The 17th Maine Finds a Wall

When the 17th Maine reached Gettysburg, there was some turmoil swirling in the regiment’s upper levels. Its original colonel, Thomas Roberts, resigned in June, leaving Lt. Col. Charles Merrill in temporary command. Merrill, a Bowdoin graduate and Portland lawyer before the war, had served with Roberts in a militia unit back home, and it seems there was bad blood between them. Perhaps the ill will trickled down through the regiment, or maybe its soldiers knew that Merrill had a brother who was fighting for the Confederacy, because a movement began to secure the colonelcy for Maj. George West—a move that was doubtlessly spearheaded by George West. He had been born in Massachusetts and gained military experience with militia there, but West later moved to Maine’s Aroostook County to take up work as a lumberman. He had begun the war as a captain with the 10th Maine. He had since advanced to major in the 17th, but he had his sights set on higher rank.44

As has had happened with the 19th Maine, letters and petitions began traveling from the army to the governor, recommending West and tearing down Merrill. A petition drawn up on May 23 and signed by 21 officers claimed that Merrill had taken the colors and gone to the rear during the fighting at Chancellorsville on May 3, and he had returned to the regiment only after his brigade commander ordered him to. That behavior, the petition said, “was such as to destroy all our confidence in his bravery.” On the other hand, Generals David Birney and Hobart Ward both wrote to Coburn to recommend Merrill, and other soldiers testified to his bravery at Chancellorsville as well.

“Col. Merrill was a kind, fatherly man, abounding in good qualities and he didn’t fancy the domineering and reckless ways of West,” noted Pvt. John Haley, who appreciated the major’s military skills, but thought West was cold and ambitious. “We admired his smartness and military genius, but as a man, we despised him as thoroughly he did us.” For the time being, Merrill remained in charge, even though his courage on the battlefield had been questioned.

The regiment arrived late to the battlefield on July 2, having remained behind in Emmitsburg to block mountain passes to the west. Merrill was still in command, despite the groundswell of support for Maj. George W. West. The regiment began its march to Gettysburg around five o’clock on the morning of July 2, and the men were disgruntled because they had not been given time to make coffee. Even without caffeine, the Union men summoned enough energy to cheer loudly when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania. After a march of about three hours brigade commander Regis De Trobriand allowed his weary soldiers a break. Many immediately kindled fires for the all-important task of brewing coffee—only to receive orders to resume the march before they had time to finish. Time was of the essence. As De Trobriand’s brigade marched up the Emmitsburg Road south of Gettysburg, enemy bullets started whistling over their heads. Had they arrived 15 minutes later, regimental historian Edwin Houghton wrote, they would have found Confederates blocking their path.

As the soldiers headed north, they passed Gettysburg citizens going in the opposite direction, laden with whatever they could carry. South of town, the regiment made a right turn off the road, passed through Sherfy’s peach orchard, and finally found a position near some woods along a rocky ridge. To their south was a 20-acre wheat field. There were woods at the far side, with a low stone wall running along the edge. Soldiers flung themselves onto the ground and fell asleep. The time was about three o’clock.

Many men were still sleeping sometime around 4:00 when a gun discharged from the peach orchard and jolted them awake. More guns began firing off to the south, where Smith’s New York battery was defending Devil’s Den. Lt. Charles Verrill of Company C walked to a high point above the wheat field to investigate. Off to the south he could see Union signalmen on the rocky heights of Little Round Top. They were frantically waving their signal flags. Before Verrill could determine much more, orders came for the regiment to move to their left at double-quick.

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,” Verrill said. 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.”

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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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Ames at Gettysburg

Adelbert Ames was the original commander of the 20th Maine, and he made a mark on the regiment with his strict discipline. The regiment made a name for itself on Little Round Top under Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain during the fighting at Gettysburg on July 2. Ames, however, did not have a particularly glorious experience at Gettysburg. He entered the fight on July 1 as the commander of the second brigade in Francis C. Barlow’s first division of the XI Corps, and ended it as division commander following Barlow’s wounding. The division was driven back from its advanced position on the rise known today as Barlow Knoll and suffered a casualty rate of nearly 60 percent. When he reported to Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard on Cemetery Hill, Ames said, “I have no division; it is all cut to pieces.”

Like Barlow, Ames did not have much respect for the many Germans in his command. Ames’s official report of the day’s fight is relatively terse. He devoted fewer than 200 words to the events of July 1. Among them: “My brigade was ordered to a number of different positions, and finally it formed in rear of some woods, near a small stream some half a mile from town. From this position we were driven, the men of the First Brigade of this division running through lines of the regiments of my brigade (the Second), and thereby creating considerable confusion.”

At the end of that trying day, Ames found space in the cemetery gatehouse and went to sleep. He shared the room with Charles Wainwright, who handled the artillery for the I Corps. Wainwright took time to observe the young Maine general over the next few days. “I found him the best kind of man to be associated with, cool and clear in his own judgment, gentlemanly, and without the smallest desire to interfere,” said Wainwright. “We consulted together, but during the whole time we were here he never once attempted to presume on his superior rank. Ames is a gentleman; and a strange thing in the army, I did not hear him utter an oath of any kind during the three days!”

Ames suffered more disappointment in the waning daylight hours of July 2, when his division was in the thick of a fight for East Cemetery Hill and did not perform well. Fortunately, Winfield Scott Hancock sent a II Corps brigade under Samuel Carroll to East Cemetery Hill and the reinforcements arrived in time to repulse the attacking Rebels. Ames was terse about the evening’s fight when he wrote his report. It is not difficult to detect some tight-lipped fury between the three short sentences he contributed. “On the evening of the 2d, an attempt was made to carry the position we held, but the enemy was repulsed with loss,” Ames wrote. “Colonel Carroll, with a brigade from the Second Corps, rendered timely assistance. The batteries behaved admirably.” He pointedly did not mention how his own infantry had behaved. Ames did single out three officers for praise—his assistant adjutant general, Capt. John Marshall Brown; Harris of the 75th Ohio; and Young of the 107th Ohio. It’s probably no coincidence that none of them had a German surname.

On July 3, 1863, Ames dashed off a note to Chamberlain after hearing about the 20th Maine’s fight on Little Round Top. “I am very proud of the 20th Regt. and its present Colonel,” he wrote. “I did want to be with you and see your splendid conduct in the field.” Perhaps Ames was thinking about his own disappointments at Gettysburg when he added, “The pleasure I felt at the intelligence of your conduct yesterday is some recompense for all that I have suffered.”

In a letter written home that August, Ames recounted how he was reunited with his old regiment. He was riding with Gouverneur Warren when the men they were passing began shouting and waving their hats. Ames thought they were cheering Warren, but the engineer corrected him. They were cheering Ames. “I soon found it was the 20th,” he wrote. “They gave me three times three. They will do anything for me.” He also mentioned that the regiment’s officers had chipped in to buy him a sword, sash, and belt. “The sword is very elegant. It has some fine carbuncles on the hilt—It was made to order, and all cost some two hundred dollars.” All that strict discipline had paid off.

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

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.

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.”

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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.