‘Forged In Fire’: Like tempered steel, the 7th Rhode Island emerged stronger and tougher from the Fredericksburg inferno
Just past noon on December 13, 1862, the 7th Rhode Island Infantry stepped off as part of the disastrous Union assault against the well-entrenched Confederate forces on Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. By the end of that bloody day, which cost Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac more than 13,000 casualties, 49 members of the 7th Rhode Island had been killed and 150 were wounded or missing. That appalling 40 percent casualty rate proved a costly initiation to Civil War combat for the green regiment. But rather than destroying the 7th, the battle strengthened it and produced a tough, disciplined combat unit that went on to serve resolutely during the 1863 Mississippi Campaign and the 1864-65 Overland Campaign.
Orders to recruit the unit that became the 7th Rhode Island were issued by Governor William Sprague on May 22, 1862. Serious recruiting did not begin, however, until after President Abraham Lincoln’s July call for 300,000 additional volunteers. Spurred on by promises of bounties averaging $400 (worth nearly $10,000 today), men flocked to sign up. Those who joined the 7th were largely farmers and mill workers, native-born men hailing primarily from the Ocean State’s rural regions.
‘Know this, if i fall it shall be in defense of our beloved constitution.’ -Maj. Jacob Babbitt
Regular Army Captain Zenas Randall Bliss was commissioned by Sprague as the regiment’s commander. An 1854 West Point graduate, Bliss had served on the Texas frontier, where he was captured in 1861 when the state’s U.S. forces capitulated to Confederate authorities. Released in 1862, he returned home to command the 10th Rhode Island for three months, followed by his permanent assignment to lead the 7th.
Leaving Rhode Island on September 10, 1862, the 7th spent several weeks drilling in Washington, D.C., then was assigned to the 1st Brigade in the 9th Corps’ 2nd Division. Joining the Army of the Potomac in its camps around Sharpsburg, Md., a typhoid epidemic broke out in the regiment, killing several soldiers. The regiment eventually marched south, its spirits buoyed by the replacement in November of commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan by Burnside—a Rhode Islander greatly favored by the 7th’s men.
Arriving across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, the regiment set up a camp at Falmouth, Va., as Burnside waited for pontoon bridges. Some of the men reflected on their coming fate. Private William Coman, a farmer in Gloucester before the war, enlisted as Company C’s wagoner. One morning he reported to Captain George E. Church and declared that he felt he would be safer as a private in the ranks than working with a mule team. Church gave his consent.
Major Jacob Babbitt, a wealthy 53-year-old banker from Bristol who had given up the comforts of home to join the 7th, turned his attention to his family. In a December 10 letter, he wrote, “Know this, if I fall it shall be in defense of our beloved Constitution.” Those words would become his epitaph.
On the morning of December 11, pontoon bridges needed to cross the Rappahannock into Fredericksburg, long delayed, finally arrived from Washington and Burnside ordered engineers to build three bridges across the river. Following a delaying action by Brig. Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippians and the bombardment of the city by Union artillery, Federal forces finally crossed the river and seized the city. The 7th crossed on December 12, with some of the men unfortunately engaging in the notorious looting of Fredericksburg. After a chilly night in a tobacco warehouse, the men were up early on December 13 to join Burnside’s planned attack on Marye’s Heights.
‘The men were dropping pretty fast, but the regiment…marched off with perfect steadiness.’ -Capt. Thomas F. Tobey
At 11:30 a.m., the 9th Corps’ 2nd Division formed in column on Frederick Street. The 1st Brigade, under Brig. Gen. James Nagle, was second in line behind Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s 2nd Brigade, with the 6th New Hampshire in front, then the 7th Rhode Island, 2nd Maryland, 12th Rhode Island, 9th New Hampshire, and the 48th Pennsylvania in reserve. At 12:20 p.m., the brigade was ordered to the front.
