“The Little Regiment”: Stephen Crane’s Little-Known Story of the Battle of Fredericksburg, pt. 1


from:  Harrison

The secondary anniversaries of a battle —the anniversaries of its portrayals and interpretations as well as of its delayed impacts upon people—follow its principal anniversary. This summer finds us in the aftermath of not only the 154th anniversary of the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg but also the 120th anniversary of the publication in 1896 of “The Little Regiment,” Stephen Crane’s short story inspired by that battle. The story garnered wide circulation initially but later fell under the broadening shadow of The Red Badge of Courage, his classic tale published in 1894-1895.

For the park’s History at Sunset series, my colleague Becky Oakes recently presented a program on Red Badge and the April-May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, partial inspiration for Crane’s novel. My consideration of “The Little Regiment,” below, draws encouragement from Becky’s program and from an earlier History at Sunset presentation on Red Badge by John Hennessy and Andrea Dekoter (video here). We hope you can attend History at Sunset events, marvelous opportunities to engage with a variety of Civil War subjects in the actual settings of the events discussed. I write this post on a Fourth of July weekend at my home, itself located mile or two from the sites of the Army of the Potomac’s camps prior to the December 1862 battle.

McClure's woodcut 2

A woodcut from Stephen Crane’s fictionalized Fredericksburg, captioned with his text describing skirmishing prior to the main Union attack. “The Little Regiment,” McClure’s Magazine, June 1896: 13.

“The Little Regiment” first appeared in the United States in the June 1896 issue of McClure’s Magazine.  (Chapman’s Magazine of Fiction ran “The Little Regiment” at the same time in Great Britain.) Stephen Crane had visited Fredericksburg sometime between January 12 and January 26, 1896, after McClure’s co-editor John S. Phillips requested a series on Civil War battlefields. Crane’s ensuing work produced several short stories about the war. McClure’s illustrated “The Little Regiment” with three woodcuts captioned with or positioned near the corresponding passages in Crane’s text. Another overlooked aspect thus emerges when our perspective widens beyond The Red Badge of Courage: many early readers encountered Crane’s visions of the Civil War—of Fredericksburg, at least—in art as well as in words.

1896 railroad stations final

Stephen Crane walked or rode past these Fredericksburg buildings during his January 1896 visit, four years after veterans of the Second Corps’ 14th Connecticut Infantry sponsored this informal photo. Center background, behind railroad car: wartime freight station of broad-gauge railroad (RF&P) connecting Fredericksburg with Washington and points north, upon which Crane arrived and departed. Right foreground: postwar passenger/freight station of narrow-gauge railroad to Orange (PF&P in the 1890’s, “Unfinished Railroad” in 1862). Left foreground: possible railing of Prussia Street bridge at or near site of millrace/canal-ditch bridge crossed by attacking Second Corps regiments—possible counterpart to one of the “little bridges” referenced in Crane’s story. Henry S. Stevens, Souvenir of Excursion to Battlefields (Washington, D.C., 1893), p. 82. Modern site of railroad-stations area from similar viewpoint and angle at Kenmore Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard: Google StreetView. 

The Red Badge of Courage had appeared prior to Crane’s 1896 visit–in print as a newspaper serial in December 1894 and as a book in October 1895. Obviously hoping to capitalize on the success of Red Badge, McClure’s Magazine added “By the Author of The Red Badge of Courage” to Crane’s byline for “The Little Regiment” in June 1896. In November 1896, other publishers in America and Britain reprinted “The Little Regiment” in book-length compilations of six of his Civil War short stories, three penned for McClure’s and three for the Irving Bacheller syndicate.

portraits WikiCommons final

Left: Stephen Crane in 1896, the year he visited Fredericksburg and published “The Little Regiment.” Right: Adolphe Menjou, who hosted a telecast of Crane’s story in 1954. Both: Wikimedia Commons.

Artists in media besides woodcuts would illustrate Crane’s fictionalized Fredericksburg. Although “The Little Regiment” has yet to rate a movie-length treatment, as Red Badge of Courage did in 1951, it did inspire a television program.

The series Favorite Story broadcast The Little Regiment as a half-hour teleplay in October 1954. Host Adolphe Menjou provided the introduction. A Star is Born, A Farewell to Arms, and Paths of Glory were among his past or future acting credits. Ellis Marcus, a prolific, future contributor to episodes of everything from Mission Impossible to Knots Landing and Lassie (my first television-addiction) adapted the teleplay from Stephen Crane’s story. Leon Benson—The High Chapparrall and Bonanza—directed. The 1954 show featured actors Russ Conway—destined for fame via The Virginian, The Fugitive, and Bonanza among other shows; John Doucette—The Big Valley, Get Smart, Mannix, The Big Valley; and Duane Gray—Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Rawhide. The 1954 show was rebroadcast at least once, in September 1958.

