Letters written by Maine soldiers in November 1863 illustrated the manpower crisis affecting the Army of the Potomac: too many state regiments disbanding and too many veterans disappearing from the ranks as three-year enlistments expired.
But by year’s end monetary enticements would convince many veterans to stay in uniform.
Writing Gov. Abner Coburn on Thursday, Nov. 12, Col. Clark Edwards of the 5th Maine stressed that “through the severity of battles and active campaigning during the past two and [a] half years, this regiment has been greatly reduced in numbers.” Numbering almost 1,050 men in late June 1861, the 5th Maine was “scarcely able to furnish at this time 225 men for a fight.”
The muster rolls now carried 491 soldiers, of whom “183 are absent on detached service, many of the latter I know to have been discharged or have died,” Edwards informed Coburn.
The 5th Maine survivors were exhausted. “We have just been engaged in one of the most glorious actions of the war (and our 15th battle)[,] the late affair at Rappahannock Station,” Edwards wrote. He then requested “that the influence of your excellency may be exerted with the Sect’y of War that this regiment may be ordered home to Maine for the purpose of recruiting its ranks.
“There is no doubt but such a measure would receive the hearty approbation of the division — corps —and any commander, assurances having even been given to such an effect,” Edwards wrote. “The influence [that] the presence of my regiment would exert in Maine this winter, would, I think, act strongly and favorably in filling, not only our own decimated ranks — but those of other Maine regiments.”
On Monday, Nov. 23, “we, the undersigned Officers of the 6th Regt Maine Vols, remaining in the field,” asked Coburn in a letter if “this regiment may be called home to Maine for the purpose of recruiting its thinned ranks.
“An application from Your Excellency to the War Department at Washington for this purpose, would, we think meet with ready approval,” the officers agreed.
At the Nov. 7 Battle of Rappahannock Station the 6th Maine’s 342 officers and men had charged, unsupported, the two redoubts held by two 9th Louisiana infantry regiments. Other Union regiments soon followed the 6th Maine, which suffered 139 casualties (41 percent of the men who launched the charge).
Now “as we look upon our depleted ranks, once so full and strong, now, alas! reduced by well fought battles,” the letter’s signers “cannot but sincerely wish, that they could be filled up by the strong arms of liberty loving volunteers from the dear old pine tree state, whose Sons have ever been found in the front rank of our Armies.
“That this can be done more promptly by the Regt being in Maine, cannot be doubted,” the letter continued. “Our hearts assure us, that the rallying cry of the old 6th, would bring hundreds of brave hearts flocking around our standard …”
Like Edwards, the 6th Maine officers presented the numerical facts to Coburn. Only 300 men were “present, and of that number only two hundred and twenty, can be called into action.” That number could “safely be spared from the Army” for “a few short months of winter.”
The officers who signed this letter were not cowards seeking escape from combat; excluding the chaplain, the quartermaster, and the surgeon and assistant surgeon, these men had charged up and over the redoubt parapets at Rappahannock Station.
The War Department refused to release the two Maine regiments. Any regiment that had not completed its enlistment term could not be spared that winter.
Instead the War Department issued general orders offering soldiers financial and psychological incentives to remain with the colors. Filling in for his regiment’s wounded Lt. Col. Benjamin Harris, Maj. George Fuller of the 6th Maine wrote Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodsdon on Thursday, Dec. 24 that “a large number of the men of my command, have expressed their willingness to re-enlist under the provisions of General Orders Nos 191, 305 & 376.”
Targeting soldiers in three-year regiments, these orders offered each veteran with less than one year left in his enlistment several incentives if he rejoined for three years or the duration of the war. Among the incentives, he would:
• Receive a 30-day leave, with the federal government paying his roundtrip transportation;
• Receive a $402 federal bounty;
• Receive the bounties paid by his state and hometown, which would credit his re-enlistment toward their respective enlistment quotas;
• Be allowed to remain with his unit. This incentive would not apply when regiments started disbanding as the end of their three years, as would occur with the 5th Maine Infantry in late June 1864.
The general orders left veterans confused. Fuller informed Hodsdon that the 6th Maine veterans would re-enlist “provided they can also receive the State and Town bounties; I would respectfully inquire if I can hold out that inducement.”
Despite reassurances by 1st Division commander Brig. Gen. David Russell, Fuller’s veterans “require a positive assurance” that their re-enlistments “would be counted upon the Quotas of their States,” Fuller wrote Coburn.
Five days later, Fuller informed Coburn that “I have the honor to report that (102) one hundred and two of the members of my Regt have en-enlisted under the provisions of G.O. 376 … they will start for Maine in the course of a Week.
“The prospect is, that more of the men will re-enlisted before the [Jan. 5, 1864] expiration of the time allowed for re-enlisting,” Fuller commented.
As the 6th Maine Infantry went into winter camp, the veterans headed home for the first time since June 1861. Most would rejoin the regiment when their leaves expired; among those who did, some would never see Maine again.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.