The 7th Rhode Island had 570 officers and men, carrying P-1853 Enfield rifled muskets. Colonel Bliss was a fairly large man, weighing 260 pounds, and found it difficult to take a prone position with his gear on. In order to make himself less conspicuous, he traded his dark blue overcoat for an enlisted man’s sky-blue coat. Lieutenant Colonel Welcome B. Sayles contented himself with a flask of whiskey. During the advance, a shell fired from Marye’s Heights landed within Company F’s position, killing Private Nicholas W. Matthewson and wounding his brother Calvin, also a private. Once clear of the city, Nagle deployed his men from a column into line of battle.
Another shell exploded near Company K, wounding Corporals John F. Austin in the neck and John Studley in the leg. To avoid crossing Hazel Run, Nagle sent his regiments into a cut of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Rappahannock Railroad. This threw them into the heaviest concentration of Confederate fire.
The brigade advanced through the railroad cut, 15 feet high. Nagle’s left wing simply froze in its position as the fire from the Confederate Washington Artillery slammed into the ranks of the 9th New Hampshire and 12th Rhode Island; the 12th, a nine-month regiment, simply disintegrated—the men ran for their lives back to Fredericksburg.
‘Rifle balls sounded just like a swarm of bees huming around the hive.’ -7th Rhode Island Soldier
The 7th Rhode Island and 6th New Hampshire climbed the cut’s steep walls and continued forward into a murderous fire. “The men were dropping pretty fast, but the regiment faced by the flank + marched off with perfect steadiness,” recalled Captain Thomas F. Tobey of Company E. “Talk about it being impossible to drill under fire, but our regiment did it at Fredericksburg.” William Coman was among those to fall, mortally wounded.
Three hundred yards from the Telegraph Road, the 7th came to a slight depression that provided some cover. Michael Kerr would be severely wounded, suffering what was referred to as a “ragged hole” in his head. “I can tell you the cannon balls and rifle balls come thick and fast when we was going on to the field,” recalled Private Abel B. Kenyon, “but we went up in good line though we had to walk over many dead and wounded men.” Shells continued exploding close to their position.
As the men advanced into the swale, Sayles crawled to within 20 feet of Bliss but was suddenly struck in the chest by a Parrott shell from Marye’s Heights. He reportedly evaporated, pieces of his body flying everywhere. Bliss’ right side was covered with blood and parts of Sayles’ lungs. As he wiped away the blood, Bliss yelled, “Let them have it!” The men crawled to the front of the swale and began firing at the enemy behind a stone wall in the Telegraph Road. (Because the Telegraph Road was sunken, it is known in many accounts of the battle primarily as the Sunken Road, and is still generally referred to by that name today.)
As the Confederates unleashed “a most destructive fire,” the Federal infantrymen had difficulty seeing their targets, let alone hitting them. Captain Tobey watched as Bliss secured a musket and went to the front of the swale to join the men on the firing line. The colonel told an anxious subordinate, “I know it isn’t my business, but I want the men to see I am not afraid.” His actions earned him promotion to brevet major in the Regular Army and in 1898 the Medal of Honor.
After remaining there for about 30 minutes, Bliss again led the 7th forward. “This is death,” Tobey recalled. “A man might as well hope to go through a hailstorm untouched as to get to that ridge unhurt. But I knew my place was ahead of my men, and I kept there. I was badly scared but I kept on waving my sword and calling to my men to keep up though they fell all around me.”
Remembered William O. Harrington: “We marched onto the field through a murderous fire of shot and shell but we did not flinch.” According to another member of the regiment, “The rifle balls sounded just like a swarm of bees huming [sic] around the hive.”
The 7th found its path blocked by a fence as it approached the stone wall. Suddenly, a shell exploded in front of Bliss as he ran alongside his men, knocking a hole in the fence and wounding three—“a perfect volcanoe [sic] of flame,” as the colonel later described it. Noted Private Alfred Sheldon Knight of Company C: “The balls and shells fell like hale [sic] around us.”
Finally, the regiment halted a second time, stymied by point-blank fire from the Telegraph Road. The 7th was one of only a few units to get close to the stone wall without losing its regimental formation. Finding a three-foot-high ridge, the men lay down behind it. The Rhode Islanders didn’t stop firing, but it had little effect. “Well, we lay there and fired away all our ammunition,” recorded one 7th Rhode Island officer. “It sickens me now to think of the waste of the energies and lives. The men behaved splendidly, but what use was it?”
