Fredericksburg Battle Letter – Col. Charles Tilden of the 16th Maine Writes an 8-Page Letter to his Wife
Charles Tilden was one of Maine’s most famous Colonels. On July 1st, 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg, Tilden was ordered to “hold your position at any cost”. Acting as the rear guard for his division, Tilden and most of his men were captured. He was confined at Macon, Ga., Columbia, S.C. and when he was put in Libby Prison, he escaped February 9th, 1864.
This letter was written just following the battle of Fredericksburg, when as Lt. Col. Tilden actually commanded the depleted regiment. IN A FIELD-CROSSING CHARGE SOUTH OF GETTYSBURG HE LOST ABOUT HALF HIS MEN BUT MIRACULOUSLY SURVIVED. The letter is 8 legal size pages written in ink and is in fine condition. Here is the content:
- Head Quarters 16th Me. Regt. Camp near Bell Plane Va. Dec. 22 /62.
- My Dear Juliet, I wrote you the day after the battle of Fredericksburg, stating that I had escaped unharmed & also forwarded telegram to Washington for you which I presume you have received ere this.
- IT WAS MY INTENTION TO HAVE WRITTEN YOU FULLY ERE THIS, GIVING YOU AN ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE, BUT PRESS OF DUTIES (BEING ALONE AFTER THE BATTLE, MAJOR FARNHAM & ADJUTANT SMALL BOTH BEING UNWELL) & BEING COMPLETELY EXHAUSTED MYSELF, THIS IS THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY I HAVE HAD OF COMMUNICATING WITH YOU FULLY.
- Even now were I at home, I should lay myself away as unfit for duty. I have forgotten the date of my last letter, but suffice it to say we broke camp on Tuesday the 9th inst. at Brooks Station at 7 o’clock a.m., marched some two miles & encamped in open field & remained at this camp over night.
- Wednesday morning we struck tents, and were in the line of march at 8 o’clock. Marched some three miles, & encamped in a pine grove for the night. Thursday morning (11th inst.) struck tents, & were in line of march at 5:00 with the expectation of crossing the Rappahannock & being brought in contact with the enemy.
- WE HAD MARCHED SOME THREE MILES WHEN WE LEARNED THAT OUR ENGINEERS WERE UNABLE TO COMPLETE THE BRIDGES UNDER THE HEAVY FIRE OF THE ENEMY. WE WERE OBLIGED TO REMAIN ALL DAY WITHIN A SHORT DISTANCE OF THE RIVER BANK.
- OUR ARTILLERY WERE EXCHANGING SHOTS WITH THE ENEMY ALL DAY & SO COMPLETELY SHELLED THE CITY OF FREDERICKSBURG, THAT THE REBS WERE OBLIGED TO EVACUATE & OUR TROOPS OCCUPIED THE CITY AT NIGHT.
- During the day and night, our engineers were enabled to complete the bridges below the city. We slept on our arms in the open field this night. Friday morning the 12th we were ordered in line at an early hour, but were unable to cross the river until about one o’clock p.m., there being a large force crossing in advance of us.
- AFTER CROSSING WE RESTED FOR A SHORT TIME & WERE THEN ORDERED IN LINE OF BATTLE, IN WHICH SITUATION WE REMAINED THERE REMAINDER OF THE DAY CHANGING OUR POSITION FROM TIME TO TIME TO EVADE THE ARTILLERY FIRE OF THE ENEMY. The day passed off without any very serious injury to our part of the lines. We remained in open field all night.
- SATURDAY THE 13TH WE WERE CALLED TO ARMS AT AN EARLY HOUR, & OUR DIVISION MOVED UP IN FRONT OF THE ENEMY POSITION, BEING ABOUT THE CENTER. TAYLOR’S BRIGADE WAS BROUGHT INTO ACTION FIRST & DEPLOYED AS SKIRMISHERS. THIS WAS ABOUT EIGHT O’CLOCK A.M. AFTER A WHILE THE ENEMY CAME OUT & ENTRENCHED THEMSELVES ALONG THE RAILWAY, COMPLETELY PROTECTED FROM OUR FIRE.
