Among all the people affected by the Civil War’s blood and gore, to this day most Civil War historiography has touched little upon the wives who saw their men off to war, North and South.
Onlookers paid little attention in print to particular central Maine wives biding their husbands “adieu” in spring 1861. Just 26 months later, however, another eyewitness wrote poignantly about the Massachusetts women spending a last day with their husbands.
Ordered to head for the war zone, the 2nd Maine Infantry lads marched out of Camp Washburn in Bangor at 8 a.m., Tuesday, May 14, 1861 and tramped south on Essex Street and across a Kenduskeag Stream bridge to the Maine Central Railroad depot near the Penobscot River.
With the fledgling warriors came wives, children, siblings, parents, and friends, as well as people thrilled to see something exciting happening. A cool rain (hardly any May rain falls real warm in Maine) dampened soldier and civilian alike as the regiment, marching by companies, stopped outside the station.
The officers barked orders, and the ranks dissolved as the new soldiers rushed to say “farewell” to their loved ones. Allowed only 15 minutes, some men likely stretched their private times a bit longer before boarding a train for Waterville.
Around 750 men left Bangor that sodden Tuesday; of that number “only 275, including officers and men” returned home when the regiment mustered out two years later. Many wives lost their 2nd Maine husbands to death, and other wives saw their husbands come home wounded or sick.
And other wives could only await their husbands’ collective fates.
Writing to the Portland Daily Press from Washington, D.C. on Thursday, July 30, 1863 a correspondent who initialed himself “T. S. P.” spoke poignantly about his journey across Long Island Sound via steamship toward New York City “a few weeks since.”
Aboard the steamer were “a considerable number of soldiers belonging to the 14th Massachusetts, returning to the army,” he observed. The regimental reference is surprising; mustered on July 5, 1861, the 14th Massachusetts had reorganized as the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Regiment on January 1, 1862.
The unit served primarily in D.C. forts until summoned from garrison duty by Ulysses S. Grant to reinforce the Wilderness-battered Army of the Potomac in mid-May 1864. The 1st Mass Heavy and the 1st Maine Heavy (the former 18th Maine Infantry) fought Richard Ewell’s hard-bitten Confederate veterans at Harris Farm on May 17 and took heavy casualties.
Harris Farm lay over the calendar’s horizon as TSP watched the Bay Staters. “Some of them were accompanied by their wives as far as New York,” he noted. Already approaching the Big Apple, the steamer neared its landing one July morning.
“As we were steaming up the harbor … the word came to ‘fall in,’” TSJ reported. Husbands and wives shared these last precious moments. “There were tight clinging grasps of the hand and brief good-byes and hurried kisses,” he said.
The steamer docked, the soldiers formed and tramped off the ship, and there was “an eager looking forward where the men had disappeared, and so the parting was over,” TSJ wrote, a sigh almost audible in his words.
“But every man who saw [the parting] knew how those stout hearts were wrung; and then to see the brave little women who had bidden and kissed a farewell to their husbands, with lips that did not tremble, and had looked after them with clear eyes,” he observed.
Then “to see them weeping and sobbing by themselves as if their hearts would break, this was hardest of all” of his experiences during his trip from Maine. “It somehow seemed wrong to look upon grief so sacred, and so as I think, before many eyes came a mist, and compassion lent its own kind veil to the touching scene.”
How many of those husbands never returned home, at least alive? Not mustered out until August 1865, the 1st Massachusetts Heavy lost 55 men killed, 312 wounded, and 27 missing at Harris Farm. Other men died before Petersburg and yet others in Confederate prisons.
TSJ could not know the future casualty figures, of course. “War is stern and hard and bitter,” he said. Attention focused on the Union soldiers — he had high praise for the volunteers — but what about “the true wife freely sending him [her husband] who is her earthly all, to sufferings she cannot alleviate—perhaps to death she cannot share.”
A soldier’s wife would soon find herself “quietly sitting down to wait all through the weary weeks and months and years till he should return, or till hat shall come of which she dares not think,” TSJ wrote. “In how many such cases have worst forebodings and darkest fears come true?”
How much “joy for the present and hope for the future” had “gone down forever, leaving fond parents and gentle wife and helpless little ones to walk wrecked and shivering, castaways upon the hard, cold shore that did but seem to them all gold and amber,” he thought.
Sources: Brian F. Swartz, Maine at War, Vol. 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, Maine Origins Publications, Brewer, Maine, 2011-2019, p. 27; Letter from the Federal Capital, Portland Daily Press, Saturday, August 1, 1863; Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, May 18, 1863; Departure of the Second Maine, Daily Whig & Courier, Tuesday, May 26, 1863
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.