Politicians’ anti-war resolutions angered returning Port Hudson veterans, part 2

As a Boston & Maine Railroad train carried the 21st Maine Infantry Regiment toward home on Friday, August 7, 1863, Col. Elijah D. Johnson and his surviving officers read the resolutions passed two days earlier during the Democratic State Convention held in Portland.

Elijah D. Johnson of Lewiston took the 21st Maine Infantry Regiment to war as its colonel. He was a so-called “War Democrat” who supported the Lincoln Administration’s efforts to defeat the Confederacy. Johnson posed for this photograph while serving later as a captain in the 2nd Maine Cavalry Regiment. (Maine State Archives)

History does not record who read the resolutions aloud on that rattling train, but the officers “listened … with surprise and apparent displeasure. The feeling of disapprobation was very strong,” and the Mainers decided to do something about it.

“A meeting was called,” the soldiers chose Johnson (“a life long Democrat)” as chairman, and as good Maine Yankees did when faced with a conundrum, they talked. Doing so led the angry soldiers to write their own resolutions responding to the Democrats’ resolutions condemning the war, the Republican Party, and the Lincoln Administration’s handling of the bloody mess called the Civil War. Then there was the particular Democratic resolution offering to welcome the seceding states back into the Union without requiring them to abolish slavery.

Johnson and his men were livid. The 21st Maine lads had bled and died at Port Hudson, site of America’s longest siege despite historical application of that dubious honor to Vicksburg. Advancing during the bloody assault on Port Hudson on May 27, 1863, the Mainers ran into a hail of lead. “As the men left the woods they were met by grape and canister from the Confederate artillery[,] mingled with an effective fire of musketry delivered with deadly accuracy at close range.”

Confederates killed Col. E. P. Chapin, commanding the 1st Brigade to which the 21st Maine belonged. He went down about 330 feet shy of the enemy’s earthworks, which were defended by infantry and artillery. Johnson, as senior colonel, took over the brigade, which “was exposed to a most destructive fire of artillery & musketry,” he reported.

Not being reinforced I ordered to cease firing when we fel[l] back[,] taking away the most of the kild [sic] and wounded,” Johnson said.

The 21st Maine Infantry Regiment suffered 70 casualties during poorly planned, but bravely executed May 27, 1863 assault against Port Hudson. (Harper’s Weekly)

In a May 31 letter to Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon, Johnson identified his 70 casualties by company and casualty status (dead, wounded, or missing). The 21st Maine lost 12 soldiers killed; of the wounded, some would soon die. The regiment lost another 14 men killed during a useless June attack on the Port Hudson defenses.

The Confederate garrison surrendered on July 9, and the surviving 21st Mainers turned in their rifled muskets and military equipment on July 24, boarded the steamer Laurel Hill, and headed home via the Mississippi River. Traveling eastward from Chicago by train, the veterans “rode among the pleasant hills and along sparkling streams of New England” on Thursday, August 6.

Reaching Boston that night, the men caught the B & M train for Augusta on Friday. They read the Democratic resolutions somewhere between Boston and Portland. By the time the train pulled into Augusta, the Mainers had written and unanimously adopted their own resolutions.

The secretary for a hastily called meeting of the 21st Maine Infantry Regiment was 1st Lt. Martin Van Buren Chase. (MSA)

First, “in this time of darkness and peril, when our existence as a nation is endangered … we regret to see anything occur that shall tend in a way to embarrass the Government, discourage the people, or encourage the enemies of our country, thereby delaying the overthrow of an ungodly rebellion.”

Second, “we consider the resolutions (a portion of them) passed by the so called Democratic Convention, held at Portland” on August 6 (actually a day earlier) “as uncalled for, and untrue and directly giving comfort to those in arms against the Government, and consequently treasonable. As such we cannot approve of them, and feel it our duty to publicly condemn them …”

Third, “as soldiers we can have no sympathy with those responsible for said resolutions; and ‘living’ desire nor their ‘gratitude,’ nor ‘dying’ ask to ‘live in their memories,’ or that monuments should be raised by their hands to ‘teach posterity’ that we offered our lives in a cause they did so much to belittle and discourage.”

With their third resolution, the 21st Maine lads responded directly to the Democratic resolution praising the soldiers who had gone off to fight. The quoted terms “living” and “gratitude” and “dying” were lifted directly from that resolution, which the soldiers probably figured the Democrats had passed to look good with Maine’s warriors.

The 21st Maine’s third resolution ended on a defiant note. Johnson and his men had lost more than 170 comrades during nine-plus months’ active service. Although sickness and disease had killed most, those men were just as dead as those gunned down at Port Hudson. The regiment had left a lot of graves behind in the Deep South.

“Better by far that we fill the soldier’s grave, as many of our number now do, with nothing to mark the spot where we fell, than to have the most costly monuments reared by disloyal hands,” growled the 21st Mainers to conclude their third resolution.

Johnson, a Democrat, signed his name as “Chairman.” Company H’s first lieutenant, Martin Van Buren Chase of Sidney (the town between Augusta and Waterville), signed his name as “Secretary.”

Sources: The Loyal Sunrise, August 26, 1863; Woodward, Joseph T., Historic Record and Complete Biographic Rister of 21st ME. Vols., Charles E. Nash & Son, Augusta, ME, 1907, pp. 33, 45-46; Col. Elijah D. Johnson to Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon, May 31, 1863, Maine State Archives; Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, 1863, Stevens & Sayward, Augusta, ME, 1863, Appendix D, p. 618


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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.