Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Journal of Surgeon Alfred L Castleman.

14th.—Sunday is again ushered in with a fight. At 7 this morning our batteries opened with a few guns, but the firing is not active. Our long line of battle extends across the vast plain, and is now (8 A. M.) rapidly advancing, apparently to renew the combat in earnest. The enemy is posted in a wood, on a chain of high hills, each one of which is a Gibraltar. Our Generals seem determined to take the position at whatever cost. God send them success, but I have misgivings. With an army of as good fighting men as are in the world opposed to us, with numbers greater than our own, and in much stronger position, my misgivings are not culpable.

9½.—All has been quiet for an hour—probably the lull before a storm. I have just left, lying in one room, Generals Bayard, Campbell and Vinton—the two first mortally, the last severely wounded. Gen. Gibbons is, I hear, in another part of the house, and I am told must lose an arm.

1 P. M.—The battle is not renewed. What does it mean? A telegram is said to have been just received, stating that our gunboats have taken Fort Darling, and are at Richmond. This may, if true, account for our not renewing the attack. In that event the capture or dispersing of Lee’s army here will be only a question of time, and a short time at that, for if Richmond is taken they are cut off from their supplies, and must give way. But suppose it is not true, what then? And why stand we here all the day idle? My construction of the whole matter is simply this: that yesterday’s experience taught us the impracticability of dislodging the enemy by direct force, or that there is a want of co-operation amongst our officers, and that they are in council, devising some strategic plan, to either advance or get back.

5 o’clock.—A rumor is afloat, seeming authentic, (a General has just told me that it is positively so,) that Gen. Sigel has crossed the river with his corps some miles above, and will to-night be in position in rear of the enemy. If true, we shall have lively times to-morrow.

The estimated loss of our left wing in yesterday’s fight is 3,500 in killed and wounded. From the center I have not heard. The loss on the right is said to have been somewhere from twelve hundred to three thousand. I am inclined to believe that the largest figure is much nearest the truth.

The day has closed without a renewal of the fight, and now everything looks as if the morrow was to be the day of days in the attempt to take the Heights. There is only one thing which leads me to doubt it, and that is the publicity which is given to the statements to that effect. In my letter of the 10th inst. I stated my disbelief of the statement that we should cross the river next morning at 2 o’clock, because of the publicity given to the decision of the council of war which decided that we should. We did not cross. I now doubt the statement that we are to renew the fight in the morning, only because everybody knows it. Even Major-Generals have been here and said that our wounded Generals must be taken from the hospital, “because they will be too much exposed in the fight to take place to-morrow.” When an army is to make an important move its Generals do not publish it the day before. Yet our troops are buoyant in the expectation of driving the enemy to-morrow. They love Gen. Burnside, and their confidence in him is already more uniform than it ever was in McClellan, and it is of a different kind—no party feeling mingled with it. It is a confidence in him as a man and a General. Much stir and activity of some kind is discoverable in the enemy’s camp to-night, and a report has just come in that they are retreating. I do not believe it. The record of the hospital for the last two days is just made up. Two hundred and four operated on, amputated, and dressed in the two wards of this hospital yesterday after 12 o’clock, and all laid away comfortably before 10 at night—a pretty good half day’s work. Seventy have been operated on and dressed to-day.

13th.—At a quarter past 9 o’clock, picket firing commenced, and at 9 1-2 o’clock the enemy opened with artillery, on our left wing. In a few minutes the engagement was general. The smoke hangs thick and heavy, making it impossible to tell, this morning, whether the enemy is in force here, or whether his opening the fight is a ruse to cover his falling back. My own opinion is that he means fight. If he had intended to fall back, he would have taken advantage of our crossing, then have opened on us and have fallen back under the fire. Large fires were seen all night in the rear of his lines, which many inferred were from the burning of his stores, preparatory to a retreat. I entertain no such thought. His position is too strong, and should there fall a heavy rain daring the battle, it would, by inundating the large flats on which we are posted, render the situation of our army an exceedingly perilous one. I have not a doubt that the enemy has seen this, and permitted us to cross. I saw some very bad surgery yesterday, and I here enter the remark, that I have witnessed but four amputations by other surgeons since I came to the army, and two of those had to be amputated a second time, before they could be dressed. This speaks very badly for our Surgeons.

