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How civilians fared during the Battle of Fredericksburg

Confederate soldier gives an eyewitness account of events here in December 1862

By MAC WYCKOFF

TO MANY PEOPLE a Civil War battle consists of men gunning each other down in cold blood. On a deeper level are many strange, comic and interesting stories that run the gamut of human experiences.

Robert Augustus Stiles, a Confederate soldier, has left us a personal account about events before and during the Battle of Fredericksburg, which occurred on Dec. 13, 1862.

Stiles was born in Kentucky on June 27, 1836. His father, a Presbyterian minister, moved the family to Richmond when Robert was 8 years old. He spent four formative years of his young life in the Virginia capital before the family moved to New York City and later to New Haven, Conn. He graduated from Yale in 1859 and was enrolled at Columbia University Law School when war erupted.

Although mostly raised in the North and a strong Union man, Stiles‚ time in Virginia had made him sympathetic to the Old Dominion. When Virginia seceded, Stiles headed south. He enlisted in the prestigious Richmond Howitzers (an artillery unit made up largely of well-educated young men) on the day after the Battle of First Manassas.

Stiles saw action in many battles, particularly in the summer and fall of 1864 from the Wilderness to Petersburg. But his reminiscences about Fredericksburg are especially interesting. Like many Confederate soldiers, he was emotionally moved by the evacuation of Fredericksburg‚s civilian population on Dec. 11, 1862. His description of the evacuation written 40 years later reveals his emotions:

„I never saw a more pitiful procession than they made trudging through the deep snow ... I saw little children tugging along with their doll babies,ųsome bigger than they were,ųbut holding their feet up carefully above the snow, and women so old and feeble that they could carry nothing and could barely hobble themselves.

„There were women carrying a baby in one arm and its bottle, its clothes, and its covering in the other. Some had a Bible and a tooth brush in one hand, a picked chicken and a bag of flour in the other.

„Most of them had to cross a creek swollen with winter rains, and deadly cold with winter ice and snow. We took the battery horses down and ferried them over, taking one child in front and two behind and sometimes a woman or girl on either side with her feet in the stirrups.š

Gen. William Barksdale‚s Mississippi brigade drew guard duty along the bank of the Rappahannock that day. The Mississippians had been treated well by the residents and witnessing the evacuation got their blood up. Their tenacious defense delayed the Union crossing for much of the day. In the afternoon, the Federals finally established a beachhead and vicious street fighting occurred in an area bounded by Sophia, Pitt, Princess Anne and Fauquier streets.

During this fight, Stiles went to Barksdale‚s headquarters on Princess Anne Street in what is now the Fredericksburg Area Museum. On Princess Anne Street, he spotted a woman approaching Barksdale‚s headquarters from the opposite direction.

Stiles recalled that „she apparently found the projectiles which were screaming and exploding in the air, and striking and crashing through the houses, and tearing up the streets, very interestingųstepping a little aside to inspect a great, gaping hole one had just gouged out in the sidewalk.š

Reaching headquarters, the lady was greeted by an excited staff officer who told her that the general could not see her and she should seek some place of safety.š

The woman refused to leave until Barksdale saw her. According to Stiles, she greeted the general with a smile, while the general „fumed and swore.š She then quietly said, „Gen. Barksdale, my cow has just been killed in my stable by a shell. She is very fat and I don‚t want the Yankees to get her. If you will send some one down to butcher her, you are welcome to the meat.š

Many years later when delivering a speech in Fredericksburg Stiles told this story and noticed that the audience reacted with a great deal of interest and amusement. He noticed that their attention had suddenly turned to someone else.

Following their gaze, a surprised Stiles recognized the woman he was talking about. Stiles recorded that „the entire audience rose and gave her three deafening cheers.š

About this time, having completed their mission of delaying the Federals, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered Barksdale to pull his men back. Lt. Lane Brandon commanded the last unit to retreat. Brandon was a classmate of Stiles at Yale and then attended Harvard Law School with Henry Abbott, now a captain in a Massachusetts unit.

Brandon learned from some prisoners that the unit leading the Union advance through the city was commanded by his law school chum. According to Stiles, Brandon „lost his head completely.š He refused to retire before Abbott‚s men and fought them fiercely. Despite driving back the Bay Staters, he was violating orders to withdraw.

When he refused to break off the fighting he was put under arrest. The exact spot of this confrontation can still be found. Abbott‚s men held the low ground at the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis streets. Brandon‚s Mississippians held the high ground to the south. Traveling south on Princess Anne Street, this high ground is very noticeable between Lewis and Amelia streets.

Stiles witnessed the major fighting two days later from Howison Hill along what is now Lee Drive. Seeing a heroic Texas soldier bringing in some prisoners, he asked what had happened. The Texan replied that „me and my comrade surrounded ‚em; but he got killed.š The man had single handedly brought in 15Ų20 prisoners.

Stiles‚ cousin, a captain in another regiment, was wounded in the stomach that evening and left for dead by a surgeon concentrating on others that he had a chance to save. The captain agreed that the doctor needed to help others, but predicted that he would survive saying „I haven‚t the least idea of dying.š

That night, the captain‚s slave found him after an extensive search. He then gathered blankets from the dead that he used to make a soft bed and to cover his master. The black man built a fire and found water and brandy for his master.

The next morning, the physician was startled to find the captain still alive. On closer examination, the doctor realized that the ball had passed all the way through the body from left to right, missing the vital organs. Without the help of his slave, the captain would have died of cold and exposure. He made a miraculous recovery and spent Christmas (12 days later) at home.

Stiles‚ survived the war and practiced law for many years in Virginia. He told many other stories about his experiences in the Civil War in his book, „Four Years Under Marse Robert.š It has been reprinted by Sergeant Kirkland‚s Museum and Historical Society in Fredericksburg.

MAC WYCKOFF, of Fredericksburg, is a historian and vice president of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table.