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left the ranks to go across the fields. General Couch was outraged; he instructed each division commander to assemble a court martial for the trial of these offenders; and soon, every evening after coming into camp, three courts were in session in the Second Corps, with sheep-stealers before them, and sharp and summary were the punishments inflicted; but it was all to no purpose — the killing went on as bad as ever.
Of the three division commanders, Hancock was peculiarly sensitive to the slightest imputation of indiscipline. Of all three it was he who issued the sternest orders and swore the loudest oaths. One day, having observed some soldiers of the Irish Brigade, after falling out of ranks, steal around a bit of wood, manifestly bent on plunder, he determined to make an example. Accordingly, he left the column with his staff, and, galloping around the wood from the opposite side, came upon the group gathered about an unfortunate victim upon which one of the number was proceeding to make anatomical observations. The less guilty members of the party caught a glimpse of the coming doom in time to climb over a high stone fence and escape; but upon the principal offender, taken in flagrante delictu, Hancock pounced with drawn sword and eyes flashing fire. Down on his knees went the wretch, scared by the general's aspect. “Arrah, dear general, don't be the death of me;
I didn't do it, indade I didn't." “ You infernal liar," shouted the general, “what do you mean by telling me that? I saw you, you scoundrel ! I'll teach you to disobey orders; I'll teach you to kill sheep!” And with this, crushing out the last hope of poor Paddy, he flourished his sword as if about to begin execution, when, in the most opportune moment, up jumped the innocent subject of the controversy, and, giving vent to its feelings in a quavering ba-a! ran off, while, amid the shouts of the staff, the general put up his saber and rode away.
Of all the offenders in this respect, the Irish Brigade received the most blame; but there is some reason to accept the indignant disclaimer of their commander, who declared that a large number of the sheepskins found in his camps had really been placed there by the men of the Fifth New Hampshire, after they had eaten the carcasses. Strangely enough, this passion for killing sheep disappeared as quickly as it had appeared; and never afterward, so far as the writer knows, did anything of the sort occur to tarnish the good name of the Second Corps. It was an epidemic, coming and going inexplicably, in flat contradiction to the general character of the troops, and, while it lasted, affecting only sheep, of all the animal creation.
On the 6th of November the Second Corps reached Rectortown. It was while the troops were in this camp that, on the night of the 7th of No
vember, the order arrived from Washington which relieved General McClellan finally from the command of the Army of the Potomac, which was given to General Burnside. In the grief and indignation with which, on their arrival at Warrenton, the soldiers received the news that the commander in whom they delighted was again taken away from them, the Second Corps shared fully; but that grief and indignation never for a moment affected the loyalty of the corps or impaired its discipline. The corps and division commanders were not the sort of men to permit this. To Hancock, in especial, the removal of McClellan was a blow keenly felt, for he was deeply attached to his chief, with whom he had been a great favorite ever since Williamsburg; but to all open complaints or mutinous remarks, then too common and unfortunately encouraged by some high officers, he had but a single reply, “We are serving our country, and not any man.”
The change of command not unnaturally resulted in a brief delay at Warrenton. Burnside had before him two courses. The one was to move directly forward, crossing the Rappahannock, as Meade was to do a year later after Gettysburg, to fight Lee at Brandy Station or Culpeper, should he be found there in force, or, failing that, to cross, in turn, the Rapidan, and take the direct route to Richmond through the Wilderness and Spottsylvania. The other course was to move to the left
and seize Fredericksburg, on the right bank of the lower Rappahannock, before Lee should apprehend his design. It was the latter course which Burnside decided to take. Its success required three good, stiff, though not excessive, days' marches, on the part of at least the leading corps, with prompt cooperation from Washington in the way of providing rations, beef cattle, and, above all, pontoons, at Acquia Creek. Of these latter needs, General Halleck, at Washington, was duly notified.
The Second Corps, still in advance, left Warrenton on the 15th, and, marching steadily, though with all-night rests, reached Falmouth, on the left bank of the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg, in the early afternoon of the 17th. The little city of Fredericksburg was at this moment occupied only by a regiment of cavalry, four companies of infantry, and a light battery. But, by another of those miserable blunders which mar the whole history of the war, each one of them costing its hundreds or thousands of lives, the pontoons were not on hand when the column arrived, nor, indeed, until the 25th of the month. During all this time, the troops of the enemy were coming up to the right bank of the river, in plain view, and fortifying at their leisure positions which were a month later to be fruitlessly assaulted with terrific loss. Meanwhile the entire Army of the Potomac had come up and been extended along the Rappahannock. Han
cock's division was stationed behind Falmouth with headquarters at the Washington House.*
Hancock's division on the eve of Fredericksburg was constituted as follows: First Brigade, BrigadierGeneral John C. Caldwell: Fifth New Hampshire; Seventh, Sixty-first, and Sixty-fourth New York; Eighty-first and One Hundred and Forty-fifth Pennsylvania. Second Brigade, Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher: Sixty-third, Sixty-ninth, and Eighty-eighth New York; Twenty-eighth Massachusetts; One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania. Third Brigade, Colonel Samuel K. Zook: Second Delaware; Fifty-second, Fifty-seventh, and Sixty-sixth New York; Fifty-third Pennsylvania; Twenty-seventh Connecticut. The Division staff consisted of John Hancock, Assistant Adjutant General; Hoyt, Assistant Quartermaster; Balloch, Commissary of Subsistence; and Mitchell, Parker, and Miller, Aids; Rorty and Ritzius, Acting Aids.
The town of Fredericksburg, as was evident to all who looked across the river, could not be seriously held by the enemy, for it lay on the lower of the two banks of the Rappahannock, commanded by the artillery with which the Falmouth or Stafford side was soon lined. But there was small utility in carrying the town while the enemy held the hills in
* Here it was that Hancock received his promotion in the regular army from captain to major and assistant quartermaster, November 30, 1863.