Night has come, and the firing has ceased. It has been a terrible day. The wounded have been sent in to us in great numbers. I have been amputating and otherwise operating all day. The result of the battle I do not know. It certainly has not been decisive on either side, and although the wounded brought to us talk freely of “our victory,” I am strongly inclined to the opinion that we have had the worst of it. Gen. Vinton is wounded, and now lies in the hospital. Gen. Bayard, Chief of our artillery, and Gen. Campbell, also lie near me, the former mortally, the latter badly wounded.

The enemy is very strongly posted, and I exceedingly doubt our ability to dislodge him. I hear hints of the want of hearty co-operation of our subordinate Generals. I have feared this from the start, but I will not yet credit it.

Whatever is the result it has been a terrible day, and I now write amidst the groans of the wounded, just dressed, but not yet had time to be relieved of pain.

In my letter of the 10th inst., to C——, I prophesied that we should cross without much fighting; that when we should cross, the enemy would contest every inch of ground, but that if Burnside was heartily sustained by his officers he would drive the enemy. The two first have been fulfilled to the letter. He has not yet driven the enemy, but the fight is not over, and has he had hearty co-operation? On this last point we are not informed. I hope he has, for I would rather suffer defeat honorably, than gain success amidst the treachery of our trusted officers.

12th—At 9 o’clock, A. M., troops are crossing, and again has commenced our cannonading, but there is no response. I sit in the building prepared for hospital, out of sight and out of danger. Are we to have a fight to-day? Doubtful. I find myself indulging in some feelings of pride on the distinction which was conferred on me, unasked, yesterday, though I do not doubt it will excite some of my brother Surgeons to jealousy against me. I almost wish it were otherwise; for, after the long personal battles I .have had to fight, to maintain my proper position in the regiment, I was getting at peace with all, and I should have liked a little quiet. God grant that I may prove adequate to the responsible duties imposed by my new position. I deeply realize the fact that it places in my hands the limbs and lives of many poor fellows who are to be brought under my care. Ambulances and litter-bearers are passing to the expected battle field, and I too, must prepare, though I much doubt our having a fight to-day.

11 o’clock.—We have ” crossed the Rubicon,” and I now sit on the south bank of the Rappahannock, watching the crossing of our left wing, about, fifty thousand strong. I hear that our centre and right wing are crossing on bridges from two to four miles above us. Not a shot of resistance yet this morning, except from a few sharpshooters, and they are now silenced. The smoke of the burning city, and of the heavy cannonading of yesterday, have settled, casting a thick pall over all the country, and we cannot see more than a few rods around us. We know not, therefore, whether the enemy is before us, but the general impression is, that he has fallen back, to draw us on. I am of the opinion that it will require but little suction to draw our Commander on to destruction or to victory. He evidently means business; But will McClellan’s friends, who now hold most important commands under General Burnside, betray him as they did Pope? or will they prove true to the country in this hour of its greatest trial. When I see General Franklin in charge of the most important position, my recollection will revert to his conduct at West Point and at Centreville, and whilst I hope, I fear. From what I have seen of that man, I have lost all confidence in him. How I hope that he may now retrieve himself in the estimation of those who feel towards him as I do. The developments being made in the trial of Porter may make some Generals cautious. God grant it may.

It has been a matter of wonder to me, how the rebel army lives in its marches through this country, without transportation. We have now marched over one hundred miles in this State, and on the line of our march for a width of six miles, (making an area of six hundred square miles.) I am satisfied that there are not provisions enough, if all were taken, to subsist Lee’s army one day.

