“Burn This Letter”

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James G. Blaine in 1860 (Library of Congress)

James G. Blaine is something of a forgotten figure from history today, but he was a mover and shaker during his day and came close to winning the presidency. A glance at the inscription on his tomb in Augusta, Maine, will give you an idea of his accomplishments. Newspaper editor, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, U.S. Congressman, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator—he could put all these on his resume. He was also dogged by allegations of corruption. His opponents called him “the continental liar from the state of Maine.” During his attempt to get the presidential nomination in 1876 there were charges that a railroad had attempted a scheme to pay him off; he had ended a missive regarding the transaction with the note, “Kindly burn this letter.” His correspondent disregarded the instruction and “Burn this letter” became a catch phrase for his political opponents.

 

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His

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Hers

Blaine was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Maine to become editor of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta. Oliver Otis Howard got to know Blaine when the future general was posted to the Kennebec Arsenal there, and Blaine later played an important role in Howard’s Civil War career when he help get him the colonelcy of the 3rd Maine Infantry regiment. This is what Howard wrote about him in his autobiography:

“His figure was good nearly six feet and well proportioned; his hair, what you could see of it under his soft hat pushed far back, was a darkish brown. It showed the disorder due to sundry thrusts of the fingers. His coat, a little long, was partially buttoned. This, with the collar, shirt front, and necktie, had the negligee air of a dress never thought of after the first adjustment. His head was a model in size and shape, with a forehead high and broad, and he had, as you would anticipate in a strong face, a large nose. But the distinguishing feature of his face was that pair of dark-gray eyes, very full and bright. He wore no beard, had a slight lisp in speech with a clear, penetrating nasal tone. He excelled even the nervous [Gov. Israel] Washburn in rapid utterance. Nobody in the Maine House of Representatives, where he had been for two years and of which he was now the Speaker, could match him in debate. He was, as an opponent, sharp, fearless, aggressive, and uncompromising; he always had given in wordy conflicts, as village editor and as debater in public assemblies, blow for blow with ever-increasing momentum. Yet from his consummate management he had already become popular. Such was Blaine at thirty years of age.”

Blaine still had most of his career stretching out before him at that point. He died in 1893 and was originally buried in Washington, but in 1920 he was reinterred in the park in Augusta that now bears his name. It’s a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking town near the National Guard’s Camp Keyes (which is named after Civil War general Erasmus Keyes). I used to hang out in this park on occasion when I was young, and I snickered at the blatant inequality between the inscription on Blaine’s tomb and that on his wife’s. When I lived in Washington, I often walked past his impressive Gilded Age mansion on Dupont Circle. Now he has some prime real estate in Augusta. Pity he can’t enjoy it.

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Give That Man a Pistol

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William H. Higgins (Maine State Archives).

Sometimes when you read a Civil War letter, the personality of the writer just leaps from the page. So it is with this letter from William H. Higgins of the 3rd Maine, written to Governor Israel Washburn on July 10, 1861. Higgins, who eventually became a captain, survived the war and died in 1900. His letter is in the collection of Civil War Regimental Correspondence in the Maine State Archives.

 

Dear Sir,

I take the liberty to write you  few lines at this time, being a stranger to you it may appear to you that I take too much liberty, but I think not, I am an American, I was born in Georgetown State of Maine, and the same state is the birth place of my Father and Grandsire, my grandfather was a soldier in the Revolution, my Father was in the War of 1812 and I am trying all that is in my power to fight for my country and her flag in this unhappy struggle, but I am not sufficiently armed, I have asked many times for a pistol but can’t have any. I have the confidence of my company officers and the colonel and Major, I have been trusted with a Picket guard and scouting parties, and can send you a certificate from my Superior officers that I am a fit man to be so armed, they tell me that the order is that my government is to furnish pistols only for the First Sergeants and all other Sergeants may have them if they can or will buy them for themselves, do they have furnished the First Sergeants all the drummers fifers Wagoners chaplain Musicians Qr Masters department and some others, now I ask you as you are the Governor of my state to send me a Navy Revolver from the Arsenal as a present from yourself, which I will promise to use faithfully in defence of my country, my company is placed on the extreme left of the Regiment and I rank as 2d Sergeant of Co. D 3d Maine Regt, my place in Battle in on the extreme left flank in the front rank, and I have only a smooth bored musket while those that never have to face the Enemy are armed to the teeth, I will wait patiently for your answer for one week, and I I ever was to return to Maine I will call and tell you whether you send me one or not.

Yours respectfully, Wm. H. Higgins

Old Jacks

Nathaniel Jackson

Colonel Nathaniel Jackson (Library of Congress).

