and the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers
By Rudy VanVeghten
PART 3: Stuck in the Mud
Burnside retreated to Falmouth, but he wasn’t finished yet. Within another few weeks, he attempted another assault on Fredericksburg. This time the weather defeated him before General Lee had a chance. Three days of rain turned a hoped-for victory into a “Mud March.” Eventually, Burnside pulled his army back to Falmouth, wet, caked in mud, in many cases ill, and even worse, with severely dampened spirits.
The 12th and the rest of the large army prepared to spend a bitter, squalid winter that some later called the Valley Forge of the Civil War. During the bleak weeks of that winter, many more of the Company I men perished from diseases. Six died from the mysterious camp fever, three from other diseases, and three more were discharged due to disabilities contracted at Falmouth.
Those who didn’t succumb to sickness were kept busy with never-ending drills. In their spare time they played board and field games, including the new sport of baseball promoted by Divisional General Abner Doubleday. Private William H. Hawkins exchanged letters with his young wife and their toddler son Frederick, perhaps joking that Fredericksburg was named after the little guy. Like other units, Co. I had a musician, Edward Bredet, who joined in with others to play selections of patriotic and sentimental favorites like “Home Sweet Home.”
Mostly, it was a full-time effort to stay warm. There were 27 snowfalls recorded by the troops that winter in Falmouth. “Care” packages occasionally arrived from home. Editor Fred Sanborn recalled, “I have seen the gathering up of good things, mittens and socks and medicine to be sent to the boys at the front and in the hospitals.”
Talk within the company, the regiment, and the army had much to consider. There was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, passed by the mostly Northern Congress at year’s end following the President’s famous “dogmas of the quiet past” speech. Indications are that, except for a few of the most radical Republicans, most of the men had little interest in freeing the slaves. Then there was the issue that, if the war did free the slaves, what would the nation do with them? It was one thing to prevent expansion of slavery into the western territories. It was quite another to accept Africans as equal citizens and weave them into the American fabric.
Another topic thoroughly vetted among the privates and corporals and sergeants, armchair generals all, was the change of command from General Burnside to “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Burnside had been as unpopular with the rank and file as his predecessor George McClellan was popular, and the selection of General Hooker on January 25, 1863, worked wonders in overcoming the air of depression that wore down the troops both mentally and physically.
Spirits were lifted even more when President Lincoln visited the army in Falmouth on April 6-7. As Lincoln rode by the ranks of the Twelfth New Hampshire, he returned their salute by tipping his top hat and nodding his head “while a half smile lighted upon his sad and care-worn countenance,” according to Bartlett. The next day, Col. Potter received, at the President’s request, a commendation “for the clean and orderly condition… and the soldierly appearance and conduct of the men.”