What is the best-known image of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg? It may be one based on an artwork or artifact highlighting the courage shown by Federal bridge-builders on the Rappahannock, or by the men who charged Marye’s Heights and the Stone Wall. Or perhaps it’s a counterpart image highlighting the same quality among the Confederates who opposed them at those places or at Prospect Hill. Many among us may think first of pictures (or statues) of Richard Kirkland’s mission of mercy, or the suffering of civilians in ruined homes or as wintertime refugees. During the battle’s recent sesquicentennial, the nation found new visual inspiration in a set of highly evocative battle artifacts shared in the New York Times.
This post examines what has at times been one of the nation’s most widely publicized, and powerful, images of the Battle of Fredericksburg: a tableau described in a poem published shortly after it ended. The poem centers around a pair of Union soldiers in wrenching conversation, moments before they accompany a hopeless assault at Fredericksburg–the “last fierce charge” on December 13, 1862.
Since February 1863, the poem has been shared among countless Americans, in venues ranging from the Civil War-era camps and parlors that hosted copies of it; to the front porches, kitchens, and theaters across the nation that saw postwar performances by singers and musicians who set the poem to music; to an endless variety of places where artists shared their interpretations of the song as recordings or live, amplified renditions, after folklorists and musicologists sparked a new round of interest in the poem and its story.
Yet many who came to read the poem, or hear the song, were unaware of the initially specific setting at the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.
(Courtesy Son of the South, whose digital Harper’s Weekly is invaluable to students of the war.)
The tale first appeared in a poem titled “At Fredericksburg” and published in the February 7, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly:
IT was just before the last fierce charge,
When two soldiers drew their rein,
For a parting word and a touch of hands—
They might never meet again.
One had blue eyes and clustering curls—
Nineteen but a month ago
Down on his chin, red on his cheek:
He was only a boy, you know.
The other was dark, and stern, and proud;
If his faith in the world was dim,
He only trusted the more in those
Who were all the world to him.
They had ridden together in many a raid,
They had marched for many a mile,
And ever till now they had met the foe
With a calm and hopeful smile.
But now they looked in each other’s eyes
With an awful ghastly gloom,
And the tall dark man was the first to speak:
“Charlie, my hour has come.
“We shall ride together up the hill,
And you will ride back alone;
Promise a little trouble to take
For me when I am gone.
“You will find a face upon my breast—
I shall wear it into the fight
With soft blue eyes, and sunny curls,
And a smile like morning light.
“Like morning light was her love to me;
It gladdened a lonely life,
And little I cared for the frowns of fate
When she promised to be my wife.
“Write to her, Charlie, when I am gone,
And send back the fair, fond face;
Tell her tenderly how I died,
And where is my resting-place.
“Tell her my soul will wait for hers,
In the border-land between
The earth and heaven, until she comes:
It will not be long, I ween.”
Tears dimmed the blue eyes of the boy—
His voice was low with pain:
“I will do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.
“But if you come back, and I am dead,
You must do as much for me:
My mother at home must hear the news—
Oh, write to her tenderly.
“One after another those she loved
She has buried, husband and son;
I was the last. When my country called,
She kissed me and sent me on.
“She has prayed at home, like a waiting saint, With her fond face white with woe:
Her heart will be broken when I am gone:
I shall see her soon, I know.”
Just then the order came to charge—
For an instant hand touched hand,
Eye answered eye; then on they rushed,
That brave, devoted band.
Straight they went toward the crest of the hill.
And the rebels with shot and shell
Plowed rifts of death through their toiling ranks, And jeered them as they fell.
They turned with a horrible dying yell
From the heights they could not gain,
And the few whom death and doom had spared
Went slowly back again.
But among the dead whom they left behind Was the boy with his curling hair,
And the stern dark man who marched by his side Lay dead beside him there.
There is no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover said;
And the mother who waits for her boy at home Will but hear that he is dead,
And never can know the last fond thought That sought to soften her pain,
Until she crosses the River of Death,
And stands by his side again.