William Pitcher arrived home in time for Christmas


Federal troops evacuate wounded comrades from Fredericksburg during the afternoon on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1862. In the chaotic fighting south of the Rappahannock River town, many dead and wounded Union soldiers were left on the battlefield after Federal troops withdrew. In the confusion of Saturday’s fighting, 4th Maine Infantry soldiers recovered the body of Maj. William L. Pitcher of Bangor, but left behind the wounded Capt. John Ayer, another Bangor soldier. (Library of Congress Photo)

Bangoreans packed Norumbega Hall to welcome home William L. Pitcher on Friday, Dec. 26, 1862.
And they bade him “good-bye” that same day.
Born to Horatio and Anna Pitcher in Knox on May 11, 1836 and likely known as “Bill” or “Billy” in his childhood, Pitcher lived in Monroe until his family moved to Bangor in the mid-1840s.
He belonged to the Queen City ever afterwards.
Educated in Bangor schools and active in a local church (possibly Hampden Street Congregational), Pitcher joined the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant in spring 1861 and fought at Bull Run that July.
Displaying remarkable military-leadership skills, Pitcher gained a captaincy within several months. He “was in command of four [4th Maine] companies which were detached in the fight” at Seven Pines, Va. on June, 1, 1862, recalled Gen. Hiram Berry. A talented Maine officer who seemed to be here, there, and everywhere from First Manassas to Chancellorsville, Berry had “raised” the 4th Maine a year earlier.
Forming his ragged companies beside a brigade commanded by Gen. Oliver Otis Howard — who hailed from Leeds — Pitcher prevented “the enemy from turning the left [flank] of that brigade,” and “his four companies did fearful execution,” Berry reported on Pitcher’s fight.
“The ground in his front was covered with the enemy’s dead, while he had but two killed and seven wounded,” Berry wrote.
When he left Bangor, Pitcher took with him a sword that he carried into action during battles at Manassas 1, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Malvern Hill, Manassas 2, and Chantilly. Sometime in late summer 1862, his troops skirmished with J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry; Pitcher captured a Confederate sword that was evidently better-made than his original blade.
He boxed up that sword and shipped it to his father, who lived on Court Street (one account claims a Grove Street address). In an attached note William Pitcher wrote, “I thought you might like to keep it.”
Horatio probably hung the sword in the family parlor and shared with visitors the “war stories” sent home in William’s letters.

Confederate artillery deployed on Marye’s Heights outside Fredericksburg fires on advancing Union troops on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 13, 1862. Some Confederate gunners turned their cannons to the right and shelled other Union infantry attacking Southern positions southeast of the town. (National Park Service Photo)

Dawn on Saturday, Dec. 13 found Pitcher and the 4th Maine maneuvering across foggy bottomlands along the Rappahannock River downstream from Fredericksburg, Va. Pitcher was now a major and held a staff position best described the modern equivalent of the 4th Maine’s executive officer; if he could survive this battle, he might gain a lieutenant colonelcy and command of another Maine regiment.
Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, sought to break the Confederate lines along the hills outside Fredericksburg. If his divisions accomplished this feat, they would pry apart the Southern divisions and destroy them, leaving the road open to Richmond.
Along with the 3rd Maine Infantry and three out-of-state regiments, the 4th Maine deployed along the Bowling Green Road at Fredericksburg in early afternoon on Dec. 13. Soon Pitcher and the regiment’s commander, Col. Elijah Walker, led a brave charge across muddy corn fields “to take possession of the [Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac] R.R.” beneath the hills, Walker recalled.
There “we met them at close quarters,” and “officers used their pistols and the men their steel [bayonets],” he wrote.
William Pitcher took his sword and pistol to the enemy; suddenly a bullet struck his forehead, and he died instantly. “He was killed in such close conflict with the enemy that the powder of the deadly weapon which sent a bullet through the head, entering above the left eye, burned and blackened the face,” the Bangor Jeffersonian reported.
Capt. John Ayer, another Bangor soldier who commanded Co. H, fell wounded; when they withdrew to the Bowling Green Road, the 4th Maine boys carried with them Pitcher’s body.
Confederate troops quickly captured Ayer.
Horatio and Anna Pitcher soon learned that Bill was coming home for Christmas; they likely hired the mortician who embalmed their son in Virginia and placed him a zinc-lined wooden box for shipment to Bangor. Embalming was expensive; often only officers’ families could afford to pay for this service.
The results were not always pretty.
Walker filed an after-action report, and at their winter campground subsequently designated Camp Pitcher, some 4th Maine survivors talked about Pitcher.
“I am lonesome without the company of the Lieutenants and the Major, for they were almost as near to me as brothers, and our regiment don’t seem much as it did before the battle,” one soldier wrote in a Dec. 30 letter published in late January by the Daily Whig and Courier.
“There is no more our smiling Major Pitcher walking about and talking cheerfully to the men,” he said. “When he came near enough to me to speak, he would say, ‘How are you getting along T.? How are all the folks?’ and anything for conversation.”
Although it could hardly deliver food and winter clothing to the soldiers taking sick and dying at Camp Pitcher, the Army could send embalmed bodies home. William Pitcher arrived in time for the holidays.

