Today is the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, perhaps the greatest disaster to befall the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. I thought it would perhaps be appropriate to commemorate the battle by looking at it through the eyes of George S. Gove who provided a long account of his experiences in that fight.
Gove was born and raised in Raymond, NH, the son of a prosperous farmer. When he volunteered for the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in September 1861, he had no military experience and he was only 20, but he was over six feet tall, and perhaps his commanding presence led his superiors to think of him as a potential leader. He was enrolled as a sergeant in Company K.[i] He was wounded severely at the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1, 1862) in the right arm and finger. He recovered in time to rejoin his regiment before the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) through which he mercifully passed unscathed. Fredericksburg, however, proved a much harsher test for Gove and the regiment.
George Gove (ca. 1863-1864) (image courtesy of Dave Morin)
We know about Gove’s experiences during the war because his letters to his sister Julia now rest at the University of New Hampshire Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Julia married Warren Parsons, and it is as part of the Parsons Family Papers that Gove’s letters have been preserved.
The day after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gove, who was lying in a hospital, wrote to his mother who forwarded his letter to Julia. Gove had been hit in the shoulder by a shell fragment, and while lying on the field, he had been struck by two spent balls—once in the back and once in the leg. What follows is his story of the battle extracted from this letter.
On the landing, yesterday . . . we formed & started for the field. The reb shelled us all the way up thru the city, their batteries, raking the streets, just out of the city we crossed this canal & formed on line under a little rise. Then came the order forward. The Irish Brigade went in ahead of us, after us climbing this little rise we came upon a broad plain at least 2,000 yards across it at the further sides is a high ridge covered with trees & bushes, here the rebs had their batteries and rifle pits, here they powered an awful fire of shell grape and canisters & musketry. We had to advance across this plain in the face of all this. It opened on us the moment we showed our heads on the plain. Our men dropped fast large gaps were made by the shells. Still we kept on—“Forward boys, forward”, the Col. kept shouting. When we got within 100 yds their musketry opened on us from the rifle pits. Then our line melted away like snow, at this place & right in the way of us was a brick house our line had to break to the right to [illegible] it behind it was several fences, we had to climb over these to form on line. This got the boys into confusion. They could not form under such a fire. The colors fell back to the house & behind the fences. All the men fell back, then the colors fell—Frank Swift, an Irish man of our Co. caught the state banner, jumped the fence & marched out about 30 yds to the front waving it, he was all alone. I saw him and followed. I got to his side and told him to stick to the flag and I would stick by him. In a few moment he was shot down. I picked up the banner. Two men came up beside me. Perhaps 50 men came up The other color did not neither did the regt. I had not held the flag more than half a minute, before I was hit in the shoulder by a piece of shell & knocked down. One of the two men was shot down the other picked up the Banner & ran back to the house and fences. Most of our—what there was left had got behind the house and fences. I lay about 30 yds in front of them & about 30 yrds from the rebel rifle pits. I was between two fires. It was horrible. The bullets flew over me like swarms of bees. They were continually striking all around me. Two bullets hit me one in the back & one in the leg they probably were spent balls & only bruised the skin, and then the shells which our batteries threw over burst over me and pieces from them kept falling all about me, I felt that any moment might be my last. I lay there over an hour, I did not dare to get up to go back. Often our boys stopped firing & the rebs slacked theirs I crawled back to the house. There were more than 200 hundred men mostly wounded that had crawled behind it. I lay down in the mud with the rest. Soon we saw another line come up, on the plain. The reb batteries opened on them, when they got most up to us the rebs opened with musketry from rifle pits, they came up to the house, wavered tried to rally & fell back in confusion. Then came another line—it came up the same faltered at the house & fell back—then another line & the same with that. Towards the night a battery came up, took a position close to the house with a line of infantry to support it. They held the position perhaps half an hour, & then had to retreat, this was our last attempt. As soon as it was a little dark I got up & started for the city. I was afraid the rebs would come out & take us. I had expected every time one of our lines was driven back that they would charge down and take us. I came back across the plain, it was covered with killed and wounded—hundreds of lives lost & thousands wounded and maimed for life & nothing gained. I found our regt hospital I expected I was wounded in the back but found that the skin was not broken my shoulder, back & leg are much swelled today & are very sore & lame but I shall be all right in a day or two.[ii]
How do we place Gove’s account in context? What exactly happened to him and the regiment during the fight? What else might he have seen that he did not describe?
