This is Part 4 of an ongoing series built around the letters home of Loren Goodrich, Co. F 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. See also…
December of 1862 saw Loren Goodrich and his 14th Connecticut engaged in yet another titanic battle that would exact a terrible price on the new regiment, already battle-hardened after only three month’s service to the Federal cause. From a solid plan of battle, poor execution and a terrible selection of ground on which to assault the rebel troops doomed the Federal army to another dismal failure; and the common soldier would pay the price yet again for the mismanagement and bungling of the leadership. In this fight as in many to follow, the battle at Fredericksburg would presage the carnage of the Great War some fifty years later in scope, and in horror.
While his earlier letters home told some of the terrors of the battlefield, the tone and tenor of the letter Goodrich sent back in December tells the tale of his anguish and shock. Where he seemed to have some confidence in success, and in the army, Goodrich’s December letter sees some erosion of that, as he castigates some vainglorious officers for their wasting of the lives of the private soldiers, for what would amount to no gain at all.
The fight that was brewing at Fredericksburg, Virginia was doomed to be a bitter and ugly one from the very start. The new commanding general of the Army of the Potomac– Ambrose Burnside– did not feel up to the task of leading the entire army. He attempted to beg off; but on learning that Joe Hooker, who he actively disliked, may be the next choice for the job, Burnside agreed, and on November 5 1862, he assumed command.
The ground around Fredericksburg was perfectly situated for the defense. The city lay on the south side of the Rapidan, with a ring of hills surrounding the rear of the city; a canal standing between the city and the hills. Thus, an attacker would need to cross the Rapidan from the north, while under fire from the city; then move through the city itself in house-to-house fighting, then cross over an open field separated by the canal, before assaulting up a hill at an enemy entrenched behind a stone wall. It was a recipe for disaster for the Union army.
Burnside’s plan was solid– he planned a strategic feint towards Culpepper, followed by a rapid march to Fredericksburg, where the army would cross the Rapidan before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could respond, seizing the city and the hills. Once there, only the North Ana would serve as a major defensive position between the Federals and Richmond– Indeed, it was at North Ana that Lee had planned to make his next stand; but for bungling by the Federal logicians in bringing up the pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rapidan, Burnside may have made the far side before Lee could concentrate his forces to oppose the larger Federal army. Sadly, that was not to be.
Burnside had another opportunity to outflank Lee and force him out of his position at Fredericksburg, by crossing the Rapidan further to the east at Skinner’s Neck– but the reports of shelling from the hills nearby reported by Union gunboats convinced Burnside that was where the Confederate army’s primary weight lay, not at Fredericksburg; hence his decision to cross at the town. Burnside had surmised from earlier reports from General Edwin Sumner that the town was lightly defended. Indeed, it had been– three weeks earlier when Sumner advised an immediate crossing, there were only some 500 men in opposition in the town– but now Longstreet’s entire corps had arrived, and Stonewall Jackson was en route. The going now would not be nearly as easy as it would have been if Burnside had not suffered from the lapse of the Engineers, and had sat on the banks of the Rapidan for three weeks, allowing the Confederate concentration.
It was in this terrible situation that Goodrich and the 14th Connecticut found themselves thrust. With the rest of the II Corps, they were assigned to Sumner’s Right Grand Division (along with the IX Corps, and a cavalry division under Pleasonton), crossing on the northwestern side of the line, and charged with assaulting the hill known as Marye’s Heights– the most defensible spot on the whole of the battlefield, behind a stone wall.
In the earliest stages of the advance on 11-12th of December, the 14th Connecticut had an easy go of it– the Nutmeggers were not part of the assault on the town-proper, and according to regimental historian Charles Page’s narrative, they crossed over the pontoon bridge at the foot of Hawkes Street, turning left onto Sophia Street, where they remained under arms for the rest of the day (Page 79). Page notes the horrible condition of the town from the fighting in it; as well as making note of the looting of the buildings by the advancing army, stating “…the queer appearance presented by some of these stragglers was very laughable. One would have on a woman’s hat or would be decorated with a plume of peacock feathers, another would be carrying a large gilt mirror and another still rejoiced in the possession of a pulpit bible” (80). Clearly, discipline was not all it could have been.
The lads of the 14th hunkered down in the buildings and homes of Fredericksburg that evening, with some of the men able to find beds in which to sleep for the first time since leaving home; others raiding the houses for food to cook that was “…an improvement upon hardtack and salt pork,” if not necessarily as good as they’d have liked (81).
At 9 AM the next morning, the lads were called back into line, and marched towards their next staging area, between a church and court house on Princess Anne Street. Confederate artillery was pounding the signal station at this location, which caused buildings to rain debris down on the men, causing the first casualties to the Connecticut lads in the day’s fight. The men fixed bayonets and marched up towards the depot on Prussia Street, and crossed the canal on one of two pontoon bridges that was in place nearby, onto enemy-controlled side of the town. Each bridgehead was the target of a confluence of the rebel cannon on the hill, and a price was paid in blood for the crossing (83-84).
