Monthly Archives: September 2012

Food and Shelter…Or Not

You may recall how the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were ordered to drop all their gear—knapsacks, woolen blankets, rubber blankets, shelter tents, overcoats—so they wouldn”t be hindered by those things during the rigors of marching and fighting. They would be at Bolivar for six weeks and they needed that missing gear to protect them from the elements.

A Sibley tent could sleep up to a dozen men.
A Sibley tent could sleep up to a dozen men.

The men began to strengthen the Bolivar fortifications against possible Rebel attack. In their digging they discovered some Sibley tents that had been buried by the defenders of Harper’s Ferry to keep them from falling into the hands of the Rebels. Each Sibley tent could hold about a dozen men, and with a fire burning brightly in the center of the tent, it could be quite cozy. The tents were a great find to be sure, but there were not enough of them to go around. Sgt. Ben Hirst and some of his friends in Company D were among the fortunate ones and enjoyed the benefits of being warm and dry at night, while many others were forced to live entirely exposed to the elements.

Food was lousy, and their water was often unclean. Hirst wrote to his wife, Sarah, on October 1, that “all the rations that we have received since we occupied this place has been our rations of hard bread (hardtack) and coffee, sugar, and pork (salt pork). We have had fresh meat once, rice once, and beans once.”

Under the pen-name Dunn Browne, Captain Samuel Fiske wrote to the Springfield Republican on September 24, “Did you ever see a brigadier general riding along on his splendid charger, with a string of sweet corn ears hanging on his left arm, and onion tops peeping out of his saddle bags? I did, yesterday, and observed his look of triumph in the possession of the aforesaid articles, greater than if he had gained a battle.” Of course, the good and healthy food would be reserved for the officer’s own table.

The residents of Bolivar and Harper’s Ferry knew a good business opportunity when they saw it. Many sold loaves of bread and cakes to the soldiers. The men also wrote home for food to supplement their meager diets, and when such a parcel did arrive, they could all gladly echo Hirst’s words of thanks to Sarah, “I have just received the good things you sent me and it has put new life in me.”

 

On to Harper’s Ferry

A memorial service was held for those killed at Antietam by Chaplain Stevens on Sunday, September 21. The next day, just after daybreak, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut marched up Smoketown Road, past the shot-scarred Dunker Church and into Sharpsburg.

It was common for infantry regiments to have a band, and the Fourteenth seemed to have quite a fine one. As they left the grim specters of battle behind, the band struck up some good marching music, the spirits of the men were raised, and the southward march toward Harper’s Ferry seems to have been an enjoyable one.

In high spirits they waded across the Potomac and into the town made famous by the abolitionist John Brown. Then it was a steep uphill march to the Heights of Bolivar just south of Harper’s Ferry. Bodies of the Federal garrison that had been routed by Lee’s men the week before lay unburied. The men of the Fourteenth, who had been spared burial detail at Antietam, now engaged in that grisly task as they set up camp within the fortifications that would be their home for the next six weeks.

Fiction Connection: The high-spirited march and crossing of the Potomac made me ask myself, “What if…?” And the introduction of the cornet player in An Eye for Glory was the result.

Antietam

150 YEARS AGO TODAY at 2 a.m. the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut rose quietly from their bivouac near Antietam Creek at 2 a.m. Ammunition was issued and the men assembled with the rest French’s Division of the Second Corps to march toward the sound of heavy fighting that began at dawn. They forded the creek and entered the East Woods where the terribly bloody price that day would extract from both armies was already being told in the countless wounded men who sought refuge under the canopy of trees, and the untold hundreds that lay lifeless in the fields just beyond the woods.

French’s Division marched out of the woods to the south, Gen. Weber’s Brigade first, then Col. Morris’ Brigade, followed by Gen. Kimball’s Brigade. The regiments in Morris’ Brigade were left to right: 108th NY, 130th PA, 14th CT. They followed Weber’s men down into a shallow swale, past the Mumma and Roulette farms, then up the slope to the north of the lane to the Roulette farm.

\n\nThe men of Webb”s Brigade were the first to assault the heavily defended Confederates in the sunken farm road that would become known as the “Bloody Lane.” The  men of the 14th CT saw the men of the men of the 1st DE and 5th MD cut down before their eyes, and when these men rushed back up the slope, they caused some of the men from Connecticut to break for the rear as well. Then Morris’ Brigade advanced, but they remained farther from the sunken road than did Weber’s men. They were ordered to maintain fire upon the enemy, which they did until Kimball’s Brigade came up to relieve them. The banner photo at the top of this page shows the bend in the Bloody Lane where the men fought.