The 5th New Hampshire had spent the night in Fredericksburg which had been badly pillaged by Federal troops (a point that Gove refers to elsewhere in his letter). By the time the regiment was assembled for action near the town’s landing along the Rappahannock River, the Union assault on the Confederate position at the foot of Marye’s Heights had been proceeding for some time. The three brigades in Brigadier General William H. French’s division (in Major General Darius N. Couch’s II Corps) had already launched attacks that had stalled short of the Confederate line. Next, Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock’s division (II Corps), which consisted of Meagher, Caldwell, and Zook’s brigades, was called forward. As Gove points out, Meagher’s Irish Brigade led the way, followed by Caldwell’s brigade (to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged). Mike Pride and Mark Travis state that the 5th New Hampshire, marching four abreast, trailed the Irish Brigade down Sophia Street and then turned left toward the Confederate position.[iii] Throughout its advance, then, the 5th New Hampshire would have seen the Irish Brigade’s dead, wounded, and stragglers.
Once it cleared the outskirts of town, the regiment advanced about 200 yards before encountering a mill-race (the “canal” that Gove refers to). This obstacle was usually five feet deep and 15 feet wide, but Federal engineers had partially drained it before the battle.[iv] George Rable claims the Irish Brigade crossed it in the following manner: “Some used a rickety bridge; others scrambled over on stringers; many seizing the quickest way to the relative safety of the far bank, splashed through the shallow water.”[v] Pride and Travis write that the 5th New Hampshire probably did much the same thing: “a narrow bridge crossed the canal, but most of its planks had been removed,” and so the regiment “faltered briefly here as men either crossed the bridge with difficulty or splashed through the shallow water.”[vi] Having crossed the mill-race, the regiment reformed on the other side under the shelter of a slight rise. Hancock’s official report captured the difficulty of this maneuver when he wrote: “It was impossible to deploy, except by marching the whole length of each brigade by the flank in a line parallel to the enemy’s works after we had crossed the mill-race by the bridge.”[vii] I assume that the bridge to which all these sources refer was where Hanover Street crossed the canal because the attack appears to have followed that thoroughfare, more or less, to the west.
Whatever the case, once it mounted the rise that sheltered the mill-race, the 5th New Hampshire was still 400 yards away from the Confederate position located behind the infamous stone wall on Telegraph Road. The regiment advanced on the extreme right of Caldwell’s brigade with the 81st Pennsylvania immediately to its left.
This fantastic image (click to enlarge) captures a good portion of the ground over which the 5th New Hampshire advanced during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It looks west from the outskirts of Fredericksburg to the Confederate position. To the right, you can see Hanover Street. In the middle distance, stretching horizontally across the image, is the mill-race where Caldwell’s brigade had to cross. Some members of the regiment skipped across the mill-race while others took the narrow Hanover Street bridge which was partially dismantled. In the plain beyond, all by itself, is the Stratton House. Behind the Stratton House, on either side, are two light-colored structures. The one on the left is the Stephens House while the one on the right is the Innis House. Both abutted the stone wall behind which the Confederate infantry sheltered. Confederate artillery was located on the heights in the line of sight behind the Stephens House. This image was taken in 1863, probably after forces under Major General John Sedgwick drove Confederate troops from their positions during the Chancellorsville campaign. I have not been able to locate this image on the National Archives or Library of Congress websites, but it appears on the wonderful Mysteries and Conundrums blog. Excellent analyses of this photograph and others that cover the same ground appear on The Swale at Mercer Square blog, here and here.