At this point, the 14th took cover as best they could by lying on the ground, though artillery still cut up the lads pretty well, as Page notes that “…several shells burst over the the left wing… causing much suffering in the ranks” (84). Sadly, this would be the best spot the 14th would have on the field as they were next ordered up and to advance at the rebel line at the double quick. In this advance, the entrenched rebels wrought horrible casualties on the lads of the 14th Connecticut. Page quotes Captain Stevens when he describes the scene:
“Into a slaughter pen indeed… The guns on Taylor’s Hill enfiladed the position doing deadly work… A few rods over ground every foot of which was lashed by artillery, and the leveled guns over the direful wall coolly waiting spoke out in unison terrific” (85).
Page himself writes:
“Who can depict the horrors of that scene? What language can adequately portray the awful carnage of that hour? The belching of two hundred pieces of artillery seemed to lift the earth from its foundation, shells screeched and burst in the air among the men as if possessed with demons and were seeking revenge, the shot from tens of thousands of musketry fell like rain drops in a summer shower, brother saw brother writing in the agony of mortal wounds and could offer no succor, comrade saw comrade with whom he had marched shoulder to shoulder… still in death. Men fell like pins in an alley before the well aimed ball of a skillful bowler” (85).
Page writes of some of the horrible wounds suffered by members of the Fourteenth, including a decimation of the command staff– Colonel Perkins, Major Clark, Captain Gibbons, Lieutenants Stanley, Comes, and Canfield; Sergeants Fiske, Darte and Foote– all either killed or grievously wounded. The charge of the II Corps was broken, and the unit’s cohesion collapsed. Some of the men remained hunkered down at the base of Marye’s Heights under fire; others filtered back to the comparative safety of the city singly or in small groups. Page quotes Samuel Fiske (writing as “Dunn Brown” to the Springfield (MA) Republican newspaper as stating:
“A few torn and blackened remains of those fine regiments slowly retired to the city. The wounded were mainly brought off, though hundreds were killed the in benevolent task. The city is filled with the pieces of brave men who went whole into the conflict. Every basement and floor is covered with pools of blood. Limbs, in many houses, lie in heaps; and surgeons are exhausted with their trying labors” (88).
At the end of the fight, the 14th Connecticut who’d left the Nutmeg State in September with more than 1,000 men strong, now stood with only about 150 men fit for service on December 14, a mere three months later. The rest had been lost to sickness, wounds, and death. This doubtless rested heavy on the heart of Loren Goodrich when he penned the following letter home.
Camp Near Falmoth [sic] Virginia
I now take my pen in hand to write a few lines to you. I am well and with the exception of a hard cold and that is a prevalent thing with the soldiers now but I hope that this will find you well and enjoying the good sleighing that you must have there by this time. Probably you have heard before this time that there has been another hard battle fought at Fredricksburg Virginia. Our regiment was engaged in that battle of the 13th of Dec and got very badly cut up. We went in with 356 men and came out with 150 men. We cannot muster over 2 hundred men fit for duty out of over 1000 thousand men that we had 4 months ago. I never want to witness another such sight as I witnessed on that never to be forgotten day. The soldiers that were engaged in it thought that the battle at Antietam was nothing but boys play beside of this but thanks be to the being who overrules this nation for he has brought me to safety through another battle whilst thousands of other ones have gone to their last resting place. And when their familys [sic] hear of this battle they will be looking with anxious eyes to hear of some news from the departed ones but how many there is that will look in vain. And what is all of this for just to gratify the ambition of a few office seekers. Our troops gained nothing but lost a great many lives. They shelled the city and took possession of it and held it for 4 days and then evacuated it with the loss of about 15 thousand men in killed or wounded and missing. The city is nearly ruined. There is scarcely a house in it but what has been ransacked and everything of any value has been broken to pieces. There was any quantity of flour tobacco [sic] wheat potoes [sic] and all kinds of provision there beside a good deal of household furniture and all kinds of crockery ware strewed about the streets. That part of the battlefield in which our regiment was engaged was nothing but a human slaughter house. I nor now [sic] other penman can describe it as it was in reality. You at home will read about it and perhaps think that it was a hard battle but then you never will any idea of how a battlefield looks.
Please excuse my [sic] this time and the bad writing for we soldiers do not have any writing desks here to write on. Tell Mr. and Mrs. Harris that I send them my best respects and wish them well and enjoying good health.
I remain your Friend
Loren H Goodrich
Goodrich, Loren H. “Letters.” Letter to Joseph Wells. Date Unknown. MS. Connecticut Historical Archives, Hartford, CT.
Page, Charles D. History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry. Meriden, CT: Horton Printing, 1906. Print.