Major Francis E. Pierce, who took part in the Union’s suicidal attack on Fredericksburg’s Marye’s Heights 150 years ago, wrote a vivid account of his experience in a letter to a friend.
FRANCIS E. PIERCE ENROLLED AS A CAPTAIN in Company F of the 108th New York Infantry on August 9, 1862. An 1859 graduate of Rochester University, he had operated the Rochester Military Training School with his brother since 1860. Pierce became major of his regiment on September 17, 1862. In March 1863, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. On June 15, 1865, Pierce became colonel of the 8th Volunteer Veteran Infantry; he ended the war as a brevet brigadier general. Remaining in the Army, he died on November 4, 1896. On December 17, 1862, he wrote a fascinating account of the Battle of Fredericksburg in a letter addressed to a friend named Ed, otherwise unidentified. That letter, made available to Civil War Times Illustrated by William W. Hassler, follows with only minor changes.
Dear Ed: Well, well, here we are again. I have with the reg’t been through a terrible battle and come out of it with only a slight scratch. The last letter I wrote to you was in this tent from this very place. We had just returned here from the Belle Plains, the boys had had orders to build log huts, and all was quiet on the Rappahannock. It seems as if we were to remain here for the winter, but Thursday morning at 2 a.m. orders came to be ready to move that morning at 6 o’clock. We had lots to do, rations to issue and cook, ammunition to distribute, blankets to roll, and lots of little things that I can’t mention. Our orders were to leave our knapsacks and the shelter tents standing and a guard of two men for each company. At 8 we started and marched about 3 miles in roundabout course for Fredericksburgh. The distance from here is about 4½ miles, direct road, but we went around through a valley to avoid shells I suppose. About noon we reached a point where the road crosses the R.R., where we halted until almost night waiting for the completion of the pontoon bridges. While there the tremendous cannonading took place of which you have doubtless read. It was huge, 100 guns being discharged as fast as men could load them—the shells exploding in the city, and the hills so situated that we had a distinct echo for every sound in the addition to the sound itself, made a booming, roaring, crashing combination of sounds that is utterly impossible to describe.
Finally just at night the bridge was completed and Sedgwick’s division crossed the river and after sharp street fighting drove the rebs from the city. The Michigan 7th was the first reg’t over and they fought like demons, captured a number of rebs, took a stand, colors, etc. French’s division was ordered over also and commenced to move, but for some reason it was ordered back and our reg’t and the 130 Penn. in the same brigade were ordered forward to guard the bridge should there be a night attack on it.
Finally we were moved up (the 108th and 130th) right back of the Lacey [sic] House (which was formerly Trinity College, afterward a hotel), and details of 60 or 70 men sent out under charge of 2 commissioned officers to build another pontoon bridge across. I don’t know as our experience in corduroying helped us any, but at daylight when it came my turn to go down with a squad of men, the bridge was across and I had instructions to make the approaches to the bridge—that is to dig the banks so that infantry [supporting] artillery could get on and off from the bridge. It took about 2 hours, when I reported back to the reg’t again. The night we slept by the Lacey house (Thursday) was very miserable, it froze hard, Merrell, Co. A, Lt. Porter, and myself slept together, Sam in the middle all right, and sometimes in the night Merrell had blanket enough to cover him, sometimes I did, but about 2 a.m. on Friday I dug out, built a fire, and toasted myself until it was time for my detail. Friday morning French’s division crossed. The shells flew some but no one was frightened much. Fredericksburgh lies on the west side of the Rappahannock, which at that place runs nearly south. The first street that runs parallel with the river is River Street, the next is Caroline St., the next is Princess Ann St., etc. Streets run back from the river, crossing the streets parallel with the river at exactly right angles. There is a steep ascent of about 10 to 50 feet from the river to get on the first plain, then another steep ascent about the same to get on the next plain, and so on back of Fredericksburgh as far as we could see—2 or 3 miles.
The first row of reb cannon is on a plain just at the brow of steep hill, about 50 feet in height. Right back of that is a plain about 15 rods in width, then comes another hill and another row of cannon which covers and protects the front row—then another plain, hill, and row of cannon, which covers the middle row of cannon, etc., ad infinitum.
Now, as I was saying, we crossed on Friday morning. During that day our brigade (14th Conn. 108th N.Y., 130th Penn) laid in Caroline St. Our batteries from the east side of the river opened on the rebs some, firing right over us, but elicited only feeble replies from the rebs. Their pieces seemed too small and most of them struck in the city, 3 of them near us, one near enough to click the top branches of a small peach tree at the bottom of which Col. Powers, Lt. Porter and myself were sitting. We were in danger all day of course—at any moment a shell might burst right there— very uncomfortable position on the whole. Three or 4 dead rebs were lying around promiscuously and acted with their ghastly gaping death wounds as monitors of what might be in store for us.
Troops crossing all day long. Fredericksburgh given up to pillage and destruction. Boys came into our place loaded with silver pitchers, silver spoons, silver lamps and casters, etc. Great three-story houses furnished magnificently were broken into and their contents scattered over the floors and trampled on by the muddy feet of the soldiers. Splendid alabaster vases and pieces of statuary were thrown at 6 & 700 dollars mirrors. Closets of the very finest china were broken into and their contents smashed onto the floor and stamped to pieces. Finest cut glass ware goblets were hurled at nice plate glass windows, beautifully embroidered window curtains torn down, rosewood pianos piled in the street and burned or soldiers would get on top of them and dance and kick the keyboard and internal machinery all to pieces. Little table ornaments kicking in every direction, wine cellars broken into and the soldiers drinking all they could and then opening the faucets and let the rest run out. Boys go to a barrel of flour and take a pailful and use enough to make one batch of pancakes and then pour the rest in the street—everything turned upside down. The soldiers seemed to delight in destroying everything. Libraries worth thousands of dollars were overhauled and thrown on the floor and in the streets. Ed, I can’t begin to describe the scenes of destruction. It was so throughout the whole city, and from its appearance very many wealthy families must of inhabited it.
