Category Archives: 1862

A Change at the Top

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut marched through the town of Warrenton, Virginia on Saturday, November 8th. The day before they had seen the first snow of the season. It was also on the 8th the men learned that President Lincoln had relieved Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan of duty and elevated Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to command of the Army of the Potomac.

Gen. McClellan reviewed the troops at Warrenton for a final time. Sgt. Benjamin Hirst reported, “I saw warriors weep as he rode by, while hats and caps were thrown high in the air by the men and officers.” Their beloved general was gone and few of the men had any confidence in his replacement. Gen. Burnside himself protested to President Lincoln that he was not the right man for the job.

The men camped near Warrenton until November 15th. Two days of marching brought them to Falmouth, directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, where Sgt. Hirst penned this interesting entry in his journal: “I had a talk with a native Butternut. He told me there were not over 300 Rebels over the river at Fredericksburg and there was a good ford just below the dam. Our division of the 2nd Corps was in the advance and we fully expected to be ordered across and secure the city. Gen. Sumner and his staff had a talk at the head of the column, which resulted in our camping where we were.”

Once again, failure of commanders to sieze the initiative would cost the army dearly, and many, many more men would lose their lives or be greivously wounded.

On the Move…Finally

During the last few days of October, the Army of the Potomac started to move. One by one the many regiments left their encampments and joined the long slow procession southward.

The Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry left Bolivar Heights about noon on Thursday, October 30. They crossed the Shenandoah River near where it flows into the Potomac, marched along the Potomac toward Leesburg, Virginia, then marched south into the Loudon Valley. Progress was slow, sometimes only a few miles per day. The few roads were choked with men on foot and men on horseback, and thousands of horse or mule drawn wheeled vehicles—artillery pieces, caissons, ammunition chests, a multitude of wagons filled with ammunition, rations, officers’ baggage, and sutlers’ stores.

Whenever the army stopped for the night, units were sent out to guard the approaches over the Blue Ridge to the west. Troops stationed at the crest of these gaps reported the amzing sight of seeing thousands of Union campfires spreading out across the Loudon Valley to the east, and thousands of Rebel campfires spreading across the Shenadoah Valley to the west.

The Loudon Valley was a beautiful and verdant area of gently rolling farmland, cattle pastures, and horse farms, bounded by wooden rail fences. There were certainly abundant stores of good, nutritious food at every farm, but the Union army posted guards to prevent pillaging. Sgt. Hirst reported that when attempts were made to purchase food from the Virginia farmers, they would not accept Federal greenbacks, only Confederate money. With a hint of chagrin Hirst found some contentment in the steady supply of pork, hardtack, coffee, and sugar.

On November 3rd, Hirst also reported on the strength of the regiment—only about 460 men, a loss of over fifty percent of its fighting strength in little more than two months.


An End to Wasting Time

150 YEARS AGO, October 26th fell on a Sunday. Lt. Samuel Fiske reported that the regiment was in camp, that their midday meal had just been finished, and that he and some of his friends were about engage in a Sabbath afternoon Bible study, when orders were received for Company I to pack up and be ready to march within fifteen minutes for special duty across the Potomac on Maryland Heights.

As we have seen in previous posts, there was not much to pack. There may have been a Sibley tent or two and a few of the men had half shelter tents, and some of the more fortunate ones had a blanket or an overcoat, but most struggled to survive without the basic necessities the army had taken from the men of the Fourteenth when they first set foot on enemy soil.

Every avenue was tried to get these vital possessions back. Letters were sent. Private citizens with influence in Washington were appealed to. Repeated requests were sent to the high command of the army, asking that one of the officers of the Fourteenth be allowed to travel the sixty miles to Washington, recover their things, and return them to the regiment. Every request was denied and the men continued to suffer and die, “a brief funeral service, a rough coffin, a shallow grave, and a wooden headboard,” their only reward for duty done. (Fiske) And during these last few days of October, Sgt. Hirst wrote to his wife of the death of two more friends from Rockville.

As you might imagine the men were eager to leave Bolivar Heights and get on with the war. Cold rain drenched the sixty men of Company I as they marched down the steep road into Harper”s Ferry that Sunday afternoon. They stood wet and shivering awaiting orders and were finally told to take shelter in the town’s most famous building—the red brick engine house that three years earlier had been occupied by John Brown and his band of abolitionists.

The engine house at Harper's Ferry
          The engine house at Harper’s Ferry

Soon a fire was blazing inside and the men of Company I, at least, were warm and dry that night. For the other nine companies, their wasting time at Bolivar would continue for a few more days, and then they too would be on the march.

The Veteran Soldier: Regular and Lousy

The six weeks at Bolivar Heights was hard and sometimes deadly for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. Fresh water could be found at a spring about three-quarters of a mile away, but only after climbing down a steep, rocky, and wooded trail. Rations were issued regularly, but the quality was poor. Railroad cars filled with barrels of salt pork, crates of hardtack, and sacks of oats and corn, were sent to the army in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, but the food was often left by the side of the tracks. It turned rancid in the heat of day. It was soaked by cold rain, ruined by mold and mildew, and infested with insects. Disease swept through the camp, confining hundreds to sickbeds, and sending many to their graves.

But the men adapted to survive. They learned to soak their hardtack in their coffee. The coffee not only softened the hardtack, but also killed any bugs hiding within it. The dead bugs floated to the top and were easily skimmed off.

Sgt. Ben Hirst’s good fortune in having a Sibley tent for himself and some of his friends seems not to have been long-lived (see post of 09/28/12), because near the end of the stay at Bolivar, he mentions only a half shelter tent among his inventory of meager possessions. “My whole kit was the shoes, pants, vest blouse, and cap I had in Hartford. I had 2 shirts on my back, a stolen overcoat, and was a shareholder in a Rebel blanket, a fine assortment for a winter campaign, but there were other ones worse off than me, as they were without overcoats and blankets both, all we had at night was a flimsy shelter tent.”

