Monthly Archives: June 2013

Pressing On!

I should give up on the roadside, but I want to be counted in if there is a big battle in the Old Keystone State.  Sgt. Benjamin Hirst, 14th Conn. Vol. Infantry (Co. D)

Such determination to see the war fought and won was common among the foot soldiers of both armies that marched those hot, dusty roads during the last days of June, 1863. They seemed well aware that they were headed for a rendezvous with destiny, but exactly where that great battle would be fought was anyone’s guess.

The Route to GettysburgThis map shows the approximate routes the various elements of both armies took during the march toward Gettysburg. Click on the map for a larger view on Wikipedia

The Fourteenth Connecticut left their camp at Gainesville, VA on Thursday, June 25th, well-rested and well-fed. First they marched five miles east along the turnpike (US29), once again crossing the Bull Run Battlefield. Then it was northwest on Sudley Road (VA234) for about two and a half miles where they turned north onto Gum Spring Road (VA659), which lies about two miles west of Dulles Airport. That day they marched fifteen miles. They camped near the present day town of Arcola.

The following day it was another fifteen miles to Edward’s Ferry on the Potomac River. The men had to wait for a pontoon bridge to be completed, and finally crossed into Maryland late that night. Then they marched a few miles farther, finally camping for the night at about two a.m. June 27th was a day of rest.

Sunday, June 28th, the men marched between fifteen and twenty miles to near Frederick, MD. Monday, the 29th, they tested the limits of their endurance. The destination was Uniontown, thirty-two miles away. Men fell out all along the way, but most pressed on, determined like Ben Hirst to be there when they were needed. They straggled into camp all night long, with some arriving late Tuesday morning.

Maj. Gen. Hancock, the new commander of the Second Corps had an order read to all the units of the corps, congratulating them on the completion of Monday’s hard march. It was also on this last day of June that the men of the Fourteenth learned that there was a new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. George Meade. He was the fourth in their ten months of service, and the next day, Wednesday, July 1st, the greatest battle ever fought on this continent would begin.

Sgt. Hirst wrote the words that began this post at Unionville on June 30. He would indeed be counted in and it would be his final battle.

Third Bull Run?

150 YEARS AGO TODAY, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were camped near the Union supply depot at Gainesville, Virginia. They would remain there until June 24th for rest and resupply.

The march from Falmouth was a difficult one. The weather was mostly hot and dry, and the Second Corps was the last corps in the long crawling column. The road was used exclusively by batteries of artillery, trains of supply wagons, and hundreds of ambulances. Clouds of fine, powdery dust filled the air. The infantry marched in the fields on either side of the road, and the cavalry patrolled the flanks.

On June 17th, Smyth’s Brigade served as the rear guard of the entire army. Anything the men of the hundred thousand-plus Army of the Potomac had cast off in their weariness—overcoats, blankets, knapsacks, even weapons—was gathered into piles and burned. Every straggler was driven forward, often at the point of a bayonet, and any man of the brigade who fell out was prodded along by a cavalry saber  Only those who died of the heat were left behind. It was terrible duty.

On June 20th, the men of the Fourteenth marched from Centerville to Gainesville. Not any arduous feat for infantrymen, less than a dozen miles, but their route took them through the battlefield of Bull Run. They had read about the place in newspaper articles while still safe at home. They had heard countless stories told by more veteran soldiers over smoking campfires. They remembered their first few hours and days in Virginia the previous August when the terrible news broke upon them of a second Union defeat upon ground near a winding stream with an infamous name..

Manassas National BattlefieldNow, they were treading upon that same ground. The words of Sgt. Ben Hirst paint a sobering picture. “Here and there was an old musket, broken gun carriage, and old equipments. Piles of dirt pointed where rested the dead, some these not being altogether covered with Mother Earth. Some of the men saw hands and feet sticking out of the tops and sides of the heaps. For myself, I had no desire to see anything that I could help, having seen enough of the horrors of war to satisfy my curiosity.”

Imagine the hush that fell over them, how carefully they stepped around grim remnants of fallen comrades. Was it Gen. Hooker’s great strategy to fight a third Battle of Bull Run? What could result but another crushing defeat?

Farewell to Falmouth

Point of Personal Privilege: Tomorrow, Saturday, June 15th, I will be joining the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Company F for a Civil War living history event at Fort Trumbull Park, in New London, CT. I will be doing a meet and greet and book signing. Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. I would be honored to meet you there.

