One of my favorite soldiers from Maine Roads to Gettysburg is Elijah Walker, who commanded the 4th Maine at Gettysburg and was wounded during the fighting at Devil’s Den. He struck me as a typical Maine Yankee—flinty, outspoken, and unwilling to suffer fools gladly, even if those fools were his superior officers. For instance, he couldn’t stand David Bell Birney, who commanded his division (and the III Corps after Dan Sickles was wounded). Other soldiers testified to Birney’s bravery, but not Walker. He described Birney as “a sarcastic Philadelphia lawyer” who was as “brave as a lion, when in a safe place, but in danger he wilted.” He also had little respect for Maine governor Abner Coburn, feeling that the governor “yielded to the influence of political demagogues back home, and commissioned men who were the reverse of worthy and desirable.”
Walker was from Rockland, where he had served as the foreman of the town’s Dirigo Engine Company. When war broke out, Walker remained uncertain about enlisting. As a married man with seven children, the youngest a baby of seven months, he had pressing family obligations. Yet he decided to answer the call to preserve the Union. Not only did he volunteer the 25 men of his engine company, he also opened a recruiting office and signed up 80 more. He became the captain for Company B of the 4th Maine, which was commanded by Hiram Berry, Walker’s former business partner. When Berry was promoted, Walker received command of the regiment.
At Gettysburg on July 2, the 4th Maine was in Devil’s Den, protecting James E. Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery. Worried that the Rebels might be able to outflank him from the left, Smith asked Walker to move his regiment to a belt of trees south of Devil’s Den and protect that flank. The battery, he said, could handle the front. Walker, independent as always, told Smith he could protect him just fine where he was. “I would not go into that den unless I was obliged to,” he said. Smith complained to brigade commander Hobart Ward, and Ward sent a staffer with orders for Walker to do as Smith asked. “I remonstrated with all the power of speech I could command, and only (as I then stated) obeyed because it was a military order,” Walker said. “The enemy were near, there was no further time for argument. I must obey and suffer the results, or disobey and take the consequences; I obeyed.” The disgruntled colonel moved his regiment to the woods south of Devil’s Den in the Plum Run valley.
During the ensuing fight, a Rebel soldier yanked Walker’s sword from his hand, but the Maine colonel managed to recover it during the melee. Walker was also shot, the bullet almost severing his Achilles tendon and killing his horse. The wound left Walker unable to walk, so he had two sergeants help him to the rear. He was trying to mount a new horse when General Ward arrived. He asked Walker if he was wounded. “Slightly,” Walker replied, “but if I can get on the horse I can ride.” Ward looked him over and said he was wounded worse than he thought. Maj. Ebenezer Whitcomb had also been wounded, so Walker turned command over to Capt. Edwin Libby.
Walker abandoned his horse for an ambulance and a bumpy ride to the III Corps hospital. “I lay on the ground, in full view of our Third corps amputating table, congratulating myself that I was not obliged to lose a limb,” he said. A surgeon cut off Walker’s boot and dressed his wound. Helped onto a horse, he rode to the rear until he grew too faint to continue, and then he found a house and made a bed on a straw sack. Walker reached Baltimore in a cattle car on July 5, and was home in Rockland two days later. “I always have and ever shall regret that I obeyed the order and moved my command into that Den (the Devil’s Den) which caused our entire loss of prisoners and most of the other casualties,” he said.
Maine Roads to Gettysburg will be officially released on May 1, 2018. In the meantime, it is available for pre-order at Amazon.