Waldo at War, 1861-1865 — Part 3

By Ronald Jarvella | Mar 06, 2014

This is the third of a monthly series on Waldo County during the Civil War. It is related to a grant provided by the Maine Humanities Council to 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 Checker on the Internet proved helpful.

Area residents were provided news of the war from Florida via a story that had been carried in a Savannah, Ga. paper and sent to Belfast. Florida had been a Spanish colony for nearly 350 years. It had been ceded to the United States in 1821 and admitted as a state in 1845. Sparsely populated, it was not yet the mecca for those seeking relief from winter's cold.  The story read, “The Yankees have captured Cedar Key, chiefly valuable for its excellent timber used for building ships. Some of the best vessels in the Navy are from this timber and if Uncle Sam is to begin adding to his Navy it is important that this source of supply be secured. With the Tortugas, Key West, Cedar Key and Ft. Pickens in its possession there is not much of the sovereign state of Florida left that is worth having.”

The war had proved to be more demanding than many had thought in its early days. The Confederate Army was a formidable force. The war would not end soon. In July 1863 President Lincoln requested 300,000 new recruits to serve for three years. To help meet its quota, Belfast offered as an additional bounty of $55 to anyone who would sign up. Belfast Mayor John W. White further stated that the first man to volunteer would get $100. John W. Carter accepted the offer, securing $155. Within less than a week Belfast had reached its quota. In August another plea for more volunteers saw 77 Belfast men join the Union Army. A full complement of 100 men to complete the new company was made up of men from Waldo, Knox and Morrill.

Military service was a new experience for nearly all, both officers and enlisted men. A report from one unit, not from Maine, camped near Baltimore that summer gives us some idea of a soldier's life. “Tonight some 200 men are in camp. Our captain and one of our lieutenants have been arrested for drunkenness and half the men are also drunk, the other half are at a house of ill fame.”

General George McClellan had been ordered by the president to mount an attack on Richmond, Virginia, the capital city of the Confederacy. In the spring of 1862 McClellan led a large force in what has been called the Peninsula Campaign from Hampton, Virginia, west along what had been the scene of major fighting in the American Revolution. The 4th Maine was attached to the 2nd brigade of the Third Division under Brigadier General David Birney. One of the soldiers in the 4th, R.H. Grey, sent home the following on taking the city of Hampton: “We took shelter in some fine, commodious houses, many which were filled with contraband [a term used to describe negroes seeking freedom]. One such was the residence of former President Tyler. A colored woman informed us that the rebels had told their slaves that the Yankees would kill them but they whispered among themselves that the Yankees were their friends. In the town only two houses remained unburned in a place nearly as large as Belfast. Tall blackened chimneys stood like tombstones. We saw the famous Lincoln gun which weighs 49,000 pounds and fires a shot 10 inches in diameter [and] 2 feet long. An even larger cannon called the Union gun weighs 53,000 pounds.”

McClellan, while popular with troops under his command, had developed a reputation for hesitating to attack, using the excuse that he needed more time and more soldiers to complete his task of taking Richmond. An exasperated president observed that if the general were to use a two-hole outhouse he might fill his trousers before he could decide which hole to use.

A major battle in the Peninsula campaign was fought near Williamsburg. From R.H. Grey came news of the 4th’s participation.

“For 28 days we have been here building fortifications and doing picket duty. The camp of the 4th Maine was within range of enemy guns but lost only one man killed though many narrowly escaped injury.

"The enemy position proved to be of much greater strength than our engineers had expected. But the rebels made the mistake of allowing some woods to remain standing. We were able to place batteries of artillery in them so silently that the enemy was unaware of their existence till too late. Trenches were dug between the batteries. When the astonished enemy opened up with shot and shell our soldiers hearing the report of guns lay low. The shells passed over their heads. In all we had 15 redoubts and batteries connected by nearly 9 miles of trenches 4 feet deep and 12 feet wide.

"On Sunday all was quiet for the first time in 28 days. At 4 p.m. an observation balloon containing professor Lowe and General Heintzelman went up revealing that the rebels had evacuated, taking most of their cannon. Our telegraph operator flashed the news along the line to drum rolls and bands playing national airs. Cheer after cheer rolled down the mass of troops.

"Our cavalry flew through Yorktown followed by our light artillery and infantry. The enemy had placed shells along the road for some distance with friction fuses ignited by wires on the ground so that they would be exploded by passing men. We lost 12 men to these devices. On Monday commenced the battle of Williamsburg. Our flanking efforts failed allowing the enemy to retreat in good order. The next day it rained making roads a sea of mud, blocking baggage and ammunition trains and preventing ambulances from carrying wounded to the rear.

"The 4th had been held in reserve but were called upon the next morning to charge the rebel batteries driving them into retreat leaving two state battle flags. Many artillery batteries lay dead along with long lines of our soldiers. A small piece of board planted at the head of each listed their name and regiment. Nearby dead rebels lay thick with many a brave blue coat among them. One rebel and Union soldier lay with their bayonets in each other’s breast. Our losses were some 400 killed and over 1,000 wounded. Rebel losses were somewhat greater. Our surgeons treated both rebel and Union casualties alike.

"Williamsburg was decimated with most residents gone. The rebel capital Richmond, was only 60 miles away. I am writing at 10 o'clock at night. Our band is playing the Star Spangled Banner but remaining local citizens do not seem to appreciate the music. Tomorrow we are ordered on toward Richmond where we expect to meet with much determined resistance.”

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