Our Men were Cut Down Like Grass: With the 53rd Pennsylvania at Marye’s Heights

Having survived the being in the second wave of the Federal assault on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, Private Joseph Spang of the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry vented his frustration and war-weariness in letters home to his family.  He could scarcely find words to describe the battle. 

    "I cannot tell you the truth of that awful fight," he wrote his parents. "The conflict was terrible – our regiment was the furthest in advance of any of our troops.  We sheltered ourselves behind some houses and were only 50 yards from the enemy’s rifle pits.  Our men were cut down like grass while the enemy could not be touched.  All we could see of them was their guns and sometimes a head. The fight lasted all day – at dark we came back to town – our regiment stood three hours with fixed bayonets and not a man had a cartridge.  I expected every minute the enemy would charge on us but we stood there – no one came to relieve us." 

    During the Fredericksburg campaign, the 53rd Pennsylvania under Colonel John Brooke served as part of Colonel Samuel Zook's Third Brigade of General Winfield Hancock's First Division of the Second Army Corps. Joseph Spang’s letters appear on the blog courtesy of Keith Fleckner

 

Details of the third state colors of the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteers featuring the exquisite work characteristic of Horstmann Brothers and Co. Colonel William Mintzer, Joseph Spang's company commander at Fredericksburg, ordered these colors in May 1865 but the regiment mustered out before they could be presented. At Fredericksburg, the regiment still carried its first state colors (similar to these) and carried them through the Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Mine Run campaigns in 1863. The tattered colors were retired when the regiment returned to Pennsylvania on veterans' furlough in early 1864. 
(Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags)

Falmouth, Virginia

December 18, 1862

Dear Parents & Bro

Yours of the 1st arrived here and found me in good health – you said you thought Fredericksburg would be taken by the time your letter reached me – it was taken the next day but at a terrible loss of life.  On the 11th the bombardment of the city commenced – the cannonading was awful – at night the city was on fire in six places – the pontoon bridge was not laid until dark – the enemy shot at the men from the houses and cellars. That night the bridge was finished but it cost 300 men to lay the bridge – we cried.  

Next morning the 12th when we reached the other side, our regt. was thrown out as skirmishers – we skirmished with the enemy till dark when we were relieved – next morning the 13th we maneuvered around the streets until all was ready.  The enemy pouring shell into us all the time.  French’s division engaged the enemy first – we next – I cannot tell you the truth of that awful fight.  The conflict was terrible – our regiment was the furthest in advance of any of our troops.  We sheltered ourselves behind some houses and were only 50 yards from the enemy’s rifle pits.  Our men were cut down like grass while the enemy could not be touched.  All we could see of them was their guns and sometimes a head.  

According to Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, “ Early on the morning of Saturday the 13th, under a dense fog the regiment marched into the city and halted for an hour under fire of rebel artillery.  The fight was opened at the front near Marye’s Heights by French’s Division, which was repulsed.  Soon after, the Third Brigade led by the 53rd moved amidst a shower of deadly missiles by the right flank, up St. Charles street and formed in line of battle along the edge of the town.  The rebel infantry, but a few hundred yards in front, was protected by a stonewall along a sunken road while immediately above, the hilltops were bristling with cannon.  At the word of command, Colonel Brooke at the head of his regiment led the charge under a storm of shot and shell that swept the ranks with terrible effect.  But undismayed they closed up and pressed steadily on till they reached a position within one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy’s line which was held, despite every effort to dislodge them, even after their ammunition was spent.  At evening, when the battle was over and the day was lost, what remained of the regiment retired silently from its position and returned to the city.”

The city of Fredericksburg burns as Federal troops endeavor to lay the pontoon bridges while under fire from General William Barksdale's Mississippians. "At night the city was on fire in six places and the pontoon bridge was not laid until dark," Spang recalled. "The enemy shot at the men from the houses and cellars. That night, the bridge was finished but it cost 300 men to lay the bridge. We cried." 