When war broke out in April 1861, patriotic Mainers rushed to enlist in the effort to end the rebellion. The 1st Regiment, Maine’s initial contribution to the conflict, was organized 16 days after Sumter’s surrender, with Col. Nathaniel Jackson of Lewiston in command. It was a 90-day regiment and never saw combat, although some of its soldiers reenlisted in the 10th Maine and later the 29th. One of its soldiers was John Mead Gould, a bank teller in Portland who wrote a history of the regiments.

Delayed by measles (which meant the 2nd ME left the state before the 1st did), the green soldiers departed from Portland on June 1 for a leisurely trip south, with stops for celebrations in Newburyport, Massachusetts (the birthplace of their colonel), Boston, and New York. Gould later wrote a very droll account of Col. Jackson’s “speech” in New York. Jim the adjutant was James Fillebrown, later the lieutenant colonel of the 10th ME. The “speech” became the subject of recurring humor in the regiment, where a cry of “Jim!” was certain to create hilarity.

Before leaving the Park, and while we were formed as a square, the Colonel delivered that famous speech which no man who heard will ever forget. It was entirely extempore and had the merit of brevity, and it made, not the orator, but the one addressed famous ever afterward. The Adjutant was hastening toward the opposite side of the square when the Colonel called him. The Adjutant did not hear—the only man in the regiment that did not, by the way. He called again and still no attention except from the 700 men and seven times 700 spectators who were all attention. Therefore he roused himself for his effort, and delivered the speech, which was taken down in short hand or some other way, and is recorded as follows:

SPEECH OF “OLD JACKS”,
Sunday, June 2, 1861, In Front Of City Hall, New York.

“Jim!—Ho! JIM!!”

Moved by his eloquence the great assemblage of soldiers and citizens burst into one grand responsive echo—“JIM!” “JIM!” “JIM!” “JIM!” “JIM!” &c., which they kept up for a long time, and indeed, as far as the soldiers were concerned, they haven’t quite quit it yet.

From Gould, John Mead and Jordan, Leonard G. History of the First—Tenth—Twenty-ninth Maine Regiment: In Service of the United States from May 3, 1861, to June 21, 1866. Portland, ME: Stephen Berry, 1871.

 

 

The 10th Maine at Cedar Mountain

10thME at Cedar Mountain

This Timothy O’Sullivan photograph shows officers of the 10th Maine at Cedar Mountain. Note the dead horses. The men pictured here are Lt. Littlefield, Lt. Whitney,  Lt. Col. Fillebrown, Capt. Knowlton, and 1st Sgt. Jordan (Library of Congress).

The 10th Maine Volunteer Infantry had its baptism of fire at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. The regiment was part of Nathaniel Banks’ corps of John Pope’s Army of Virginia, and it belonged to the brigade commanded by Samuel Crawford. At Cedar Mountain, Banks took on his old adversary from the Shenandoah Valley, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, even though the Rebels outnumbered him two-to-one. Despite the disparity in numbers, the fortunes of war first appeared to favor the Union, but ultimately the Confederates prevailed and drove the Federals from the field.

In his history of the 10th Maine, John Mead Gould provided an interesting perspective on Civil War combat. It was a deadly serious business, but when viewed objectively, it offered some hints of the ridiculous, at least in Gould’s narrative.

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Lt. Col. James S. Fillebrown of Lewiston.

It is a sad thing to refer to, yet in glancing along the line the sight was ludicrous in the extreme. All were excited and were loading and firing in every conceivable way. Some were standing, but most were kneeling or lying down. Some were astraddle their pieces and were ramming the charge totally regardless of the rules on that point. Many had poured their cartridges upon the ground, and were “peddling out” the lead with more speed than accuracy I fear. We all took this occasion to swear at and gibe our friends in gray to the best of our ability. So with the din of musketry and the one common yell of friend and foe, it seemed as if bedlam was loose.

The behavior of those who were hit appeared most singular, and as there were so many of them, it looked as if we had a crowd of howling dervishes dancing and kicking around in our ranks. The bullet often knocks over the man it hits, and rarely fails by its force alone to disturb his equilibrium. Then the shock, whether painful or not, causes a sudden jump or shudder. Now as every man, with hardly an exception, was either killed, wounded, hit in his clothes, hit by spent balls and stones, or jostled by his wounded comrades, it follows that we had a wonderful exhibition. Some reeled round and round, others threw up their arms and fell over backward, others went plunging backward trying to regain their balance; a few fell to the front, but the force of the bullet generally prevented this, except where it struck low down and apparently knocked the soldier’s feet from under him. Many dropped their musket and seized the wounded part with both hands, and a very few fell dead.

