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A Bivouac with the Dead
from "My Story of Fredericksburg"

by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

It was a cold night. Bitter, raw north winds swept the stark slopes. The men, heated by their energetic and exciting work, felt keenly the chilling change. Many of them had neither overcoat nor blanket, having left them with the discarded knapsacks. They roamed about to find some garment not needed by the dead. Mounted officers all lacked outer covering. This had gone back with the horses, strapped to the saddles. So we joined the uncanny quest. Necessity compels strange uses. For myself it seemed best to bestow my body between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and, still more chilling, the deep, many-voiced moan that overspread the field. It was heart-rending; it could not be borne. I rose at midnight from my unearthly bivouac, and taking our adjutant for companion went forth to see what we could do for these forsaken sufferers. The deep sound led us to our right and rear, where the fiercest of the fight had held brave spirits too long. As we advanced over that stricken field, the grave, conglomerate monotone resolved itself into its diverse, several elements: some breathing inarticulate agony; some dear home names; some begging for a drop of water; some for a caring word; some praying God for strength to bear; some for life; some for quick death. We did what we could, but how little it was on a field so boundless for feeble human reach! Our best was but to search the canteens of the dead for a draft of water for the dying; or to ease the posture of a broken limb; or to compress a severed artery of fast-ebbing life that might perhaps be so saved, with what little skill we had been taught by our surgeons early in learning the tactics of saving as well as of destroying men. It was a place and time for farewells. Many a word was taken for faraway homes that otherwise might never have had one token from the field of the lost. It was something even to let the passing spirit know that its worth was not forgotten here.

Wearied with the sense of our own insufficiency, it was a relief at last to see through the murk the dusky forms of ghostly ambulances gliding up on the far edge of the field, pausing here and there to gather up its precious freight, and the low-hovering, half-covered lantern, or blue gleam of a lighted match, held close over a brave, calm face to know whether it were of the living or the dead.

We had taken bearings to lead us back to our place before the stone wall. There were wounded men lying there also, who had not lacked care. But it was interesting to observe how unmurmuring they were. That old New England habit so reluctant of emotional expression, so prompt to speak conviction, so reticent as to the sensibilities—held perhaps as something intimate and sacred—that habit of the blood had its corollary or after-glow in this reticence of complaint or murmur under the fearful sufferings and mortal anguish of the battlefield. Yet never have I seen such tenderness as brave men show to comrades when direst need befalls. I trust I show no lack of reverence for gracious spirits nor wrong to grateful memories, when confessing that this tenderness of the stern and strong recalls the Scripture phrase, "passing the love of women."

Stan Clark, Jr., "Bayonet! Forward": My Civil War Reminiscences, by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Pennsylvania: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), pp. 7-8.

photo  of view from Marye's Heights   View of the town of Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock River from the grounds of Chatham Manor on Stafford Heights.

Fredericksburg National Military Park was founded in 1927.
Photo by CNO


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