You Can Go Home Again

 

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Speaking about Maine Roads to Gettysburg at the Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

This summer I headed up to Maine for what I called my “book tour” for Maine Roads to Gettysburg. I spoke at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, was one of the authors at the Books in Boothbay Festival, and did two really fun talks at the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick for the Pejepscot Historical Society. A few weeks later I went back to do a talk at the MaineGeneral hospital in Augusta and to tape a segment for News Center Maine’s 207 show (see the segment below).

I was born and bred in the great state of Maine. I grew up in Augusta, graduated from Cony High School, and attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick for two years. Then I realized that perhaps I should get out and see a bit more of the world. So I transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

In March 1983, after I had graduated and returned to Maine, I packed up my car (well, my parents’ car, to be perfectly honest) and moved down to the Boston suburb of Brighton. I was 22. That officially marks the point when I ceased to be a Maine resident. After living in Brighton for a couple of years, I moved to Washington, D.C., and lived in that area for a decade or so before relocating to Pennsylvania. I have resided in the Keystone State for 22 years now. I live not far from Gettysburg, which is good, but it’s not Maine. I have been a Pennsylvania resident for about as long as I lived in my home state. That strikes me as strange. I am not a Pennsylvanian and I never will be. I am from Maine.

Being from Maine is something that stays with you. The connection even grows stronger the further away you go. I still remember my excitement at a concert in Santa Monica when I spotted someone in the crowd wearing a WBLM tee-shirt. I kept Maine plates on the car when I was in L.A., and one morning when I was driving down the Harbor Freeway a car pulled in behind me and the driver began flashing the lights and honking the horn. “What the hell?” I thought. Then the car pulled alongside me and the driver began pointing to the back of her car. When she moved ahead of me I could see she had Maine plates, too. Suddenly, I understood.

There’s something special about being from Maine. For one thing, we are the only state in the Union with a name that has only one syllable. (Go ahead. Look it up.) Second, we’re tucked way up in a corner of the nation. If you come to Maine it’s because you planned to, not because you’re heading someplace else (unless you’re going to Canada, but we won’t talk about that). Third, there just aren’t that many of us, so Maine feels like a small community. Whenever I pass a car with Maine plates I always glance at the driver, thinking there’s a good chance it will be someone I know. It never is, and even if it were, there’s little change I would recognize him or her. Or vice versa.

One of the joys of working on Maine Roads to Gettysburg is it gave me the chance to write about people from my native state. I included accounts of soldiers from Bangor, Dexter, Rockland, Wiscasset, Thomaston, Waterville, and Hallowell, all places I knew well. John Chase of the 5th Maine Battery, who was horribly wounded at Gettysburg, was from Augusta. I learned that Selden Connor, who had commanded the 7th Maine at Gettysburg, was buried in Augusta, just down the hill from James G. Blaine, who also appears in the book. I used to play Frisbee in the park around Blaine’s grave. I had the opportunity to explore archives all over the state, in Portland, Saco, Brunswick, Augusta, and Orono. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I learned that my great-grandfather served with the 31st Maine. I found his enlistment papers, with his signature, in the state archives in Augusta and visited his grave in Litchfield.

IMG_2892I certainly enjoyed talking at the visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park for the official “book launch” in April, but talking about it in Maine was even better. At the Maine Historical Society talk,  a friend of my parents’ surprised me by showing up for the talk. I used to go duck hunting with him. Someplace there’s a picture of him, my brother, and me in a hunting boat on the Sheepscot River near Wiscasset on a frigid morning during duck season. My dad probably took the picture around 8:00 in the morning, but we are all holding cans of Budweiser.

Another surprise at that talk was the appearance of my friend Peter. I hadn’t seen him in decades. He used to live on our street in Augusta, back when life seemed like an unending series of whiffle ball, capture the flag, ping pong, and sledding. One year Peter, my brother, and I rode out bikes all the way to Greenville, a distance of more than 100 miles each way. We had an epic time. Peter’s family moved to Cape Elizabeth and contact was limited after that. It was great to see him.

