Horror and Heroism at the Slaughter Pen Farm
Some 4,000 Federal soldiers stood upon the precipice of battle. Their waterlogged and mud-caked wool uniforms clung heavily to each man’s body. For the last few hours, they had laid upon the earth in a vain attempt to keep a low profile from Confederate projectiles falling among their ranks. "When we came up to within range or reach of there [sic] batteries they opened on us from a number of batteries…” recalled one Pennsylvania soldier. “We were kept in a large field lying on the frozen ground which was thawing a little. For several hours wich [sic] all the while the Rebel cannons were firing on us — the cannon balls were flying over and among us all the time, killing men and hosses [sic] and tearing up the ground all around us and throwing the mud and dirt all over us and blew up one of our ammunition wagons….”
A veritable hell on earth had just erupted from the far tree line. Few could fathom the horror that waited across the seemingly flat, nondescript field before them. And none could have expected that, by the end of December 13, 1862, this nondescript field would witness no fewer than five acts of valor for which United States soldiers were bestowed the Medal of Honor. These stories of heroism on the Slaughter Pen Farm are highlighted herein.
Today, the Battle of Fredericksburg is one of the most misunderstood campaigns in all of American military history. Most view the battle as futile frontal assaults on a fixed fortified enemy position. Confederate soldiers were so well positioned that they had an easy victory, mowing down thousands of Federal soldiers in front of the now-infamous Marye’s Heights. The reality of what happened on December 13th is far different than the story that has been told by the majority of the battle’s participants, as well by as many historians. The Battle of Fredericksburg was not a one-sided affair. It was not an easy Confederate victory. In fact, it was a close-fought thing. The Union army came within reach of decisively defeating General Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia.
The Federal plan that General Ambrose Burnside decided upon was simple enough: a pre-dawn, nearly simultaneous assault on the Confederate lines. On the Union left, Burnside amassed nearly 65,000 Federal soldiers. They were to attack across a plain south of Fredericksburg, strike the Confederate right and push it to the west and to the north—away from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. This would place the Federals between the enemy and their capital. As the rebels were driven back on their right, another Federal force would attack out of the city of Fredericksburg itself. These Union soldiers would hit the Confederate left at Marye’s Heights. These Union troops were meant to tie down the enemy in the northern sector of the battlefield so that they would be unable to shift south and assist their counterparts on the Confederate right, while hopefully dislodging the enemy from their strong position. It was a solid plan on paper; however, the execution of the plan was severely flawed.
Vague orders arrived at the front after dawn, and they seemed to contradict the plan Burnside had discussed with his commanders the previous evening. The Federal commander in charge of the 65,000 men on the Union left, William Buell Franklin, was baffled. He assumed his men would be the vanguard of the offensive, yet the orders he received sounded impotent. Rather than ask Burnside for clarification, Franklin stuck to what he perceived as the tone of the order and, instead of launching 65,000 Federals on an assault, he sent forward “a division at least”—some 4,200 men—and he kept “it well supported” with another division of some 4,000 soldiers. In other words, a poorly worded order and terrible communications—all made worse by a bad map—led to Franklin’s decision to merely throw forward 8,200 men toward an enemy line that consisted of more than 38,000 Confederate soldiers. One Confederate watched as the blanket of blue engulfed the fields before him, preparing for the assault, “It was a grand sight seeing them come in position this morning, but it seemed that host would eat us up....”
Unbeknownst to the Confederate onlookers, the imposing Federal formation was not as imposing as it would seem. Near 10 AM, the Federals made their initial push toward the Confederate right. As they did so, a few stray cannon shots fell among the Union ranks. The shells were not coming from the far tree line, though; rather, they came from the Union left, where there should be no Confederates. A Pennsylvania solider stated, “Naturally supposing, from the position [of the cannon], 'twas one of our own batteries, we thought our gunners had had too much 'commissary' this morning, and so remarked.” More shots tore through the ranks. However, it was not a few inebriated Union artillerists, but rather a rogue Confederate officer who rode forward with a lone cannon and pelted the Union flank for nearly an hour. This cannon stalled the Federal offensive.
Around 12 PM, the Federal offensive lurched forward once more. This time, the Confederates responded with a roar. The full force of Southern artillery, some 56 cannon, came to bear on the Federals, who were easy targets on an open plain. Federal artillery countered in what proved to be the largest artillery duel in the war's Eastern Theater from December of 1862 until Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.
Just after 1 PM, two Confederate ammunition chests exploded along the Southern lines—one right after the other. Some Federals leaped to their feet and cheered wildly. One officer seized the initiative. General George G. Meade called all of his 4,200 Pennsylvanians to their feet. The Keystone State men pressed forward into a point of woods and flowed onto a low rise named Prospect Hill. Although outnumbered, Meade’s men burst like a shell in all directions and, amazingly, breached the dense Confederate line. They desperately needed support, though.
