Monthly Archives: November 2012

Humbug’d

Time dragged on at Belle Plain. Day after day, without a break, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, and the two other regiments in their brigade, toiled away unloading the ships that tied up every day at the landing. Even the contrabands (escaped slaves) rested on Sundays, and this irked the soldiers greatly—a real humbug. Anything the men found unpleasant was a humbug. The work was a humbug, the food was a humbug, the weather was a humbug, the conduct of the war was a humbug, and it was the fault of the officers that everything had been so thoroughly humbug’d (Sgt. Hirst”s spelling).

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   Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside appeared regularly at the  landing. Of special concern to him was the slow arrival and transport of the many pontoon boats he needed to bridge the Rappahannock and gain access to Fredericksburg. His hot temper did little to cheer the laboring men. The boats were already late; there were not enough horses; the men didn’t move fast enough, and every day that passed allowed Lee’s forces to improve and strengthen their positions on the high ground behind the city.

About the first of December, Sgt. Hirst received a box from his wife. Among other things, it contained a pair of mittens and some cayenne pepper. Curious, I thought, that a soldier would want cayenne pepper for his rations, but then I read on. The cayenne wasn’t for seasoning his food. Hirst put some inside his mittens and reported that it kept his hands warm. Now what do you suppose would happen if he had a sudden urge to rub his tired eyes late one cold night while on picket duty? Now that would be another real humbug.

 

Thanksgiving – Feast or Famine?

Although Thanksgiving Day did not become a national holiday until President Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863, the holiday had been celebrated for decades in a majority of the states, most commonly on the fourth Thursday in November. And so it was a common thing for the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to try as best they could to celebrate the day.

All yearned to supplement their regular diet of hardtack and salt pork. Some visited the sutler and spent a good portion of their meager funds for canned or dessicated fruit, or a treat of cookies or cake. Others foraged for something, anything, to add to their stew pot, often against orders. But the most fortunate ones were those who had received a wooden box from loved ones at home filled with a variety of nutritious foods and sweet confections.

According to Lt. Samuel Fiske, the Fourteenth Connecticut planned their Thanksgiving feast with military precision. Four captains were chosen to supervise the preparations. First, because there was so little cash available, they raided the commissary for anything they could trade with local farmers. Then they commandeered a barge and, along with an eager detail of enlisted men, crossed to the eastern side of the Potomac where they traded their goods for turkeys, chickens, and beef.

Unfortunately, the barge ran aground during the return crossing. The detail spent a cold night in the middle of the river and the feast was delayed until Friday. The meats were roasted plain, without even salt or pepper, in an oven taken by force from the sutler. And as usual, the officers consumed the bulk of the food, while the leftovers went to the enlisted men, who made a large pot of soup—a definite improvement in their diet, if only for a day, but certainly no feast.

Fiction Connection:  In An Eye for Glory I expanded and dramatized this Thanksgiving caper to provide a lighter scene between the hard times at Bolivar and Belle Plain and the tragic battle of Fredericksburg.

 

March to Belle Plains

Any thoughts of setting up camp at Falmouth were quickly put aside when Col. Morris’s Brigade was ordered to march about nine miles farther to a landing and depot on the Potomac River known as Belle Plains. It should have been an easy march, and the first three miles were covered without incident. But as had become all too common, an easy half-day march turned into a slog in lousy weather that lasted a day and a half. The last six miles were plagued with marching and counter-marching, and Sgt. Ben Hirst estimated the actual distance marched at twenty-two miles. Of course, the men blamed Col. Morris for the dual crimes of getting lost and fatiguing his men. And Col. Morris blamed the entire affair on a local guide sympathetic to the Rebel cause.

Sgt. Hirst made no secret of what he thought of his brigade commander, Col. Morris. The colonel didn’t give the usual commands while on the march. According to Hirst Col. Morris would order “Bunch Em Up” or “Straighten Em Out,” so the men started calling the colonel “Old Bunch Em.”

It was raining steadily when the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut finally arrived at Belle Plains late in the afternoon on November 18. Soaking wet wood made the lighting fires impossible, so the men bedded down for the night on the cold, wet ground and tried to get some sleep.

The stated purpose of the excursion to Belle Plains was to guard the landing and supply depot from Rebel attack, but of the three weeks they spent there, most days would be filled with the heavy labor of unloading was material of every kind from the many cargo vessels that tied up at the landing every day.

 

A Change at the Top

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut marched through the town of Warrenton, Virginia on Saturday, November 8th. The day before they had seen the first snow of the season. It was also on the 8th the men learned that President Lincoln had relieved Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan of duty and elevated Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to command of the Army of the Potomac.

Gen. McClellan reviewed the troops at Warrenton for a final time. Sgt. Benjamin Hirst reported, “I saw warriors weep as he rode by, while hats and caps were thrown high in the air by the men and officers.” Their beloved general was gone and few of the men had any confidence in his replacement. Gen. Burnside himself protested to President Lincoln that he was not the right man for the job.

The men camped near Warrenton until November 15th. Two days of marching brought them to Falmouth, directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, where Sgt. Hirst penned this interesting entry in his journal: “I had a talk with a native Butternut. He told me there were not over 300 Rebels over the river at Fredericksburg and there was a good ford just below the dam. Our division of the 2nd Corps was in the advance and we fully expected to be ordered across and secure the city. Gen. Sumner and his staff had a talk at the head of the column, which resulted in our camping where we were.”

Once again, failure of commanders to sieze the initiative would cost the army dearly, and many, many more men would lose their lives or be greivously wounded.

On the Move…Finally

During the last few days of October, the Army of the Potomac started to move. One by one the many regiments left their encampments and joined the long slow procession southward.

The Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry left Bolivar Heights about noon on Thursday, October 30. They crossed the Shenandoah River near where it flows into the Potomac, marched along the Potomac toward Leesburg, Virginia, then marched south into the Loudon Valley. Progress was slow, sometimes only a few miles per day. The few roads were choked with men on foot and men on horseback, and thousands of horse or mule drawn wheeled vehicles—artillery pieces, caissons, ammunition chests, a multitude of wagons filled with ammunition, rations, officers’ baggage, and sutlers’ stores.

Whenever the army stopped for the night, units were sent out to guard the approaches over the Blue Ridge to the west. Troops stationed at the crest of these gaps reported the amzing sight of seeing thousands of Union campfires spreading out across the Loudon Valley to the east, and thousands of Rebel campfires spreading across the Shenadoah Valley to the west.

The Loudon Valley was a beautiful and verdant area of gently rolling farmland, cattle pastures, and horse farms, bounded by wooden rail fences. There were certainly abundant stores of good, nutritious food at every farm, but the Union army posted guards to prevent pillaging. Sgt. Hirst reported that when attempts were made to purchase food from the Virginia farmers, they would not accept Federal greenbacks, only Confederate money. With a hint of chagrin Hirst found some contentment in the steady supply of pork, hardtack, coffee, and sugar.

On November 3rd, Hirst also reported on the strength of the regiment—only about 460 men, a loss of over fifty percent of its fighting strength in little more than two months.