As Gove also relates, from the very start of the 5th New Hampshire’s advance, which commenced in the streets of Fredericksburg, the regiment was pounded mercilessly by Confederate artillery. This bombardment continued for the entirety of the regiment’s assault. Although several witnesses attested to the steady and disciplined character of the unit’s advance, the shellfire not only inflicted a large number of casualties (as Gove described) but also undoubtedly slowed the attack. The “large gaps . . . made by the shells” wreaked havoc with the regiment’s command. When the regiment had advanced about hallway to the Confederate position, Colonel Edward Cross was badly wounded when a shell exploded right in front of him. Major Edward Sturtevant, the regiment’s only other field officer, was killed by a shell at about the same time.[viii] Interestingly enough, Gove claimed he was near enough to hear the colonel’s shouting, but he did not appear to see Cross fall. Cross must have been extremely close to Company A, though, because Captain James Larkin, then its commander, wrote home several days later,
Col. Cross was shot when the line had advanced about half way a shell exploded rite in his face I saw him fall and thought he was all stove in pieces but he is coming out all right but was badly hurt.[ix]
The condition of the battlefield also probably slowed the regiment’s assault. Contrary to popular belief, the day was not particularly cold; mud, not ice, was the greater obstacle. If the regiment had indeed crossed the mill-race on the Hanover Street bridge, it veered slightly leftward to remain in contact with the 81st Pennsylvania. This course brought it south of Hanover Street and towards the Stratton House.
This detail (click to enlarge) from a National Park Service map shows the ground that the 5th New Hampshire covered during its assault. Fredericksburg sits on the right of the map while the Confederate position is on the left. The 5th New Hampshire started its advance northward on Sophia Street and probably turned west on Hanover. It crossed the mill-race (indicated as a “Canal Ditch” on this map) around Hanover Street, which is colored orange there. From there, the regiment veered west-southwest toward the Stratton House which appears as a reddish-pink block. Some men, like Gove, advanced beyond the Stratton House toward the “Sunken Road” where the Confederates were. The regiment was fired upon by Confederate infantry stationed behind the stone wall (clearly indicated on the map) between the Innis and Ebert houses. Confederate artillery was posted on the heights to the west-southwest of the Innis House.
Exposure to heavy shellfire during an advance of about a third of a mile took its toll. The regiment’s morale was now brittle, and once it encountered Confederate small arms fire, the unit began to fall apart (the battle line “melted like snow”). Having to navigate its way to the right of the Stratton House and push through several fences under heavy fire, the 5th New Hampshire found it impossible to reform. The regiment appears to have broken apart into several knots of men with a number of individuals scattering in different directions. According to Gove, only 50 men moved up past the last fence to accompany him once he picked up the standard. I must admit that there are some difficulties in reconciling this part of Gove’s account with facts on the ground. First, Gove stated that the Confederate infantry opened fire on the 5th New Hampshire when it was about 100 yards away. At this point, according to Gove, the regiment had not reached the Stratton House yet. That does not square with what we know about the distance between the Stratton House and the stone wall, which is about 170 yards. Second, Gove mentions how the regiment had to scale several fences beyond the Stratton House as it worked its way closer to the stone wall. Eventually, Gove ended up with Frank Swift, waving the state colors some 30 yards beyond the last fence behind the Stratton House. Gove claims that this spot was only 30 yards from Confederate position. If that were the case, the last fence would have been 110 yards behind the Stratton House which seems unlikely. We can forgive Gove for miscalculating these distances; after all, he was undergoing a harrowing ordeal. But we must also recall that the soldiers of the 5th New Hampshire resented that no matter how hard they fought, the Irish Brigade always grabbed the headlines. One can’t help but suspect that under these circumstances Gove’s narrative was shaped by a desire to obtain credit for outdoing the Irish in advancing toward the stone wall.
