Category Archives: The Lighter Side

Dunn Browne Court-Martialed

Courts-martial were a constant occurrence during the Civil War. Officers were frequently called away from their units to sit in judgment on various cases. During the late summer of 1863, Major Ellis spent some weeks in Washington on court-martial duty, and Captain Samuel Fiske had also sat on several cases, some of them involving minute, frivolous matters. Fiske (a.k.a. Dunn Browne) wrote to his Springfield Republican readers, “if you infer from these remarks that there is any great resemblance between a court of justice and a court-martial you will have a very erroneous notion.”

Captain Samuel W. Fiske

Captain Samuel W. Fiske

Indeed, in August 1863, while Fiske was still serving in Colonel Carroll’s Brigade (as he was at Gettysburg), an officer (not Carroll) filed a charge against Fiske. Suddenly a defendant, Captain Fiske reported on this new experience.

After remaining in arrest some days, and after appearing with my witnesses at times and places appointed to find the trial postponed, at last one rainy evening, when I had about concluded the whole thing an “ignis-fatuus” (a delusion) destined to elude forever my eager grasp, I caught it sure enough in the judge advocate’s little tent. Five tired officers had been gotten together and the case came on, while my witnesses, in rubber overcoats, stood outside in the rain till they were wanted. The charge and its specification, “neglect of duty in not preventing the straggling of such division of the army on such a march of five days,” was duly read, and the accused entered his plea of “not guilty.”

Then the single witness for the United States (who was the one who preferred the charges) gives in his evidence that he did not see the defendant using any efforts to prevent straggling during the whole march of five days, although he had himself issued him the most stringent orders to that effect, and the case for the prosecution closed.

Then the witnesses for the defendant, two of whom, however, had ingloriously “skedaddled” back to their quarters out of the rain, testified that the probable reason why the prosecutor had not seen efforts on the part of the accused to keep the men in their places, was that he was himself not there to see, none of them having seen him along the column in more than one instance during the five days; also, that the straggling of the command was comparatively small, and caused by the excessive and needlessly rapid marching, the exhausted soldiers falling out in spite of their efforts to keep up. Then a few words from the defendant, interrupted by the yawnings of the court, and the case was closed, the trial over.

But when a few more days had rolled away, a big document came down from headquarters, informing your humble correspondent that the honorable court had found nothing against him, unless it were an acquittal, and so ordered his release from arrest. So endeth this episode of his career.

A Real Character

As an author of fiction, I’m always in need of colorful, true-to-life characters. One of the characters  we meet briefly in An Eye for Glory is the new recruit Caesar Ferretti. I based Caesar on two real new recruits who joined the Fourteenth Connecticut during August, 1863, Antonio Capellini and Joshua Tripp.

According to Charles D. Page, Antonio was “a small man of dark complexion and baboon face, all overgrown with hair. No one could converse with him or find out where he was born. He could be taught but one duty of a soldier and that was that of drawing his rations. He was most careless of Uncle Sam’s property and when on the march he always straggled and would throw away his gun, bayonet, knapsack, haversack and canteen. It was a common thing to see him brought back with his few remaining effects crowded into an old grain bag slung over his shoulder.”

Page wrote of Tripp: “Unlike his scriptural namesake, who led the children of Israel into the land of promise, Joshua was not designed by nature to assist in leading the Army of the Potomac into the promised land of victory. In fact this second Joshua’s intellect was so infinitesimal that he could hardly tell the muzzle of his gun from the breech and many remember the ludicrous attempts to teach him how to shoulder his gun. Few will forget his being mounted upon a barrel at the quarters of the Brigade Guard and the frequent trips of the major to attempt to teach him this first requisite of a soldier’s service. This, however. was useless and was only terminated when the head of the barrel gave way and poor Tripp passed temporarily out of sight.”

