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The Best Dressed Man in the Army

The Battle of Fredericksburg

I signed up for the NewspaperArchive.com a few months ago, and I was fairly disappointed with my subscription. But, I also haven’t used it that much, so my skills with its search features are limited. Since it’s easy to sign up, but a fair pain in the rear to unsubscribe, I decided to use the archives for a bit this month to see if I could find some buried treasures.

Today I came across an article published on this day in 1897 in the Galveston, Texas newspaper, Galveston Daily News. The author, Val C. Giles, a former Civil War soldier wrote an editorial about his war memories, specifically about the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The document is difficult to read in some spots, but several paragraphs stand out. His words help the reader to visualize this specific battle from the eyes of a man who focused on the sights that he witnessed and on his percepetions on topics from the war dead to Stonewall Jackson’s uniform. He wrote:

More than eighteen thousand men were killed and wounded there, yet strange to say the battle of Fredericksburg is not rated as one of the great battles of the civi war. I suppose that is because there were no results arising from it.

The quote above wraps up many of Giles’ observations on a battle that was an effort by the Union Army to regain the initiative in its struggle against Lee’s smaller but more aggressive army. This battle, fought between General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War. The Union Army suffered terrible casualties in futile frontal assaults against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights behind the city. This battle brought an early end to the Union campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Giles reinforces the Union fatalities in his writing, but he also focuses on Confederate losses, one of which includes a story about bundle of Confederate money that he and a friend found on the grounds the day following the battle:

The next morning before good daylight J[im]. H. Dearing and myself stole away from our line of battle and went down in the ‘valley of death,’ where the fighting the day before had been the hardest. There I witnessed a scene that haunts me still. I disobeyed orders to burden my memory with the most appalling sight I ever saw before or after(?). The wounded had ben removed, but the dead were all there. They lay in heaps, crossed and piled in every imaginable position, all cold, rigid and stiffly frozen.

We never saw one-half the battlefield, but we saw enough, and I was glad when a little dried-up Georgia captain very (?) ordered us back to our command, which we reached about sun-up.

On our return I saw a little roll of something lying on the ground. I picked it up, and in a little piece of dirty jeans cloth, with about ten yeards of yarn string wrapped around it, I discovered $63. Six $10 confederate bills – new issue – and three $1 Virginia state treasury notes. We examined the money. Jim smelt the rag and said it belonged to a Georgian. He knew that because he could smell goobers on the cloth.

He said some officer must have lost it, for there was not a private in Lee’s army on a salary of $11 a month that “toted that much wealth about his old cloths.” We divided the find, promising ourselves a good time when the fight was over.

Several notes within the paragraphs above can lead historians on searches for information about jeans fabric, Confederate treasury bills, and goobers. Goobers, or peanuts, defined the Georgian for almost a century until the label withered along with other labels like “cracker,” another term that nothern residents used to define certain southern cultures. Although I may have missed Giles’ affiliation in this war, the fact that he followed orders issued from a southern officer leads me to believe that Giles served the Confederacy. The fact that he felt they could have a “good time” on Confederate money supports this theory, as he could not have known at the time that Confederate treasury notes would soon be worthless.

Another paragraph describes Giles’ view of the Confederate line that headed into the battle of Fredericksburg on 13 December, 1862:

About 12 o’clock in the day we heard a long, loud cheer start away off to our left, in the direction of Mary’s hill. It came nearer and nearer downt he line, and we soon discovered the cause. Lee, Jackson, Stuart and many other general officers were ‘riding the line.’ Lee and Jackson rode in front, and old Stonewall was decidedly the best dressed man in the crowd. His elegant, new uniform fairly sparkled with gold lace and brass buttons. His old, faded cap was gone, the stooping shoulders held well up, and he really looked graceful as he dashed along in a sweeping gallop. He was ‘dressed to kill,’ as his subsequent acts next day go to prove. Some of the boys said they were cheering old Stonewall’s clothes, and not the generals. We heard then that the new suit had been presented to him by his lady admirers in Richmond, but John Esten Cooke says the suit was a present from Jeb Stuart. Anyway, he was the best dressed confederate at the battle of Fredericksburg.

In my studies on the Civil War, I had never heard this story about Stonewall’s uniform. As a lark, I typed, “Stonewall Fredericksburg Uniform” into a search engine, and I discovered an article published in February 1894 in The Century Magazine [transcribed by Brad Haugaard]. The author of this paper, the late General Daniel H. Hill, C.S.A., was brother-in-law to General Thomas J. Jackson, and he commanded a division in Jackson’s corps during tthe Fredericksburg campaign. He confirms Stonewall’s attire during this battle:

No welcome was ever more hearty and cordial than that given by Jackson to Stuart after his return from his celebrated raid around McClellan, a few weeks subsequent to the battle of Sharpsburg. They both laughed heartily over a picture Stuart picked up in Pennsylvania headed, “Where is Stonewall Jackson?” “Well, Stuart, have you found your hat? inquired the general. This was an allusion to the narrow escape from capture of the great cavalry leader with the loss of that important article of head-gear. Stuart laughingly replied, “No; not yet.” The general laid aside his old Valley suit, and appeared at the battle of Fredericksburg in a magnificent uniform presented to him by Stuart [emphasis mine]. “Ah, General,” said one of his impudent rebel boys, as he rode along the line, “you need not try to hide yourself in those clothes; we all know you too well for that.” The love of the rank and file for him at that time was almost idolatrous, and it steadily increased till the close of his career. A more grandly impressive sight was never witnessed than that of the greeting of his men on that bright morning at Fredericksburg as he passed in his gay clothing on his fiery war steed. These hardy veterans, all of them ragged, and many shoeless, sprang to their feet from their recumbent position, and waved enthusiastically their dingy hats and soiled caps; but refrained from their wonted cheers lest they should draw the fire of the enemy’s artillery upon their beloved chief.

Stonewall was a master of marketing the war. His hatless head and refined attire that belied a battle’s dirt and stink surely stirred his men into a fighting frenzy. Whether it was Stonewall’s uniform that sealed the fate for so many Union soldiers that day is an unstable assertion. The fact that he left an impression on at least two journalists seems certain.

The painting at top is entitled, “Battle of Fredericksburg,” the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rappahannock in the morning of Dec. 13′ 1862, under the command of Gen’s Burnside, Sumner, Hooker & Franklin. Lithograph, color. Kurz & Allison c. 1888. The original can be viewed at http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3g00000/3g01000/3g01700/3g01757v.jpg.

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