June 25, 2018
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Army officers lobbied for promotion in winter 1863

Cpt. O'Neil W. Robinson
By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

After the Army sacked Capt. Edwin Bachelder for cowardice during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., Gov. Abner Coburn sought a replacement to lead Co. B, 3rd Maine Infantry.

He lacked no applicants, including Sgt. Rufus Crockett, a battle-hardened noncom who felt, “deserving and competent to have a commission” to command Co. B. “I have been in every Battle which the [3rd Maine] Regt has been in,” Crockett wrote Coburn from Camp Pitcher, Va., on Friday, Jan. 16, 1863. He had also acted as Co. B’s 1st sergeant for months at a time.

But Crockett had to get in line for promotion. Every time an officer’s position became vacant in a Maine unit during the Civil War, ambitious men collectively waved their hands and hollered, “Me! Me! Me!”

And the governor appointing men to fill those vacancies paid attention to junior officers first.

An officer’s commission gained a man prestige, social status, “and [an] increase [in] my pay which I much need,” Crockett informed Coburn. And a commission would “somewhat lighten my load on the march” because enlisted men carried their clothing and gear on their backs; officers tossed their baggage into wagons.

Crockett believed he was qualified to replace his captain.

“I have faithfully performed my duty as a private, [Corporal] and as Sergeant,” he assured Coburn. “How well I have discharged my duty under fire, I leave others to tell you.

“Hon. J.L. Stevens of Augusta will inform you as to my Worthiness,” Crockett assured Coburn.

Maine men scrambled for available officer slots as the first state units coalesced in 1861. When 37-year-old Bethel attorney O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. sought a commission that autumn, supporters lobbied Gov. Israel Washburn by writing him en masse.

According to Sidney Pinkham, “Mr. Robinson has all the requisite qualifications for an efficient officer … should he undertake to enlist the men for a Battery, I have no doubt he would succeed.”

On Monday, Oct. 7, Benjamin Freeman informed Washburn that Robinson, “a lawyer and a gentleman of wealth & mind and also a Jamesin (sic) Democrat, is desirous of serving his country on the tented field.”

Freeman referred to the so-called “Jameson Democrats,” Maine Democrats who supported the war and took their name from Charles Jameson, former 2nd Maine Infantry commander and an 1861 gubernatorial candidate. The Republican Washburn would understand that Robinson was a Union loyalist despite being a Democrat.

O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. had a particular goal in mind; he asked Freeman “to inquire if the places of [Lieutenant Colonel] or Major for the eleventh [infantry] regiment was filled.” If other men already held those slots, then Robinson would gladly accept a similar rank with “one of the Regts. yet to be formed from this state.”

Writing with a shaky hand on Tuesday, Nov. 12, R.K. Goodenow of Paris revealed to Washburn that “I have known” Robinson “for the period of ten or fifteen years.” A Bowdoin College graduate and “a lawyer of good standing in this [Oxford] county,” Robinson would be successful “in getting up a company, if the command of one of the batteries … should be tendered him.”

“Having been personally acquainted with Mr. Robinson it gives me great pleasure to say that he possesses all the necessary qualifications for the position he desires & I trust he will receive it,” John I. Perry assured Washburn from Paris on Thursday, Nov. 14.

“His social position is such that I think men would as readily enlist under him as any man in Maine,” C.W. Walton wrote Washburn about Robinson from Paris, Maine on Monday, Nov. 18.

Robinson got his wish: Washburn appointed him a captain and tapped him to command the 4th Maine Battery.

Unfortunately for another would-be officer, the 4th Maine Battery slots were full. Writing from North Anson on Monday, Sept. 30, 1861, George C. Getchell had informed Washburn that “Oren O. Vittum of Concord … is anxious to obtain an appointment as an officer in some of the military companies now organizing.

“I have been long acquainted with Mr. Vittum and consider that he would be well qualified … and I shall be much gratified if you will please to give him an appointment,” Getchell wrote.

Washburn appointed Vittum as sergeant for the 4th Maine Battery’s First Section, comprising a cannon, Vittum, two corporals, and 13 enlisted men. This section went to war with the battery, which fought at Cedar Mountain, Va. in August 1862.

“There is now one vacancy in the number of Lieuts. in this battery,” Robinson wrote Washburn on Oct. 13. Robinson recommended that Sgt. Melville C. Kimball, the battery’s quartermaster, should be promoted to junior lieutenant.

A Bethel resident, Kimball “is a very likely young man, smart and ambitious,” John Lynch lobbied Washburn from Portland on Oct. 14. “From my personal knowledge of his character and the representations of his Captain I take pleasure in recommending him to the favorable consideration of your excellency.”

And so the self-promotion to gain promotion continued throughout the war. Kimball worked his way up to senior second lieutenant before resigning from the 4th Maine Battery on Dec. 21, 1864.

O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. remained a captain. He led the battery for almost three years until he fell ill. Sent home to recuperate, he died at Waterford on Sunday, July 17, 1864.

Unfortunately for Rufus Crockett, a junior officer filled Bachelder’s captaincy with Co. B, 3rd Maine Infantry. Yet Crockett still attained his dream; Gov. Coburn later offered him a first lieutenant’s commission with a black infantry regiment being raised in the Deep South.

Resigning from the 3rd Maine, Crockett joined the 9th Regiment Corps d’Afrique in Louisiana. Among the first black regiments created in that state, the 9th later became the 81st United States Colored Troops.

His administrative and battlefield experience stood him in good stead. The sergeant who wanted to be a lieutenant ultimately became Capt. Rufus Crockett, commander of Co. K, 81st USCT.

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

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