Such was the quality of some of the new members of the valiant Fourteenth Regiment. Here’s how Michael Palmer, who had been recently promoted to sergeant, described my composite character, Caesar Ferretti, in a letter to his wife. “He’s an Italian bricklayer about thirty years of age from Bridgeport. He’s short of stature with dark brown, almost black, wiry hair, a full, equally dark moustache, deep brown eyes, and a scruffy unkempt beard,… Although he speaks little English, Caesar made it clear he thought the army would be more enjoyable than masonry, but that was before he had been many days with us… Regular and repeated discipline has failed to produce any lasting positive effect—Caesar simply accepts his fate with a sheepish grin and a shrug of the shoulders. I can only conclude the cause is futile…. I can only hope when the fighting resumes, that Private Ferretti will cause no harm to himself or any others of the regiment who happen to be close by.”


Blackberry Fields Forever

My last post regarding the Fourteenth Connecticut in particular and the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac in general was “Agony of Victory” on July 19. The Second Corps was in the vicinity of Williamsport, Maryland. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had just crossed the Potomac and was withdrawing southward toward the Shenandoah Valley.

Instead of pursuing the retreating Rebels, the Second Corps marched down the north bank of the Potomac River. The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut passed through the site of their first trial by fire, the Antietam battlefield, and then went on to Harper’s Ferry. Unlike their first visit to Harpers Ferry following that battle, they did not tarry long, but proceeded on toward the Loudon Valley, where it was blackberry season. Captain Samuel Fiske provided this narration in a letter dated July 20, 1863:

Dear Republican: You ought to have seen our corps move into the huge blackberry field, or rather succession of them, last eve­ning after their hot midday march. The habit of military disci­pline prevailing kept the men in the ranks till they were regularly dismissed, though every tread crushed out the blood of scores, and Uncle Sam’s stiff brogans were soaked in (dewberry) gore.

But when the orders “Stack arms!” “Rest!” had been given, in an instant, in a nothing of time, in the hundredth part of the “twinkling of a bedpost,” the whole battle array was melted away; the glittering lines of stacked arms were all that was left upright in the field, the backs only were visible of a half dozen thousand tired soldiers, who are not wont to turn their backs on the enemy; and as the manna which came from heaven to the Israelites in the wilderness, when the dew rose in the morning, so disappeared this gracious provision of heaven’s bounty for our weary boys, and they rose (not very soon) refreshed from their luscious banquet.

There were enough and to spare. Fields and hills all around us are black with them—more millions…than our army of abolitionists can put out of the way in a week. But we are doing our best; heaped bowls and plates of blackberries for tea and for breakfast; a few black­berries as we went to bed, a few on waking this morning to take the cobwebs out of our mouth and throat (how much better than fiery whisky for that purpose), and now a few more to start on just as we are leaving. It has been a blackberrying on the grand­est scale I have attended for a long time.

Dissing the Prez?

During early April 1863, President Lincoln traveled to Falmouth to meet with General Hooker and review the troops. The afternoon of April 8 the president sat astride his horse, surrounded by hundreds of officers and other dignitaries, as regiment after regiment marched by in fine order. The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were to join in this grand parade, but many of them were miles away on picket duty.

The detachment had left camp the previous day at 7 a.m., relieved the retiring picket at 10 a.m., and remained awake at their posts for the next twenty-four hours. When they were in turn relieved, there was but one thought for each man – return to camp and get some sleep. Here is Sgt. Benjamin Hirst’s commentary on the event:

“Instead of going back to camp we were marched four miles out of our way to join our regiment at a Grand Review at which Lincoln was present. I reckon there was some swearing while we were going, and coming back. Just imagine us; all our regiment that could be got together were there, with their best bib and tucker on, showing off to kill, and us poor devils, after being on duty a day and a half, were formed in a division by ourselves. We had our overcoats on, and our blankets in a coil around our shoulders, besides our haversacks and dirty cups hitched to them and we were all dirty and sleepy, and some of us had axes to carry. I had one, a five-pounder, on one shoulder and my gun on the other. But so it was, and it was nothing of a surprise to me, to see that the President should come a little more to the front as we approached him, to see what kind of men should come along next. However, I think they were somewhat surprised to hear that we were in the Approved Light Marching Order of the Army of the Potomac.

