Not even a sumptuous meal could keep the 4th Maine Infantry’s hard-bitten veterans from deserting in late June 1864.
Losing 184 men during “the battle of the Wilderness,” the 4th Maine continued taking casualties as the Army of the Potomac battered itself bloody throughout May and into June. Twenty-three soldiers went dead or wounded “near Hanover Junction” on May 23 and another three below the North Anna on May 24.
A captain in spring 1861 and the regiment’s colonel since spring ’62, Elijah Walker brought his boys to Cold Harbor on June 2. Spending the next 10 days moving hither and yon while “skirmishing, building rifle pits and supporting other troops,” the Mainers escaped a horror experienced by other short-time regiments; sent charging at enemy earthworks, men only days from home went dead, wounded, or missing in the Cold Harbor debacle.
Crossing the Chickahominy River via the Long Bridge on June 13, the Maine lads reached Charles City Courthouse that night. Steamers transported the 4th Maine across the James River the next day; tramping ashore, Walker et. al moved “two miles to the front and” formed “in line of battle.”
Union attention shifted to Petersburg as the 4th Maine “were ordered out of the line” on Wednesday, June 15, reported Rockland Gazette publisher Z.P. Vose. “Including re-enlisted veterans and recruits whose [enlistment] term was unexpired,” 217 men transferred to the 19th Maine Infantry.
“Two hundred and seventy-three” soldiers went to the 19th Maine, claimed William Whitman and Charles True claimed in their epic Maine in the War for the Union.
Only surviving 1861 soldiers, 13 officers and 132 enlisted men, “began the welcome march home,” said Vose. Boarding a steamer at Fort Powhattan, the three-year veterans disembarked at Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 18.1
“Being unable to obtain [rail] transportation,” the 4th Maine boys hung around the capital Sunday, “but no increase in church attendance could be attributed to that fact, the paramount desire being for a good time,” Walker recalled.
The regiment’s worthy and accommodating subtler, J.B. French … generously opened his purse to all who desired to borrow,” Walker said. Some men bought “much-needed articles of clothing.” When other Mainers “imbibed too freely” and “became unruly,” provost guards arrested them; learning that the boozy troops “had just come from the front, en route for home,” senior provost officers returned the offenders to Walker.
Visiting District hospitals, a few Mainers found comrades “severely wounded” during the Overland Campaign. Officers soon rounded up the Rockland-bound troops, herded them into a train that “was not a fast express,” and the 4th Maine clattered homeward by rail, Walker said.
Enjoying “a breakfast” of “the poorest description” in New York City, the veterans rumbled toward Boston, detrained there on June 24, and boarded a Rockland-bound steamer. “No straggling was reported,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Rockland City Council created a committee “to prepare a suitable reception for the gallant veterans,” Vose said, stressing the 4th Maine sailed home from Portland; evidently the steamer from Boston briefly stopped at Portland before cruising through the darkness toward the Midcoast.
Many American flags waved from Rockland flagstaffs Friday as “an efficient committee” prepared “a bountiful collation in Atlantic Hall,” Vose said.
Next week: The 4th Maine veterans march home to a familiar tune
Sources: William E.S. Whitman and Charles H. True, Maine in the War for the Union: A History of the Part Borne by Maine Troops in the Suppression of the American Rebellion, Nelson Dingley Jr. & Co., Publishers, Lewiston, Maine, 1865; Reception of the Fourth Maine Regiment, Rockland Gazette, Saturday, July 2, 1864; Elijah Walker, The Old Soldier: History of the Fourth Maine Infantry, Tribune, Rockland, Maine, 1895
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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.