Title: George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 16 December 1862
Date: December 16, 1862
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from George Washington Whitman, Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, ed. Jerome M. Loving (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 75-76. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Whitman Archive ID: duk.00333
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, Eric Conrad, Gillian Price, and April Lambert
Camp near Falmouth Va1
We have had another battle and I have come out safe and sound, although I had the side of my jaw slightly scraped with a peice of shell which burst at my feet.
On Thursday morning last before daylight one of our Regts, commenced to throw a Pontoon Bridge across the River when the Rebel sharpshooters opened on them from the houses along the bank of the River, and our Artillery began to Shell the Town. The Rebel Batteries opened upon ours and a terrible Canonnading was kept up all day. Just before night our fellows succeeding in getting a bridge across and a Regt of Infantry attempted to cross but the Rebs drove them back. Our Regt had been under arms all day, and was then ordered down, but before we got there some of our troops managed to get across and hold the landing untill they were reinforced when they drove the Rebs to the outskirts of the Town and we were ordered back to Camp. Early on Friday morning we went over, but there was no general engagement although skirmishing was going on all day, but we were not engaged at all. About 8 Oclock on Saturday morning our side made an advance driving the Rebel Skirmishers back about a mile and a half from the river, and into their earthworks and about noon the fight became general. The enemy were posted in an almost impregnable position on a raange of hills which they have covered with breastworks for Artillery and Rifle pitts for Infantry while between them and the Town from which we had to advance is an open plain swept on all parts by their guns and at the foot of the hills is a narrow creek, with a steep muddy bank on each side, over which it would be impossible to charge and as they were almost entirely protected by their breastworks you can imagine what an advantage they had over us. About 9 O clock in the morning our Regt was ordered to support a Battery. but it was in such an exposed position that they could not work the guns, and after looseing several men they were forced to haul off and we laid still untill about 3 Oclock when we were ordered up to the front. Our whole Brigade formed in line and advanced beautifully over the plain and up to the bank of the creek, under a most terrible fire of Rifle balls, Cannister, and Shell, after getting to the edge of the creek we lay down and blazed away untill night Other Brigades and Divissions followed us in and lay down behind us but we could get no further, and after dark the fireing ceased and we all fell back to the Town except 3 Brigades who was left to hold the ground untill morning when we supposed the fight would be renewed but Sunday passed and no fighting. On Sunday night our Regt went out on Picket within 200 ft of the enemys breastworks but we were protected by a slight raise of the ground but we had to lay down flat all the time for as soon as we got up the Rebs cracked away at us, last night all the troops fell back on this side of the river takeing up the bridge and here we are now.
the mail is just Closeing So good Bye all did you get the money write immediately
1. In this letter George Whitman describes some of his experiences in the battle of First Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862)—a Union disaster in which 1,284 Federal troops were killed and 9,600 wounded. The Fifty-First Regiment alone, according to Whitman's own count, suffered a loss of sixty-nine officers and men either killed or wounded. Whitman himself was struck by a fragment of percussion shell that cut through his cheek (see Civil War Diary for a parallel account of this battle). Probably the first news of George's injury came to the Whitman family through the New York Herald of December 16, 1862, which in a list of wounded carried the name of "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore" (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman [New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press, 1967], 281). While the Whitmans could not be absolutely sure that this name was a misprint for the Whitman surname, they were familiar through George's previous letters with the names of the other officers in his regiment—which included no one by the name of Whitmore. Hence, such an indication was enough to send Walt Whitman on his journey to Fredericksburg the same day in search of George. The next day—December 17—the family's fears were confirmed by an entry in a list of wounded in the New York Times: "Lieut. Whitman, Co. E., 51st New York—cheek." In a letter to Walt datelined December 19, 1862, Jeff Whitman mentions the Times list and also expresses the family's impatience over not receiving by that time any news from Walt concerning George's condition. [back]