Monday, December 17, 2012

December 16, 1862

Dec. 16, 1862: Capt. William Thompson Lusk, of the 2nd New York, writes home about his experience in the attacks at Fredericksburg, with some snide references to Pres. Lincoln---yet he offers an eloquent vision of battle in this ghastly style:

Camp Near Falmouth, Va.

Dec. 16th, 1862.

My dear Mother:

Back again once more in the old camp, sound as a dollar. Would that 10,000 lying on the field across the river, or stretched on rude soldiers’ beds in pain and some in mortal agony, could say as much! Gone are the proud hopes, the high aspirations that swelled our bosoms a few days ago. Once more unsuccessful, and only a bloody record to show our men were brave. This cannot heal the broken hearts this pitiful record is to cause. That God must do! Alas, my poor country! It has strong limbs to march and meet the foe, stout arms to strike heavy blows, brave hearts to dare — but the brains, the brains — have we no brains to use the arms and limbs and eager hearts with cunning? Perhaps Old Abe has some funny story to tell appropriate to the occasion. Alas, let us await the wise words of Father Abraham! I say I am back, having recrossed the river about two o’clock this morning. Yesterday evening I was sent out with a couple of hundred sharpshooters to cover the front until the troops were all withdrawn. . . . Our position gave me a fine opportunity to witness the battle. It was a bonnie sight though, and thrillingly exciting. From the crests of the hills frowned the enemy’s batteries. The city was gay with our troops. Beyond the city and below the batteries was open country giving no cover to advancing troops. Over this expanse our men were marched. The pennons fluttered gaily in the sunshine. Then suddenly the hills seemed to vomit forth smoke wreathing them in obscurity. Then followed the thunder of the cannon, intermingled with the screaming of the bursting shells. The ordeal was a terrible one. Some Regiments marched on without flinching; others fell back. To the left, running diagonally, was a stone-wall. A portion of our troops drew near it. This suddenly is likewise jetting with curls of smoke, followed by the sharp crack of the rifle and the angry humming of the conical balls. Now the troops are shaken. Stragglers run rapidly to the rear, then whole Regiments fall back with torn colors and broken ranks. It is of no use. That terrible stonewall is alive with death. Many Regiments try to reach it. Their efforts avail nothing, though. . . . At length night closed on the scene. We believed the bloody day was done. There was one scene yet bloodier to be enacted. A final night attack was decided upon. . . . And we knew that more blood had been shed and nothing won. . . . Last night the troops crossed the river, and to-day we are counting on our fingers the thousands of men the events of the past few days have cost us. There are impossibilities in warfare — things that no troops can accomplish, however brave they may be. They cannot for one thing cross long stretches of open country without any cover in the face of an artillery fire of any magnitude, and then clamber up a hill-side exposed to the musketry of a concealed foe, and then cross the ditches and scale the earthworks of the enemy, driving the latter from their position with the bayonet. Men fight in masses. To be brave they must be inspired by the feeling of fellowship. Shoulder must touch shoulder. As gaps are opened the men close together, and remain formidable. But when the ranks are torn by artillery, the cohesion begins to fail. Then expose the men for several hundred yards to a murderous fire of musketry, and front rank man is gone, rear rank man is gone, comrades in battle are gone too. A few men struggle along together, but the whole mass has become diluent. Little streams of men pour in various directions. They no longer are amenable to command. The colors must be drawn to a place of safety, and in time the men will gather around it again. Numbers can effect little under such circumstances, provided they have no means of touching the enemy. The latter, lying under cover, firing from a place of safety, may murder your men. You may try again and again the experiment, but each repetition only lengthens the butcher’s bill. Now I have written all this to show that success, as the attack was made, was impossible. In the same way we butchered the Confederates at Malvern Hill.

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