Near sunset on Saturday, July 20, 1861, Col. Charles Jameson ordered the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment “drawn up in a hollow square” near Centerville, Va., according to James Mundy in his book “Second to None.” Color Sergeant William J. Deane of Bangor stood with the six-man color guard. As Jameson rode his horse into the square, Deane likely wondered what his commander planned to do.
After all, the 2nd Maine boys would supposedly cross Bull Run the next day and attack the Confederate troops defending Manassas. What could their commander want that night?
Jameson explained to his hot, weary soldiers that wealthy Maine women living in San Francisco had spent $1,200 on a battle flag intended for the first Maine regiment to arrive in Washington. The 2nd Maine Infantry had achieved that goal by detraining at Washington on May 30. On that day, the regiment would claim the so-called “California Flag.”
Calling Deane from the ranks, an officer gave him a new leather harness studded with 13 silver stars. After Deane strapped the harness about his upper body, Jameson presented him with the flag.
And what a flag it was! “On a massive blue field of India silk were thirty-four stars grouped around an eagle. On the reverse were the coats of arms of California and Maine on separate shields. The rings, slides, sockets, and battleaxe were of solid silver,” Mundy wrote.
As Deane seated the flag shaft’s butt in the harness, he might have thought, “If only they could see me back home” — at 6 State Street Ave. in Bangor, where he lived with his wife and children. Born in Thomaston on Dec. 16, 1826, Deane later moved to Bangor with his parents Elizabeth and Benjamin, a prominent architect. William Deane worked as a “moulder,” making molds for castings, and along with his brother, James, belonged to the Bangor Light Infantry.
That militia outfit became Company A of the 2nd Maine Infantry in May 1861. In early June, the regiment joined the 1st Brigade of the Union army’s 1st Division in Virginia. Three Connecticut infantry regiments and an artillery battery rounded out the 1st Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Erasmus Keyes.
Marching west along the Warrenton Pike before dawn on Sunday, July 21, the 1st Brigade halted near the Stone Bridge and waited there all morning. Clad in gray woolen uniforms, Deane and the other 2nd Maine boys sweat beneath the broiling sun and listened as the battle raged in the distance.
Suddenly the order came for the 1st Brigade to cross Bull Run at Farm Ford and “take a battery on a height (Henry House Hill) in front,” Keyes later reported. “The battery was strongly posted and supported by infantry and riflemen, sheltered by a building, a fence, and a hedge.”
After forming on high ground west of Bull Run, the 1st Brigade soldiers “were ordered [south] at the double-quick down the gentle slopes and across Young’s Branch” to the Warrenton Pike, Mundy wrote. Carrying the heavy, leather-cased California Flag, William Deane probably gasped for air as the Maine boys ran to the turnpike.
There, a dirt road rose south on Henry House Hill to a frame house owned by James Robinson, a 62-year-old free black farmer. Keyes placed the 3rd Connecticut to the right and the 2nd Maine to the left of the road.
“In the center of the [2nd Maine] line was C Company,” assigned that day to protect the color guard, Mundy wrote. The flag bearers uncased their flags; at approximately 1:30 p.m., both regiments advanced uphill with the other two Connecticut regiments behind them.
“My order to charge was obeyed with the utmost promptness,” Keyes reported. The 2nd Maine and 3rd Connecticut “pressed forward … up the base of the slope about one hundred yards, when I ordered them to lie down, at a point offering a small protection, and load.”
But the flag bearers did not “lie down,” because their flags must not touch the ground. Deane could only hold the flag, wipe the sweat from his brow and swallow his fear as he waited.
Rising from the sheltering swale and led by Deane and the other two flag bearers, the 2nd Maine boys swept south past the Robinson House “in the face of a movable battery of eight pieces and a large body of infantry, toward the top of the hill,” Keyes recalled. Past the crest, the Maine boys reached a split-rail fence that briefly disrupted their advance.
Awaiting them was the 5th Virginia Infantry Regiment, led by Col. Kenton Harper and assigned to a brigade brought from the Shenandoah Valley by Col. Thomas J. Jackson. The latter would gain the nickname “Stonewall” today.
Squinting through the haze at the approaching gray-clad infantry, Col. Harper spotted an American flag and yelled at his men. “They fired a volley that rocked the 2nd Maine,” Mundy wrote. “The men stood it and returned a volley with their smoothbores.”
Deane’s last moments coincided with that first Confederate volley. The 2nd Maine’s three flags attracted Confederate bullets; shot in the throat, William Deane “fell severely wounded while nobly bearing the beautiful California stand of colors,” Jameson noted.
“Though sorely wounded so that he could scarcely whisper, he beckoned me to him — and when I knelt beside him and put my ear close to his mouth, he hoarsely whispered, “It’s safe,”’ recalled Rev. John F. Mines, the 2nd Maine chaplain.
“‘What,’ said I, ‘what, the flag?’ He nodded his head, for he could not speak again — and then closed his eyes” in death, Mines recalled.
Snatching up the blood-splattered California Flag, Corp. Americus Moore of Old Town yelled at his comrades to advance, then took a bullet in the head and died. The California Flag fell again, and the Maine boys sought cover behind the fence.
Keyes ordered his brigade to retreat. As the 2nd Maine withdrew, Corp. Benjamin Smart of Portland refused to abandon the fallen flags. Jameson led nine volunteers, including Smart, across the fence to retrieve the flags and some wounded Mainers. Although under heavy enemy fire, the rescuers emerged unscathed with their flags and comrades.
“The colors were lost, but regained,” Jameson succinctly reported.
Chaplain Mines remained behind with 25 other wounded soldiers as the 2nd Maine vanished north past the Robinson House. Captured and then imprisoned in Richmond, he later wrote in a letter to a Bangor friend, “Tell Mr. Deane, the father of Wm. Deane … who fell in the battle of the 21st, that his son died like a hero.”
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.