We continue to present the words from the Fredericksburg Remembrance Walk on Sunday, December 10. The walk included six stops, where visitors had the chance to place a flower and staff presented some thoughts on the site. Frank O’Reilly delivered these words in front of the stone wall, on the Bloody Plain–on a part of the field not reached by Union troops on December 13, 1862.
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Here, on the edge of the Bloody Plain that witnessed the advance of more than 20,000 Union soldiers, we remember both fear and courage, deeply intermingled.
The soldiers of the Union army who entered what was then a vast open plain west of Fredericksburg had a good idea of what confronted them. And they disliked their chances. But still they came.
A soldier wrote on December 12:
Tomorrow we anticipate a dreadful engagement; of the result we are not too hopeful, for we are aware of the almost impregnability of the enemy’s position, his great force and desperate condition. We have confidence in Burnside, faith in the justice of our cause, and believe, with the slightest shadow of doubt, that victory will crown our arms. With this hope we will rest.
Just before the advance, a Union soldier approached his company commander in town.
“I can’t go, Captain.”
“Why not? Are you sick?”
“No. But I can’t go. I have a family at home, and I must support them. If I go over there I will be killed.”
And, wrote a witness, the strong man commenced to cry….
This was a landscape whose horror would lodge in the American consciousness. 500 yards of open field, broken only the remnant fences of the town’s fairgrounds and a single house, owned by wheelwright Allen Stratton. This would be the defining landscape of Fredericksburg.
The thousands of soldiers who dared to enter the bloody plain struggled with the great dilemma that confronts every soldier—the competing forces of fear and duty. Narratives of the Civil War—be they modern studies or eyewitness accounts—invariably discuss courage at length and fear very little. Not at Fredericksburg.
Fear was omnipresent among Union soldiers on this field, and they freely admitted it. As one man from Connecticut plainly put it, “We thought every moment would be our last and I am willing to say for one that I was pretty badly scared.”
Another soldier remembered that one of his comrades “seemed in terrible mental agony, groaning and taking on. Perhaps I felt as badly as he but I kept it to myself. I felt that the hand of man or any earthly power was unable to save me, and I appealed to my Heavenly Father to save me, if it were His will.”
For most, a conscious sense of duty and commitment helped overcome the paralyzing fear.
One may ask how such dangers can be faced. The answer is, there are many things more to be feared than death. Cowardice and failure of duty with me were some of them. I said to myself, ‘This is duty. I’ll trust in God and do it. If I fall, I cannot die better. [Hitchcock]
Courage is an inverse measure of fear. Courage is the will to overawe fear. Think about this: the depth of fear at Fredericksburg demanded an unprecedented measure of courage to overcome.
A Union brigade commander—a rank of men not usually prone to declamations of fear—wrote of this place, “I never realized before what war was. I never before felt so horrible since I was born.”
But he and thousands of others went willingly onto this Bloody Plain, with faith that the risk asked of them, the sacrifices they would make, the lives they would lose, would, somehow, help the nation. They did what they did because their nation asked them to, and they had faith enough in their nation to do what seemed to be impossible, and indeed it would prove to be.
Each of the armies that fought at Fredericksburg was, in its own way, a remarkable entity. Rare has been the American army that, like the Union Army of the Potomac, had its identity forged and burnished as much by defeat and adversity as by victory.
Eight months after Fredericksburg, the armies of Fredericksburg clashed at Gettysburg. Some of the men who had stood on this bloody plain, who had witnessed friends and leaders fall in this field, helped defeat the last Confederate attack at Gettysburg, Pickett’s Charge.
As the Confederates receded back in retreat, the very soldiers who had struggled in this field, cheered the Union victory with a chant: “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”
The courage summoned here would become part of the Army of the Potomac’s identity, and it would reverberate to war’s end and beyond.
Up next: the Innis House–the civilians.