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George Bisbee of the 16th Maine (Maine State Archives).

The Boothbay festival was a blast, too. I saw Sue, whose academic path first crossed with mine in kindergarten. Bill, a friend from college, also turned up. I was talking to a woman who bought a book and discovered that she was the daughter of another friend of my parents, who was also the realtor who had sold them their house. I met a woman who had an ancestor in the 7th Maine at Gettysburg, and an older man who told me he had an ancestor in the 16th Maine. “What was name?” I asked, feeling about as hopeful of recognizing it as I did when I peered at drivers with Maine plates. “George Bisbee,” he said. “His picture’s in the book,” I told him.

It is a small world, especially when you’re from Maine. It was like that during the Civil War, too. After the battle of Middleburg in June 1863, Walter B. Morrill of the 20th Maine was surprised to see that one of the Confederate prisoners was a man he had worked with while lumbering along the Penobscot River. During their march to Gettysburg, soldiers of the 17th Maine almost exchanged friendly fire with troops that had been sent out from the defenses of Washington. Those soldiers were from the 25th and 27th Maine regiments, and for some soldiers the encounter turned into reunions with old friends from home. When Thomas Hyde reached the battlefield at Antietam, one of the first things he did was ask around about people he knew in the 10th Maine, who had already been in the fight.

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The Joshua Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick (Tom Huntington photo).

My favorite experience on the “book tour” was speaking at the Chamberlain Museum. When I went to Bowdoin, the building was right across Potter Street from the fraternity I had joined. Chamberlain’s old home was then being used an apartment building for students. I recall it had been painted yellow and was adorned with fire escapes necessary to meet safety regulations. If there was any kind of plaque, I can’t recall it. I doubt I had any idea it had once been Chamberlain’s home—or if I even knew who Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was.

I should have, for he and I were fraternity brothers. We both belonged to Alpha Delta Phi. The window in Chamberlain’s office looks right out at the big brick fraternity house on the other side of Potter Street. (The building postdates Chamberlain, so it wouldn’t have been a view he enjoyed.) I had lived in the frat house for one semester and two summers, so it was a little surreal to be speaking about Chamberlain just across the street. Several of my fraternity brothers (and a sister) showed up to hear me talk, too, as well as several other friends from various phases of my life.

So I don’t care what famous novelist Thomas Wolfe said. You can go home again.

MRGCover

Maine Roads to Gettysburg is available for purchase now! You can find it on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or at any fine bookseller near you.

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On This Date (June 29, 1863)

We are only days away from the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s interesting to take a look at what Maine soldiers were doing on this date 155 years ago. The Army of the Potomac had been making some brutal marches as it made its way north in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. Many soldiers realized that a major battle was imminent.

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Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (Library of Congress).

On June 29, 1863, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard and his XI Corps reached the Maryland town of Emmitsburg, just south of the Pennsylvania border, after a “wearisome” march of some 20 miles on a rainy day over muddy roads.

When the 16th Maine, part of the I Corps, finally staggered into Emmitsburg on June 29, it had traveled 40 miles over the previous 26 hours. Fortunately for the exhausted men, their march of June 30 was just a short one, and they established a camp just north of Emmitsburg.

The 17th Maine, which belonged to the III Corps, established its camp on June 29 outside the Maryland village of Taneytown, where the locals treated the soldiers like a combination of conquering heroes and sideshow attractions. “Ladies and young girls distributed beautiful bouquets of flowers to the officers and soldiers; groups of fair damsels, bewitchingly posted in conspicuous places, sang patriotic airs, as the ‘boys in blue’ marched by, and the passage of troops being a novelty, the citizens turned out en masse,” recalled Edwin Houghton.Long after tattoo, groups of ladies and gentlemen were promenading through our camps, actuated by a curiosity to see how soldiers really lived in the ‘tented field.’”

