20th Maine: the warrior and the bastard, part 1

A granite marker on Little Round Top indicates approximately where the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment’s left flank spread on July 2, 1863. Company H and Pvt. George Washington Buck stood somewhere downslope from the flank marker. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

His gray eyes peering through swirling gunsmoke, Pvt. George Washington Buck loaded and fired as fast as possible as Alabamians raged against the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment’s left flank on July 2, 1863.

Numbering three officers, five sergeants, five corporals, and 33 privates, Buck’s Co. H reported to Capt. Joseph F. Land, a black-eyed merchant from Edgecomb in Lincoln County. He yelled orders his men could scarcely hear, their Enfields flaming and their hearing almost obliterated by battle din.

Company H abutted A on the right and C on the left, and men fell all along the line. Wherever gaps opened, survivors edged right or left, seeking a comrade’s proximity; a soldier felt secure knowing he was not alone.

Civil War re-enactors demonstrate a firing line at Gettysburg National Military Park. During the 20th Maine’s Little Round Top fight, the Co. H officers would have stood behind their men, encouraging them and watching for holes in the line. (BFS)

Buck kept firing. He and every 20th Maine rifleman had carried 60 cartridges up Little Round Top; a few veterans had squirreled away 70 or 80 rounds. However many he carried in his cartridge box, a man could justifiably wonder if the Johnnies carried even more.

Perhaps the coolest Co. H head belonged to 1st Sgt. Charles W. Steele, the 34-year-old Falmouth farmer who mustered with the regiment on August 29, 1862. Standing only 5-6¾, he had gray eyes — gray seemed de rigeur in certain 20th Maine corners — brown hair, and a dark complexion.

He actually was Co. H’s second sergeant until the original first sergeant, Rufus B. Plummer, became Co. C’s first lieutenant in March 1863. Steele proudly wore a top kick’s three chevrons and diamond.

Buck should have been with the sergeants, but a bastard had stolen his stripes, Col. Adelbert Ames had not asked questions, and now Buck fought with the privates, friends who passionately supported the Aroostook County hero.

The potato harvest is under way at the Frank Estabrooke farm in Linneus, Maine circa 1930. George Washington Buck hailed from Linneus when he joined the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. (Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum)

He belonged to Africa and Jane Buck, who sometime after their wedding settled in Linneus, a small town bordering Houlton and Hodgdon in “The County” (Aroostook County’s semi-official nickname) and took up farming.

Perhaps Jane sported an accent. The census-taker knocking on the family’s front door on September 13, 1850 listed her birthplace as Ireland, a few thousand miles off target. She was born to Thomas and Sarah Paddleford Cushman Williams in Dover (or Foxcroft) on April 3, 1819. The side-by-side towns in Piscataquis County would not merge into Dover-Foxcroft until 1922.

Maine’s least populated county, Piscataquis was never known for a particular accent, unlike Down East Maine, where natives drop “R” from many words, and Aroostook County, where the natives add “R” to particular words, such as Mount “Katardin” and “gararge.”

Beneath a lovely summer sky, barley spreads over a hill in Aroostook County. George Washington Buck grew up on his family’s farm in Linneus and enlisted to save the Union. He never returned home. (BFS)

Africa Buck came from Buckfield in Oxford County, where he was born on August 29, 1813. His father, Daniel, hailed from Foxcroft, his mother, Rebecca, from Buckfield. Others (perhaps relatives) joined Africa and Jane in Linneus; the 11 people living on their farm when the 1850 census-taker mistook Jane for an Irishwoman represented 2 percent of the town’s 1850 population (561 people).

The Bucks’ oldest child, George, was born in Linneus on February 2, 1842. After him came Henry and Rebecca by 1850 and Mary, Edner, L.J. (a daughter), and Daniel by 1860. Hugh Alexander, an assistant marshal, possibly heard “Edna” pronounced with an “R” when asking for that daughter’s name on June 18, 1860.

The past decade’s farming had gained Africa little materially. Valued at $600 in 1850, his real estate lost $100 in value by 1860, although his personal estate rose from zero to $360. Now 18, George was also a farmer; while four years younger, Henry worked the farm, too.

When not haying or tending crops in summer and fall, George and Henry cut firewood — a County family could not store up too much dry, seasoned firewood — and probably fished and hunted. They likely knew basic carpentry, certainly animal husbandry, and they grew up familiar with nature.

Africa and Jane evidently were not tall: Their oldest sons tended short when an average Maine man stood 5-7. By July 1862 George stood 5-6½ and had “auburn” hair and a dark complexion. Henry topped off at 5-4; he had hazel eyes, dark hair, and a light complexion.

Their physical differences suggest each brother favored a particular parent.

Potato plants blossom in southern Aroostook County in midsummer. Potatoes would have been grown on the Linneus farm owned by George Washington Buck’s parents. (BFS)

George certainly acquired a basic education. The War Department required Maine to recruit 4,000 men to form four infantry regiments in summer ’62. George enlisted in a northern Maine company on July 14. Around 5,000 men signed up statewide, so Maine created a fifth regiment, the 20th, and the company drawn primarily from Aroostook and neighboring Penobscot County towns became Co. H.

Houlton clerk Henry C. Merriam got its captaincy. Standing 5-10 with hazel eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion, he made George W, Buck a sergeant. His three chevrons meant he handled men and paperwork.

The first lieutenant’s single gold bar went to Elisha Besse Jr., a married 38-year-old farmer from Harpswell, a peninsula town in Cumberland County. Gray-eyed and brown-haired, he had fought in the Mexican War.

Merriam’s second lieutenant was William C. Bailey, a tall (5-10) and blue-eyed and brown-haired lumberman from Milford on the Penobscot River. Like Merriam he would not last long in uniform; Bailey resigned his commission in February 1863, a month after Merriam’s departure from the 20th.

By late October Co. H numbered 87 men, including three officers and 75 enlisted men “present” for duty. The head count dropped to 76 by January 1863 as Merriam lost one man at Fredericksburg and three men deserted during December.

Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

Next week: Hell descends on the 20th Maine

Sources: William C. Bailey, Elisha Besse Jr., George W. Buck, Henry A. Buck, Joseph F. Land, Henry C. Merriam, Rufus B. Plummer, and Charles W. Steele, soldiers’ files, Maine State Archives; U.S. Census for Linneus 1850 and 1860; 20th Maine returns for October 1862 and January 1863, MSA

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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.