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Rather than file a protest by firing a 10-pound Parrott rifle at the State Capitol in Augusta, an angry Capt. Freeman McGilvery wrote Gov. Israel Washburn a letter instead.
After all, the governor might be more accommodating if cannonballs were not whizzing around his head.
Hailing from Prospect, the 38-year-old McGilvery raised the 6th Maine Battery in late 1861 and, as its captain and commanding officer, mustered into Federal service with his men at Augusta on New Year’s Day 1862. The battery arrived in Virginia in early April and deployed to Harper’s Ferry that June.
McGilvery itched to fight, and August brought him the opportunity.
On Aug. 9, McGilvery and the 6th Maine Battery participated in a bloody battle fought with Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s troops at Cedar Mountain, Va. Several Maine outfits fought there; the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment suffered 173 casualties, and four Maine artillery batteries — the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th — deployed with troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks.
Some Federal outfits fought well, but McGilvery evidently heard from Maine acquaintances that his battery had not done so, at least based on press accounts. In a letter written Aug. 16 at Culpeper, Va., the piqued McGilvery protested vehemently to Gov. Israel Washburn — and better that the captain pen a letter than fire a cannon blast heard around Maine.
“The 6th Maine Battery has at last had an opportunity to prove itself in battle,” McGilvery trumpeted to Washburn, “and I am proud to be able to say that it has not been found wanting in the essential elements for real war purposes.”
Advancing east along the Culpeper Road, Confederate infantry fought Union troops deployed roughly north-south along the intersecting Mitchell’s Station Road. Rising immediately to the southwest, Cedar Mountain dominated the fields and thick woods across which the battle raged.
“At the battle of Cedar Mountain there were five [Federal] batteries brought into action,” McGilvery wrote. “[O’Neil] Robinson’s 4th Maine fought gallantly and the 6th Maine [deployed] on the [Union’s] extreme left [flank] & considerably in front” of the Federal line. He described this location as “undoubtedly the most exposed position … held by any battery.”
Then “I had a desperate fight,” McGilvery succinctly wrote.
Confederate artillery batteries unlimbered in the fields south of the Culpeper Road. Looking right down McGilvery’s throat, other enemy artillery appeared atop Cedar Mountain and started firing on Federal artillery and infantry alike.
Placing “most of my horses & all my drivers just in rear of my guns [and] out of the enemies fire most of the time,” McGilvery coolly directed his inexperienced cannoneers as they targeted enemy troops. Led by Col. George Greene, two Union infantry regiments — the 1st District of Columbia and 78th New York — provided support in case Confederate infantry attacked McGilvery’s guns.
Immersed in a hellish din, the 6th Maine gunners battled “certainly two if not three rebel batteries firing on mine [for] nearly three hours,” McGilvery wrote. His gunners wreaked havoc; Greene later credited the 6th Maine for the shell that killed Confederate Brig. Gen. Charles S. Winder, who commanded a brigade comprising five Virginia infantry regiments.
McGilvery agreed. “There is not the remotest doubt that rebel General Winder [died] by a shell from my guns,” he informed Washburn.
Confederate gunners soon triangulated, and then pounded, the 6th Maine Battery. “I lost five killed & seven wounded by cannon balls,” as well as “three en(listed) men [so] exhausted by overwork at the guns that they were left helpless upon the field & of course fell into the hands of the enemy,” McGilvery reported.
Watching the uneven duel, Greene saw the Confederate “round shot striking the top of the ridge & falling among the men & horses of the [6th Maine] command.” McGilvery later reported 18 horses killed by enemy artillery.
“I was ordered to hold the position … as long as I had any ammunition,” he wrote. “I did hold it & continued firing at least 20 minutes after every other piece of [Union] artillery had ceased firing & retired from the field.”
Baptized in blood, the 6th Maine Battery finally withdrew. The Federal artillery batteries cumulatively lost 13 men killed, 23 men wounded and 48 horses killed. Perhaps unaware of the final artillery casualty count, McGilvery informed Washburn that “the casualties of the Sixth Maine of killed and wounded sum up more than all of the other four batteries put together.”
By Aug. 16, McGilvery knew that two other Maine artillery batteries hogged the journalistic limelight back home.
So did his battle-tested veterans.
“My officers & men note with chagrin & discouragement the report of two Maine batteries doing great execution in the battle, one of which has never fired a gun [at Cedar Mountain] & the other one [fired] only a few rounds into the woods & I believe never had a gun fired at it,” McGilvery wrote in a long-winded paragraph.
By process of elimination, he indirectly identified the offenders: the 2nd Maine Battery, commanded by James Hall, and the 5th Maine Battery, commanded by George Leppien. McGilvery evidently blamed Hall and Leppien for heaping praise upon their commands while ignoring the 6th Maine Battery.
“This kind of trickery will dampen the enthusiasm of the most commendable patriotism,” McGilvery told Washburn. “My men feel bad after eliciting the praise of no less than two generals & the officers of a whole brigade (likely Greene’s) for their gallantry, to see an effort being made to transfer the credit due them to batteries that have never been in action. It is certainly rather discouraging.”
McGilvery groused that “I am not at all embarrassed with the ridiculous idea that the truth will not finally overcome deception & my brave men retain all the credit due them.”
The 6th Maine Battery had left at least eight “brave men” — the dead or exhausted — upon the field at Cedar Mountain. Before writing his last paragraph, McGilvery probably thought about them and also remembered to whom he wrote.
“I am sorry to have trespassed so lengthy a communication upon your attention relative to so important a business. I think the 6th Maine Battery has carried as fair a name as anyone in the Army,” McGilvery concluded.
He was correct.
Brian Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.