John S. French epitomized a Maine recruiting sergeant’s dream: a naturally talented youth who took so easily to soldiering that he would earn a battlefield commission — and keep himself out of trouble.
Hailing from Albion, the 21-year-old French enlisted as a private in the Lewiston Light Guard on April 27, 1861; French then worked in Lewiston as a carpenter. Single and patriotic, he stood 5 feet, 10¾ inches tall and had hazel eyes, black hair and a light complexion.
On April 30, French wrote an explanatory letter to his “Dear Parents, Brothers & Sisters” in Albion. “Perhaps you will condemn my actions, but I feel that I am but doing my duty to my country. I have enlisted … I did not act in a moment of excitement but concidered (sic) it calmly,” he wrote.
Joining the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment as Co. E, the Lewiston soldiers mustered into federal service in Portland on June 24. Dubbed the “Forest City Regiment,” the 5th Maine soon camped outside Washington, D.C. French wrote his family that “I see Abe Lincoln last night. He passed by here” in a horse-drawn carriage. “He is a good-looking man, but not half so homly (sic) as he is represented to be.”
Combat-bloodied at Manassas on July 21, the 5th Maine later spent time building fortifications outside Alexandria and Arlington. French often shouldered his 0.69-caliber Springfield smoothbore musket and stood guard duty, as late that year the regiment settled into winter quarters at Camp Franklin near Alexandria, Va.
Whether clad in Confederate gray or Yankee blue (5th Maine soldiers initially wore gray), soldiers suffered interminably during long winter encampments. Inadequate clothing and shelter, execrable food, lice, boredom, disease and petty-tyrant officers afflicted thousands of campground-confined soldiers that winter. The 5th Maine boys participated “in company and battalion drills, reviews, inspections, and the more disagreeable duties of picket,” recalled George Bicknell in his “History of the Fifth Maine Regiment.”
And noncoms and officers dealt with the bad boys. “We had our offenders against the established law and regulations,” wrote Bicknell, who became a minister years later. Depending on the particular transgression, a soldier could undergo imaginative and painful punishment.
Writing from Camp Franklin to his brother on Jan. 28, 1862, French discussed punishments that he had witnessed. “If a private is caught one mile from camp without a proper pass … signed by his Colonel, he is arrested and put in the guard house,” he wrote. A first offender who “is a good fellow … won’t get punished much,” but woe betide a repeat offender.
“Rogues are punished pretty severely here I tell you,” French wrote. “Sometimes they will stand him on a barrel with a 32 pound [cannon] ball suspended to his neck by a chain. One of our boys stole some money & the Colonel made him walk [all] over the encampment under a guard three or four days” while wearing “a big card on his back … & an other one on his breast,” with each card identifying the soldier by name and as a thief.
Sometimes an offender paraded inside a wooden barrel about the size found in an Aroostook County potato field at harvest time. Officers could confine a recalcitrant soldier to the guardhouse, assign him additional guard duty, have him carry a large log for several hours or sit on a long sawhorse (called a “mule”) without his feet touching the ground, or administer “bucking and gagging,” a particularly noxious punishment.
His head shaved, a coward, deserter or thief could be dismissed from the Army. Even Maine soldiers often deserted; writing to the Augusta-stationed Maj. J.W. Gardiner from Virginia on Aug. 16, 1862, Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. reported that “privates Charles L. Coombs and Asa Coombs deserted from this command (the 4th Maine Battery)” on July 18. Could Gardiner travel to Temple and arrest the Coombs? And while he was at it, could he swing over to Lisbon and arrest the deserter Albert V. Thompson, who “has reached home”?
Occasionally a military court sentenced a soldier to death. John French likely witnessed the Aug. 14, 1863, execution of Pvt. Thomas Jewett, a Rockland soldier assigned to Co. D, 5th Maine Infantry. Jewett was arrested for desertion, convicted in a summary court martial and hung as his comrades watched.
But French worked hard at soldiering and staying out of trouble. “I have never yet ben (sic) punished or … reprimanded or rebuked, nor do I intend to be for disobedience or bad conduct,” he wrote home in late January 1862. “I will say that although I am surrounded by all kinds of vices, I neather (sic) drink rum gamble or steal.”
The 5th Maine officers noticed French’s talent. A sergeant by late summer 1861, he later received promotions to first sergeant and, on June 13, 1863, to second lieutenant in Co. B. Wherever the 5th Maine fought (including Antietam and Gettysburg), do did French. He wrote and received letters, but could not slip home to Albion on a furlough.
French penned a letter to his father on Sept. 16. “We are again on the move,” he wrote from “Camp 5th Maine at Warrenton Va.” Confederate troops led by Robert E. Lee were “falling back and we are bound to follow him. It is thought that we may have a battle at the Rapidan [River] but of course we cant (sic) tell.
“I may have something more to write next time. So good bye.” French concluded his letter with “your loving son.”
There would be no “next time.”
At Rappahannock Station in Virginia on Nov. 7, 1863, “we, a handful of men, were to storm” heavily defended Confederate earthworks “under the cover of the friendly darkness,” wrote Bicknell. “In an instant … our boys were in the rifle-pits,” then “over the works, up into the fortifications, our boys rush like a whirlwind. Hand to hand now was the conflict.”
Lt. John S. French charged into the Confederate earthworks with Co. B. “He was struck down, mortally wounded, by a bullet,” Bicknell noted. “Some of his men sought to minister to him; but raising himself up, he urged them [to charge] on, not to stop for him.
“He lived but a few moments after being wounded,” Bicknell wrote. “His name shines brightly among those who were offered in sacrifice upon the altar of a bleeding country.”
Maine sacrificed thousands of such men to help save the United States.
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 email@example.com.