Category Archives: 1862

A Christmas Gift for Sgt. Hirst

There were three Hirst brothers in Company D of the Fourteenth Connecticut, Ben, Joe and John. Ben and John came through the Battle of Fredericksburg unscathed, but Joe suffered three leg wounds and was sent to a hospital in Washington.

Back in Vernon, Connecticut, Ben’s wife Sarah somehow quickly learned of her brother-in-law’s wounding, and having no children to care for, immediately travelled to Washington to visit Joe, in spite of her husband’s advice that she not undetake such a journey. Sarah was unable to locate Joe, but rather than return home, she tracked down her congressman and convinced him to write a letter to Secretary of War Stanton requesting that Sarah be granted a pass to visit her husband at Falmouth.

Ben wrote of this occasion: “Dec. 24th. I was surprised to hear someone calling my name and to be told that a lady was looking for me. I crawled out of my dog kennel pretty quickly and found my wife standing before me. I could not invite her to come in very well for want of room, so she told me to report with her at Gen. Sumner’s headquarters right away and that he had sent for me.”

fburg-640x288Note location of Lacy House (Sumner”s HQ) at lower right. Ben and Sarah Hirst spent Christmas Eve at the Lacy House conversing with Gen. Edwin Sumner. The general was most interested in Ben’s views on the war and Ben was most willing to voice them. The general allowed Ben and Sarah to stay in the mansion Christmas Day and the day after, whereupon Sarah returned to Washington and Ben returned to his “dog kennel.”

Sarah Hirst was one cool and resourceful lady, but I have never been able to locate a photo of her. In all of my reading about the Civil War, this incident is truly unique. It is no wonder that Ben Hirst had great respect and affection for Gen. Sumner. Ben wrote of Sumner “that it was possible to be in the army and yet be a gentleman,” and that he was both a “gallant warrior” and “kind-hearted.”

Merry Christmas?

log-huts-370x300This sketch of log huts is from Hardtack and Coffee by John D. Billings, an excellent book for learning about the day to day routine of a Civil War soldiers life.

The building of log huts for winter shelter was the first priority of the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut when they marched dejectedly into  camp early on the morning of Tuesday, December 16. Much work with the axe and spade was required—the felling of trees for timber, cutting the timber to length, notching both ends so they would interlock, and the excavation of the foundation. They also cut shorter logs to build a fireplace and when the log construction was finished, they filled the narrow gaps between the logs with mud to keep the cold wind out. They also covered the inside of the fireplace with a liberal coating of mud to keep the logs from catching fire and sending up the entire cabin along with it. Furnishings, such as bunks, a table, and a couple of stools, were made from whatever was available: saplings, hardtack crates, the staves of salt-pork barrels.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg, only about 100 men were fit for duty. Lt. Col. Perkins had been seriously wounded and it was not known if he would return to duty. Command of the regiment was passed back and forth between a few of the company captains. Capt. Samuel Fiske, too ill to take part in the battle, wrote the following to his readers in the Springfield Republican newspaper: “Oh, Republican! My heart is sick and sad. Blood and wounds and death are before my eyes; of those who are my friends, comrades, brothers; of those who have marched into the very mouth of destruction as coolly and cheerfully as to any ordinary duty. Another tremendous, terrible, murderous butchery of brave men has made Saturday, the 13th of December, a memorable day in the annals of this war.”

If crushing defeat was not enough, the regiment suffered an additional tragedy on December 23rd. Charles Page wrote: “A sad incident during the encampment at Falmouth was the death of two brothers, Francis and Frederick Hollister of Chatham, Company K, who died within half an hour of each other and are buried together. They lost their blankets at Antietam and for three months had to sleep out-of-doors or crouch scantily clad all night long over a smoky campfire, from which exposure they died.”



Fredericksburg – December 13, 1862

Bobby Lee had set a trap, and the men were headed straight for it. Every man knew what would happen, but they went forward anyway. Duty required it.

