Category Archives: Life in Camp

Siege Work – Can You Dig It?

150 YEARS AGO TODAY the siege of Petersburg continued into its fourth week. Men of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Burnside’s Ninth Corps, many of whom had been coal miners before the war, were busy tunneling under the Confederate fortifications along the Jerusalem Plank Road line about two miles southeast of the center of the city. The tunnel would extend over 500 feet. Chambers dug at the far end would be packed with 8,000 lbs. of black powder. On July 30th, at 4:44 a.m. a tremendous explosion would blow a huge hole in the Confederate line and the ensuing Battle of the Crater would prove exceedingly ghastly and bloody, particularly for the men of the Ninth Corps.

But little of great consequence, except for the incessant sharpshooting was happening elsewhere along the siege lines. When Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early advanced into Maryland and caused panic to sweep through Washington, Wright’s Sixth Corps was dispatched to deal with the threat.

For our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut, it was a time of being always at the ready, but not being called upon to go into battle. To celebrate July 4th, they turned out in their best, and probably only, attire for dress parade, their first in over two months. Over the following days, they formed up to march, but only went a short distance one way or another. On the 15th, the regiment marched some distance toward the rear, likely in the direction of City Point again, and it looked like they were in for an extended stay. “Clean up the area, lay out streets, and set up camp,” were the orders. No doubt the men were pleased with this development.

Then, at about 11:00 p.m., after most of the men were enjoying deepest slumber, their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth galloped through the quiet camp. “Fall in immediately,” he cried. “Light marching gear.”

We must be needed desperately at the front, the men must have thought. Battle must be imminent for such an alarm to be raised. The regiment was ready to march in eight minutes, but it was only a work detail. Just as the Pennsylvania men were doing miles away, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut manned picks and shovels in the heat and dust to level a portion of the fortifications abandoned by the Rebels weeks earlier. The work lasted two or three days and then on Tuesday, July 19th, it rained long and hard, blessed and refreshing, the first such rain in six weeks.


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.


Desertion – The Other Way

As we have seen in previous posts, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with the rest of the Second Brigade, held an advanced and prominent position atop Stony Mountain during the winter encampment of 1864. As the harsh winter progressed, more and more Confederate deserters forded the icy Rapidan and surrendered. Late in February, Capt. Samuel Fiske was penning yet another letter to his faithful readers back home when he paused his political musings to record the following:

There, my reflections are interrupted by the approach of a corporal with two butternut-colored prisoners who have just deserted the the enemy’s picket post here at the ford, and waded the cold, deep stream to take refuge within our lines. They are men of some 40 years of age, with families in North Carolina, conscripted six months since, and apparently overjoyed at the successful opportunity of escape which they have long been watching for. They report the one uniform story we hear every day from such stragglers into our lines, of discontent in the rebel camps, especially among the North Carolina troops. Every camp is most carefully guarded, they say; no man allowed to leave on any excuse; rations very short and precarious; sometimes many days without any meat, and then a tiny bit of bacon or fresh beef, their staple article corn meal.

Throughout the Confederacy, there were pockets of strong pro-Union sentiment. This was particularly true in the high country of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Imagine if you were conscripted into the army of a government you didn’t support to fight for a cause you didn’t believe in. The shoes you left home with were soon destroyed by hard marching and the army didn’t replace them—you took the nearly soleless ones you’re wearing now from a corpse. Your empty belly gnaws at you constantly, you’re sick all the time, and you just received a letter from your desperate wife telling you your children are on the verge of starvation. Across the river, just a short hundred yards away you see the warmly dressed and well equipped Union pickets eating well every day and enjoying real, hot coffee. What would you do?

Of Boxes and Balls

A curious coincidence or deliberate deprivation of enlisted men to benefit the officers, you be the judge. On February 20th, 1864, Capt. Samuel Fiske (Co. G, 14th CT Vol. Inf.) wrote a lengthy letter to his readers about the regular practice of the provost marshals (military police) of opening boxes from home addressed to enlisted men. “The provost department is truly paternal in the affectionate interest it displays in the boxes which are sent on by express to the dear boys, lest they should contain liquors whereby said privates should be tempted to intoxication, to the injury of the morale of the army.”

