Monthly Archives: April 2015

Tears of Joy and Sadness

The formal surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia took place on Wednesday, April 12th, 1865, exactly four years after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain was placed in charge of planning and conducting the ceremonies, and his only goal was to mark the occasion with an air of dignity, solemnity, and respect for the 28,000 Confederate soldiers who laid down their arms.

Chamberlain described part of the ceremony in his memoir The Passing of Armies: (Maj. Gen. John) Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

The original members of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry had enlisted during the summer of 1862 for a term of “three years or the duration.” By any measure they had done their duty. Joy turned instantly to deepest gloom when word was received on the 15th of the assassination of President Lincoln. A funeral service for their Commander in Chief was conducted at brigade headquarters on May 19th, even as the Lincoln’s state funeral was being held in the East Room of the White House.

Only one objective remained—return home to Connecticut, but it would happen on army time. They set up their tents near Appomattox the way they always had, in neat rows that formed streets, and camped out for three weeks. Finally, on May 2nd, they packed up their gear and began their last march. On May 6th, the Fourteenth held the lead position in the long Second Corps column as they marched through the ruins of Richmond. Then they passed in review before Gen. Henry Halleck, who watched from the steps for the former Confederate capitol building.

May 10th was a memorable day for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. In reverent silence they passed by the battlefield at Spotsylvania. They entered Fredericksburg from the south, passing over Marye’s Heights and down onto that dreadful plain of death where the regiment had been shattered nearly two and a half years earlier. Pontoons still bridged the Rappahannock and that evening they camped at Falmouth, very near the ground they had occupied during the long, cold winter of 1862-1863.

They reached Alexandria on May 15th, then marched in a grand review around the Capitol and down Pennsylvania Avenue. General Hancock was in attendance and one can only imagine the hearty cheers that arose from his old corps.

Finally, on May 31st, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry received their formal discharge papers. They boarded a train and headed north through Baltimore and Philadelphia. At New York they transferred to a steamship bound for Hartford, where they arrived early on June 8th. It seemed the entire city had turned out to welcome them home, and after being suitably feted and fed, the men said their farewells and drifted away in twos and threes toward Union Station to begin the final leg of their long journey home.

PERSONAL NOTE: After almost three years and 161 blog posts, this is my last article about the Fourteenth Connecticut. It has been a privilege to honor these men and keep their record of service alive. I will keep this blog active so you can always reference it.

But do not despair. I’m starting a new Civil War video blog next Friday, May 1st, titled “Civil War Sites: On Earth and in Cyberspace.” Same schedule, same great author, new and interesting content about some of the neat things I’ve come across while researching my novels. I do hope you’ll join me. Follow me on Twitter to receive messages when a new blog is posted or you can always access my new blog (starting May 1st) through my website:  www.kbacon.com.

The End of It All

On Sunday, the 9th (of April, 1865), late in the morning we were ordered from the road into the field, and further information was given that we were to have twenty minutes for coffee. This order was looked upon with suspicion. Such an order had not been issued for weeks, at least, and it was grimly asserted that the soldiers knew enough to get their breakfast without orders, and that the officers knew this, therefore the order had some sinister meaning. (Sgt. Charles G. Blatchley, Company I, Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry)

Typically, the foot soldiers viewed any alteration in their routine with suspicion, but this coffee break in a field a few miles east of Appomattox Court House was the first indication that something was very, very different. Wild rumors flew through the ranks that someone had seen the Rebels stacking their weapons. Some even dared to avow that Lee himself had surrendered. This speculation went on for hours until late in the afternoon when a nearby battery of artillery opened fire, not with live shot and shell, but with blank cartridges. A direct order from General Grant silenced the guns. There would be no jubilant displays of triumph over their defeated foes.

Blatchley continued his description of this momentous occasion: The most extraordinary scene I think I ever witnessed was that which greeted the appearance of General Meade passing through the line to congratulate his troops on the victory. Men were completely beside themselves. They flung their caps into the air, threw their knapsacks under his horse’s feet (Hail the conquering hero?), danced and laughed and shouted and rolled on the ground and cried at the same time. Men who declared when they went into that field that morning that they were so footsore that another step was impossible went out of that field that afternoon to the tune of Yankee Doodle, with steps as light as boys just out of school.

