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.

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“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.”