Letter of Henry Ropes to John Codman Ropes December 18, 1862
Detailed description of the intense street fighting of the 20th Mass. in Fredericksburg, Va. on December 11, 1862. Contained in the Manuscripts of the Boston Public Library.
Camp 20th Regiment near Falmouth
Va. December 18th 1862
My dear John:
I have determined to write you a tremendous letter, giving a full account of our late battles and answering your letter about my expenses, the Estates etc received by Col. Lee. And first the account of the battle etc. The Regiment went out on picket, on the 10th, and I staid in camp to finish my Court Martial proceedings. I heard of our expected move, but did not in the least anticipate what was to come. The Regiment came in from picket at 4 AM on the 11th, and we were ordered to march at 5. About that time the firing began at the river, and at 6 AM we marched down to a point about opposite the Northern part of the (canal?). It was still very dark, the valley of the river was filled with smoke from our batteries along the bank, and the noise was tremendous. We staid on our open plain which was filled with troops.Our Brigade was to cross first, the 7th [Michigan] leading as skirmishers. They put a pontoon bridge half over, and then the Rebels in the houses and from the cellars which they had made into Riflepits poured in such a hot fire as to run our men off. The river here is about as wide as Pemberton Square[in Boston] is long, and the bank's high and especially steep on our side. The 7th Michigan and the 19th [Mass.] were deployed as skirmishers along the banks to protect the laborers on the bridge, but they could not do so, for the smoke and fog were very thick. The weather this day and for the following three days were mild. Occassionally the Rebels would throw a few shells to where we were, but not much damage was done. After a little time the guns were directed to the city to clean out the Rebel sharpshooters, and the bombardment lasted steadily till about 4 P.M. The City was now on fire in 3 places, and this smoke added to the darkness through which our guns incessently flashed. We were close to the batteries. The sound was tremendous. We had now lain all day here and still nothing was done. Several of the Officers were lounging on a pile of boards, I was rather tired and almost asleep, when Col. Hall rode up and said the 7th Michigan had volunteered to cross in pontoon boats. This was indeed a desperate thing, but in a few moments some one said they were crossing, we heard a sharp firing and some cheers, and then that they were across and had occupied the nearest houses. We were ordered to fall in at the same time, and in a few moments marched down the bank and followed the 19th across in pontoon boats. The 19th, as I said, was already at the foot of the bank, deployed. Some of the 7th Michigan wounded were being brought back, among them the Lieut. Colonel shot in the shoulder. The Michigan men made a rush at the nearest houses and took quite a number of prisoners. The orders to the whole brigade were to bayonet every armed man found firing from a house, this being, I believe, contrary to the rules of war, but it was not of course obeyed. In fact no prisoners were taken but the few the Michigans took, and the wounded who lay about struck by our shells. The 7th Michigan was deployed on the left and a short distance up the street at the ford(?) of which we landed, and the 19th on the right, both holding houses, fences , etc., exchanging shots with the Rebels who were a little further back. The pontoon bridges were hurriedly finished, and the Rebels then opened on it with shell, doing little damage, but somewhat disturbing the troops crossing. When a good many troops had got over, we were advanced up the street in column of companies right in front, and Macy was ordered to "follow the skirmishers", that is the 7th Michigan, and advance into the town, at the same time the 19th on the right , and the 42d, which had been deployed on the extreme left were ordered to advance also. I can explain our position best by a plan.[map ]
The 20th advanced up the street, and when the head of the column out to where the 7th Michigan men were, on the left, in a kind of alley way, and occupying a house, Macy called to them to go ahead. Capt. Hunt, their commanding officer was there, and he hesitated and refused. Macy was obliged to halt and urge him to go forward. Capt. Hunt still refused, saying he had no orders, and Macy, much irritated, told him his orders, which were very plain, to go forward and follow the 7th. Orders came from the rear to press on, Hunt still hung back, saying the Rebels were there in force, and "no man could live around that corner", or some such words. Macy was of course terribly angry, and turned off saying: "Go to hell with your regiment then", or something like that, and gave the order to advance. All this occurred but for 2 or 3 minutes, yet it was very troublesome, as the rear was pressing close. My Company was close to Abbott's, and we entered upon the main street within a moment of each other. That instant a tremendous and deadly fire swept down from the front and left. The Rebels occupied the houses and were behind fences, and could not be seen except for the flash of the guns. It staggered the column, but in a moment we pressed on, led by Abbott in his usual fearless manner. At the same time my Company was ordered to left wheel, and Capt. Shepard gave the first word, and the Company swung round right across the worst line of fire. Capt. Shepard called over, hit in the foot, and shouted to me to take command. 