- COL. LYLE’S BRIGADE WAS NEXT BROUGHT UP & DELIVERED THEIR FIRE, WHICH DONE BUT VERY LITTLE EXECUTION OWING TO THE STRONG POSITION OF THE ENEMY. ABOUT ONE O’CLOCK OUR BRIGADE WAS ORDERED FORWARD TO RELIEVE THEM.
- I ASSURE YOU, JULIET, IT WAS WITH SOME MISGIVINGS THAT I GAVE THE ORDER TO ADVANCE, THIS BEING THE FIRST TIME THAT THE REGT. HAD BEEN BROUGHT UNDER FIRE. I SAW AT A GLANCE, HOWEVER, THAT I NEED NOT FEAR FOR EVERY MAN CAME UP NOBLY TO THE WORK.
- WE ADVANCED & RELIEVED THE 2ND BRIGADE, FIRING VOLLEY UPON VOLLEY UPON THEM, BUT WITHOUT ANY SEEMING EFFECT. THE ORDER CAME TO CHARGE BAYONETS & MY REGT. BEING SOME FIFTEEN TO TWENTY PACES IN ADVANCE OF THESE ON MY RIGHT & LEFT, I WAITED SOME TWO OR THREE MOMENTS FOR THEM TO COME UP IN A LINE WITH US. SEEING HOWEVER THEY DID NOT, I IMMEDIATELY ORDERED THEM TO LOAD & FORWARD AT RIGHT SHOULDER, SHIFT ARMS.
- THE BOYS ADVANCED IN STEADY LINE UNDER A TERRIFIC FIRE FROM THE ENEMY, DROVE THEM FROM THEIR BREASTWORKS INTO THE WOODS, & IF WE HAD RECEIVED SUPPORT, WE SHOULD HAVE PURSUED THEM STILL FARTHER.
- TO MY SURPRISE I LEARNED THAT WE WERE THE LAST BRIGADE & THAT WE MUST LOSE ALL WE HAD GAINED UNLESS SUPPORT WAS SENT TO US. YOU CAN WELL IMAGINE MY FEELINGS, JULIET, AT THIS CRITICAL MOMENT. TO RETIRE WOULD BE DISASTROUS IN THE EXTREME & TO ADVANCE FARTHER WITHOUT SUPPORT WOULD HAVE BEEN CERTAIN DEATH FOR US, OR WE SHOULD ALL HAVE BEEN TAKEN PRISONERS.
- I IMMEDIATELY ORDERED A NEW LINE TO BE FORMED & GIVE THE ENEMY THE BALANCE OF OUR AMMUNITION, WHICH WAS PROMPTLY EXECUTED, HOPING IN THE MEANTIME THAT REINFORCEMENTS WOULD BE SENT TO OUR SUPPORT, BUT NONE CAME.
- AFTER DISCHARGING THE MOST OF OUR AMMUNITION (SIXTY ROUNDS), I FOUND THAT THE ENEMY WERE GETTING AROUND OUR LEFT FLANK, THROUGH THE WOODS, & USING US HARSHLY BY A CROSS FIRE. FINDING IT USELESS TO REMAIN IN THIS POSITION LONGER, I IMMEDIATELY GAVE THE ORDER TO RETIRE WHICH WAS DONE IN GOOD ORDER BUT AT GREAT LOSS.
- OUR LOSS IN THIS ENGAGEMENT WAS FULL FIFTY PERCENT OF THE NUMBER THAT WE WENT IN WITH. ON GOING INTO ACTION, WE NUMBERED SOME FOUR HUNDRED & FIFTY OFFICERS & MEN, & OUT OF THIS NUMBER WE HAVE LOST KILLED 32, WOUNDED 168, MISSING 26, MAKING A TOTAL OF 226.