The ammunition each man carried—60 rounds—was running low; the men began appropriating the boxes carried by their wounded and dying comrades. When the ammunition was expended, Bliss ordered them to fix bayonets and lie down to escape the fire. Color-Sergeant Frederic Weigand advanced forward several more paces with his banner, placing it in the front of the 7th, where it was hit by 16 bullets and nearly ripped in half by a shell. The flag became the farthest advanced flag in the 9th Corps.
Near sundown, Bliss decided to make one more attempt to capture the Telegraph Road. He then discovered that the 7th was receiving fire from its rear. The men of the 127th Pennsylvania, part of the 2nd Corps, did not see the Rhode Islanders in their front. Bliss sent Major Babbitt to tell them to stop the firing. The major rose to his feet only to be shot in the chest. The 7th’s entire regimental staff was now either dead or wounded. Bliss had been fortunate to survive several narrow escapes, getting hit by spent bullets each time.
Now in total darkness, Bliss cautiously evacuated the 7th back to the swale. At 7:30 p.m. the unit was ordered off the field. As it passed the 51st New York, Lt. Col. Charlton Mitchell yelled out, “Three cheers for the Seventh Rhode Island.” The Confederates again opened fire as the Rhode Islanders fell back, with several killed or wounded.
Second Lieutenant George Stone returned to the field to recover Sayles’ body. Unable to light a candle, he crawled around in the darkness until he found Sayles by passing his arm directly through the colonel’s chest, touching the silver oak leaves on his shoulders, and the prominent whiskey flask hanging from his neck. The colonel’s remains were placed in a rubber blanket and brought back to Falmouth. Many soldiers gawked at the horrifying image of Sayles’ upper torso—all that remained. A private removed the flask and kept it. Bliss assigned Winthrop Moore the solemn duty of escorting Sayles’ remains home to Providence.
First Lieutenant George Inman, on detached duty to the 9th Corps ambulance train, hurried to deliver the wounded to the surgeons awaiting in Fredericksburg. A 40-minute march to Caroline Street brought the 7th back to its tobacco barn. Here the company sergeants gave the customary roll call after a battle to determine the number of men lost—only 350 answered the call. As the regiment assembled, the enlisted men began cheering their colonel for the performance and leadership he had shown. With a heavy heart, and with tears in his eyes, Bliss looked at his shattered regiment and told his men, “You have covered yourselves with mud and glory.”
After commandeering a church, Surgeon James Harris and the other medical officers began to treat the wounded. Bliss visited the men and found Babbitt tucked into the church’s pulpit. He seemed to be in good spirits and hoped to return to duty soon. He was evacuated to Washington, D.C., but his wound became infected and he died 10 days later. In the night, the 7th again was called and, after drawing ammunition, went on picket duty.
Burnside planned to personally lead the 9th Corps in yet another assault upon Marye’s Heights the following morning. Luckily for the men in the 7th and other Federal units, that attack never materialized. On the night of December 15, the Army of the Potomac evacuated Fredericksburg and returned to Falmouth. The 7th was one of the last regiments to cross the river. Private Knight remembered that they left in a great hurry, fearing that Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s Corps was about to launch an assault against the retreating Federals.
The 7th’s casualty toll was the highest suffered by a regiment from the state in any battle during the war. In the tight-knit mill communities of southern Rhode Island, perhaps Captain Lewis Leavens of Company A best summed up the calamity: “Scarce but a man lost a friend or relative.”
Hardest hit was South Kingstown’s Company G, with 12 killed and 14 wounded. Foster and Scituate’s Company K lost four dead and 11 wounded. Recalled Corporal Nathan B. Lewis of Company F, “There were 48 in our company engaged in the fighting, of these 16 were killed or wounded.” Most companies mustered 50 men and the majority had 30–40 percent of their men killed or wounded.
Including the 7th’s losses, casualties for all of Rhode Island units to fight at Fredericksburg totaled nearly 400 killed, wounded, or missing. The Narragansett Weekly, a newspaper in Wakefield, could barely keep up with the bad news pouring in. Tryphena Cundall’s son Isaac served in Company A. He was spared, as he remained hospitalized with typhoid, but three other neighbors were killed in the charge. In her diary entry for December 19, she wrote: “My heart aches for the loved ones[;] many very many have fallen to rise no more but to be huddled in the grave of a battlefield. Many more will die of wounds received…and many more will linger out a life maimed crippled and suffering. What can I write, how can I express my feeling, it is in vain to try.” Because shellfire has caused many of the 7th’s casualties, few families were able to recover the remains of their loved ones. Indeed, for many, a cenotaph in a family cemetery would be their only memorial.
Despite the murderous fire, the regiment had performed well during its first combat test, lauded for bravery by various commanders. “Too much praise cannot be given to the Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers,” Nagle wrote. In 1869, Chaplain Augustus Woodbury of Burnside’s staff recorded, “They stood at their posts with the steadiness of veterans; they advanced with the enthusiasm of genuine soldiers, they won the encomiums of all who witnessed their valor on this, their first day of battle.” In his after-action report, Bliss noted, “They remained under a heavy fire without flinching….The long list of killed and wounded are stronger proof than words of mine that the regiment has done its duty.”
An opposing commander echoed that: “The slaughter in their ranks was terrific….I cannot speak in too high terms of the cool bravery of both officers and men….The heaps of slain in our front tell best how they acted their part.”
As the men again settled into their camp at Falmouth, they began to take stock of what had just occurred. Many wrote home immediately to tell their families they had survived or to convey the fates of their dead or wounded comrades. Private Harrington wrote a letter home every day for a week describing the battle to his family. “I shall never forget the scenes of the first Battle,” he offered.
The 7th spent a miserable winter in Falmouth, losing more men—this time to typhoid, pneumonia, and dysentery. Among those was Private Alfred Sheldon Knight, a farmer from Scituate who had survived Fredericksburg unscathed, only to die of pneumonia on January 31, 1863. A venue change came later that spring when the 9th Corps transferred to the Western Theater in Kentucky. In June, the corps was sent to Vicksburg. Here the 7th suffered tremendously from the inhospitable climate with diseases such as malaria and Yazoo fever (probably the local name for the mosquito-borne affliction yellow fever). But it also distinguished itself after Vicksburg fell, in fighting at Jackson, Miss., on July 14, 1863, with three dead and 10 wounded.
‘You have covered yourselves with mud and glory.’ -Col. Zenas Randall Bliss
Many survivors considered the Vicksburg Campaign more arduous than the fighting at Fredericksburg. Sent back to Kentucky in September, the 7th was a shell of its former self, with only 75 men able to muster for duty. Fifty Rhode Islanders died due to illness, and many more were discharged. The winter of 1863-64 was spent on garrison duty in Kentucky, rebuilding the regiment’s strength.
In spring 1864, the 7th returned east with the 9th Corps and rejoined the Army of the Potomac in time for Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. The regiment fought at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, Cold Harbor, Bethesda Church, Petersburg, Hatcher’s Run, the Weldon Railroad, the Crater, and Poplar Spring Church. The 7th again gained an enviable reputation as a regiment that could be counted on, helping to fill a critical gap in the line of battle at Spotsylvania and Poplar Spring Church. Company H began the Overland Campaign with 30 men; six weeks later, only one was left. In the winter of 1864-65, the regiment was consolidated with the 4th Rhode Island and helped garrison Fort Hell at Petersburg.
The 7th took part in the April 1865 pursuit of Lee’s army to Appomattox, and then mustered out on June 9. During the war, 1,179 officers and men served in the regiment, with 104 killed or mortally wounded in action and 136 dying of illness, accidents, or other causes.
After the war, the survivors formed the 7th Rhode Island Veterans Association. Meeting twice yearly from 1873 through1921, December 13 was always the date of the winter reunion as the survivors gathered to remember the horrors and glory “forged in fire” on that horrific day in 1862.
Robert Grandchamp, based in Jericho Center, Vt., is an award-winning author of a dozen books, including A Connecticut Yankee at War.