Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Affair at Shephardstown, 1862

September 19, 1862 found General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia bumping along the roads just south of the Potomac River. The army was battered indeed, but far from broken. The Battle of Sharpsburg had taken its toll on both armies. If Major General George B. McClellan allowed Lee some time, his army would recuperate to become as dangerous as ever. The Federal commander obliged.

McClellan sent an anemic pursuit in the form of a small detachment of cavalry and the Federal V corps of Fitz John Porter. This force was met by artillery and a small force of infantry under William Pendleton at Boteler's Ford near Shepherdstown. Pendleton was in command of the ANV's artillery reserve and had not advanced with Lee into Maryland. He was ordered to guard the fords of the Potomac from Williamsburg to Shephardstown. His force was arrayed on bluffs just south of the ford, forty-four guns and 600 infantry of Armistead's and Lawton's brigades.[1]

At about 8AM the Yankee cavalry appeared on the north bank of the river, a brigade from Pleasonton's command accompanied by five batteries of horse artillery. The Federal gunners began shelling the Confederate position and soon drove the Rebel gunners away from many of their pieces. A little later the cavalry was joined by the men of Porter's Corps and they added a hot musketry to the cannon. The contest lasted throughout the day with Federal and Confederate cannon sparring across the river and sharpshooters of both sides doing their deadly work. [2] Pendleton and his small force held the Yankees at bay but things were beginning to get complicated. Numerous battery’s had reported to Pendleton that they were nearing the end of their ammunition in the late afternoon and the infantry was being spread thin to cover other possible crossing points along the river. Pendleton had been given discretionary orders by Lee to hold out as long as possible and to retire if the enemy crossed in such strength that would endanger his command. Near dusk he ordered a withdrawal from the area to commence after dark to shield the move from enemy eyes. [3] Once the movement was underway, the Confederate pickets were driven away from the ford by a strong force of infantry. Pendleton was unable to ascertain the strength of the enemy force and growing anxious he set out to find General Lee. As it developed the gunners of a Confederate battery near the ford had been driven away by musketry and artillery fire and the men that drove in the pickets and caused Pendleton's anxiety were the 4th Michigan Infantry and 1st US Sharpshooters, ordered by Porter to cross the stream and capture those four guns and established a bridgehead. They were withdrawn a couple of hours after dark but it was certainly a disconcerting bit of timing.

At about midnight, Pendleton was announced to General Lee who was camped near Shephardstown. Pendleton told Lee that his infantry had been driven and that all of the guns of the artillery reserve had been captured by an enemy force of unknown strength.

“All?” Lee asked with dismay.

“Yes, General. I fear all.” replied Pendleton.

Unwilling to mount a rash counter attack in the darkness, Lee decided to wait until morning to respond to the threat. He ordered General Thomas J. Jackson to have his nearest division (A.P. Hill) prepared to move toward the ford at the earliest time possible the next morning. [4]

Early the next morning, General Porter began pushing the divisions of Sykes and Morell with a brigade of cavalry across the Potomac, but before they could get all across they were met by A.P. Hill's men and rousted back to the north bank. That is where they would stay. Much to the relief of Lee, the Federals had not captured any of the reserve artillery nor were they able to take away the four guns they had captured on the 19th.

The Battle at Shephardstown would bring the Confederate campaign in Maryland to a close, but Lee, ever planning, had his mind set for further offensive moves north.


  1. From Manassass to Appomattox, James Longstreet, page 263
  2. Memoirs of a Confederate: A Critical Narrative, E. P. Alexander, page 271
  3. O.R. vol. 19, part 1, p345, pp.831- 834
  4. R.E. Lee, Douglass S. Freeman, volume 2, p. 407

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Conversation

“Hey Johnny!” the blue clad soldier shouted across the river to the man in gray. Merry Christmas!”

“Whats that ye said thar Yank?” the man in gray said loudly, gruffly as he instinctively turned his rifle in the direction of the voice.

“Aww, put down that gun ya dern fool!”, called the Yank as he stepped from behind large rocks, his own rifle shouldered, nonthreatening. “I said, Merry Christmas! It's Christmas Day, don't ya know.”

The Reb relaxed, grounded the butt of his rifle, and scratched his chin. “I reckon I know what day it is. What of it?” the Reb spat a mighty stream of tobacco after the words.

The Yank studied the Reb for a minute or two, the Reb slowly worked his quid, and glowered at the Yank. He could not understand how this man in blue could be so friendly, so cheerful, standing picket out here in the cold, and only weeks after one of the hardest fights the Reb had ever been in. He had seen a lot of fighting and dieing since the Spring of '61. He had joined the Army of Virginia even before Virginia had cast its lot with the Confederacy. He scratched his chin again, puzzling over this blue clad stranger.

“I got nothin' to trade with Yank. 'Sides, my mess mates are tradin' with some of your fellers down the river a piece.” The Reb decided that was why the Yankee was being so friendly. He had heard they would trade for just about anything, but most times it was to their advantage.

“That's all right, Reb. I ain’t lookin' to trade. I just wanted to talk a spell. It beats slingin' bullets at each other don't it? And after all, it's Chri...”

“I know what day it is! But what has that got to do with all of this? It doesn’t matter to them that lay up thar 'neath that stone wall, or behind it. Just because it is Christmas will those fellers be celebratin'? No! And it durn sure don't mean we'uns ain't goin' to be killin' each other come sundown, or tomorrow, or the next day. And it sure ain't keepin' me warm!” The Reb pulled his coat closer to his neck and blew on his hands. He had never been so cold so far as he could recall. “Blamed fool.” he muttered. “How long you been in Mister Lincolns army anyway?” the Reb asked bitterly.

The Yank smiled. A quiet face, slightly cherubic, a look that never changed. No stain of anger, or arrogance rested there. It was peaceful yet resolute, and the smile it bore was sincere. “I been in since August this year, but we didn't join the brigade until October. What regiment are you with Reb?”

The man in gray leaned on his rifle, scowled, and sent another stream of tobacco juice into the river. “Blamed fool.” he muttered. Shouting now he said, “ Yank, I don't believe I need to be tellin' you thet!” The Reb was certain now the Yankee was a scout, putting up a dodge to get information. The question was innocent enough, but the Reb still was wary. “All I can tell you is I fight with General Lee! But I reckon you already know that, and that's all you need know.”

The Yank chuckled. “All right then. Just trying to be friendly. It being Christmas and all. How many messmates do you have?”

At this the Reb quickly hoisted his rifle to his shoulder and took steady aim on the man in blue.

“Now look here, you no good scoundrel! I've had a belly full of your questions and about all I can mortally stand of you and the rest of you black hatted fellers! If you don't move on down the bank I'm of a mind to plug you, Christmas or no! Now git!” He cocked his rifle to emphasize the point.

The Yank, still smiling, said calmly, “ Alright Reb. No offense intended. I will be on my way. Merry Christmas, Reb.” He then strolled down the river bank, whistling merrily, and disappeared.

The man in gray spat. “Peculiar feller that one.” He lowered his rifle and began to trudge down the river. Thirty yards this way, thirty yards that way. He would pause occasionally to listen for sound coming from the far bank. He heard nothing in the chill air save for someone singing “Silent Night” somewhere in the distance. He could not tell from which bank it came from or if it was just hanging in the air indifferent to the men that heard it. It sounded as if it came from nowhere and at the same time from everywhere at once. “As if the very angels of heaven are singing.” the Reb muttered as he shivered. “Cold. I never been this cold.” He cursed; the army, the cold, Jeff Davis, and that blue clad soldier.

He thought about the Yank. “ That feller sure was peculiar. Never quit smiling even when I had him in my sites. Nary a flinch either. Merry Christmas he says. Thunderation it's cold! Christmas again and me nowhere near home. I want to go home! I'm sick of the cold, I'm sick of death. I want to go home! But I can't rightly see how I can go.” The Reb shivered again and wiped tears from his eyes. “Blamed fool. Christmas! Bah!”

A clear, cheerful voice called across the river. “Hey Reb! Catch!” It was the same Yank, wearing the same smile on his face as before. He was kneeling at the waters edge, holding a small, sturdy boat filled with goods.

