The 16th Maine boys know that if they charge those distant hills, they will die.
And today there can’t be a more miserable place to die than here, a few miles downriver from a Virginia town called Fredericksburg. Bobby Lee has strung his Confederate artillery and infantry all along the heights outside town, and it’s toward those hills that Yankee divisions charge on Saturday, Dec. 13.
Led by Lt. Col. Charles Tilden of Castine, the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment crosses the Rappahannock River on a pontoon bridge about noon on Friday. After sunset, the Maine boys shiver as a clammy Virginia fog enshrouds them. Officers roust the chilled soldiers before dawn. The regiment steps off about 8 a.m. even as Confederate shells start raining down.
All of the Confederacy is up on those wooded hills or dug in behind the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, which runs between the heights and Bowling Green Road nearer the river.
“We had scarcely gone a dozen rods before the enemy opened on us with shot and shell,” says 17-year-old Pvt. Thomas C. Hopkins of Co. C. He laughs as his captain “dodges the shells as they came over our heads, but I soon learned to do it myself.”
The regiment maneuvers toward Bowling Green Road as the fog dissipates. Hopkins studies his comrades’ faces — “there was no outward sign of fear or doubt about the terrible struggle” awaiting the soldiers, he remembers, and “many of us I know thought of our loved ones at home and in our hearts bade them a silent farewell.”
With the artillery fire too heavy and too accurate, the Maine boys shelter in the ditch alongside Bowling Green Road. A hellish racket engulfs them. Hopkins calls the chaos “a wild scene” as he listens to “the sharp rattle of musketry, the almost continuing booming of cannon, the neighing of horses,” blaring bugles, and rattling drums, all “mingling with the cries of the wounded.”
He listens as “high above the awful din arose the shrill cry of some poor soul who had received a mortal wound.” Then a cannonball kills a Co. C soldier, the first 16th Maine boy to die today.
Around 1:30 p.m., Tilden receives an order to attack the Confederates waiting about a half mile away. Cannonballs whoosh overhead as the 16th Maine boys form ranks along the road. Tilden orders his men to drop their haversacks and fix bayonets.
“Forward!” he shouts, and the Maine boys march toward the distant railroad embankment.
They struggle to maintain their alignment in the fields that Hopkins describes as “miry and treacherous.” Thawed by the sun, the mud causes men to sink halfway to their knees.
“The bullets now begin to sing angrily about our ears, and our men begin to fall,” Hopkins remembers. “The one with whom I touched elbows on my left was among the first victims. The ball entered his leg with a sickening thud which I will never forget, and he fell to the ground with a cry of ‘I’m shot!’”
“About half the distance between the turnpike and the enemy,” the Maine boys approach other Union troops who, unable to reach the railroad, are firing at the well-concealed Confederates, Hopkins says. The Maine men stop and fire a dozen or more rounds. A bullet almost clips his nose, more men collapse, the regiment cannot stand here.
“Cease firing!” Tilden passes the order. “Charge bayonets!” The Maine boys growl as they lower their rifled muskets and point their bayonets at the enemy.
“Forward double-quick!” the officers shout, and the Maine boys charge across muddy ground and deep ditches. The men run through “bursting shells, grape and canister, and minie bullets” striking the muddy soil “so thickly … that the dirt was constantly spattering in my face … Instinctively we bowed our heads to this fierce storm as we swept on,” Hopkins recalls. Enemy fire creates “great gaps in our ranks as one after another falls,” but the 16th Maine boys reach the few remaining yards of ground as Confederate rifles belch smoke and death.
Adrenaline hurls the Maine boys up the railroad embankment screaming “one wild, determined cry,” they leap over the iron rails and take the cold steel to those Confederates too slow to flee, Hopkins says.
But a bullet strikes him perhaps less than 20 feet from the embankment. He finds himself “flat upon the ground. Soon the pain in my groin” reveals “where I was hit,” and he dares not “examine my wound for fear I should faint.”
The 16th Maine has broken Lee’s outer defense line. Now Tilden leads his men a short distance up the slopes still alive with enemy troops. He looks right and left and sees no other Union regiments nearby — and Confederate soldiers swarm in the woods beyond his left flank. “I gave the order to retire,” Tilden reports. As his men retreat, they retrieve wounded comrades and herd 60 captured Confederates toward the Union lines.
Converting his rifle to a crutch, Hopkins limps across fields covered with the dead and wounded. He crosses Bowling Green Road, beneath the sheltering embankment he examines his wound, which “was only a very severe bruise!”
A minie bullet had struck the “army cup” tied outside Hopkins’ haversack before punching through the hardtack in the haversack and striking a tin plate inside it. The plate stopped the bullet “just short of my flesh,” Hopkins says. He will convalesce in a hospital for a few days and live to survive the war.
On Tuesday, Dec. 23, Tilden writes a letter telling Gov. Israel Washburn about “the disastrous engagement near Fredericksburg.”
“Since my last communication, the condition of the Regiment has been very much changed as you are probably aware,” he writes. Noting that he led 450 men into battle, Tilden stresses that his men “went into the fight & performed their duty like true soldiers.
“The result Sir … foots up to some two hundred & twenty-eight killed wounded & missing,” he reports. “More than fifty percent of the whole number engaged.
“I can truly say that I never witness’d troops perform their duty better & come up to the work more readily than did the 16th at this time. Every mans heart & soul seemd [sic] bent upon having a chance at the enemy,” Tilden writes. “The Regt. has certainly done credit to itself & the Old Pine Tree State altho’ at a great Sacrifice.”
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.