Late on Tuesday, Dec. 23, 1862, Elnathan Duren of Bangor wrote a letter to an unidentified recipient announcing that the body of Maj. William L. Pitcher had arrived in Bangor earlier that evening. Evidence suggests that Duren addressed his salutation “Dear Sir” to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon (above), a Bangor man who capably served in that position throughout the war. (Maine State Archives Photo)

“Dear Sir,” Bangor historian Elnathan Duren addressed a letter from Bangor late at night on Tuesday, Dec. 23. Apparently writing to Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon, Duren believed that “you might be glad to know & be able also to inform the Governor [Abner Coburn] that the remains of Major William L. Pitcher … have come home safely and that the funeral will be held on Friday forenoon next at 10 o’clock, at the Hammond St. church.”
Earlier “this evening,” a Maine Central Railroad freight had delivered Pitcher to the Bangor train station near Front and Railroad streets, and “a guard escort was detailed to meet the body … & convey it to the [Pitcher] house,” Duren wrote.
“On opening it (the casket) we found it (the body) in good condition, very natural,” he noted. “The wound was in the head, through the forehead,” which was “a great comfort” to Pitcher’s family; “he probably had no lingering suffering,” Duren explained.
The Christmas Eve edition of the Daily Whig and Courier reported that Pitcher’s funeral would actually take place at “Norombega” Hall in downtown Bangor. The mourning family received friends and relatives on Christmas Eve and spent a gloomy Christmas gathered around Pitcher’s bier.
Upon the casket lay the sword that Pitcher had sent his dad.
After breakfast on Friday, his family held a private service. At 9 a.m. pallbearers carried the casket outdoors and placed it on a horse-drawn “funeral car.” The Jeffersonian identified the four pallbearers as “Captains Freese, Garnsey, Sabine, and Lewis.”
Escorted by Masons and two local militia companies — the Independent Fusileers and the Independent Volunteers — the hearse proceeded to Norumbega Hall. Dressed as a private, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin probably marched with a militia company.
Bangoreans packed Norumbega Hall to witness the intensely religious funeral service.

Norumbega Hall in downtown Bangor was packed during the Dec. 26, 1862 funeral of Maj. William L. Pitcher of the 4th Maine Infantry. His would not be the last war-related funeral held in the venerable building. (Bangor Public Library Photo)

“The hall was densely filled with people (except reserved seats for the procession) long before the commencement of the service,” the Daily Whig and Courier reported on Saturday, Dec. 27.
“With the procession, and having seats near the remains, were a considerable number of officers and soldiers of the volunteer service, now at home from sickness or upon detached duty,” the paper’s correspondent wrote. “Prominent among the mourners were Capt. Wilson, and we believe Capt. Wiggin, Capt. Currier and Adjutant Mudgett of the Second Maine, all of whom were wounded” at Fredericksburg “and who all arrived home on Wednesday evening last to recover from their wounds.
“The casket containing the corpse was placed upon a table, which was in front of the platform and covered with the American flag,” the correspondent noted. Pitcher’s “sword and sash” were “placed upon the casket.”
The Rev. E.W. Gilman of the First Parish Church delivered the invocation; then “a select Choir” directed by Solon Wilder sang a dirge. The Rev. A.K.P. Small “of the First Baptist Church” read appropriate biblical verses.
After hearing a 20-minute funeral oration (it took up more than a column when reprinted in the Daily Whig and Courier on Monday, Dec. 29) by the Rev. Dr. Pond, mourners heard “a few remarks” from the 4th Maine’s chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Chase; he “paid an eloquent and truthful tribute to the manly virtues and worth of the deceased,” the correspondent noted.
Then the mourners bowed their heads as the Rev. Edwin Johnson “of the Hammond Street [Congregational] Church” delivered the closing prayer.

The name of Maj. William L. Pitcher, a 4th Maine Infantry officer from Bangor, is engraved on one side of the Pitcher family’s monument at Mount Hope Cemetery in the Queen City. Pitcher was shot dead while charging with his regiment at Fredericksburg. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Then participants formally lined up to escort William Pitcher to a fresh grave at Mount Hope Cemetery. Colonel Isaac Norcross, the chief marshal, led the procession; behind him marched a band, the Independent Fusileers, the Independent Volunteers, another “marshal,” the “Masonic Fraternity,” a color guard, the pallbearers with the hearse, clergy, “mourners and friends,“ yet a third “marshal,” “returned Officers and Soldiers of the Army,” and finally “Citizens and visiting Friends.”
Accounts suggest that hundreds of people rode or walked the 2 miles from Norumbega Hall to the cemetery, which then, as today, was on Bangor’s northern outskirts. At the graveside, Masons from Rising Virtue Lodge of F. & A.M. performed “the usual Masonic ceremonies at the grave,” and militiamen under the command of Capt. Levi Emerson fired “three rounds of small arms,” the Daily Whig and Courier reported.
“The body was left to its long earthly repose,” the Dec. 27 article concluded.
William Pitcher had come home to Bangor for Christmas. For him the war was over.

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.