One of my favorite poems from the Civil War era was one written by an author whose name remains unknown, an ode to the unheralded, uncelebrated common soldier (reproduced in this post). One of the points it makes so poignantly is that the officers, the generals, the politicians– they are well represented in the histories (perhaps overly so), to the detriment of that private in the ranks who, though legion, often blends in to become just one face in the crowd. That focus on the officers and leaders does a grave disservice to the vast majority of men who fought, suffered, bled, and died in service to their country. As the poem states (in part):
Nobody cared, when he went to war,
But the woman who cried on his shoulder;
Nobody decked him with immortelles:
He was only a common soldier.
Nobody packed in a dainty trunk
Folded raiment and officer’s fare:
A knapsack held all the new recruit
Might own, or love, or eat, or wear.
Nobody gave him a good-by fete,
With sparkling jest and flower-crowned wine:
Two or three friends on the sidewalk stood
Watching for Jones, the fourth in line.
One such common soldier is one that I have based some of my impression on–indeed, he was the first such private I began to research when I became involved in Civil War reenacting six years ago; this fellow by the name of Edwin Henry Charles Wentworth. His is a peculiar tale that leads him through some very challenging events during the war. Unlike many of the more celebrated figures, and in contrast to the heroic image many would prefer to paint, Wentworth was a flawed individual. He was part of one of the ‘first blood’ moments of the war. He battled in the botched Peninsula Campaign under McClellan and nearly was captured or killed in the largest Confederate assault of the war (Gaines Mill). He deserted the army, only to return under an assumed name, under which he fought before Petersburg and in the brutal trench warfare. He saw the war through to its end.
Loren Goodrich remained with Co. F and the 14th Connecticut for another thirteen days or so, crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers through the Loudon Valley; retracing their steps out of Harper’s Ferry of 1862. The regiment marched on through Bloomfield, Uppersville, Paris, and made camp in Ashby’s Gap by July 22. They pushed on through fatigue and hunger through Manassas Gap and to Front Royal. Regimental historian Charles Page notes by July the 24th, the army had so far outmarched their supply that they were angry, bordering on mutinous. Indeed, ten members of the 14th were arrested for foraging liberally off the land without orders (Page 173-4).
The Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 was Robert E. Lee’s last invasion of the north– an attempt to defeat the Federal army somewhere north of Washington, embolden Copperhead Democrats in the legislatures, and force a negotiated peace– as well as, tactically, to pull the seat of war off the bare Virginia fields into the untouched farms of Pennsylvania, where his Army of Northern Virginia could forage effectively.
The campaign kicked off on June 3, with Lee moving his army north, through Manassas Gap and into the Shenandoah Valley on the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where their movements would be masked by the peaks; and where their flank would be protected by the barrier of the hills and the river. The Army of Northern Virginia already had quite a lead over the Federals by mid-June, as they were near Winchester Virginia and the Army of the Potomac was just setting out– having realized, finally, that Lee was on the march– and northwards!– threatening the capital and their critical line of supply.
The Union Army of the Potomac’s battle at Chancellorsville was a messy affair– and a brief one. Union General Joseph Hooker (born rather near me in Hadley, Massachusetts) sought to reverse the continual ill fortunes of his command following two years of loss after loss, retreat after retreat, with yet another advance across the Rappahannock in the late spring of 1863. Bold in conception, Hooker’s plan called for a masking force to remain before Fredericksburg on the rebel front, while the bulk of the army moved to the west, crossing the river at United States Ford, then pressing east, striking at Lee’s rear. This plan avoided the foible of the frontal assault that doomed the campaign at Fredericksburg the year before, and perhaps might have succeeded, had it not been for the combination of an audacious move by Lee to split his forces before a superior foe, and blazing incompetence on the part of the corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac.
The balance of the winter of 1863 after the Mud March was comparatively quiet for Loren Goodrich and the rest
of his pards in the 14th Connecticut. There was a small amount of excitement around Connecticut’s annual elections, where the conservative Democratic party was attempting to make some hay around the specter of dissatisfaction with the war effort among the soldiers at the front. Regimental historian Charles Page notes that the men got together at dress parade on March 24 and passed, nearly unanimously, resolutions endorsing Governor Buckingham (Page 113). The mood may not have been fully as unanimous as Page suggests, as Goodrich’s letter home of about a month later indicates a mood amongst the men that was souring towards the war– indeed, he may well have been one of the dissenters that Page glossed over in favor of the party line.