Fiske went on to describe in great detail the savage handling a typical box might receive. “It is true that about half the contents of the boxes and packages get broken, spoiled, lost, injured or stolen in the opening process; everything is turned topsy-turvy, the apples, eggs, and doughnuts roll out in the dirt; pickle and jam bottles coming to pieces mingle their contents with silk handkerchiefs, flannel shirts and quires of writing paper (25 sheets), more than the taste of the donors would probably choose; the packages of tea, and the pepper boxes, and the saleratus (baking soda), and the ink bottle got into one mangled compound, and it becomes difficult to tell which is cowhide boots and which is mince pie, by the time the lid is finally pressed back to its place by some strong knee and fastened by nails, one of which passes through the toe of a slipper that didn’t get in quite quickly enough, and another ruins a vest that mother’s hands had made to keep her boy warm in this cold winter weather.”

Many of the boxes were delivered with more than half their contents missing and some were entirely empty. “But,” wrote Fiske, “it was a great consolation to reflect that they now certainly couldn’t get drunk on the contents.”

“But I have become more enlightened now,” he went on, “and can take wider views, having frequently heard the remark made, ‘Well, it would be a great deal better if these privates didn’t get any boxes from home. Uncle Sam provides for them well enough.’ At this stage in the conversation I have noticed that the bottle is usually passed, and they take another drink and a slice of ‘that pudding.'”

Fiske’s very next letter, dated February 26th, described a grand ball thrown by the officers of the Second Corps on Feb. 22nd in honor of George Washington’s birthday. A new 7,500 square foot ballroom was built for the occasion near Brandy Station. The best food and drink was consumed in abundance. Officers danced with their wives and other ladies who were in attendance. The picture below was originally sketched by artist Edwin Forbes and may be found at the Library of Congress (click on the picture). It clearly shows the splendor of the event; check out the chandeliers and flags. I just hope it wasn’t at the expense of the grunts on the picket line. But like I said at the start of this post—you be the judge.



Going to Meeting

150 YEARS AGO TODAY: For the men of the Second Brigade (3rd. Div., 2nd Corps) who had returned to their encampment after the “reconnaissance” across the Rapidan River at Morton’s Ford, Sunday, February 14th, 1864 was a special day. The men had built a chapel and on that day, a special service of dedication was held. Capt. Samuel Fiske (Co. G, 14th CT, a.k.a. Dunn Browne) described the event for readers of the Springfield Republican:

Dear Republican: We had a real dedication yesterday of a house of God, built of logs and plastered with mud, and covered with canvas furnished by the Christian Commission, pewed with log benches and able to accommodate 150 people with comfort. It seemed actually like “going to meeting” again, for we had a dozen ladies in the audience and good singing and a good sermon and good worship every way. When the chapter describing the glorious dedication of Solomon’s temple was read, it occurred to me that there was something of a contrast between the scene in Jerusalem and our humble dedication service on the bank of the Rapidan. But “all the people said amen” I think in both cases; and if the spirit of the Lord filled with a cloud of glory that temple built of fragrant cedar and overlaid with shining gold, perhaps He was equally present with us in our temple of riven pine overlaid with Virginia mud.

Blessings and Blarneyings

There seemed to be no shortage of whiskey in the Army of the Potomac, particularly among high-ranking officers, an indulgence the men of the Fourteenth would soon pay for in blood. But that’s next week. For now here’s an amusing story taken verbatim from Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

One day here at Stony Mountain General (Thomas) Smyth and his staff rode by the camp to the top of the hill. Old Pierce Barron, who was standing with a group of the men of the regiment, saluted and called out with all the true enthusiasm of a true son of Erin, “God bless ye’s, General Smyth.”

Smyth, who had Irish blood in his veins, and who felt in the humor to notice the old man, stopped and spoke to him. “What’s your name, my man?”

“Barron, sir, Pierce Barron, sir.”

“Barron—Barron, that’s a good name,” said the General. “Seems to me you look dry, Barron.”

“Ah, General, dear, I’m that dry I could hardly spake the truth,” said Barron.

And it is vouched for by the men of the Fourteenth that the General’s canteen furnished old Pierce with a drink that day. Another time as Smyth was riding by the camp, however, old Pierce was seen trotting along by his side, showering blessings and blarneyings on him, but the General took no notice of him, and the old fellow soon dropped away to one side, his mouth watering for the whiskey he did not get.

Note: Little is known about Pierce Barron. He was probably a draftee rather than a paid substitute. He was mustered into the regiment on July 25, 1863, and the use of “old” in the narrative implies that he was probably in his 40s, but may have appeared older.