Israel Washburn Jr. steps down as Maine’s first war-time governor

Late on Monday, January 5, 1863, a weary Governor Israel Washburn Jr. walked from his office to the Executive Council Chamber located elsewhere in the Maine State House in Augusta.

Israel Washburn Jr. was Maine’s first war-time governor. (Bangor Public Library)

But Washburn likely gave little thought to such concerns tonight. As he approached the Executive Council Chamber’s rosewood doors, the bespectacled and diminutive Washburn exchanged quiet pleasantries with people gathered to watch this historic occasion

Maine’s first wartime governor was leaving office.

Two years earlier, Governor Lot M. Morrill of Augusta has made this same trek as regional tensions over the election of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln tore the United States apart. A devoted Democrat whose anti-slavery views ultimately brought him into the Republican Party in the mid-1850s, Morrill had served three one-year terms.

The elevation of Senator Hannibal Hamlin to the vice presidency had created an opportunity for the politically astute Morrill. Stepping down as governor on Wednesday, January 2, 1861, he replaced the popular Hamlin in the U.S. Senate.

The administration of Maine’s extensive war effort took place at the State Capitol in Augusta. (Maine State Archives)

A founding member of the Republican Party, Washburn hailed from the hardscrabble Livermore family that produced similarly talented sons, such as Illinois attorney and Lincoln confidante Elihu B. Washburne, Minneapolis Milling Company founder Cadwallader C. Washburn, and William D. Washburn, who launched the Pillsbury-Washburn Milling Company.

Re-elected to his fifth term in Congress in autumn 1858, Israel Washburn Jr. ran for governor in the 1860 election that brought Lincoln to power. With the outbreak of war, the past 24 months had thrust on Washburn responsibilities borne by no prior Maine governor.

With credit to the Maine Legislature, talented administrators had shifted many responsibilities off Washburn’s shoulders. The seven members of the Executive Council and leaders in the Republican-controlled legislature had passionately supported Washburn as he directed Maine’s war efforts.

Washburn guided the state through 1861’s relatively few casualties and increasing state expenses. Then 1862 brought heavy fighting and corresponding losses. Mostly middle-aged, Washburn and his cabinet-level administrators endured long hours that dragged on day by day, week by week; John L. Hodsdon, the exceptional adjutant general charged with administering the actual war-related efforts, “frequently worked from early morn until midnight, seldom leaving the State House even for an hour.”

Physically worn out, Washburn had decided not to seek re-election to a third term, so the name of Skowhegan lumber baron Abner Coburn had appeared atop the Republican state ballot in autumn 1862. Comfortably elected to office despite gains made by the Democratic Party elsewhere in the loyal states, he would take office on Wednesday, January 7.

But this Monday night belonged to Israel Washburn Jr., now making “the farewell of the Chief Magistrate to his associates in office, and the several assistants which, during his official term, he has called around him,” a newspaperman pseudonymed “Crayon” observed.

The Council Chamber we approach with awe—and well we may—it is the brain of the State,” the attentive Crayon commented. “Its legitimate occupants are men of parts, they are selected for their wondrous wisdom.”

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Augusta could “get up a bigger stink than … elsewhere in the known world”

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Because of his relationship with Washburn’s supportive hometown newspaper, the Daily Whig & Courier, Crayon passed through the opened rosewood doors unchallenged. Entering the Executive Council Chamber, he noticed how the “hats [came off] and [people took] steps slowly and softly when you intrude your unworthy presence within its consecrated area.

This chamber is a marvel” that “we cannot comprehend … all at once,” he said.

The people awaiting Washburn had dressed to the nines in the nattiest fashions acceptable to mid-19th century Maine. Crayon noticed the delicious refreshments set out by the State House staff; a good newspaperman — called a “correspondent” during the war — always had a nose for news and free food and drink.

Glimmering gas-fired lamps cast human shadows on the wooden walls; if the gas, supplied by the City Gas Company on Mt. Vernon Avenue at the “exorbitant price” of $4 per 1,000 cubic feet, stank that evening, Crayon did not say so in his immediate dispatch.

Later describing “the perfume” of the gas as involving a formulation that required “four dead cats” and other odious ingredients, Crayon claimed “that a two-ounce vial of it, uncorked on low ground[,] will kill every skunk within five miles.”

Augusta could “get up a bigger stink than … elsewhere in the known world,” he sniffed.

John L. Hodsdon proved to be a capable adjutant general, carefully administering Maine’s war effort from 1861 to 1866. (BPL)

Inside the Executive Council Chambers, Washburn “bade an affectionate farewell to the gentlemen of the Council, of the several executive departments, and to those … associated with him in the discharge of civil and military duties during the past year,” Crayon reported.

The governor “paid a glowing tribute to the efficiency and arduous services of those gentlemen,” whom he credited for “whatever … success had attended his administration.” Washburn mentioned several administrators, including Hodsdon.

A bit embarrassed by the attention, he responded that the “labors, however earnest or devoted” for which Washburn praised his administrators “had not equalled [sic] those” of the governor, Crayon noted.

For Washburn, leaving office did not represent retirement from active employment. Only 49½ that January — and at times he certainly felt older — he soon moved to Portland to work as the Collector of the Port, a position to which Abraham Lincoln appointed him.

Washburn would be fondly remembered as “one of the best of the war Governors” among the chief executives of the loyal states. “He labored incessantly, and performed his whole duty,” a biographer later stated.

Washburn performed a few more gubernatorial duties, such as appointing a captain for Co. G of the 7th Maine Infantry, a surgeon for the 9th Maine, and an assistant surgeon for the 24th Maine. Then he passed his responsibilities to Abner Coburn.

Sources: Daily Whig & Courier, Wednesday, January 7, 1863; Daily Whig & Courier, Tuesday, January 13, 1863; History of Penobscot County Maine, Williams, Chase & Co., Cleveland, Ohio, 1882, p. 211


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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