It was a disaster from the start. Gen. French’s Third Division of the Second Corps led the assault upon the Confederates, who were dug in on Marye”s Heights beyond the city and behind a stone wall along a sunken road at the base of the hill. Kimball’s Brigade led the division. Upon leaving the city streets they were forced to cross a deep sluice-way, but the Rebels had taken up all the planking from the bridges and the men had to make their way very carefully across on the narrow timbers, all the while under heavy artillery fire. Then, after a short halt to regroup, the brigade marched up the slope toward the sunken road, right into the full fury of the massed Confederate guns. Kimball’s men didn’t stand a chance. They fired a couple of volleys and fell in rows well short of their objective. Then they broke for the rear.

Kimball’s men were followed by Andrews’ Brigade and they suffered much the same fate. Then the Third Brigade under the command of Col. Oliver Palmer drove up the incline. Panicked troops from the first two brigades of infantry raced backward through their lines, but onward they went, with the 108th New York on the left, the 130th Pennsylvania in the center, and the 14th Connecticut on the right with its flank exposed to fire from the heights both to the front and to the right.

Lt. Col. Perkins of the Fourteenth raised his saber high and cried for his men to go forward against the hail of lead. It would be his last order for he was almost immediately struck in the neck by a musket ball and carried from the field. (The wound would not be fatal, but he would never return to active duty.) The men advanced to within about a hundred yards of the sunken road. They remained in some semblance of a line of battle for a few minutes, long enough to fire off a few volleys while under the most deadly blasts of canister and musketry. Then they too broke for the rear, some pausing to help wounded comrades safely from the field, and a few others frantically searching for and recovering the regiment’s colors that had fallen during the worst of the fighting. (Note the position of French’s Division on this map of the assault of the Second Corp.)

Their fight was done, but the day of terror would continue until an end of daylight brought an end to the carnage. Between 300 and 350 men of the Fourteenth Connecticut fought at Fredericksburg.  Ten were killed, ninety-two were wounded, and twenty were missing in action, a casualty rate of more than one third. The Union army suffered a crushing, lopsided defeat and returned to the north side of the Rappahannock River after darkness fell on the night of Monday, December 15th. The pontoon bridges were also taken up that night, with the last boat lifted from the river as the first streaks of dawn etched the eastern sky.

Fiction Connection:  In An Eye for Glory, Michael Palmer is slightly wounded during the battle. He stays on the battlefield to help a seriously more wounded friend and witnesses the heroic, though likewise futile, assault of the Irish Brigade.

Eve of Battle

The labors at Belle Plain had taken their toll. The Fourteenth Connecticut was able to muster only about 300 men, down from more than a thousand in the three and a half months since leaving Hartford. Col. Dwight Morris was one of the casualties. He fell seriously ill at Belle Plain and did not accompany the men of the Second Brigade when they marched through cold, heavy rain back to Falmouth on Saturday, December 6th. Col. Palmer of the 108th New York was given command of the brigade, a man whose performance at Antietam had been questioned by some.

That evening the rain changed to heavy, wet snow. The rest of the army had already built their winter quarters, often only a rustic log hut with a canvas or tent roof, but shelter all the same. For the men who had endured heavy labor and harsh weather for the past three weeks, they would continue to endure the elements until they could build their own huts.

But the war intervened. Before dawn on December 11th, engineers began building three pairs of pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River. The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut started marching toward the river. By mid-morning, with the bridges about two-thirds complete, Rebel sharpshooters opened fire and cleared the Federal engineers from the bridges. Work was delayed several hours until Union infantry crossed the river and drove the Rebels out of the city of Fredericksburg late in the day. The bridges were finished that evening.

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were near the head of the long Second Corps column when it began to march across the river shortly after dawn on Friday, December 12th. The Fourteenth Connecticut at first occupied a portion of Sophia Street alongside the river, then later in the day moved one block further into the city to Caroline Street. Here they would spend the night, taking shelter from time to time in some of the homes vacated by the townspeople, and warming themselves by fires kept burning in many a basement kitchen.

There would be little sleep that cold night, because all the men knew what awaited them on the morrow. The Rebels had spent weeks preparing a warm welcome and every soldier in the ranks knew that, come morning light, he would be required to try out that welcome.


