150 years later, war’s lesson still unlearned

 Civil War Stories
By LEW KINGSBURY  |  June 7, 2013

THE BATH MEMORIAL As seen in a 1910
postcard archived on Maine.gov.

Editor’s noteAfter last week’s feature focusing on Maine and the Civil War, we received this note from Lew Kingsbury with some family history and a thoughtful perspective on war.

As I read the ever-expanding anniversary remembrances of Maine’s contribution to the War of Southern Rebellion, I am reminded that Maine never relied on a draft to fill its enlistment rolls. This is touted as a symbol of Maine’s patriotic support for the Union, abolition of slavery, and the undying bravery of those from the great Maine woods. But there is an untold story of lies and deception that never gets told, of paid substitutes and the little known use of child soldiers to fill its enlistment ranks. Herein lies my family’s story of poverty, tragedy, and sacrifice as my great-great-grandfather John H. Brown enlisted for the first time at 16 in Company C of the 21st Maine Volunteers.

In 1862 the war was not going well for the North; battle after battle saw lines of blue-coated northerners charge the stonewalled high ground held by gray-coated rebels. What many considered would be a short, gallant affair was turning into a bloody holocaust. This war of attrition had one undying thirst, the need for more and more soldiers willing to do the unthinkable: fight until they were dead, dying, or captured. So when next the call went out for volunteers, it was for “nine months men” to fight on the lower Mississippi River under Admiral Farragut and General Banks. So certain were they of a quick, successful outcome their enlistment was limited to nine months, a promise that would ultimately be broken for many as the the war bogged down and raged on.

Enlistment quotas were decided for each of the communities across Maine, with Bath’s contribution determined to be 90 soldiers. Town leaders were responsible for the filling of the rolls. They reacted by holding enlistment-drive celebrations accompanied by stirring speeches from military leaders and prominent citizens. Clergy filled the Sunday worship with pro-abolition sermons laced with the fire and brimstone of the times. The local newspaper was filled with stories of the glory of war while minimizing the human costs. And bounties of $100 were paid to those who enlisted at the muster in Augusta. To show their support for the war effort many of the town leaders signed on to the enlistment rolls. However by the time of the muster they had been replaced by “substitutes,” usually poor souls willing to replace their town leaders for a generous fee.

My great-great-grandfather was 16 at the time he signed on. He had been apprenticed to the Donnell rope walk at 12, earning $1.25 a week for six 10-hour days. He worked alongside his uncle James P. Newell, 18, and his best friend George F. Stacy, 17. All three worked at the rope walk as “spinners” twisting rope for the great ships being built on the Kennebec River. Although children at heart, they were considered men in the workplace.

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  Topics: This Just In , History, Civil War
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