Before offering further thoughts and spoilers, I encourage you to read the McClure’s June 1896 version of Crane’s “The Little Regiment,” beginning on page 2 of this public-domain pdf: The Little Regiment

(The entire, public-domain volume of McClure’s is here, including Crane’s June 1896 story. A public-domain version of “The Little Regiment” as collected in the November 1896 book is here.)

“The Little Regiment” in 1896 offered settings and general events nearly identical to those of the December 1862 battle, although Crane did not use the terms “Fredericksburg” or “Rappahannock,” or name the opposing commanders and armies. In 1967, Charles B. Ives noted abundant parallels to the historical battle, in one of the few scholarly articles devoted solely to “The Little Regiment”: Crane’s protagonists, brothers Dan and Billie Dempster, march and bivouac with their regiment on “the cold earth of December,” pause on the north side of a river listening to the bombardment of and preliminary fighting in a “little city”—called “town” and “village” elsewhere in the story—then cross to it over a pontoon bridge.

McClure's woodcut 1

A Union cannon among the “long row of guns” that bombard the town at the start of Crane’s story. (The shadowing and orientation suggest that the McClure’s artist adapted Alexander Gardner’s stereograph of a gun overlooking Belle Isle and Richmond.) “The Little Regiment”: 12.

In the town, Crane writes, “infantry and artillery were in a most precarious jumble in the streets.” Dan chats with a comrade “smoking his pipe of confiscated tobacco, seated comfortably upon a horse-hair trunk which he had dragged from the house.” Their conversation at one point references five of the six corps-numbers of the actual Army of the Potomac units engaged on the south side of the Rappahannock in December 1862. They go on to distinguish those from their own, unnamed corps—clearly the Second—which has also crossed to engage, as its real-life counterpart did in 1862. Nearby, another Federal “had chanced upon a hoop-skirt and arrayed in it was performing a dance amid the applause of his companions.” The men eventually move to “a dry old kitchen” despite its artillery damaged wall “strongly anxious to topple.”

The brothers then depart and return separately, as skirmishing occurs on the fringes of the town that night and the next day, prior to the main Union attack. (The story is unclear on whether Billie’s temporary absence represents his service on an actual picket-detail, or one imagined by his secretly worried brother.)

Crane’s account of Dan’s own, subsequent experience while detailed to the picket line includes illustration by the vivid woodcut I posted above. Even the limited but occasionally dramatic nature of skirmishing on December 12, 1862, the day before the main attack, thus finds a fictionalized counterpart in Crane’s narrative, in addition to the other historical parallels noted by Charles Ives. In 1886, William Kepler published a recollection of fighting on December 12 by men detailed from the Second Corps’ Fourth Ohio Infantry. Kepler described his and his comrades’ experiences along Hanover Street and around and west of the RF&P Railroad freight and passenger stations at Princess Anne and Prussia Streets:

[T]he details moved out on two different streets and were immediately fired upon on Hanover street, and Watson McCullough, of Company C, was wounded, causing a halt, and a sharp engagement until the squad on Princess Ann street…flanked the rebel pickets…advancing still further they noticed the depot and machine shops…under a shower of bullets coming from a new source, a railroad cut…the squad now crossed the bridge over a canal…moved to the right oblique to the house that was the furthest out of any…looking out the west window, they saw near at hand the pickets taking good aim, and firing on our men near Hanover street; the window was opened and a volley sent into the flank of a number of “graybacks” lying in a ditch, when there was a lively climbing and rushing to the rear by fifty or more Confederates, who did not stop until they were under the protection of their comrades, behind the stone wall….

I’m struck by how “The Little Regiment,” although inspired by a battle that predated the historical Chancellorsville, serves as a sequel to Crane’s fictional Chancellorsville. Red Badge gives us an inexperienced Union soldier trying to accommodate himself to combat in his first battle. “The Little Regiment” gives us veteran Union soldiers maintaining their accommodation to combat in the latest of a series of battles or campaigns (a process eased at the fictionalized Fredericksburg by each brother learning at different times that the other has survived successive rounds of fighting).

