The Stone Wall

The writing prompt for today was simply “a wall”. The following is historical fiction, mostly true, a comment at the end of the story and photos discloses what is true and fictional:

Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg, VA. This stone wall, and a sunken road behind it, formed a natural fortress for Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862. Photo taken during a visit Barb & I made in January of 2019.

The Stone Wall

Fredericksburg, Virginia. December, 1862

For nearly a month, the two armies glared at each other.  Separating the Union Army of The Potomac and the Confederate Army of the Northern Virginia were the Rappahannock River and the historic town of Fredericksburg.  The natural barriers relegated the belligerents to hurling insults at each other versus deadly projectiles.  All of that changed on December 11th, as Union General Ambrose Burnside forced a crossing of the river and occupied the town.  The Rebel forces in the town withdrew to a low ridge called Marye’s Heights, just 600 yards south of the towns edge.  The new position, anchored behind a 4 foot high stone wall with a sunken road running parallel to the it, provided substantial protection for the Rebel defenders.  Nearly impregnable, the men behind the wall boasted “that a chicken could not live on that field when we open fire”.  On December 13, 1862, Burnside ordered 14 assaults across the field in a futile attempt to drive the Rebels from their near fortress.   

Major General Ambrose Burnside ordered 14 separate charges to try and overrun the center of the Confederate lines anchored behind the stone wall. The smoke from the trees in the middle distance is where the stone wall is located.

Colonel Roland Horvath had a bird’s eye view, literally, of this savage drama playing out.  Suspended in a basket beneath a hydrogen filled balloon called The Eagle, Colonel Horvath  tried to watch the battle’s progress.  He was supposed to telegraph significant details to officers on the ground, but the smoke from from rifle and artillery fire made it impossible to discern what was happening.  Through his field glasses,  Horvath could see blue clad men in perfect alignment disappear into the battle fog, flashes of flame, then disorganized mobs of men pouring back out of the smoke.  Some carrying or dragging wounded comrades.  Breaks in the battle fog were fleeting, Horvath could see that no Union troops had gotten close to the wall.  Training his glasses on the town’s edge, Horvath’s hands trembled as he watched the emerald green flag of the Irish Brigade and the men behind it get swallowed by the smoke. He prayed that his friend, Major Sean McMahon, had obeyed his orders and remained behind at the Irish Brigade Headquarters.  Horvath was startled by a sudden jolt to the basket.  The ground team was pulling the balloon down to replenish the gas.

The Eagle and The Intrepid were similar in design, a single occupant, hydrogen filled balloon. The balloons were used by the Union Army through the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. Transportation difficulties, battlefield topography, and personality conflicts ended their use in the Civil War.

Telegraphic messages were sent from the balloon to a receiver on the ground. The devices were similar to this. Instead of Morse Code, a dial was spun to a letter of the alphabet, and a key pressed to transmit the letter.

Once on the ground, Col. Horvath ran to his horse as fast as his wobbly legs would allow him.  He trotted across the pontoon bridge, then through the town to the Irish Brigade Headquarters.  Not able to find  Major McMahon, he asked a staff officer if he knew his whereabouts.  The staff officer replied “The scamp snuck out and charged with the brigade, I have not seen him, the survivors are coming back now, maybe he is with them”.  “Survivors?”, Horvath asked, his voice strained, “the charge failed then?”.  “It was doomed to fail”, said the staff officer sharply, “The regiments are reforming at the end of the street, maybe he is there”.  Horvath walked his horse to the end of the street.  Spotting an officer of the 116th Pennsylvania, he asked if he had seen his friend.  “Aye”, answered the officer, “He joined our lads on the advance, he fell near the wall.  Whether wounded or dead I do not know”.  Col. Horvath felt a heaviness in his chest.  Daylight faded, the temperature began to plummet.  Firing between the armies died off to just sporadic sniping.  When darkness finally fell, survivors began to trickle back to the town.  Horvath ventured out with members of the Irish Brigade to retrieve their comrades who were too injured to walk or crawl.  Rescue operations had to cease as dawn broke.  Major McMahon was not among those wounded retrieved that night.  Most of the survivors of the 116th Pennsylvania felt that he was close to the wall.

The Charge of Irish Brigade against the stone wall on Marye’s Heights. The charge resulted in a 45% casualty rate, virtually wrecking the brigade.

