20th Maine: A warrior goes to glory, a bastard to prison, part 3

Gunsmoke shrouds their line as Union re-enactors fire a volley at Gettysburg. During the 20th Maine’s fight at Little Round Top a bullet tore through similar gunsmoke and struck Pvt. George Washington Buck, demoted from sergeant months earlier after the regiment’s sadistic quartermaster lied about him. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

As the 20th Maine fought at Little Round Top, Pvt. George Washington Buck stood in the Co. H firing line. Buck had been a sergeant until the regiment’s bastard quartermaster, 1st Lt. Alden Litchfield, had physically assaulted the sick Buck in camp and then reported him for insubordination.

The 20th Maine’s colonel, Adelbert Ames, had promptly busted Buck to private without investigating the accusation. No one knows why Ames overlooked this outrage, especially since regimental scuttlebutt had quickly spread the story.

Unlike Buck, Litchfield — whom polite Mainers would call a “nasty piece of work” — lurked safely in the rear at Gettysburg, the place where a bully or coward would usually be found.

Buck stood with the warriors, the front-line soldiers trading lead and blood with the 15th and 47th Alabama. Litchfield hid in the rear.

During a lull in that savage fight amidst Little Round Top’s rocks and trees, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain found Buck “lying there,” along the front line, “face to the sky, a great bullet-hole in the middle of his chest.” Buck had “loosened the clothing, to ease his breathing, and the rich blood was pouring in a stream.”

Already angry that Col. Adelbert Ames had unilaterally busted Sgt. George Washington Buck to private in winter 1863, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain restored the dying Buck to his former rank as bullets whizzed around Little Round Top. (Maine State Archives)

Company H comrades “stooped over him,” claimed Co. H’s Pvt. Theodore Gerrish, who was not present at Gettysburg.Those same comrades probably shared the incident with Gerrish; the Co. H lads hated Litchfield for knocking down and kicking the sick Buck the previous winter.

They reduced me to the ranks, but I will show them I am not afraid to die,” Buck whispered.

The Co. H lads stepped back as Chamberlain arrived and said, “My dear boy, it has gone hard with you. You will be cared for!”

Tell my mother I did not die a coward!” Buck whispered.

You die a sergeant,” Chamberlain replied. “I promote you for faithful service and noble courage on the field of Gettysburg!”

Buck died by July 4. Chamberlain kept his promise and wrote the “warrant” promoting the young warrior, and he went into 20th Maine lore as “Sergeant George W. Buck, promoted from Private on field, killed.”

Company H suffered 15 casualties that Thursday. Confederates shot and killed 1st Sgt. Charles W. Steele and mortally wounded Sgt. Isaac N. Lathrop, a 6-foot, hazel-eyed Bangor farmer. Three privates were killed. George Washington Buck was not one of them; he was identified as a sergeant.

Various sources list Sgt. George Washington Buck as dying on July 2, 3, or 4, 1863. Buried in a rude grave, he became an “unknown,” his identity likely lost when his rough head board went missing. Buck evidently lies in the Maine section at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. Perhaps he is the “Unknown” lying beside Orwin Walker. (BFS)

Perhaps stricken by heartache, George’s father, Africa Buck, died on September 20, 1863. Believing a recruiter’s promise that he would not see combat, Henry A. Buck (George’s brother) joined the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry in February 1864. That recruiting scam swept up so many Mainers left incredulous when the regiment merged with the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment — and then went to war.

Henry went “missing in action” on June 29, 1864. Captured by Confederates, he died “date unknown” in a Southern prison.

An inscribed granite block indicates that 104 bodies lie in the Maine section at Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. Their headstones flush with the lawn,the heroes lie beyond the marker. (BFS)

Honorably discharged in June 1865, the 20th Maine’s resident bastard, Alden Litchfield, returned to Rockland and took up life as a respectable businessman.

After dark on Wednesday, May 4, 1870, burglars broke into the Western Union Telegraph Company. It shared an adjoining wall with the Lime Rock Bank.

The burglars “darkened the windows,” broke through the inner brick wall, bored into the bank safe’s door, and placed “a charge of powder” in the holes. About 3:30 a.m., the resulting explosion blew off the door, all but wrecked the safe, injured a burglar who bled “down the stairs and into the street,” and netted the culprits all of $1,100 in cash, plus “bonds and securities belonging to special depositors.” The thieves overlooked a box “containing” $12,000 in gold.

An arriving policeman “saw four persons come from the stairway landing to the Bank and disappear around the corner into Lime Rock Street,” a local newspaper reported.

Hated by 20th Maine enlisted soldiers in 1863, quartermaster Alden Litchfield went into private business in Rockland after the Civil Wwar. He was convicted for his role in a major bank heist occurring in May 1870. (Maine Historical Society)

Before Wednesday noon, the authorities apprehended former Rockland cop Addison F. Keiser, seen operating a wagon in the wee hours between the explosion and sunrise. Tossed in jail, “he was ‘interviewed’ by those acting in the interests of justice.”

Keiser quickly “implicated Mr. Alden Litchfield, a well-known trader in this city.” The 20th Maine’s shoulderstrap bastard “was arrested” and jailed before 12 noon; along with three accomplices, he was charged “with breaking and entering the bank” and “feloniously taking, stealing and carrying away certain bills, bonds and currency” worth more than $27,000.

The two safe-crackers, including the character who almost got his face blown off when the powder exploded sooner than expected, got four years at hard labor at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

Not a participant in the actual burglary, Litchfield was identified as its chief planner, even to locating and hiring the professional safe crackers from New York and elsewhere. Press accounts suggest that Litchfield seemed nonchalant during the subsequent legal proceedings, but “he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to several years at the Maine State Prison, said Gerrish, by now a minister.

After spotting Litchfield “in the labor gang at Thomaston, dressed in his convict’s garb,” Gerrish “could not help thinking of the little affair at Stoneman’s Switch and of Sergeant Buck’s honored grave at Gettysburgh.”

Frequently in and out of homes for disabled soldiers as he aged, Litchfield died February 17, 1911 in the District of Columbia. He was buried in Hope, Maine, perhaps the only hope he ever had.

The Maine section at Gettysburg National Cemetery contains “104 Bodies,” indicates the engraved state marker. Twenty-six 20th Maine lads lie buried there; the regiment’s honored dead wholly occupy 14-grave Section E.

Five men, including 1st Sgt. Charles W. Steele (space-shortened to “Chas. W. Steel.”) are identified in that row. Nine men are “unknown.” Grave diggers scattered other unknown 20th Maine lads among the six remaining sections.

No ground-level headstone bears the name of Linneus warrior George W. Buck. He lies there among the unknowns.

Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here.

Sources: Rev. Theodore Gerrish, A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, Hoyt, Fogg & Donham, Portland, Maine, 1882; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, “Bayonet! Forward”: My Civil War Reminiscences, Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1994; Maine at Gettysburg, Revised Report of Casualties, p. 272; Henry A. Buck and Isaac N. Lathrop, soldiers’ files, Maine State Archives; Robbery of the Lime Rock Bank, Rockland Gazette, Friday, May 6, 1870; The Lime Bank; Robbery!, Rockland Gazette, Friday, May 13, 1870

“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.