December 11, 2010

Aldrich: Wheeling down to Death!

The four-day Battle of Fredericksburg started on December 11, 1862. The battle was bloody, but particularly one-sided: the Union army lost double the number of those lost on the Confederate side.

Earlier, Thomas Bailey Aldrich had moved to New York to work as an editor. Wanting to join the cause, he asked for an appointment to the command of a New Hampshire regiment, but missed a letter of acceptance; the role was given to another (who was later shot and killed in battle). Aldrich decided to take up his pen for the war effort as a correspondent in the field. Seeing war first-hand was too much for him, and he returned to his editorial offices.

Still, Aldrich was affected by the war — and was disappointed in himself for not playing a greater role. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 26-year old wrote a poem to commemorate the event (much like his friend William Dean Howells would do after the Battle of Lookout Mountain):

The increasing moonlight drifts across my bed,
And on the churchyard by the road, I know
It falls as white and noiselessly as snow...
'T was such a night two weary summers fled;
The stars, as now, were waning overhead.
Listen! Again the shrill-lipped bugles blow
Where the swift currents of the river flow
Past Fredericksburg; far off in the heavens are red
With sudden conflagration; on yon height,
Linstock in hand, the gunners hold their breath;
A signal rocket pierces the dense night,
Flings its spent stars upon the town beneath:
Hark! — the artillery massing on the right,
Hark! — the black squadrons wheeling down to Death!

The classic sonnet structure gives the poem a sort of timelessness but the poem loses its adherence to tradition in most other ways. The poem does not focus specifically on the battle, for example, and ends jarringly with the word "Death!" just before any deaths actually occur. The reader feels a certain inevitability, even as the poem does not provide the expected conclusion.


  1. Did he witness this battle? Interesting why he thought he could not fight? Various Southern poets spent time in uniform.

  2. I haven't found any indication that he did witness the battle. Yes, many Southern poets were also veterans of the war - I've written about many of them here on the blog! You might see the category "Southern writers" and you'll find a few there.


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