“Now hold on there , Yank! I told you to git! Whats this?” the Reb questioned angrily. “ I told you I got nothin' to trade!”

“I didn't ask you to trade, Reb!” the Yank shouted as he launched his boat. “You can keep the boat if you want. I won't need it again.”

The Reb scratched his chin and glared at the Yank. “Obliged to ye Yank. But why?” he said coolly. “Tomorrow will be the same as yesterday or the thirteenth. You remember the thirteenth, don't you Yank?” The Reb expected to anger the blue soldier with this last question, delivered maliciously, but it drew no response. The Reb was perplexed. Any soldier would have answered angrily at this intended insult, but not this man. The Reb spat.

“I remember it well, Reb.” the Yank said gently “ You boys sure gave us a time that day. I will never see another day like it.”

The boat was at the Rebs feet in seconds as if it were guided by unseen hands. It contained five pounds of good coffee, a good wool blanket a handful of buttons. “Hurumph! Federal buttons!” the Reb growled. Then he smiled as he looked at the empty places on his coat where those Federal buttons would help close it against the winter chill.

“ I thought you could use those.” called the Yank.

“Mighty kind, Yank. But you still ain't told me why you are doin' this.” said the Reb, his words softening a bit. “You are a perplexing feller. I can't see rightly how you can be so all fired friendly in the middle of a war, especially after...” The Reb stopped abruptly at this, his mind returning to the scenes of that day, a scant two weeks before . He had not been in that fight, there at the wall, but he had had plenty of fighting on his end of the line, and had seen plenty of the Yankee boys fall. Rebs too. The following day he was detailed to carry a message to the left, and he had to travel near the spot. The scene he beheld was so frightful that he was sickened by it. The men in blue lay so thick in front that the ground appeared, in places, to be a solid mass of blue, and in other places the rows of dead looked like stalks of corn laid low by a scythe. He felt a chill sweep over him, and he had not been warm since. Tears flooded his eyes, and he could not speak. The Yank was watching him intently, still smiling. He uttered not a word in reply but nodded his head slightly, knowingly.

“You don't suppose they will make us fight today, do you Yank?” the Reb asked with trembling voice.

“Today? Naww. I don't believe they will make us fight today.” the Yank said. “Tomorrow, next day, maybe. Not today.

For unto you is born this day, in the City of David

a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude

of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace,

good will toward men. [1]

There will be no killing and dieing today, Reb.”

“That is if the generals go along with what the Good Book says. Sometimes I wonder about 'em.” grumbled the Reb.

“ I think they will heed the scripture today of all days.” the Yank said cheerily. “I suppose I should be getting back to camp. Again, Merry Christmas Johnny!”

“Merry Christmas Billy Yank. Lets both hope for a blessed new year!” said the Reb as he turned to renew his lonely tramp along the river. Thirty yards this way, thirty yards that way. He could not help thinking about the Yank. He still could not understand how anyone, of either army, could be so pleasant and cheerful in this cold, in this war and so far from home, but that smile the blue clad soldier bore haunted him. It was always there, never a trace of bitterness removing or even diminishing it. Peculiar.

Suddenly he heard voices singing “Angels! We Have heard on High!”, many voices. Then it struck him. The face of the Yank could have been that of an angel! He laughed at himself, then shivered. He turned to the opposite bank and laughing, called out, “Hey Yank! Do you believe in angels? Yank?”

There was no reply.

December 1862 would go down as one of the bloodiest months of the Civil War. On the 13th, the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia would leave 1,284 dead, 9,600 wounded and 1,769 captured of Major General Ambrose Burnside's Federal Army of the Potomac, many of whom fell in front of that stone wall on Marye's Heights. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fared better, receiving 608 killed, 4,116 wounded, and 653 captured. [2]

December also saw major fighting in the Western Theater, seeing Major General William S. Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland pitted against General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee at Murphreesboro, Tennessee. This battle would ring out 1862 and herald the beginning of 1863, being fought December 31st, 1862 and January 2nd, 1863. The casualties here were as terrible for both sides as Fredericksburg, the Federals losing 1700 men killed, 7,800 wounded, and 3,700 captured or missing.