1904 pontoon photo
Another Second Corps veterans’ group published this photo of the site of their pontoon-bridge crossing of the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg (behind viewer), 42 years after the battle and eight years after Stephen Crane’s visit. Area of foot of Hawke Street in foreground; Chatham atop bluffs and among trees in upper-right background. The brothers in Crane’s fictional Second Corps regiment renew their public feud en route to the pontoon crossing, and preview some of the dangers ahead. History of the Twelfth Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers… (Providence, R.I., 1901-1904), f. p. 33. 

The men of The Little Regiment know little of broader military operations or rationale. Yet they do not lack for previews of the danger awaiting them beyond the town: Federal wounded carried past them; distant glimpses, while approaching the bridge, of the enemy-held “fortified line of hills; ” the splash of long-range rounds in the river; and the ongoing sounds of infantry skirmishing and artillery. Their understanding that they are but one small component of a “mass of men of one intention” buffers the dread. The “veteran’s singular cynicism,” Crane continues, provides further consolation: their “duty was to grab sleep and food when occasion permitted, and cheerfully fight wherever their feet were planted, until more orders came. This was a task sufficiently absorbing.”

No less absorbing for the brothers the challenge of balancing an inner affection and concern for one another with their outward, public interaction—successive insults and offended silences. At the onset of their third campaign with the regiment, they have renewed the sequence. Billie grumbled at the regiment having to wait “like a lot of wooden soldiers” in a patch of cold mud on the north side of the river. Dan responded by calling him “a dammed fool” in front of their comrades. Once over the pontoon bridge and in the town, the brothers make a show of ignoring one another even as each fears privately for the other’s safety.

An increase of mounted aides in the streets marks “the verge of the great fight” on the morning of Crane’s fictionalized December 13, 1862. Billie and Dan advance with the regiment out from the town. An exploding shell leaves “motionless figures” nearby but spares the brothers. They and each of the other soldiers nearby rages “to the limits of his vocabulary, for veterans detest being killed when they are not busy.”

McClure's woodcut 3

Woodcut accompanying Crane’s account of the Union attack on the heights. “The Little Regiment”: 17.

The regiment then advances “across some little bridges” and up onto a plain towards the enemy held ridge, “outlined, crossed, and re-crossed by sheets of flame.” The cynicism and cursing give way to an animal élan:

That fierce elation in the terrors of war, catching a man’s heart and making it burn with such ardor that he becomes capable of dying, flashed in the faces of the men like colored lights, and made them resemble leashed animals, eager, ferocious, daunting at nothing. The line was really in its first leap before the wild, hoarse crying of the orders.

The greed for close quarters which is the emotion of a bayonet charge came then into the minds of the men and developed until it was a madness. The field, with its faded grass of a Southern winter, seemed miles in width to this fury.

***

It was as if a necromancer had suddenly shown them a picture of the fact which awaited them, but the line with a muscular spasm hurled itself…until the men were stumbling amid the relics of other assaults, the point where the fire from the ridge consumed.

The men, panting, perspiring, with crazed faces, tried to push against it; but it was as if they had come to a wall.  The wave halted, shuddered in an agony from the quick struggle of its two desires, then toppled, and broke into a fragmentary thing which has no name.

Veterans could now at last be distinguished from recruits. The new regiments were instantly gone, lost, scattered, as if they had never been. But the sweeping failure of the charge, the battle, could not make the veterans forget their business. With a last throe, the band of maniacs drew itself up and blazed a volley at the hill, insignificant to those iron intrenchments, but nevertheless expressing that singular final despair which enables men to coolly defy the walls of a city of death.

While not departing from the overall sequence of the historical battle of Fredericksburg, Crane’s version ends at a non-traditional point: after the last volley of the main attack, and after the Union retreat into the town but prior to the withdrawal across the river. Crane emphasizes veterans’ stolidity that is reaffirmed, rather than their army’s defeat. The soldiers of the Little Regiment once again gather around bivouac fires “upon the sidewalks, in the streets, in the yards.” Light from the scattered blazes explores “like slim red fingers, the dingy, scarred walls and the piles of tumbled brick.”

An eagle-finial that “had led men into the mystic smoke” tops a flag laid horizontally between nearby musket-stacks. Crane’s narrative pauses at one group who stare into the flames “with a certain fine contentment, like laborers after a hard day’s work.” They appear more in readiness for the next lunge into the mystic smoke than in recovery from the prior lunge.