1st Sergeant Campion fell, and 2 or 3 more, and before I could get to my place, they had fallen into a momentary confusion, and it was with no little difficulty I could bring them into line and open fire down the street. The Rebels evidently took good aim. Almost every ball struck, and a very lat\rge proportion were killed outright or desparately wounded. The 3rd Company had wheeled to the right but had found the fire coming from the rear and left (to them) and had soon entered the houses on the left and fired to the front. The men were killed and wounded so fast that the rest of the Regiment was immediately called up and supported the Companies first in position. In this way Companies, D, A and C came up and filled that part of the street my company could not cover. The entire place was heaped with bodies, and although night was coming on, the Rebels were not silenced, but still fired, and even got into a small house on the left of Company I, from which Abbott vainly tried to dislodge them in entering a house on his left. Our guns were getting clogged, our fire slack, and Macy sent back urgent requests for help, and for the Regiments on our right and left to advance, and altogether to clear the Rebels out. The 59th New York were sent up to relieve us, but as soon as they got under fire, gave way, and ran back, and were only rallied by the efforts of our Officers, and their own Lieut. ? who seemed the only decent man they had. Just before they came up, I was struck by a spent ball in the upper part of my groin, a very severe blow which cut completely through my trowsers. I fell backwards, and was assisted by a soldier. My leg was completely paralyzed , and I almost lost my consciousness, and felt sure I was shot through. I left the Company to Sergeant Clark, and limped to the rear, suffering considerable pain. Just around the corner I leaned against a fence, and now felt better and found I could move my leg. Just then the 59th gave way, and came running back, and I made an effort to stop them, and after a few minutes they were rallied, and I then found I could stand, and got back immediately to my Company which was still as I left it. My leg was pretty stiff for 3 days but is now perfectly well. It ws now getting dark, my Company had dwindled down to about 8 men and the rifles were so foul they could hardly be loaded. We had fired about 30 rounds. Macy had sent up the other Companies and the left of the street was left open, the men who were left firing from the right partly sheltered by the brick building. The 59th had been got up and were ordered to relieve us, and my few men were allowed to go to the rear with Company D under Perkins. I did not mention that Capt. Dreher had been ordered to support me with his company, and had come up, but he almost immedialtely withdrew his company and they fell entirely back. The color bearer, however, was shot.[Web note: Cpl. Anton Steffens, this web page developer's great great uncle, was likely the color bearer referred to.] Abbott had suffered terribly and the 59th were sent to relieve him, and as it was now dark and the firing less deadly, they stood about the corners and kept firing while our Companies were drawn a little back, but only to the head of the street where there were two stores. In a few moments, however, they all came running back in terrible confusion and were only stopped by Abbott, Herbert and myself who placed ourselves across the street and fairly forced them to halt. They could not be brought up and so (as we had received orders) we got back our men to the houses and stores at the head of the street and the firing gradually dropped off. We got in our wounded and helped them to the rear as well as we could. Just as the 59th gave way the last time, I went forward to where two men were carrying back a wounded Captain of the 59th and helped him off. His blood was pouring out in a stream which I could hear, but not see. He was mortally wounded and was I hear their best Officer. Lieut. McKay was shot just by me, a short distance behind Company I near the corner, just before we fell back for the night. He was one of our very best officers. We occupied these houses all night. The enemy fell back, and there was no more firing. On the whole, it was about as trying a fight as could well be. Abbott said it was far worse than Ball's Bluff.