Monthly Archives: April 2014

Mud on the Wing

On Monday, May 2nd, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry looked eastward from their camp atop Stony Mountain and saw an ominous red cloud swirling in their direction. According to Capt. Samuel Fiske, “one of the boys exclaimed, ‘That’s genuine Virginia mud taking to itself wings.'”

Fiske termed the storm a “tornado of dust.” Within minutes, strong wind gusts buffeted the encampment. the men were driven to shelter in their huts. “We could readily believe,” Fiske wrote, “that the earth was whirling from west to east as rapidly as the astronomers tell us, and moreover that she evidently meant to leave us behind.” Tree limbs snapped. Some trees were blown down completely. One large pine crushed the hut of Col. Ellis, but he was elsewhere.

The storm passed on as quickly as it had come up. Despite its fury, injuries were few and minor. But the dust was everywhere. The men spent the remainder of the day beating the dust out of their clothing and bedding. They swept every nook and cranny of their humble log huts, fixed canvas roofs, and cleaned the wind driven debris throughout the camp. By evening, order had been restored to the entire encampment and the men settled in for a quiet night’s sleep.

The very next day orders came down the chain of command to pack everything up, draw rations and ammunition, and be ready to move out by dawn on May 4th. The 1864 campaign season had begun.

Communion Before Battle

On Sunday, April 24th, 1864, a final worship service was held in the brigade chapel at Stony Mountain. At the time, the Fourteenth Connecticut was without a chaplain. Captain Samuel Fiske, on extended leave as pastor of the Congregational church in Madison, CT, was offered the chaplaincy, but declined, preferring to remain in front lines in the fight to preserve the Union. In the following letter which was dated the following day, we see Fiske as a participant in worship while others led the worship and administered the sacrament.

Dear Republican: We had a very precious day yesterday, and the thought of it was a comfort all through the hard work of the evening; for we sat down at the Lord’s table, and held sweet communion with him and with one another. Twelve men (of the 108th New York mostly, but one or two from our regiment) were baptized; about twenty-five professed their solemn faith in, and made everlasting covenant with, Christ, to be his henceforth. We had a short, comprehensive creed and covenant for them to assent to and take upon themselves; and then seventy-five or eighty, perhaps, partook of the sacrament.

I never had a sweeter time in my life. I have no doubt of the perfect propriety of our action in having this season; for the Lord was evidently present to bless. Mr. Grassey (108th New York) was very happy in all his remarks and services; Mr. Murphy (1st Delaware) assisted; Capt. Hawley and Capt. Price passed the elements. We had just our usual soldiers’ bread, and the wine in two pewter cups, poured from a brown stone pitcher; and there was no white linen to represent that which was wrapped around the Savior’s body: but every thing seemed decent and in order, and we all enjoyed the season as if it were the very institution of the ordinance in that upper room in Jerusalem.

It was the last service we shall have, I suppose, in our little log chapel. The roof comes down today to be carried back to the Christian Commission again; and we worship God in the open air for the summer.


Lee Prepares to Meet Grant

Robert_Edward_LeeTo understand what Gen. Robert E. Lee was doing, thinking and feeling during the weeks leading up to the Spring Campaign of 1864, I find the following excerpts from his son Robert’s Recollections and Letters most revealing. Gen. Lee certainly knew what was coming and the great sacrifices that would be required of himself, his army, and indeed the entire Confederacy.

In this winter and spring of 1864, every exertion possible was made by my father to increase the strength of his army and to improve its efficiency. He knew full well that the enemy was getting together an enormous force, and that his vast resources would be put forth to crush us in the spring. His letters at this time to President Davis and the Secretary of War show how well he understood the difficulties of his position. In a letter to President Davis, written (late) March, 1864, he says:

“Mr. President: Since my former letter on the subject, the indications that operations in Virginia will be vigorously prosecuted by the enemy are stronger than they then were. General Grant has returned from the army in the West. He is, at present, with the Army of the Potomac, which is being organized and recruited…. Every train brings recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it…. Their plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that, if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier, he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power….”

