“Sprechen sie Deutsch” in Portland?

The granite-block walls of Fort Preble rise along the South Portland, Maine shore behind Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. During the war South Portland (then part of Cape Elizabeth) was home to Camp Berry, a way station for soldiers heading to and from the war. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A Maine newspaperman failed to ask all the pertinent questions when handed a most mysterious human-interest story in late January 1865.

Four Portland-area newspapers sent “attaches” to visit Camp Berry in Cape Elizabeth on Wednesday afternoon, January 25, 1865, according to the Portland Daily Press. The papers included the pro-Republican PDP and its arch rival, the pro-Democrat Eastern Argus. These rags usually traded editorial rial broadsides with each other, but on this fine day everyone got along marvelously.

The attaches/reporters/correspondents/whatever their titles spent 90 minutes “visiting and examining the various quarters in the camp,” noted the PDP’s attache. The tour guide du jour was camp commander Major Rollins, who “received” his guests “in his usual genial and urbane manner.”

Camp Berry housed recruits headed to war and (occasionally) regiments or individuals mustering out. “More comfortable and convenient quarters cannot be found anywhere,” and “everything is neat and in order,” ooo’d and ahhh’d the Daily Press reporter.

Paying particular attention to the hospital — “roomy, well warmed, and well ventilated” — and the soldiers’ rations — “of the best quality” — the reporter also praised Rollins, “the man for the place[,] and the soldiers there feel much attached to him.”

So why had the much adored Rollins placed around 40 reflector-equipped kerosene lamps on posts “and on the fence surrounding the camp”? To deter desertion, the commandant replied.

The tour went well, the “excellent and substantial dinner” went down better, and the attaches “returned to the city much pleased with their visit.”

Fortunately the PDP’s attache did mention the mysterious human-interest story encountered at Camp Berry. Unfortunately he did not ask enough questions.

The story about two German-speaking soldiers inexplicably detained at Camp Berry ran in the January 27, 1865 edition of the Portland Daily Press.

We saw two soldiers, Germans, who could not speak one word of English,” said the PDP reporter, who did not get the names. Journalism 101 — even plain old journalistic common sense — mandates getting the names and spelling them correctly.

Apparently someone at Camp Berry spoke German, because the soldiers had conveyed their strange tale to the powers that be. The Germans “were members of the 5th New York Artillery,” noted the reporter.

To which “5th” did her refer? The 5th New York Light Artillery, mustered in November 1861? The 5th New York Heavy Artillery, ereated in 1862 by blending Empire State artillery battalions and ultimately converting them to infantry?

The reporter should have clarified the specific unit.

No matter to which 5th they belonged, the Germans had “received furloughs of absence from Dec. 25 to Jan. 25, to go to Rouse’s Point,” the PDP reported. The average Mainer perusing this page 1 article would scratch his or her head upon encountering this geographical reference.

Maine’s got Schoodic Point, Pemaquid Point, East Point, Timber Point, Gun Point, Abner Point, and just about every conceivable “Point,” but no Rouse’s Point. The PDP’s attache did not explain where the place was located; he either assumed his readers knew (bad form on his part), or he did not bother to ask (ditto).

Rouses Point is actually located in Clinton County on Lake Champlain’s western shore in upstate New York, quite near the Quebec border. Considered a village today, Rouses Point now has approximately 2,200 residents, about one thousand more than the place did in 1870.

Traffic flows along Route 11 in Rouses Point, N.Y. In January 1865 two German-speaking soldiers arrived in Maine, claiming they were on leave, bound for “Rouse’s Point.” Why they went there nobody knew, but the men got into serious trouble at Camp Berry in Cape Elizabeth. (Wikipedia)

Given that the Portland-area journalists met the Germans on Wednesday, January 25 — the same day the men should be reporting to their regiment — the soldiers evidently traveled from Rouses Point via Portland. Why? The PDP’s attache did not say — and likely did not bother to ask.

Then, as now, journalists often overlook the more obvious points of a story.

When the Germans reached Portland, “they were got hold of by some scoundrel of a substitute broker,” a man specializing in finding substitutes willing to enlist in place of drafted men. A substitute received bounties from the state and from the town to which his enlistment was credited, and he might split the bounty with the broker who arranged the substitution.

Unfortunately for the trusting Germans, the broker “enlisted them here and made off with the bounty,” the PDP reported. The Germans were “supposing that they were being taken to camp [Berry] for the purpose of being returned to their corps.”

Did the reporter ask who dripped off the Germans at Berry? Did he ask Rollins what happened when the men arrived at the camp’s gate? Did he ask if anyone saw the broker?

We can imagine the poor New Yorkers circulating around Camp Berry while asking, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” A sharp-eared NCO or officer accustomed to Down East or Aroostook County accents realized these lads were not from Steuben (“Stew-ben”) in Washington County and accordingly alerted Rollins.

Someone obviously did the translating; as to whom the PDP’s attache apparently did not ask. Camp personnel found the Germans’s furloughs, from which Rollins gleaned a name and address. He “wrote to the commander of their corps to know whether they [soldiers or furloughs, the journalist did not clarify] were genuine.”

Rollins “received an affirmative answer.” He also learned that one German’s three-year enlistment “expired this month” and “the other has two years longer to serve,” the PDP reported.

Because they had not reported on time to their regiment on time, “by the articles of war” the Germans “are held as deserters” at Camp Berry, the reporter pointed out. Although the soldiers were trying to get back to wherever they were supposed to be, they would now be carried as “absent without leave” on the company rolls.

But sympathy finally flowed from the reporter’s pencil. “It is probable when all the circumstances are know to the Court Martial that will try them, that they will not be punished,” the journalist wrote.

And he wished “that the scoundrel that enlisted them” could “be got hold of and brought to a drum-head Court Martial and be summarily punished.”

Source: Villainous, Portland Daily Press, Thursday, January 26, 1865

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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.