“The Little Regiment”: Stephen Crane’s Little-Known Story of Fredericksburg, pt. 2


from:  Harrison

In Part One of this post, I described Stephen Crane’s Civil War short story, “The Little Regiment,” with an overview of the narrative, its match to the general setting and timeline of the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, the fictional regiment’s connection to the actual Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, Crane’s visit to the battlefield in 1896, and the adaptation of the story for television in 1954. In Part Two of the post, let’s consider a possible source of inspiration for his tale.

Ahead of the spoilers below, I again encourage you to read Crane’s text as first published, in June 1896 in McClure’s Magazine (beginning on page two of the public-domain pdf here): The Little Regiment

Caroline then and now

For a trip report in 1891, five years before Crane’s visit to Fredericksburg, the veterans of a Second Corps regiment sponsored this photograph of a segment of Caroline Street, extending north from its intersection with Fauquier Street, that had hosted their billets in December 1862. (Tall pump at left may predate the Civil War, lamp suspended over intersection dates to after the war.) Source: Henry S. Stevens, Souvenir of Excursion to Battlefields… (Washington, D.C., 1893), p. 77. Modern-counterpart image: Google StreetView.

Crane’s story ends with its Union-soldier protagonists back in the debris-littered streets of a fictionalized Fredericksburg. When their attack could advance no farther, they had fired a volley at the enemy held heights and withdrawn to the town. Crane continues: “After this episode the men renamed their command. They called it the Little Regiment.”

On an advertising page of the magazine’s May 1896 issue, a McClure’s publicist had announced Crane’s forthcoming tale: “the story of a heroic charge at Fredericksburg wherein ‘The Little Regiment,’ which gives title to the story, suffered a devastation almost without parallel in the annals of war.” Perhaps the publicist consulted only a preliminary, long draft, or read it partially or not at all. As I described in Part One of this blog post, the Crane story that McClure’s actually published in June 1896 specified neither a particular, historical regiment from the annals of war nor a historical battle, although Fredericksburg residents, veterans, and historians would have recognized the setting and events as the December 1862 clash. And as I note below, Crane did not emphasize devastation of the ranks of his fictional regiment.

Crane May 1896 advertising publish

McClure’s advance publicity for “The Little Regiment,” May 1896 (p. iv).

But in a 1967 article analyzing the story, C. B. Ives sought to recover the closer, historical specificity that the McClure’s publicist had implied in May 1896, arguing that Crane derived its title and at least some of its plot from the record of the 69th New York State Volunteers. Ives noted the Second Corps connection and considered candidates from among its units. Ives included in the article a Fredericksburg casualties table for the five regiments of the second (“Irish”) brigade of the Second Corps’ First Division. Of those, he wrote, the 69th “had the highest percentage of casualties…and came out the battle the littlest of all these little regiments.” “After Fredericksburg,” he reiterated towards the end of his article,” it was a very ‘little regiment’ indeed.”

Linson portrait 1894 Wikimedia Commons

Detail of Corwin Knapp Linson’s portrait of Stephen Crane two years prior to his 1896 trip to Fredericksburg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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