Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Battlefield Springs to Life

Unburied Remains at Gaines MillThe American Civil War was the first war preserved in photographic images, sometimes in graphic detail as in the photo to the right, and the brutality of the battlefield was brought home in a very real way to the American public. This photo is from the excellent “Original Photographs of the Civil War” collection at Mike Lynaugh’s Virtual Civil War site.

After the guns went silent and the armies moved on, the dead were buried, the carcasses of horses and mules were burned along with the blasted and broken remnants of military wheeled vehicles, and the land slowly began to recover from the devastation inflicted upon it. In a letter to the Springfield Republican newspaper, Captain Samuel Fiske (Co.G, 14th Conn. Inf.) wrote under the pen-name Dunn Browne a poignant description of one such battlefield a year after the battle.

Did I tell you ever, among the affecting little things one is always seeing in these shifting war times, how I saw on the Second Bull Run battlefield, pretty, pure delicate flowers growing out of emptied ammunition boxes, a fine rose thrusting up its graceful head through the head of a Union drum, which doubtless had sounded its last charge (or retreat as the case may have been) in that battle, and a cunning scarlet verbena peeping out of a fragment of burst shell in which strange cup it had been planted? Wasn’t that peace growing out of war? Even so shall the graceful and beautiful ever grow out of the horrid and terrible things that transpire in this changing but ever advancing world. Nature covers even battle ground soon with verdure and bloom. Peace and plenty soon spring up in the track of devastating campaigns, and all things in nature and in society shall work out the progress of mankind and the harmony of God’s great designs.

Battle at Bristoe

On October 3rd, 1863, Capt. Samuel Fiske wrote to his Springfield Republican readers: I am pleasantly disappointed in the behavior of these new recruits taken as a whole. There are some rough characters among them, and some state prison birds, but the larger part of those that are left (the worst deserted in the first few days) are doing their duty with a good will, and will make good soldiers. I have forty-five of them in my company, and am getting to be right proud of their drill and general appearance.

Only eleven days later, Fiske’s new recruits faced their first test in battle. At this time the Second Corps was under the temporary command of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren because Gen. Hancock was still recovering from the wound he received at Gettysburg. On Saturday, October 10th, Gen. Warren started the corps on a march of more than a dozen miles, a reconnaissance in force to the north of Culpeper in search of Confederate forces that were known to be on the move.

Finding nothing, the Seconds Corps marched another eighteen miles on Sunday. They crossed the Rappahannock River and camped just west of Bealeton on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. On Monday, they inexplicably reversed course, recrossed the Rappahannock, and marched here and there chasing elusive Confederate cavalry units until 6 p.m. when, according to Capt. Fiske, “we halted, cooked our supper with about four miles of fence rails, and retired to rest.”

Bristoe_Campaign[This Wikipedia map shows the general movements of the armies during the Bristoe Campaign.]

Late that night, it was learned that Lee’s men had marched completely around the Army of the Potomac to the north. The enemy was perilously close to gaining a position between the federals and their capital city of Washington. The Second Corps marched back across the Rappahannock, now with a sense of urgency. By Tuesday evening they had covered twenty-five miles and bivouacked near Warrenton.

The enemy was close, very close. On Wednesday, October 14th, near the village of Auburn, the men of the Fourteenth loaded their weapons and prepared to battle Confederate cavalry, but Union artillery drove the enemy away before they could do much damage. The Second Corps turned southeast, reached the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, then marched along the east side of the railroad toward Washington. For many it seemed very much like another retreat.

Bristoe MapThe map at the right shows the placement of each regiment involved in the Battle of Bristoe. Please click on it to view a larger map from the Civil War Trust in a new window.

About 3 p.m. the Fourteenth Connecticut was marching in column parallel to the railroad, and about 500 yards southeast of it, when suddenly, they came under fire from enemy shot and shell. Col. Ellis recorded the action of the Fourteenth in his official report:

We were marching along the easterly side of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad when we came in sight of the enemy, posted on a hill some five hundred yards west of the railroad, our column marching by the right flank, being about the same distance east of it. Coming up opposite the enemy’s batteries on the double-quick, the regiment was marched to the front in line of battle across the railroad, and through a piece of woods to its farther edge, where we remained for some time in line of battle. In advancing toward the railroad we met with most of our loss, from a severe infantry fire from our front and right. (Note the advanced position of Smyth’s Brigade in the Civil War Trust map.)

