Chapter 10: Fresh Fish
While Mum cleared the supper dishes from the table, Cap starts talking about me taking over responsibility of the ferry right away, saying nice things like I’m so much better at ferrying than he ever was when he was my age, and how I know so much more now because I’ve made a study of the river, the tides, the currents, and such, and how my whole approach to ferrying is more modern than his.
But, behind all that flattery, I heard an urgency in his voice. With hundreds of soldiers demonstrating in Saybrook today, talk about young fellows going off to join the Union Army was probably the topic at every Saybrook supper table.
As soon as Mum came back to the table, I summoned up all my nerve, pushed my chair back, and stood up. “I can’t take over the ferry now,” I said. “I signed up with Captain Hawley today and joined the Union Army; Artillery, three-month Connecticut Volunteers. Three months, that’s all, and I’ll be back home. I have to be on the train to New Haven early tomorrow morning.”
“This’ll be your stop, boys,” the conductor called out as he walked through our car. Arms out to his sides, he tapped the back of our seats on each side of the car as he passed. When the train jerked to a stop, the conductor opened the car door, and—there being no platform—one at a time, we climbed down and jumped the last foot or so off the train and onto a bare hillside along a lonely stretch of railroad track.
“Where the devil are we?” one recruit asked.
“West of New Haven,” the conductor said. “Close to Yale College.”
“Close as any of us will ever get,” another fellow laughed.
The conductor leaned out the car door and pointed as the train jerked then slowly pulled away. “Follow that footpath!” he yelled. “Leads down to the camp!”
We followed the path for about ten minutes to the crest of a big weedy hillside that gently rolled down until it leveled out at the water’s edge of New Haven Harbor. We could see below us a hundred or so tents. We started down the hill toward the encampment in relative silence as the camp sounds rose to meet us. There were men’s voices, a drum, mules braying, a bugle, and over it all, seagulls squawking. Wafting in and around it all, the smell of a salty soup. I stepped off the path for a minute to catch my breath and take it all in while the others moved on.
I felt suddenly naked. My whole body wasn’t sure how to behave so many miles from home, farther than I’d ever been before. Legs a bit too long for my normal sure-of-myself walking. I let my arms dangle at my sides, having nothing to occupy them. I liked to think of myself as a fairly confident fellow back home in Saybrook and on the ferry, but at this particular time, and in a place that looked as temporary as I felt, my brain seemed to be banging against the inside of my skull trying to get out and escape toward something familiar.
“Hey! Fresh fish!”
A lanky kid made his way up the path, maybe a year older than me. He wore a dark blue kepi with a shiny black brim, the same cap I saw the Union soldiers wearing the day before in Saybrook. He stepped right up to me. “Come on, Fresh Fish. You look lost. I’ll show you the ropes, we’re all in the same unit.”
“Spit! Stop calling me Fresh Fish,” I snapped.
“Hey! Easy, there! That’s what they call us recruits. You know, they say we’re like fish out of water. You’ll hear it a lot. I already have. I went to a camp in Hartford first, got here day before yesterday. I’m from Weathersfield. Name’s Stephen. Where you from?”
“Fish out of water. That’s the feeling, alright. Saybrook.”
He signaled me to follow him down the path, talking as we walked. “You won’t get a real uniform, you know. Not yet. They started to run out days ago. See?” he said, shoving his hands down into his trouser pockets. “Plain. No stripe down the legs. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Oh, like the bird.”
“No. Just the letters.”
The supply sergeant sized me up—head to toe—then handed me a folded pair of pale blue trousers and a dark blue long-sleeve shirt. “A little oversize for you, but…so many volunteers…not enough…” he mumbled. “You’ve got good boots,” he said. “You can wear those. Here’s some extra lacings. You’ll get a Sack Coat when you get down to DC. I’ve got plenty of kepis, though,” he said, reaching up and placing one on my head.
I adjusted the kepi, pressed the bundle of clothes to my chest, and followed Stephen toward the next line. Even though the kepi was just one piece of a uniform, having it on my head made me feel different, like I was becoming part of something.
“Now, a musket for you,” Stephen said.
A supply sergeant standing in front of a small forest of Springfield .58 caliber muskets—butts down, muzzles pointing toward the sky—grabs one along with a bayonet in a scabbard, a cartridge box and caps box belt, plus The Manual of Arms, and pushes it all across the table to me. “Stow your supplies and report to the field for regimental drill,” he said, without looking me in the eye.
“Field?” I said.
“Don’t worry,” Stephen said. “Just follow me.”
Seems like all we did for the next two days—reveille to taps—was drill in a muddy field. Thanks to a certain corporal—one who took his authority a little too seriously—I can now load my musket in nine steps, and assume a dozen different drill positions, always returning to the Shoulder Arms command in between. I can do it all in my sleep now.
Early morning, on my third day at camp in New Haven, my unit was mustered into United States service. Each of us, loaded down with fifty pounds of gear and a musket, waited on a dock for our transport to Washington, DC, which they said would be on either the steamer, Bienville, or Cahawba. In either case, we’d be keeping company with horses and cows.
I didn’t need to use the heavy guide rope when I walked up the swaying wood ramp onto the Bienville, my legs felt right at home, even though I was carrying all that weight. In fact, my arms, my legs, and my brain snapped to attention.
“This ramp sure is steep,” Stephen said, grabbing onto the rope.
“Low tide,” I said, stepping onto the hay-covered upper deck of the Bienville.
“What kind of a boat is this, anyway?” Stephen said, pushing loose hay aside with his foot. “Look at all the big guns.”
“It’s a twin-masted, paddle steamer,” I said, “ready for a fight.”
As soon as we were all on board and the ramp had been pulled up, a voice shouted out: “All Union personnel report to the main salon at 1300 hours for a briefing!”
We found our way around a hundred or so horses on the top deck and down into the main salon. The speaker, a lieutenant-colonel, said once we got to Washington, we were to join others in our Connecticut regiment at camp Glenwood, a mile or two north of the Capitol. Next to him a colorful map on an easel showed the eastern seaboard; the Union states, outlined in blue, and the Confederate states, in red.
He pointed to a star, “You’ll start your march here,” he said, tapping the map, “Washington, DC.” He traced the pointer southward, following the direction, but not the course, of the Potomac River until he tapped his pointer on the Chesapeake Bay. “And this,” he said, tapping on a thin ribbon of blue that fed into the Chesapeake, “is the Rappahannock River.”
“You’re looking at about a twenty-hour march. I’ll give you three days to get there and set up camp. There may be enemy fire along the way. We just received word this morning that shots were fired into a train transporting troops, severely wounding an infantry soldier. If this report is true, this will be recorded as the first blood to flow from a Connecticut soldier in this war.”
He went into lots of detail to explain how our regiment was being sent in to build the first of many pontoon bridges, this one across the Rappahannock River, so the Union troops can cross into Confederate territory.
“Can’t go any distance in the south without running into water flowing one direction or another. Not many bridges. When your three months is up, you’ll have learned a whole lot about ferrying and crossing rivers.”
Stephen shot up to a standing position, raised one arm, and shouted, “Sir!”
“What you got to say, soldier?”
“JJ, Sir. He’s sitting right here beside me. He’s a ferryman. He knows all about rivers and currents and the like. I reckon he’d be able to help figure out how to cross any river and not get shot up.”
“Stand up and be seen, ferryman,” the officer said.
I stood up, and everyone in the room turned to get a look at me.
“Well, soldier?” the officer said. “If this is true, you may be a valuable asset to the Union Army. Are you as good a ferryman as that fellow says you are?”
“Rivers shaped the Civil War both strategically and tactically…during the Civil War…roads often ended at the bank of a river, without a bridge. You were expected to switch to a boat.”
“Connecticut three-month volunteers of 1861 served as an excellent school for the citizen soldiers of the State. Many of those who participated soon signed-up for a full three years.”
“Bay View Park, as it’s known today, was a training camp for Union troops during the Civil War. (Sargent Drive, near Howard Avenue, New Haven). A memorial to one group, the 9th Regiment of (mostly Irish) Civil War Volunteers, stands in the location of the camp as a reminder.
“Troops also camped at the Fair Grounds on Albany Avenue in Hartford.”
–“The Civil War was a River War,” Joel Achenbach
(for the Washington Post, Oct. 2011)
My thanks to the Old Saybrook Historical Society for their work in gathering material used in this series.