Sgt. John Hirst of Company D (Ben Hirst’s brother) had this view of the final few days of the war: We did not lose many men in our division during the whole time after we got the Rebels started, but we have a great number played out with sore feet and a great many others are barefooted. All of us are in good spirits over the result. I tell you after we once got inside their works, we pushed them harder than men were ever drove before. They had to leave their hospital and commissary tents standing and the first day we captured a great number of prisoners. The second day they got the start of us and it was night before we came up to them, but we kept taking prisoners all along the road and cutting off their wagon trains. When General Lee’s lines were broken, he had sixty thousand men and when he surrendered he had but eleven thousand. The woods were swarming with Rebels who had been fleeing on their own hook and the day after the surrender over ten thousand came in and were paroled.

Last Fight, Last Blood

On April 7th, 1865, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry fought their last battle. Sgt. Charles Blatchley (Company I) described it this way in the regimental history written by Charles Page:

Our last engagement with the enemy was at the crossing of the Appomattox River at High Bridge. We came upon them at daylight, setting fire to the bridge; men forgot all rules and discipline in the enthusiasm of the moment. General Barlow, who commanded our division, rode at the head of the column with his staff over the bridge into the ranks of the enemy, firing his pistol at them as they were trying to apply a match to the tar on the bridge. After him went the 108th New York and then the Fourteenth Connecticut. This was the only time I saw this movement executed (rushing pell-mell across to engage the enemy). As you can see in this photo taken just after the war, High Bridge was well-named.

High_Bridge_Farmville_Virginia

Across the bridge we formed quickly in the meadow and on we went for miles over the hills, through the town of Farmville, where we chased the retreating foe and charged on the hen-coops of the village at the same time. We did not lose a single man in this charge, so far as I know, though we had some very narrow escapes. As we came on to the top of one of the hills, a shell buried itself in the ground at my feet and exploded, literally covering me and the men next to me with gravel stones, but without hurting any of us.

Just at nightfall of that day the last man in our brigade to give his life for his country was killed, that was our commanding General (Thomas) Smyth, as noble a fellow as ever held a sword. Our congratulations over that day’s work were changed suddenly to gloom and many a soldier cried that night at the loss of a man who had shared our perils and hardships so constantly and so bravely.

 

The Chase Begins

The night of April 2-3, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to abandon Petersburg and Richmond, march about forty miles west along different routes, and reassemble at Amelia Courthouse. The ultimate goal was to escape to Danville or Lynchburg, unite with Gen. Joe Johnston’s army in North Carolina, and deal the Union army a stunning defeat. But the most pressing issue for Lee was the need for food, so Lee ordered supply trains to head for Amelia Courthouse as well.

Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant knew that direct assaults upon Lee’s entrenchment at Petersburg would cost many thousands of casualties. Instead, Grant’s strategy was to force Lee’s army out from its cover into the open where they could be be pursued and, hopefully forced to surrender. It was Maj. Gen Phil Sheridan’s job to ride west along a route parallel to, but south of Lee’s, and prevent Lee from turning south toward Danville or Lynchburg. Union infantry, including the Seconds Corps, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteers would chase Lee’s army from behind. (Click for Wikipedia map.)

The Confederates marched into Amelia Courthouse on April 4, but no wagon trains loaded with rations had arrived. The following day, on empty bellies, Lee’s men marched south, but soon came upon Sheridan’s troopers. Lee ordered his weary troops to march another twenty miles to Farmville on the South Side Railroad where surely, there would be rations for the men, and feed for the animals.

Once again, Sheridan spoiled Lee’s plans. Most of Lee’s army crossed to the north side of the Appomattox River, but Sheridan trapped about 18,000 Confederates (about one fourth of Lee’s total strength) south of the river. In the Battle of Sailor’s (Sayler’s Creek), Sheridan lost about a thousand men, but Lee lost four generals captured, including Richard Ewell, almost 8,000 men taken prisoner, and unknown numbers killed or wounded.

Despite the high drama that was being played out a few miles west of them, this cryptic chronicle of those few days appears in the regimental history: “At two o’clock (a.m.) April 4th, the march was resumed and rations were served until the regiment marched forward. It rained some during the day and a train of wagons and some prisoners were captured.” (Could the 14th Connecticut captured one of the wagon trains Lee was waiting for?) “April 5th the regiment started early and marched all day, being out as skirmishers, driving the Rebels continuously and taking some prisoners. At night the regiment went out on picket.”

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Fourteenth Connecticut’s final battle of the war.