Although his family lived in the South, John Gibbon felt compelled by duty to stay with the Union, where he amassed a stellar reputation as the leader of the famed Iron Brigade. And on the afternoon of December 13th, he stood at the head of an entire Union division. As Gibbon steeled himself for battle, he could not have known that the Confederate force he was about to assault—across what has been dubbed as the “Slaughter Pen” of Fredericksburg—contained three of his brothers.
As Meade’s men fought for their lives atop Prospect Hill, Gibbon readied his division for action, stacking his three brigades one behind the other. His outnumbered division would act as a battering ram, entering the fray in three successive waves.
Sometime between 1:15 and 1:30, Gibbon’s first wave trudged across the field. The fields were marshy and muddy. The ground tried to suck the shoes right off the men’s feet. Their wool uniforms were made heavy by the water they had absorbed while lying in the open, waiting to go into action. Confederate artillery fire still fell among the ranks.
Nelson Taylor, Gibbon’s senior brigade commander, found that the seemingly flat field the men were trudging through was not so flat. In fact, the plantation fields across which they advanced had a number of fences. The traditional wood fence along the road was no problem; rather, it was the ditch fence they came across in the field that posed a major issue. Farmers in that part of Virginia dug ditch fences to provide irrigation for their fields, denote property lines, and keep cattle from wandering. This particular fence was normally 4 to 5 feet deep and around 10 feet wide. The width of the fence meant the muddy Federal soldiers could not leap across it—they had to jump into more mud and ankle- to knee-deep water. Once out of the ditch fence, the men ascended a slight, almost imperceptible rise.
Atop the rise, Taylor's lead brigade felt the full brunt of the Confederate small-arms fire. Five North Carolina regiments led by James Lane opened upon the exposed Federals. (These were the same Tar Heels that would wound Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson six months later.) Taylor attempted to steady his men, who began falling left and right. The division skirmish line, manned by Colonel Samuel Leonard’s 13th Massachusetts Infantry, withdrew, lacking ammunition.
The 13th Massachusetts made its way back to the staging area where the Federal advance began, the Bowling Green Road. As the members of the regiment caught their breath, George Maynard looked around and was unable to locate his friend, Charles Armstrong. Determined to find his comrade, Maynard proceeded on his own back to the front. A firestorm enveloped his unit’s former position. Amidst the hail of bullets, Maynard located Armstrong—the latter having been wounded in the leg. Maynard made an improvised tourniquet in the field, applied it to Armstrong’s leg, and then carried him back through “the whistling of shot and shell.” George Maynard came off the field unscathed and located a Union field hospital. Sadly, Charles Armstrong passed away on the evening of December 13th. For his actions, though, George Maynard received the Medal of Honor—the first of five men who would receive that distinction on the Slaughter Pen Farm.
Taylor’s attack foundered. Standing in an open field, exchanging shots with an enemy protected behind a railroad embankment and in a tree line, was a losing proposition. After 20 minutes of fighting, most of Taylor’s men were disheartened and running low on ammunition. Colonel Peter Lyle brought his brigade forward in an attempt to bolster Taylor’s line. Lyle tried to make the best out of a bad situation by combining the two brigades. Men still fell by the score.
The flags of each unit made conspicuous targets, but they, too, were the epicenters of conspicuous gallantry. Flags were large, designed so men could see them through the smoke of battle. If your flag went forward, so should you; if the flag went to the rear, you could withdraw from the field in good conscience. Flags were also the pride of soldiers, both North and the South. It was a great dishonor to lose one to the enemy in action.
Lyle’s battle line began to falter as his men pressed across the field. Confederates leaped atop the embankment of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and singled out many of the Federal color bearers. The color bearer of the 26th New York Infantry fell wounded as the unit advanced across the Slaughter Pen. The men of the 26th had already entered the battle with a pall over their heads. Their former colonel, William Christian, had resigned from the army in disgrace, labeled as a coward. Thus, the soldiers of 26th New York had something to prove at Fredericksburg.
As their colors fell to the earth, a German immigrant sprang forward. Martin Schubert should not have been on the battlefield at Fredericksburg. Schubert was sickly and had just received a medical discharge from the army. Rather than abandon his comrades and flag in their time of need, though, Schubert had stayed to fight. He scooped up the flag and, rather than just stand his ground, he strode forward, urging his unit to follow. Moments later, Schubert was felled by a bullet—but another immigrant stepped in to take up the colors and the advance. Joseph Keene, a former Englishman, took the flag from Schubert and helped to keep the advance going. Both Schubert and Keene received the Medal of Honor.
Just down the line from the 26th New York was the brand-new 136th Pennsylvania Infantry. These 9-month soldiers, who hailed from Western Pennsylvania, had joined the Union cause when President Lincoln called for 300,000 more men in response to Robert E. Lee’s move into Maryland earlier in the fall.
