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After dinner I went out to view the town. As I stood looking at the empty walls of the gutted court-house, a sturdy old man approached. He stopped to answer my questions, and, pointing at the havoc made by shells, exclaimed, “You see the result of the vanity of Virginia !”
“Are you a Virginian?”
“I am ; but that is no reason why I should be blind to the faults of my State. It was the vanity of Virginia, and nothing else, that caused all our trouble.”
(Here was another name for “State pride.'!)
“In favor of it!” he exclaimed, kindling. “ Did n't they have me in jail here nine weeks because I would not vote for it? If I had n't been an old man, they would have hung me. Ah, I told them how it would be, from the first; but they would n't believe me. Now they see! Look at this ruined city! Look at the farms and plantations laid waste! Look at the complete paralysis of business; the rich reduced to poverty; the men and boys with one arm, one leg, or one hand; the tens of thousands of graves; the broken families ;- it is all the result of vanity! vanity!”
He showed me the road to the Heights, and we parted on the corner.
Fredericksburg stands upon a ridge on the right bank of the river. Behind the town is a plain, with a still more elevated ridge beyond. Along by the foot of this, just where it slopes off to the plain, runs a road with a wall of heavy quarried stones on each side. In this road the Rebels lay concealed when the first attempt was made to storm the Heights. The wall on the lower side, towards the town, was a perfect breastwork, of great strength, and in the very best position that could have been chosen. The earth from the fields is more or less banked up against it; and this, together with the weeds and bushes which grew there, served to conceal it from our men. The sudden cruel volley of flame and lead which poured over it into their very faces, scarce a dozen paces distant, as they charged, was the first intimation they received of any enemy below the crest. No troops could stand that near and deadly fire. They broke, and, leaving the ground strewn with the fallen, retreated to the ravine, – a deep ditch with a little stream flowing through it, in the midst of the plain.
“Just when they turned to run, that was the worst time for them !” said a young Rebel I met on the Heights. “Then our men had nothing to fear ; but they just rose right up and let 'em have it! Every charge your troops made afterwards, it was the same. The infantry in the road, and the artillery on these Heights, just mowed them down in swaths! You never saw anything look as that plain did after the battle. Saturday morning, before the fight, it was brown; Sunday it was all blue; Monday it was white, and Tuesday it was red.”
I asked him to explain this seeming riddle.
“Don't you see? Before the fight, there was just the field. Next it was covered all over with your fellows in blue clothes. Saturday night the blue clothes were stripped off, and only their white under-clothes left. Monday night these were stripped off, and Tuesday they lay all in their naked skins."
“Who stripped the dead in that way?"
“It was mostly done by the North Carolinians. They are the triflin'est set of men !”
“What do you mean by triflin'est ?.”
“They ha’n’t got no sense. They 'll stoop to anything. They're more like savages than civilized men. They say we 'uns' and 'you 'uns,' and all such outlandish phrases. They 've got a great long tone to their voice, like something wild.”
“Were you in the battle ?"
“Yes, I was in all of Saturday's fight. My regiment was stationed on the hill down on the right there. We could see everything. Your men piled up their dead for breastworks. It was an awful sight when the shells struck them, and exploded! The air, for a minute, would be just full of legs and arms and pieces of trunks. Down by the road there we dug out a wagonload of muskets. They had been piled up by your fellows, and dirt thrown over them, for a breastwork. But the worst sight I saw was three days afterwards. I did n't mind the heaps of dead, nor nothing. But just a starving dog sitting by a corpse, which he would n't let anybody come near, and which he never left night nor day; — by George, that just made me cry! We finally had to shoot the dog to get at the man to bury him.”
The young Rebel thought our army might have been easily destroyed after Saturday's battle, - at least that portion of it which occupied Fredericksburg. “We had guns on that point that could have cut your pontoon bridge in two; and then our artillery could have blown Burnside all to pieces, or have compelled his surrender.”
“Why did n't you do it?”
“ Because General Lee was too humane. He did n't want to kill so many men.”