On October 27, Hirst wrote to his wife Sarah, “I am in good health at present and have arrived at the stage that old soldiers consider veteran, namely regular in my bowels and lousy.” Old soldiers were old in terms of experience, not of years. His stomach now seems to tolerate the poor diet, and when Ben Hirst describes himself as lousy, he is not referring to how he’s feeling, but that he is now infested with body lice. He and every Civil War soldier would do battle with these vermin more often than they would fight the enemy on the battlefield. Cute little guy, isn’t he?  body_louse


A Day in the Life

Little of substance has been written about Lt. Col. Sanford Perkins. Sgt. Hirst blamed every misfortune and discomfort on his commanding officers, and he particularly didn”t like Perkins. Soldiers were always concerned with the smallest creature comforts, and it was common for a soldier to trim off the end of his belt so it fit just right. Immediately after the battle of Antietam, Lt. Col. Perkins ordered every man who had shortened his belt should to pay the price of a new belt.

Lt. Col. Perkins was certainly a strict disciplinarian, and discipline was something the Fourteenth Connecticut would need if the men were to fight well and survive. That Perkins was also a man of courage there can be no doubt. He would lead from the front, and he would pay a heavy price in the regiment’s next battle.

While at Bolivar the daily routine for the men was similar to the one below, as Charles Page recorded it in his History:

  • 5:30 – A five minute drum roll awakened the men. Any not standing properly attired for roll call when the drum roll ended would be placed on report for discipline.
  • 5:45-7:30 – Breakfast. The men had to fetch their own firewood and water to cook their meals.
  • 7:30 – Sick call. It was typical for the surgeon to perform a cursory examination of each man, and then return him to duty. Only the seriously ill would be sent to the hospital, and by then it was often too late.
  • 8:00 – Mounting of the guard. Thirty men would be selected from the ten companies of the regiment, and while the band played martial music, the guard detail would march outside the works to man the picket line for the next twenty-four hours.
  • 8:30-11:00 – Company or battalion drill. This was their basic training and it would have included marching and formation drills as well as the much needed manual of arms drill.
  • 11:00-3:00 – Down time for the men during which they would fix dinner, write letters, and see to maintaining and perhaps improving their daily existence.
  • 3:00-5:30 – More drill ending in dress parade, when the men were dismissed for the evening. After supper the men would gather in small groups to talk, play cards, or sing camp songs. It was also common for the regimental band to play evening concerts.
  • 8:00 – Roll call.
  • 9:00 – Lights out.

Food and Shelter…Or Not

You may recall how the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were ordered to drop all their gear—knapsacks, woolen blankets, rubber blankets, shelter tents, overcoats—so they wouldn”t be hindered by those things during the rigors of marching and fighting. They would be at Bolivar for six weeks and they needed that missing gear to protect them from the elements.

A Sibley tent could sleep up to a dozen men.
A Sibley tent could sleep up to a dozen men.

The men began to strengthen the Bolivar fortifications against possible Rebel attack. In their digging they discovered some Sibley tents that had been buried by the defenders of Harper’s Ferry to keep them from falling into the hands of the Rebels. Each Sibley tent could hold about a dozen men, and with a fire burning brightly in the center of the tent, it could be quite cozy. The tents were a great find to be sure, but there were not enough of them to go around. Sgt. Ben Hirst and some of his friends in Company D were among the fortunate ones and enjoyed the benefits of being warm and dry at night, while many others were forced to live entirely exposed to the elements.

Food was lousy, and their water was often unclean. Hirst wrote to his wife, Sarah, on October 1, that “all the rations that we have received since we occupied this place has been our rations of hard bread (hardtack) and coffee, sugar, and pork (salt pork). We have had fresh meat once, rice once, and beans once.”

Under the pen-name Dunn Browne, Captain Samuel Fiske wrote to the Springfield Republican on September 24, “Did you ever see a brigadier general riding along on his splendid charger, with a string of sweet corn ears hanging on his left arm, and onion tops peeping out of his saddle bags? I did, yesterday, and observed his look of triumph in the possession of the aforesaid articles, greater than if he had gained a battle.” Of course, the good and healthy food would be reserved for the officer’s own table.

The residents of Bolivar and Harper’s Ferry knew a good business opportunity when they saw it. Many sold loaves of bread and cakes to the soldiers. The men also wrote home for food to supplement their meager diets, and when such a parcel did arrive, they could all gladly echo Hirst’s words of thanks to Sarah, “I have just received the good things you sent me and it has put new life in me.”


On to Harper’s Ferry

A memorial service was held for those killed at Antietam by Chaplain Stevens on Sunday, September 21. The next day, just after daybreak, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut marched up Smoketown Road, past the shot-scarred Dunker Church and into Sharpsburg.

It was common for infantry regiments to have a band, and the Fourteenth seemed to have quite a fine one. As they left the grim specters of battle behind, the band struck up some good marching music, the spirits of the men were raised, and the southward march toward Harper’s Ferry seems to have been an enjoyable one.

In high spirits they waded across the Potomac and into the town made famous by the abolitionist John Brown. Then it was a steep uphill march to the Heights of Bolivar just south of Harper’s Ferry. Bodies of the Federal garrison that had been routed by Lee’s men the week before lay unburied. The men of the Fourteenth, who had been spared burial detail at Antietam, now engaged in that grisly task as they set up camp within the fortifications that would be their home for the next six weeks.

Fiction Connection: The high-spirited march and crossing of the Potomac made me ask myself, “What if…?” And the introduction of the cornet player in An Eye for Glory was the result.