When Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered his Army of Northern Virginia to retreat across the Potomac River following costly combat near Sharpsburg, Md., in September 1862, the Union army claimed victory in this important battle. Based on that welcome news, in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln announced his plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on the first day of 1863.
The president’s exuberance soon dissipated when word arrived from Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside that his Army of the Potomac had suffered a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg, Va. Burnside — who had reluctantly replaced Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln relieved from command — had senselessly sent wave after wave of his troops against an impregnable position on Marye’s Heights, southwest of the town, where Lee had fortified his forces.
When the slaughter ended on Dec. 13, 1862, more than 12,000 Union troops were dead, wounded or missing. Among those were members of the hard-fighting 1st and 2nd Delaware Regiments.
These Delaware units were still recouping from the Battle of Antietam three months earlier. Yet they followed orders to cross the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg and “lead [their brigade’s] advance line of attack on the enemy’s work[s].”
According to its regimental history, the 1st Delaware, under command of Maj. Thomas A. Smyth, an Irish immigrant who settled in Wilmington, exhibited considerable composure and fortitude. They “bravely dashed up the hill though a perfect storm of bullets, shot and shell, to the very rifle-pits of the enemy.”
The 2nd Delaware, as reported in the Jan. 13, 1863, issue of the New York Times, also followed its commander, Col. William P. Baily, “a cool, brave and experienced officer,” up that same hill below Fredericksburg. The 2nd Regiment led the charge of Col. Samuel K. Zook’s Third Brigade and suffered heavy losses at the “slaughter pen” in front of Marye’s Heights.
The 2nd Delaware had entered on duty in 1861 with 838 names on its roster. Hard campaigning prior to the battle whittled that number down to a mere 244. After Fredericksburg, the names of another 57 officers and men appeared on the casualty list. Both Baily and his replacement, Maj. Benjamin Ricketts, sustained wounds during the fighting.
In his report of the battle (Official Records, Vol. 21, page 254), Zook described the magnitude of the task at hand and praised the work of his command during the heated action at Fredericksburg:
“The brigade advanced rapidly over the crest of the hill nearest the enemy’s lines, under a very heavy fire of artillery from the heights and musketry from a stone wall, sunken road, and numerous rifle-pits, charging … and taking a position which was not passed by any other [unit’s] line during the day.”
Despite their inability to carry the imposing position, Zook was “gratified to state that the conduct of both officers and men of the brigade was all that could be desired.”
Brig. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert, born in Georgetown, Del., and a resident of Milford, also represented the state of Delaware at Fredericksburg. His biographer, A.D. Slade, wrote that, as a brigade commander of New Jersey regiments in Maj. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Sixth Corps, Torbert, under orders from his division commander, Brig. Gen. William T.H. Brooks, directed his troops to attack an enemy position at a railroad cut.
Successful in capturing this position, Torbert soon discovered he was opposed by a superior Confederate force and had to make a hasty withdrawal. Reflecting frustration with the tactics that Burnside and his senior commanders were employing, Chaplain Alanson Haines noted in his diary, “The movement was a useless one.”
Torbert’s reputation as a well-respected officer was not diminished by the Union catastrophe at Fredericksburg. Writing to his hometown newspaper, a member of the 15th New Jersey, using the penname “Little Mac,” commented that Torbert was “a brave officer, exhibiting great coolness on the field.”
The sacrifice that these Delawareans were making for cause and country was evident from the large number of casualties sustained since they became engaged in active campaigning in 1862. They were bloodied during the Peninsula Campaign, became combat veterans at Antietam and displayed fortitude in the face of adversity at Fredericksburg.
Following a much-needed respite, additional challenges loomed ahead come the spring of 1863, when the armies would meet again a few miles to the west, near the home of a family named Chancellor.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.