A foolish reason, but it was the best the young man could offer. The truth is, however, Burnside's army was in a position of extreme danger, after its failure to carry the Heights, and had not Lee been diligently expecting another attack, instead of a retreat, he might have subjected it to infinite discomfiture. It was to do us more injury, and not less, that he delayed to destroy the pontoon bridge and shell the town while our troops were in it.
The young man gloried in that great victory.
“ But,” said I, “what did you gain? It was all the worse for you that you succeeded then. That victory only prolonged the war, and involved greater loss. We do not look at those transient triumphs; we look at the grand result. The Confederacy was finally swept out, and we are perfectly satisfied.”
“Well, so am I,” he replied, looking me frankly in the face. “I tell you, if we had succeeded in establishing a separate government, this would have been the worst country, for a poor man, under the sun.”
" How so?"
“ There would have been no chance for white labor. Every rich man would have owned his nigger mason, his nigger carpenter, his nigger blacksmith; and the white méthanic, as well as the white farm-laborer, would have been crushed out.”
“ You think, then, the South will be better off without slavery?”. “Certainly I do. So does every white man that has to work for a living, if he is n't a fool."
“ Then why did you fight for it?”
“We was n't fighting for slavery; we was fighting for our independence. That's the way the most of us understood it; though we soon found out it was the rich man's war, and not the poor man's. We was fighting against our own interests, that's shore ?"
On the brow of the hill, overlooking the town, is the Marye estate, one of the finest about Fredericksburg before the blast of battle struck it. The house was large and elegant, occupying a beautiful site, and surrounded by terraces and shady lawns. Now, if you would witness the results of artillery and infantry firing, visit that house. The pillars of the porch, built of brick, and covered with a cement of lime and white sand, were speckled with the marks of bullets. Shells and solid shot had made sad havoc with the walls and the wood-work inside. The windows were shivered, the partitions torn to pieces, and the doors perforated.
I found a gigantic negro at work at a carpenter's bench in one of the lower rooms. He seemed glad to receive company, and took me from the basement to the zinc-covered roof, showing me all the more remarkable shot-holes.
“ De Rebel sharpshooters was in de house ; dat 's what made de Yankees shell it so."
“Where were the people who lived here ? "
“Dey all lef' but me. I stopped to see de fight. I tell ye, I would n't stop to see anoder one! I thought I was go'n' to have fine fun, and tell all about it. I heerd de fight, but I did n't see it!”
“ Were you frightened ?”
“Hoo!” Ainging up his hands with a ludicrous expression. “Don't talk about skeered! I never was so skeered since I was bo’n! I stood hyer by dis sher winder; I 'spected to see de whole of it; I know I was green! I was look'n' to see de fir'n' down below dar, when a bullet come by me, h't! quick as dat. “Time fo’ me to be away f'om hyer !' and I started; but I'd no sooner turned about, when de bullets begun to strike de house jes' like dat!” drumming with his fingers. “I went down stars, and out dis sher house, quicker 'n any man o' my size ever went out a house befo'e! Come, and I 'll show you whar I was hid.”
It was in the cellar of a little dairy-house, of which nothing was left but the walls.
“I got in thar wid anoder cullud man! I thought I was as skeered as anybody could be ; but whew! he was twicet as skeered as I was. B-r-r-r-r! b-r-r-r-r! de fir'n' kep' up a reg'lar noise like dat, all day long. Every time a shell struck anywhar near, I knowed de next would kill me. “Jim,' says I, ‘now de next shot will be our own !' Dem's de on'y wu’ds I spoke ; but he was so skeered he never spoke at all.”
“Were you here at the fight the year after ?”.
“Dat was when Shedwick [Sedgwick] come. I thought if thar was go'n' to be any fight'n', I 'd leave dat time, shore. I hitched up my oxen, think’n’ I'd put out, but waited fo' de mo’nin' to see. Dat was Sunday mo’nin'. I had n't slep' none, so I jest thought I'd put my head on my hand a minute till it growed light. I had n't mo'e 'n drapped asleep; I'd nodded oncet or twicet, so,” — illustrating, —“no longer 'n dat; when - C-r-r-rr, - I looked up, — all de wu’ld was fir'n'! Shedwick's men dey run up de road, got behind de batteries on dis sher hill, captured every one ; and I never knowed how dey done it so quick. Dat was enough fo' me. If dar's go'n' to be any mo'e fight'n', I go whar da' a'n't no wa’!”
