“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 When their attack could advance no farther, they had fired a volley at the enemy held heights and withdrawn to the town.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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“The Little Regiment”: Stephen Crane’s Little-Known Story 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

One of Isaac Walton Taber’s woodcuts 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 offered “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 published “The Little Regiment” with three woodcuts captioned with or positioned near the corresponding passages in Crane’s text. Advance publicity that ran in the magazine’s May 1896 issue described it as ”the story of a heroic charge at Fredericksburg,” and announced that famed historical artist Isaac Walton Taber, who published more than 250 illustrations the previous decade in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War and The Century magazine, would supply the woodcuts. Another overlooked aspect thus emerges when our perspective widens beyond The Red Badge of Courage: many early readers (McClure’s claiming a circulation of 300,000 in May 1896) 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 Fredericksburg trip–in print as a newspaper serial in December 1894 and as a book in October 1895. Obviously hoping to capitalize on this notoriety, McClure’s added “By the Author of The Red Badge of Courage” to Crane’s byline for “The Little Regiment” in June 1896. (The magazine’s advance publicity for the story, the month previous, had likewise highlighted the Red Badge connection and proclaimed that “no young man has made himself so felt in literature since Kipling,” contributor of another story to McClure’s June 1896 issue.) In November 1896, other publishers in America and Britain reprinted “The Little Regiment” in book-length compilations of six of Crane’s 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 (its state-affiliation and number not given in the story) 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 Taber 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….

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A Battle of Fredericksburg Poem Becomes a Song Performed by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Many Others


from: Harrison

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 Union troops who charged Marye’s Heights and the Stone Wall. Or perhaps it’s an image of the same attribute 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.

A c. 1907 depiction, now rarely seen, of supporting operations for the final Union assault at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862.  Battery E, Massachusetts Light Artillery (Phillips’) fires just before or during the evening attack of Getty’s Division—Getty’s infantry evidently hidden by the rise in middleground. The general terrain around the battery appears here with reasonable accuracy, although what’s presumably the Marye House, upper right, has been artistically shifted southward along the heights, and sports what is actually its postwar portico. From: Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor 1: 108.

A c. 1907 depiction, now rarely seen, of supporting operations for the final Union assault at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. Battery E, Massachusetts Light Artillery (Phillips’) fires just before or during the evening attack of Getty’s Division—Getty’s infantry evidently hidden by the rise in middleground. The general terrain around the battery appears here with reasonable accuracy, although what’s presumably the Marye House, upper right, has been artistically shifted southward along the heights, and sports what is actually its postwar portico. From: Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor 1: 108.

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 that included the Civil War-era camps and parlors that hosted printed copies of it; the front porches, kitchens, and theaters across the nation that saw postwar performances by singers and musicians who set the poem to music; and a wide 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.

Masthead for the Harper’s Weekly issue that carried the poem, when its story was still set at Fredericksburg specifically.

Masthead for the Harper’s Weekly issue that carried the poem, when its story was still set at Fredericksburg specifically.

(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.

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Ruminations at the crossing of the canal ditch


From John Hennessy:

I wrote this for the 150th Anniversary observance back in December, as part of the procession that moved from the river through town to the Sunken Road. The procession stopped near the site of the canal ditch–where Hanover Street crossed it–and Frank O’Reilly delivered these words to about 1,500 people. Today the canal ditch runs under Kenmore Avenue. Thousands pass the spot every day, unmindful of what happened here. That’s okay, but it’s well once in a while to stop and remember this powerful story of fear and courage intermingled (as they invariably are).

As Union soldiers descended into this valley and prepared to cross a mill race that ran just off to your left, they encountered dreadful sounds and sights—the full cacophony of battle, a panorama of suffering, the “Valley of Death.”

 Once here, there was no time for reflection.  Men and their commanders could only act. 

Fredericksburg panorama cropped on Canal ditch crossingHere they 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. 

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Eve of Battle, December 12, 1862


From John Hennessy:

Few battles inspired as much abject, freely expressed fear as did Fredericksburg.

Marye's Heights panorama.430

At night I crossed into the town ….The streets were full of soldiers lounging and smoking about their fires, or wrapped in their blankets and sleeping, their muskets stacked, in numbers that indicated the immense mass of troops that occupied the place. …. Behind the dark and gloomy hills compassing the town on the enemy’s side there was a wide glare of many fires, like an aurora borealis, marking the presence of the rebel army of Virginia. 

– Correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial

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.

– JMC, 15th CT, December 12, 1862.

Tomorrow we commence the crossing of the Rappahannock & will be sure to have a fearful fight-In fact I expect we will be licked, for we have allowed the rebs nearly four weeks to erect batteries, &c. to slaughter us by thousands in consequence of the infernal efficiency of the Quarter Master Genl & his subordinates.  If we had had the pontoons promised when we arrived here we could have the hills on the other side of the river without cost[ing] over 50 men-Now it will cost at least ten thousand if not more.  I expect to be sacrificed tomorrow….If tomorrow night finds me dead remember me kindly as a soldier who meant to do his whole duty

– Colonel Samuel K. Zook, Hancock’s division (written on December 10)

The heights, in the rear of the town, are bristling with guns and rifle pits, and entrenchments cover the entire face of the whole range.  Why we should be compelled to charge at the very strongest point of the enemy’s position is an enigma that n one can solve; one thing alone is certain, that by tomorrow at this time many of our old comrades will have fought their last fight, whatever may be the result.

– Josiah Favill, December 13, 1862

During the day the surgeons of the different regiments and brigades have visited the town, and selected such buildings as from their locations or other considerations seemed recommended as proper for hospital purposes.  These are designated by the usual red flags;  and every member of the ambulance and stretcher corps is notified the house to which is to be carried the wounded of his regiment.  

– JMC, 15th CT, December 12, 1862

A new piece of original art


From John Hennessy:

Here is a portion of our latest piece of original art, developed by Frank O’Reilly and executed by artist Mark Churms. This will be used in the new exhibit we are planning for the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, and also likely on a wayside exhibit atop Marye’s Heights. The image shows guns of the Washington Artillery firing over the Sunken Road, into the killing field beyond. That’s the Stephens House and Innis House at center and left, with the brick Stratton House beyond.  The piece will eventually be made available for sale by Mr. Churms. 

We like it and thought you might be interested to see a little slice of what’s going on hereabouts. 

 

Copyright Mark Churms. All rights reserved.

 

Some new art–the fairgrounds and swale


From John Hennessy:

We have written about our use of new art in our exhibits here and here, and we have discussed at some length the nature of the fairgrounds and the bloody plain in front of the Sunken Road…and so I wanted to share with you the latest piece of art we have collaborated to create–an image of one of the earlier Union attacks in front of the Sunken Road, painted from an aerial viewpoint almost directly in front of Brompton. Directed by Frank O’Reilly and created by Mark Churms, this piece will be used in a wayside exhibit located just east of the Innis House. It will also be incorporated into our re-do of interior exhibits at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, a project now in design.

At some point artist Mark Churms will be making this image available for sale as a print.  We’ll let you know when that happens.