The winter of 1863-4 was difficult for the 14th Connecticut, and for Loren Goodrich in their Falmouth Virginia camp– and worse when they left it. The weather was cold, stormy, and rainy. Sleeping in the elements day in and day out can take quite a bit out of a body– and so it was that two brothers with Company K, Francis and Frederick Hollister of Chatham, died of exposure within half an hour of each other (Page 110) on December 23 1862 (Historical Data Systems, Inc). Regimental historian Charles Pages notes that the brothers lost their blankets in the confusion at Antietam, and “…had to sleep out of doors or crouch scantily clad all night long over a smoky camp-fire.” The brothers were buried together (Page 110).
The ancient Roman army had a tradition called “decimation,” by which a unit that had performed some ill-deed would be punished by being ordered by a senior commander to be broken up into groups of ten. In that group, one member would be selected to be beaten to death, usually with stones or clubs. The punishment for the Fourteenth Connecticut was the inverse after Fredericksburg– they were reduced to a shell of their former selves. Officers and private soldiers alike had been struck dead, or wounded grievously at Fredericksburg. Regimental historian Charles Page quotes Sergeant Wade, who relates the return of Captain Moore of Goodrich’s Company F from the District of Columbia– where he’d been during the battle at Fredericksburg, missing the fight– to see the battered remains of his unit thus:
“December 17th– Captain Moore returned to the regiment. He had been sent to Washington a day or two before we moved over to Fredericksburg, to get us camp kettles and other property belonging to us, and as luck would have it, he was out of the last engagement, — for had he been with us, another noble officer would doubtless have been killed: for all the regiment knows that there never was a fight yet, but what he always took the lead, and seeing only a little band of us left, — scarcely one hundred fit for duty,– his feelings over-powered him, and for a while he was completely overcome” (Page 107).
December of 1862 saw Loren Goodrich and his 14th Connecticut engaged in yet another titanic battle that would exact a terrible price on the new regiment, already battle-hardened after only three month’s service to the Federal cause. From a solid plan of battle, poor execution and a terrible selection of ground on which to assault the rebel troops doomed the Federal army to another dismal failure; and the common soldier would pay the price yet again for the mismanagement and bungling of the leadership. In this fight as in many to follow, the battle at Fredericksburg would presage the carnage of the Great War some fifty years later in scope, and in horror.
While his earlier letters home told some of the terrors of the battlefield, the tone and tenor of the letter Goodrich sent back in December tells the tale of his anguish and shock. Where he seemed to have some confidence in success, and in the army, Goodrich’s December letter sees some erosion of that, as he castigates some vainglorious officers for their wasting of the lives of the private soldiers, for what would amount to no gain at all.
Something those of us involved in Civil War reenacting and living histories hear quite a bit from the secessionist reenactors is the old chestnut that “The war wasn’t about slavery. It was about States’ Rights / tariffs/ Northern Aggression / some-other-twaddle.” Sure, the principle of tariffs were bound up in the whole ordeal, but there was really only one “State’s Right” that the secessionist leaders in Montgomery, or Mobile, or Richmond were really interested in: Their perceived rights to own slaves as human chattel. The typical “not about slavery” statement, while well-loved by those that choose to wear the grey, is pure, unadulterated tripe; and does a grave disservice to the actual history; and their presentation of it to the public does a grave disservice to those that they share their revisionist history with.
After the titanic battle of Antietam, commanding General George McClellan began again to exhibit what Lincoln would refer to as “a case of the slows,” allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to pass unmolested back into the safe and friendly (if war-worn) fields of Virginia. Finally, on Monday September 22nd, the Army of the Potomac began a move south (having given Lee a three-day lead), and the Fourteenth Connecticut with Loren Goodrich in the ranks, joined the pursuit. According to regimental historian Charles Page, the march towards Harper’s Ferry was led by the band with music, playing favorite airs such as “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel,” “Dixie,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “Old Virginia.” A particularly specially adored song was noted by Colonel Hitchcock of the nearby 138th Pennsylvania– “John Brown’s Body” — all the more appropriate, given their approach to the place where Brown’s penultimate act played out (Page 60-61).