“ A big fellow like you tell about being skeered !” said the young Rebel.
“I knowed de bigger a man was, de bigger de mark fo' de balls. I weighs two hundred and fifty-two pounds.”
“Where is your master ?” I asked.
“I ha'n't got no master now; Mr. Marye was my master. He's over de mountain. I was sold at auction in Fredericksburg oncet, and he bought me fo' twelve hundred dolla's. Now he pays me wages, - thirty dolla's a month. I wo’ked in de mill while de wa' lasted. Men brought me co'n to grind. Some brought a gallon; some brought two qua'ts ; it was a big load if anybody brought half a bushel. Dat 's de way folks lived. Now he's got anoder man in de mill, and he pays me fo' tak’n’ keer o' dis sher place and fitt'n' it up a little.”
“ Are you a carpenter ?”
The young Rebel afterwards corroborated this statement. Although he did not like niggers generally, and wished they were all out of the country, he said Charles (for that was the giant's name) was an exception ; and he gave him high praise for the fidelity and sagacity he had shown in saving his master's property from destruction.
The field below the stone wall belonged to this young man's mother. It was now a cornfield; a sturdy crop was growing where the dead had lain in heaps.
“Soon as Richmond fell, I came home; and 'Lijah and I went to work and put in that piece of corn. I did n't wait for Lee's surrender. Thousands did the same. We knew that, if Richmond fell, the war would be removed from Virginia, and we had no notion of going to fight in other States. The Confederate army melted away just like frost in the sun, so that only a small part of it remained to be surrendered.”
He invited me to go through the cornfield and see where the dead were buried. Near the middle of the piece a strip some fisteen yards long and four wide had been left uncultivated. “There's a thousand of your men buried in this hole ; that's the reason we did n't plant here.” Some distance
below the cornfield was the cellar of an ice-house, in which five hundred Union soldiers were buried. And yet these were but a portion of the slain; all the surrounding fields were scarred with graves.
Returning to Fredericksburg, I visited the plain northwest of the town, also memorable for much hard fighting on that red day of December. I found a pack of government wagons there, an encampment of teamsters, and a few Yankee soldiers, who told me they were tired of doing nothing, and “three times as fast for going home” as they were before the war closed.
In the midst of this plain, shaded by a pleasant grove, stands a brown brick mansion, said to have been built by George Washington for his mother's family. Not far off is a monument erected to Mary, the mother of Washington, whose mortal remains rest here. It is of marble, measuring some nine feet square and fifteen in height, unfinished, capped with a mat of weeds, and bearing no inscription but the names of visitors who should have blushed to desecrate the tomb of the venerated dead. The monument has in other ways been sadly misused; in the first place, by balls which nicked and chipped it during the battle ; and afterwards by relic-hunters, who, in their rage for carrying away some fragment of it, have left scarce a corner of cornice or pilaster unbroken.
I had afterwards many walks about Fredericksburg, the most noteworthy of which was a morning visit to the Lacy House, where Burnside had his head-quarters. Crossing the Rappahannock on the pontoon bridge, I climbed the stone steps leading from terrace to terrace, and reached the long-neglected grounds and the old-fashioned Virginia mansion. It was entirely deserted. The doors were wide open, or broken from their hinges, the windows smashed, the floors covered with rubbish, and the walls with the names of soldiers and regiments, or pictures cut from the illustrated newspapers.
The windows command a view of Fredericksburg and the battle-field; and there I stood, and saw in imagination the fight re-enacted, — the pontoniers at their work in the misty morning, the sharpshooters in rifle-pits and houses opposite driving them from it with their murderous fire, the shelling of the town, the troops crossing, the terrible roaring battle, the spouting flames, the smoke, the charging parties, and the horrible slaughter; — I saw and heard it all again, and fancied for a time that I was the commanding general, whose eyes beheld, and whose wrung heart felt, what he would gladly have given his own life to prevent or retrieve.
7. T. Trowbridge.