Yakking about Lincoln sinks a Phippsburg officer

Holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in her left hand, Columbia (epitomizing the United States) stands between two freed slaves. The male slave to the left holds the staff of the American flag curling to the right to envelop the woman slave. (Library of Congress)

There’s a time to yap and a time to shaddup, as a promising Maine officer discovered in winter 1863.

Having toyed with its wording for months, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in autumn 1862 and set January 1, 1863 as its effective date. All slaves in areas hostile to the United States government were automatically free on that date.

Slaves in areas friendly to that same government (think Maryland, Delaware, and elsewhere) remained in bondage, however.

News about the Emancipation Proclamation reached the camp of the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment in January 1863. Soon afterwards 1st Lt. Joseph Nichols of Co. C and Phippsburg gave his resignation to Lt. Col. Francis E. Heath.

Nichols viewed the proclamation as “inexpedient and unconstitutional.”

As a serving officer, he was prohibited by Army regulations from criticizing government policy. Perhaps Nichols had blown off steam in front of his men about Lincoln and the proclamation or had criticized his superior officers.

Perhaps he was simply naïve. Joe Nichols “was a pleasant and lovable man and the officers and a great many of the men were fond of him,” noted 19th Maine Infantry biographer John Day Smith.

A Democrat, Nichols had left Phippsburg with his ears burning as “Democratic friends laughed at him for going into the army to ‘fight for'” for black slaves, Day noted, using words in the regimental history that would mortify modern Americans. For some reason, Nichols wanted to make “himself right with his democratic associates at home,” after which he “would gladly and loyally serve his country in the field.”

Heath, whose brother William S. Heath had gone into an unmarked Virginia grave after the late June 1862 Battle of Gaines Mill, arrested Nichols for insubordination, scribbled “disapproved” on the resignation letter, and forwarded it to Col. Turner G. Morehead, temporarily commanding the 1st Brigade to which the 19th Maine was attached.

Agreeing with Heath, Morehead passed Nichols’ letter to Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, not in a charitable mood after the shellacking his 2nd Division had taken at Fredericksburg in December. Thinking for only a moment, Howard wrote for II Corps’ commander Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch a recommendation that Nichols, “for condemning the policy of the government, for which he had nothing to do, should have his uniform stripped off” and should “be placed outside the lines with a certificate of his dishonorable discharge in his pocket.”

The angry reaction was remarkable for Howard, who had quietly reasoned with 4th Maine Infantry mutineers in 1861. Wondering “whether Nichols could be tried on any charge except resigning in the face of the enemy,” Couch read all the paperwork before kicking the issue upstairs.

The buck stopped with the elderly Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Right Grand Division of the Army of the Potomac. He ordered Nichols to stand trial before a court martial on charges of “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline” and “disloyalty to the government.”

The disastrous reaction to his proffered resignation stunned Nichols, immediately confined “in the guard house.” Sumner may have wished to set an example; Nichols attended his court martial on Monday, February 16, and the judges heard and considered the charges and found him guilty the same day.

Defended by Capt. William H. Fogler of Belfast, Joe Nichols never had a chance; the Army cashiered him before suppertime. Not believing his resignation would “be accepted, he expected a reprimand,” according to Day.

“He left the Regiment regretted by all who knew him,” Day stressed.

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Sources: A Maine Officer Disgracing Himself, Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, January 24, 1863; John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry 1862-1865, Nineteenth Maine Regimental Association, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909, pp. 41-42

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.