A Tale of Two Captains

 

Union soldiers use stretchers to evacuate from the battlefield their comrades wounded during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Va. Unfortunately for Capt. John Ayer and other Maine soldiers left wounded on the field, they fell into Confederate hands by nightfall on Saturday, Dec. 13. (Library of Congress Photo)

Edwin Batchelder ran away and lived — but he should have died.
John Ayer stayed and died — but he should have lived.
Thus occurred the tale of two captains at Fredericksburg.
Hailing from Augusta, Batchelder (also spelled “Bachelder”) raised Co. B for the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment and, as a captain, led it into combat at Manassas in July 1861. He fought with the 3rd Maine in the Peninsula Campaign and became an experienced infantry officer by mid-December 1862.
When Union troops attacked Fredericksburg, Va. on Saturday, Dec. 13, the 3rd Maine belonged to the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. John Henry Hobart Ward. This brigade belonged to the 1st Division led by Brig. Gen. David Birney.
Sandwiched between the 4th Maine Infantry to the left and the 57th Pennsylvania Infantry to the right, the 3rd Maine charged Confederate troops defending a railroad embankment southeast of Fredericksburg. Enemy fire knocked down many Maine boys, and Col. Moses Lakeman soon halted his regiment.
Leaving his men to fend for themselves, Batchelder vanished sometime during the battle. As the 3rd Maine pulled back in midafternoon, someone — possibly Lakeman — discovered Batchelder burrowed deep in a muddy drainage ditch.
The hiding place and his subsequent behavior suggested the Batchelder had fled the battlefield. For whatever reason, the competent combat veteran ran away that day; likely some time after the shooting died down with the sunset, Lakeman ordered Batchelder arrested for cowardice.
Already 35 years old when he joined the fledgling 16th Maine Infantry Regiment on May, 26, 1862, the blue-eyed Ayer left his comfortable existence as a Bangor merchant living with a wife and two young children. He enlisted about 100 men into his company, soon designated as Co. H; named its captain, Ayer left for war when the 16th Maine mustered in Augusta on Aug. 14.
With Lt. Col. Charles Tilden in charge, the regiment crossed the Rappahannock River on a pontoon bridge about 12 noon on Friday, Dec. 12. Assigned to the brigade commanded by Col. Adrian Root, the 16th Maine did not attack Confederate positions southeast of Fredericksburg until early afternoon on Saturday.
During a charge against North Carolinians deployed along a railroad embankment, Ayer suffered a knee wound and fell amidst the fighting. Later, when Tilden ordered his shattered regiment to withdraw, comrades overlooked Ayer; Confederate infantrymen soon captured him.
With Gen. Ward presiding, a general court martial convened “at the Headquarters of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Corps” near Falmouth, Va. on Friday Dec. 19, the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier reported 36 days later. Represented by a military lawyer, Batchelder “was arraigned and tried” on two specific charges.
The first specified “cowardice.” Detailing that Batchelder “was in command of his company on the 13th day of December, 1862, on the battlefield near Fredericksburg, Va.,” the indictment stated “that while his Regiment and Company were in front and under a very heavy fire,” he “did leave his company and Regiment, and retire about two hundred yards to the rear, and placed himself in a ditch.”
The second charge specified “misbehavior before the enemy.” The indictment stated that while Co. B “was in action before the enemy,” Batchelder “left his company and command without proper authority, and thereby jeopardized the safety of his command.”
Asked how he pled, Batchelder replied, “Not guilty.”
Then the prosecution presented its evidence, which probably included testimony from 3rd Maine soldiers who had seen Batchelder flee the fight. The reference to his hiding in a ditch “about two hundred yards to the rear” indicates that at least one comrade, possibly another officer, had found Batchelder cowering in the ditch as the regiment withdrew.
Several drainage ditches crossed the muddy cornfields; in citing a ditch located a specific distance from where Co. B fought, the prosecution had likely heard testimony from a soldier who had stood near the cowering Batchelder and then estimated the yardage.
The 3rd Maine’s commander, Col. Moses Lakeman, would have confirmed whether or not he ordered Batchelder to leave the battlefield. Lakeman did order the regiment to withdraw, but not until after Batchelder had disappeared.
The officers assigned to the court martial held “mature deliberation on the evidence adduced,” the Daily Whig and Courier reported. Reconvening on Dec. 22, “the Court” then found “the accused Captain Edwin A. Batchelder” guilty on all charges.
Noting that “the proper punishment for such conduct is death,” the court martial instead ordered Batchelder “to be cashiered, to forfeit all pay and allowances due him” and that “his crime, name and place of abode, and punishment, be published in the newspaper having the largest circulation in the State of Maine.”
So the United States Army could have shot Edwin A. Batchelder for cowardice, but he lived. His shame preceded him to Maine, where “Augusta won’t own him” as a native son, the Daily Whig and Courier claimed on Saturday, Jan. 24, 1863.
Under the subhead “Good News,” that same paper had reported on Monday, Jan. 12, 1863 that “the friends of Captain John Ayer of the 16th [Maine Infantry], have received a letter from him.”
The paper explained to its readers, many of whom knew Ayer, that he had been wounded “while bravely leading on his men. His friends have before had some reason to believe that he was a prisoner.”
Dated Friday, Dec. 19 and sent from Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., the letter revealed that Ayer had “arrived here yesterday morning (Thursday), and am quite comfortable, and have good care.
“I was shot in my right leg, just above the knee,” Ayer reported, confirming to his friends why he could not limp off the battlefield with his retreating comrades. “The ball passed through, but the wound is not serious.”
His friends celebrated the good news and agreed with the Whig and Courier that “we trust he will soon be exchanged, and recover from his wound.”
Ayer lingered in Confederate captivity. Poor living conditions and malnutrition affected his health, and as a prisoner he received inferior medical care. His leg wound likely festered and developed gangrene; the 36-year-old Ayer died on Sunday, Feb. 22, 1863.
“Captain John Ayer of this city … died at the Libby Prison in Richmond about three weeks since,” the Whig and Courier reported on Saturday, March 14. Except for “a short stay in England and four years’ residence out West, Captain A. has resided in this city from his boyhood, and was highly appreciated by all her citizens.”
The Rev. Henry C. Henries, a Maine chaplain, had informed Ayer’s wife about her husband’s death in a letter written from an Army hospital in Annapolis, Md. Henries had evidently been in touch with a Confederate counterpart at Libby Prison, where Ayer “had won the respect and confidence of … the C.S. (Confederate States) officers and men.
“It may not be too much to say they loved him as a brother, and all that was in the power of the [Confederate] surgeon, Dr. Wilkins, in charge of the Libby Prison Hospital, and the officers of our own army who were there with him, was done to make him comfortable,” Henries informed Mrs. Ayer.
Despite the eloquent condolences that Henries’ letter contained, she was still a widow with two young children.
Her brave captain had died — but he should have lived.

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 jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.