IN SPOTSYLVANIA County, on the west side of south- bound State Route 2, Slaughter Pen Farm is shockingly green for early spring. For most of the winter, these 208 acres have been a wind-whipped, washed-out brown. In places, the skeletons of corn stalks jut from the fields in odd angles as though cut off at the knees and left to totter.
Now, tidy rows of young rye sweep across the fields, preparing the soil for cultivation. Many trees on the far horizon along the railroad remain a budless brown, but their underbrush has started to green.
This part of the Fredericksburg battlefield, owned by the Civil War Trust, is a perfect place to reflect on service members’ sacrifice—especially on National Medal of Honor Day.
I know, having walked there not long ago.
Of the 19 medals of honor awarded for actions in the entire Battle of Fredericksburg, five were earned on this single piece of hallowed ground. The medal, created in 1861, is our nation’s highest military decoration for acts of valor in combat.
Among the units advancing under fire on Dec. 13, 1862, across the field’s northern end, were the Union army’s 26th New York and the 136th Pennsylvania infantry regiments. “[F]or a considerable distance, the ground was covered with tall grass,” wrote Sgt. Philip Petty of the 136th. “We were ordered forward and advanced slowly, when suddenly, within a few rods from us, the enemy’s line of battle rose from the grass and fired a volley into our ranks.”
The regiment, a newly raised 9-month unit from western Pennsylvania, waivered. The color bearer found himself a target, made worse in this instance because the Pennsylvanian was a 250-pound giant. He dropped his flag and fled.
The colonel called for a replacement. “As no one else responded,” Petty later wrote, “I stepped up and told him I would pick up the colors, and carried them in the advance until we were repulsed by a flank movement of the enemy and were ordered to retreat.”
By that point, Petty had crossed the railroad tracks and the regiment had followed.
“As I could not very well retreat with a gun and the colors in my hands,” Petty said, “I planted the flagstaff in the ground and fired about thirty rounds into the rebels, then broke my gun by striking it on the rails, and carried the colors safely off the field.”
When the colonel later told the men what Petty had done, “they gave me three rousing cheers, after which the colonel promoted me to be color sergeant.”
The action also earned him the Medal of Honor.
Color bearers of the nearby 26th New York earned similar recognition.
The first, Martin Schubert, wasn’t even supposed to be on the field. Wounded at Antietam, he was granted a furlough, but instead rejoined his unit on its way into position at Fredericksburg.
“My old wound, not yet healed, still gave me considerable trouble,” Schubert admitted. “I went into the battle with the regiment, however, against the protests of my colonel and captain, who insisted that I should use the furlough. I thought the Government needed me on the battlefield rather than at home.”
While carrying the colors, he took a hit in the left side. “I still carry the bullet,” he wrote years later.
Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, later discovering Schubert had gone into battle instead of on furlough, reportedly promised him a Medal of Honor on the spot.
On the field, Joseph Keene picked up the colors after Schubert fell. He, too, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
George Maynard of the 13th Massachusetts earned the Medal of Honor for returning to the front for a fallen comrade after their regiment had fallen back.
The most noted medal recipient was Col. Charles Collis, an Irish immigrant who led the 114th Pennsylvania in a counterattack that stopped Confederates from turning the day into a rout.
“It was a moment of supreme importance to the Union army,” a historian later wrote. Another noted the regiment “suffered severely, the ground being hotly contested.”
Collis, on horseback, grabbed the regimental colors and rallied his men forward. The charge, wrote one historian, “was not only brilliant, but picturesque, as they were uniformed in scarlet and blue, their heads being decorated with the red fez and white turban of the French Zouaves d’Afrique,” adding, “their advance was so impetuous as to be irresistible.”
These stories—so compelling, so heroic—await retelling for interested people. A 1¼-mile walking trail built by the Civil War Trust covers much of the ground, with wayside signs that recount soldiers’ deeds under shot and shell.
Slaughter Pen Farm’s awakening landscape invites your visit, any time. But now, it offers an exceptional opportunity for us all to contemplate the significance of National Medal of Honor Day.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Mills is president of the Marine Corps University Foundation at Quantico. A veteran of Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, he was the first Marine general to lead NATO forces in combat, and later headed the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico. A resident of Loudoun County, he volunteers on the board of trustees of the Civil War Trust.