The fight at the Slaughter Pen was overwhelming for some of the green Keystone Staters. The color bearer of the unit was a 250-pound man who made a perfect target for the rebels. As this fact dawned on him, he abandoned his flag. Phillip Petty saw the discarded banner and snatched it up. Like Schubert, Petty led by example and moved forward with the flag, helping to urge his men across the field. He stomped forward for a few yards, planted the flag in the ground, knelt beside it, and fired on the enemy. His fellow Pennsylvanians rallied around him. Petty was later presented the Medal of Honor.
Meanwhile, John Gibbon added the weight of his third and final brigade to the attack. His men drove the Confederates from the railroad, and like Meade’s men to their left, breached the Confederate line. The success, though, was short-lived. Fierce rebel counterattacks struck home, and Gibbon’s men poured back from whence they came. One soldier admitted that “the noise was terrific, almost deafening.”
In the pell-mell retreat, scores of Union prisoners fell into rebel hands. Private George Heiser of the 136th Pennsylvania was one of those unlucky men. Heiser had refused to leave a wounded comrade near the rail line. Confederates sent him to Libby Prison, although he was later exchanged. Heiser survived his nine months with the army and was extremely proud of his service. He took part in veterans' reunions, marched in memorial parades, and instilled the pride of patriotism in his son Victor. George owned a store in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was the kind of store we only see in the movies. It had everything you would need to live in coal country and if you couldn’t afford to pay, George Heiser let you take what you needed anyhow—he knew you were good for it. In May of 1889, George marched in the annual memorial celebration in Johnstown. Sadly, two days later, he and his wife Mathilde were swept away in the waters of the epic Johnstown Flood. Fifteen-year-old Victor Heiser miraculously survived. He went to where his parents’ store once stood; all that remained was a wardrobe. He opened it to find the contents: his father's Civil War uniform. Victor reached into the pocket and pulled out the sum total of his inheritance—one cent—which was perhaps carried by George at Fredericksburg. George Heiser had survived the horror of the Slaughter Pen at Fredericksburg and the hell of Libby Prison only to die in one of the other great tragedies of the late 19th century.
With George Meade’s and John Gibbon’s attacks both over, now it was a matter of survival. The battle was lost, and the commanders had to extract as many men from battle as possible.
Meade begged for reinforcements. Then he pleaded for them. Finally, he went on the warpath with fellow Union officers. After far too much time, reinforcements arrived at the front. Meanwhile, Gibbon was severely wounded in the wrist and gave up the field. His division streamed back toward the Bowling Green Road and the Rappahannock River. Still, something had to be done to stem the tide of Confederate forces.
Fresh troops entered the field as the Confederate counterattack was reaching its zenith.
Colonel Charles Collis was a native of Ireland who had immigrated to the United States shortly before the Civil War. Collis served in the 1862 Valley Campaign and seemed to have a solid battlefield acumen. Unfortunately for Collis’ unit, the 114th Pennsylvania, they were entering their first battle. The 114th Pennsylvania was known as “Collis’ Zouaves” because they wore the flashy red and blue uniforms modeled after French Algerian soldiers.
What the Pennsylvanians saw was akin to pandemonium. Their brigade commander, John Robinson, was knocked out of action and Gibbon’s men were fleeing the field with Confederates in hot pursuit. Federal artillery pieces were about to be overrun. Collis didn’t flinch. He rode to the center of his line, snatched the flag from the color bearer, and spurred his horse forward, bellowing “Remember the stone wall at Middletown!” While the phrase might have been invigorating to other soldiers, the 114th Pennsylvania had not fought at Middletown. Thus, the meaning of the phrase fell on deaf ears. What did spur the men of the 114th Pennsylvania forward was the action of the colonel, on horseback, flag in hand. The Keystone State men slammed into the Confederates, halting the rebel counterattack. The action was immortalized in a massive painting, while Collis’ heroism was rewarded with a Medal of Honor.
Marching into battle with the men of the 114th Pennsylvania—but often overlooked—was a vivandiere by the name of French Mary Tepe. A vivandiere is a carryover from the French army. They supported the soldiers in the field by supplying them with water, aid, and other care. Tepe was right behind the battleline in the Slaughter Pen when she was wounded in the ankle. For her actions, she was awarded the Kearney Cross, an award exclusively given out by General Philip Kearney’s old division. The cross was granted “only to brave and worthy soldiers.”
By 3 PM, the fighting at the Slaughter Pen was all but over. Nearly 5,000 soldiers fell in the life-and-death struggle. Across that bloody plain, and in a radius of some 400 yards, five men “received the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration that may be awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who distinguished themselves by acts of valor”—the Medal of Honor. Few sites of battle ever witnessed this amount of horror and heroism in such a small span of time and space.
Upon retreating across the Rappahannock River, one Pennsylvania soldier seemed to sum up the experience of every Federal soldier who fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg and survived. “I am free to confess that the moment I touched the earth I drew a long, strong and soul-relieving breath, and from the bottom of my heart, thanked God that I have lived to get out of that infernal slaughter pen and was once more safely landed on the other side of Jordan.”
Learn More: The Battle of Fredericksburg
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