On April 6th he again writes to the President:

“…All the information I receive tends to show that the great effort of the enemy in this campaign will be made in Virginia…. Reinforcements are certainly daily arriving to the Army of the Potomac…. The tone of the Northern papers, as well as the impression prevailing in their armies, goes to show that Grant with a large force is to move against Richmond…. The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that General Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”

The question of feeding his army was ever before him. To see his men hungry and cold, and his horses ill fed, was a great pain m him. To Mr. Davis he thus writes on this subject (April12, 1864):

“Mr. President: My anxiety on the subject of provisions in the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina. There is nothing to be had in this section for men or animals. We have rations for the troops today and tomorrow. I hope a new supply arrived last night, but I have not yet had a report. Every exertion should be made to supply the depots at Richmond and at other points. All pleasure travel should cease, and everything be devoted to necessary wants.”

In a letter written to our cousin, Margaret Stuart, of whom he was very fond, dated March 29th, he says:

“…The indications at present are that we shall have a hard struggle. General Grant is with the Army of the Potomac. All the officers’ wives, sick, etc., have been sent to Washington. No ingress into or egress from the lines is now permitted and no papers are allowed to come out—they claim to be assembling a large force….”

Again, April 28th, he writes to this same young cousin:

“…I dislike to send letters within reach of the enemy, as they might serve, if captured, to bring distress on others. But you must sometimes cast your thoughts on the Army of Northern Virginia, and never forget it in your prayers. It is preparing for a great struggle, but I pray and trust that the great God, mighty to deliver, will spread over it His almighty arms, and drive its enemies before it….”

One perceives from these letters how clearly my father foresaw the storm that was so soon to burst upon him. He used every means within his power to increase and strengthen his army to meet it, and he continually urged the authorities at Richmond to make preparations in the way of supplies of ammunition, rations, and clothing.

Grant Prepares to Meet Lee

Late in March 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln showed Grant a map on which he had drawn all the positions held by both opposing armies throughout the war. The president then explained how he would conduct the upcoming spring campaign. The general listened respectfully, but made no comment on the flaws he saw in Lincoln’s plan. Grant had other ideas, but “I did not communicate my plans to the President, nor did I to the Secretary of War or to General Halleck.” Grant had already learned that there were just too many leaks in Washington.

Gen. Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs: “My general plan now was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. There were but two such…east of the Mississippi River and facing north. The army of northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee commanding, was on the south bank of the Rapidan, confronting the Army of the Potomac; the second, under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, was at Dalton, Georgia, opposed to Sherman who was still at Chattanooga.”

The first priority was to get as many troops in the field as possible. Grant’s basic premise was that if Lee was defeated, the rest of the Confederacy would shortly fall. He stripped 10,000 men from the coastal defenses of South Carolina and sent them to reinforce Butler’s Army of the James. When the garrison of Plymouth, NC fell into Rebel hands, he ordered Washington, NC abandoned as well, and kept troops only where they were most needed to blockade the seaports. Grant also ordered Gen. Burnside forward from Annapolis with his 20,000 man Ninth Corps, to be ready to go wherever they were most needed.

150 YEARS AGO TODAY, April 4th, 1864, another important change was made. Again from Grant’s Memoirs: “In one of my early interviews with the President I expressed my dissatisfaction with the little that had been accomplished by the cavalry so far in the war, and the belief that it was capable of accomplishing much more than it had done if under a thorough leader.” And Grant had just such a thorough leader in mind. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was called back to the east and given command of all cavalry attached to the Army of the Potomac, replacing Maj. Gen. David M. Gregg.

Even into April, Gen. Grant was unsure whether to try to turn Lee’s eastern or western flank. Each approach had its advantages and disadvantages, but the deciding factor was one of logistics. If he chose the eastern route, the army could be constantly supplied from bases on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay and their many tributaries. If he went farther west, the army would have to rely heavily upon foraging in already war-ravaged country and upon railroad service that could be so easily disrupted.

His mind fixed on the objective (Lee’s army), and his general course established, Gen. Grant began to set his grand strategy in motion.

Next Week: How Lee prepared to meet Grant.