Ira Gardner survived a ship collision on the Mississippi River and murderous Copperheads in Old Town to reach Patten “and my best girl” — but she was 100 miles away when he arrived home.
Yet Helen Darling rushed to Patten to spend time with her sweetheart, who had been away at war for almost two years.
When Patten men “organized … an Independent Rifle Company” in 1858, the teenaged Gardner drilled weekly with his comrades during warm weather. He found military life appealing; “I had studied infantry tactics considerably and later found my experience and knowledge to be of great value to me,” he wrote in his 1902 “Recollections of A Boy Member of Co. I, Fourteenth Maine Volunteers.”
When Maine Gov. Israel Washburn called for volunteers to fight the Confederacy in mid-April 1861, two days passed before the letter reached Patten. A disgusted Gardner recalled that Maine’s quota “had been filled before we could reach the rendezvous in Bangor.”
Then in July, most Patten militiamen joined Co. B, 8th Maine Infantry Regiment; as an only son, the 18-year-old Gardner remained home. He begged and wheedled until “my presence at home became to my parents so uncomfortable” that they let him enlist and leave Patten on Dec. 4 with some 40 local men.
Assigned as orderly sergeant to Co. I, 14th Maine Infantry Regiment, Gardner camped outside the State House at Augusta until departing for Boston on Feb. 1, 1862. Enduring an exciting voyage aboard “the old sailing vessel North America,” he landed at Ship Island in Mississippi.
Since his militia days in Patten, Gardner had demonstrated solid leadership skills. About a month after Co. I reached Ship Island, “our second lieutenant, having seen enough of service, resigned and I was promoted to” that rank, he recalled. When New Orleans fell to the Navy in April, the 14th Maine Infantry landed there and camped “in Lafayette Square … about two months.”
Disease devastated the regiment’s ranks and brought Gardner a promotion to first lieutenant in June. A combat veteran by late summer, he later gained a promotion to captain and led his troops during the bloody Siege of Port Hudson, La., which lasted from May 22-July 9, 1863.
After that city capitulated, Army brass ordered Gardner and two other 14th Maine “officers and six sergeants to proceed to Portland” and retrieve 200 recruits. He boarded a steamboat at Port Hudson “about the 20th of August” and, along with the homeward-bound 177th New York Infantry Regiment, cruised upriver on the Mississippi.
Departing Memphis on a sultry August night, the steamboat encountered another ship headed downriver about 1 a.m. “Short, sharp whistles from both steamers [suddenly] indicated trouble,” recalled Gardner, who hastily dressed after the other vessel “struck us about midway, near where my stateroom was.”
Both captains grounded their steamboats on the Arkansas shore, but the other ship quickly slid into deep water and sank, drowning Illinois soldiers and Army mules. Gardner helped rescue people from both ships, then boarded a Union gunboat that arrived about dawn.
From Cairo, Ill., Gardner traveled by train to Boston and finally arrived in Portland on Sept. 1. “On arriving at Bangor at about dark,” he “went to the Penobscot Exchange and quite unexpectedly met my father, there on business.” The elder Gardner wrote for Ira an introductory letter to “Hon. J.L. Smith at Oldtown,” a partner in the Bangor-Mattawamkeag stage line. The letter asked Smith to provide Ira “with a team and a change of horses” so he could travel north to Patten.
In Old Town, while Smith matched a conveyance and horses, the uniformed Gardner returned to Smith’s hotel. “I found a crowd in front of the door,” he recalled. Angry about the draft and with their ardor bolstered by alcohol, the Copperheads intended to kill this Army officer who had impertinently appeared in their midst.
Finding a thug barring his passage into the hotel, Gardner “knocked him off the platform … sprang into the hotel, seized my revolver, and as the crowd rushed into the hallway, I stood in the corner … and as coolly as possible informed them that the first man attempting violence would be shot.” His stance momentarily checked the Copperheads; then Smith “drove up … with my team and walked in through the crowd” before escorting the livid Gardner outdoors.
Years later, Gardner learned that “my old friend and schoolmate, Charles H. Gilman of Patten,” stood in the crowd that night. Scheduled to report to an Army recruiting post in Bangor the next day, Gilman indicated to Gardner that “if it had not been for him, they would have murdered me on the spot.”
Changing horses “about every 10 miles,” Gardner traveled through the night while imagining his meeting with Helen. At her parents’ house, he learned that she was visiting relatives in Robbinston. After arriving at his home, Gardner “started his [parents’] hired man with a horse and carriage … to bring Helen Darling here as quickly as possible.”
Helen hurried to Patten, arriving about 3 a.m. a few days later. Ira spent a few hours with her in Patten; she rode south with him as he hustled to reach Portland before his furlough expired. Bidding Gardner a tearful farewell in Mattawamkeag, Helen returned home.
Gardner returned to marry Helen in Patten on March 4, 1864. That July, the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment shifted east to join Union troops besieging Petersburg, Va. Then the regiment shipped north to Washington, D.C. and marched across northern Virginia to battle Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley.
During the Sept. 19, 1864 Battle of Opequan Creek, Gardner was leading his company against enemy soldiers when a bullet shattered his right arm.
At a field hospital, he implored a surgeon not to amputate the arm; “I think I shall have to in order to save your life,” the doctor told him before removing most of the limb.
A subsequent infection led to the arm being amputated at the shoulder. Gardner survived to receive a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel. He gratefully settled down in Patten with Helen, and they raised a family whose descendants live in Maine until this day.
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. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.