Bullets cut through the air and splashes in the water sprayed across the half-built pontoon bridges. The sounds of rapid footsteps on wood, the pounding of nails, and the groaning of wounded engineers mingled liberally with the rattling of musketry from buildings on the shoreline.
The Battle of Fredericksburg had begun. And Chaplain John Chandler Gregg of the 127th Pennsylvania found himself worriedly amid the chaos on December 11, 1862.
Engineers in the Union Army were attempting to construct a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River under heavy fire from Confederate sharpshooters entrenched inside homes and buildings within Fredericksburg. When this failed, Federal artillery on the opposite shore opened fire with shells on the Virginia community and tore the city apart.
On the Union-controlled side of the river, the 127th Pennsylvania watched and nervously waited. The “Dauphin County Regiment” from Pennsylvania’s capital city awaited their first taste of combat. That would need to wait until the bridge was built and the Army of the Potomac had a foothold on the enemy side of the river.
After brave soldiers rowed across the river under fire and secured the far shore, the bridge was completed and a bridgehead formed. The 127th Pennsylvania raced across the bridge, under artillery fire, and began pursuing Confederate infantry into the shell-torn town of Fredericksburg.
Their jolly regimental chaplain accompanied the regiment as they crossed the Rappahannock. The Methodist minister had volunteered his services to the regiment when the unit was formed in Harrisburg earlier in the year. He had quickly gained a reputation as a firebrand – a chaplain who claimed he would serve God and shoot Confederate soldiers. A fierce abolitionist and notorious proselytizer, the overly-enthusiastic Chaplain Gregg became the butt of many practical jokes within the 127th Pennsylvania.
One member of the unit remembered what Gregg said he would do under fire. “The Chaplain was in the habit of saying in his sermons that he would both preach and fight, and that it would go hard with the Rebels when he met them,” the soldier wrote. Now as the bullets whizzed and shells exploded all around, Gregg’s courage and mettle was being put to the test.
In 1866, he reflected on his experiences at the Battle of Fredericksburg in his memoirs, Life in the Army.
Our section of the army was halted just in front of the city of Fredericksburg. We found the engineers busily engaged in laying pontoon-bridges across the river. This was a hazardous undertaking, and cost many a noble life. Again and again was the work interrupted by a murderous fire, kept up by rebel sharp-shooters on the other side: but, just as often, our brave fellows dashed on, and at length completed their task about three o’ clock in the afternoon.
During this time, besides the sharp firing of musketry which was constantly kept up, about seventy-five of our cannon, which had been ranged on the heights, were belching forth their thunder, and raining desolation on the city, and rebel works around it. A brave band of men volunteered, and crossed the river in a boat, to silence the rebel sharp-shooters. They were watched by thousands of eager eyes, as, amid the storm of bullets now directed on themselves, they landed and quickly stormed the rifle-pits, with such boldness and determination, that the skulking murderers either ran or surrendered. One of that number was a private of Company I of our regiment, and few exploits of the war have evinced more true heroism than this expedition.
The bridges being now in order for the passage of troops, while our heavy ordnance was making the ground to tremble beneath our feet, and amid the yelling, cheering, and the wildest excitement, there was a dash made to cross the Rappahanock, and support our brave pioneers who held their ground on the opposite side. We could hear their shouts, and very soon they had reinforcements, which enabled them to advance and take possession of the city. Quite a large number of our men were killed and wounded while engaged in laying the pontoon bridges, and among the slain of that heroic few who first crossed, was the noble Chaplain Fuller, of Massachusetts, killed, it is said, by a minie-bullet, and that fired by a she rebel. Our brigade was the first column of troops ordered to the other side, and our regiment was the third in the order of crossing. The enemy, of course, directed his fire on the bridge while crowded with our troops. Shot and shell came hurtling fast and furious on their devoted heads.
Captain Fox, a gentlemanly, intelligent, and Christian soldier of our regiment was mortally wounded, by a fragment of shell, and died in a couple of hours. I performed the melancholy duty of assisting to bury his body the next day, under rebel artillery fire. Our Colonel was a target for the foe, and was fired at, but led the One Hundred and Twenty-seventh bravely on regardless of danger, until he entered the city, about half of which was occupied by our forces that night, and the balance next morning.
[December 13th], the battle commenced in earnest, in the rear of the city, and also on our left, where General Franklin, having crossed below, engaged the enemy. Our regiment was ordered into the fight at about one o clock, p.m., and remained in an exposed situation for several hours. A galling fire of rebel infantry and artillery, from concealed points, swept through their ranks, until they fell back under cover. During this first day s engagement, Colonel Jennings was severely wounded in two places, but, like a brave man, he refused to leave the head of his regiment. Captains Henderson and Ball, and also Lieutenant Novinger, were wounded. Lieutenant Shoemaker was killed. He was a man of intelligence and courage. A number of other officers were injured, and several of our men were killed and wounded. I regret having no correct list of their names to insert here, as their bravery entitles them to the most honorable record posterity can bestow. [December 14th], our regiment was again under fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Alleman commanding. The exposure and carnage was even greater than the previous day. The Lieutenant-Colonel, Adjutant Chayne, and several of the men were wounded, and our list of killed was considerable. In the three days fighting our regiment lost in killed, wounded, and missing, about one hundred men. I was near enough at times to the rebel lines during these three terrible days, to hear their unearthly, fiendish yell, such as no other troops or civilized beings ever uttered. It was not a hearty cheer, or hurrah, or roar, but a kind of shriek as dissonant as the “Indian warwhoop,” and more terrible. Major-General Franklin s Division on our left succeeded in capturing seven hundred prisoners, and in driving the rebel forces some distance at one time during the battle…
It is no wonder that both officers and men of the Army of the Potomac should feel dispirited as they fell back to their old camps again, after such a fearful sacrifice of life and limb. But still there was a determination to “pick flint” and try again. That secesh rag must be humbled to the dust. Those haughty rebels must come to grief. This gigantic rebellion must be put down, and the Union must and shall be preserved. Such a determination could easily be read in every face.