 

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Edwin Forbes sketched a view of the August 9, 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain (Library of Congress).

The enemy were armed with almost every kind of rifle or musket, and as their front exceeded ours three times, we were under a cross fire almost from the first. The various tunes sung by their balls we shall never forget, and furthermore shall never confound them with any others we have heard. In a moment, when curiosity got the better of fear, I took notice of. this fact, and made record of it in my diary a day or two afterward. It was at a moment when probably a fresh regiment had arrived on our right, for the mass of missiles were coming across our line at an angle of forty-five degrees. The fierce “ zip “ of the swift Minié bullet was not prominent by comparison, at that particular moment, though there were enough of them certainly. The main sound, or the air of the tune, if I may be allowed the expression, was produced by the singing of slow, round balls and buck shot fired from a smooth bore, which do not cut or tear the air as the creased ball docs. Each bullet, according to its kind, size, rate of speed and nearness to the ear made a different sound. They seemed to be going past in sheets, all around and above us.

From Gould, John Mead and Jordan, Leonard G. History of the First—Tenth—Twenty-ninth Maine Regiment: In Service of the United States from May 3, 1861, to June 21, 1866. Portland, ME: Stephen Berry, 1871. Pages 175-6.

Adelbert Ames

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Adelbert Ames (Library of Congress)

Adelbert Ames, the first colonel of the 20th ME, was the man responsible for turning the regiment into an effective fighting force. Born in Rockland, Maine, on October 31, 1835, Ames grew up around the wharves and docks of Rockland harbor. In the fall he would go duck and goose hunting with his father and older brother. “He was immensely proud of his home State, with its cold trout streams, granite-based salmon rivers and forests full of virgin timber,” wrote his daughter, Blanche.

Ames graduated fifth in his West Point class of 1861 and was assigned to 5th United States battery, commanded by Captain Charles Griffin. At First Bull Run, Ames received a serious wound in his thigh. Unable to stand or ride a horse, he refused to leave his guns. He directed their fire while sitting on the ground, and had to be helped to his feet to sit on a caisson when his battery shifted position. His men placed Ames in an ammunition wagon for the Union retreat. Ames later received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bull Run 

In August 1862, Ames received orders to take a leave of absence, return to Maine, and take command of a new infantry regiment, the 20th ME. He earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian while he whipped his green regiment into shape. “Col. A. takes the men out to drill,” wrote Tom Chamberlain, “and he will d—n them up hill and down. I tell you, he is about as savage a man you ever saw . . . . I swear the men will shoot him the first battle they are in.” When the men of the 20th Maine finally understood the harsh realities of combat, though, they came to appreciate the lessons Ames had taught them. In May 1863, shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, Ames was promoted to command of a brigade in the XI Corps. His second in command, Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain—Tom’s older brother—received command of the regiment.

Ames was the great-grandfather of writer George Plimpton, who once wrote about a time when he visited the White House while John F. Kennedy was president. Kennedy asked him if he could do something about the letters Plimpton’s grandmother kept writing to him. The grandmother was Blanche Ames, and she had been incensed by a passage about her father in young Senator Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Kennedy had written that when Ames served as a Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, “His administration was sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets.” Blanche wanted Senator Kennedy to rewrite that passage for subsequent editions. Young Kennedy had written back that he doubted there would be any more editions. But there were, and Blanche Ames continued to write her letters, even after Kennedy became president. Kennedy wondered if Plimpton could do something to stop the correspondence—“it was cutting into the work of government,” the president said.

Plimpton could actually remember his great-grandfather, who had lived to be 97 and died in 1933. Plimpton said he remembered as a young boy of six looking into his great-grandfather’s eyes and even then realizing this man had witnessed Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

Maine at Bull Run

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Oliver O. Howard commanded the 3rd Maine at Bull Run.

George Rollins was a 19-year-old student from the town of Vassalboro when he enlisted in Co. G. the 3rd Maine Volunteers in 1861. No doubt he thought going to war would be a grand adventure. It would also be a chance, as he wrote, to give the rebels “a stern rebuke.” At first the experience was a lot of fun. Rollins marveled at the crowds that showed up to greet the regiment when it marched through Boston. He enjoyed the steamboat trip to New York and boasted to his parents that he didn’t even get seasick. He thought Washington, D.C. was “a splendid place” and he had a “grand time” exploring the Navy Yard. He enjoyed army life.

On July 16, 1861, the regiment, under the command of Colonel Oliver Otis Howard, and the rest of Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia marched away from Washington to do battle with the Confederates behind the Bull Run around Manassas. After the battle, young Rollins wrote a long letter home to his parents describing his experiences. (The original is in the collections at the Army Heritage Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.)