As the sun rose on Sunday morning, the 14th of December, the magnitude of the previous days failed assaults were staggering.  Col. Horvath’s commanding officer, General William Averell, had joined him in the early morning hours.  Gazing out at the field between the town and the wall on Marye’s Heights Averell, his voice heavy with emotion, said, “There are at least 8,000 men out there, a third of them dead.  The wounded trying to reach safety give this field a singular, crawling effect.  And your friend is out there…”.  Averell trailed off.  Both armies appeared reluctant to resume hostilities.  The cries of the wounded played on everyone’s emotions.  Horvath felt compelled to take action.  He loaded his horse with as many canteens and blankets as he could.  Removing his overcoat and sidearms, leading his horse, he began to walk out of Fredericksburg heading towards the stone wall.  As he cleared the town he saw a solitary Rebel soldier leap over the wall.  He had no weapons and from his extended arms hung canteens.  No one fired a shot, the Rebel knelt on the ground, lifted the head of a wounded man and appeared to help him drink.  Horvath hung some canteens over his extended arm, praying no one would shoot him.

“My name is Colonel Roland Horvath, I am here to help you”.  The Rebel soldier stood, saluted and said “I am Sergeant Richard Kirkland, thank you sir”.  They were 50 paces from the wall, Horvath could see the hard stares from the men behind it.  For 1 ½ hours Kirkland and Horvath tended the wounded.  It was time for both men to return to their lines.  As they exchanged salutes and shook hands, Union and Confederate soldiers began to cheer and wave their hats at the duo.  Horvath removed his hat and bowed slightly to those behind the wall.  As he straightened, he heard an Irish brougue croak “Roland, your not gonna leave me now, you idjit!”.  It was McMahon, desperately wounded.  “Sean! You are alive!”, exclaimed Horvath.  “Your wife would kill me if I did not bring you back!  I would rather charge this wall than face her!”  Spotting a Confederate General standing at the wall Col. Horvath asked “I owe this man my life sir, on your honor, I ask if I can take him back with me”.  The General saluted Horvath and replied, “On my honor, of course. God speed to you both”.  Helping his friend onto the back of his horse, Horvath began the return to Fredericksburg.  Sgt. Kirkland climbed back over the stone wall, cheers again ringing again in their ears.

Sgt. Richard Kirkland leapt over the stone wall after the assault of the Irish Brigade. For 1 1/2 hours he gave water and blankets to the wounded Yankee soldiers.
The monument to Sgt. Richard Kirkland at Fredericksburg, VA. There is a similar monument at The Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA. Sgt. Kirkland would lose his life at The Battle of Chickamauga in September, 1863.

Although this is a work of historical fiction, much of the story is true: the quote about a chicken not being able to survive comes from Confederate Lt. Col. E.P. Alexander, commander of the Rebel artillery batteries on Marye’s Heights behind the stone wall, he made the comment to his commanding officer, General James Longstreet. The quote about Union casualties and the wounded “giving the field a singular crawling effect” was uttered by Union General William Woods Averell at The Battle Of Malvern Hill earlier in 1862. I thought it appropriate to insert in this story.
Colonel Horvath and his friend, Major McMahon, are entirely fictional, as is any of their dialogue. Sgt. Richard Kirkland conducted his mission of mercy completely alone, asking permission from his commanding officer – General Joseph Kershaw. There were four observation balloon ascents on December 13, either by the Chief Aeronaut of The United States Army Balloon Corps – Professor Thaddeus Lowe, or his associates.

Sources: “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg” by George C. Rable, “Glory Road”, by Bruce Catton (Book 2 in his Army of The Potomac Trilogy), “The Immortal Irishman”, by Timothy Egan (biography of the colorful leader of The Iron Brigade at Fredericksburg- Thomas Francis Meagher), “Battles & Leaders of The Civil War, Vol. 3”, various contributors. Several Blue & Gray and Civil War Times Illustrated magazines relating to the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers

March 21, 2021

3 thoughts on “The Stone Wall

  1. Again you pulled me right into the event and action. Well done.

    On Mon, Mar 22, 2021, 9:07 PM The Chatham Packet wrote:

    > estricsek posted: ” The writing prompt for today was simply “a wall”. The > following is historical fiction, mostly true, a comment at the end of the > story and photos discloses what is true and fictional: Marye’s Heights, > Fredericksburg, VA. This stone wall, and a sunken” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Ernie, Another great story, Ernie. Fascinating about the observation balloons. I remember Kevin’s grandfather (born in Ireland) saying idjit. Talk with you later, Nancy

    On Mon, Mar 22, 2021 at 9:07 PM The Chatham Packet wrote:

    > estricsek posted: ” The writing prompt for today was simply “a wall”. The > following is historical fiction, mostly true, a comment at the end of the > story and photos discloses what is true and fictional: Marye’s Heights, > Fredericksburg, VA. This stone wall, and a sunken” >


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