How civilians fared during the Battle of Fredericksburg
Confederate soldier gives an eyewitness account of events here in
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
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
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)
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.