The Battle of Fredericksburg as my ancestor saw it

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought from December 11th to December 15th, 1862.  Among the 120,000 or so Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac was a 36 year old French-Canadian immigrant named Moises Beaulieu.  Moises had enlisted in June 1861 in Company A of the 11th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (sometimes known as the Boston Volunteers) and thus had already been in the Union army for some 18 months when he found himself on the bank of the Rappahannock River across from the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Major General Ambrose Burnside, a Rhode Islander who had risen from Colonel of the 1st Rhode Island to commander of the army, was waiting for pontoons to arrive so bridges could be built across the river. At that time the 11th Massachusetts was in Brigadier General Joseph Carr’s brigade, of Brigadier General Dan Sickles’ Second Division of George Stoneman’s Third Corps, part of the Center Grand Division commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker.

In the same brigade as Moises was a chaplain, also from Massachusetts but in the 16th Volunteer Infantry, named Arthur Buckminster Fuller.  Chaplain Fuller is not quite as well-remembered as his sister Margaret these days, but in his day he was reasonably well-known and was a particularly popular chaplain.  Poor health had forced Chaplain Fuller to resign from the army, but he also said that if a battle came he would stay for it.

Chaplain Arthur Buckminster Fuller, 16th Massachusetts Infantry, in his uniform.

As it happened Chaplain Fuller’s resignation from the Army had already been processed, and had he wanted to do so he could have left for Boston before the battle ever began.  But he remained with the army.  What’s more, when volunteers were called for to clear Confederate sharpshooters out of Fredericksburg so that the engineers could safely lay the pontoon bridges, Chaplain Fuller volunteered to go in with two Massachusetts regiments that were participating in the assault – the 19th and the 20th Infantry Regiments.  He armed himself with a musket and cartridge box and climbed into a boat with his fellow Bay Staters as they began the first amphibious assault in American army history.

Neither the 11th Massachusetts nor the 16th Massachusetts were in the battle yet, but Chaplain Fuller found himself literally in the front line with the skirmishers of the 19th and 20th Massachusetts.  According to his biography, he was in front of a grocery store and had already fired one or two shots when he was hit three times: once in the hip; once with a ball that went through his arm and into his chest; and a third time with a bullet that penetrated his coat and vest but otherwise did not harm him.  It is believed the chest wound killed him instantly.  His body had to be abandoned to the Confederates for a short time, and they robbed his corpse of some valuables before the body was recovered.

Later, when the body was being carried towards the river in a makeshift coffin, one witness serving as a pallbearer for the fallen chaplain described what happened when men of his brigade saw who was being carried:

During our work, many from Massachusetts and New Hampshire regiments gathered round, to gaze upon the face of a widely known preacher, an esteemed pastor, a revered and loved friend. Many of them manifested the deepest interest in what we were doing, and lingered about the place till our undertaking was accomplished. Some spoke of the Chaplain as ‘their most edifying preacher,’ others as ‘a most valued adviser,’ and others as ‘ a most faithful friend.’ They offered to raise from their ranks the means of transportation.

Helen L. Gilson, a young woman with the United States Sanitary Commission, was also present treating wounded soldiers and she remembered seeing the fallen chaplain as well.

For a long time had I heard of Arthur B. Fuller as a devoted chaplain; and my interest had been awakened to see him ; but it was not till a few days before his death that I had the pleasure of an introduction. I then drew from my pocket a well-worn copy of the Army Melodies, of which he was one of the editors, and told him that I had carried it during the Peninsular Campaign, often administering the medicine of music to the sick and wounded ; and we were at once well acquainted.

The funeral for Chaplain Fuller was on Christmas Eve, 1862, at the First Church in Boston, which at that time was located on Chauncy Place.


Among those who attended were Governor John Andrew and Chief Justice George Bigelow of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

I wonder whether Moises was one of the Massachusetts men who looked on Chaplain Fuller’s body before it was sent home to Boston.

Anyway, the 11th Massachusetts spent much of its time the night of December 12th and the following day at Fredericksburg guarding a pontoon bridge and stopping various shirkers and malingerers from crossing the bridge to safety, as well as stopping looters from bringing their plunder back across the river as well.  The morning of the 14th the brigade skirmishers began to fire as soon as there was light.

A battery opened on the brigade at daybreak, but it was promptly silenced by a company of sharpshooters from the 2d New-Hampshire Vols.; and a few cannon and officers, drivers and horses, fled in confusion, and left the guns and caissons. Throughout this contest, the skirmishers sheltered themselves behind stumps and other barriers; and some scooped up a slight quantity of earth, and rested their rifles upon the bodies of dead soldiers that were frequently mutilated by the balls which were aimed at the living. A lieutenant in the brigade was wounded in the extreme front, and refused to allow the men to carry him to the hospital while the firing continued ; and rejoined his regiment within a month, before his injuries were healed, when there was a prospect of another battle.

“Captain, where shall I bring your dinner?” asked a servant who was retiring to cook that meal.

“I don’t know: in hell, perhaps!” the officer answered as he glanced at a shell which burst near the spot at that moment.

The 11th and their brigade were, generally speaking, lucky that they did not get involved in any heavy fighting at Fredericksburg, as it turned out to be a terrible and bloody battle.  The Army of the Potomac suffered nearly 13,000 casualties while the Confederates suffered a bit over 5,000.

Sometime after Fredericksburg, Moises was assigned to division headquarters as a saddler, by order of division commander Dan Sickles.


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