Hell dumps a bastard on the 20th Maine, part 2

Of all its fights, the 20th Maine Infantry became famous for its stand amidst the rocks and trees of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Busted to private by a sadistic officer, the former Sgt. George Washington Buck would be mortally wounded here. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Among the privates assigned to Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry, was Theodore Gerrish, a 5-11, teen-aged farmer from Falmouth. Born in New Brunswick, he would become the 20th Maine’s first official historian, publishing his memoirs 17 years after the war.

Gerrish remembered Sgt. George Washington Buck of Linneus as “a young man … a brave, quiet, gentlemanly fellow. He had left a good situation, to fight for the old flag.”

Buck “was always at his post, and took great pride in discharging every duty in a soldierly manner,” Gerrish said. “He was one of the best soldiers in the regiment.”

There is every evidence that Buck was a warrior, an Aroostook Achilles fierce on the battlefield and cool and competent in camp, quietly keeping rambunctious privates in line not by threatening them, but by competing leading them.

His wartime photo does not hint at the sadism lurking within 1st Lt. Alden Litchfield, the 20th Maine’s quartermaster as of late December 1862. When the opportunity arose, he brutalized sick and wounded soldiers. (Maine Historical Society)

On December 30, 1862, Rockland clerk Alden Litchfield mustered into the 20th Maine as a first lieutenant and quartermaster. He supposedly left for Virginia on November 3, according to a local newspaper, but his state records date his commissioning as November 20.

Hell descended on the 20th Maine when the gray-eyed Litchfield arrived.

The regiment spent winter ’63 camped at Stoneman’s Switch near Falmouth. A minor officer whose position should keep him out of combat, Litchfield was a bastard, a sadist, a bully, a cruel individual who hid behind his gold bars while terrorizing enlisted soldiers who would be punished — Litchfield delighted in doling out pain, physical or emotional — if they opposed him.

Our quartermaster was a large, rough, overbearing man, one who disgraced his uniform every day by his brutal treatment of the men,” Gerrish said.

Nurses Harriet Eaton and Isabella Fogg lived near the 20th Maine’s camp that wretched winter. Representing the Maine Camp Relief Association, the nurses visited Maine regimental hospitals post-Fredericksburg. The 20th Maine’s proximity provided Fogg “every opportunity for obtaining information” on the regiment’s “sanitary condition.”

Maine nurse Isabella Fogg was so frightened by the brutality that Alden Litchfield showed the 20th Maine’s hospitalized soldiers that she wrote a confidential letter reporting Litchfield. (Maine State Archives)

Fogg listened as sick and wounded soldiers and doctors and hospital stewards talked. She saw much — and she saw and heard too much about Litchfield.

Requesting that her name be kept “confidential,” Fogg composed a difficult letter to George W. Dyer, the MCHA representative in Washington, D.C., on February 26, 1863. Dyer had expressed to her “a certain degree of anxiety” about the 20th Maine; he, too, may have heard about Litchfield.

While “many would say that it is no part of the duty of a lady to interfere in these matters,” Fogg believed “my duty” was “to look after the interests of our sick men” being “maltreated and abused … by an officer so utterly void of all good principles. This officer is none other than the quartermaster, a more wicked, profane, cruel, unprincipled man” than could “be found” in Maine.

The 20th Maine had left camp to fight at Fredericksburg, reconnoiter up the Rappahannock River in late December, and slop through January’s Mud March. With “the other officers needed in the field,” Ames had left Litchfield “in charge of the camp” each time, Fogg informed Dyer.

Words would be tame to describe the abuses these poor sufferers [the sick] received at his hand,” she said.

Litchfield “dragged from their little shelter tents, in a drenching rain” some “poor, sick men scarcely able to walk” and made them guard “an old lame horse” belonging to the surgeon, Fogg spat. “It was painful, truly painful to … witness such abuse.”

A soldier died. “The spirit had but just departed and the body was not yet cold” when Litchfield ordered sick men — “these helpless victims” — to bury their comrade immediately or “he would cause a hole to be dug in which to inter them,” Fogg told Dyer.

For reasons unknown, Col. Adelbert Ames failed to investigate when his bastard of a quartermaster, 1st Lt. Alden Litchfield, falsely accused Sgt. George Washington Buck of insubordination. The charge came after Litchfield knocked down and kicked the sick Buck in front of witnesses. (MSA)

Enlisted men blamed — “censured” — Ames for Litchfield’s psychopathy, but the colonel had apparently not witnessed Litchfield in action. In fact, “even in my hearing,” he “never failed to tell these men … that all these outrages were ordered by the Colonel himself,” Fogg said.

She believed Litchfield lied when he blamed Ames, and she was probably right.

George W. Buck was seriously ill, but not confined to hospital when Ames and the 20th Maine left camp in late December or during the Mud March. Gerrish mentioned the regiment being away “a few days.”

Left in charge, Litchfield stepped into Co. H’s “street” — the lane running between the company’s tents — and saw Buck “standing at his tent door.” Litchfield ordered the sergeant to grab an an ax, go to the quartermaster’s tent, and “cut him some wood,” reported Gerrish, who probably heard the story from eyewitness convalescents.

His status as an NCO and a surgeon’s certificate excused Buck from menial labor, as he “informed” Litchfield, who promptly “knocked him down with brutal force, and kicked his prostate form, and returned to his tent,” Gerrish said.

The regiment soon returned. Litchfield cited Buck for disobedience. Ames, who “had not carefully investigated the incident,” busted Buck to private, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain commented later.

The weeks passed away,” and Buck “felt his disgrace most keenly,” Gerrish noted. The Linneus warrior “never murmured, but manfully performed the duties of a private soldier. He never spoke of the matter except when the boys gave him their sympathy for his encouragement.

To say that he [Litchfield] was most cordially despised by every man in our company would be putting it in a very mild form,” Gerrish stated.

It was a degradation, and the injustice of it rankled in high-born spirit,” Chamberlain said. Buck sought no “justice,” and “I kept this in mind, for early action.”

Next week: The warrior goes to glory, the bastard to prison, part 3

Read part 1 here. Read part 3 here.

Sources: Rev. Theodore Gerrish, A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, Hoyt, Fogg & Donham, Portland, Maine, 1882; Alden Litchfield, Soldier’s File, MSA; Rockland Gazette, Saturday, November 8, 1862; U.S. National Homes for Disabled Soldiers (Danville, Illinois), veterans’ records; Isabella Fogg letter to George W. Dyer, February 26, 1863, Maine State Archives; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “Bayonet! Forward”: My Civil War Reminiscences, Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1994

“Swartz delves into the personal stories of sacrifice and loss…” — Civil War News

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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.