“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 When their attack could advance no farther, they had fired a volley at the enemy held heights and withdrawn to the town.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.


Ives’ s bibliography included D. P. Conyngham’s The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns: With Some Account of the Corcoran Legion, and Sketches of the Principal Officers (1866). Although Conyngham had used the term “little brigade,” rather than “little regiment” (and to describe the brigade prior to its attack on the heights outside the town), he indeed acknowledged their heavy loss at the December 1862 battle. Conyngham portrayed it as “a wholesale slaughter of human beings—sacrificed to the blind ambition and incapacity of some parties.” In his discussion of Fredericksburg, he went on to ask, “Who are these lines of men that lie stretched along the right and left, as if asleep on their arms? They are the dead and wounded soldiers and officers the Irish Brigade.” He continued: “this was war—‘glorious war’…. If we could see it in its true colors, it is the most horrible curse that God could inflict upon mankind.”

Crane’s story, in contrast, makes but one, obvious reference to death in the brothers’ regiment, when a shell explodes just prior to their forming for the attack. They then charge “galloping, scrambling, plunging like a herd of wounded horses.” Bodies lie strewn in front of them, but those are “the records of other charges.” For the Little Regiment itself, death thereafter is implied only in one of the story’s woodcuts, by famed historical illustrator Isaac Walton Taber. It features a man struck in their advancing ranks, and a second falling or stumbling.

McClure's woodcut 3

Taber’s woodcut accompanying Crane’s account of the Union attack on the heights. “The Little Regiment,” McClure’s Magazine, June 1896: 17.

In my read, the adoption of “Little” by Crane’s regiment after the attack on the heights reflects as much their David-like defiance of the collective Goliath of the Confederates in flaming “iron intrenchments”—the Union regiment’s fearlessness and their living to fight another day even if not emulating David’s victory—as their loss during the attack. The faltering and disappearance of the “new regiments” around the veteran Little Regiment highlights the emotional and bodily resilience that they possess from start to finish.

Billie (the head casualty in Taber’s picture?) falls wounded but makes his way back in the night to the town. As the story nears its close, some of his comrades in the regiment gather around a bivouac fire in a street, “engaged in holding in check their jovial spirits. They moved whispering around the blaze, although they looked into it with a certain fine contentment, like laborers after a day’s hard work.” Crane writes that even the worst of the mayhem through which they had just passed—“the sweeping failure of the charge, the battle, could not make the veterans forget their business.” That mayhem seemingly relieved them of their frustration, at the opening of Crane’s story, at being inactive. They now restrain their voices and expression not because of war’s horrors or resentment of inept Federal planning but out of respect for Dan, “who sat apart,” brooding on his missing brother. Then Billie appears amid their “shout of amazement and delight” and “with a bandage of the size of a helmet” to share in their stoicism and seeming immortality.

Coffin final

Engraved portrait of Charles Carleton Coffin, frontispiece to his Four Years of Fighting.

Ives’s article cited contemporary accounts besides Conyngham’s—mainly Northerners’ and Southerners’ reminiscences in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, and a few Fredericksburg reports in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. But aside from a pair of brief citations (regarding the presence of fog on December 11, 1862 and Union bivouac fires), he did not offer analysis of what appears to me to be one of the most promising, possible sources for Crane that is listed in Ives’s short bibliography: Charles Carleton Coffin’s book, Four Years of Fighting: A Volume of Personal Observation with the Army and Navy, from the First Battle of Bull Run to the Fall of Richmond (1866).

Coffin had accompanied the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in December 1862 as a journalist. While Coffin’s account of the battle that month made no mention of the Irish Brigade or its component regiments, a close read shows that he described (across just four pages) the Federals’ enjoyment of confiscated tobacco in Fredericksburg, their donning of pillaged civilian clothing and moving of looted furniture into the streets, the fog that again enveloped both armies on the morning of December 12, and the splashing of Confederate artillery rounds in the river—all featured in Crane’s story. The canal ditch/millrace, situated in front of the Confederate defenses on the outskirts of the town and spanned by “little bridges” of the sort referenced by Crane, appears on a map on a fifth page of Coffin’s Fredericksburg account.

Coffin’s narrative, moreover, finds markedly similar echoes in Crane’s once the Union assaults are underway. Crane has Dan, Billie, and their comrades advance against “the ridge, the shore of this gray sea…outlined, crossed, and re-crossed by sheets of flame.” Coffin’s soldiers advance against “a sheet of flame” from the Sunken Road “and another from the half-way up the slope, and yet another from the top of the hill.” “The wave” of Crane’s attackers eventually “halted, shuddered in an agony…then toppled, and broke into a fragmentary thing.” In Coffin’s narrative

still on, nearer to the hill rolls the wave. Still, still it flows on; but we can see that it is losing its power, and though advancing, it will be broken. It begins to break. It is no longer a wave, but scattered remnants….

Although not noted by Ives, the availability of Coffin’s book to Crane would have been enhanced further by having undergone at least 11 print runs between 1866 and 1894.

Bancroft 4 Mich final

Like Crane’s story, this detail of a rarely seen engraving of Fifth Corps troops (probably the Fourth Michigan Infantry) at Fredericksburg in December 1862, emphasizes the strength of the Confederate position but also the determination of the subject Union regiment, advancing—with minimal loss to themselves—towards the enemy and the casualties of previous Union attacks. Although highly stylized, the picture does convey the general topography reasonably well, with the Marye House (missing its actual, two-story portico and one-story wings) at upper right, one of the Willis Hill buildings at upper left and across the ravine, and one of the Innis and Stephens houses (roof) at center left. Source: John Milton Bancroft, Diary/Scrapbook, p. 113 (electronic p. 134), Auburn University Libraries, at  http://content.lib.auburn.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/civil/id/22066/rec/1 , used here in accordance with Auburn University Libraries’ posted policy on non-commercial use.

