Friday, May 3, 2013

"An Awful Large Battle"

A Maine officer's perspective of Chancellorsville

John Frain, are you in there?  Officers of the 16th Maine.
(Maine State Archives)

As we continue to consider the Battle of Chancellorsville on its sesquicentennial, let us again seek the "boots on the ground" perspective, particularly that of the 16th Maine Infantry.  This Federal regiment went on to achieve great fame at Gettysburg less than two months later and are the subject of an upcoming public television documentary.  For now, however, we shall focus on May 1863.  Information on this unit's exploits at Chancellorsville can be difficult to find.  Yet one of the officers in this regiment, Abner R. Small, left numerous written accounts of the Sixteenth's exploits.  One humorous anecdote originates from from their crossing of the Rapidan River in Virginia on April 30.  Small writes of the chaplains who "were eloquent in their appeals to patriotism. . . . They besought us to all stand firm, to be brave; God being our shield, we had nothing to fear.  Just then came several enemy shells from across the river and a general scattering.  The chaplains were the first to flee, and the swiftest, their coattails streaming in the wind, followed by gleefully shouted counsel: ‘Stand firm; put your trust in the Lord!’”  The infantrymen heartily laughed off the incident.

Unfortunately for sergeants of the 16th like John H. Frain, matters were not as jovial in the subsequent days.  Being caught in the melee that was the wilderness around Chancellorsville, he penned a vivid testimonial of his experiences to his mother--Eliza Frain of East Madison--150 years ago tomorrow.  His words ring true:
"In the field
May 4, 1863
Dear parents,
I thought it would relieve your anxiety to hear from me. When I wrote to you last, we a little below Fredericksburg. We layed there about three days under fire of their Batterys but did not lose any men. The day before yesterday, they started us. We were then on the extreme left then and marched us to the extreme right, a dis. Of 25 miles. It took us till 12 o ' clock at night before we got there. It was awful. You know we had eight days rations and our clothing and blankets to carry and it was as warm as it is at home in July. A great many fell out but I stood it. We crossed the river at a place called Kelley's Ford. It is up the Rappahannock, most up to Rap- Station and marched back most to the Rapidan River. They sent five Co.s of our Reg't on picket and our Co. Was one of them. We went out and staid till 4 o' clock last night, when we came in and built breastworks most all night. So you may think how tired we are. There was an awful large battle fought yesterday about a mile down the river from us. They say we have lost 12,000. We took a great many prisoners. We have this place to hold if they do not come where we are we probably shall not have to fight any only our picket fighting. We are nearer Richmond than ever we were before. Tell John Chad. I saw his Regt. They are guarding the telegraph wires from their camp up the river. They are strewn a distance of 15 miles. The fifth Me. Battery was in our Div. About every man was killed yesterday or taken prisoner. The highest officer left was a Corporal. I must close now and go to building entrenchments. It is quiet this morning only a little picket fighting.
In haste,
J. H. Frain"

Through this sergeant's words, we grasp notions that seem universal for the plight of the Civil War soldier: awfulness, confusion, exhaustion, apprehension, and death.  In this rural crossroads, he was certainly not alone in these sentiments.

Frain went on to endure the horrors of other battles and challenges.  He was captured at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 and paroled.  He was captured again on August 19, 1864 at Weldon Railroad (aka Globe Tavern) in Virginia.  Upon eventual release from his incarceration at the ghastly Libby Prison in Richmond, he remarked, "it looked good to see the old flag once more."  His passion for the liberties of Union had not died even though many of his comrades had.  John survived the war as a lieutenant and later filed a pension claim to the government.  He passed away March 29, 1898.  He was only fifty-seven.  I trust his life was filled with far less "haste" and trouble in the years that followed the Civil War.  After all, he possessed thirty-five more years of life than many who trudged through those woods surrounding Chancellorsville.

P.S.  You can buy Frain's original Civil War diaries here and here if you have the money and inclination.  I will gladly accept them as donations!

 Page one of John Frain's May 4, 1863 letter home.  (Poe Letter Archives)

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