Monthly Archives: October 2012

An End to Wasting Time

150 YEARS AGO, October 26th fell on a Sunday. Lt. Samuel Fiske reported that the regiment was in camp, that their midday meal had just been finished, and that he and some of his friends were about engage in a Sabbath afternoon Bible study, when orders were received for Company I to pack up and be ready to march within fifteen minutes for special duty across the Potomac on Maryland Heights.

As we have seen in previous posts, there was not much to pack. There may have been a Sibley tent or two and a few of the men had half shelter tents, and some of the more fortunate ones had a blanket or an overcoat, but most struggled to survive without the basic necessities the army had taken from the men of the Fourteenth when they first set foot on enemy soil.

Every avenue was tried to get these vital possessions back. Letters were sent. Private citizens with influence in Washington were appealed to. Repeated requests were sent to the high command of the army, asking that one of the officers of the Fourteenth be allowed to travel the sixty miles to Washington, recover their things, and return them to the regiment. Every request was denied and the men continued to suffer and die, “a brief funeral service, a rough coffin, a shallow grave, and a wooden headboard,” their only reward for duty done. (Fiske) And during these last few days of October, Sgt. Hirst wrote to his wife of the death of two more friends from Rockville.

As you might imagine the men were eager to leave Bolivar Heights and get on with the war. Cold rain drenched the sixty men of Company I as they marched down the steep road into Harper”s Ferry that Sunday afternoon. They stood wet and shivering awaiting orders and were finally told to take shelter in the town’s most famous building—the red brick engine house that three years earlier had been occupied by John Brown and his band of abolitionists.

The engine house at Harper's Ferry
          The engine house at Harper’s Ferry

Soon a fire was blazing inside and the men of Company I, at least, were warm and dry that night. For the other nine companies, their wasting time at Bolivar would continue for a few more days, and then they too would be on the march.

The Veteran Soldier: Regular and Lousy

The six weeks at Bolivar Heights was hard and sometimes deadly for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. Fresh water could be found at a spring about three-quarters of a mile away, but only after climbing down a steep, rocky, and wooded trail. Rations were issued regularly, but the quality was poor. Railroad cars filled with barrels of salt pork, crates of hardtack, and sacks of oats and corn, were sent to the army in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, but the food was often left by the side of the tracks. It turned rancid in the heat of day. It was soaked by cold rain, ruined by mold and mildew, and infested with insects. Disease swept through the camp, confining hundreds to sickbeds, and sending many to their graves.

But the men adapted to survive. They learned to soak their hardtack in their coffee. The coffee not only softened the hardtack, but also killed any bugs hiding within it. The dead bugs floated to the top and were easily skimmed off.

Sgt. Ben Hirst’s good fortune in having a Sibley tent for himself and some of his friends seems not to have been long-lived (see post of 09/28/12), because near the end of the stay at Bolivar, he mentions only a half shelter tent among his inventory of meager possessions. “My whole kit was the shoes, pants, vest blouse, and cap I had in Hartford. I had 2 shirts on my back, a stolen overcoat, and was a shareholder in a Rebel blanket, a fine assortment for a winter campaign, but there were other ones worse off than me, as they were without overcoats and blankets both, all we had at night was a flimsy shelter tent.”

On October 27, Hirst wrote to his wife Sarah, “I am in good health at present and have arrived at the stage that old soldiers consider veteran, namely regular in my bowels and lousy.” Old soldiers were old in terms of experience, not of years. His stomach now seems to tolerate the poor diet, and when Ben Hirst describes himself as lousy, he is not referring to how he’s feeling, but that he is now infested with body lice. He and every Civil War soldier would do battle with these vermin more often than they would fight the enemy on the battlefield. Cute little guy, isn’t he?  body_louse


Dunn Browne Resolutely Reticent

150 YEARS AGO TODAY Lt. Samuel Fiske, under the pen name “Dunn Browne” wrote a letter with the above title to the Springfield (Mass.) Republican newspaper. Most of the Army of the Potomac was still encamped near the Antietam battlefield and Fiske was thoroughly frustrated at this inactivity. His words are sharp, critical, and thick with sarcasm.

“If the date of my letter speaks for itself, as hinting for instance that the tremendous army of McClellan is still lying in its tracks now for almost a full month after its victory at Sharpsburg, in the most precious part of the whole year for active military operations, and seems to be repeating its masterly inactivity of last year over again with the utmost precision. The grand Army of the Potomac , I am happy to inform you, anxious Republican, is safe (and so are its enemies).

“For didn’t the great general himself, with a tall president in train, and many splendidly dressed officers and a long mounted retinue, did they not actually appear before us a few days ago (Oct. 3), and make a tour of the whole army, and bow very sagaciously to us as we received them in line with “present arms,” as much as to say, “look out, boys, for a jolly march to Richmond, as soon as the fall rains, which we are patiently waiting for, shall have placed the roads in their normal condition, of two feet in depth?” (The depth Fiske referred to was, of course, that bane to every Civil War soldier—mud.)

The entire letter and many others may be found in Mr. Dunn Browne’s Experiences in the Army: The Civil War Letters of Samuel W. Fiske, edited by Stephen W. Sears.

A Day in the Life

Little of substance has been written about Lt. Col. Sanford Perkins. Sgt. Hirst blamed every misfortune and discomfort on his commanding officers, and he particularly didn”t like Perkins. Soldiers were always concerned with the smallest creature comforts, and it was common for a soldier to trim off the end of his belt so it fit just right. Immediately after the battle of Antietam, Lt. Col. Perkins ordered every man who had shortened his belt should to pay the price of a new belt.

Lt. Col. Perkins was certainly a strict disciplinarian, and discipline was something the Fourteenth Connecticut would need if the men were to fight well and survive. That Perkins was also a man of courage there can be no doubt. He would lead from the front, and he would pay a heavy price in the regiment’s next battle.

While at Bolivar the daily routine for the men was similar to the one below, as Charles Page recorded it in his History:

  • 5:30 – A five minute drum roll awakened the men. Any not standing properly attired for roll call when the drum roll ended would be placed on report for discipline.
  • 5:45-7:30 – Breakfast. The men had to fetch their own firewood and water to cook their meals.
  • 7:30 – Sick call. It was typical for the surgeon to perform a cursory examination of each man, and then return him to duty. Only the seriously ill would be sent to the hospital, and by then it was often too late.
  • 8:00 – Mounting of the guard. Thirty men would be selected from the ten companies of the regiment, and while the band played martial music, the guard detail would march outside the works to man the picket line for the next twenty-four hours.
  • 8:30-11:00 – Company or battalion drill. This was their basic training and it would have included marching and formation drills as well as the much needed manual of arms drill.
  • 11:00-3:00 – Down time for the men during which they would fix dinner, write letters, and see to maintaining and perhaps improving their daily existence.
  • 3:00-5:30 – More drill ending in dress parade, when the men were dismissed for the evening. After supper the men would gather in small groups to talk, play cards, or sing camp songs. It was also common for the regimental band to play evening concerts.
  • 8:00 – Roll call.
  • 9:00 – Lights out.