The study of history offers many rewards, but sometimes it’s the unexpected discoveries that are the most interesting – the individual stories that are often overshadowed by the grand scale of events as we look back. It is also sometimes surprising to see how individuals in the past lived within a different frame of reference or with different expectations, for example, of how a journalist or a military chaplain should behave.
I recently began researching the story of Arthur B. Fuller, whose name appears on the Freedom Forum’s Journalists Memorial at the Newseum (Museum of News) in Washington, DC, as a special correspondent for The Boston Journal killed during the Battle of Fredericksburg. He is one of eight journalists reportedly killed or reported to have died while covering the war for newspapers in the south or the north. Finding his name associated with both the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Boston Journal was a surprise because I have spent much of my time researching both the battle and another Boston Journal correspondent, Charles Carleton Coffin, and yet I did not remember reading about the death of any of fellow journalist. Fortunately, in world of the Internet, I was able to quickly confirm that an Arthur B. Fuller had been a special correspondent during the war and was killed at Fredericksburg, but the story still offered some surprises.
Arthur Buckminster Fuller was born on August 10, 1822 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, Timothy Fuller, was elected to Congress from 1817 to 1825, where he served as Chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs. Congressman Fuller was described as frank and vigorous, a defender of the Seminole Indians against the federal authorities, and an opponent of the Missouri Compromise. Despite financial obstacles following the death of his father in 1835, Arthur was able to attend Harvard College and graduated in 1843. He then used his remaining few hundred dollars to purchase a small academy in Belvidere, Illinois and embarked upon teaching as a full time career. However, during the following two years, Fuller found his interest and energies increasingly drawn to the Sunday school he taught there and his related preaching. As a result, he returned to Harvard’s Divinity School from which he graduated in 1847.
The new Unitarian minister proceeded to pursue his religious vocation over the following years, filling several pulpits in succession and acting as chaplain for the branches of the state legislature. At the same time he served as editor of his sister Margaret’s writings preparing them for successful publication. He also acted upon his interest in education, serving on various school boards, and was active in support of anti-slavery reforms. These endeavors came to an end with the secession of the southern states and the expected onset of a war between North and South.
Reverend Arthur B. Fuller became the Chaplain of the newly raised 16th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers on August 1, 1861, a regiment primarily representative of his own Middlesex County. The regiment left Boston on August 17, 1861. While on service, Reverend Fuller was ever attentive to his men, holding weekly Sunday School classes and services as well twice-daily prayer meetings during the rest of the week in his “chapel-tent.” He distributed Bibles, religious volumes, and songbooks that included both religious and patriotic musical selections through the regiment. As did many chaplains throughout the Union Army, Reverend Fuller offered educational classes to the soldiers. Consistent with his religious views, he formed a Division of the Sons of Temperance within the regiment, bringing together more than one hundred officers and men who would continue to hold weekly meetings. Finally, following a tradition already more than a hundred years old in Europe and now the United States, Reverend Fuller regularly reported by letter to various newspapers on the events of the war. His letters were featured in a number of newspapers including the Boston Journal, Boston Traveller, New York Tribune, and Christian Inquirer. His most famous report was a graphic account of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack).
Unfortunately, upon his enlistment Arthur Fuller was already almost 40 years old and he found that even for chaplain, army service was a young man’s work. His health soon began to fail him and he was several times forced to remain behind as his regiment went to the field. On December 10, 1862, he received an honorable discharge from this service with a surgeon’s certificate of disability, and with the promise of a commission as chaplain for a hospital or stationary camp. However, on the day following his discharge, December 11, while he was still with the army, the call came around for volunteers to cross the Rappahannock River and drive off the Confederate sharpshooters who were preventing Union army engineers from completing their bridge across the river to Fredericksburg. Despite having been discharged the day before and his lack of training as a soldier, Arthur Fuller stepped forward and armed himself with a borrowed musket and accoutrements.
We have an eyewitness account of what happened in the town from Captain Moncena Dunn of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteers who commanded some 25 volunteers out of the force that crossed the river, including Chaplain Fuller. While not previously acquainted, Captain Dunn recorded that he had heard of Chaplain Fuller’s work in the 16th Regiment and had hoped to meet him. However, their first acquaintance would come in the streets of Fredericksburg, at Carolina Street at about half past three in the afternoon as Captain Dunn commanded his line of skirmishers. It was at this point that Chaplain Fuller approached, saluted, and said to him, “Captain, I must do something for my country. What shall I do?” Captain Dunn replied that there was no time like the present and that he should take his place on the captain’s left. He described Reverend Fuller as being “perfectly cool and collected” and anticipated that he anticipated good service from the chaplain.
The Captain’s account went on, “His position was directly in front of a grocery store. He fell in five minutes after he took it, having fired once or twice. He was killed instantly, and did not move after he fell. I saw the flash of the rifle which did the deed. I think the Chaplain fell from the ball which entered the hip. He might not have been aware of the wound from the ball entering his arm, sometimes soldiers are not conscious of wounds in battle, or he may have been simultaneously hit by another rifle. We were in a very exposed position. Shortly before the Chaplain came up, one of General Burnside’s aids accosted me, expressing surprise, and saying, ‘What are you doing here, Captain?’ I replied that I had orders. He said that I must retire, if the Rebels pressed us too hard. In about half an hour I had definite orders to retire, and accordingly fell back, leaving the Chaplain and another man dead, and also a wounded man, who was unwilling to be moved. It is not usual, under such pressing circumstances, to attempt to remove the dead. In about an hour afterward, my regiment advanced in line with the Twentieth Massachusetts. They occupied the place where Chaplain Fuller fell; and they suffered very severely, it being much exposed. The Chaplain’s body we found had been robbed, and the wounded man bayoneted by the Rebel Vandals, while the ground was left to them.”
Arthur B Fuller’s remains were sent home to Massachusetts at the earliest opportunity. Later in December 1862, private funeral services were held in his brother’s house in Boston, and then on December 24, a heavily attended and reported public funeral took place at the First Church, Chauncey Street, Boston. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge. The Massachusetts State Adjutant General would record his death as having taken place on December 12, 1862 in Fredericksburg, possibly reflecting the date of removal of his remains from the field. Later that same month, the United States Congress would vote a special bill to award Mrs. Fuller the pension otherwise denied her on the grounds of her late husbands' December 10 discharge.
"There is no conceivable human action which custom has not at one time justified and at another time condemned." -- Joseph Wood Krutch