For the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, life returned to the routine they had known before the start of the Chancellorsville campaign. On June 5th, Sgt. Benjamin Hirst wrote his wife, Sarah, that: “our present camp is a very nice place compared to what it was, it being in a pine woods, and having good water convenient to it, but the mosquitoes have begun to make fun of me at night which makes me wish I was at home sometimes, when I wake up and find them sucking on me.”

The command structure was again changed. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock was promoted to command the Second Corps. The new commander of the Third Division was Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays. The Second Brigade of the Third Division also had a new leader, Col. Thomas Smyth, and a battalion of the 10th New York Infantry was added to the brigade.

For several weeks the Second Corps picketed all along the north bank of the Rappa-hannock River. During the first week of June, Gen. Lee launched the Gettysburg by starting his troops on a long march to the west and north around the Union. All furloughs of Union troops were cancelled on June 5th and all troops had to report back to their units immediately. Over the next several days, as the Confederate movements became clear, Maj. Gen. Hooker started the Army of the Potomac in motion. Each corps of infantry broke camp and started northward, accompanied by hundreds of artillery pieces and miles-long supply trains.

The Second Corps held its positions along the river until Sunday, June 14th, when it too joined the procession as the rear guard of the army. Many soldiers, including Sgt. Hirst, considered the northward march yet another retreat. “The Rappahannock was once again in undisputed control of the Rebels,” he wrote. The men of the Fourteenth would never see Falmouth again, and most had no wish to.

Fiction Connection: Michael Palmer was one of the few men from the 14th CT who was granted a furlough, but he had the misfortune of being en route home on June 5th. Imagine his despair when his hope of a peaceful respite at home was dashed and he had to return to the war front.

Hooker & Couch

After the crushing defeat at Chancellorsville by a greatly outnumbered enemy, the Army of the Potomac was once again in a state of confusion. Upon return to their winter camps at Falmouth and Stafford, and with no plans for another campaign, furloughs were again granted to some of the men, but all furloughs were suddenly cancelled the first week of June, when it became clear that Bobby Lee was up to something.

Major General Darius CouchMaj. Gen. Darius Couch (pronounced Coach), commanded the II Corps at Chancellorsville. He thought the initial strategy brilliant and well-executed, but on the first day of the battle, May 1, things started to unravel. The XII Corps was dug in on high open ground a mile and a half east of Chancellorsville. It was good ground for artillery and Couch and the other generals in that area believed any advance of Lee’s forces from Fredericksburg could be dealt with. However, Hooker soon ordered the position abandoned and all troops withdrawn to Chancellorsville. It wasn’t long before Confederate artillery was placed atop that ridge and the entire constricted Union line around Chancellorsville was within range.

In a report filed after the battle, Couch wrote that as early as 9:30 a.m. the morning of May 2, the western movement of Confederate troops had been reported to Hooker, and the weakness of the western flank position of the XI Corps was discussed. But nothing was done about it. Instead, Hooker boasted to Couch that “Lee is in full retreat toward Gordonsville.” The ensuing rout of the XI Corps has been well documented.

At about 10:00 a.m. the morning of Sunday, May 3, Couch found Hooker lying on a cot in a tent, recovering from his close encounter with an enemy shell. “Couch,” Hooker said, “I turn the command of the army over to you. You will withdraw it and place it in the position designated on this map.”

Couch’s evaluation of Hooker’s handling of the army at Chancellorsville was blunt: “As to the charge that the battle was lost because the general was intoxicated, I have always stated that he probably abstained from the use of ardent spirits when it would have been far better for him to have continued in his usual habit in that respect.”

Maj. Gen. Darius Couch suffered two minor wounds at Chancellorsville and went to Washington to recover. On May 22, Couch met with President Lincoln. Couch told Lincoln that he would never serve under Thomas Hooker again. Lincoln offered command of the army to Couch, but Couch declined, citing his own poor health. Couch recommended Maj. Gen. George Meade for the position, and Couch accepted command of the Pennsylvania militia in the southern part of that state near Gettysburg.

With the departure of Gen. Couch, the valiant II Corps, of which the Fourteenth Connecticut was a part, was given a new commander: Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock.