Sitting governor runs afoul Republican opponents, Part 1

Union and Confederate troops clash at Gettysburg. Back in Maine, Republicans sharpened their long knives to dump Governor Aburn Coburn on July 1. (Library of Congress)

As Maine soldiers converged on Gettysburg, revengeful Republican politicians tossed aside the state’s sitting governor, Abner Coburn.

A successful businessman from Skowhegan, he had beaten three opponents during the early June 1862 Republican state convention held in Portland. Winning the September election, he took office in January 1863 and soon collided with power-wielding politicians.

Coburn “conducted [the state’s operations and finances] on strict business principles” wrote biographer Charles E. Williams. Reporting war-related expenditures and delving deeply into other budgetary issues, Coburn eschewed spending for spending’s sake.

He hyped Maine’s economic potential. Despite “our immense area,” only some 20 percent of Maine’s 22 million acres were “under even nominal cultivation,” and the “mineral resources [were] … almost untouched.”

Elected Maine governor in September 1862, Skowhegan businessman Abner Coburn refused to play along with Republican politicians seeking the spoils of power in the Pine Tree State. (Maine State Archives)

The “unparalleled advantages for commerce” and “our boundless facilities for manufacturing of all kinds” should rank Maine’s “wealth and prosperity” with the most prosperous Union states, but Maine was “as yet comparatively in our infancy,” Coburn believed. The appropriate laws could improve the economy, “while unwise laws may fatally retard” economic development.

Coburn kowtowed to nobody; “there was no power [pulling the strings] behind the throne,” Williams noted. His legislative correspondence and public speeches revealed that Coburn had “that rare faculty of grasping subjects which appears a marvelous power of intuition to some men.”

He saw the big picture, his critics their personal fiefdoms.

With the “unswerving integrity” evident “his whole life,” Coburn eschewed the “contemptible trickery and those indirect methods … admired” by certain politicians “as … rare political sagacity.”

New black regiments needed white officers, the Fredericksburg-battered regiments replacement officers and sergeants. Letters and telegrams inundated Coburn and Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon in winter ’63 as “hundreds of men” lobbied “for positions in the army for which they were unfit.”

Some Coburn-culled applicants complained to politician friends. Believing “that ‘spoils’ are principles” and that the governor should not reject their pals, particular Maine Republicans plotted retaliation.

And many Mainers “assailed the [state] treasury” for accounts payable, either actual or bogus, Williams wrote. The state budget tended toward thrifty, and Coburn opposed some new spending requests.

By spring, his opponents’ “clamors led excellent [Republican] men to hesitate about … renominating” Coburn, “whose only fault was his devotion” to Maine. Williams noted. “Consequently he was set aide.”1

Coburn fell seriously ill that spring, but by early June was “recovering slowly … now considered out of danger,” a Rockland newspaper reported. “He is still very weak, but if no relapse takes place,” he could “return home … within a week or so.”

Sources: Charles E. Williams, The Life of Abner Coburn, Thomas W. Burr Press, Bangor, Maine, 1885, pp. 35-36, 63; Rockland Gazette, Wednesday, June 1, 1863

Next week: Dissatisfied Republican delegates chuck Abner Coburn overboard

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. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at 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