Maine soldiers shamelessley lobbied for promotion

 

Maine State Archives Photo
After joining Co. B, 3rd Maine Infantry, Rufus Crockett rose in rank to assume a first sergeant’s responsibilities. When an Army courtmartial sacked the company’s commanding officer for cowardice at Fredericksburg, Crockett lobbied Maine Gov. Abner Coburn for promotion to that position. Coburn bypassed him at that time, but soon recommended Crockett for a commission in the 81st United States Colored Troops. Crockett later became a captain.

After the Army sacked Capt. Edwin Batchelder for cowardice during the Battle of Fredericksburg, 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 Sergt 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 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 craven captain. “I have faithfully performed my duty as a private, Corpl and as Sergeant,” he assured Coburn. “How well I have discharged my duty under fire, I leave others to tell you.

“I have done all the [administrative] business of the Co. since our first Battle at Bull Run,” Crockett wrote. He acknowledged “that Col. [Moses Lakeman] may have his favorite, but I can stand erect and say that by Right it belongs to me.”

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

Maine State Archives Photo
Desiring a commission as a major or a lieutenant colonel, 37-year-old Bethel lawyer O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. quietly asked his business contacts to lobby Maine Gov. Israel Washburn for him in 1861. Ultimately Robinson received a commission as captain of the 4th Maine Battery, which he raised and then took to war. (Maine State Archives Photo)

Maine men scrambled for available officer slots as the first state units coalesced in 1861 — and self-promotion continued throughout the war. When 37-year-old Bethel attorney O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. sought a commission in autumn 1861, 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 Lieut.[anant] Col.[onel] 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.”

As had Freeman, Goodenow reminded the Republican Washburn that while Robinson “was always a democrat,” he was “a high minded & honorable one.” Robinson had “supported heartily & energetically the ticket headed by Col. Jameson at our last September [1861] election.

“He is a man of great physical power & of endurance, & would fight like a tiger,” Goodenow wrote.

“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 on Monday, Nov. 18.

Robinson got his wish: Washburn appointed him a captain and tapped him to command the 4th Maine Battery. Robinson recruited men for his new command; joining him in that endeavor were Matthew Coffin from Skowhegan, Hamlin Eaton from Kent’s Hill, the Rev. Lucius M.S. Haynes from Augusta, and Charles White from Skowhegan.

For their efforts, these four men also received lieutenants’ commissions from Washburn.

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 in August 1862.

Not many months passed before officer vacancies opened in the 4th Maine Battery. Haynes was honorably discharged for disability on Sept. 23, 1862; writing Washburn from Maryland Heights near Harpers Ferry on Oct. 9, Robinson sought “to urge upon your excellency the promotion of Lts. Hamlin F. Eaton, Charles W. White, and Mathew B. Coffin, each of whom has well earned the promotion asked for.”

With these officers promoted “up” a rank, “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, Moses Lakeman recommended a junior officer to fill Batchelder’s position with Co. B, 3rd Maine Infantry. Yet Crockett still attained his dream; Abner Coburn 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

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.