The 14th CT was ordered to take up position in a farm lane (I believe it was Roulette’s). Here they watched the Division of Gen. Richardson, including the Irish Brigade drive up over the crest of the hill in front of them and out of sight toward the sunken road. And they also saw how greatly the numbers of the Irish had been reduced when that brigade withdrew.

Antietam_pic3-439x300

Bloody Lane: 14th CT was at lower right when fighting ended Sept. 17.

But then there was a breakthrough at the sunken road and the men of the Fourteenth were going forward again. They were attached to Richardson”s Division to help position and defend a battery of artillery. This was when Gen. Richardson was mortally wounded by a shell fragment. The 14th CT ended its first day in battle positioned between Gen. Meagher’s Irish Brigade and Gen. Caldwell’s Brigade in the newly established Federal line along the eastern side of the Bloody Lane. The division was now under the command of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock.

The Fourteenth Connecticut suffered a fifteen percent loss at Antietam. Killed: 2 company captains, 19 enlisted men. Wounded: 2 officers, 86 enlisted men. Missing: 28 enlisted men.

Fiction Connection: Antietam is Michael G. Palmer’s first test as a soldier, and while he emerges unhurt, his worth as a soldier remains uncertain.

South Mountain

150 YEARS AGO TODAY part of the Army of Northern Virginia took up positions on South Mountain, an extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains north of the Potomac between Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland. Their job was to delay the advance of the Army of the Potomac until the rest of Lee”s split army could assemble for battle.

That Sunday, Federals advanced up the slope toward the Confederates. Heavy fighting raged at three gaps, Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s, from mid-morning until failing daylight and mounting casualties forced Gen. Lee to withdraw toward Sharpsburg.

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were spectators along with the rest of the Second Corp. They spent that hot afternoon marching up the National Road toward the mountain ridge that was wreathed in battle-smoke. They crested the mountain at Turner’s Gap well after dark, and worn and weary from the hot, dusty march, they were forced to lay out their rubber blankets and bed down for the night among the corpses from the day’s fighting.

The next morning they marched down the western slope of South Mountain to Boonsboro, where they turned southward toward the town of Sharpsburg and a creek called the Antietam.

Fiction Connection: The first scene in my novel An Eye for Glory is when the men of the 14th CT arrive atop South Mountain late at night and are confronted by the grim realities of a Civil War battlefield.

Chasing Bobbie Lee

One hundred and fifty years ago today, when the untested and hastily trained men of the Fourteenth Connecticut set foot upon Chain Bridge to cross the Potomac into Maryland, they knew their mission was to pursue the Rebel forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and probably fight their first battle. But death would not wait for them to close with the Confederate Army. The very next day near Rockville, MD, James McVay, an older soldier in Company K, died of heat exhaustion. Two of his sons also marched in the same company, and both would serve faithfully, without major injury, until the end of the war.

The order of march placed the new recruits of the Fourteenth alongside the hardened veterans of the Irish Brigade, and the Irish were merciless in their taunting of the Connecticut men, dressed as they were in new, unfaded uniforms. The veterans “called them blue-legged devils and assured them they would not be seen for the dust they would kick up getting away from Bobbie Lee once he got after them.” (Charles Page)

On September 11, they passed through Clarksburg, MD, and camped on the same ground Lee”s men had occupied just two nights before. As they marched on the signs of their foe grew more numerous and more sobering—homes burned and ruined, crop fields looted and trampled, broken down military equipment, dead and unburied horses and mules.

While marching through Frederick, MD on Saturday, September 13, they passed a building where some Rebel prisoners were being held. “What regiment is that?” one of the Rebels asked. “The 14th Wooden Nutmeg,” one of the Connecticut boys answered. “You”ll soon get your heads grated,” the Rebel replied. (Charles Page)

As the men encamped that evening just west of Frederick, they may have seen the sun set behind the Blue Ridge, which in Maryland north of the Potomac was known as South Mountain. But what they couldn’t see or know as they closed their eyes in exhausted sleep was that Gen. Lee had devised a hot reception for the boys in blue atop that ridge.