At 1 o’clock I take possession, for a hospital, of the house of Arthur Bernard, on the south bank of the river, two miles below Fredericksburg. This is one of the most magnificent places I ever saw. I shall not undertake to journalize a description of it. It is owned by one of the old bachelor F. F. Vs. He is now trying to compromise with us, so as to be permitted to retain a part of it. He is very ridiculous in his demands, and it will not surprise me if it results in his arrest. Weather still beautiful, but I fear that the great smoke hanging over us will bring heavy rains, and embarrass our locomotion. Night has come, but brings no fight. There has been an exchange of a few random shots, killing and wounding some twenty or thirty.

11th.—At 5 o’clock, A. M., as clear and calm a morning as ever a bright and beautiful moon shone on. We struck tents and took up our line of march in the direction of Fredericksburg, only five miles distant. At a quarter before 6, precisely, the heavy reports of two large guns came booming through the woods, telling us that the ball was opened. The sound came from Falmouth. Frequent and more frequent came the peals, and in half an hour, so constant was the roar that the intervals between the reports was undistinguishable. At 11 o’clock, A. M., we are in line of battle along the north bank of the Rappahannock, about two miles below Fredericksburg. A pontoon bridge is nearly completed just in front of us. The artillery fight at Falmouth continues; our troops are pouring into the plain along the river. Will the enemy contest our passage! Doubtful.

At 11 1-2 o’clock, I sit on my horse, on a high ridge overlooking Fredericksburg, Falmouth, the river, and the vast plains on either side, where the hosts of both armies are marshalling for the great trial. How beautiful the plains, the cities, the river! How grand the tout ensemble! How different may be the scene on which the rising moon of tomorrow morning may shed her silver light.


“On Linden, when the sun was low,
All bloodless lay the untrodden snow,
* * * * * * * *
But Linden saw another sight
When the drums beat at dead of night,
Commanding fires of death to light
transparenttransparentThe darkness of her scenery.”

Oh, beautiful Rappahannock! are you on this most beautiful day to take the dark rolling Yser for your type? And must this bloodless and untrodden snow, e’er another rising sun, be stained by the blood of valiant hearts, struggling in the cause of government and humanity, against anarchy and oppression? I am at this moment notified of my appointment as a ” Chief operator” for General Howe’s division, during the approaching battle, and am ordered to duty. This is a most flattering distinction, but I rather regret it, as it takes me from the scenes of the field.

3 P. M.—Having prepared my hospital, and the fight not having commenced in our division, I have ridden to Fredericksburg, two and a half miles, and, for the first time, witnessing the bombarding of a city. Rebel sharpshooters are concealed in the houses, and have been shooting our pontooniers. The city is already on fire, and thus ends this ancient town, where children, and children’s children, have lived and died in the same house, for generations. Alas! their homes are destroyed and they homeless. To them the seat of their acutest joys and sorrows, of their hopes and their fears, their histories, and their traditions will be known no more forever. But how strange that I should sit here writing on horseback, almost in the midst of their sharpshooters, without being able to reason myself into a sense of my danger! Have I a life charmed against such exposure, that I should be thus insensible to it? However, if some were here, who have an interest in this matter, co-ordinate with myself, they would say “Go!” and I will do it. Come, Joseph,1 yours is not a charmed life, and you at least must be taken away.

Night has come, and we have not crossed the river. Rumors are rife, that the enemy has evacuated. I do not credit them.

1 My faithful and affectionate horse.

The following letter, though not a part of my journal, is occasionally referred to in it, and I therefore have it inserted here:—

Camp Near Belle Plaines, Virginia,
December, 10, 1862.

My Dear C—— :

* * * * Our whereabouts is four miles from Falmouth, three and a half from the mouth of the Potomac Creek, and about three to the nearest point of the Rappahannock River. As we may be ordered to leave here within an hour, that is sufficiently explicit. Although I have not hesitated at times to express my opinion, confidentially, of the conduct and merits of men, I rarely venture one prospectively, of military matters and strategy. As, however, you express so great a wish for my opinion on the prospects and plans of the war, I will tell you what I know of the present, and guess of the future state of things, reminding you that I am not a military man, and give but little of my attention to military affairs. The Medical Department occupies al my time.

