Like the other soldiers belonging to the 14th Maine Infantry, George Washington Bartlett lost his pants during a battle fought at Baton Rouge, La. on Aug. 5, 1862.
Born in Litchfield in 1827, Bartlett prospected for California gold, graduated from Bowdoin College (’54), and became a Unitarian minister after graduating from the Harvard College Divinity School. He later pastored an Augusta church.
In early December 1861, Bartlett joined the fledgling 14th Maine Infantry as a chaplain. Led by Col. Frank S. Nickerson, a Searsport attorney, the regiment and the recently promoted Capt. Bartlett went ashore at Baton Rouge on July 7, 1862.
It was there that disease felled 14th Maine lads by the score. Confederate troops also suffered that miserable summer.
“Hundreds of the Southerners, many of whom were already suffering from malaria and dysentery, soon filled the army hospitals at Camp Moore” near Kentwood, La., Civil War historian Edwin C. Bearss wrote in “The Battle of Baton Rouge.” Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge was collecting troops at Camp Moore preparatory to attacking Baton Rouge.
Bartlett wrote an Aug. 16 letter to Gov. Washburn that, “it was rather a long time before we got at what is in my innocence supposed to be the real business of the soldier. One who has not experienced it can hardly conceive of the tedium and weariness of being with an army [in camp] and having nothing to do, — the difficulty of keeping up the spirits and discipline of the men.”
By late afternoon on Monday, Aug. 4, Union scouts “pinpointed the greyclads’ advance as it crossed the Comite [River], about ten miles east of Baton Rouge,” according to Bearss. Assigned the Union army’s far left flank, the 14th Maine deployed beside the 21st Indiana Infantry Regiment. Both regiments were supported by a Massachusetts artillery battery, Carruth’s 6th Light.
As they advanced along Greenwall Springs Road about 4 a.m. Aug. 5, Confederate troops collided with 21st Indiana pickets outside the Union lines. Federal gunshots caused the “long roll” (a steady drumbeat) to sound in the fog-blanketed Union camps. The 14th Maine boys rose before dawn, grabbed their gear and moved swiftly into line east of their expansive camp.
“Our boys went in with their old trousers on,” Bartlett informed Washburn.
Well informed about Union dispositions, Breckenridge sent Maj. Gen. Charles Clark and his division to deal with the 14th Maine and 21st Indiana; preliminary gunplay led the latter regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. John Keith, to march his men 600 yards east. Union infantry and artillery opened fire on Clark’s lead regiments.
Nickerson and Bartlett heard the hellacious racket, but could not see its source. The 14th Maine boys waited nervously; gunfire suddenly erupted nearer their lines, and when Maine pickets appeared as dim figures in the fog and screamed the countersign, “Nickerson was shocked to learn that his outpost, which was stationed at the junction of the Bayou Sara and Clink Plank roads, has been routed by a strong force of butternuts,” Bearss wrote.
The advancing Confederates threatened to turn the 14th Maine’s left flank, so “Nickerson wheeled his regiment to the left” and quietly marched his men through nearby woods, Bearss wrote. Hiding “behind a rail fence,” the Maine boys listened as two Confederate cannons shelled the regiment’s now-abandoned camp.
When the Confederate infantry suddenly stopped shooting, Nickerson softly passed the word for his men to wait. They could now hear Confederates stumbling blindly across the fog-shrouded terrain.
Accurately estimating the distance, Nickerson waited until the first Confederate line was about 100 yards away; according to Bearss, when his men “sighted … [enemy troops] emerging out of the haze,” Nickerson yelled for volley fire. The Maine boys delivered five volleys and shattered the enemy attack.
“We had a nice fight — and splendidly did the boys conduct themselves,” Bartlett wrote Washburn. “We rec’d the first fire and gave the last. The attack was made upon us, first on the left then front.”
After repelling the first attack, the 14th Maine boys discovered more Confederate troops approaching from the east “right thro’ our camp,” Bartlett wrote. Belonging to Clark’s division, the Johnnies captured every bit of regimental baggage.
“To cope with this threat,” Nickerson “shouted for his regiment to wheel to the right [east],” Bearss wrote. Through the thinning fog, the gunners assigned to eight Confederate cannons delivered “a raking fire” that tore holes in Nickerson’s relatively straight lines.
Clark, who had marched his men into the gap between the 14th Maine and the 21st Indiana, “did not encounter any organized resistance until … [he] ran into the Fourteenth Maine,” Bearss wrote.
Maine infantry and Massachusetts artillery fired repeatedly; with Clark wounded, the Confederate assault “then moved farther to the right and front, but our Reg’t. was immediately there to meet it,” Bartlett informed Washburn.
His letter to Washburn reveals that Bartlett watched Nickerson lead his hard-fighting troops. Although “no man c’d live there on horseback,” Nickerson suddenly climbed into a saddle, according to Bartlett.
“He became so exhausted at one time that he borrowed a horse and mounted (and then had to be held on!) but wouldn’t retire,” Bartlett wrote. Nickerson “continued to ride up and down the line giving orders till a friendly bullet killed the horse and let him down.”
The colonel had been “sick-a-bed the day before, but was first in and last out of the fight,” Bartlett reported. “Thro’ the whole wherever the fire was hottest there he was cheering and holding his men steady.
“Oh, it was beautiful to see the Col. manage that reg’t. in action,” he wrote. “Most of them [soldiers] had never heard such music [gunfire] before, and maybe didn’t understand its nature, at any rate, they paid no attention but moved about with as much precision as tho’ they were on a common battalion drill.”
Breckenridge ordered a withdrawal about 10 a.m. He also ordered everything burned in the captured Union camps.
The Maine boys had fought in their old trousers, and they “lost their best ones, poor fellows, that they left in their tents,” Bartlett informed Washburn.
“You c’d scarcely (sic) guess how the spirits of the men were improved by” the Baton Rouge battle, Bartlett wrote. “They are in the best mood and condition except that they have no white gloves now and their clothes are not quite so clean but since they behaved so well ’tisn’t so much matter about the clothes.”
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 or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.