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.

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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.