Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/23

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Carrying the News to Washington.—1862

I SOUGHT my quarters shortly before eleven, and arranged to be called so as to start for Acquia Creek at 3 A.M. I set out on horseback. Never before or since have I had such a terrible ride. It was pitch dark — indeed, I could not make out anything beyond my horse's head. There was no distinct road, but the army trains, in trying to avoid mud and move on solid ground, had made tracks of a seemingly infinite width, but all reduced to a miry state. Hence I travelled most of the way through a sea of mire from one to two feet deep. From time to time I struck stretches of corduroy, but, as the logs were loose, they made riding only more difficult and dangerous. Four times my horse stumbled and fell, throwing me once, so that I landed with a splash in a pool from which I emerged covered with liquid earth. I could not tell in what direction I floundered on, and, not meeting any one, had to trust to my animal's instinct. I was glad enough, therefore, when day dawned and broken-down wagons and debris of all sorts assured me that I had not gone astray. I had calculated on making the distance in from three to four hours, but I did not reach Acquia Creek before nine o'clock.

I proceeded directly to the tent of the quartermaster in charge of the depot of supplies and transportation. He was the same official whom I had met on my way down. He had heard the boom of the artillery the day before and knew that a general action had taken place, but had heard nothing of the result. Hence, he was glad and grateful to get the scanty scraps of news I was inclined to give in exchange for a plentiful breakfast which his cook prepared for me. Naturally I cherished the hope that my night ride would give me the start of my rivals, the correspondents of other Northern papers, and was very much elated on learning that none of them had arrived before me. But imagine my dismay when the quartermaster, in reply to my question as to when the first boat would start for Washington, informed me that he had received orders before daylight from General Burnside not to allow any officer or soldier, or any one else attached to the army, or any civilian, and especially no press correspondents, to go North without a special permit from his headquarters.

This was a knockdown blow, for it looked not only as if I should be disappointed in my hope of getting ahead of my competitors, but as if my coming to Acquia Creek would prove a great blunder, leaving me separated from the army and unable to get back to it for at least a day, owing to my own extreme fatigue and the exhaustion of my animal. To my further disgust, C. C. Coffin, the correspondent of the Boston Journal writing under the signature of “Carleton,” whom I knew as one of the most intelligent, energetic, and indefatigable reporters in the field, turned up in the quartermaster's tent as I was finishing my break fast. To be sure, the interdict applied to him as well as to me, and he was always very genial company; but one never likes to discover that other people are as smart as one's self.

My ambition as a correspondent was too strong, how ever, to make me submit meekly to the situation. On the contrary, with body and spirit refreshed by a solid breakfast, nothing was further from my thoughts, and I resolved to try my best to defy Burnside and circumvent Coffin. But the resolution was easier than its execution, and I wandered up and down the long dock — the only dry spot in sight — for an hour or so, vainly taxing my brain for an escape from the trap I was caught in. It naturally occurred to me first to arrange to slip off secretly on one of the four vessels discharging on the dock, but on inquiry it appeared that only one of them would go directly to Washington after unloading, and that at least twenty-four hours would elapse before the craft started on its return trip. Suddenly, however, I conceived a possible solution of the quandary. I saw two negroes row away from the dock in a small boat and stop a hundred yards or so from it to fish. The idea flashed upon me that I might get them to row me out into the river, about half a mile away, in order to intercept one of the numerous steam-vessels passing up and down between the capital and Hampton Roads. But in executing this plan it was necessary to prevent discovery and imitation by Coffin. Walking back to the quartermaster's, I found to my joy that the Boston Journal's correspondent had given way to his fatigue and was fast asleep on a camp-bed. I lost no time in retracing my steps and hailing the negroes. They promptly responded and rowed up to the dock. Not deeming it safe to disclose my real purpose, in case I should be seen and stopped by some one in authority, I offered them a dollar each to let me fish with one of their rods. They accepted with a pleased grin, and I let myself down into the boat. Telling them that I wanted to fish further out, I made them row out to the river proper so as to be beyond recognition from the dock. Then I let them know that I wanted to be put aboard the first steamer from below, and, pulling out two five-dollar greenbacks, told them that they should have them if they did this for me. The size of the reward was evidently overwhelming, and they agreed promptly to my proposal.

