The dubious distinction of being the first Maine soldier killed during the Civil War goes to Pvt. Addison Whitney of Belmont. It is significant because for 150 years, people have honored another soldier for that distinction.
On April 19, 1861, Cpl. Sumner Needham turned to Pvt. James Knights while standing outside Baltimore’s President Street Station and said, “We shall have trouble today, and I shall never get out alive.” Needham and Knights belonged to Company I, 6th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Needham’s premonition proved accurate. Though serving in a Bay State regiment, Needham hailed from Norway, Maine, and for 150 years, he was hailed as the state’s first soldier to die during the Civil War.
Or was he?
Sumner Needham was born to Maria and Evi Needham on March 2, 1828, on the family farm in Norway. He had two sisters and four brothers. The Needhams later moved to Bethel, where Sumner worked on the family farm until the bright lights of Lawrence, Mass., lured him away in 1849.
He worked as a lather with his brothers Charles and Otis. Sumner married Hannah Johnson from Sanford in 1857 and brought her to Lawrence; sometime between March 1 and April 15, 1861, she became pregnant with their first child.
With Southern secession a reality, Lawrence and Lowell patriots rallied round the flag on Monday, Jan. 21, 1861, by joining the new 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. Sumner Needham had belonged to the Lawrence Light Infantry. He was promoted to corporal, when he joined the 6th Massachusetts, attended the scheduled drills, and received a blue uniform and a Springfield rifle that March.
On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln asked the loyal states for 75,000 volunteers to quash the Southern rebellion. That request tumbled a few holdout Southern states, including Virginia, into the Confederacy and dispatched the renamed 6th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to Boston on April 16. Sumner Needham said good-bye to Hannah and briefly relocated with Company I to Faneuil Hall on that rainy Tuesday.
The next morning, the 6th Massachusetts entrained for Washington, D.C. “Cheers upon cheers rent the air as we left Boston,” another soldier wrote home. “At every station we passed, anxious multitudes were waiting to cheer us on our way.”
Commanded by Col. Edward Jones, the 6th Massachusetts arrived at President Street Station in Baltimore on Friday, April 19. City ordinances barred steam locomotives from inner Baltimore. To reach Camden Station and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad connection to Washington, the Bay Staters had to board horse-drawn rail cars for the 10-block journey across Baltimore.
As Needham indicated to Knights when they detrained, hell awaited them outside President Street Station.
Baltimore abounded in Southern sympathizers intent on dragging Maryland into the Confederacy — and on seizing Washington, D.C., before Union reinforcements arrived there. An estimated 8,000 furious people swarmed around the rail cars carrying the 6th Massachusetts across the city. Heckling changed to stone throwing and sabotage. As the seventh rail car approached the narrow Jones Falls Bridge, Southerners dragged an anchor across the tracks and derailed the car.
Bricks, paving stones and rocks flew as the remaining Union soldiers retreated to President Street Station. To reach Jones, now safely ensconced at Camden Station, the last four companies marched under police escort through the swelling crowd.
The journey deteriorated into a running street battle. The soldiers “proceeded but a short distance when they were furiously attacked by a shower of missiles,” Jones later wrote.
“Piles of stones and every other obstacle had been laid in the streets to impede our progress,” a soldier recalled. “Pistols began to be discharged at us … shots and missiles were fired from windows and house tops.”
Struck on the head by a brick, Sumner Needham spun and collapsed; comrades carried him unconscious as they struggled through the seething mob. Gunfire dropped a soldier, then others, and the Massachusetts troops opened fire. Before the soldiers reached safety at Camden Station, the riot had cost them three men killed — Whitney, and Luther Ladd of Lowell and Charles Taylor of Boston — and more than 20 men injured. Twelve civilians died during the riot.
The 6th Massachusetts Infantry traveled by train that night to Washington, where Needham reached a hospital. He lingered comatose before dying on Saturday, April 27. Sumner Needham would be buried at Bellevue Cemetery in Lawrence, Mass.
Needham’s wife, Hannah Needham, gave birth to their son on Dec. 19. The boy, named Sumner Henry, would never know his father.
But Confederate sympathizers shot dead Addison Otis Whitney on April 19, eight days before Needham died from his injuries, making Whitney Maine’s first soldier killed in action.
Whitney was born Oct. 30, 1839, to John and Jane Whitney in the Waldo County town of Belmont. Like Needham, he found employment in a Massachusetts textile mill; like Needham, he joined the 6th Massachusetts.
Whitney and Ladd lie buried beneath the Ladd & Whitney Monument in Lowell, Mass.
So Whitney and Needham became No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Maine’s Civil War hero rolls. More than 9,000 Maine men would join them in the ranks of the nation’s hallowed dead; by spring 1864, the deaths would occur so frequently that Mainers would stop counting.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Brian may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.