The enemy being driven off from the position on the hill to our front, we were ordered to advance. After advancing a short distance, we observed a line of battle of the enemy through the woods to our left. We immediately changed front to left, and engaged such part of the line as could be seen through the openings. Receiving orders to fall back to the railroad, we did so, and remained lying in line of battle along its easterly side until the troops were withdrawn at night.

Although the brunt of A. P. Hill’s assaults on the Federal lines fell mostly upon Gen. Webb’s Division and Owen’s Brigade of Hays’ Division, the Fourteenth Connecticut still lost four men killed and twenty-six wounded. They had been tested in battle, and while there was some confusion with the new troops in executing complex movement and formation orders, they generally performed well. More importantly, the Second Corps stopped Lee’s final offensive campaign in its tracks, and the Confederates began a slow retreat southward back to Orange County.

A View to the West

In our focus on the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, it’s easy to forget about what else was going on in the war. Battles fought and movements of armies in the east effected events in the west and the reverse was true as well.

So what was happening in the western theater? Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the last Confederate bastions on the Mississippi River, had surrendered to Union forces in early July, 1863. By September, Union military control of Vicksburg had restored order. A loyal civilian government was in place and the bulk of Grant’s Army of the Mississippi began to move eastward late in the month.

Chattanooga, Tennessee became the next area of conflict in the western theater. Two days of bloody fighting in northern Georgia along Chickamauga Creek (September 19-20) ended in Confederate victory. The Confederate Army of Tennessee, under the command of Maj. Gen Braxton Bragg. had been newly reinforced by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps sent from Virginia by Gen. Lee. The defeated Federals of Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans retreated northward to Chattanooga.

The war department in Washington needed to send more men to Chattanooga in a hurry. Grant was made commander of all the western armies. Two corps (15,000 men) would be detached form the Army of the Potomac under the command of Maj. Gen. Thomas Hooker, and most of Gen. Sherman’s Army of the Mississippi would march through northern Mississippi and Alabama to Chattanooga.

So why is this important to our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut manning the picket line along the Rapidan River south of Culpeper, Virginia? Gen. Lee knew the Union response to their defeat at Chickamauga would be to send more men to the area. Undermanned as he was with Longstreet’s Corps gone, Gen. Lee determined to try to keep the enemy on his front so busy so that the entire Army of the Potomac had to remain where it was.

In early October, Lee started his troops on a march around the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. They marched west of Cedar Mountain, swung to the north of Culpeper, then northeast to Warrenton. It would be Lee’s last offensive campaign, and the newly refitted, remanned, and retrained Fourteenth Connecticut would play a vital role in the outcome.

 

 

Moo-ving Target

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not one to ignore any amusing anecdote when it relates to the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. One such incident occurred on September 24, 1863. The dreadful execution of two deserters had occurred just six days before. The faulty ammunition had been replaced, and no doubt every soldier wished to test his allotment at the first opportunity.

The opportunity presented itself in the form of a bull that wandered into a cornfield between the two armies that lay warily watching each other along the line of the Rapidan River. The bull appeared in front of the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. Captain Walter Lucas of Company D had recovered from his wounding at Gettysburg and was ready for action. He detailed a squad of men to kill the bull for food. It should have been a simple matter, an easy dispatch of a single large animal, but apparently a lone bovine is harder to bring down than a host of Rebels.

You can well imagine the hoots and hollers as first one, then another, of the new recruits of the Fourteenth stepped forward to test his marksmanship, or lack thereof, as it so proved. Every shot missed its target and soon some of the veterans likely stepped forward to show the “fresh fish” how it was done. Still the bull was not hit and went on about his gleaning of the corn.

It was a normal thing for occasional shots to be traded by opposing pickets, so sporadic gunfire was mostly ignored by the armies. However, as shot after shot missed the bull, frustration at missing out of a feast of “beef-on-the-hoof” mounted, and the rate of fire increased across the line of the Fourteenth. Officers rode hither and thither sounding the alarm. The First Brigade of the Third Division took up their weapons and formed in line of battle, convinced that their Second Brigade  comrades were locked in pitched battle with attacking Confederates.

Eventually, the storm of lead killed the animal. It’s carcass was brought within the lines and butchered. The enlisted men of the Fourteenth, however, likely dined only on leftovers, because much of the meat was given to the officers whose quiet day had been so rudely interrupted.

Thus ended what the men came to call the “Third Battle of Bull Run.” Perhaps they should have called up the artillery.