The 127th Pennsylvania suffered severely in its first engagement. A regimental historian reflected on the aftermath of the slaughter.
The regiment returned to Camp Alleman on the 16th of December, not in a compact phalanx, as it started, only five days before; but mostly in detachments, squads, in couples and singly. Some were borne on the shoulders of their stalwart comrades; some hobbled into camp as best they could; and when roll-call was sounded, there was ominous silence when the names of the missing, the wounded, the dying and the dead were called; and even those who providentially escaped unscathed, answered to their names in bated breath, as their hearts were saddened and their spirits broken, not only on witnessing the appalling scenes of suffering, horror, and death upon the bloody field of Fredericksburg, but the painful knowledge of defeat made every man a sincere mourner ; and with the environment of distress, he could not escape the feeling of bitter sadness.
In total, over the course of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the bloody toll in the “Dauphin County Regiment” came to 257 men killed, wounded, or missing. In a disastrous series of assaults on December 13, 1862, the Union Army had continously attacked well-positioned Confederates on a series of hills south and west of Fredericksburg. The casualty total in the Army of the Potomac came to 12,500. The Confederate opponents lost only 5,000 men in the fight. Fredericksburg became synonymous with disaster in the North.
Chaplain Gregg wringed his hands, as many politically-minded soldiers did, in the days after the fight. He blamed poor strategy, as the Union Army advanced uphill over open ground and were slaughtered mercilessly. But he also blamed “jealousy and disloyalty” within the army’s staff for the rout at Fredericksburg.
The 127th Pennsylvania proved itself a capable fighting unit at Fredericksburg, and according to Chaplain Gregg’s accounting, he was there with the unit through its fiery trial.
However, the regiment saw Gregg’s reactions in combat quite differently.
The regimental historian described the regiment’s view of the Gregg’s service at Fredericksburg. It’s nothing like Gregg’s own accounting of his time on the battlefield in December 1862.
[Chaplain Gregg’s] bravery was put to a test at the battle of Fredericksburg. He appeared on the northern bank of the Rappahannock, mounted, and in full sight of Captain Fox, who was mortally wounded by a Rebel shell; and as those shells came thick and fast, the horse wheeled suddenly to the rear, and galloped off at full speed, over hill and dale. Chaplain Gregg afterwards declared that he lost control of his horse, who ran away with him, so that the chaplain did not return to camp for a day or two after the regiment had returned from the battlefield. He was never heard to boast afterwards of what he would do with the “Rebels…”
“[Gregg] was unfortunate in boasting of his courage, which was severely tested at the battle of Fredericksburg,” wrote a member of the unit years later.
Major Jeremiah Rorher’s account in his war-time diary includes sharper criticism of the the regiment’s chaplain, and chaplains across the Army of the Potomac. “At one time the chaplain talked very bravely,” Rohrer wrote. “He showed me two revolvers one day, and said, ‘Major, the first battle we get in I will take these revolvers and get behind a tree and bang away at the enemy.’ But when the first battle, or any other danger was at hand, the chaplain had much business with the teams and hospitals.”
The major concluded his criticism with this barb: “I was satisfied that a chaplain in a regiment is about as much good as five wheels to a wagon.”
John C. Gregg’s chaplaincy changed in the aftermath of the debacle at Fredericksburg. His bravado about battlefield courage dissolved. But a new motiviation welled up within the Methodist preacher. “[He] seemed to have made up his mind that he would live down the cowardly act of his horse,” wrote the regimental historian.
When the 127th Pennsylvania again entered combat during the Chancellorsville campaign in May 1863, Chaplain Gregg tried desperately to overcome the shame of his actions at Fredericksburg. The unit’s scribes decided that his actions did just that.
“At the battle of Chancellorsville, he gallantly shouldered a stretcher, and carried it to the relief of the Lieutenant-Colonel, and assisted in carrying off the wounded, and proved himself a useful, brave and patriotic citizen soldier.”
Gregg left the 127th Pennsylvania when the regiment mustered out at the end of May 1863. He returned to his traveling ministry in the Keystone State and was appointed by the Lincoln administration to a chaplaincy in Army hospitals in Union-occupied New Orleans at the end of 1863.
The battle over Gregg’s actions at Fredericksburg in December 1862 demonstrates the importance of weighing historical sources and seeking individual’s motivations in choosing their words and the narratives that best serve their interests.
Featured Image: Union troops crossing the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg, December 1862. (Library of Congress)