One month ago to-day, our forward movements were arrested by General Burnside superceding McClellan, in the command of the army. We supposed that it would require at least a week or two for him to mature a plan of operations, and have the army mobilized; we were mistaken. Five days sufficed, and we were off like a quarter horse; but just as we arrived at the seat of operations, we were suddenly brought to a stand by the failure of somebody to furnish the supplies to enable us safely to cross the Rappahannock, and to take possession of the heights before the arrival of the enemy. We were consequently stationary, and he got possession of the ground we meant to occupy. Did we do right to stop? My partiality for and confidence in the opinions of General Burnside strongly incline me to think we did, whilst my own reasoning questions it. It seems to me, that we had at Falmouth, before the arrival of the enemy, a force sufficient to have taken the ground and held it till we should get the railroad from Acquia Creek, in order to transport supplies for the whole army, and then, for an object so important, we might have put our men on half rations, for a few days. The enemy, in all his campaigns, runs a heavier risk than that. Indeed, in one of his reports he speaks sneeringly of “the immense transportation trains, without which it seems impossible for the Yankees to move.” But there are doubtless many reasons which I cannot see. But the position is lost. What next?

We must advance.—Public pressure will compel us to, against any odds. Yet we cannot advance without crossing the river. The enemy occupies all the heights, both front and enfilading, and with a force at least equal to our own, commands the crossings. Shall we risk it against such odds? In my opinion we must. But is this the only place to cross? Our pontoons are already in the river, some above, some below. An hour’s time will suffice to throw them into bridges, where we choose. Have we not ingenuity enough to draw attention by a feint at one point, whilst we bridge and cross at another. Should we cross either above or below, we shall occupy a flanking position with decided advantage. I think we shall cross, and I shall not be surprised if even before this letter is finished, we are summoned to attempt it. I think, too, that we shall cross without much resistance. What then?Will the enemy withdraw? Not an inch. He cannot fall back without disaster, and every foot of ground hence to Richmond, will be contested. For, give us Saxton’s Junction, twenty-five miles south of us, and Petersburg, which we can take when we want it, and Richmond is cut off from supplies, and must fall. I stop here to say that my prediction is already verified. Major B. has this moment left me an order to move at 2 in the morning. He says that in a council of war just held, it is decided to cross at three points at daylight. Shall we do this? I doubt it; and simply because it is the result of a council. It is too public. Burnside is not the man to send word to the enemy when he is coming. This, however, is all conjecture. The morning will tell how well grounded.

Yours, &c.

6th.—This morning, during a rain, we moved our bivouac about a quarter of a mile, and encamped. To get settled, we have worked most of the day in the rain, and to-night I feel about as miserably as the most miserable wife on earth could wish a more miserable husband, and this, I presume, is as miserable a condition as a miserable nostalgia can well imagine.

Letters from home to-day, but they are from twelve to twenty days old. The comfort of a regular mail, the Government, with a very little well directed effort, might easily afford to the soldier, and it would be, even as a sanitary measure, a great stroke of economy. How many a poor fellow would be saved by regular cheering letters from home, from a depressing nostalgia, lapsing “rapidly into typhoid fever, and death. But it is folly to think of a reform in this, when the families of so many of our soldiers are in a state of destitution, simply because the pay due to them is withheld for five, six, and even, in some instances, for eight or nine months. One of my hospital nurses has just come to me, with tears on his face, showing me a letter from his wife, in which she says that her little home has been sold under the hammer, because she could not pay a debt of fifty dollars! and this when the government is in arrears to them over a hundred dollars. This seems unjust, and ought to be remedied.

