Tuesday, December 11, 2012

`Except in Direst Necessity'

My first visit to Fredericksburg came fifteen years ago this month, days after the 135th anniversary of the battle (Dec. 11-15, 1862) that made the name of the small Virginia city synonymous with Union blunders and unimaginable slaughter. I was meeting my future in-laws for the first time. The sky was low and the snow on the ground was patchy, but holly trees, with their red berries and waxy green leaves, grow densely in the woods on and around the battlefield. Among these festive-looking hills and fields, and along the sunken road at Marye’s Heights, Union casualties had outnumbered Confederate losses more than two to one. On the northern flank of the battle, the casualty imbalance was eight-to-one. 

Henry Livermore Abbott was a first lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts who had graduated from Harvard in 1860 (he enrolled at age fourteen) and was studying law in his father’s practice in Lowell, Mass., when he was commissioned in July 1861. At Fredericksburg, he was a month away from his twenty-first birthday. Four months earlier, his older brother, Edward, had been killed at Cedar Mountain. On Dec. 11, Abbott’s 20th crossed the Rappahannock River under fire to secure a bridgehead for the Union force’s long-delayed pontoons. On Dec.  14, in a letter to his father, Abbott writes: 

“Then came our turn. We had about 200 men. We advanced 2 or 3 rods over the brow of the hill under a murderous fire, without the slightest notion of what was intended to be accomplished.” 

Abbott blames his divisional commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, for the disaster, describing him as “a most conscientious man, but a very poor general.” He goes on: “[Col. Norman J.] Hall stoutly condemned the whole attempt by such a weak exhausted brigade, as simply ridiculous. But Howard is so pious that he thought differently. & hinc illae [lacrimae: “hence those tears”] &c.” Abbott concludes his letter to his father: 

“I am in excellent health. My scabbard was smashed by a bullet, but I myself was uninjured. Don’t you or mama worry yourself about our fighting any more. Howard told us we were so used up that we shouldn’t fight again except in direst necessity.” 

Abbott survived Fredericksburg and was promoted to captain. In July 1863, he fought at Gettysburg, and three months later was promoted to major. He became the acting commander of the 20th Massachusetts after all the regimental officers senior to him were killed at Gettysburg. He led the regiment at Bristoe Station and at the Wilderness, where he was fatally wounded on May 6, 1864, age twenty-two. Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Fredericksburg. We fly there on Christmas morning, and I hope to trace Abbott’s path around the battlefield. 

[Abbott’s letter can be found in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (Library of America, 2012).]


George said...

O.O. Howard served creditably commanding a corps and then an army in the west under Sherman. Evidently he was, as Abbott says, a pious man--a large cross in front of the Congregational Church at 10th and G Sts. NW in Washington, DC, commemorates him. Howard University in Washington, DC, is named for him; after the war he served as head of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Helen Pinkerton said...


You are the lucky one to tramp again the field at Fredericksburg. While there, try to pick up a copy of Henry Abbott's letters (Fallen Leaves, ed. Robert Garth Scott, Kent State UP). It is one of the great collections of CW letters. Look up his comments on Grant and Meade, dated, April 4, 1864.