Waldo at War: 1861-1865, Part 2
This is the second of a monthly series on Waldo County during the Civil War. It is related to a grant provided by the Maine Humanities Council to the Belfast Free Library in partnership with the Belfast Historical Society, the Game Loft and Belfast Senior College. Sources used in preparing this series include "History of Belfast," by Joseph Williamson, "This Republic of Suffering," by Drew Gilpin, and back issues of two local newspapers; The Republican Journal and The Progressive. Frequent reference to Fact Check on the Internet proved helpful.
News of the first major battle of the war was received by telegraph on July 22, 1861. People crowded the street in front of the telegraph office outside the Customs House, today the site of the Belfast post office. A wave of disbelief swept through the mass of citizens as the report of a major defeat of Union forces at Bull Run was announced. Fought near Manassas Junction, Va., the battle had been close enough to the nation's capital that many citizens of Washington and surrounding area had gone in their carriages, surreys and landaus, many carrying picnic lunches to view the spectacle, expecting to witness a great Union victory. They instead found themselves rushing back to their homes to escape the fate of their once proud soldiers. The 4th Maine Regiment had participated in the fight. While the regiment suffered no fatalities, several were wounded, among them Lt. Charles Burd, George Sylvester, Levi Bisbee, and James Guptill. Burd and Sylvester were taken prisoner.
Recruitment in Belfast went on at a brisk clip. By the end of the first year of the war nearly 1,000 men had enlisted, 150 of whom were from Belfast.
No previous war fought in this country required so much in the way of supplies of every kind. The federal government was not prepared to feed, clothe or accommodate so many in so short a period of time. Local communities were encouraged to do what they could to help. Belfast physician S.G. Howe stated, "You can scarcely go amiss in anything you may send in the way of clothing, bedding, etc." Even such things as household utensils and groceries were welcomed.
The casualties caused in combat were far less then the number of troops who suffered from disease and poor sanitary conditions. Medical science had scarcely advanced from medieval times. As a rule, doctors did not even wash their hands or clean their instruments before dealing with a new patient. Measles, mumps and smallpox swept through the ranks. Almost all suffered from diarrhea and dysentery. Typhoid fever and malaria were rampant. Many who survived initial surgery developed gangrene.
Belfast trooper John Goul, stationed at Fr. Knox a Union base near Alexandria, Va., wrote home in November of 1861."Our surgeons, Dr. Carr and Dr. Libby try to keep us in good health. The prevailing disease is Yellow Jaundice and hardly any escape. The only thing that tastes good to sufferers is cider vinegar. It is almost amusing to see one's body as though it had been painted of yellow paint. Finger nails and hair look like sun flowers as yellow as one of the sesesh. You might call me a secessionist as the body feels like seceding altogether."
At home business went on much as usual. William Rust, editor of The Progressive, one of the local papers of that time, issued the following notice in the Nov. 7 edition of the paper: “For the past ten days business has been lively in our streets. Hay and potatoes have been selling quick. Looks like markets will do well through the winter. In this connection we wish to remind some hundreds of our subscribers who have promised to square up their arrears when the crops came in to make it right now. We dislike dunning but have a good many subscribers who will stand any amount of it."
In December it was announced that the brig E.K. Eaton out of Searsport under Capt.C. Nichols had been captured by the rebel ship, referred to in the notice as “the rebel pirate Sallie", near Abaco in the Bahamas. The ship was sunk and all crew members were taken as prisoners to Charleston, S.C.
The need to face killing another human being created great soul searching for many young soldiers on both sides. Dying for a "just cause" was within the guide lines of Christian values but killing another person was a clear violation of the sixth commandment. Church leaders responded by creating the concept of a "just war" which claimed that killing was not only acceptable but required in service to God in a just cause. Sermons emphasized that there was "nothing in the demands of a just and defensive war at variance with the spirit and duties of Christianity." So our men went into battle with confidence in their cause of saving the Union and with the assurance from the pulpit that they were doing God's will in facing the prospect of both dying for a just cause and killing someone else in the same spirit.
From Camp Knox, near the end of the first year of the war, came the following view of one of the Maine contingents. " We are camped on a small hill two and a half miles west of Alexandria. Ft. Ellsworth is just to our north east. We feel the patriotism of those heroic martyrs who call loudly for vengeance on the traitors who murdered them. From all points the countryside here is dotted with tents. The night brings quiet thoughts of almost forgotten memories of home and friends. But soldiers turn from these to stern duty and his strongest wish is to carry his flag over those ports of our distracted country, to restore the blessing of order and peace."
One of the chief concerns of soldiers in the Civil War was what would happen to them if they were killed. Who would notify their loved ones, where would they be buried ? No official identity tags were issued by the government. Some men pinned a note with their name and family address on their coats. Some scratched such information on the back of a belt buckle. Later in the war private companies began selling ID tags made of brass or lead. It was not until 1906 that the government of the United States issued the first such tags. Those killed in battle during the Civil War were buried near where they fell. Most were later re-enterred at national cemeteries. There was no official method of notification of next of kin. Some officers did so. Others did not. Families were often unable to learn what had happened to their sons, brothers and husbands. A note pinned to a coat may have been lost or destroyed in battle.
In 1860 there were some 22-million people living in Northern states, 9 million in the South. Union dead in the war numbered 140,000 with more than 400,000 wounded or seriously ill. 74,000 Confederate soldiers died in battle and more than 225,000 were wounded or ill. More than 750,000 men were killed or wounded in the war.