Next: some suggested sources for and reader receptions of Crane’s story

Noel G. Harrison

I make no claim to be a Stephen Crane specialist. This post shares my own introduction to his ruminations on Fredericksburg. Having begun reading about the “The Little Regiment” with C. B. Ives’ 1967 article, I plan to continue next with John Clendenning’s “The Thematic Unity of The Little Regiment” in volume 14 of Stephen Crane Studies. Citations for the vast body of additional scholarship on and about Crane and The Red Badge of Courage are readily available via the website of the Stephen Crane Society and elsewhere online. For general background on Crane, “The Little Regiment,” and Red Badge, my post draws extensively on Paul Sorrentino’s outstanding, recent biography where cited below. Beyond the park-based introduction of John and Andrea’s Youtube-video, interpretations of the Red Badge-Chancellorsville connection include Charles J. LaRocca, Stephen Crane’s Novel Of The Civil War: The Red Badge Of Courage, an Historically Annotated Edition (New York, 1995), and Perry Lentz, Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: The Red Badge of Courage and the Civil War (Columbia, Mo., 2006).

Sources, in order of appearance of topics (italics)—general background and illustrations: Stephen Crane, “The Little Regiment,” McClure’s Magazine (June 1896): 12-22 (cited hereafter as Crane), Crane’s 1896 Fredericksburg visit: R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes, Stephen Crane: Letters (New York, 1960), pp. 98-100, 102, timeline for Little Regiment short story, and Phillips correspondence: Paul Sorrentino, A Life of Fire: Stephen Crane (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2014), pp. 188-189, Stanley Wertheim, A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia (Westport, Conn. and London, 1997), p. 198, locations of railroads and stations: L. R. Grabill, Plan of Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1890millrace/canal-ditch and bridges in 1862: Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge, La., 2006), pp. 262-264, 302, publication-timelines for Little Regiment story collection and Red Badge: Sorrentino, pp. 148, 186, 189-190, Favorite Story telecast, personnel, and 1958 rebroadcast: Chicago Tribune, Sept. 13, 1958, The Classic TV Archive, “Your Favorite Story (1953-54),” Internet Movie Database, “Your Favorite Story” (1953- ): The Little RegimentIves noting resemblance, and Crane’s passages supporting it: Crane, 12, 14-17;  C. B. Ives, “’The Little Regiment’ of Stephen Crane at the Battle of Chancellorsville,” The Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 8 (1967): 247-260, brothers’ real or imagined service as pickets:  Crane, 15-16, 18-19, Fourth Ohio’s picket-fighting on December 12: William Kepler, History of the Three Months’ and Three Years’ Service…of the Fourth Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry… (Cleveland, 1886), pp. 92-93, trying to accommodate to combat in Red Badge: Sorrentino, 171, Upper Pontoons/Hawke Street as site of Second Corps 1862 crossing into Fredericksburg: O’Reilly, 107-108, previews of danger ahead in The Little Regiment: Crane, 14, 16; veterans’ calm sense of duty: Crane, 16, 19; Billie and Dan’s relationship: Crane, 12-18, 21-22; advance and attack during the fictionalized December 13: Crane, 19-20, bivouac in town after attack: Crane, 20.

Special thanks to my father, David Harrison, for research assistance.

Gratitude is also extended to Professor Gary Stanton of the University of Mary Washington, whose indispensable Fredericksburg Research Resources website includes a copy of the 1890 Grabill map.

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6 thoughts on ““The Little Regiment”: Stephen Crane’s Little-Known Story of the Battle of Fredericksburg, pt. 1

  1. A really high quality, inspired investigation into the development of historical memory through story and narrative art, A very important piece of literary criticism, and historiography — but with a central flaw, namely that the author — like Crane — treats Fredericksburg I of December, 1862, as if it were the ONLY “Battle of Fredericksburg” — thereby doing an unnecessary disservice to the entire history of the Civil War at Fredericksburg. Otherwise, truly fine.

  2. Great post, Noel. As someone heavily engaged in researching Second Fred, let me say that the NPS historians (both past and present) have been exceedingly generous with their time and allowed me access to reams of archival material. The Park itself may not interpret the April-May battle, but many of the Park staff are well-versed in those events. You guys are the best. Interestingly, the American Battlefield Protection Program thoroughly botches up its description of a significant portion of the Chancellorsville campaign that occurred in Fredericksburg, making it a challenge to compete for preservation planning funds. I tried to correct the record, but ABPP staff called the battle action of May 4, 1863 a “retreat skirmish.” The casualties over several days of fighting at Fredericksburg, Salem Church, and Banks Ford (April 29-May 4) constituted a quarter of the casualties incurred during the entire campaign. That level of fighting is not properly described as a retreat skirmish. Hang in there Noel, you are doing important work.

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