You have heard ere this that I have had a chance to smell powder and also of the disasterous retreat afterward. You probably were very much surprised at the defeat of our troops, but not more so than we were. Troops never marched to battle more confident of victory than we but disappointment and defeat was our lot for that day. Our brigade, consisting of the 3rd, 4th, 5th Me. And 2nd Ver. Regs under Gnl Howard, belonged to McDowell’s command and were encamped near Centreville. Sat. afternoon rations for three days were given us with orders to march at two o’clock Sun. A.M. At that time we were off with light hearts, although knowing that many of us would lie on the battlefield before night. We had been drilling and working for some time for the sole purpose of giving the Rebels a stern rebuke for their behavior, and now that we were likely to attain our object, it did not behoove us to be down hearted. It was a beautiful cold morning and every thing seemed to favor our start. The road for miles was filled with soldiers. Artillery, Cavalry, Infantry, all marching with the determination of conquering at all odds, not doubting their capability. After going about four miles beyond Centreville our brigade halted for the purpose of cutting off the retreat if any should be made. About this time cannonding could be heard at some distance to the right and news of advantage being gained by our troops kept coming to us and we were getting anxious to help them when an order came for us to proceed and off we started at double quick. The blankets began to fall, and everything impeding the progress of the men was cast aside as worthless. Men soon began to fall out from exhaustion, our [?] marching being to much for them. It was seven miles to the battleground and one of the Captns said that we marched it in one hour and one quarter. We kept hearing that our men were gaining the day and we would be there just in time to give the Rebels a farewell shot but as we neared the field different words were being brought us and as we came upon the field we met our men in retreat. All this didn’t stop us, but on we went. Shells began to burst about us and cannonballs served to make us dodge a little but not to stop our progress for we hadn’t had a shot at the enemy yet. While forming in line of battle a new [?] battery opened upon us cutting us up rather badly. After forming we went up a rise of ground and came upon the enemy lodged in the woods and to our right in a battery. We made a stand and fought the best we could with that battery raking us on the right and musketry playing upon us in front. Our men fought well and stood fire like heroes but it was of no use. All the other troops had left, and the Rebels were coming upon us in overpowering numbers so the order to retreat was given and we turned our back to the enemy. I don’t wish to say anything of what I saw on the field. God grant that I may never see the same again. Our retreat was all confusion and turmoil. There was no commander but all started for Centreville in a mass. When I got within about three miles of that place I thought I must stop not being able to go further. So with one of the students (Saml. Hamblin) I went into the woods. After going some distance we came to water which so refreshed us that we concluded to push on so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy. We got into cap at Cn’ville about ten P.M. just ready to drop with fatigue. We laid down but our limbs ached so bad that sleep was not thought of we had laid a short time and got a little rested when it was said that we were pursued by the enemy and the Regs. were all retreating to Washington and Alexandria. It was hard for us but had to be endured or we must be taken prisoners. I can’t tell what I suffered that night but it nearly [?] me I got into Alexandria at nine oclock the next morning without shoes, and with feet blistered and limbs sore. The first thing I did was to write a line to you that you might not be worried about me. For two days I could hardly move without groaning. We are now at our old encampment about four miles from Alexandria.

I am as well we ever now and have regained my courage considerably. I don’t hope to get home now til the three years are up. I have yet to see many more battles and endure many hardships before this war is brought to a close.

There are many conflicting accounts of the battle. General McDowell is blamed I think, and is thought to be a trater by some. There was evidently an unnecessary effusion of blood. You will have a better chance to learn the particulars than I shall.

Tell mother not to be deeply concerned about me. God has preserved me so far and will in time to come. We are now fitting up for a new start write soon.

Give my love to all at home. God only knows how I would like to see them.

George

 

 

Doppleganger

Israel-WashburnWhen the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, the governor of Maine was Israel Washburn. A graduate of Bowdoin College, Washburn had practiced law in Orono, served in the Maine legislature and the U.S. Congress, and helped found the new Republican Party. He was not the only member of his family to have an impact on the war, either. Israel had six brothers. One of them, Elihu Washburne (who had attached an “e” to his name because it looked more distinguished) moved to Illinois, where he became a Republican congressman and the political patron of an apparently undistinguished soldier named Ulysses S. Grant. Cadwallader Colden Washburn ended up in Wisconsin, became a U.S. representative two years after his brother did, and became colonel of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry. He eventually became a major general, and commanded a corps.

Stephen King2Quite a family. But one thing that amazes me about Israel is the fact that he bears an unmistakable resemblance to another notable son of the Pine Tree State: author Stephen King. Is it possible that King derived the inspiration for the time-travel plot of 11/22/63 from real life?