5th.—Broke camp this morning, marched southerly through the village of Stafford, the most miserable and dilapidated looking place the imagination can picture, unless it should take for its pattern some other Virginia village. About a mile and a half south of Stafford Court House we crossed, at Brooks’ Station, the railroad leading from Fredericksburg to the mouth of Acquia Creek, and, after marching about one mile further, in the night, we bivouaced in a most woe-be-gone, hilly, pine-covered, tobacco-eaten country.

Shortly after passing Stafford Court House, I rode up to some “negro quarters,” to see if I could get a canteen of milk, or something “fresh” for my supper. An old black woman came to the door, expressed gratification at our arrival, and fears that we should not be able to retain our hold in the country. She seemed about seventy years old. I asked her if she cared anything for her freedom, or whether she would rather continue a slave, and be taken care of by her master?

“Ah, massa, my freedom ain’t wuf much to me now, but if it please de Laud, I would love to live to see dis a Free State; seem like’t would be so good to die in a free country, and den when I sings praises in hebben, it would be so nice to tell de Laud to his face, how I lub him for dat goodness.”

The slave may be “satisfied with his condition,” but it strikes me that this expresses a strange yearning for change in a mind already satisfied.

4th.—This afternoon I procured signatures of Surgeons to certificates, that in consequence of my long continued labors, I was breaking down. I immediately drew up my letter of resignation and started to present it in person, and to ask the approval of the Colonel. Before reaching his quarters I was met by a courier with an order to march at daylight tomorrow morning. I, of course, withheld the paper till the march, perhaps to battle, was over.

2nd.—I have just written a long letter to my wife, and as this has been a day without incidents, I insert a copy of the letter as my “journal of to-day”:


Camp In The Woods, Near Stafford C. H., Va.
December 2, 1862.

Here we still lie in the woods, four miles from Stafford Court House, about ten from the mouth of Acquia Creek, and fifteen from Fredericksburg, and here we have lain for the last ten days, and for all we can now see, like old Massachusetts, here we shall lie forever. But why we lie here, the Lord and the General only know, and as neither think it good policy to be communicative on military matters, we poor subordinates must be content with the knowledge that “great is the mystery of ” Generalship. This much, however, we do know:—that we are on a hill “Among the Pines,” surrounded by mud and amidst a net-work of roads, almost impassable, since the late heavy rains,—that we are drawing our rations from Acquia Creek, when there is a good railroad, with cars running to within about one third of the distance from us; that we every night send out a heavy picket guard to our rear, perhaps, on the principle of a certain railroad company in our State, which attaches its cow-catcher to the rear of its train, “for reasons perfectly satisfactory to themselves.”

When our new Commander started off, the wind whistled about our ears, under the great impetus which he gave his army, and so rapid was our progress that many expressed the hope that he would not prove only a quarter horse, instead of a thorough bred turfster, with wind and bottom. The first heat was certainly run with great speed, but the length of rest between heats is out of all proportion to the length of the race. The army, however, has great faith in the mettle of “Old Burney,” and express no fears that, when the tap of the drum calls him again to the stand, he will be found either to have “let down,” or be broken-winded.

