One of the most harrowing battles in the Civil War took place on December 13, 1862 in Fredericksburg, VA. The Union's 9th Army under General Ambrose Burnside was sent on a suicide mission across the Rappahannock River. Stationed across the river for weeks, my great-great grandfather, William James Burk, waited with his 116th PA Volunteer Regiment in the Irish Brigade. He would be among the young men marching across the quickly-placed pontoon bridges to the town (the main bridge had been destroyed). The battle ground would be on an elevated field called Marye's Heights where the Southern Army had perfectly staged defenses.
I cannot imagine the thoughts and emotions William had while preparing for this day of slaughter. Hopefully, he was praying for the God of all mercy to spare his life, and if he did, God answered that prayer, because he lived to fight in many more battles before being captured at Petersburg and sent to a number of Confederate prisons.
Clara Barton was more than a wonderful nurse: she also wrote letters that contained poetry in her prose. She was with the Union troops on the eve of this battle and penned the following [punctuation is original]:
Head Quarters 2nd Div.
9th Army Corps - Army of Potomac
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
Dec. 12th, 1862 - 2-o'clock A.M.
"My dear Cousin Vira,
"Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the maybe-doomed thousands sleeping around me.
"It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between - at tomorrow's dawn our troops will essay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail [pontoon] bridges at every breath.
"The moon is shining through the soft haze with brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me, striving to say, 'Thy will Oh God be done.'
"The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry's tread is still but quick - the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for as I gazed sorrowfully upon them, I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning sacrifice. Sleep weary one, Sleep and rest for tomorrow's toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream well. Oh northern mothers wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you, God pity and strengthen you every one.
"Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind hearted General's tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and things sadly of his fated men.
"Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounding in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour's sleep for tomorrow's labor.
"Good night dear cousin and Heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not weary days than mine."
Yours in love,