Time dragged on at Belle Plain. Day after day, without a break, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, and the two other regiments in their brigade, toiled away unloading the ships that tied up every day at the landing. Even the contrabands (escaped slaves) rested on Sundays, and this irked the soldiers greatly—a real humbug. Anything the men found unpleasant was a humbug. The work was a humbug, the food was a humbug, the weather was a humbug, the conduct of the war was a humbug, and it was the fault of the officers that everything had been so thoroughly humbug’d (Sgt. Hirst”s spelling).


   Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside appeared regularly at the  landing. Of special concern to him was the slow arrival and transport of the many pontoon boats he needed to bridge the Rappahannock and gain access to Fredericksburg. His hot temper did little to cheer the laboring men. The boats were already late; there were not enough horses; the men didn’t move fast enough, and every day that passed allowed Lee’s forces to improve and strengthen their positions on the high ground behind the city.

About the first of December, Sgt. Hirst received a box from his wife. Among other things, it contained a pair of mittens and some cayenne pepper. Curious, I thought, that a soldier would want cayenne pepper for his rations, but then I read on. The cayenne wasn’t for seasoning his food. Hirst put some inside his mittens and reported that it kept his hands warm. Now what do you suppose would happen if he had a sudden urge to rub his tired eyes late one cold night while on picket duty? Now that would be another real humbug.


Thanksgiving – Feast or Famine?

Although Thanksgiving Day did not become a national holiday until President Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863, the holiday had been celebrated for decades in a majority of the states, most commonly on the fourth Thursday in November. And so it was a common thing for the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to try as best they could to celebrate the day.

All yearned to supplement their regular diet of hardtack and salt pork. Some visited the sutler and spent a good portion of their meager funds for canned or dessicated fruit, or a treat of cookies or cake. Others foraged for something, anything, to add to their stew pot, often against orders. But the most fortunate ones were those who had received a wooden box from loved ones at home filled with a variety of nutritious foods and sweet confections.

According to Lt. Samuel Fiske, the Fourteenth Connecticut planned their Thanksgiving feast with military precision. Four captains were chosen to supervise the preparations. First, because there was so little cash available, they raided the commissary for anything they could trade with local farmers. Then they commandeered a barge and, along with an eager detail of enlisted men, crossed to the eastern side of the Potomac where they traded their goods for turkeys, chickens, and beef.

Unfortunately, the barge ran aground during the return crossing. The detail spent a cold night in the middle of the river and the feast was delayed until Friday. The meats were roasted plain, without even salt or pepper, in an oven taken by force from the sutler. And as usual, the officers consumed the bulk of the food, while the leftovers went to the enlisted men, who made a large pot of soup—a definite improvement in their diet, if only for a day, but certainly no feast.

Fiction Connection:  In An Eye for Glory I expanded and dramatized this Thanksgiving caper to provide a lighter scene between the hard times at Bolivar and Belle Plain and the tragic battle of Fredericksburg.


March to Belle Plains

Any thoughts of setting up camp at Falmouth were quickly put aside when Col. Morris’s Brigade was ordered to march about nine miles farther to a landing and depot on the Potomac River known as Belle Plains. It should have been an easy march, and the first three miles were covered without incident. But as had become all too common, an easy half-day march turned into a slog in lousy weather that lasted a day and a half. The last six miles were plagued with marching and counter-marching, and Sgt. Ben Hirst estimated the actual distance marched at twenty-two miles. Of course, the men blamed Col. Morris for the dual crimes of getting lost and fatiguing his men. And Col. Morris blamed the entire affair on a local guide sympathetic to the Rebel cause.

Sgt. Hirst made no secret of what he thought of his brigade commander, Col. Morris. The colonel didn’t give the usual commands while on the march. According to Hirst Col. Morris would order “Bunch Em Up” or “Straighten Em Out,” so the men started calling the colonel “Old Bunch Em.”

It was raining steadily when the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut finally arrived at Belle Plains late in the afternoon on November 18. Soaking wet wood made the lighting fires impossible, so the men bedded down for the night on the cold, wet ground and tried to get some sleep.

The stated purpose of the excursion to Belle Plains was to guard the landing and supply depot from Rebel attack, but of the three weeks they spent there, most days would be filled with the heavy labor of unloading was material of every kind from the many cargo vessels that tied up at the landing every day.