Abner Coburn stepped into a political mess upon becoming Maine’s second war-time governor as the calendar transitioned to 1863.
Born to farmers Eleazar and Polly Weston Coburn in Canaan in Somerset County in March 1803, Coburn studied at Bloomfield Academy in the town of Bloomfield, which lay across the Kennebec River from the upper section of “Old Canaan.” That section became the town of Milburn in 1823.
Seven years later, Coburn joined his father and brother, Philander, in business as E. Coburn & Sons, buyers and sellers of Kennebec Valley timberlands. The entrepreneurial Coburns made money and employed men who helped settle towns upriver from Milburn, renamed Skowhegan in 1836. Skowhegan absorbed Bloomfield in 1861.
A wealthy businessman, Coburn secured the Republican Party’s nomination after Israel Washburn Jr. decided not to seek re-election as governor in fall 1862. The Republicans retained political power in Maine, but suffered serious setbacks elsewhere in loyal state elections.
Coburn took the oath of office at the Maine State House on Wednesday, January 7, 1863. Lacking Washburn’s political skills, he immediately and seriously erred. Rather than deliver his Governor’s Message in person, he sent a copy to be read by the Clerk of the House to the “Gentlemen of the Senate and House of Representatives,” gathered in the Maine House on January 8.
While such in absentia reporting might be traditional, Coburn should have personally delivered his message. While not a political neophyte (he had just served three terms in the Maine House), he had this one opportunity to impose his personality on the disparate legislators.
Many knew him; others did not.
“The political year which has just closed, and the one on which we have entered, will be recorded as the most important and critical in the history of the State and nation,” Coburn began his state-of-the-State message, as read by the House clerk.
Maine “has been zealously engaged in filling the ranks of the Union Army,” Coburn noted. Adding up the units (ranging from a sharpshooter company to cavalry and infantry regiments) raised in the state so far, Maine had directly sent 33,137 men to defend the country. Another 2,947 men had joined “the Regiments of other States and … the Regular Army.”
Maine had sent to war more than “the total quota of troops demanded” of the state, Coburn pointed out.
And as for the Navy and Marine Corps, “we have contributed … more largely in proportion to our population than any other State,” he commented, estimating that at least 4,000 Mainers had “enrolled in the Regular and Volunteer Navy since the war commenced.”
Coburn covered taxes, expenditures, “the banks of the state,” schools, “Public Lands—Military Defenses—Militia,” and even the Reciprocity Treaty signed with Britain in September 1854. The 41st Legislature had resolved “that this treaty should be terminated” because Britain had slapped “oppressive duties” and placed other hindrances on Maine goods exported to neighboring Canadian provinces.
“Indeed the treaty seems precisely adapted to the free admission of all the products” from those same provinces, Coburn growled.
Memories of Britain’s military and political interference in Maine these past 90 years remained fresh in the State House. “Maine is a frontier State,” Representative Samuel H. Blake of Bangor said in the House of Representatives.
“She is the outpost of the Union against which Great Britain in case of war, would strike the first blow. She is the coveted prize that British diplomacy for half a century has been trying to win, but has not dared openly to ask for,” he reminded his fellow legislators.
Coburn took office as the Army of the Potomac literally disintegrated at its Stafford County camps in Virginia and as Maine Democrats (reflecting their national party’s resurgence) flexed their muscles. Elected Democrats dare not oppose Maine’s war-related efforts by legislative fiat (that would be political suicide), but across the state many local Democratic leaders spoke up against the war. The shocking casualty lists from Antietam and Fredericksburg spread gloom among Mainers already weary (like countless other Americans) about the price being paid to save the United States. The question became as 1863 headed toward its spring: Is the price worth all this blood?
But Coburn’s greatest problems arose within the Maine Republican Party, now dominated by the up-and-coming James G. Blaine. Businessman Coburn was accustomed to making decisions and getting the job done; Governor Coburn needed political finesse to work with legislators who, like their 2023 counterparts in the Maine Legislature, too often figured they would make a better governor than the person currently in office.
Blaine, the political shark, smelled Coburn blood in the State House water. Coburn likely would win re-election in autumn 1863, but Blaine maneuvered long before the Republican state convention to replace the incumbent with Democrat-turned-Republican Sam Cony. The dirty deed needed only the official convention vote in Bangor in early July 1863 to become official.
Coburn stepped into — or perhaps inherited — a political mess when he became Maine’s second war-time governor. Perhaps he was happy to leave the mess behind when he left office.
Sources: Governor’s Message, Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, January 9, 1863; Our Northeastern Defences, Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, January 30, 1863
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