On January 9, 1896, on the eve of the Fredericksburg trip, Crane wrote to John S. Phillips, co-founder and co-editor of McClure’s Magazine, to share his view that the town and its outskirts had hosted “the most dramatic battle of the war.” In a December 30, 1895 letter, Crane had responded to Phillips’s suggestion to author a series of Civil War narratives and reported that he anticipated three, general phases of research among “the investigations of all kinds”: “the preliminary reading and the subsequent reading” and a visit to each battle’s site “at the time of year when it was fought.” The December 1862 clash at Fredericksburg was an obvious topic given the current travel-season. Crane proposed that battle, specifically, in his January 9, 1896 letter to Phillips, reiterating his determination to understand the subject “completely as far as the books will teach.” Crane’s January 9 letter continued: he seemed to sense in the history of the Army of the Potomac, “goaded and hooted by the sit-stills until it was near insane” in December 1862, the compelling tightening of an internal spring (my analogy, not Crane’s).

In a January 27, 1896 letter to Samuel S. McClure, the magazine’s other founder, Crane reported that his short story, what he termed “the Fredericksburg row,” was coming “into shape.” By then, or soon thereafter, Crane’s mud-bound Billie Dempster was fuming at the inaction of “wooden soldiers,” and Billie’s comrades “graphically exaggerat[ing] the number of hours they had been kept waiting” for combat. In the January 9, 1896 letter to Phillips, Crane had drawn upon history to anticipate much of what these fictitious soldiers would experience next: “just as a maddened man may dash his fists against an iron wall,” so did the spring eventually release and their army “hurl itself against the hills back of Fredericksburg.”

Next: landscape and Civil War commemoration in Fredericksburg at the time of Crane’s 1896 visit.

Noel G. Harrison

Chronological note: The editors of a 1960 collection of Crane’s correspondence would date to November 12, 1895 a letter in which he reported himself at work on “The Little Regiment,” and that he had even decided on that title. Their assignment of a November 12 date, however, seems to me out of sequence with the story’s genesis and evolution as related in his correspondence of December 1895-January 1896 discussed above, letters that include month-and-day dates in the original.

General note: Part Two of this post carries the same caveats as Part One. I make no claim to be a Stephen Crane specialist, and merely share my own introduction to his ruminations on Fredericksburg. Citations for the vast body of scholarship on Crane are readily available via the website of the Stephen Crane Society and elsewhere online, and in published works such as Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire.

Sources, in order of appearance of topics (italics) above—end of battle and renaming of regiment: Stephen Crane, “The Little Regiment,” McClure’s Magazine (June 1896, cited hereafter as Crane): 20 (quotation); advance publicity in May issue of McClure’s: “McClure’s Magazine Anniversary Number,” McClure’s Magazine, May 1896: iv; Ives’ interpretation of name: C. B. Ives, “’The Little Regiment’ of Stephen Crane at the Battle of Chancellorsville,” The Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 8 (1967): 248-249, 255 258 (first quotation), 259 (second quotation); Ives’s sources-list including Conyngham: Ives: 260; Conyngham and “little brigade”: D. P. Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns: With Some Account of the Corcoran Legion, and Sketches of the Principal Officers (New York), 1867, p. 341; Conyngham on brigade’s losses and horrors of war: Conyngham, pp. 343 (first quotation), 345 (second quotation), 346 (third quotation); Crane’s sparse recognition of death in the regiment: Crane: 17, 19, 20 (first and second quotations); regiment’s defiance and resilience during the attack: Crane: 20 (quotations); regiment’s pre-battle frustration and post-attack bivouac, Billie’s return: Crane: 12, 20 (first and second quotations), 21 (third and fourth quotations), 22 (fifth quotation); Ives’ citation of Union and Confederate accounts in Battles and Leaders and Official Records: Ives: 247-248, 250-255, 258; Ives’s two citations of Coffin: Ives: 250, 253; Coffin’s witnessing and description of the battle: Charles Carleton Coffin, Four Years of Fighting: A Volume of Personal Observation with the Army and Navy, from the First Battle of Bull Run to the Fall of Richmond (Boston), 1866, pp. 146, 148-150, 152-153; little bridges crossed during the attack: Crane: 20; Crane on strength of Confederate position: Crane: 20; Coffin on strength of Confederate position: Coffin, p. 170; Crane on collapse of Union attack: Crane: 20; Coffin on collapse of Union attack: Coffin, p. 170; Coffin print-runs by 1894: OCLC Worldcat, at http://www.worldcat.org/ , all-editions search results for “Four years of fighting: a volume of personal observation with the army and navy, from the first battle of Bull Run to the fall of Richmond” and “The boys of ’61 ; or, Four years of fighting: personal observation with the army and navy: from the first battle of Bull Run to the fall of Richmond”; Marye House, Willis Hill Buildings, Innis and Stephens Houses: Noel G. Harrison, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume Two (1995), pp. 125-128, 141-142, 149-150, 276-278, 280-282; Crane’s letters to Phillips: quoted in R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes, eds., Stephen Crane: Letters (New York, 1960), pp. 84 (second, third, and fourth quotations), 98 (first, fifth, and sixth quotations); Crane’s letter to McClure:  quoted in Stallman and Gilkes, p. 107 (quotations); impatience of Billie and his comrades: Crane: 12 (quotations); Crane anticipating what they did next: quoted in Stallman and Gilkes, p. 98 (quotations); editors in 1960 dating Crane letter to November 12, 1895: Stallman and Gilkes, p. 72.

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

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