Death Comes Swiftly to Fourteen-year-old Soldier
December 9, 1862. George W. Batise, “a son of a poor Frenchman” from tiny Tinmouth, Vermont, was fourteen years old when he enlisted, claiming to be eighteen years of age. While at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, he came down with the measles, caught cold, and died on December 9, 1862. He had been gone from home only five weeks.
– Submitted by Grant Reynolds, Tinmouth, Vermont
Union Suffers Horrific Defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia
December 13, 1862. General Burnside’s 100,000-man Army of the Potomac suffered a massive defeat at Fredericksburg in Virginia, losing more than twelve thousand men in fourteen frontal assaults on entrenched Confederate positions. “We might as well have tried to take hell,” a Union soldier remarks. Lee’s army of 72,000 men lost 5,300. It would be one of the Union’s worst defeats of the war.
“‘It is well that war is so terrible,” Robert E. Lee said, watching his troops wreak havoc on the Union army at Fredericksburg, “or we should grow too fond of it.”
When the Rebels returned to the town of Fredericksburg, which Union soldiers had looted and destroyed, the Confederates were appalled by what they saw. Looking at the devastation caused by the Yankees, a member of Stonewall Jackson’s staff asked, “What can we do about this kind of barbaric behavior?”
Jackson replied, his voice trembling with rage, “Kill ’em. Kill ’em all.”
Walt Whitman visited camps of the Union army after the Battle of Fredericksburg and jotted down notes in his journal of what he saw:
“The results of the late battle are exhibited everywhere about here in thousands of cases, (hundreds die every day), in the . . . hospitals. These are merely tents, and sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if their blankets are spread on layers of pine or hemlock twigs, or small leaves. No cots; seldom even a mattress. It is pretty cold. The ground is frozen hard, and there is occasional snow. I go around from one case to another. I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying; but I cannot leave them. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.” (1)
Later, from his journal entries, Whitman wrote his powerful poem, “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” in which the narrator describes coming upon three corpses on stretchers:
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step — and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third — a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you — I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
Clearly Whitman’s perspective on the war had changed radically from that expressed in the enthusiastic “Beat! Beat! Drums!” which he wrote after the First Battle of Bull Run.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director
1.) Nancy Loewen, Walt Whitman, p. 24
“Daybreak Gray and Dim: How the Civil War Changed Walt Whitman’s Poetry,” Humanities, the Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities