Redeems Itself at Fredericksburg
By Pat Higgins
In December of 1862 the 16th Maine "saw the elephant"* at Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock and won the respect of their fellow union soldiers who had been less than kind and often down-right nasty to the Mainers for more than three months. For a defeat, it was a costly victory.
The 16th was mustered in at Augusta in late summer of 1862 and shipped out to Washington where their troubles began. Almost immediately they were sent out on the road but without benefit of enough time to pack up their clothing, knapsacks or tents. One would think that reuniting men and materials would not be too difficult, however there was a formidable bureaucracy involved. Their officers and quartermaster repeatedly appealed for the return of the clothing and shelter, and when this failed they attempted to request new supplies. Some requests were pigeon holed for weeks; others were returned marked "disapproved" (except those for whiskey). Between September 7, 1862 and November 27th, when the clothing caught up with the regiment outside of Fredericksburg on Thanksgiving Day, the men endured rain, sleet and snow. Miserable as this was for the men, the worst part was the derision with which they were treated by the other troops. As Hospital Steward Eaton described it, "September, October, and then the long march in November to the Rappahannock through storms of sleet and snow; without shelter, without overcoats, shoeless, hatless, and hundreds without so much as a flannel blouse, many without blankets; and through all that long, sad and weary tramp, we were jeered at, insulted, and called the "Blanket Brigade"!" Eaton makes the point quite ably that the mental cruelty was perhaps worse than the physical suffering. The up side, as Eaton concluded, was that "All that time God was busy making heroes." The 16th rose above all this suffering and emerged as a unit with determination, stamina and courage. They would need it.
The Battle of Fredericksburg: Despite superior numbers and initial advantages, General Ambrose Burnside delivered up one of the worst Union defeats of the war at Fredericksburg. Reacting to demands by Lincoln and the northern press for a new attempt to take Richmond, Burnside moved his army of 120,000 rapidly to Fredericksburg. There he found the town and Lee unprepared for defense. However Burnside could not press his advantage; he was on the wrong side of the river and without the means to cross it. Enter the bureaucracy who could not manage to get pontoon boats to the site for six whole days! To be sure that Lee had enough time to dig in his 75,000 troops, Burnside waited another three weeks before crossing. Incredibly he then decided to 'surprise' Lee with a direct assault. Surely more than hindsight indicates that this was folly!
Bare with me a minute while we cover some basic Union organization. It may help understanding a little further on. The Army of the Potomac was organized into a Left and a Right Grand Division at Fredericksburg. The Left included the First Army Corps and the Sixth. The First Corps, led by Maj. General John Reynolds was further divided into three divisions respectively led by Abner Doubleday, John Gibbons, and George Meade. The 16th belonged to Gibbon's division. Franklin understood (or perhaps misunderstood) that he was the diversion from the real attack on Marye's Heights. He appears to have left much of the actual battle in the hands of John Reynolds. When the fiasco ended Burnside ontributed much of the blame to Franklin, but in truth, the nearest the Union came to success was in the actions of the First Army Corps.
Very early on the morning of December 13th, Reynold's crossed the Rappahannock downriver of the town of Fredericksburg in the fog. They formed up facing Stonewall Jackson with A.P. Hill's division about 1000' away in the woods beyond some railroad tracks. About 10 am the fog lifted revealing the advancing Union troops, and the Union artillery across the river began to fire on the field in front of the troops. Meade's advance was halted by artillery fire as Maj. John Pelham, CSA artillery in J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, pinned down the Union attackers with just two guns. This brought Stuart's previously unknown position on the far Confederate right to the attention of Reynolds. In order to avoid being flanked, Doubleday, on the far Union left, was turned to face Stuart and so was unavailable to assist in what happened next. Necessary but expensive.
Technically, with Doubleday occupied, Meade was now on First Corps' left with Gibbon's to the right. The 16th "occupied a place a little to the left of the center" according the Capt. Waldron of Co. I. The Union troops charged the railroad tracks behind which the Confederates were concealed. In his official report to Col. Root after the battle, Col. Tilden, the commanding officer 16th, clearly pointed out that his regiment was in the lead and not well supported by the other regiments in the brigade. He wrote, "My regiment being some fifteen paces in advance of those on my right and left, I waited some few moments for them to come up, but finding they did not, I gave the order to charge, which was obeyed with promptness and firmness equal to that displayed by veteran troops,..." The veteran troops, however, were lagging behind. The 16th Maine charged over the railroad embankment and took 200 Confederate prisoners. They then proceded towards the woods beyond the tracks. Up to this point Confederate artillery, other than Pelham's two guns which had been knocked out by Federal fire, were silent. Stonewall Jackson had ordered that no gun be fired until the Union forces reached a point about 800 yards from his front lines. Now, the Yanks were within that range, and his guns opened up. The Federal artillery, meanwhile, ceased fire as their own troops were too close to their enemy target.