Amidst all the gloom which our partial want of success has cast around us, amidst the trying and discouraging circumstances in which our lot is cast, a bright star shines forth from the darkness and gives warrant of redemption from the errors of the past. The evil spirit of party, which like the wily snake had inserted itself amongst the flowers and fruits of true loyalty—which was mingling its slimy poisons in every dish of the patriot, has been detected and cast from the garden. The army feels that it was being seduced by the charms of the serpent, and now rises above the temptations. When McClellan was removed, much feeling of bitterness and disapproval was manifested, but since we have had time for reflection, and asked ourselves, why did not McClellan surround and destroy the rebel army at Manassas last winter, as he weekly promised us? Why did he not destroy him when he found him weak and divided at Yorktown? Why he staid ten miles behind the army and was not in time to support the gallant Hooker at Williamsburg? Why he waited on the Chickahominy till he buried in the ditches more faithful men than there were in Richmond, to oppose his entry at the time of his arrival there? Why in his statements of the results of battles he either ignorantly or perversely mis-stated the facts? Why, when the rebel army at the battle of Malvern Hills, was utterly routed and demoralized, when one-third of our army had not fired a gun, but had been at rest all day, was our Commander, instead of following that routed army into Richmond, like Pompey, dallying away his time on one of his galleys, if not with a Cleopatra, with a charmer not less seductive? Why on our march from Alexandria to Manassas to succor Pope, did he compel us to lie by the road side for hours, in sight of the battle’s smoke, where we knew that our brave fellow men were struggling and sinking by thousands before a superior enemy; aye, struggling against every hope of success, except the coming of McClellan?Why did his parasites, refuse even the aid of his Surgeons to the wounded and dying of that noble army, when they sent imploring messages for aid?Why did he lie still and permit a retreating enemy, penned in betwixt the river and the mountains at Antietam, to move quietly off, when he himself says officially, that over that enemy he had just gained a great victory? Why, under those circumstances, and with all these faults, we loved him still? We discover that the poisons of party had so perverted our vision, that we could not see things in their true light, and almost every man when he looks back on what he has been made to suffer by McClellan for McClellan, restrains his curses, simply because of his sense of inability “to do the subject justice.” We have gloriously exchanged the army of partisans, for that of patriots, and a bright star beckons us “onward!”

1st—To day I rode over a mile from camp, to see—right in the woods, with but a little settlement surrounding it— the most aristocratic pile I have yet seen in Virginia. ‘Tis a large brick church, built in the form of a cross. As I approached it the first thing which attracted my attention, after I had wondered what it was doing there, was a black panel over the main entrance door, with this inscription :

“Built A. D., 1751; destroyed by fire, 1754,
and rebuilt
A. D., 1757, by Mourning Richards.

William Copen, Mason.”

I entered, and found two broad aisles crossing each other at right angles. The pulpit is built after the fashion of Trinity Church, New York, or somewhat in the style of that in the large Cathedral in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; but the the work is more elaborate than either of them, the minister having to pass into the third story of his pulpit before he has approached near enough to the Divine presence to catch his inspiration. The two lower stories are occupied severally by the Register and the Parish Clerk. The floor is of fine marble; the pews are square, with seats on all sides, and large enough to have seated, before the advent of crinoline, about twenty persons to each pew. At the end of one of the main aisles is a semi-circular enclosure, a resting place for the dead. On the beautiful marble floor which covers the mortal relics is deeply inscribed, and inlaid with gold:

Of the race of the House

Ah! and must the “memory of the race of the House of Monclure” be preserved only in gold? Could not he, the Vice-gerent of God—have written on hearts stony enough to retain the impression, the memory which he would have to live forever? Could he not have inscribed on tablets of memory, to pass as an heir-loom from generation to generation, an appreciation of that great precept which he professed—” Peace on Earth, and good will to man?”Then he might have gone, triumphantly exclaiming—

” Exegi monumentum perennius auro.”

But having entrusted the preservation of his memory more to gold than to Godliness, he is likely to be remembered in a manner which he little expected, for our soldiers have broken in, have torn up this marble floor, and are carrying away this golden momento “of the race of the house of Monclure,” as trophies of this unholy war. “The house,” at least, will be remembered. I have asked permission tonight, to occupy this church as a hospital, my chief object being to protect it from further vandalism.

In the wall, over this little enclosure which I have described, are four large black panels, the first and second containing part of the XXth Chap, of Exodus, the third, the Creed of the Church of England, and the fourth, the Lord’s Prayer, all in silvered letters—bright silvered letters on a black ground! How fitly emblematic of the spirit of the inscriptions to the darkness of the minds on which the living principles were to be impressed.

At the other end of this aisle is a high gallery, Another large black panel in this gallery bears the names of the (leadi)ng actors here, more than a hundred years ago. Let me help to imortalize those names :


May their names be recorded as plainly, and more durably, in a house not built with hands, as in the ephemeral pile now threatened with destruction.