We slowly rowed down the river, and in less than an hour a steam-vessel came in sight that proved to be a freight-propeller under Government charter. Getting as near as practicable, I hailed a person standing on the upper deck, who proved to be the captain. Shouting to him that I wished to be taken aboard, he asked whether I had a transportation order, as he was forbidden to carry passengers without one. As he slowed down, I had got hold of a rope hanging from the side of the propeller, and, fearing that the captain would refuse to take me, I pulled the boat up to an opening in the guard railing on the lower deck, jumped aboard, tossed the greenbacks to the oarsmen, and told them to make off as fast as possible, which they did with a vengeance. The captain was at first disposed to be wrathy at my summary proceeding, but became mollified on being shown my general army pass, and on my assurance that I commanded enough influence to protect him in case my performance should get him into trouble. Being now certain of having the start of all my rivals, I felt very jubilant. The only drawback was that the propeller was very slow, making only about eight or nine miles against the stream, so that I could not expect to reach Washington before 7 or 8 P.M. This gave me ample time, however, to clean up, which my night ride had rendered very necessary, to sleep for a couple of hours, and, most important of all, to get an account of the battle ready for instant transmission by mail or telegraph. I had it finished at seven, but we reached the dock on the Eastern Branch only at a quarter-past eight. Before leaving the boat, I thanked the captain warmly for his kindness, and begged him to accept a fifty-dollar bill in recognition of the great service he had rendered me. He was much surprised, and at first declined the present, but yielded when I urged him to accept it for his wife and children.

I made all speed to the Tribune office, where I was told there would be no use in trying to send my report by telegraph, as the Government censor at the main telegraph office had been ordered by the Secretary of War not to allow any news from Fredericksburg to be transmitted without previous submission to and special approval by him. But there was time to send it by special messenger on the night train, which was done. It may as well be mentioned here that my account met the same fate as that of the first battle of Bull Run. I had stated in it as strongly as possible that the Army of the Potomac had suffered another great, general defeat; that an inexcusable, murderous blunder had been made in attempting to overcome the enemy by direct attack; and that the Union cause was threatened by the greatest disaster yet suffered, in consequence of the perilous situation in which the defeat left the army. The editor was afraid to let the Tribune solely assume the whole responsibility for what would no doubt prove a great shock to the loyal public, lest I might be mistaken in my opinion, and, accordingly, the report was very much modified, but was printed as an extra issue the following morning.

My duty being thus fully discharged, I went to Willard's Hotel for my supper. At the entrance I met Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, known to the local correspondents as the most persistent news-hunter in Washington. He knew I had joined the Army of the Potomac, and at once surmised that I was from the front, and greeted me with the questions: “Have you come from the army? What is the news? Have we won the fight?” I answered: “Senator, you know whatever news I have belongs to my paper, but, for the sake of the cause, I will tell you in strict confidence that Burnside is defeated, and in such a bad plight that I think you can render no greater service to the country than to go at once to the White House and tell the President, if he does not know what has happened on the Rappahannock, to make an immediate demand for the truth. You can state further to him that, as I believe he knows me to be a truthful man, I do not hesitate to say to him, through you, that, in my deliberate judgment, he ought not to wait for information, but instantly order the army back to the north bank.” After a few more words, the Senator started for the Presidential mansion. After supper I went back to the Tribune office, but had hardly entered it when the Senator reappeared, and, taking me aside, told me that he had seen the President, who desired me to come with him to the White House at once. Of course I went, although I was still in my campaign clothes and hardly presentable. It was nearly ten o'clock. The Senator informed me on the way that he had not given my message to the President.

We found Mr. Lincoln in the old reception-room on the second floor, opposite the landing. He greeted me with a hearty hand-shake, saying, “I am much obliged to you for coming, for we are very anxious and have heard very little.” He then asked me to give him, as far as my personal knowledge permitted, a general outline of what had happened, which I did as fully as I could in a few minutes. He followed up my account with one question after another for over half an hour. He inquired regarding the defences of the rebels on our right front, their command of the town and river, the physical and moral condition of our troops before and after the fight, the chances of success of another attack from either of our wings, the extent of our losses, and the feeling among the general officers. He was very careful not to ask anything so as to imply criticism of anybody, although I ventured to mingle a good deal of censure with my statements of facts. But his questions and the expression of his face showed that he believed I was aiming to tell the truth, and that he felt growing anxiety. When he ended the interview by repeating his thanks, I made bold to say as earnestly as I could: “Mr. President, it is, of course, not for me to offer advice to you, but I hope my sincere loyalty may be accepted as my excuse for taking the liberty of telling you what is not only my conviction but that of every general officer I saw during and after the fighting, that success is impossible, and that the worst disaster yet suffered by our forces will befall the Army of the Potomac if the attack is renewed, and unless the army is withdrawn at once to the north side. Pardon me, Mr. President, but I cannot help telling you further that you cannot render the country a greater service than by ordering General Burnside to withdraw from the south bank forthwith, if he has not already done so.”