Gibbon's and the 16th advanced into the woods and became heavily engaged with CSA General Lane's front. Again the 16th was out in front. Tilden continued in his report, "But finding that we had no support, I immediately gave the order to fire into the woods, where it was evident the enemy was in ambush". Mead's division, meanwhile, found a gap in the Confederate lines and punched through flanking Archer's (CSA) brigade. Then they opened a second assault from the left on Lane who was unable to hold his position against a double attack and began to fall back. Moving through marshy ground but concealed by heavy brush, Meade was then able to hit Gregg's (CSA) brigade by surprise. Improbably Gregg's men were totally unprepared; their arms were stacked, and Gregg thought the troops moving in front of him were rebels and not Yankees. What a surprise!
Union loses were heavy. Across the front, many Union troops were pinned down by the enemy or, like Meade, in advanced and dangerous positions. Chaos reigned. However, Meade must have sensed some possibility of success if he could just find more troops to exploit his position. He sent a request asking for reinforcements to Major General David Birney who was in charge of the First Division of Hooker's Center Grand Division and whose troops were in reserve in Meade's rear. Birney refused. He felt that such a command should come from above and not from a general of equal rank to himself. Meade asked again; same reply. Furious, Meade rode to the rear and confronted Birney promising to take all responsibility. But, it was too late. Tilden "was hoping that support might be sent to us. None being received, however, my ammunition being nearly exhausted, and finding the enemy had gained possession of the point of woods making out on our left, which I supposed was held by one of the other regiments of the brigade, I gave orders to retire." Members of the 16th had fired more than 60 rounds.
Meade's delay gave the rebels under Jubal Early time to move in and take advantage of the chaos on the battle line. Hill's beleagured forces regrouped and joined Early. Meade was over extended; Gibbon's was bogged down. They were unable to hold their gains against the Rebel return and were rapidly driven from the field. For the most part, the Confederates did not press their pursuit beyond the good cover of the railroad embankment. Instead their artillery pounded the Yanks as they fled back in the direction of the river.
All in all, the 16th Maine acquited itself well in a battle that can only be described as a disaster. It was their first time in action, and they preformed with courage and determination but at great sacrifice. The total loss, dead and wounded, was 54% of the 417 that began the fight. According to Captain Waldron 30 to 40% were lost in the retreat alone. (Federal losses on this day at this end of the battlefield were 4800; Confederate 3,400. These losses did not come close to the slaughter at the other side of the field on Marye's Heights.) For the 16th Mainers, there was the small, or perhaps not so small, victory of clearing their name. Abner Small said it best, "The past was redeemed, the voice of insult and reproach was was forever silenced. The regiments which had hitherto ignored our claim to an honorable name, joined heartily... in three cheers and a tiger for the 16th, whose casualties were half the loss of the First Brigade." No longer the 'Blanket Brigade', the 16th went on to serve honorably through the surrender at Appomattox.
Uncommon Soldiery: In an interesting sidebar to the 16th's story of Fredericksburg, Abner Small the regimental historian reported the following story from the Richmond Whig purportedly about a member of Company I.
"Yesterday a rather prepossessing lass was discovered on Belle Isle, disguised, amoung the prisoners of war held there. She gave her real name as Mary Jane Johnson, belonging to the Sixteenth Maine regiment. She gave as an excuse for adopting her soldier's toggery, that she was following her lover to shield and protect him when in danger. He had been killed, and now she made no objection to return to the more peaceful sphere for which nature, by her sex, had better fitted her. Upon the discovery of her sex Miss Johnson was removed from Belle Isle to Castle Thunder. She will probably go north by the next flag of truce. She is about sixteen years of age."
Who was Mary Jane Johnson? Who was she pretending to be? Regimental rosters are of little help. Abner Small was not forthcoming with more information. Soldiers still fighting with the regiment most likely had no way of sorting out what became of their captured comrades. But the fact remains that Small did include this in his regimental history. Would he have done so if he did not believe the story? Some investigation turns up a very similarly worded story about a young girl in a midwestern regiment. Coincidence? It all begins to sound like an "urban legend". The true story of Mary Jane Johnson will probably never surface.
How could a woman get away with such a masquerade? Records indicate that many women soldiers, like Miss Johnson, were aided and abetted by some of the men (brothers, husbands, boy friends) who knew she was a she. More importantly, women soldiers received the most assistance from the times and social conditions in which they lived. Bluntly speaking, people just did not expect to find a woman dressed in pants, enlisted in an army and carrying a gun with the intent to kill the enemy.
