Peru farm family paid heavy price to preserve the Union

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN
Posted March 26, 2012, at 4:37 p.m.

After his son enlisted in the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment and left Maine for a South Carolina cruise in 1861, Stephen G. Tracy decided he should join up and save the country, too.

Both men should have stayed home.

By spring 1861, Stephen Tracy farmed land in Franklin Plantation, a lightly populated Oxford County tract that later merged with Peru. Historical sources agree on Stephen’s birth year as 1821, but not on his birthplace. One source claims Livermore; Tracy’s records at the Maine State Archives point to Bowdoin.

Stephen Tracy married Mary C. Redding, and by 1861 they lived in Dickvale, a village that would fold into Peru in February 1888. The Tracys had children, 11 in all by that May, when Mary gave birth to an unnamed baby who died that August.

Did that child’s death affect the decision made by the Tracys’ eldest son, 18-year-old Wheeler, to join the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment on Aug. 23? He had four other brothers and five sisters, not counting the baby sibling, so perhaps Wheeler figured that if he went off to war, his parents had sufficient help with the farm.

He should have stayed home.

Named for his paternal grandfather, the black-haired Wheeler stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall and sported blue eyes and a light complexion, traits possibly inherited from his father. In early September, Wheeler traveled to Augusta and reported to 25-year-old Capt. John E. Bryant, a Fayette resident who was raising the 8th Maine’s Co. C.

Among the company’s soldiers whom Wheeler probably knew was 21-year-old George Childs of Peru, who was later discharged from the Army as disabled.

He was lucky, that lad.

Along with other Co. C soldiers, Wheeler stood in a rough formation on Sept. 7, raised his right hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution and the United States. The date marked the 8th Maine’s official mustering into the Army; now Wheeler would receive a private’s $13 monthly pay — minus deductions for clothing, the War Department being too cheap to clothe aspiring soldiers for free, of course.

Traveling by ship to New York City and then by train to Washington, D.C., the 8th Maine relocated to Annapolis on Oct. 6. About two weeks later, Wheeler Tracy and his comrades boarded a ship and sailed south to join an expedition commanded by Gen. Thomas Sherman. Tracy helped capture Beaufort, Hilton Head, and Port Royal in South Carolina.

On Oct. 5, Stephen Tracy joined the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment’s Co. D, which mustered at Cape Elizabeth on Nov. 15. Why he left behind a wife and nine children remains unknown; the Union did not need a 40-year-old farmer-turned-soldier, but after kissing Mary goodbye, Stephen headed downriver.

He should have stayed home.

The 12th Maine reached Boston on Dec. 30 and embarked on the steamship Constitution on Jan. 2, 1862, to sail to Ship Island in Mississippi. Union troops gathered on the 2-square-mile island before staging elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.

The Jan. 4, 1862, issue of Harper’s Weekly described Ship Island as “somewhat undulating, and extends in a slight curve about seven miles east-northeast and west-southwest. At West Point, where the fort is located, the island is little more than an eighth of a mile wide, and is a mere sand spit, utterly barren of grass or foliage of any kind. This eastern end, or East Point, is about three-quarters of a mile in width, and is well wooded with pine, cedar, and live-oak.

“Excellent water can be obtained in unlimited supply,” according to Harper’s Weekly.

The magazine article did not mention the diseases endemic to the overcrowded Ship Island.

Stephen Tracy and his 12th Maine comrades landed there on Feb. 12. If Stephen was literate, he likely wrote letters to Mary in Maine and to Wheeler, wherever he might be.

In early March 1862, the 8th Maine deployed to Tybee Island, Ga. to participate in the scheduled assault on nearby Confederate-held Fort Pulaski. Then disease struck the Maine boys, and Wheeler Tracy died on March 10. He lies buried not far from the famous Tybee Island Lighthouse.

Senior Union officers planned to transfer the 12th Maine to New Orleans if and when that seaport fell to the Navy and Adm. David Farragut. His warships reached New Orleans on April 25, and the 12th Maine left Ship Island on May 4.

Pvt. Stephen G. Tracy, Co. D, remained behind as his comrades vanished over the horizon. The strapping 5-foot-10-inch Oxford County farmer had contracted a disease and died on April 6, exactly 27 days after his eldest son died on Tybee Island. As do many other Maine men, Stephen lies buried on Ship Island.

Father and son died preserving the Union.

They could have stayed home.

And additional sacrifices awaited the widowed Mary Redding Tracy, now responsible for running the farm and raising the surviving children. Her 15-year-old daughter Nancy died in Dickvale in November 1863; 11-year-old Ella died a month later, and the deaths’ chronological proximity suggest a shared disease, possibly typhoid fever.

Another daughter, Mary, died circa 1870, and Mary Redding Tracy died soon afterwards. Several of her surviving children lived into the 20th century.

If only Stephen and Wheeler had stayed home.

Brian Swartz may be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/26/living/peru-farm-family-paid-heavy-price-to-preserve-the-union/ printed on April 25, 2014