From John Hennessy:
[Note: Edited by Greg Acken and published as part of the University of Tennessee’s excellent Voices of the Civil War series, Fortescue’s Service with the Signal Corps ought to become a standard source on the Army of the Potomac through Gettysburg (he was captured on July 5). For a post that looks at 1864 images taken of the courhouse, click here.]
Rarely do primary sources give us a completely different view of an event, but Louis Fortescue’s account of his time in the cupola of the Circuit Courthouse in Fredericksburg is an exception. In our last post, Fortescue narrated his ascension to the fourth level of the cupola. Arriving there, he described how the signalmen who had preceded him had knocked out the covers and (probably) the blinds that filled four circular openings in the cupola.
Through this opening, Fortescue had a panoramic view of the battlefield. His view matched the vantage point for this sketch by Alfred Waud, almost certainly done from the cupola on December 13. Click the sketch to enlarge it.
Fortescue wrote of watching the distant lines of battle virtually stuck in the bloody plain before the Sunken Road on the afternoon of December 14:
About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, two companies of infantry became tired of lying in the mud, and concluded to make a break for the town, regardless of the fact that retreat was more dangerous than to remain. At a signal they arose and started pell-mell for the city. Scarcely had they risen when a line of fire opened on them from along the stone wall. The running of this gauntlet of hundreds of mots would have been ludicrous but for the mortal suffering inflicted upon many of them. One after another could be seen pitching headlong from a shot, and until night closed down upon us we could see many of them writhing in agony with no possible chance to afford them relief. It was sad to witness their terrible plight….
Later, Fortescue watched a much more personal struggle to evacuate a wounded soldier from the bloody plain.
Just after this fusillade had died away my attention was called to two men on the left of the plain, who while lying down were endeavoring to place a wounded man on a stretcher near them. After much labor they succeeded in getting the helpless man comfortably placed, and summoning courage, they each rose, grasped a handle, and started for the rear, trustfully hoping that the nature of their errand would shield them from the deadly aim of the sharpshooters. But flushed with victory, and careless of the humanitarian boldness of the two men in an effort to succor a comrade, the shots from the wall rang out and soon brought down the leading carrier. The other dropped a moment afterward and we thought him mortally hurt but in a few minutes [we] observed him creeping slowly away until about fifty feet had been covered, when he started at full speed and reached the houses safely.
In our next and last look at Fortescue’s memoir: chaos erupts in the courthouse cupola.