Angered by resolutions passed during the Democratic State Convention held in Portland in early August 1863, “life long Democrat” Col. Elijah D. Johnson and his battle-hardened 21st Maine Infantry veterans organized an ad hoc meeting, discussed the situation, and “unanimously adopted” their own resolutions counterpointing the Democratic ones.
The fact that the Maine lads held their meeting on a Boston & Maine Railroad train rattling up the tracks between Boston and Portland meant nothing except location. The fact that these Mainers had just bled and died at Port Hudson meant they had a far different view about the war than did the 901 civilian delegates who had just met in Portland.
To say that Johnson and his men were incensed would be too polite.
The 21st Maine was among eight nine-month regiments raised in Maine in late summer and early fall 1862. Born in Mercer, the 30-year-old Johnson lived in Lewiston when he joined the regiment in mid-September. Governor Abner Coburn commissioned him as colonel on October 27, 1862, backdated to September 18. The 21st Maine arrived at New Orleans in late January 1863 and settled into the Port Hudson siege lines in May.
The Maine lads were homeward bound when Maine Democrats held their state convention at Portland City Hall on Wednesday, August 5, 1863. “Unusual efforts had been made to get out a large delegation, which were quite successful, and the floor of the Hall was crowded with them,” sniffed the pro-Republican Portland Daily Press.
Delegates elected Samuel Taylor, a Quaker and “a peace man,” as the convention’s president and selected 16 “Vice Presidents,” one from each Maine county. After accepting the nomination, Taylor spoke — and quickly turned political.
“I have wakened with fright out of my sleep at night at thoughts of my bleeding country,” he said. “The whole nation have become maddened. Under high professions of patriotism, the laws, the constitution, the organization of society itself have been broken up,” and by the Republican Party, he implied.
“I have been astonished, every one of you have been astonished at what you have seen in this world,” Taylor said. “Men who have professed to be patriots, men who have professed to love their species, to love truth, to love religion, you have seen embark in this high sea of destruction.”
He meant Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, of course.
Taylor indirectly excoriated abolitionists, men with “nothing but sin in their hearts” who “professed great friendship for the poor negroes.” With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union effort to raise black regiments, “now see what is the state and condition of the poor negroes in the Southern States.
“Every man who is liberated is thrust into the foremost ranks as a bale of cotton to prevent a bullet from striking a white man,” Taylor claimed. “I have always been a friend of the negro, and if a negro came to my house I would feed him, but the attempt has been made to break up the relations of society in the Southern states.
“We can do no such thing,” he stated.
During the afternoon session, the delegates adopted several resolutions. One stated that the Lincoln was waging war “not for the restoration of the Union, but for the abolition of slavery and the destruction of the Union, and our only assurance of peace and restoration is in the success of the Democratic party.”
Another resolution noted that the Republicans stressed “that the extinction of slavery” in the seceded states was “a condition of their restoration to the Union.” This requirement was “a wicked attempt to overthrow the Constitution, revolutionize the Government, prolong the war indefinitely, and finally to establish a military despotism on the ruins of our Republican Government.” The last phrase referred to the American form of government, not to a Republican-run government.
This resolution stated “that whenever the people of the seceded states, or of any one or more of such States,” desired to rejoin the Union and send representatives to Congress, “the Democratic party will hail their return with joy; and will freely welcome them back … with all the dignity, equality and rights of the several States unimpaired.” This indicated that the Democratic Party would not require seceded states to ban slavery prior to rejoining the Union.
Another resolution condemned Lincoln’s decision to suspend “the writ of habeas corpus” and “to proclaim … martial law over the States where war does not exist” and “to subvert our system of free government.”
Yet another resolution extended “the warmest thanks of the nation” to the Union soldiers who “nobly” responded when their “country called.” In time “monuments shall be raised to teach posterity to honor the patriots and heroes who offered their lives at their country’s altar.
“Their widows and orphans shall be adopted by the nation, to be watched over and cared for as objects truly worthy a nation[’s] guardianship,” the resolution promised.
Delegates proceeded to nominate Bion Bradbury as the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate. As the vote was taken, a delegate bellowed a warning “that pickpockets were on the floor of the convention.”
The Portland papers — the Eastern Argus and the Daily Press — dutifully printed the Democratic resolutions on Thursday, August 6. Copies apparently went south on a B & M train that day. Either the same newspapers or actual printed copies of the resolutions “were shown, in the cars” to Johnson and his surviving officers on Friday, August 7, as their train rumbled toward Portland.
“The resolutions were read in the presence of the officers, who listened to them with surprise and apparent displeasure,” the Daily Press reported. “The feeling of disapprobation was very strong.”
The 21st Mainers promptly organized their meeting.
Next week: Battle-hardened veterans reply to their political “betters”
Sources: The Loyal Sunrise, August 26, 1863; Democratic State Convention, Portland Press Herald, Thursday, August 6, 1863; Elijah D. Johnson Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives
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