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.”
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
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.