The Confederacy lost nearly one third of their forces engaged with 1,300 dead, 7,900 wounded, and 1,000 missing and presumed captured. [3] December was a very bleak month for both sides.

The story related here is, of course, fiction. But the fact is fraternization between the armies was commonplace. It seems to me that this would more readily occur during the holiday season, when men would feel the effects of homesickness the worst. Longing for hearth and home but only having an enemy to talk to while standing a lonely post in the cold could have happened anywhere.

  1. The Gospel according to Saint Luke, chapter 2, verses 11, 13-14, King James Version
  2. Marye's Heights- Fredericksburg, Brooks, Victor D., 2001, page 122
  3. The Battle of Stones River: The Soldiers' Story, National Park Service, retrieved from December 21,2011

    Saturday, December 17, 2011


    Fourteen soldiers, unknowns, share a common grave. They lay in a holler, tucked hard against the tree line in the northwest corner of the small cemetery. They have been lost to memories long past, and, save for a handful of people, completely forgotten. Even the congregants of the church that keeps this cemetery are unaware that there is a mass grave among the tombs. The spot is unmarked and is not shown on the cemetery map definitively, and the general location is seldom even seen let alone considered for a modern final resting place. These men, far from home, are rarely even remembered even on Memorial Day when thirty or forty U.S. Flags sprout among the headstones of the veterans from The American Civil War through the Vietnam War. No one really knows why these men are buried here, how they arrived or when exactly they were brought to this holler, and sadly it seems no one cares 150 years beyond the time they died.

    They are soldiers that fought in the War of Southern Independence, The War Between the States or what other name you may wish to call the greatest tragedy this nation of ours has ever seen.

    The church records were destroyed in a fire many years ago, and the congregants of 1862 and their descendents have long passed or moved away. It is said these men were buried here in the Spring of '62, and were wounded and sent North after the Battles at Forts Henry and Donelson. Or was it Shiloh? The Official Records shed no light on the matter, but does give us this:

    SAINT LOUIS, February 19, 1862.
    C. H. ELDRIDGE, Davenport, Iowa:
    All wounded are sent to Cincinnati, Mound City, Evansville and Saint Louis.  
    No distinction is made between States or between friends and foes.
    It is simply a question of humanity.
    H. W. HALLECK,
    Major-General. [1]

    So we have a little evidence that these men were in the area but why they were buried here, in this place, is a mystery. The nearest port to this place is Evansville, Indiana, but why were they not buried there rather than this lonely corner of a place twenty miles away and three miles outside of the small town of Boonville? Perhaps it is because of the uniform they wore. These men were Confederate soldiers. Perhaps the little church, in the spirit of Christian charity willingly accepted these men and allowed them to rest among their own loved ones regardless of the army the soldiers belonged to. It is hard to say why. It is also possible that other Confederates lie in other small fields 'round about the river towns along the Ohio. The same would hold true for many a Yankee boy that sleep under the sod of churchyards all across the South, like these men down in that lonely holler, unknown, unmarked and largely forgotten.

    I chose to remember these fourteen souls and try to tell their story as best as I can with the evidence available. It is not to glorify the cause for which they fought but a matter of respect. Respect for the dead. Respect for men who willingly sacrificed everything, even their very lives for their ideals, their homes, their families. I would so honor the men wearing the blue should they be the ones in that unmarked grave.

    It is an effort to honor them as soldiers, American soldiers, that compels me to share their story, or at least a piece of it. They are unknown but to God, these men down in the holler, but they are not completely forgotten. Besides...

    SAINT LOUIS, February 19, 1862.
    D. K. GREEN, Salem, Ill.:
    Sick and wounded have been sent to hospitals and cared for without distinction of States or counties, friends or foes. Humanity required this.
    H. W. HALLECK,
    Major-General. [2]

    Humanity indeed, and so noted.

    1)War Of The Rebellion:Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 2, Vol. 3, Part 1, page 281

    2)ibid. Bold lettering by this author.