- TWO COMPANIES IN THE REGT. ARE NOW WITHOUT ANY COMMISSIONED OFFICERS. CAPT. HUTCHINS & LIEUT. EDWARDS OF COMPANY B ARE BOTH KILLED. LIEUT. HERRICK, THE ONLY COMMISSIONED OFFICER OF COMPANY D, WAS ALSO KILLED. CAPT. AGER IN WHOM I HAD BECOME VERY MUCH INTERESTED WAS WOUNDED & TAKEN PRISONER. TEN OF THE LINE OFFICERS WERE KILLED & WOUNDED. THE MAJOR & MYSELF ESCAPED WITHOUT A SCRATCH.
- WE RETIRED SOME HALF A MILE ACROSS AN OPEN FIELD, MUD FROM FOUR TO SIX INCHES DEEP, UNDER A GULLING FIRE IN OUR REAR FROM THE ENEMY & TOOK OUR POSITION BACK OF THE ROAD UNDER THE HILL. HERE WE REMAINED UNTIL ABOUT TWELVE O’CLOCK P.M. WHEN ORDERS WERE RECEIVED TO CHANGE OUR POSITION TO THE LEFT.
- AFTER DARK I WENT OUT INTO THE BATTLE FIELD & FOUND SIX OF OUR MEN UPON THE FIELD, SUFFERING FROM WOUNDS & HAD THEM SENT IN TO HOSPITAL IMMEDIATELY. THREE HAVE SINCE DIED. I COULD HEAR THE CRIES OF MANY MORE OUTSIDE THE LINE OF PICKET, BUT WAS NOT ALLOWED TO GO BEYOND THE LINE, FEARING IT WOULD DRAW THE FIRE OF THE ENEMY. POOR FELLOWS MUST HAVE SUFFERED BEYOND ACCOUNT THROUGH THE NIGHT UPON THE COLD DAMP GROUND WITH NO ONE TO ADMINISTER TO THEIR WANTS.
- As I remarked, we marched some two miles to the left of our lines on Saturday night & remained in this position all day Sunday & Monday, expecting an attack from the enemy. No fighting of any amount other than skirmish firing & some artillery firing occurred during these days.
- During these days the Ambulance Corps were busily engaged in getting the wounded across the river. This being completed, orders were received Monday night to have our commands in line as quietly as possible, which was complied with & we all retired across the river, unbeknown to the Rebs.
- After marching some half mile or more on, we arrived this side of the river. We rested for the night, spread our blankets & laid our weary bones down to sleep. Before morning it commenced raining & flooded us out.
- Tuesday morning we were ordered to change our position for a better one & marched about one mile & a half & encamped upon a high hill. We remained at this place until Friday morning, when we received orders to march. Were in line at 7 1/2 o’clock a.m. & commenced our line of march about 8 1/2 o’clock. After a tedious march of some ten miles (particularly so for myself being unwell), we arrived at this place near Bell Plane, landing about four o’clock p.m.
- How long we shall remain here I am unable to state, but from what I can learn from Col. Root, Commdg Brigade, we shall go into winter quarters in this vicinity.
- Thus Juliet have I endeavored to give you some account of the trials which we have passed through the past ten days, & again HAVE I GREAT CAUSE TO BE THANKFUL TO THAT KIND PROVIDENCE WHO HAS CARRIED ME SAFELY THROUGH ALL SURROUNDING DANGERS. I DO NOT ONLY SPEAK IT, BUT FEEL IT & HOW CAN ANY ONE FEEL DIFFERENT WHEN THEY SEE ME & ANOTHER FALLING AT THEIR SIDE & THEIR LIVES SPARED.
- My constant prayer is that that protection which has been extended to me in times past may be continued in the future. AND NOW I MUST SPEAK AGAIN OF THE REGIMENT. NEVER HAVE I SEEN MEN BEHAVE BETTER IN ACTION THAN DID THE 16TH. EVERY MAN’S HEART & SOUL SEEMED SECURED WRAPPED UP IN THE WORK BEFORE THEM. NO TROUBLE HAD I IN HAVING ANY AND ALL ORDERS OBEYED PROMPTLY. WE WERE THE FIRST TO LEAD THE CHARGE, & THE LAST TO LEAVE THE FIELD OF ACTION AT OUR PART OF THE LINES. IT IS WITH FEELINGS OF PLEASURE, SORROW & MADNESS WHEN I LOOK BACK UPON WHAT WE HAVE PASSED THROUGH. PLEASED AT THE SOLDIERLY BEARING & PERFORMANCE OF THE TASK PUT UPON US. SORRY AT THE GREAT SACRIFICE IT COST & THAT WERE OBLIGED TO GIVE UP WHAT WE HAD SO DEARLY EARNED. MAD WHEN I THINK OF THE GENERALSHIP DISPLAYED OF IT, CAN BE CALLED SUCH (I CALL IT BUTCHERY) IN PUSHING US FORWARD IN THE MANNER WE WERE WITHOUT SUPPORT.
