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In Their Footsteps: Civil War Soldiers & Central Virginia

Civil War Soldiers

Walking the ground of these historic battlefields gives the opportunity to experience the marches or the charges from the topographical view of the Civil War soldiers. The opportunity to match accounts and letters to the places where they happened.

Reading through the letters, diaries, and reminiscences of Civil War soldiers in blue and gray often gives a different perspective than the comprehensive understanding and teaching presented in the history books. Frequently, the common soldier did not know the details of the battle as it unfolded. He just knew what he saw and heard in his portion of the fighting line. The strategy and "lines on the maps" belonged to the generals.

Today, let's take a moment to remember the "common" soldier and his experiences and limited perspective on the Central Virginia battlefields. The trees or fields around him were what he knew.


We witnessed at Fredericksburg

Some soldiers, like Robert Stiles, occasionally had a full view of the conflict during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. This type of view and understanding was not as common for most soldiers.

"We were stationed on what was afterwards known as 'Lee's Hill,' and elevation centrally located between the right and left flanks of our line and jutting out at quite a commanding height into and above the plain.... Portions of the city and of Marye's Heights were not visible, at least not thoroughly so; but every other part of the field was, clear away down, or nearly down, to Hamilton's Crossing. From it we witnessed the break in our lines on the right, where the Federals came in over a piece of marshy ground, supposed to be impassable..."


Soldier Experience & Civil War Memory

American novelist Stephen Crane did not see combat during the Civil War; in fact, he wasn't born until 1871. But his classic tale, The Red Badge of Courage, has been hailed as one of the most accurate and dramatic fictional depictions of the battle experience for Civil War soldiers. This month CVBT has been hosting a Virtual Fundraiser themed on the book and the Chancellorsville Campaign. We hope you'll enjoy these special videos created for the event:

  • The Red Badge of Courage Synopsis Movie

  • Chris Mackowski's Chancellorsville Tour through the lens of The Red Badge of Courage

  • Sarah Kay Bierle's presentation about common soldiers during the Civil War

Just click on the images here to view the videos and enjoy the virtual experience! And don't forget to sign up for the free live presentation next Saturday as we discuss Civil War art and memory.


Rebel Yell at Chancellorsville

Alfred Mallory Edgar was 23 years old when he volunteered with the Greenbrier Rifles, which became part of the 27th Virginia. Here's how he described the Flank Attack at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. "We struggled on in this toilsome way for about half a mile, when Rode’s division became engaged with the enemy. The “Rebel Yell” was heard in such frightfully shrill notes that the enemy was at once repulsed and fell back pell mell. By this time our division became merged with Rode’s and the greatest confusion followed. Orders were sent to us by General Jackson to press forward. It was now near night and we were hungry and worn out and still the awful confusion increased because of the brush. But still the orders were to press forward."


The Hum of Bullets in The Wilderness

Federal artilleryman Frank Wilkeson found his battery left in reserve during the Battle of The Wilderness, but he determined to see action and pressed forward toward the fighting lines on May 5, 1864:

I heard the hum of bullets as they passed over the low trees. Then I noticed that small limbs of trees were falling in a feeble shower in advance of me. It was as though an army of squirrels were at work cutting off nut and pine cone-laden branches preparatory to laying in their winter’s store of food. Then, partially obscured by a cloud of powder smoke, I saw a straggling line of men clad in blue. They were not standing as if on parade, but they were taking advantage of the cover afforded by trees, and they were firing rapidly. Their line officers were standing behind them or in line with them. The smoke drifted to and fro, and there were many rifts in it. I saw scores of wounded men. I saw many dead soldiers lying on the ground, and I saw men constantly falling on the battle-line. I could not see the Confederates, and, as I had gone to the front expressly to see a battle, I pushed on, picking my way from protective tree to protective tree, until I was about forty yards from the battle-line. The uproar was deafening; the bullets flew through the air thickly. Now our line would move forward a few yards, now fall back.


I am still alive...after Spotsylvania

Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes, an officer in the Union's Iron Brigade, gave an overview of his experiences at Spotsylvania in this letter to his wife.

May 14th, 1864, 11 a. m. “By the blessing of God I am still alive. We have had continued fighting and hardship since I wrote two days ago, beyond what I can now, describe. We charged upon the enemy’s rifle pits again on Thursday, and were as usual driven back. Thursday night, May 12th, we stood in mud over my boot tops, firing all night. Yesterday—13th—we were under fire all day, and last night we marched all night. I am troubled very much lest I have been reported killed in the New York papers.


Parting Shot

Attack Fields near Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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