The Last Fierce Charge

(The Battle of Fredericksburg)

Laws A17

The Last Fierce Charge

It was just before the last fierce charge
Two soldiers drew their rein[s],
With a parting word and touch of the hand,
They might never meet again.
One had blue eyes and sunny curls,
Nineteen but a month ago,
Red on his cheek, down on his chin,
He was only a boy, you know.

The other was dark and tall and stern,
His [faith] in the world was dim,
He trusted more in those he loved,
They were all the world to him.
They had ridden together in many a raid,
They had marched for many a mile,
But never before had they met the foe
With a calm and hopeful smile.

Now they looked into each other’s eye
With an awful, ghastly gloom,
The tall, dark man was the first to speak,
Saying, “Charlie, my hour has come.
Together we’ll ride up the hill,
But you’ll ride back alone;
But [this] little trouble for me take
When I am dead and gone.

“You will find a fond face on my breast,
I’ll wear it in the fight.
With soft blue eyes and sunny curls
That shine like morning light;
Like morning light was her love for me,
She gladdened my weary life,
And it’s little I cared for the frowns of fate
When she promised to be my wife.

“Write to her, Charlie, when I am gone,
Send back that fond, sweet face,
And tell her tenderly how I died,
And where’s my resting place;
Tell her my soul will wait for her
In the border land between;
This earth is Heaven until she comes,
It will not be long, I [ween].”

Tears dimmed the blue eyes of the boy,
His voice grew hoarse with pain,
Saying, “I’ll do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.
But if you ride back and I am dead,
You will do the same for me;
My mother at home must hear the news,
So write to her tenderly.

“One after another of those she loved
She buried both husband and son;
I was the last my country [called],
She kissed and sent me on.
She is praying at home like a waiting saint,
With her fond face white with woe,
Her heart will be broke when I am gone,
I will see her soon, I know.”

Just then the order came to charge,
For an instant hand touched hand,
[Eyes] answered [eyes] and on they went,
That brave, devoted band;
Straight on they went to the crest of the hill,
Where the rebels with shot and shell
Mowed rifts of death in our toiling ranks,
And jeered them as they fell.

They turned with an awful, dying yell
From the heights they could not gain,
And those that death and doom had spared
Rode slowly back again;
In the midst of their dead they have left behind
The boy with the curly hair,
And the tall, dark man that rode by his side
Lay dead along with him there.

There is none to write to that lovely girl
The words that her lover said,
And the mother that waits for her boy at home
Will only hear, “He’s dead.”
And never will know [of] the last fond thoughts
That sought to soften her pain,
Until she crosses the border land
And stands by his side again.

(Click here for a PDF version of the music) * (Play MP3 instrumental)

In the histories of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg almost always takes up the greatest space and gets the greatest attention of any fight. But you would never know it from the songs. There are many, many songs about Shiloh, the first great battle in the west. Bull Run has several also. Even such small things as the Battle of Mill Springs can rate a song.

Winfield Scott Hancock (February 14, 1824 – Fe...

Winfield Scott Hancock (1824-1886) . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not Gettysburg. Nor Antietam, nor Chancellorsville, or almost any of the great battles of the Army of the Potomac. For some reason, they seem to have gone almost unsung. That includes even such heroic events as the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. It was on the second day, and Robert E. Lee had sent two divisions of James Longstreet’s corps to attack the federal left wing. And the union commander in that sector, Daniel Sickles, had largely played into his hands, abandoning the key position of Little Round Top to take what he thought was a stronger position. Longstreet’s two divisions demolished Sickles’s Third Corps (it would be amalgamated with other corps before the 1864 campaigns). Longstreet was also soaking up all the strength of George Sykes’s Fifth Corps. And still his men were pushing forward. George Gordon Meade, the commander of the Union army, put Winfield Scott Hancock in charge of the left wing, including the Third Corps, the Fifth Corps, Hancock’s own Second Corps, and units from two other corps. But Hancock needed time to form a line. As he examined the ground, he saw seven companies of the First Minnesota coming closer. 262 men. He ordered them to charge the Confederate line — and, though the Confederates in all outnumbered them perhaps forty to one, the Minnesotans did it. Hancock thought it bought him five minutes, and that five minutes was just enough.

The price was high. Of the 262 men in the charge, 47 came back unharmed. The other 215 — 82% — were killed or wounded. This is generally regarded as the highest single-action loss of any regiment in the entire war.

We may quote an eyewitness account. Frank A. Haskell was an officer on the staff of John Gibbon, commander of the division containing the First Minnesota, and he wrote an account of Gettysburg for his brother within a short time of the battle. The Wisconsin History Commission made this the very first item in their reprints series (beginning in 1908), and on p. 56 of that edition, he wrote,

[T]here was a flag dimly visible, coming toward us from the direction of the enemy. “Here, what are these men falling back for?” said [II Corps commander Winfield Scott] Hancock. The flag was no more than fifty yards away, but it was the head of a Rebel column, which at once opened fire with a volley. Lieut. Miller, Gen. Hancock’s Aide, fell, twice struck, but the General was unharmed, and he told the 1st Minn., which was near, to drive these people away. That splendid regiment, the less than three hundred that are left out of fifteen hundred that it has had, swings around upon the enemy, gives them a volley in their faces, and advances upon them with the bayonet. The Rebels fled in confusion, but Col. Colville, Lieut. Col. Adams and Major Downie are all badly, dangerously wounded, and many of the other officers and men will never fight again. More than two-thirds fell.

Hancock himself declared, “There is no more gallant deed recorded in history.”

