The 44th moved into its camp near Falmouth, Virginia, on November 26. By this time, the Confederates had fortified the hills behind the nearby city of Fredericksburg, the immediate objective of the Army of the Potomac. The Union Army had arrived across the river from the city on November 14, but did not seize the opportunity of immediately seizing Marye's Heights before it was strongly defended by the enemy. The delayed arrival of pontoon bridges and supply wagons convinced Army of the Potomac commander General Ambrose Burnside to delay the attack for a lengthy period of time. (1)
It was not until December 10 that the soldiers in Company E began to hear rumors that the army was going to move. The 44th left its camp before daylight the next morning and marched downhill toward the Rappahannock River, as the Union batteries bombarded Fredericksburg. As the 44th neared the river, forward progress became difficult. The men inched forward and were often forced to lie in the mud, trying to avoid the fire from the Confederate batteries on the heights behind the city. Hooker's Grand Division, a combination of the Fifth Corps and Ninth Corps, remained in reserve as the two wings of the Union attack crossed the Rappahannock. Hooker's Division remained in a position to support either wing if necessary. The right wing of the army, commanded by General Edwin Sumner, crossed the river on December 12, and captured the city, which was already devastated from the Union shells. Dislodging Lee's army from its impenetrable position atop Marye's Heights, however, was impossible. Sumner's troops climbed the hill behind the city. The constant fire of the enemy prevented any Union soldier from reaching the crest of the heights, and none even reached the sunken road with its stone wall. Located just below the crest of the heights, the wall was an ideal position for Confederate sharpshooters, while behind them the Confederate cannon fired on the same targets. (2)
Even though the first attacks failed, at 3 p.m. on December 13, the Third Brigade, received its orders to cross the pontoons and enter the city. The men marched quickly through the city, paused at the sound of the bugle to "lie down," and dropped into the mud to rest. Sergeant Charles Sprague dropped his clean and shiny gun into the mud, ruining it, and forcing him to leave it behind. (3)
After a brief rest the 44th joined the rest of the brigade in marching up muddy hills behind the city, moving directly toward the stone wall that had proved so formidable. As they marched, Sprague picked up an abandoned rifle. They climbed one hill, went through a ravine, and moved up another hill and onto a field in front of the enemy where Sprague thought, "sheet lighting seemed to be playing." On the way through the ravine, the Normal School Company became briefly overrun by soldiers retreating from the front lines. Sprague quickly regretted his decision to procure a new gun, as the 44th had "no chance to shoot at all, merely excellent" opportunities to be "shot at." Company E found protection behind a small rise in the ground, and spent the night lying on the ground, never realizing how close they were to the enemy. (4)
Through the night and the next day, enemy bullets flew above them, only a few feet above their prone bodies, and if anyone stood, they would become a sharpshooter's target and likely be killed. Shells exploded near their position, and a fragment from one struck the knapsack of Private James Woodworth. A bullet grazed the foot of Captain Kimball, and on the way to the front, another had struck him in the belt buckle, briefly knocking him unconscious. Another bullet passed through Woodworth's knapsack, leaving eleven holes in his blanket. George McBlain was shot in the leg, the only serious casualty Company E suffered during the battle. (5)
The order to attack never came, as the futility of the situation finally became evident. After 24 hours of lying in the same position in the mud, and a total of 30 hours on the battlefield, the 44th joined its brigade in a silent retreat toward the city at 10 p.m., without the pride and pomp with which they had arrived the day before. They arrived in the city shortly after, and spent the night resting on the sidewalk among the dead and the wounded, who overflowed from the houses of the city, most of which were used as hospitals. On the sidewalk, at least two soldiers, Sergeant Consider Willet and James Woodworth wrote quick letters home, while others ate their rations of hardtack or slept (6)