The President took no offence, but, with a melancholy smile, remarked, “I hope it is not so bad as all that,” whereupon we took our leave. The Senator was fully impressed with the danger of the situation and gratified that I had spoken so frankly. I felt thankful myself that I had been thus permitted to make an effort in the highest quarter for the salvation of the army, and I walked away with a sense of having discharged a patriotic duty. I have always been proud of my action, though it produced no effect. Burnside was, indeed, allowed to dispose of the fate of the army without interference from Washington; but, fortunately, the truth that there was safety only in withdrawal came to him in the end, after two days of floundering and vacillation, and the Army of the Potomac returned unmolested to the north bank during the night of the 15th-16th.

With the official history of the memorable Saturday, from both Union and Confederate sources, before me, I contend unhesitatingly that the escape of the Army of the Potomac from the Fredericksburg trap must be ascribed to the ignorance of the rebel Commander-in-chief of the extent of our losses and of the confusion and demoralization of our right. His despatches, during and immediately after the action, to the Richmond Secretary of War prove that he not only did not know the physical and moral disability wrought among our forces, but believed that there had been only a preliminary trial of arms, and that the battle would be renewed at daylight the next morning. Further proof is furnished by this quotation from his report: “The attack on the 13th had been so easily repulsed, and by so small a part of our army, that it was not supposed the enemy would limit his efforts to an attempt which, in view of the magnitude of his preparations, seemed to be comparatively insignificant. . . . . . But we were necessarily ignorant of the extent to which he had suffered, and only became aware of it when, on the morning of the 16th, it was discovered that he had availed himself of the darkness of night and the prevalence of a violent storm of wind and rain to recross the river.” To assume that, with a knowledge of our condition, Lee would not have launched his columns, under the protecting fire of his artillery, down upon our broken, shattered, cowed, huddled-up right, would be simply to deny, as I have already said, his indisputable mastery of the art of war. It is true that the line of the right on the first crest, from which our attacks were started, was held during the night following the battle and during the next day by the organizations that last came into the fight. But, owing to casualties and depletion through skulking, they numbered barely one-third of their strength before the battle, and hence could have offered but a weak resistance.

The discredit to the Federal arms on account of the battle of Fredericksburg is not diminished by the relative strength of the two armies. The Army of Northern Virginia was composed of the First Army Corps under General James Longstreet and the Second under General Thomas J. Jackson; the former opposed to our right and the latter to our left. The First Corps consisted of five divisions with a total of sixteen brigades, varying from two to five regiments. The Second Corps was made up of four divisions with nineteen brigades of from two to seven regiments. The two corps thus represented an aggregate of nine divisions with thirty-five brigades. There was a cavalry force also, but it played as little part in the battle as our own. There appear to have been fifty-one batteries attached to the rebel army. The Army of the Potomac consisted, as set forth, of six army corps of eighteen divisions and fifty-six brigades, with seventy batteries of from four to six guns each. A comparison of the respective organizations shows that our brigades averaged more regiments than those of the enemy. The entire effective force of Lee, according to rebel authority, was, indeed, under fifty thousand, while Burnside's before the battle was more than double that number. Nor is this all. Lee, in his congratulatory order to his army, says that it took less than twenty thousand of his men to repel our attacks both on the right and on the left. This is perfectly credible, considering that our attacks were made by divisions and brigades only, and is borne out by his official list of casualties showing the organizations actually engaged. But it is true, also, as set forth in my narrative, that five divisions on our left and one on our right did not take part in the action.

We lost 124 officers and 1160 men killed, 654 officers and 8946 men wounded, and 20 officers and 1749 men missing or captured (of which, as the rebels claimed only 900 prisoners, one-half were doubtless killed), making a total loss of 12,653. The proportion of officers among the killed and wounded was extraordinary and not equalled in any other battle of the Civil War. The rebel loss is reported only under the general head of killed and wounded, at 458 and 3743 respectively, or a total of 4201. The prisoners we took brought it up to about 5000, or forty per cent. of our loss. Jackson's corps lost three-fifths of the total, namely, 328 killed and 2354 wounded, and more than half of the prisoners taken by us. Our divisions which attacked him lost, together, 4284. Deducting Jackson's and Franklin's losses from the totals, the horrible fact appears that our loss on the right amounted to more than four times that of the enemy, which brings out in gory relief the useless butchery of our soldiers.

With this I gladly close the sickening story of the appalling disaster for which Ambrose E. Burnside will, to the end of time, stand charged with the responsibility.


The Riverside Press
Electrotyped and printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.