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We immediately opened fire upon the enemy, who were covered behind the embankment of the railroad in front of us. Finding his fire very disastrous, and seeing that our fire was doing little or no execution, the order was given … to fix bayonets, charge, and drive him from his breastworks...,” reports Lt. Col. Charles W. Tilden, commander of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment’s attack on Confederate fortifications at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 (Small, Major R. A., The Sixteenth Maine Regiment in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865). The stubborn determination of the Union General Ambrose Burnside to dislodge the well-entrenched Confederate army commanded by General Robert E. Lee resulted in the tragic and senseless loss of 1,180 Union soldiers during the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11 – 15, 1862). Orrin L. Gatchell, a private in the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry of the Excelsior Brigade, writes of the same battle in his letter dated February 2, 1963 that “… our infantry columns were expected to storm and take those impregnable heightsit seems little less than the wholesale slaughter of our brave troops.” Among those killed on December 13th when the “impregnable” Marye’s Heights were stormed was Calvin Getchell, Orrin’s half-brother (see family tree below) and the authors’ first great-grand-uncle.

Who was Calvin Getchell? He was a young man born in 1842 and raised in the rural town of Anson, Maine. From the U. S. 1860 Census Records, we know that he was the sole support of his widowed mother, Elizabeth G.Campbell Getchell (1802 – 1872), and worked as a farm laborer. This is validated in a sworn affidavit made by two citizens of Anson in support of his mother’s pension request. It states: “ … that the said Calvin was the only son of the said Elizabeth Getchell and her only support – that he has always contributed his earnings to her support – that for two or three years preceding his going into the army he has hired out by the month, for wages, and has wholly appropriated his earnings, after clothing himself, to the support and maintenance of the said Elizabeth Getchell– that since the decease of her husband the earnings of Calvin has been her only means of support and she is now left entirely destitute of any means of support…” Responding to Maine’s and President Lincoln’s call for patriotic volunteers to defend the Union, Calvin enlisted in the U.S. Army on July 25, 1862 in Anson and was mustered into Company A of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment as a private on August 14, 1862 in Augusta. Calvin’s enrollment left his mother without a means of independent financial support and thus dependent on other family in the vicinity. Clearly, the family left at home during the Civil War sacrificed their well-being in a very different way than those called to military duty as so eloquently described by Drew Gilpin Faust in her recent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008).

Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Orrin writes to his sister Sarah Getchell Witherell on January 13, 1863 (Chapter 2) that “the news of Calvin’s death must have been a severe blow to Mother. She must feel more lonely now than ever …,” especially since her husband Calvin Lumber Getchell (1794 – 1861) had died in July of the previous year. The authors could imagine her anguish while reading her statement in the January 10, 1863 Mother’s Declaration for Army Pension application referred to above and seeing an X above her printed name indicating that she could not write. Her testimony was witnessed by her son Charles C. Getchell and her son-in-law Benjamin Gilmore,Jr. and validated by Attorney Albert Moore, who was the Register of Probate in Somerset County, Maine. Following the approval by the Commissioner of Pensions in the Adjutant General’s Office on February 26, 1863, a federal pension of $8.00 per month was approved on July 14, 1864 and made retroactive to December 13, 1862, the date of her son Calvin’s death in battle. In today’s dollars, this would be worth about $145 per month for Elizabeth.

Among the 12,353 Union casualties at Fredericksburg were 1,180 Union soldiers slain in combat; among these were nine volunteers from Company A of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment, one of whom was Calvin Getchell. Initially, the authors were perplexed that Calvin was not listed among those buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery but were pleased when Emily Quint, a librarian in Anson, Maine who assisted the authors, found and photographed Calvin’s tombstone located among those of other family members in the Sunset Cemetery in Anson. His tombstone reads in part: “Fell in the battle of Fredericksburg.” We have no information on where Calvin’s body was initially interred or by whom following the battle, or when or by what means it was transported to Anson for burial. It is curious that the date of death given on Calvin’s tombstone is December 12, 1862 although December 13th is listed as his date of death on all of the military and pension records that the authors examined. As cited above, Drew Gilpin Faust describes with insight and sensitivity the horrific challenges of managing the bodies of so many soldiers killed following military engagements at large battlefields during the Civil War (see also a recent review of a photographic exhibit on this subject). and after, when the National Military Cemetery system was established.

A son is killed in action defending his county’s values, a mother mourns her son’s loss, a family and community remembers his patriotism by erecting an inscribed tombstone, and a country contributes financially to a mother’s support. So it was for Calvin Getchell, only one of the Union’s 1,180 soldiers “slaughtered” at Fredericksburg, and only one of the 110,070 Union soldiers killed in battle during the Civil War.

Related Images

  • Fredericksburg: a brother’s death among so many
  • Fredericksburg: a brother’s death among so many
  • Fredericksburg: a brother’s death among so many
  • Fredericksburg: a brother’s death among so many

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