Woodworth described his experiences on the battlefield to his wife Phebe: being forced to lie near the dead, seeing shells burst near them, watching his fellow soldiers get shot, and thanking God for his own survival. Sergeant Willett wrote Professor Jewell of the Normal School on a blank page from a ledger book taken from one of the city's businesses. Both men were forced to cut their letters short, as the postmaster was about to depart the city. As they wrote their letters, each man encountered the realization that the letter could be their last. (7)
The men spent the night and most of the next day on that sidewalk. On the afternoon of December 15, the regiment was led to a row of once-fine houses and mansions, now severely damaged by artillery fire. Company E was led to a 3-story brick mansion. They stacked arms on the sidewalk and entered the mansion. Woodworth climbed the stairs to one of the upper bedrooms, which he shared with 16 others from the company. When they entered the room, they found a hole in the wall and a cannonball on the floor. Before settling to sleep, the company looted the house. Many took small books and other mementoes as souvenirs, not wanting to make their already wet and heavy knapsacks any more unbearable. They then spread their damp blankets on the floor and slept - or tried to sleep. Some of the men became claustrophobic, as they were no longer accustomed to sleeping indoors, and broke the remaining windows to ventilate the room. (8)
Near midnight, the company was ordered out of the house. The regiment was assembled behind one of the Union batteries, and quietly marched - never being told of their destination, but instantly comprehending that they were returning to the battlefield. James Woodworth discerned their destination when he kicked an object on the ground and realized it was a dead body. The whole brigade moved so quietly as to not merit a single enemy shot, and dropped to their hands and knees to reach their assigned position, just to the right of their location the previous day. They moved behind some breastworks that had been constructed, and continued to lie on the ground. Some of the men were so tired that they fell asleep on the battlefield. But they soon awoke to the sounds of Union artillery crossing the bridge and feared that the army was retreating. Their fears were realized when Major Knox went out and called in the advance pickets. The Third Brigade was acting as rear guard for the Union Army. (9)
After the pickets returned, the regiment began crawling back toward Fredericksburg. The men halted on the outskirts of the city until just before daybreak, when a cold rain began to fall on their muddy bodies, and adding to the mud on the ground. As the sun began to rise, they quickly marched through the town, gathered up any remaining stragglers, and crossed the pontoons back to the north side of the Rappahannock. The regiment took a roundabout route back to the camp, often wading through ankle deep mud, which was so thick that the men lost their boots when they tried to pull their feet out of the mud. Soon after arriving back at the camp, it began to resemble a bustling city, as the men rebuilt their tents and cleaned the mud from themselves and their equipment in preparation for a series of inspections. The Battle of Fredericksburg was a complete failure that demoralized the army. Even the upcoming Christmas celebrations failed to cheer them. Burnside tried to lead another movement in January, but just as the army moved, it began to rain, all the equipment became stuck in the mud, and progress was halted. The army was taunted by the enemy, and shortly after it returned to camp, General Joseph Hooker was named to replace Burnside. (10)
1. Nash, 111.
2. Nash, 112-114
3. Nash, 115; Charles E. Sprague, "In the Company Street," in Nash, 278-9.
4. Sprague, "In the Company Street," 279; Consider H. Willett to Prof. Jewell, December 15, 1862, in Nash, 321.
5. James Woodworth Diary, December 14, 1862; Willett to Jewell, 321; Edward K. Wightman to Brother, December 17, 1862, From Antietam to Fort Fisher: The Civil War Letters of Edward King Wightman, 91.
6. James Woodworth to Phebe Woodworth, December 15, 1862; Willett to Jewell, 321; Sprague, "In the Company Street," 280.
7. James Woodworth to Phebe Woodworth, December 15, 1862; Willett to Jewell, 321.
8. James Woodworth Diary, December 15, 1862; James Woodworth to Phebe Woodworth, December 17, 1862.
9. James Woodworth Diary, December 16, 1862; James Woodworth to Phebe Woodworth, December 17, 1862; Sprague, "In the Company Street," 280.
10. James Woodworth Diary, December 16, 1862; James Woodworth to Phebe Woodworth,
December 17, 1862.
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