“From the battle field near Fredericksburg: We crossed the river Thursday night and have been under fire ever since. The Rebels are strongly entrenched, and we have not made much headway. Today has been very quiet with an occasional shell from the Rebels. We tried to keep the Sabbath the best we could. We lay all day in our rifle pits awaiting events. I write this on the battlefield.” — U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes
Yesterday 19-year-old C.S.A. Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland’s unit, Company G of the 2nd South Carolina, had spent the day behind the stone wall inflicting heavy casualties against Union troops. As morning came, daylight reveals over 8,000 Union soldiers still on the battlefield in front of them. Many are still alive but there are thousands that are wounded and suffering terribly from pain and a lack of water. Orders have not been given to the men to retreat and no truce has yet been reached to remove the wounded from the field, so the Union troops are stuck on the cold, open field, shielding themselves from occasional Confederate rifle fire and the cold by propping dead soldiers up around them as a “wall” of protection.
Men from both sides are forced to listen to the painful cries throughout the night and morning, with neither side daring to make a move to help anyone for fear of being shot. By mid-morning Kirkland approaches C.S.A. Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw and tells him that he wishes to help the wounded soldiers. At first Kershaw declines the request, but later he relents. Once given permission, Kirkland asks if he could show a white handkerchief, but white flags are used for surrender; this is not a surrender situation so Kershaw declines. Kirkland responds “All right, sir, I’ll take my chances.”
Kirkland gathers all the canteens he can carry, fills them with water and then makes his way out into the battlefield. He ventures back and forth several times, giving wounded Union soldiers not only water, but warm clothing and blankets that his fellow Confederates have donated to the cause. Kershaw watches in amazement, thinking that the Union will open fire and the Confederacy will respond in return, leaving Kirkland in the crossfire; but no one fires a shot. Within a very short time it is obvious to both sides as to what Kirkland is doing, and soon cries for water erupt all over the battlefield. Kirkland does not stop until he helps every wounded soldier who asks for him – Union and Confederate – on the hill near the stone wall. He is dubbed “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
Despite the horrific results of yesterday’s attacks, U.S. Commanding General Ambrose Burnside wants to continue the attack and has to be talked out of it by the other generals as they refuse to continue the wave after wave of suicidal marches with their men. If his generals won’t do it, Burnside will; he still believes he can break Lee’s lines and offers to personally lead another attack. He is finally talked out of it.
This afternoon Burnside requests a truce to tend to the thousands of wounded soldiers and C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee agrees. Under the cover of darkness and a storm, the Union army starts its withdrawal that will go well into tomorrow.
Lee writes to the Confederate War Department that Fredericksburg has been a victory. So far he counts 1,800 killed or wounded on his side, with 550 Union men captured; he is unsure, however, what the full extent of Burnside’s loss is.
C.S.A. Major General George Pickett writes to his love interest, Sallie Ann Corbell, who has changed her name to LaSalle Corbell but whom Pickett still calls “Sallie.” Pickett has been married twice before and rumor has it that his new girl is just that – a girl who is 14 years old compared to his 37 years of age. It turns out she is 18, but she likes being referred to “Schoolgirl Sallie.” They had first met in 1852 when she was just 9 and recovering from whopping cough, and Pickett was recovering from the loss of his first wife and child. When he can he travels to Suffolk, Virginia to see her. He now writes to her about what he has witnessed these last few days at Fredericksburg:
Here we are, my darling, at Fredericksburg, on the south side of the Rappahannock, half-way between Richmond and Washington, fortified for us by the hand of the Great Father.
I penciled you a note by old Jackerie (headquarters postmaster) on the 12th from the foot of the hills between Hazel Run and the Telegraph Road. In it I sent a hyacinth given me by a pretty lady who came out with beaten biscuit – and some unwritten and written messages from Old Peter (note: James Longstreet) and Old Jack (note: Thomas Jackson), Hood, Ewell, Stuart, and your “brothers,” to the “someone” to whom I was writing.
My division, nine thousand strong, is in fine shape. It was on the field of battle, as a division, for the first time yesterday, though only one brigade, Kemper’s, was actively engaged.
What a day it was, my darling – this ever to be remembered by many of us thirteenth of December dawning auspiciously upon us clad in deepest, darkest mourning! A fog such as would shame London lay over the valley, and through the dense mist distinctly came the uncanny commands of the unseen opposing officers. My men were eager to be in the midst of the fight, and if Hood had not been so cautious they would probably have immortalized themselves. Old Peter’s orders were that Hood and myself were to hold our ground of defense unless we should see an opportunity to attack the enemy while engaged with A.P. Hill on the right. A little after ten, when the fog had lifted and Stuart’s cannon from the plain of Massaponax were turned upon Meade and when Franklin’s advance left the enemy’s flank open, I went up to Hood and urged him to seize the opportunity; but he was afraid to assume so great a responsibility and sent for permission to Old Peter, who was with Marse Robert in a different part of the field. Before his assent and approval were received, the opportunity, alas, was lost!
If war, my darling, is a necessity – and I suppose it is – it is a very cruel one. Your Soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, my darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines. About fifty of my division sleep their last sleep at the foot of Marye’s Heights.
I can’t help but feel sorry for Old Burnside proud-plucky, hard-headed old dog. I always liked him, but I loved little Mac, and it was a godsend to the Confederacy that he was relieved.
Oh, my darling, war and its results did not seem so awful till the love for you came. Now I want to love and bless and help everything, and there are no foes – no enemies – just love for you and longing for you.
When not carrying messages, the Union mounted orderly for Brigadier General Orlando Poe, Emma “Frank” Thompson, assists the ambulance corps with taking the wounded to the Lacy House, where Clara Barton waits to receive them. Since dawn, surgeons have been working frantically in every room, and soon an inch or more of blood covers James Lacy’s beautiful hardwood floors.
On the Western front, U.S. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman is back in Memphis, Tennessee after being charged by Major General Ulysses S. Grant to organize the forces from there and nearby Helena, Arkansas for a move towards Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant was hoping Sherman would have 40,000 troops, but by Sherman’s count he will have 30,000 to move down the Mississippi River via steamers and should arrive by December 18. Sherman is concerned that the different leaders – himself, Grant, Major General Samuel Curtis and Admiral David Dixon Porter – are too apart from each other but has confidence that when the move comes they will all act in concert to take the difficult city fortified by both land and water.
George B. McClellan sends a quick letter to August Belmont, the leader of the National Democrat party: “I fear that Mr L is busily engaged in breaking the rest of the eggs in the basket! Is this the blackest hour which precedes the dawn?”
In Washington, Mary Lincoln attends church services with Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning while her husband stays at the White House looking over maps and discussing military options after what appears to be a defeat at Fredericksburg. President Lincoln is in anguish over the results, yet is still looking for a lot of answers; he has no idea what the cost of the defeat has been.