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).]