Category Archives: 1864 – Winter

Armed Neutrality?

This term was used by Capt. Samuel Fiske to describe the situation the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry found itself in 150 years ago this week. From their already advanced position on Stony Mountain, the brigade (2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Corps) picketed regularly along the Rapidan River in close proximity to the enemy. The rest of their division and corps were encamped miles to the rear near Culpeper, so it’s easy to understand how these men could feel cut off from the rest of the army.

Add to this situation Maj. Gen. William French, who was then in command of the Third Corps, and whose reputation as a capable officer was in a nosedive. Maj. Gen. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered French to: 1) move his corps to the read of Stony Mountain, 2) to deploy his picket lines so they didn’t overlap the lines of the troops to their front (the brigade that included the men of the Fourteenth), and 3) to strengthen the security of his picket line.

Gen. French marched the Third Corps to its new position. Then he positioned his picket line directly behind Stony Mountain, across the only access to that rather remote position, and then he cranked up security so tight, that no one could pass through his picket line, unless specifically permitted to do so by himself or Gen. Meade. Communications between the Second Brigade were cut off completely from the rest of the division. Supply wagons were stopped and turned back as was a doctor going to the front to attend the sick.

But it seemed that even Gen. Meade’s signature had no pull with Gen. French. The wife of the chaplain of the 108th New York had just arrived by train at Brandy Station to visit her husband. Knowing of the difficulties of passing French’s pickets, the chaplain had obtained a pass signed by Gen. Meade himself. But when the happy couple arrived at French’s picket line, with less than a mile left to the chaplain’s cabin, they too were refused passage, and were forced to endure a long, muddy ride back to the town.

For Gen. French, justice would be both swift and severe. The army would soon be reorganized in preparation for the spring campaign, and he would be left without a command. And by early May French would be out of the army entirely.

Lady and the Camp

In my post dated Dec. 28, 2012 (A Christmas Gift for Sgt. Hirst) I related how Sgt. Hirst’s wife, Sarah, surprised him by appearing at the door of his hut on Christmas Eve. It was also remarkable because it was rare that an enlisted man’s wife would even be allowed such a visit. Conversely, officers’ wives were frequently permitted to visit their husbands, so the visit of Captain Fiske’s wife, Elizabeth, as mentioned in last week’s post was not unique at all. What made her visit special to the regiment was the way in which she was received.

Many of the officers’ wives would visit Stony Mountain during this winter encampment, but Elizabeth Fiske was the first to arrive. In History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry, Charles Page wrote: “She (Mrs. Fiske) was heartily welcomed and was the object of much attention. The band serenaded her with some of its sweetest music and Lieutenant-Colonel Moore tendered her a dinner at which the regimental officers were present. The menu was most elaborate, consisting of soup, roast beef, turkey, chicken, plum pudding, four kinds of pie, nuts, apples, cider and champagne, and two loaves of cake handsomely frosted, which the sutler brought from Washington as a present to the popular Lieutenant-Colonel. The band also added its finest strains to further complete the occasion.”

As this was the only recorded instance of such a welcome dinner, it makes one wonder how the wives of the other officers were received.

Happiness: A Good Chimney

Capt. Samuel Fiske (14th Conn. Vol. Inf., Co. F), under the pen name Dunn Browne, wrote to his faithful readers of the Springfield, Mass. Republican newspaper about the necessity for having a properly constructed chimney, having done it several times during the last several weeks.

“All my odd-numbered chimneys have drawn finely, while the even-numbered ones have smoked, though constructed with equal skill—my personal beauty renders it specially necessary to take pains with a chimney at whose fireside I am to sit—laid up with the same kinds of sod s and stones and plastered with mud of the same consistency. Virginia is the most consistently muddy state that I know; always mud enough in your front dooryard to plaster up your chimney, and of the stickiest kind. Won’t you come and sit with me some of these long winter evenings, dear Republican, and perhaps your different style of beauty might counteract mine and my chimney become perfect?”

The above was written while Fiske sat in hut number four, before the regiment moved to Stony Mountain on Dec. 27, 1863. After the move and setting up camp in cold, driving rain, he wrote, “The storm continued for three days, and was succeeded by the snappingest cold weather. For me personally, you know, the change was all right; for my present chimney draws like a blister, and never smokes any more than my mother.”

My present house has a real door, with hinges and screws and latch and bolt; an actual shovel and tongs standing by the fireplace; chairs, tale mirror, etc., yes, positively a carpet on the floor. But, beyond all the rest of the furniture, my chief ornamentation and pride, which makes me the envy of all the regiment and brigade is—a wife and baby.”

Yes, Fiske was somehow able to manage living in a small house, rather than a log hut, and he also arranged to have Elizabeth and their sixteen-month-old son visit for more than two months. His joy and not a little irony flowed into his writing: “We are housekeeping on our front picket line. I have a home, like a bird’s nest on the breech of a cannon. War! I don’t know anything about it. I am at perfect peace.”