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..
Now, 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?