On this Memorial Day weekend it seems appropriate to remember a soldier I wrote about in Maine Roads to Gettysburg who fell in combat during the Civil War. Hiram Berry’s road never reached Gettysburg—a Confederate sharpshooter killed him at Chancellorsville, not long after Berry’s division had shored up the Union lines following the rout of the XI Corps under Oliver Otis Howard (another Maine man). Berry’s death was a great loss to the Army of the Potomac. He had proven himself capable and dependable. Corps command was certainly a possibility. Berry’s biographer claims that some people even discussed the idea that Berry might one day command the army.
Berry was born on August 27, 1824, on the family farm in what is now Rockland. He grew up with a love of reading and of horses. When he was 21, Berry and another local man named Elijah Walker began working together as carpenters. Berry soon expanded his carpentry work into contracting and building and eventually become one of Rockland’s most prominent businessmen and its mayor. He married Almira M. Brown in 1845 and the couple had one daughter, Lucy.
When young, Berry had wanted to attend West Point. Berry’s mother, however, objected, so he joined a local artillery company instead. Later he organized the Rockland City Guards, a militia unit that wore flashy blue-and-gold uniforms with high bearskin hats. On August 31, 1858, the Guards served as an escort for Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi when the former secretary of war and the future president of the Confederate States of America visited Belfast. “With such troops as are now before me, we may defy the combined forces of the world and shout the song of freedom forever,” said Davis. (On the same trip to Maine, Davis also received an honorary degree from Bowdoin College.)
Berry was a Democrat, not a Lincoln Republican, but he traveled to Augusta to volunteer his services as soon as the war started. He returned home with the approval to raise a regiment, the 4th Maine. He led the brigade at First Bull Run. He commanded a brigade during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, and earned the firm friendship of General Joseph Hooker when Berry arrived in the nick of time to support Hooker at the Battle of Williamsburg. The campaign took its toll on Berry, though. He fell ill, probably from malaria, and his hair started falling out in clumps. After recuperating in Rockland, he was back in the field for the Battle of Fredericksburg. That battle appeared to take a mental toll. Elijah Walker, who had taken command of the 4th Maine after Berry’s promotion, recalled how the general had approached him the morning after the battle, put his head on Walker’s shoulder, and wept so bitterly he could not speak. Two staff officers gently ushered Berry away. “One hour later he was in his saddle, directing his brigade, as cool and calm as though nothing had happened,” Walker said.
Before Chancellorsville, Berry received promotion to major general and command of Hooker’s old division in the III Corps. It was in that capacity that he was shot down on Sunday, May 3, 1863. A few days earlier he had told his quartermaster, James Rusling, that he didn’t expect to survive the battle. Hooker, now in command of the Army of the Potomac, rode up minutes after Berry died. “My God, Berry, why was this to happen?” he cried. “Why was the man on whom I relied so much to be taken away in this manner?” He had the body sent to the rear. Members of the 4th Maine, Berry’s old regiment, were marching by as the general’s corpse was being taken away. They insisted that the stretcher bearers stop and place their burden on the ground. Then each man filed by and “kissed the cold brow of the man they had loved and had first followed into battle, and then silently and tearfully took their places in the ranks.” Quartermaster Rusling ordered the construction of a coffin and had it draped with Berry’s headquarters flag.
Hiram Berry’s body was taken to Washington for embalming, and then by steamer to Portland, where it lay in state at city hall. From Portland, the steamer Harvest Moon took the coffin to Rockland. Berry returned home on a lovely spring day. Once the steamer came into view at the mouth of the harbor, a cannon fired from the city, and followed up with a shot each minute. Stores and businesses closed, and the citizens of Rockland flocked to the waterfront to await the Harvest Moon. An honor guard from the 7th Maine accompanied the hearse through the crowded but silent streets to the general’s home, where the body was placed in the parlor. His battle sword and a sword the 4th Maine had presented to him lay on a table next to the coffin. He was buried in Achorn Cemetery the next day. By then the bright spring weather had turned gloomy, “as through sympathizing with the mournful scene beneath.”