I lived in the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, Virginia area for 23 years, but I did not find out about my “Strong” and personal connection to the Civil War and the Battle of Fredericksburg until a few years after I moved to Texas.
While I lived in Virginia, I visited the Fredericksburg National Cemetery on several occasions and took quite a few pictures. During that time, I was totally unaware that my great-great grandfather (William Stark Strong) and my great grandfather (William Washington Strong) were with Company E of the 121st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Battle of Fredericksburg (Fredericksburg Campaign at Marye’s Heights) on December 13, 1862.
My great-great grandfather, First Sergeant William Stark Strong, was severely wounded during the battle and died the next day. His 21 year old son, Corporal William Washington Strong, survived. If he had died as a result of this fight also (or at any other time during the Civil War), I would not be here today to write this story. A sobering thought on this Memorial Day weekend.
William Washington Strong lived to be 88 years old and, at some point after the war, he assembled and published a book about his regiment’s experiences. Even though some of the pages from his book were lost over the years, a copy has been thoughtfully reassembled by the Survivor’s Association.
The easiest way to read the online version at the link below, is to choose “one page view” and then zoom in on the text several times. The contributor is the Library of Congress:
History of the 121st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers — ‘An Account from the Ranks.’
Needless to say, as soon as I found this online copy of my great-grandfather’s book, I began reading it. To be able to go back in time through the words on these pages, and virtually experience the emotions and conditions that the soldiers experienced during the American Civil War—is an awesome privilege.
Having lived in Virginia for so many years, I know the different places that are being referred to above, and I can easily imagine being there. I have not forgotten how muddy and sloppy the red clay is during and after a rain, and I know what it feels like to walk through pine tree woods while brushing off mosquitos, ticks, spiders, and side-stepping an occasional snake!
Regarding the interaction between my great-great grandfather and his son at the battle of Fredericksburg, I was happy to find additional information in this book. All things considered, Corporal William Washington Strong’s loving concern for his wounded father and his determined attempt to remove him from the battlefield, might have saved his own life that day:
“He (First Sergeant William Stark Strong) fell at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, at the most advanced point reached by the regiment in Meade’s famous charge; was wounded in the ankle and in the right side, the latter causing his death. It is our duty and pleasure to record the generous act of the commander of a Confederate regiment that greatly relieved the suffering of Sergeant Strong. When the Union lines were finally driven back, a son of the sergeant, who was a corporal in the same company, went to his father’s assistance, but was unable single handed to take him off the field, and so both fell into the hands of the advancing foe, and became prisoners of war. The corporal approached the commander of one of the rebel regiments, occupying a position in reserve, and asked for a stretcher for the use of his father. On learning the situation, the officer without hesitation detailed men with a stretcher, with orders to take the sergeant to the field hospital a half mile or more to the rear and entirely out of harm’s way, where he remained until his death. When it is remembered that under the orders issued by the commander of the Union army, no assistance could be given the wounded by their comrades, this kind act on the part of the Confederate colonel can be better appreciated.” (Appendix pages 157 and 158)
“The dreadful slaughter in front of Marye’s Hill at no time approached success, but, however brave, the efforts of the troops at that point were from the first utterly hopeless.” (page 32)
There was supposed to be more Union soldiers at the Battle of Fredericksburg, but they didn’t get there in time: “Colonel Biddle in his letters writes, ‘ a support which had been ordered for us failed to come. Had it come the result probably, would have been different.”’ (page 33)
When I was at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery in 2011–a tour guide mentioned several reasons why the additional troops did not arrive as expected. Apparently, there was some miscommunication within the Union army that led to dire consequences in Fredericksburg. One of the biggest problems was the fact that Burnside was given a map with unclear markings. As a result, they got lost.
At the end of the battlefield tour, the speaker talks with great passion about the memory and meaning of the Battle of Fredericksburg. I must say that this Fredericksburg National Park employee (who is the speaker in both of my short videos) knew the history of this battle by heart. His presentation was awesome. I remember thinking that, whatever he was being paid, he deserved a raise!
Considering the contentious political environment in the United States today, I would like to share one last story from my great grandfather’s book. Down by the river, on May 18, 1863—there was an amazing interaction between the Union and Confederate soldiers which clearly shows that, even in the midst of a brutal war, it is possible to ‘harbor no hatred’ for those who hold different beliefs:
“ The weather being excessively hot, the men of both armies indulged in bathing in the river, conversing freely with each other; some of the men on various occasions crossing the river and remaining with the rebels for an hour or so, bartering coffee, etc., for tobacco, and making inquiries—a singular phase of warfare that must not be lost sight of when forming a conception of the disposition of the American soldiers, who, when the hour of conflict arrived, were ready to sacrifice their lives in defense of their convictions, but appeared to harbor no hatred for those of their countrymen who entertained a different belief and were ready to die in its defense. No history of any war, since the beginning of warfare presents such a spectacle. Invariably, hatred between the contestants is a prominent feature which leads to pillage and useless infliction of suffering when opportunities occur. But unless in actual conflict, the men comprising the fighting elements of the opposing armies during the War of the Rebellion seemed ready to extend manifestations of friendship for each other. (page 46)
Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day” in honor of the 600,000 lives lost during the American Civil War. Today, Memorial Day honors and remembers all of the soldiers who have lost their lives defending this country. We owe our lives today to those who walked before us. God bless them today and always.
**Back in 2015, I sang “God Bless America’ with the 70 voice Rappahannock Choral Society (RCS). Once again, I sincerely thank Linda Monner, who was the Conductor and Artistic Director of the RCS, for giving me such a wonderful and unforgettable opportunity.**
Excerpt from the History of 121st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers ‘An Account from the Ranks’
by Wm. W. Strong