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Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress).

Like so many regiments in the Army of the Potomac, the 20th Maine of the V Corps made a series of exhausting marches as it followed Robert E. Lee toward Pennsylvania. On the morning of June 29 its still-untested colonel, Joshua Chamberlain, began leading his men north from Frederick. Sgt. Charles Proctor of Company H was carrying the regimental flag, but he had managed to acquire enough liquor to get belligerently drunk. He began spouting abuse at some of the officers, who took the flag away from him. Members of the rear guard had to hold Proctor up to keep him on his feet. They finally gave up and left him behind.

Andrew Tozier took Proctor’s place as color bearer. Tozier, then only 24, had already led a difficult life. Born into poverty in Monmouth, he had fled to a life at sea to escape an alcoholic and abusive father, and then he joined the 2nd Maine. He was badly wounded and taken prisoner at Gaines’ Mill, but returned to the regiment after his parole. Tozier was one of the mutinous men that Chamberlain had to discipline when they were transferred to his regiment. But he was now the senior sergeant, so the honor of carrying the regimental flag fell to him.

The 19th Maine belonged to the II Corps, and the regiment made its longest march of the campaign, 32 miles, on June 29, but was able to spend the next day relaxing and basking in the patriotic sentiment it found in the aptly named Uniontown, Maryland.

On June 29 Capt. George D. Smith of the 19th Maine told Edwin Burpee, “I think we are on the eve of a terrible battle and I feel that I shall be killed or wounded.” He was wounded on July 2 and died in the predawn hours the next day. Smith was eventually buried at Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.

MRGCover

Adapted from Maine Roads to Gettysburg, which is available for purchase now. You can find it on Amazon.comBarnesandNoble.com, or at any fine bookseller near you.

The 16th Maine

At Gettysburg, the 16th Maine Infantry 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 Maine’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 said. Robinson wheeled and spurred his horse, which jumped over a stone wall and carried the general toward Gettysburg.

Tilden turned back to his men. “You know what that means,” he said.

“Yes, the regiment knew what it meant,” remembered Frank Wiggin, then a sergeant in Co. H. “It meant death or capture, and every man realized it perfectly.” Robinson was going to withdraw his division, and he wanted the 16th Maine to serve as a last-ditch defense and buy time for the rest of his men. Wiggin compared the situation to a pair of shears, with the two blades closing in on the I Corps, and the 16th Maine sent into the pivot point to keep the blades from snapping closed until the rest of the division could escape.

The 16th Maine’s last, desperate stand did not last long—probably no more than 20 minutes. As the Rebels pushed closer on two sides and the surviving men of the 16th Maine realized they were most likely going to die or be captured, thoughts turned to keeping the regimental flags from falling into enemy hands. “We looked at our colors, and our faces burned,” wrote adjutant Abner Small. “We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.” Captain S. Clifford Belcher, a Bowdoin College graduate who had just started practicing law in Belfast when he joined the 16th Maine, received the approval of the other officers and ordered the staffs broken, the flags torn to shreds, and the pieces distributed to the men in the regiment. The soldiers hid them away beneath their shirts or in their pockets. “These fragments were carried through Southern prisons and finally home to Maine, where they are still treasured as precious relics more than a quarter century after Gettysburg,” Small noted in 1889.

Total losses that day were around 80%, (11 dead, 59 wounded, and 164 captured). What remained of the regiment stumbled back through the town of Gettysburg and the relative safety of Cemetery Hill.

Col. Tilden was one of the men taken prisoner. Before capitulating, Tilden thrust his sword into the ground and snapped it in two. Taken back to Virginia, Tilden was one of the 109 men who managed to use a tunnel to escape from Richmond’s Libby Prison in early 1864. He returned to his regiment-only to be captured a second time. And he managed to escape once more.

Flag Day

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Golden Star

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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.

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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.

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