Friday night our same trio slept on a mattress in an old house and were roused early in the morning before daylight, with orders for men to cook their breakfasts very quietly and quickly as there was no time to spare. The brigade was drawn up in line in the street and stood under arms until about 10 oclock a.m., when we moved forward. French’s division was selected to storm and take the batteries. The first brigade moved towards them, reached the foot of the hill and could go no further. Ours is the 2nd Brigade. It came our turn now.
We marched from Caroline Street, turned right, turned left up Princess Anne Street, turned right up the railroad, turned right, then By the left flank, forward!
It was an awful place going up to R.R. Shell, solid shot, pieces of R.R. iron and minnie balls came down the R.R. in a perfect storm. From the place we commenced to march in line of battle up to the base of the hill on the brow of which the reb cannons were placed, it was a perfect shower of warlike missiles. Grape, canister, shells and minnies were poured into us from the front, and from the right shells were thrown into us, raking us and exploding in our ranks fearfully. We had 3 board fences to go over and through, and no cover. How any man went up and back again alive is more than I can imagine. There were very few men who did not get ball holes in their clothing. I don’t see how a worse place could have been made.
I got a ball in my blanket and another one in my cap, which made a nice scalp wound without touching the bone, however. I was going along pretty well, bent down as I was somewhat protected from fire by a hill if I kept down and was about to go through the last fence. Without straightening up I just raised my head a little to find a good place to get over and through, when a ball took me in the top of the cap, clear back, and scratched my head down the back side, passing through my cap again near the bottom of the back of it. It tumbled me, of course, but in about 2 minutes I was up again.
It made me mad that some of my company, in fact all of them, got to the hill before I did. A piece of shell took me on the inside of the left leg and makes me lame as sixty, but it didn’t break the skin.
Well, we got to the bottom of a little ridge this side of the batteries and could go no farther it was so awful. Regiments would start and before going half the distance would come back shattered and broken—half of their men behind them. After a while we had orders to fall back, which the right wing did, but the Col. and the left wing being on the left of a fence which runs up the hill did not hear the order and remained there until after dark. It was safer to remain than to fall back.
Companies A&F were standing between a church and a brick house. The battery at the head of the street suddenly opened. The first shot just struck the corner of the house, knocked out a few bricks and exploded just as it struck the church. The 2nd shot passed entirely through the house and exploded just as it struck the church, 3rd shot the same only it exploded inside the church. The 4th shot passed entirely though the house but much lower than the others so that it struck the curbstone on the east side of the street. It exploded and made awful work.
Bob Collins had his left leg taken off close to his body and it was cut into 4 times besides and the foot was cut into. It made a ghastly looking wound. Chas. Clark had his left arm knocked to pieces, also his left thigh and knee. Frank Downing struck in the hip; John Sanders, Co. A. struck in about 4 or 5 places. It was awful. Poor Bob was taken into a hospital right on the same street. Dr. Whitbeck and Dr. Rockwell, Brigade Surgeon, Dr. Cutter, Medical Director of 5th Corps, were present and Bob’s leg was amputated and dressed immediately. It was all that saved him. Had he received the wound on the field he would have died before he could have been carried to a hospital. Last night I saw Dr. W. and he said that Bob is doing well and will in all probability live.
John N. McNaughton has his left leg off close up to his body. Frank Downing of my company, after being wounded at the church, went with us and was again wounded, so that his right leg is taken off below his knee. A number of my men are wounded besides. Saturday night I slept in the same old house. Sunday our troops were moved down under the bank of river where we remained Sunday night. Monday in the same place. Not much fighting.
Monday night Lt. Col. Powers and myself had just lain down together on some boards torn from a fence to keep up out of the mud when an order came to him, “Have your men fall in as quickly and quietly as possible. We are going back to our old camp.” Not a word was spoken above a whisper—not a single noise was made, and in almost no time…we were starting for this side of the river. Oh, Ed, you can’t tell the feeling of relief that I experienced when we were on this side of the river. For 5 long, long days we were in great danger every moment, had lost 15,000 killed and wounded, were awfully whipped, and not had a moment’s quiet.
Lame, sore, sick, tired, frightened, and wounded, after a horrible march of 4 miles in the dark, frequently sinking in and over my boots, I reached our old camp, entered the tent, fell down and remained there until morning. I never want to go through another such 5 days. I am willing to go almost anywhere and endure anything but deliver me from ever being marched into such useless wholesale murder as that was. Crossing the river in face of an enemy in superior force, strongly fortified, is an experiment that I don’t think Burnside will attempt again very soon. I don’t dare to express my opinions now. The whole army is disheartened and discouraged and it is certain that by arms the Confederacy can never be subdued. Their troops are, of course, hopeful and jubilant. It is useless lying to say that they have not supplies, ammunition, and courage.
Our brigade is all cut to pieces. Only 2 out of 9 field officers left, viz. Palmer and Powers. The 14th Conn. has only 4 officers left and is in command of its junior capt. The 130th Penn. has only 2 or 3 officers and 60 men left and is in command of a lieut. Our reg’t was very fortunate. Not an officer killed and only 4 very slightly wounded. Four men only were killed but more serious wounds were received than at Antietam. Fifty-nine comprised our list of killed and wounded. What is to be done now I don’t know. Give us back McClellan and we will fight again feeling certain that we shall not be led to certain death without accomplishing anything.
I must close now. I want you to take this letter up to Mother Chase and read it to her immediately. Don’t have any of this published.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.