This is as close as we come to a song about Gettysburg. It’s not really about any specific battle. It’s certainly not about the First Minnesota, which was an infantry unit, and the soldiers here are cavalrymen! But a few versions mention Gettysburg, though more mention the Battle of Fredericksburg, and a few relate to other battles in other wars, such as Bunker Hill or Custer at the Little Bighorn! But let us act as if it is about two soldiers of the First Minnesota; they certainly earned a song!

English: Battle of Fredericksburg: The Army of...

English: Battle of Fredericksburg: The Army of the Potomac crossing the Rappahannock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first book to contain this seems to be Virginia Frances Townsend’s 1864 book The Battlefields of Our Fathers, but she does not appear to have been the author. Jim Dixon alerts me to the fact that the very first printing seems to have been in a February, 1863 edition of Harper’s, meaning that it was probably composed immediately after the Battle of Fredericksburg. It is signed simply “L. C. M.” — which might even be a metrical indication rather than an attribution. There is no indication of who first set it to music; since the tune is related to Irish melodies, it probably gained its tune from the folk, not Tin Pan Alley.

It’s interesting to note the mention of the older soldier carrying an image of his love. Nowadays, we see photos everywhere. It wasn’t so a century and a half before. Photography was several decades old by the time of the Civil War, but it was still a tricky process. It was only quite recently that photographers had started travelling from town to town, allowing people to acquire photos of their loved ones. The Civil War was the first conflict in which it was common (few people, of course, could afford painted portraits of loved ones!).

Source: The text is from Dean, who calls it “The Charge at Fredricksburg” (sic). That is typical of the several obvious errors in his text, which I have corrected in brackets. Fredericksburg was fought on December 13, 1862, and was one of the worst Union defeats of the war, with the Union losing some 12,700 men and the Confederates 5,300. The song is accurate to the limited extent it describes the battle: The Union forces tried to attack an entrenched Confederate position atop Marye’s Heights. They failed utterly; there was simply no way at this time for troops to successfully storm a properly defended position, and General Burnside, who commanded the Army of the Potomac should have known it.

Some of his junior officers did know it. The First Minnesota was present at Fredericksburg, but was fortunate not to suffer badly in the debacle; brigade commander Alfred Sully (who earlier had commanded the First Minnesota) refused to send his brigade out to be slaughtered with the rest of the Union army. Unfortunately, Sully was relieved over a problem with another regiment in the brigade in mid-1863; at Gettysburg, Brigadier General William Harrow led the brigade (which also contained the 19 Maine, 15 Massachusetts, and 82 New York), and Colonel William Colville the 1 Minnesota itself. Harrow seems to have been a much less effective officer than Sully (to be fair, he had only been given the brigade command a few weeks before), and his major contribution prior Gettysburg seems to have been placing Colville under arrest because troops — not Colville’s — had hissed at an officer (Imholte, pp. 114-115).

The tune is from Cazden, Haufrecht, and Studer’s Folksongs of the Catskills, and is one of the few versions to have a full eight-line tune; most of those I’ve encountered are four-line tunes. Cazden believes that it derives ultimately from the Irish “The Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow.” In the United States, this tune family is often known as “The Days of Forty-Nine.”

The 1863 Harper’s text is given below.

At Fredericksburg

It was just before the last fierce charge,
When two soldiers drew their rein,
For a parting word and a touch of hands —
They might never meet again.

One had blue eyes and clustering curls —
Nineteen but a month ago
Down on his chin, red on his cheek:
He was only a boy, you know.

The other was dark, and stern, and proud;
If his faith in the world was dim,
He only trusted the more in those
Who were all the world to him.

They had ridden together in many a raid,
They had marched for many a mile,
And ever till now they had met the foe
With a calm and hopeful smile.

But now they looked in each other’s eyes
With an awful ghastly gloom,
And the tall dark man was the first to speak:
“Charlie, my hour has come.

“We shall ride together up the hill,
And you will ride back alone;
Promise a little trouble to take
For me when I am gone.

“You will find a face upon my breast —
I shall wear it into the fight
With soft blue eyes, and sunny curls,
And a smile like morning light.

“Like morning light was her love to me;
It gladdened a lonely life,
And little I cared for the frowns of fate
When she promised to be my wife.

“Write to her, Charlie, when I am gone,
And send back the fair, fond face;
Tell her tenderly how I died,
And where is my resting-place.

“Tell her my soul will wait for hers,
In the border-land between
The earth and heaven, until she comes:
It will not be long, I ween.”

Tears dimmed the blue eyes of the boy —
His voice was low with pain:
“I will do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.

“But if you come back, and I am dead,
You must do as much for me:
My mother at home must hear the news —
Oh, write to her tenderly.

“One after another those she loved
She has buried, husband and son;
I was the last. When my country called,
She kissed me and sent me on.

“She has prayed at home, like a waiting saint,
With her fond face white with woe:
Her heart will be broken when I am gone:
I shall see her soon, I know.”

Just then the order came to charge —
For an instant hand touched hand,
Eye answered eye; then on they rushed,
That brave, devoted band.

Straight they went toward the crest of the hill.
And the rebels with shot and shell
Plowed rifts of death through their toiling ranks,
And jeered them as they fell.

They turned with a horrible dying yell
From the heights they could not gain,
And the few whom death and doom had spared
Went slowly back again.

But among the dead whom they left behind
Was the boy with his curling hair,
And the stern dark man who marched by his side
Lay dead beside him there.

There is no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover said;
And the mother who waits for her boy at home
Will but hear that he is dead,

And never can know the last fond thought
That sought to soften her pain,
Until she crosses the River of Death,
And stands by his side again.

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