Proof positive that a woman could successfully masquerade as a man was made by a Maine officer. Captain Ira B. Gardner of the 14th Maine reported a soldier who served for two years under him before he recognized her as female. He wrote that, "If I had been anything but a boy, I should probably have seen from her form that she was a female." People saw what they expected to see.
In a time when people were governed by propriety, it was just not proper for a woman to act like a man. Male and female roles were clearly delineated. Women soldiers needed to keep their sex secret for fear of ruining their reputations. In the nineteenth century this was a serious consequence. Any woman brazen enough to dress as a man and live rough would be considered a whore. This is quite clearly the opinion held by the RichmondWhig of Mary Jane Johnson. Today, the reporter's tone seems condescending and snide, but the real damage was done when he described Johnson as "following her lover". It would seem that women soldiers were immoral and violated the sanctity of womanhood.
Realistically speaking, some of the women soldiers may have been working girls, but certainly all were quite capable of soldiering and just as likely to be vehemently patriotic as the men. They were used to hard work and, particularly rural women, were very likely to know how to shoot and ride a horse. As far as enlistment was concerned, there seldom was a physical examination. If a person appeared to have reasonable health, eyesight, teeth and enough fingers to shoot a gun, then he or she was in. Keeping the secret in the field was not that difficult either. Prudishness was the norm even in a male society; it was not at all remarkable for soldiers to seek privacy for personal hygiene matters or retreat to the bushes for certain bodily functions. In fact, the most likely ways for a woman soldier to be caught were by dying or by getting sick or wounded.
There is another interesting woman soldier record connected with the 16th Maine. It can be found in the letters of William Butler of Company K to his wife Mary and son Freddie at home in Castine, Maine. On April 5, 1863 he wrote the following story home: "A thing happened on picket the other day that was quite funny. A soldier from one of the New York regiments had a baby. I was not on picket at the time, but I heard about it. She tented with one fellow all the time. She was promoted at the battle of Fredricksburg for her bravery. It seems strange that she was not found out. If she had been examined as close as was we in Augusta, they would have told whether she was male or female. She must have been one of the girls that we read about. I think it was a queer place to have a baby, on picket, but guess things happen in this world." Birth control methods being what they were, this little story tells of another way a woman soldier might be discovered. Hiding a pregnency must have been extremely difficult and must have stretch the limits of not being noticed. There are, however, records of at least six women who were discovered only when they gave birth.
Records of women soldiers in the Civil War are often incomplete or lost. We may never know the real story of Mary Ann Johnson or many of her sisters in arms. We cannot even successfully count the number of women soldiers. Mary Livermore of the U.S.Sanitary Commission wrote in her memoirs of the war that "the number of women soldiers known to the service...(is) little less than four hundred". A list of the better known women soldiers would include Sarah Edwards of the 90th Illinois -nurse, spy, messenger, and a regular soldier; Sarah Rosetta Wakeman alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman of the 153rd New York State Volunteers, and perhaps most famous of all, Jennie Hodgers, aka Albert Cashier of the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. More anonymously, we know for a fact that a dead Confederate woman soldier was discovered after Pickett's Charge on the field at Gettysburg by a burial detail, and that, in 1934, nine skeletons, including one female, were disinterred from a trench grave at Shiloh. Due to the passage of time and poor record keeping, discovery of our female soldier past will become more difficult, and the lives of many brave women will probably remain hidden from modern investigation.
Sources: Battle of Fredericksburg: Day of Battle. http://members.aol.com/Imjarl/civwar/battle.htm . (This site also includes the battle orders for both the CSA and the Army of the Potomac.) • Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Volume III. Reprint. Seacaucus, NJ: Castle, n.d. • Burgess, Lauren Cook. An Uncommon Soldier. Pasadena, MD: Minerva Center, 1994. • The Butler Letters: Henry Butler to his wife Mary during the Civil War: 1862 - 1865 • Hatch, Louis. Maine: A History. Facsimile Edition. Somersworth: New Hampshire Publishing Company, 1974. • Small, Abner. The Sixteenth Maine Regiment in the War of the Rebellion. Union, Me. : Union Pub. Co., 1995. • Sudlow, Lynda. A Vast Army of Women: Maine's Uncounted Forces in the Civil War. Thomas Publications, 2000. • Women in the Military: CIVIL WAR. http://www.pafb.af.mil/deomi/wommil95.htm .
Special thanks to The Maine Civil War Discussion Board
* Dave tells me that "seeing the elephant" is not in the vocabulary of many non-Civil War buffs. The term needs some explanation for Dave and maybe others. In Civil War vernacular, it refers to having been in battle, having met the enemy for the first time. After seeing the elephant a green soldier has seen it all.
c2000 Pat Higgins