Not every Maine boy donning a Civil War uniform wore Union blue.
More than a few wore Confederate gray or butternut, and the Johnny Rebs shot a particular Maine lad after he bolted for Union lines somewhere in the Mississippi River Valley in early summer 1863.
Many Union newspapers picked up the story, brought north by Reverend W.C. Van Meter, who had opened the Home for Little Wanderers and the Howard Mission in May 1861 in New York City. Accompanied by A.M. Shipman (the initial and follow-up newspaper references to Shipman listed his middle initial as “H.”), eight months a Confederate prisoner at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Van Meter reached Springfield, Illinois soon after Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg in early July 1863.
With Shipman came a letter written by John B. Marsh, late of the Southern army and of life altogether. Van Meter and Shipman shared the letter with the Springfield Journal, which ran Marsh’s tale under the subhead “A Boy True to the Last.”
Many Union papers then picked up the article; the Daily Whig & Courier in Bangor ran it under the subhead, “A Maine Boy True to the Last.”
“Living in the South,” he “was conscripted and forced into the rebel army,” the Journal reported. “Being a Union man, he deserted at the first opportunity, but was caught by the rebels and was shot at Vicksburg a few days ago.”
The exact date was not cited, but a bit of digging indicates that Marsh died no later than June 22, 1863.
While in prison, young Marsh slipped a letter to Shipman, whose identity underwent no additional clarification in the Journal. Only through Van Meter and the Official Records do we learn more about him.
“On my way back home from Vicksburg … I met Mr. A.M. Shipman, an Ohio volunteer who was imprisoned for eight months as a hostage in the Vicksburg jail. He was released after the Confederates surrendered on July 4, 1863,” Van Meter recalled.
In his letter, young Marsh wrote, “Kind Friend—If you ever reach our happy lines, please have this put in the northern papers that my father, Rev. Leonard Marsh, who lives in Maine, may know what has become of me, and what I was shot for. It was for defending my noble country. I love her and am willing to die for her. Tell my parents I am also happy in the Lord. My future is bright. I hope to see you as I pass out to die.”
Marsh signed his name to the letter.
We can only wonder what Shipman thought when guards took Marsh away to die. The guards later returned to the prison, and one soldier told Shipman, “When young Marsh was placed by his coffin, he could speak if he desired it.”
Removing his hat, Marsh shouted, “Three cheers for the Old Flag and the Union.”
According to the guard (and the Journal), Marsh “then swung his hat and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah.’”
There came a rat-a-tat-tat, and that was that for young Marsh, who pitched backwards onto his coffin.
Van Meter later wrote that Marsh, his hands bound behind his back, stepped onto his coffin when permitted to speak. “He cried out, ‘Three cheers for the Old Flag and the Union.’”*
“Of course the patriotic sentiment met no response from that audience,” Van Meter commented.
“Then … with his eyes lifted as if the flag were in view, he [Marsh] shouted forth his own three cheers, ‘Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!’*
“His clear, ringing voice had scarcely died away when the sharp crack of the musketry added another name to the long roll of martyrs for the dear ‘Old Flag,’” Van Meter wrote.
After Marsh’s tale ran in certain Maine newspapers, his father hopefully learned about his son’s death. We can also assume that someone delivered the boy’s letter to his dad.
Van Meter was incorrect in one point about Shipman, a member of Co. D, 43rd Ohio Infantry Regiment. He and three other Union soldiers (Bernard Collins, James E. Gaddy, and Nicholas Hoit) had “been held as hostages since December, 1862, for the acts of some of your soldiers in Panola County, Miss.,” Confederate Maj. N.G. Watts wrote “Maj. Gen. U.S, Grant” from Vicksburg on June 23, 1863.
What exactly happened in Panola County was not spelled out. However, Grant had recently ordered “four Confederate prisoners … [held] as hostages for the four Federal prisoners,” Watts noted. Since Grant’s army besieged Vicksburg, why let eight soldiers remain as hostages, so would Grant transfer the four Southerners to Memphis if Shipman and his comrades were released?
“I this day send across the [Mississippi] River to you four men,” specifically the four hostages, Watts told Grant.
Since Shipman was released on June 23, John Marsh was shot sometime before that date. How Van Meter met Shipman is not known, but the two men probably took the same steamboat north.
*Italicized in the original.
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Sources: A Maine Boy True to the Last, Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, July 10, 1863; Facing Execution with Faithfulness, Triumph Amidst Bloodshed: Civil War Soldiers’ Spiritual Victories, chapter IV, originally published in 1869, released in 2012 and edited by Craig L. Claybrook and John W. Reed, Primedia eLaunch Publishing; N.G. Watts, Official Records of the Civil War, Series II, Vol. 6, p. 37
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.