In any event, after having been hit by a shell fragment and lying on the field for some time, Gove crawled back to the Stratton House where quite a crowd of wounded and demoralized men had gathered. Indeed, the crowd proved so large that later Union assaults found it difficult to push through the area. Successive waves of Union troops advanced into this portion of the battlefield. The last remaining troops in Couch’s II’s Corps came up: Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard’s division, consisting of Owen, Hall, and Sully’s brigades. Owen’s brigade retraced the steps of Caldwell’s men and were stopped around Stratton House. Hall’s brigade advanced along the north edge of Hanover Street in a vain attempt to outflank the Confederate left. Finally, regiments from Sully’s brigade were supplied as reinforcement to supplement Owen and Hall’s efforts. Nothing was gained, and the killing went on. The battery that Gove noticed toward the end of the fight may have been Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, which came up near the Stratton House in an attempt to silence some of the Confederate guns on Marye’s Heights that had inflicted such heavy casualties on the Union soldiers. But as Rable points out, although the battery “got off a few well-aimed shots, disabling at least one Rebel gun” some “fifteen horses and sixteen men . . . were out of action” after 30 minutes and the battery had to limber up and retreat.[x]
Eventually, Gove limped back to Fredericksburg. Even before night had begun to fall, large numbers of wounded men and stragglers had begun to make their way to town, so much so that regiments from Howard’s division had difficulty advancing forward through the crowd. How Gove found the regimental hospital and where it was remain a mystery to me. Pride and Travis indicate that John Bucknam, the regiment’s senior assistant surgeon, had set up a hospital near the regiment’s camp in the streets of Fredericksburg.[xi] William Child, who was then the regiment’s junior assistant surgeon, later wrote that he arrived in Fredericksburg on the afternoon of the 13th and reported for duty at “a large church, used as a hospital.” The next day, he found the regiment “and was at once detailed to assist Surgeon [Laurence] Reynolds of the Irish Brigade in operating.”[xii] But it is not clear where any of these hospitals were.
Gove reported that on the morning of the 14th, only 35 men in the regiment remained to answer roll call. In an addendum to his letter of the 14th, Gove wrote that on the morning of the 16th the number had swelled to only 50. Writing on that same day, however, Larkin, now the second ranking officer in the regiment, wrote that there were just over 80 men available for duty.[xiii] Whatever the case, William Fox’s Regimental Losses of the American Civil War 1861-1865, perhaps the most thorough work on the topic, reports that the regiment suffered 20 killed in action, 154 wounded (including mortally wounded), and 19 missing out of a total of 303 engaged.[xiv] Pride and Travis state the total as 57 killed and mortally wounded along with another 100 or so wounded out of 268 engaged.[xv] Whichever numbers you credit (and numbers are always a problem in the Civil War because despite their apparent exactitude they disagree with one another), the regiment lost just above or below 60% of its effective strength at Fredericksburg. In the several weeks that followed the battle, the letters of the men indicated they all felt quite low. Well might Gove have written in his diary several days after the battle, “The Fifth New Hampshire Regiment is played out.”[xvi]
[i] See “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7W2-GDJ : 14 December 2017), George S Gove in entry for Sherburne Gove, 1860.; “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2Q1-YFB6 : 16 March 2018), George S Gove, 17 Sep 1861; citing Rockingham, Newfields, Rockingham, New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire Secretary of State, Division of Records Management & Archive; FHL microfilm 2,217,640.; New Hampshire Statesman (Concord, NH), June 21, 1862, 2;
[ii] George S. Gove to mother, December 14, 1862, Parsons Family Papers, Series 2: Correspondence, 1861-1865, Box 2, Folder 11 (Transcript).
[iii] Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 171.
[iv] George Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 219.
[v] Ibid., 232.
[vi] Pride and Travis, 171.
[vii] Ibid., 171, 176.
[viii] Pride and Travis, 172.
[ix] James Larkin to Family, December 16, 1862, Larkin Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society.
[x] Rable, 258-259.
[xi] Pride and Travis, 178.
[xii] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 162-163. In his “official” history of the regiment, Child added that Reynolds’ hospital “was in a brick house directly west of the railroad on the main street.” “This house,” he wrote, “belonged to a merchant, whose name was Caldwell.” In a letter to his wife on December 18, Child was no more specific: “I arrived just before dark—the battle was raging furiously. I was there in a church among the wounded during the night under the shell of the enemy—we remained there until noon the next day—then all left for the other side of the river.” In this case, there is no mention of working with Reynolds in the brick house. William Child, Letters from a Civil War Surgeon (Solon, ME: Polar Bear & Company, 2001), 71.
[xiii] James Larkin to Wife, December 16, 1862, Larkin Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society.
[xiv] William F. Fox, Regimental Losses of the American Civil War 1861-1865 (Albany, NY: Albany Publishing Company, 1889), 35.
[xv] Pride and Travis, 171, 176.
[xvi] Child, 150.