- I NOTICE OUR DIVISION GENL. GIBBONS, BEING SPOKEN OF ACHIEVING NOW FRESH LAURELS IN THIS ACTION. WOULD THAT I COULD NOW ASSENT TO IT. BUT I MUST SAY THAT IT WAS BY HIS ORDER THAT WE WERE BROUGHT INTO SUCH A POSITION. HIS NAME WILL LONG BE REMEMBERED BY THIS DIVISION AS ONE THAT WAS THE CAUSE OF MANY A POOR FELLOW LOSING HIS LIFE.
- In my dispatch to you, I stated that all the Castine boys were safe. Henry Leach of Penobscot was killed & James A. Veazie of the same place is among the missing. These are two that I enlisted. If called upon by their parents, you will please tender them my sincere sympathy in this their hour of affliction & trial. They performed their part nobly, & may they long be remembered among the number who so bravely fell in the defense of our country’s rights.
- I will here mention Sergt. Davis, the Color Sergt. of our Regt. who displayed himself as one worthy of the position he filled. Marching up unhesitatingly in line & flaunting the Stars & Stripes defiantly in face of the enemy. Also on the retreat keeping with the Regt & bringing the colors off the field, while one Regt. in our Brigade left their colors & were brought off by Sergt. Broughton of my Regt., their Sergt. being wounded.
- In view of all the foregoing, what have we accomplished? The cry has been pushed on; forward to Richmond. The Army must advance by certain ones, regardless of sacrifice of life. It has been done.
- WE WERE PUSHED FORWARD INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH AS IT WERE. THE ENEMY OCCUPIED THE HEIGHTS ALL AROUND US IN THE SHAPE OF A HALF MOON, EACH WING OF THEIR ARMY EXTENDING TO THE BANK OF THE RIVER. THESE HEIGHTS WERE SOME ONE HUNDRED FIFTY FEET ABOVE THE LEVEE OF THE PLANE, WHICH OUR FORCES OCCUPIED & HAD THEY BEEN SO DISPOSED COULD HAVE COMPLETELY DESTROYED OUR ARMY.
- It is truly heart-rending to see & think of the Generalship displayed. Would that these who have been instigators in the removal of Genl. McClellan had to come out here & fight the battles of our country. My love for country is as strong as ever, but it makes my blood run cold to think of the management of the whole affair.
- But my dear, I will not tax your patience longer as you must be tired of this epistle by this time. I am in receipt of yours of the 7th & 14th inst. also Mother’s of the 8th & 14th & Mary’s of the 14th, for all of which I am greatly obliged. I assure you it was really a luxury to me as they all came to hand after the battle. Yours & Mother’s of the 7th & 8th were received the day after the battle. This letter you must make answer as a reply to all of them for the time being. Shall write Mother & Mary, however, in a few days as soon as we get settled. I have not yet received the boxes, but think the chance for getting them more favorable than at any previous time. Col. Wildes has not yet made his appearance. If he returns to take charge of the Regt., he takes entire charge.
- You must excuse all mistakes, Juliet, as I have written somewhat hastily & am not feeling very well. Shall be all right again in a day or two. My love to all the family, Mother & George’s family & kiss the children. Remember me to any friends that may inquire for me. Your Aff. Husband C. W. Tilden
This was Tilden’s greatest and longest battle description letter that he wrote home. Truly a museum piece for the Maine collector or archive. For a nice summary of Tilden’s life, do an Internet search for “Requiem for a hero”.
#L12-22-62ME – Price $2,950