Near-Death Experience


Material about John Chase from his pension file at the National Archives.

Private John Chase, a “rugged farm boy” who had been working as a soap boiler in the Augusta area, was with the 5th Maine Battery during the Civil War. He later won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Chancellorsville, but went through a much worse ordeal at Gettysburg

First, though, he underwent a religious conversion. He had never been particularly religious when he had been growing up, but that changed on the night of July 1, 1863, when he heard a chaplain preaching to the men on the Gettysburg battlefield. Chase went behind his cannon, knelt on the ground, and said his first prayer. When he stood up, Chase said, “I was a very different boy than I was when I knelt down. I felt light as a bird; all the darkness and doubts had disappeared, and I was rejoicing in God’s holy light.” Chase’s newfound faith would soon undergo a severe test.


The monument to the 5th Maine (Stevens’s) Battery at Gettysburg. Chase was wounded near here.

On July 2 Chase’s battery was engaged in an artillery duel with the Rebel guns on Benner’s Hill to the north when a shell exploded only three or four feet away from Chase. The effect was violent and terrible. The blast tore the clothes from Chase’s body, nearly ripped off his right arm, tore out his left eye, and riddled his body with 48 other wounds. It seemed that no one could have survived such horrible injuries, and two men carried what remained of Chase to the rear and placed him on the ground near the rock where he had prayed the night before.

Yet Chase wasn’t dead. Years later, he recollected having an out-of-body experience while he lay unconscious on the battlefield. He remembered feeling “perfectly happy” as he looked down on his mangled physical form. “I was taken to a very beautiful place where all was peace and joy,” he said. His visit was all too short.

On July 4 a burial party lifted up Chase’s apparently lifeless and placed it in the back of a wagon for burial. Chase moaned. As he regained consciousness, his first words were, “Did we win the battle?” He was taken to a field hospital at the Isaac Lightner barn on the Baltimore Pike, where he lingered for three more days. No one believed he had a chance to survive. Then he was moved to the Lutheran Seminary, where his wounds became infected. The medical personnel put him in a tent outside to die. A soldier from the 8th Virginia, considered another lost cause, was placed in the tent with him. The two men clasped hands, seeking comfort and hoping for survival, but the Rebel soldier died during the night.

John chase

A photo of Chase, showing the severity of his wounds.

Chaplain J. O. Sloan, who was ministering to the wounded for the United States Christian Commission, said that seeing Chase was “one of the worst scenes that ever came under my observation.” Even though the doctors said Chase could live for no more than a day or two, the chaplain decided to do what he could for the badly wounded man. Twice a day he applied poultices of “pulverized charcoal and flax seed” and tended to him. Whether it was the poultices, an act of God, or Chase’s own will, the wounded soldier defied the odds and was eventually moved to a hospital in Philadelphia, and then home to Maine. He was discharged from the army on November 25, 1863.

After the war, Chase married and had six children. He served as a messenger in the Maine House of Representatives, and became an inventor, with 47 patents to his name. His first was for a hoopskirt with an attached bustle; his last was for a flying machine. Said one newspaper account, “According to Capt. Chase the Wright brothers will have to look to their laurels, for he is more than confident that his ship will sail the balmy air in the near future and will turn all the somersaults that will be required of a faithful flying bird of the mechanical type.” Chase was living in Florida when he died in 1914.

Maine Roads to Gettysburg will be published on May 1, 2018, by Stackpole Books. You can pre-order it here.





“A Breastwork Ready Made”

38.17th MEOne of my favorite monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield is that of the 17th Maine. It stands at the spot on the edge of the Wheatfield where the regiment made a spirited resistance to advancing Rebels on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. The Maine soldiers positioned themselves behind a low stone wall, just as the soldier on the monument—frozen in time—does now.

Here’s an excerpt about the 17th Maine’s fight, from Maine Roads to Gettysburg.

The 17th Maine rose up and made a dash across the wheat field toward the stone wall at the south end. Already “the bullets were whizzing,” said Lt. Charles Verrill of Company C. A sergeant fell dead. Like the wheat field and the peach orchard, the stone wall, under ordinary circumstances, would have been nothing special. It was “just a common old fashioned, thirty-inch stone fence,” Verrill said. On the battlefield, nothing was ordinary. “The stone wall was a breastwork ready made,” Verrill said, and the crucible of battle transformed it into “the best stone wall the 17th Maine ever came across in its travels.”

The Maine soldiers had barely positioned themselves behind the wall when skirmishers from the 20th Indiana came running back through the woods in front. Following right behind them was a mass of Confederate infantry pushing its way through the trees. They belonged to the 3rd Arkansas, the left-most regiment of Robertson’s brigade, and had been bolstered by troops from the 59th Georgia of George T. Anderson’s brigade. Sheltered behind the wall, the 17th Maine poured a destructive, semi-enfilading fire into the advancing Rebels, loading and firing as fast as they could. “And didn’t we yell!” said Whitman. “Couldn’t I yell with a will! As the boy said when he whistled in school, ‘It whistled itself.’ So I could say while fighting behind this stone wall, ‘It yelled itself.’ We kept on loading and firing as fast as we cold. Could hear orders, ‘Fire low, fire low. Fire right oblique.’”

“There was a dreadful buzzing of bullets and other missiles, highly suggestive of an obituary notice for a goodly number of Johnny Rebs, and we could see them tumbling around right lively,” remembered John Haley. The Confederates were thrown “into disorder,” and retired. They regrouped and renewed the attack.

Enemy soldiers to the right seemed to threaten the regiment’s flank, but the Rebels did not advance, perhaps stymied by the thick undergrowth. The volleys of musketry and the roar of George Winslow’s 1st New York Battery B on the rise at the north side of the wheat field combined to make a “fearful din,” said Verrill. He was also startled by bullets that came from the rear; given permission to investigate, he found Union soldiers—perhaps from the 110th Pennsylvania—who had taken shelter behind some rocks and were trying to fire over the heads of the 17th Maine. Verrill suggested they take up a position on the threatened right but they declined his offer.28

Lt. Col. Charles Merrill realized he had to deal with the threat on his right. He protected his flank by bending his line at an angle. The three companies at the end of the line, C, H, and K, wheeled from the regiment’s south-facing position until they were lined along a wooden rail fence, facing west. Such a maneuver was difficult to make while under fire, but it was done, though not without loss. Two captains, one lieutenant, and several enlisted men fell mortally wounded by the time the men formed their new line.

“We had scarcely finished this new formation when the dogs of war were let loose again,” said Verrill. On the right, the 8th and 9th Georgia pushed forward out from the tangled growth of alder trees that had been hanging them up, while the 11th Georgia approached from in front of the wall. According to Verrill, “never was loading and firing of muzzle-loaders done more rapidly than by the 17th at that time.” Charles Mattocks had three men loading muskets for him while he “blazed away” from behind the wall. Two men were shot and killed beside him. Franklin I. Whitmore, a sergeant in Company D, loaded and fired his gun while lying on his back behind the wall. Somehow a Rebel bullet still managed to tear Whitmore’s cap. George Whitman fired until his musket became clogged, so he found another one lying on the ground. Its barrel was stuffed full of bullets, evidently by an overexcited soldier, so Whitman picked up a third gun and resumed firing. Despite the storm of lead from the Maine troops, the Rebels pushed forward. A plucky handful nearly planted their flags on the wall before the color bearer broke and ran. Lt. Joseph Perry accepted the surrender of another, and pulled him over the wall.30

“It was a horrid place to be in, with bullets flying like hailstones,” said Whitman. “But one thing helps us; we are actively engaged. I always feel better when I have something to do. Yes, I could think even in battle; a fearful reminder of the dangerous situation in which we were exposed was in seeing the dead and wounded around us.”

MRGCoverMaine Roads to Gettysburg will be published on May 1, 2018, by Stackpole Books. You can pre-order it here.


A Tale of Two Covers

MRGCoverYou are bound to hit some bumps along the road as a book makes its way toward publication. Sometimes you find mistakes that need to be corrected; hopefully you spot them before the book is in print. Or you may locate some new information that would be really helpful if you could just squeeze it in.

Sometimes other things happen.

For instance, take the cover of Maine Roads to Gettysburg. While preparing the dust jacket, my editors at Stackpole Books found a striking image at the National Archives. It was clearly identified as the 6th Maine. The entire title reads, “Company of Infantry on parade. Part of 6th Maine Infantry after battle of Fredericksburg. At time of the charge across stone wall at foot of Marye Heights Gen. Hooker in command of Federals, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee in command of Confederates.”


This is the photo on the first version of the cover. The National Archives identified these soldiers as belonging to the 66th Maine.

That seems straightforward enough, to a point. The Fredericksburg battle mentioned had to be the fight in the town during the Battle of Chancellorsville, because that was when the 6th Maine stormed Marye’s Heights. Joseph Hooker was in command of the Army of the Potomac at the time, so that makes sense. Now, the identification of “Fitzhugh Lee” as the Rebel commander is problematical. Fitz Lee was the nephew of Robert E. Lee, and he was not “in command of the Confederates” (that would have been his Uncle Robert), nor was he involved in the fight for Marye’s Heights during the Chancellorsville battle. Jubal Early commanded the defenses on this part of the battlefield. Perhaps this reference to Fitzhugh Lee should have warned me to look closer at this photo—but everyone makes mistakes, right? I knew the 6th Maine had, in fact, stormed up Marye’s Heights on May 3, 1863, so I accepted the identification and Stackpole used the photo to create a nice-looking cover.


This is the original cover.

Still, something nagged at me. Once they had taken the heights, the 6th Maine had quickly begun to march up the Orange Plank Road toward Salem Church. When had there been time to take a photograph? After the fighting at the church, the regiment, along with the rest of John Sedgwick’s force that had moved up from town, consolidated its position around the Rappahannock River, and then crossed to the other side of the river early on the morning of May 6. The 6th Maine did not make a return visit to the heights for a photo-op.

The tents in the background should have triggered more alarms. The Maine soldiers certainly did not have time to set up tents in town, although it is possible that the photo was taken after they had crossed the river and returned to their camp. Still, there was something about this photo that just seemed too good to be true.

When double checking the photo information for the dust jacket, I went back to the picture on the National Archives’ site. This time I noticed that some people had added tags to the photo’s page, noting that the soldiers pictured were, in fact, from the 110th Pennsylvania, not the 6th Maine. Yikes! A little bit of research confirmed it. We were about to feature a Pennsylvania regiment on the cover of a book about Maine soldiers!

Fortunately, we had time to make a change, and I already had a good photo that would work. It was a shot of officers from the 10th Maine standing in a field after the battle of Cedar Mountain. (I featured it in this blog entry.) One of the officers—the one in the center with the pipe—is Lt. Col. James Fillebrown, whom I mention in the book. Fillebrown was Jim the adjutant who featured prominently in John Gould’s account of Nathaniel Jackson’s “speech,” which I wrote about here. At Antietam, Fillebrown was taken out of the battle by the ferocious kick of a horse.)

10thME at Cedar Mountain

This is the image we used on the new cover.

Whew! That was a close one. But all’s well that ends well. We ended up with an equally fine cover, one that has soldiers from the right state to boot. The moral of the story: double check everything!

Stackpole Books will publish Maine Roads to Gettysburg in May 2018.

A Senator’s Son

Fessenden, Samuel

Samuel Fessenden died at Second Bull Run. (Maine State Archives)

Sam Fessenden was the youngest son of Maine’s Senator William Pitt Fessenden, and he had already gained some experience with sectional conflict before the Civil War began. Back in June 1856, at the tender age of 15, Sam had run away from home to throw his weight behind the Free-Soilers in Kansas, when the territory was being torn apart by conflict between proslavery and antislavery factions. He headed to Kansas, determined, he said, “to rush into exploits of some kind, the more dangerous the better I thought, and looked around for an opportunity of acting on my resolution.” Senator Fessenden feared for his son’s life, but Sam had been lucky. His band of Free-Soilers had hardly arrived in Kansas when they were surrounded by a mob of proslavery “border ruffians” and forced back on a steamer and out of the territory. His father didn’t learn of Sam’s whereabouts until that fall.

Sam later attended Bowdoin College, where one of his friends was Thomas Hyde. After First Bull Run, the two of them found like-minded friends George O. McLellan and George Morse, and tracked down a lawyer named Frederick Sewall—a Bowdoin graduate who would later serve on Otis Howard’s staff and then command the 19th Maine—to swear them into the service of the United States. Then they went to Augusta to get the papers necessary to raise a company.

In Bath, Hyde, Fessenden, and McLellan opened a recruiting station and printed out handbills. They read:

A few good men wanted for the Bath Company of the 7th Regiment. Pay and sustenance to commence immediately.
$15.00 A MONTH.
$22.00 bounty and $100.00 when mustered out of service. Apply at their recruiting office, opposite J. M. Gookin’s store, Front Street.
Bath, Maine, Aug. 6, ’61.

They called their new company the Harding Zouaves after Col. E. K. Harding, a Bath native who served as the state’s quartermaster general.

Young Fessenden’s father wanted his son to finish his education at Bowdoin, so Sam did not join the 7th Maine. He served with the 2nd Maine Battery and later received a position of the staff of General Zealous Tower. He fell mortally wounded while leading Tower’s men into battle at Second Bull Run. McLellan was killed in a skirmish during the siege of Yorktown during the Peninsula Campaign. Half of the four Bowdoin students who had joined together to form a company for the 7th Maine were dead.

Flag Day


This is the national flag that the 20th Maine had on Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. It’s on display in the Maine State Museum.

Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about museums. In general I think they are among the greatest things in the world. Sometimes, though—and I hate to admit this—they bore me. I don’t like to read a lot of explanatory placards when I visit a museum. I don’t go to read things. I go to see things and feel a connection with historical artifacts.

In that respect, my recent visit to the Maine State Museum did not disappoint.

When I was a kid living in Augusta, my dad would take us to the museum when it was still housed in the State Capitol. The museum moved to its more modern facility in 1971. I had been through the current museum before, but I couldn’t tell you when. The last time must have been when my own children, now in their 20s, were young, and we were in Maine for our summer vacation. When I visited Maine in January 2018, I enjoyed going through the museum again, and was pleasantly surprised by its size and scope. There were cars and trains and boats; recreations of Maine living rooms and kitchens and factories; and even a huge section of the square-rigged ship St. Mary. Launched in Phippsburg in 1890, the vessel sank on its maiden voyage, after colliding with another ship while trying to make it around the “Horn” at the tip of South America and eventually running aground in the Falklands.

I also enjoyed the wildlife dioramas, realistic slice of the Maine wilderness, populated by mounted specimens of the deer, moose, bear, birds, and fish you would expect to find in the great outdoors today. There were also some live trout in the streams. I remember being fascinated by the dioramas when I was a kid and I was still captivated as an adult.

All that stuff was great, but I came to see the Civil War material. The museum had a bigger Civil War display during the 150th anniversary commemorations, but that exhibit has been taken down. Fortunately, there was still an exhibit of Civil War flags. The state’s banners had been displayed for years in glass cases in the capitol building, where they deteriorated badly. After significant restoration, flags now rotate through the permanent exhibit, where they are displayed in low light to preserve the fragile silk.

16th Maine

The regimental flag of the 16th Maine.

On the day of my visit, I was pleased to see the regimental flag of the 16th Maine on display. This was not the banner the regiment had at Gettysburg. The soldiers tore that one up and distributed the pieces among themselves before being overwhelmed by the Rebels on July 1. (I saw one of the pieces in the collections of Abner Small at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. The state museum had another fragment on display, too.) I was also pleasantly surprised to see a guidon from the 31st Maine, the regiment to which my great-grandfather, Daniel True Huntington, belonged.


A guidon from the 31st Maine.

The exhibit’s star attraction was the U.S. flag of the 20th Maine, the same banner the regiment had when it defended Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. A photograph shows that same flag when veterans returned it to Round Top in 1882. Even then the flag was in bad shape, but at least it’s been cared for since. This was the banner that Andrew Tozier supported in the crook of his elbow as he fired at the approaching soldiers of the 15th Alabama. Chamberlain recalled seeing Tozier through the whirling clouds of smoke, “defending his sacred trust in the manner of the songs of chivalry.” (As I wrote in a previous post, Tozier is now buried in the same Litchfield cemetery where my grandparents and great-grandfather are.)

Nearby, in a glass case, is the Colt pistol that Joshua Chamberlain captured from Lt. Robert Wicker of the 15th Alabama after the Maine soldiers charged down the hill and ended the fighting.


The pistol that Joshua Chamberlain captured on Little Round Top.

The soldiers who carried these relics are long gone, but at least these things of metal, wood and silk remain to remind us of what the soldiers did during that horrible, terrible, fascinating war.

Winter Camp


Adelbert Ames was wounded at First Bull Run when serving with Charles Griffin’s battery. In 1862 he was assigned as colonel of the 20th Maine.

For the ordinary soldiers, life in their winter camps was woefully short of adventure and glory. “Father I regret having enlisted for camp life is something that is not suited to my mind yet while I stay I shall try to do my whole duty,” wrote the 3rd Maine’s John L. Little in October 1862 while he was recuperating from illness in a Washington hospital.

There were some rude comforts. Pvt. Charles Doak of the 6th Maine wrote home to describe his holiday. “The day before Christmas we had to clean up our things then we spent the evening in merriment,” he said. “At nine oclock we went to bed and had a pleasant nap till morning then it was turn out to roll call then it was a wish you mery Christmas all over the Regt then after that came breckfast what do you suppose it was that we had well I will tell you we had baked beans and hot biscuit and coffee then we had turkey for diner it was nice baked beef and potatoes then for supper we had fried donuts and hot tea. We had the day to our selfs to go any whare we wanted to but that has pased and now comes New Years and thare is considerable excitement in getting ready to day for it.” Doak was content with his lot in this new life. “We have a plenty of cloths to ware and have a good log house to sleep in and have a fire-place in it and it looks a good deal like an old farmers house with the fire place in it to make it look comfitable and plesant.”

“I am well, but have no news of importance to write,” noted John S. French of the 5th Maine in a letter home on January 28, 1862. “[T] he weather is still morderate, and muddy, and, about all we have to do is to eat, smoke, sleep, read the papers, tell stories, sing songs, and—but I guess I shall make out that we do conciderable if I keep on, but then, it ain’t likely that we do all of these things at once oh! No of cource not.” French assured his family back in Lewiston that he was keeping clear of the usual camp vices of drinking, gambling, and stealing, and he had even been selected by his captain to serve as his company’s drill master.

George Rollins of the 3rd Maine decided to try his hand at writing for a temperance journal called the Fountain. He started with a vignette of life in winter camp, describing the variety of jury-rigged stoves the soldiers used to keep their tents warm. They were made of tin, stone, and brick, while a lucky few men managed to purchase real stoves. “Between the tents, may be seen numerous chimneys, usually of barrels and mud; but occasionally a confiscated stone pipe, puffs its satisfaction at being once more in the service of the friends of the Union,” Rollins wrote. “He who says that this randomeness of living is altogether an unpleasant one, is not of our number; for I assure you that a soldiers life is not devoid of its charms, tho’ it is not a life I would prefer.”

Adelbert Ames, the wound he had received at First Bull Run now healed, wrote home to his parents on New Year’s Eve. “With a stove in my tent and a buffalo robe as a blanket I manage to live comfortably,” he said. He remained busy keeping the affairs of his battery in order. “No one is more anxious for an advance than I, when our leaders see fit to order the movement,” Ames told his parents. “In fact I am very anxious to go into battle and whip our enemies, yet I have sufficient confidence in our commanders to wait without murmuring.”

Adapted from Maine Roads to Gettysburg by Tom Huntington. Available from Stackpole Books on May 1, 2018. You can pre-order here.

Family History

Service RecordAfter years of saying I was going to look into my family history, I finally took the plunge a few weeks ago and signed up for It didn’t take me long to find out that I have two direct ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Both of them fall outside the scope of my book, Maine Roads to Gettysburg. One of them served in a Maine regiment but enlisted too late to fight at Gettysburg. The other soldier was quite possibly at Gettysburg, but he served with a Massachusetts unit.

The Maine soldier was my great-grandfather. Daniel True Huntington was an 18-year-old farmer from Litchfield when he enlisted as a private in the 31st Maine in March 1861. His service record notes that he was five feet, five inches tall, had a fair complexion, dark eyes and brown hair. His regiment entered the war in time to participate in Ulysses S. Grant’s brutal Overland Campaign as part of the second brigade, second division of the IX Corps. It fought in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, was under fire during Cold Harbor, and took part in the movement across the James River toward Petersburg. There the 31st Maine fought in the misbegotten battle of the Crater, where it had 10 killed, 31 wounded, and 47 captured, including its colonel. By the end of September 1864, only about 60 members of the regiment were able to report for duty.

adj gen report

My great-grandfather’s name appears in the roster of the 31st Maine, as it appears in the Maine adjutant general’s report.

My great-grandfather must have seen plenty of action. He was still a private when he was mustered out with the rest of the regiment on July 15, 1865. (Ninety-five years later, to the day, his great-grandson—that’s me—was born.) After the war, Daniel Huntington lived in Litchfield, a tiny town in Kennebec County. He married my great-grandmother, Almeda Colby Haines, in 1870. They had three daughters and four sons. One of them was my grandfather, Arthur, who was born in 1883 in Richmond. Daniel died in 1918 at the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Togus, Maine, and was buried in the Litchfield Plains Cemetery.


My great-grandfather’s enlistment papers, from the Maine State Archives.

My father’s parents, Arthur and Josephine Huntington, are buried in the same cemetery. Arthur died before I was born, but my grandmother—we called her Gigi—was a big part of my life. She watched over us kids during the day after my mother returned to teaching school. When I was young, I would go with my family to the cemetery in Litchfield to put flowers on my grandfather’s grave. Gigi’s name was on the stone, too, along with her birth year. The year of her death remained blank. My grandmother was very matter of fact that she would be under that stone one day and the missing year would be filled in. I remember wandering around the cemetery and seeing another tombstone with the name Huntington. I realize now that it must have been my great-grandfather’s. Gigi must have known that it was her father-in-law, but I can’t recall her ever mentioning it.

IMG_1156I went back to Litchfield recently. It was a cold and breezy November morning, the sun yellow and anemic in a partly cloudy sky. I found Litchfield Plains Cemetery easily enough. It was on a fairly flat plain in front of the Baptist Church. A Civil War monument stood among some trees by the main road, the Union soldier on the top staring resolutely northward, his back to the graves. There was nothing fancy about this burial ground, just irregular rows of tombstones of all shapes and sizes, but nothing particularly ostentatious. Some were old and some were fairly recent. The cemetery didn’t so much end as it petered out at the edge of a field that stretched off towards some woods.

By now my grandmother’s stone had both dates on it. She died in 1991. Daniel Huntington’s grave was not too far away from hers. His tombstone was much larger than the one over his son and daughter-in-law. “Daniel T. Huntington,” it read,

Co. I 31st Me Vols
Sept 25, 1847-July 15, 1918.

His wife, my great-grandmother, is buried with him. She died in 1929.

A few days before my visit I learned that someone who is very much within the scope of my book is also buried in Litchfield Plains Cemetery. Andrew Tozier was the color bearer for the 20th Maine during the fight for Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Tozier was one of the three-year men of the 2nd Maine who refused to fight after the rest of the regiment returned to Maine when their two years were up. He and the other mutinous men were transferred to the 20th Maine, where the regiment’s new colonel, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, had to handle them. He dealt with them fairly, and almost all of the recalcitrant men returned to duty.

On Little Round Top, Tozier supported his flag in the crook of his elbow while firing a musket at the attacking men of the 15th Alabama. Chamberlain recalled getting a glimpse of him through the whirling clouds of smoke, “defending his sacred trust in the manner of the songs of chivalry.” Chamberlain employed Tozier for a time after the war, and lobbied to get him the Medal of Honor, which he received in 1898. Tozier died in Litchfield in 1910. Did he know my great-grandfather? It makes sense that two Civil War veterans with connections to the same tiny Maine town might have been acquainted. They certainly would have had a lot to talk about, if either one of them cared to talk about the war. Maybe Daniel Huntington attended Tozier’s funeral, unaware that eight years later it would be his turn to be lowered into the ground of Litchfield Plains Cemetery. And he certainly had no idea that his great-grandson would pay him a visit almost a century after that.

A Golden Star


Photographs of Abner Small, from the scrapbook in the collections of the Maine Historical Society.

Abner Small was aptly named, standing only about 5 feet 4 inches tall. He was born in Augusta but was living in West Waterville when the Civil War broke out. His Civil War carte de visite reveals a balding young man with a big mustache and a sardonic cast about his eyes. The accounts he wrote about his war experiences have a sardonic cast about them, too, though it took long years of war, including a spell in a Confederate prison, to infect him with cynicism. Small fought with the 3rd Maine at First Bull Run and later joined the new 16th Maine regiment as its adjutant. He left behind two accounts of his experiences. The first was The Sixteenth Maine in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, which was published in 1886. The Road to Richmond: The Civil War Memoirs of Abner R. Small of the Sixteenth Maine Volunteers. Together with the Diary which He Kept when He Was a Prisoner of War was published posthumously in 1939. Both make for excellent reading.

At Gettysburg the 16th Maine served in Gabriel Paul’s brigade of the I Corps. During the fighting on July 1, the advancing Confederates began to overwhelm the I and XI Corps, forcing them to retreat towards Gettysburg. Division commander Brig. Gen. John Robinson rode up to the 16th’s colonel, Charles W. Tilden. “Take that position and hold it at any cost,” Robinson ordered. He wanted the 16th Maine to delay the Confederate advance long enough to give the rest of his division time to retreat.

“All right, General, we’ll do the best we can,” Tilden replied. He turned to his officers. “You know what that means,” he said, and he gave the order to move forward.

“It was an hour when bands of brave men did heroic things which have been obscured in history by the turmoil and confusion of the general agony of the army,” noted the history of the regiment in Maine at Gettysburg.

‘The rebels fired upon us from all sides, from behind the wall, from the fences, from the Mummasburg Road,” remembered adjutant Small. “They swarmed down upon us, they engulfed us, and swept away the last semblance of organization which marked us as a separate command.” The regiment did what it could to hold back the rebel tide, but it was a doomed and bloody enterprise. Once the soldiers realized their time had run out, they determined that the enemy would not capture their flags. “We looked at our colors, and our faces burned,” Small recalled. “We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.

“Our color bearers appealed to the colonel, and with his consent they tore the flags from the staves and ripped the silk to shreds; and our officers and men that were near took each a shred,” Small wrote. Captured men kept the pieces hidden while in captivity, and many flag remnants eventually became enshrined in scrapbooks back in Maine. “I have one with a golden star,” said Small.


Abner Small’s star, torn from the flag of the 16th Maine at Gettysburg. Photographed at the Maine Historical Society.

I came across Small’s star while looking through his files at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. It had been pasted into a scrapbook, on the same page with photos of the young soldier. I assume the label in the photo below was created by one of Small’s children, the same one who had typed out transcriptions of his Civil War letters. Items like this really help personalize the war. It’s not just an event in the history books; the war was something that had affected hundreds of thousands of people–like Abner Small.

You can read more about Small and other soldiers from the Pine Tree State in Maine Roads to Gettysburg by Tom Huntington. It will be published in May 2018 by Stackpole Books. In the meantime, try Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg.


The full scrapbook page. Photographed at the Maine Historical Society.

A Peaks Experience

IMG_0140Peaks Island is 740 acres of real estate plopped down in Casco Bay, about three miles from downtown Portland. At one time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was a tourist magnet, with amusement parks and attractions that earned it the nickname of “The Coney Island of Maine.” It’s a little quieter now, but the island still has its attractions, especially if you are interested in the Civil War. For there are not one but two Civil War museums on the island, one for the 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry and the other for the 8th Maine. Each is housed in a big building that the regiment’s veterans constructed on the island to provide a summer retreat for its soldiers.

IMG_0139Of the two, I am more interested in the 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry. This is one of the regiments I write about in my book, Maine Roads to Gettysburg. It was mustered in on June 24, 1861, and was fighting at First Bull Run, as part of the brigade of Oliver O. Howard, less than a month later. Truth be told, it did not fight particularly well in that battle, which was a debacle for the Union forces. George Dyer of Calais was in Washington, working as assistant quartermaster general for Maine, and he wrote home to Gov. Israel Washburn after the battle. “The 5th it is said broke and ran badly, he reported. “Scattered and many are prisoners.”


The Fifth Maine’s Regimental Flag. 

Under a new commander, Col. Nathaniel Jackson (“Old Jacks”), the regiment improved. It fought well on the Peninsula and at South Mountain, although it reached the battlefield at Antietam after the fighting there had ended. It fought at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville as part of the VI Corps, and also participated in that corps’ epic march to Gettysburg, arriving in time to bolster the Union line on July 2 but largely spared from serious fighting. The regiment remained with the army through the initial stages of the bloody Overland Campaign in 1864, but was mustered out after it reached the North Anna River.


The war over, the regiment’s veterans commissioned the construction of a large summer residence on Peaks Island. It opened in 1888 with 15 rooms that the veterans could rent, plus a large central hall and a spacious porch. This is the maine reason my wife and I are heading out to visit the island on a foggy and misty summer day. We take the car ferry from Portland’s Old Port District, for the bargain price of only $7 per round-trip ticket. We find a bustling scene at the ferry terminal, as cars line up to board the vessel and a long line of pedestrians waits their turn. We finally begin to file aboard the ferry, which casts off and heads out into the bay. Behind us we can see two Tall Ships moored to one of Portland’s docks. They soon disappear in the mist.

It’s not a long ride to the island, and once ashore we find that it’s not that long of a walk to find the 5th Maine’s museum. It’s big, yellow, wooden building with a distinctive turret in the back overlooking the ocean. A friendly docent greets us at the door and fills us in on the building’s history. Today the structure houses a small museum with a number of interesting relics. Stained glass windows in the spacious main hall contain the names of 5th Maine soldiers. Glass cases along the walls include relics recovered from various battlefields. In a back room, there’s a regimental flag, plus a glass case that holds the coat and hat worn by regimental adjutant George Bicknell, who wrote a history of the regiment after the war. A shell fragment wounded Bicknell in the head at Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville campaign; you can see the rip in the kepi inside the glass case.

I don’t write about the 8th Maine in the book. It was not part of the Army of the Potomac and did not fight at Gettysburg, heading south to  South Carolina and Florida instead. As part of the Army of the James, it took part in the Petersburg campaign and in the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox. The 8th Maine Regiment Lodge and Museum is just a stone’s throw away from the 5th Regiment’s lodge, housed inside a similar large summer house. It doesn’t have as many relics, but it does offer rooms that visitors can rent. Peaks Island might not be the Coney Island of Maine anymore, but it does provide some Civil War history in a place where you might not expect it. That makes it well worth the trip.

“It is magnificent, but it is not war.”


Hyde, Thomas

Thomas w. Hyde (Maine State Archives)

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, in the fields and woods near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union and Confederate forces fought the Battle of Antietam. It remains the country’s bloodiest single day of combat. One of the regiments involved was the 7th Maine. At Antietam it was commanded by Major Thomas Hyde, a young graduate of Bowdoin College. In his memoirs, Following the Greek Cross or Memories of the Sixth Army Corps, Hyde recalled his experiences on September 17, 1862. Late in the day, near five o’clock, Rebel sharpshooters were harassing a Maryland battery from behind haystacks at the Piper farm. Hyde’s brigade commander, William Irwin, ordered Hyde to take the 7th Maine and clear the snipers out. Hyde had just seen a large body of Rebels move into that area, and informed Irwin of the fact.


“Are you afraid to go, sir!” Irwin barked. Hyde later came to believe he was drunk. (“He was a gallant man, but drank too much, of which I was unaware,” Hyde later wrote.) He asked Irwin to repeat his order so that the whole regiment could hear it. Irwin did. Hyde had no choice but to obey. He assembled his men and sent them into motion.

Of the 166 enlisted men who made the charge, Hyde reported 12 killed, 60 wounded, and 16 missing. He counted three of the 15 officers as killed, seven wounded, and two missing. “I suppose I was fired at in that battle a thousand times, and what saved me was that Providence knew that I was an only son and my mother was a widow,” he wrote home.

That night, Hyde and his surviving officers wept over the regiment’s losses. “We had the consolation of knowing that we had gone farther into the Rebel lines than any Union regiment that day, that we had fought three or four times our numbers, and inflicted more damage than we received, but as the French officer at Balaklava said, ‘It is magnificent, but it is not war.’ When we knew our efforts were resultant from no plan or design at headquarters, but were from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone, I wished I had been old enough, or distinguished enough, to have dared to disobey orders.”