The fight lasted all day – at dark we came back to town – our regiment stood three hours with fixed bayonets and not a man had a cartridge.  I expected every minute the enemy would charge on us but we stood there – no one came to relieve us – at dark the lines fell back and we were relieved – we re-crossed the river.  On the 15th our dead lay there on the field – the enemy’s loss is nothing to our own.  On the 17th I was detailed to go along with a flag of truce to help bury our dead.  The Rebs had guards around us while we were burying. We buried 700 men and did not get half done.  Our dead were stripped of everything that was good – some were naked, not many had a pair of shoes on.

They say we can never whip them.  I learned that their loss was light to what ours was.  They say what are you going to do with Burnside now – we had the advantage of you here – this shows what Burnside is.  McClellan would never have took them up in this – still this is the way they talk – They say McClellan is the best general we ever had and I say so too.  We had been whipped badly here – you will see in the papers a correct list.  We have 15 men in our company yet more of our company were killed, all wounded.  I was not touched – only by a splinter that flew from the house when a ball passed through.  We are discouraged and hope this war will soon be over.  Legel has come up with his horse.  I will now close, I am near frozen the reason my writing is so bad.

My Love to you all from Your Son and Bro

Joseph Spang    

 

Captain (later colonel) William M. Mintzer, Co. A, 53rd Pennsylvania Vols. 

 Falmouth, Virginia

December 22, 1862

Dear Parents & Bro.

I am well and hope this will find you all in the same state of health.  I suppose you have heard all the accounts of the late battle here.  I see the papers give our loss at 7,000 but it is at least 20,000, it was a regular slaughter, we are fighting within 50 yards of their works, they could pour a deadly fire in us, we could do them no harm, our balls only flew in the ground or stone fence or over their heads.  

The Irish Brigade and Kimball’s brigade were to make a grand charge on the words so we fought them a while when the Irish Brigade came up fired a volley and retreated to a hill.  They done badly here in fact they never do what the papers say they do that badly cut up but that is Meagher, he exposes his men and they get shot down and can’t fight on account of the line ahead of them you see the balls don’t stop when they get to the first line, but fly everywhere and a great many men are cut down before they get a shot at the enemy.  

Our regiment was ahead of any other part of the lines, at least 100 yards we were in a sort of a village and behind houses.  We shot until all our ammunition was gone and that of the wounded.  We then fixed bayonets and waited to be relieved if the enemy would have charged, not many of the 53rd would have escaped.  At dark we were relieved, I cannot tell you all we went through.  The new men have now got their fill of war.  The 68th I believe did not suffer a heavy loss, they only supported a battery.  

Our company lost First Lieutenant John T. Potts, badly; Second Lieutenant John H. root, wounded slightly piece of shell; George Sheets, badly; George W. Shingle, badly; Daniel B. Forman, badly; Cornelius Uxley, badly; John Heft, slightly; Levi Walleigh, slightly; Jonas Burns, mildly; William Rhodes, mildly; Ephraim Engle, slight; Warren Missimer, leg mildly; William Graham.  

The other companies suffered severely, some only have 4 – 6 – 10 men, yet our paroled prisoners are exchanged and are now doing duty in the company. Company A + B are now at these headquarters; we are detached from the regiment and are provost guards of this division.  I heard that the rest of the regiment were to go to different headquarters and the 53rd would be on extra duty.  Our division lost over 3,000.  

In the last new regiments are coming in and the divisions are being filled up, ready for another slaughter.  The Irish Brigade is going away to guard somewhere and we are to have no more fighting to do. Well, it is soon time if they won’t any to get home safe, we heard here that Tim deserted twice from the hospital and the captain I hear has sent for him so he better keep awake.  The dress coats that were sent to your place are only those that belong to men that they never expect to come back.  Tim are there I have mine here.  The weather is cold here…..all the soldiers have enough of Burnside.  

My love to you all from Joseph Spang

Source:

Letters of Private Joseph Spang, Co. A, 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Keith Fleckner Collection

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