“However, it was a big thing, and I saw the Rail Splitter, and he did or might have seen me, so we are square on that point. I hope next time he comes he will send his paymaster, who would be a first-rate substitute.”


Mule Resurrected

The following bit of hilarity was submitted to the Springfield, MA Republican newspaper by Capt. Samuel Fiske, a.k.a. Dunn Browne:

Camp near Falmouth, Va., March 13, 1863

Dear Republican: Speaking of mules, did I tell you a little anec­dote illustrative of the suicidal spirit that sometimes takes pos­session of these dulcet-voiced animals who lull me to rest by their nightly melodies here on the sweet plains of old Virginia? The other morning as I was taking the air a little before breakfast (in other words, lugging a big log of firewood a couple of miles through the mud to camp on my shoulder), stopping a few mo­ments to admire the beautiful scenery before me (as well as to rest my back a bit), I noticed quite a commotion in the water of a little stream that flows through the valley below where I was standing. Three men were up to their middle in the brook, pull­ing and lifting at some large object which I took to be a stump or log of wood which they were trying to rescue from the flood for the fire.

But soon up drove another man with a span of mules and a long log-chain attached, which he quickly passed in to his comrades and they dexterously fastened round a projecting part of the object in their hands. Crack goes the whip, and out comes (with a strong pull) not the log I had expected to see, but the dead body of a mule. Well, thought I to myself, it is a little queer here in the army to see so much pains taken to keep the soldiers on the stream below us from having mule and water to drink, but let us be thankful for one instance of comparative civiliza­tion and decency.

But lo, the fellows, having waited a moment for the water to drip from their pantaloons, began to belabor the carcass with clubs and whips and kicks, and after some minutes of this process, as if brought to life by the cruel abuse, up springs the deceased mule and trots off to his tying post as lively as ever.

In investigating the matter, I learned that the mule, becoming disgusted with life in Virginia, or else being at heart a secesh (Rebel) mule, and wishing to deprive Uncle Sam of his valuable services, had deliberately availed himself of the pretext of going to water to lie down and attempt suicide by strangulation; and if the teamsters hadn’t plunged in and held up his head and actually hauled the creature out of the water, by the chain round his neck, the deed would have been accomplished. If anybody is dis­posed to doubt the above story, tell them your correspondent was there and saw the whole thing with his own eyes. Still, as he wouldn’t have believed it without seeing it, he will give everybody else the same privilege, always provided they don’t impugn his veracity in any degree.


Winter at Falmouth – The Lighter Side

All was not bleakness and drudgery for the men of the 14th Connecticut during the winter months at Falmouth. It was a common occurrence for soldiers of the opposing armies to converse and even exchange goods while on picket duty, even though this practice was against strict orders. Sgt. Hirst reported that they would make a small raft from a shingle and float coffee across the Rappahannock River to the Rebels, who would send the raft back with a load of tobacco. It’s interesting to see how each side was able and willing to supply what the other lacked.

Apparently, some of the company officers liked to indulge in alcoholic spirits. In Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, the following was reported by Captain Goddard (Co. B):

“What a winter it was…at Falmouth with no field officers, and with Captains Davis and Bronson alternating command of the regiment, for the former could not hold command a week without getting into some scrape that usually led to his being put under arrest. But it was no use to court-martial him for his legal training and his habit of getting the whole court on a spree the night before the verdict, led one judge-advocate of the division to say that it was easier to catch a weasel than to convict Captain Davis. “Ah, what punches Fred Doten used to mix that winter, as we gathered in each other’s Sibleys (tents). It was at some of these gatherings that Captain Lee used to give swan-like imitations and that ”G” officers used to trot out little ”Uncas,” the stuttering teamster, as a spiritual medium, who used to go into trances and therein deliver addresses on didactic subjects, but who got mad when Lt. Fred Seymour asked him to take a drink in his spiritual not material character. Quartermaster Dibble used to say that when Uncas got mad at his mules he could swear in the most unspiritual manner without stuttering at all.

Definitely not politically correct, but then little about the Civil War was.