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Orrin L. Gatchell, a private in the 72nd New York Infantry Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade, and his half-brother Calvin Getchell, a private in the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment, fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11 – 15, 1862). However, their lives up to this time, their experiences as volunteers in the Union Army, and their fates in this battle were very different.

In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln called for an additional 600,000 volunteers from the Northern states,specifying 28 regiments (28,000 men) from New York and 5 regiments (5,000 men)from Maine. Orrin and Calvin were among the 508,000 men who responded, Orrin enlisting in August of 1862 in Dunkirk, New York and Calvin in July of 1862 in Anson,Maine.

Both Orrin and Calvin were born and spent their childhoods in the rural village of Anson, Maine. Orrin, age 31 at the time of his enlistment, had married Martha W. Bartlett, had moved with his wife to Groveland, Massachusetts, where he worked as a boot- and shoemaker and had two sons, then moved again with his family to a farm in Dunkirk, New York, a commercial port city on Lake Erie, where he worked as a carpenter. Following the birth of two more children, Martha died in January, 1861, and by the end of 1861, Orrin had married Eliza Ann Decker. In contrast, Calvin, age 20 at the time of his enlistment, lived in the home of his recently-widowed mother, Elizabeth G. Campbell Getchell, in Anson, where he worked on a farm and provided her with her sole source of support. It is likely that he and the two other recruits from Anson in Company A (The Sixteenth Maine Regiment in the War of the Rebellion. 1861 – 1865, Major A. R. Small, 1886, Portland, Maine: Thurston) had never before traveled the 40 miles southeast to Augusta, Maine where he was mustered into the army in August of 1862.

Their experiences as volunteers in the Union Army were also very different from the start. Orrin was mustered into Company D of the 72nd New York Infantry Regiment, 3rd Excelsior Brigade, many of whose soldiers were recruited from New York City. By the time Orrin joined his regiment, the men had fought in the Battles of Williamsburg, Fair Oaks and the Five Days’ Battle of the Peninsula Campaign. Thus, Orrin joined the ranks of battle-hardened soldiers. Prior to arriving in Falmouth, Virginia in November, Orrin’s regiment had been recuperating and resting for several months in the Washington, D.C. area. By contrast, Calvin was mustered into Company A of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment in Augusta, Maine with other young men mainly from rural areas of western Maine. The Regiment suffered badly from the time they left Augusta on August 19th until Thanksgiving Day on November 27th, just prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg. Initially assigned to the defense of Washington, D.C., where they camped at Fort Tillinghast in Arlington, Virginia, it was expected that the “green” recruits would receive military training. However, in early September, the Regiment was ordered to march about 70 miles northwest to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where it was assigned to railroad guard duty during the Battle of Antietam on September 17th. A major problem for the Regiment on the march to Antietam was a high level of sickness among the rural recruits, who had not been exposed to many diseases common in the larger cities at the time. Additionally,in order to speed their departure, the men were ordered to leave their gear,including tents, knapsacks, and heavier clothing at Fort Tillinghast, expecting that it would be forwarded to Sharpsburg promptly, and not knowing that they would be soon ordered south to Warrenton and Rappahannock Station in Virginia. As they endured cold, wet winter weather on their “forced march,” their misery was compounded by the teasing of the other troops, who jeeringly called them “The Blanket Brigade.”

Fredericksburg, which was a key manufacturing and railroad center lying southwest of the Rappahannock River, was located midway between the US capital, in Washington, D.C., about 50 miles to the south, and the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, about 60 miles to the north. President Lincoln’s strategy was to “deal a heavy blow to the enemy’s ability to fight further… he sought to strike a potential Rebel center of gravity: their army or their capital.” (Donald Stoker. The Grand Design. Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press,2012). Based on the popular “On To Richmond” slogan, President Lincoln amassed about 120,000 Union soldiers under the command of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to “deal a heavy blow” to the Confederates under the command of General Robert E. Lee, who led about 75,000 rebel soldiers. The Union plan of attack was essentially to cross the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges, attack Fredericksburg frontally, and then march north to attack Richmond.

As the Army of the Potomac gathered near Fredericksburg, Orrin’s Excelsior Brigade was a component of the III Army Corps commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, and Calvin’s First Brigade was a component of the I Army Corps commanded by Major General John F. Reynolds. The 16th Maine Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Charles W. Tilden, was one of 5 regiments in the First Brigade that was commanded by Colonel Adrian R. Root, which in turn was a component of the Second Division commanded by Brigadier Generals John Gibbon and Nelson Taylor.

The battle raged for 2 days. During the afternoon of December 13th while Orrin’s Brigade was held in reserve at Stafford Heights on the east side of the Rappahannock River, the five regiments of Calvin’s Brigade were pinned down against a railroad embankment by direct heavy musket and artillery fire from the Confederates commanded by General James Henry Lane located at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg. Following the attacks by Brigadier General Taylor’s 3rd Brigade and Colonel Lyle’s 2nd Brigade, Colonel Root’s 1st Brigade moved through the dead and survivors of the Taylor’s and Lyle’s Brigades to attack once again. Some of the Union soldiers reached the ridge and engaged in bayonet and rifle butt combat before being forced back down to the railroad embankment.All in all, there were 14 frontal attacks by Union Brigades, all of which failed to penetrate Marye’s Heights and resulted in about 6,000 Union casualties. In his January 13, 1863 letter to his sister Sarah in Anson, Orrin wrote:“As the smoke lifted from the field, we could see our [Union] columns charge the enemy’s works [Mayre’s heights]. Line after line moved on some of their batteries, but few of them ever came back to tell the tale of their failure. …our division relieved the one he [Calvin]he was inYou have no doubt read all the published particulars of that horrid slaughter …” As Orrin wrote this, he did not yet know that Calvin was one of the men that he saw fall, killed in action.

Related Images

  • Fredericksburg: Two Brothers on the Battlefield, One Survived
  • Fredericksburg: Two Brothers on the Battlefield, One Survived
  • Fredericksburg: Two Brothers on the Battlefield, One Survived
  • Fredericksburg: Two Brothers on the Battlefield, One Survived


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