties, canister and shrapnel, just as fast as we could put it in. It was plainly a disagreeable surprise to them [Humphrey’s bayonet charge], but they faced it very well and came along fairly until our infantry at the foot of the hill opened.”
When Humphrey’s attack failed, Getty was sent in. Alexander gave them a similar treatment and wrote of a particularly horrific experience at one of the guns. “I was in a pit near the right with one of Jordan’s guns, and we had almost ceased fire for lack of a good target, when this disturbance began, and I ordered them to fire canister at the gun flashes. The gunner, who was a Corporal Logwood from Bedford County, Virginia, aimed and stepped back and ordered fire. But I was watching his aiming, and I thought he had not given quite enough elevation to his gun, so I stopped the man about to pull the lanyard and told Logwood to give the screw another turn or two down. He stepped to the breech to obey, but as he reached out his hand there was a thud, and the poor fellow fell with a bullet through and through the stomach. We had to remove him from under the wheels, and then I aimed the gun myself, and fired until after it got dark when gradually, the whole field became quiet.”
Only, it wouldn’t be completely quiet. The chorus of dying and wounded men from upon the field that Alexander had so thoroughly “raked” would haunt the memories of every living soul on that battlefield. “That was an awful night upon the wounded; especially on the Federal wounded left between the lines, where their friends could give them no relief or assistance.” And still, in the midst of if all, the war would not stop for the suffering. “So during the night we filled up again with ammunition, and we worked some on our pits, strengthening and repairing damages, and when morning came were all good and ready.”
The recommencement of the battle never came the following day, but there was plenty of skirmishing, sharpshooting, and artillery firing to keep the two armies on their toes. One such incident is highlighted in Alexander’s book, which takes a dark turn. It pertains to a nest of Union sharpshooters in a brick building on the east side of the Plank Road. These sharpshooters – for lack of a better term – annoyed the Confederates. “To be sure a man could run across, but the sharpshooter kept his gun already sighted at the spot, and his finger on the trigger, and he only had to pull and the well aimed bullet was on its way. He had several shots at me during the day, and though he missed me every time, I acquired a special animosity to him.”
When the opportunity came on Monday morning, Alexander took it. “But the building was so nestled in the hollow and hidden by intervening low hills and trees, that only from one gun, one of Moody’s 24 pound Howitzers, could even the peak of its root be seen. But I knew that if I only skimmer the top of the low intervening hill the shell would curve downward and probably get low enough for the loop holes… I got the line of the obnoxious corner loophole on the roof and sighted in that line, and then fixed an elevation which I thought would just carry the shell over the low hill, aiming myself, and taking several minutes to get all exact. Then I ordered fire. Standing behind we could see the shell almost brush the grass, as it curved over the hill, and then we heard her strike and explode.”
Alexander had the chance to see his handywork later and found the sharpshooter whom he had “special animosity” for. Half of his head had been blown off, while “the walls of the room on all sides were scarred by fragments of shell and brick.”
A similar blind shot had been accomplished by another of Moody’s 24 pound howitzer. That ravine where the Union had been hunkered down for most of the day and night after the main battle became a prime spot for the Confederate shooters. Few Union soldiers could easily leave that safe hollow without becoming a casualty. “I carefully aimed and fired four shrapnel (each of which contained 175 musket balls) so as to burst each one about 15 feet above the ground and about as many yards in front of the little hollow. While we would not see into it, the bullets and fragments would probe it easily.” Once again, upon later inspection, officers would find thirteen dead, all the wounded carried off as the Union army retreated.
Okay, I’ll admit that those last couple of stories were pretty tragic and I promised something humorous. Here’s my last share from Alexander’s book, which involves a prisoner from a Pennsylvania regiment.
“Quite a few citizens of the place, from one cause or another, had remained in the city during the whole period of the battle, taking refuge in cellars when either we or the Federals shelled it. As I went in with the skirmish line, I saw a citizen coming with a musket and bayonet, marching in front of him a Federal soldier. The prisoner was a rather small Dutchman in brand new uniform and with a most complete and extensive equipment of knapsack, haversack, canteen, overcoat, rubber cloth, tin cup, bags of ground coffee and sugar and all sorts of little tricks I never saw before… His captor gave me the impression, but I don’t know how, of being a clerk in a drug store. ‘Where did you get this man?’ said I, as he came near. ‘He slipped into my cellar last night and went to sleep there. All the rest of the Yankees went across the river during the night, and he never knew it. I found him still asleep there this morning and I just took him prisoner and marched him out to give him to you all.’ ‘Very good,’ I said, and turning to the prisoner I asked him, ‘To what regiment do you belong?’ ‘One hundred forty fort Pensylvany,’ said he, with a very Dutch accent. Immediately his captor leveled the bayonet on him, and actually yelled, ‘God damn you! Did not I tell you, if you said that again I’d bayonet you? You damned lying – ‘ And he was apparently really about to give the fellow a taste of the steel when I stopped him. ‘Hold on! What’s the matter? What are you threatening the man for?’ ‘Why didn’t you hear what he said?’ ‘He only answered my question. I asked his regiment and he was obliged to reply.’ ‘But didn’t you hear what the son of a bitch said? That he said the hundred and forty-fourth Pennsylvania? Don’t you see that’s just a damn Yankee trick. That they’ve just left this fellow here on purpose to tell that lie and try and demoralize our men by making them think there are 144 regiments in their army from Pennsylvania?’ ‘P’shaw,’ said I. ‘They’ve got over 200 from some states, but it isn’t half enough yet to whip this army. So don’t stick him but take him along to the line. Our boys would not care if he was in the 500th regiment.’”
I’ll admit that even I had a hard time wrapping my head around the numbers when I first began studying the war. I thought, “How could those states have so many troops, upwards of 100 or 200 regiments, when some southern states couldn’t even break 50?” When you take population density numbers into consideration, it makes more sense. The south was largely agricultural with few metropolitan areas. Most of their land is taken up by farming, rather than sprawling cities. But the everyday citizen in Fredericksburg wouldn’t have known that.
Alexander, Edward Alexander, and Gary W. Gallagher. Fighting for the Confederacy: the Personal Recollections of General Edward Alexander Alexander. United States: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.