A Personal Account of Frederick Hitchcock of the 132nd PA Regiment – 150 Years Ago Today
A favorite story I tell guests at Antietam (when time permits) is the connection of the 132nd PA and their monument to the Battle of Fredericksburg. And so it will be great fun today to also include it in this blog – as this event happened 150 years ago on this date!
The 132nd PA was a 9-month regiment that had their baptism of fire at Antietam while assaulting the Sunken Road. Their second major conflict was at Fredericksburg, with a third and final participation at Chancellorsville before being mustered out upon expiration of time of enlistment. For their service, the Pennsylvania monument commission honored them with a memorial at Antietam – at their first place of battle – but with a sculpture depicting an event that actually occurred at Fredericksburg. That event is what I want to specifically share with you today.
The individual on the monument is Frederick Hitchcock of Scranton, PA. He wrote his war-time reminiscences in a book entitled “War from the Inside.” A colorful work for sure – I’ve quoted it on other occasions in this Enfilading Lines blog.
As always when I include excerpts, his writing is in italics, whereas my writing and comments are [included in this manner]. I am putting together a series of select paragraphs, though the original contains more information than what I am including today. We’ll pick up the story where Hitchcock writes about returning from a sick leave just in time to rejoin his men as they enter into the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The next morning [December 13th] I picked up an old “crow-bait” of a horse, the only four-footed transportation possibly obtainable, and started for Fredericksburg to find my regiment. The only directions I had about disposing of this frame of a horse was to “turn the bones loose when you get through with him.” He could go only at a snail’s pace, and when I reached Fredericksburg it must have been nine o’clock. I crossed the pontoon bridge, which had been laid the morning before under circumstances of the greatest gallantry by Howard’s division of our corps.
[Through a strange and complicated set of circumstances, Hitchcock was able to find and reconnect quickly with his regiment.]
About ten o’clock the command “Forward” was sounded, and our brigade moved out towards Marye’s Heights. Some idea of the topography of Fredericksburg and its rear I find is necessary to an understanding of what follows. Marye’s Heights, which encircle the city back some five hundred yards, are the termination of a plateau which rises from one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet in an abrupt terrace from the plain upon which the city stands. These heights form a half-circle from the river above to a point below the city some little distance from the river, and are from a mile to a mile and a half long and are most admirably adapted for defensive purposes. The rebel batteries, numbering at least one hundred guns, were massed on these heights, and covered not only every street leading out from the city, but every square foot of ground of the plain below. A third of the way down the terrace was an earthwork filled with infantry, whilst at its foot ran the famous stone wall extending southward from the cemetery above the city, and was continued by an earthwork around the whole circle. Behind this stone wall was massed a double line of Confederate infantry. To enter either street leading out to those heights was to face the concentrated fire of that mass of artillery and the deadly work of those three lines of infantry. Yet that was just what we had before us.
Our division (French’s) led the assault. Our regiment brought up the rear of our brigade column. As each regiment turned into the street leading out, it took up the run to cover this exposed ground as quickly as possible. Lieutenant-Colonel Albright was leading our regiment and I was by his side. We passed rapidly up the street, already covered with the dead and wounded which had fallen from the regiments that had preceded us, until we reached the embankment of a railroad, which was nearly parallel with the enemy’s works. A temporary halt was made here preparatory to moving forward in line of battle.
Turning to see that our men were in position, I was amazed to find that we had but one company with us. It was my duty as adjutant to go back and find and bring up the balance of the regiment. The distance was about four hundred yards. I can truthfully say that in that moment I gave my life up. I do not expect ever again to face death more certainly than I thought I did then. It did not seem possible that I could go through that fire again and return alive. The grass did not grow under my feet going back. My sprinting record was probably made then. It may be possible to see the humorous side at this distance, but it was verily a life and death matter then.
[Hitchcock found the men in the city, and he records the challenges of sorting them out while shells were killing men all around them, yet quickly to the front they charged to rejoin those in the lead.]
