Friday, December 10, 2010

A Prescient View of the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862

Charles Carleton Coffin, Army Correspondent of The Boston Journal, wrote the following letter to his newspaper from Chatham house on December 9, 1862 (excerpted from "Four Years of Fighting" by Charles Carleton Coffin):

"It is a clear, cold morning. The sky is without a cloud. Standing near General Sumner's quarters, I have a wide sweep of vision. The quarters of the veteran general commanding the right grand division are in a spacious mansion, newly constructed, the property of wealthy planter, whose estate is somewhat shorn of its beauty by the ravages of war. The fences are all gone, the forests are fast disappearing, the fine range of cedars which lined the Belleplain road are no longer to be seen. All around are the white tents of the command, the innumerable camp-fires sending up blue columns of smoke. The air is calm. You hear the rumbling of distant baggage-trains, the clatter of hundreds of axes felling the forests for fuel,--the bugle-call of the cavalrymen, and the rat-a-plan of the drummers, and mingling with all, the steady, constant flow of the falling waters of the winding stream.

Looking far off to the southeast, across the intervals of the river, you see a white cloud of steam moving beneath the fringe of a forest. It is a locomotive from Richmond, dragging its train of cars with supplies for the Rebel camps. The forests and hills beyond are alive with them. Resting my glass against the side of the building to keep it steady, I can count the men grouped around the camp-fires, turning at times to keep themselves warm. Others are bringing in wood. An officer rides along. A train of wagons is winding down the hill toward the town. All along the range of hills are earthworks with sandbag embrasures, and artillery behind,--not quaker guns, I think, but field artillery, so ranged that a movement directly across the river would be marching into the jaws of death,---as hazardous and destructive as the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.

I know that there is a clamor for an onward movement, a desire and expectation for an advance; but I think there are few men in the country who, after taking a look at the Rebel positions, would like to lead in a movement across the stream.

Looking into the town of Fredericksburg we see but few smokes ascending from chimneys, but few people in the streets. It is almost wholly deserted. The women and children have gone to Richmond, or else are shivering in camp. Close upon the river-bank on either side face the pickets, within easy talking distance of each other. There has been no shooting of late. There is constant badinage. The Rebel picket asks the Yankee when he is going to Richmond. The Yankee asks the Rebel if he don't want a pair of boots. I am sorry to say that such conversation is mixed with profane words. Each party seems to think that hard words hit hard.

Last night the southern sky was red with the blaze of Rebel camp-fires. Far off to the southeast I see a hazy cloud, and columns of smoke, indicating the presence of a large army. I do not doubt that if we attempt to cross we shall meet with terrible opposition from a force nearly if not quite as large as our own.

If the President or General Halleck insist upon Burnside's making the movement, it will be made with whatever power, energy, determination, and bravery the army can exhibit. I am as anxious as any one can be to see a great blow given to the Rebellion; but I am not at all anxious to see the attempt made against such disadvantages as are apparent to the most casual observer from this position."

Today you can still visit Fredericksburg, Virginia, and in particular Chatham House (aka Lacey House) and find much of the same scenery and the same scenes that would have presented themselves to those present at the battle. This weekend in Fredericksburg the anniversary of the battle will be marked by reenactors and citizens retelling the story of the battle and on Sunday you will be able to follow the march of the Irish Brigade through the streets of the city to their fatal engagement on Marye's Heights and NPS historian and author Frank O'Reilly narrates.