Friday, December 28, 2012

`Melt Like Snow Coming Down Over Warm Ground'

The echo is uncanny. Belarius, a banished lord in Cymbeline, defending Britain against the invading Roman armies, says in Scene II, Act 2, 

“Stand, stand! We have the advantage of the ground;
    The lane is guarded: nothing routs us but
    The villany of our fears.” 

The words might have been spoken by a Confederate officer on Dec. 13, 1862, on Marye’s Heights, at the northern end of the battlefield at Fredericksburg. I had reread Cymbeline Wednesday night on impulse, not thinking of the battle scenes late in the play, and on Thursday walked along the stone wall, on a lane known before the battle as Telegraph Road and afterwards called Sunken Road. Confederate Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws stationed 2,000 infantry behind the wall. He had 7,000 men in reserve on the ridge to the south. Fourteen times throughout the day, seven Union divisions advanced across the open field. Confederate infantry and artillery pushed back wave after wave. By day’s end, Union casualties numbered between 6,000 and 8,000; Confederate, about 1,200. Union Gen. Darius Couch witnessed the slaughter and later wrote: 

“As they charged, the artillery fire would break their formations, and they would get mixed; then they would close up, go forward, received the withering infantry fire, and those who were able would run to the house as best they could. As each unit came up in succession, they would do their duty and melt like snow coming down over warm ground.” 

On Thursday, two weeks after the ceremonies and reenactments commemorating the sesquicentennial of the battle, the stone wall along the Sunken Road was strewn with red and white carnations. The battlefield, on a cold but sunny morning in Fredericksburg, was almost deserted. Later in the same scene in Cymbeline, the Roman general Caius Lucius says: 

“Away, boy, from the troops, and save thyself;
    For friends kill friends, and the disorder's such
    As war were hoodwink'd.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Patrick. Inspired by your first Battle of Fredericksburg post a couple of weeks ago (quoting the Abbott letters), I've just completed George Rable's Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! It's an outstanding history of the Fredericksburg campaign. John Hennessey wrote about the carnations here:

Shelley said...

I hope Obama will use the "Stand, stand!" quote in the current battle for budget fairness.