Proceeding now with my narrative, we were evidently in a fearful slaughter-pen. Our men were being swept away as by a terrific whirlwind. The ground was soft and spongy from recent rains, and our faces and clothes were bespattered with mud from bullets and fragments of shells striking the ground about us, whilst men were every moment being hit by the storm of projectiles that filled the air. In the midst of that frightful carnage a man rushing by grasped my hand and spoke. I turned and looked into the face of a friend from a distant city. There was a glance of recognition and he was swept away. What his fate was I do not know.
That same moment I received what was supposed to be my death wound. Whilst the men were lying down, my duties kept me on my feet. Lieutenant Charles McDougal, commanding the color company, called to me that the color-guard were all either killed or wounded. We had two stands of colors, the national and State flags. These colors were carried by two color-sergeants, protected by six color-corporals, which made up the color-guard. If either sergeant became disabled the nearest corporal took the colors, and so on until the color-guard were down.
This was the condition when this officer called to me to replace these disabled men, so that the colors should be kept flying. He had one flag in his hand as I approached him, and he was in the act of handing it to me when a bullet crashed through his arm and wrist, spattering my face with his warm blood. I seized the staff as it fell from his shattered arm. The next instant a bullet cut the staff away just below my hand.
[This is the exact moment depicted in the 132nd PA monument at Antietam. I tell guests to look closely at it and to tell me what seems odd and out of proportion. The obvious answer is that the flag staff is far too short. I then direct their attention to the feet of Mr. Hitchcock, where one can see (against the backdrop of the sky) that the shot-off portion of the staff is included in the monument. And the rest of the story is fascinating … ]
An instant later I was struck on the head by the fragment of a shell and fell unconscious with the colors in my hand. How long I remained unconscious I do not know, possibly twenty minutes or more. What were my sensations when hit? I felt a terrific blow, but without pain, and the thought flashed through my mind, “This is the end,” and then everything was black. I do not remember falling. It takes time to write this, but events moved then with startling rapidity. From the time we went forward from the embankment until the line was swept back could have been but a few minutes, otherwise all must have been killed.
When I revived I was alone with the dead and wounded. The line of battle had been swept away. The field about me was literally covered with the blue uniforms of our dead and wounded men. The firing had very perceptibly decreased. I had worn into the battle my overcoat, with my sword buckled on the outside. I had been hit on the left side of my head, and that side of my body was covered with blood down to my feet, which was still flowing. My first thought was as to my condition, whether mortally wounded or not. I was perceptibly weakened from loss of blood, but lying there I could not tell how much strength I had left. I did not dare move, for that would make me a target for the guns that covered that terrible wall, the muzzles of which I could plainly see.
Many of them were still spitting out their fire with a venom that made my position exceedingly uncomfortable. What should I do? What could I do? To remain there was either to bleed to death or be taken prisoner and sent to Libby, which I felt would mean for me a sure lingering death. To make a move to get off the field would draw the fire of those guns, which would surely finish me. These were the alternatives.
I carefully stretched my legs to test my strength, and I made up my mind I had enough left to carry me off the field, and I resolved to take my chances in the effort. I determined that I would zigzag my course to the rear so as not to give them a line shot at me. So getting myself together I made a supreme effort and sprang up and off in jumps, first to the right, then to the left. As I expected, they opened on me, and the bullets flew thick and fast about me. The first turn I got a bullet through my right leg just above the ankle. It felt like the stinging cut of a whip and rather accelerated my speed. About fifty yards back was an old slab fence to my right, and I plunged headlong behind that, hoping to find shelter from those bullets. I fell directly behind several other wounded men, two of whom rolled over dead from bullets that came through the slabs and which were probably aimed at me. This flushed me again, and by the same zigzag tactics I succeeded in getting back to the railroad embankment, where, to my great joy, I found Colonel Albright with what remained of the regiment. Colonel Albright grasped me in his arms as I came over, with the exclamation, “We thought you were killed.” Sergeant-Major Clapp told me that he had rolled me over and satisfied himself that I was dead before they went back.
[In fact, Hitchcock lived for a long time after the War – writing these reminiscences as a series of articles around the turn of the century. My next post will tell the story of the colors that fell when Hitchcock hit the ground between the contending armies.]