Benjamin’s Lament

“Every preparation was made for meeting the Rebels. Our lines were rectified, and a change made in the formation of our men so as to make success certain in case the Rebels should attack us.” Such was Sgt. Benjamin Hirst’s optimistic view of things when the Army of the Potomac established the new fortified line just north of Chancellorsville. But as Ben noted, the Fourteenth Connecticut was able to assemble only about eighty men to construct their portion of the breastworks late in the evening of Sunday, May 3. Monday morning a detail of ten men from the Fourteenth Connecticut set out “to find out the missing men and skidadlers.” They returned to the regiment that evening with about thirty of the missing men.

Sgt. Hirst seemed quite aware of what was going on. On Tuesday word came that Union forces sent to occupy Fredericksburg had been driven back north of the Rappahannock, and Hirst knew before orders were given, that the line at Chancellorsville would be given up. “Directly after dinner (lunch) it commenced raining like mad, and soon we looked like a lot of drowned rats. It rained all afternoon and night, and I think if the Rebels had any notion of attacking us, it helped postpone it.” (Indeed Gen. Lee’s forces were delayed in concentrating at Chancellorsville because of muddy roads.) “The boys of our company had just got a sheltered place fixed for sleeping in, and had just got asleep or laid down when the word came…that we had to recross the river before morning. It was like a thunderbolt to many, while to others it was like renewed life.”

Given Ben’s deep belief in the honor of doing one’s duty and his low opinion of anyone who thought differently, I am fairly certain that he was shocked and disappointed that the army was retreating. According to Ben, Maj. Gen. Darius Couch was supervising the bridge crossing at dawn when the Fourteenth arrived. “What corps is this,” the general asked. One of the men blurted out, “The second skidadlers.” “No,” Gen. Couch replied, “the Second Fighting Corps.”

Sgt. Hirst summed up the actions of the regiment for his wife in this manner: “Sarah, I don’t ever claim to be brave, but I would have been shot rather than to have given way at the moment we did (morning of May 3). I do not know where the blame rests, but I think it rests with the men opening fire too soon and giving way before learning the real strength of the Rebels. The officers used no particular exertions to rally the men, or try and add anything to the reputation of the regiment. Taking everything into consideration, I think we done well, but might have done better.” 

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