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 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.

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 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.

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.

Continue reading


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. 

  Continue reading

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.

Martha Stevens redeemed: pariah to heroine–a matter of faith or history?

From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

The case of Martha Stephens presents many of the challenges that surround the story of Richard Kirkland, though perhaps in even starker form. Conventional wisdom holds that she, to use David Gregg McIntosh’s 1910 reminiscence of a visit to the battlefield (where he heard about Martha),

…remained at her house during the battle, and after it was over rendered great service to the troops of both sides, and when bandages were wanted at the Field Hospital she supplied every piece of cloth which she had, and finally tore her skirts into strips and gave them for that purpose.

The Stevens house in 1911, two years before it was destroyed by fire.

But beyond conventional wisdom what do we really know?

In fact, very little. As with Kirkland, there are no wartime accounts that reference Martha Stevens by name or make any suggestion that she was present as McIntosh describes.  Like Kirkland, her person does not emerge in connection with the battle until many years later. The first known reference to Martha Stevens by name (or even intimation) in connection with the battle appeared in the mid-1880s, when former Confederate staff officer (and Fredericksburg resident) W. Roy Mason wrote a short article that would eventually appear in Vol. 3 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. While it is clear that Mason did not witness what he described, he passed along what by then (at least in Fredericksburg) was the standard rendition of Martha Stevens’s deeds, gotten, he says, from her own lips.

I went out with a party of gentlemen friends who were visitors in Fredericksburg to inquire of her….This woman, the Molly Pitcher of the war, attended the wounded and the dying fearless of consequences, and refused to leave her house, although…the position was one of great danger. It is said that after using all the materials for bandages at her command, she tore from her person most of her garments, even on that bitter cold day, in her anxiety to administer to necessities greater than her own.

The Sunken Road in front of the Stevens House. Cobb monument at left.

Mason’s account helps highlight a major difference between the origins of the Kirkland and Stevens stories. Kirkland died at Chickamauga in 1863, and so the subsequent telling of his story was left to others who claimed  to have witnessed it. For Martha Stevens, the only accounts of her activities that day derive not from witnesses to the event, but from witnesses to her telling of the events or of those people who got the story from those who had spent time listening to her tell her story (got it?). Martha’s December 22, 1888 obituary is interesting:

“Mrs. Stephens was a genial spirit, and hundreds of ex-Confederate and ex-Union soldiers have called upon her since the war to hear her relate many of the incidents with which she was familiar as an eye-witness…” 

The paper helped enshrine the legend:

“She was a very kind hearted and generous soul, and will be greatly missed by many. She was particularly kind to the wounded soldiers here of both armies, whose ministrations to these will never be forgotten by those who survive, and companies of those who died will ever cherish her memory.”

The Stevens family cemetery today, next to the Stevens house site. Martha's is one of about eight graves in the cemetery. None are marked individually.

In 1911, local judge John T. Goolrick–the same man who 13 years later would question the authenticity of the slave auction block and lead an unsuccessful effort to have it removed from Fredericksburg’s streets–begot an effort to put a monument over Martha Stevens’s unmarked grave (he failed in this endeavor as well, and the grave remains unmarked to this day). Continue reading

The unconventional (and mysterious) Martha Stevens–a woman on Fredericksburg’s fringes

From John Hennessy (For part 2 of this post, click here. For a prior post on the possibility of Martha Stevens appearing in a postwar image, click here):

The UDC monument to Martha Stephens, at her house site on Sunken Road.

Just down the Sunken Road from the magnificent memorial to Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” is a far simpler monument, put in place in 1917 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the home of one of Fredericksburg’s most honored and memorable women. “HERE LIVED MARTHA STEVENS     FRIEND OF THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIER     1861-1865.”

 In 1860, few in Fredericksburg would ever have predicted that Martha Stevens (or Stephens–the spellings seemed to have been interchangeable) would, 57 years hence, be the ONLY woman of the town to be honored with a monument to her acts during the Civil War. Indeed, to most Fredericksburgers, she would have been near the bottom of the list of prospective heroines, for Martha Stevens lived an unconventional life on the edges of Fredericksburg society.
Born, apparently, as Martha Farrow, by 1860 the 36-year-old was on her third surname, though there is no record that she ever stepped before minister or Justice of the Peace to be married.  Her son was named John Innis (or Ennis), and she occasionally went by that surname. In the several court cases in which she was involved, she is variously identified as Farrow, Innis, or Stevens (or Stephens). By 1860 she was living along the Sunken Road with cabinetmaker Edward N. Stevens, along with two young girls, Mary (10) and Agnes (5) named Stevens.
This meander through the morass of names is not intended to confuse, but to highlight that Martha lived a life far different than those other Fredericksburg women who have come to us as part of the town’s Civil War history–Betty Maury, Jane Beale, Lizzie Alsop, and others. But her ever-changing identity is only part of her distinctiveness. There is no record that Martha ever married Edward Stevens–rather, their marriage was common-law. They lived together for probably 29 years, until his death in 1883. He was a cabinet-maker, and perhaps not a good one, since he was, at least in the 1850s, in serious debt. Virginia law at the time required that the property of women entering into marriage automatically pass to the man–in this case any such property would have been used to satisfy Stevens’s debts. It is likely for this reason that Martha never married Edward. Indeed, in 1854, she entered into a trust with Peter Goolrick that secured her rights to her property entirely separate from Edward or any other man.  Indeed, in all known legal documents relating to Martha, she used either Innis or Farrow as her name, with Stevens given only as an alias.

Martha Stevens's house along the Sunken Road--a postwar image.

Martha Stephens, despite her discolored reputation, was if nothing else an effective wheeler-dealer.  Her worth was considerable: two house on the Sunken Road (including today’s Innis house), a couple of lots on George Street and, most importantly, a 92-acre farm she acquired in 1869–all in her own name.

 Her independent ways in the legal and real estate realms surely marked her as different, but so did her personality and other entrepreneurial ventures. Continue reading