Maine’s “Fighting Chaplain served his country in life and in death

Minister George Washington Bartlett joined the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment as a chaplain and eyewitnessed the outfit’s bloody introduction to combat during the Aug. 5, 1862 Battle of Baton Rouge, La. A hard-fighting soldier, Bartlett joined the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment as a chaplain in early 1864. He earned the nickname of “Fighting Chaplain.” (Maine State Archives Photo)

Like the other soldiers belonging to the 14th Maine Infantry, Maine’s “Fighting Chaplain” lost his pants during a battle fought at Baton Rouge, La. on Aug. 5, 1862.

Born in Litchfield in 1827 to William and Dorothy Bartlett, George Washington 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. Disembarking at New Orleans on May 19, 1862, the regiment and the recently promoted Capt. Bartlett later shipped upriver; Col. Frank S. Nickerson, a Searsport attorney, led his untested troops into Baton Rouge on July 7.

An attorney from Searsport, Frank S. Nickerson was the colonel commanding the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment when it received its combat baptism at Baton Rouge, La. on Aug. 5, 1862. He skilfully handled the regiment, which took heavy casualties. (Maine State Archives Photo)

There Nickerson reported to Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, a spiteful martinet who drilled his men incessantly in the summer heat. 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.

Rumors about an impending battle circulated; a naïve Bartlett admitted in 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,” Bartlett wrote.

As chaplain, he wrote letters for illiterate soldiers, held religious services, and likely served as a de facto Father Confessor for homesick Maine lads. His rank of captain conferred no command responsibility on Bartlett; he was not expected to fight.

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. William had long since deployed his disease-wracked regiments; assigned the 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.

About 4 a.m., Aug. 5, a Confederate miscue alerted the Baton Rouge garrison that an attack was imminent. Confederate troops had started advancing toward Baton Rouge along Greenwall Springs Road at 11 p.m., Aug 4; five hours later, Confederate irregulars — Bearss called them “partisans” — collided with 21st Indiana pickets outside the Union lines.

Federal gunshots routed the partisans, who then slammed into advancing Confederate troops. Friendly fire erupted; the horse ridden by Brig. Gen. Hardin Helm fell and pinned him, and a Confederate bullet also killed Lt. Alexander H. Todd.

The gray-upon-gray bloodshed echoed all the way to the White House. Helm was married to Todd’s sister, Emilie, and she and her brother were half-siblings of Mary Todd Lincoln.

During the night, a thick fog had settled across Baton Rouge. Responding to the “long roll,” the 14th Maine boys had risen 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 on Aug. 16.

Breckenridge hurled approximately 6,000 men at Baton Rouge. Well informed about Union dispositions, he 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. The 6th Massachusetts Battery deployed six cannons near the Hoosiers, and infantry and artillery opened fire on Clark’s lead regiments.

Frank Nickerson and George Bartlett heard the hellacious racket, but could not see its source. The 14th Maine boys waited nervously; gunfire suddenly erupted nearer their lines, and as dim figures appeared 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.

Nickerson later reported that he could not see 25 yards in front of him; when Confederate infantry suddenly stopped shooting after delivering several volleys, he softly passed the word for his Maine boys 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.

The gunfire animated Bartlett. “We had a nice fight — and splendidly did the boys conduct themselves,” he wrote Washburn on Aug. 16. “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 initial Confederate attack, the 14th Maine boys suddenly 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 spotted the maneuvering 14th Maine and 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.

But not for long, Bartlett failed to note in his letter. Three Confederate infantry regiments — the 4th Kentucky, the 31st Alabama, and the 31st Mississippi — finally shoved aside the 14th Maine, which retreated until “Nickerson’s Yankees found their route barred by a stout board fence,” Bearss wrote. “The Yankees quickly solved this problem by demolishing the fence.” Withdrawing through the 7th Vermont Infantry’s abandoned camp, the Maine boys reached a ravine just south of the state prison.

His letter to Washburn reveals that Bartlett witnessed the fighting, apparently while standing near where Nickerson led his Maine lads. For a while Nickerson walked among 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 wdn’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 to Washburn. “Thro’ the whole wherever the fire was hottest there he was cheering and holding his men steady.”

Bartlett believed the regiment fought magnificently. “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.”

His men now shelled by Navy gunboats, including the USS Katahdin and the USS Kineo, Breckenridge ordered a withdrawal about 10 a.m. He also ordered everything burned in the captured Union camps. Confederate soldiers probably removed captured clothing and shoes; 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.”

On Aug. 9 Nickerson reported his casualties as 36 men killed, 71 men wounded, and 12 men missing. Malaria later afflicted Bartlett; he resigned his commission in early 1863 and returned home to recover.

But this chaplain wanted to fight. Bartlett became the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment’s chaplain on Saturday, Feb. 13, 1864, swiftly joined the regiment in Virginia, and “held services at headquarters” on March 6 and April 10, wrote Edward P. Tobie in “History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-1865.”

Later described by Tobie as a “fighting chaplain,” Bartlett was near Lt. Col. Stephen Boothby when he suffered a mortal wound at Beaver Dam Station, Va. on May 10. Likely helping to hold Boothby upright in the saddle, Bartlett escorted him to a field hospital.
Boothby lingered until June 6 —  and outlived Bartlett.

On Thursday, June 2, the 1st Maine Cavalry fought Confederate troops near Barker’s Mills. The Maine boys “had barely reached the top” of a hill “and got into position when the enemy opened a severe fire with several batteries of artillery,” Tobie wrote. “It seemed as if the air was full of deadly missiles.”

The hard-riding George Washington Bartlett “rode up the hill with the regiment, and when the enemy’s artillery opened, a shell or solid shot struck him in the body, cutting him in two,” Tobie wrote. After burying him “a short distance from the [battle] field,“ his comrades scratched his name on a “plain board” and thrust it into the soil near his head.
Bartlett lay “midway between the two skirmish lines,” Tobie reported. During “the next two days” his comrades did not “hesitate to fire for fear of disfiguring” his rudimentary grave marker.

It pointed the direction toward the Confederate lines.

Even in death, Bartlett remained Maine’s own “Fighting Chaplain.”

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.