To paraphrase the patriotic song “We Are Coming, Father Abraham,” by February 1863, the war-weary Maine veterans manning the nation’s ramparts from Virginia to Louisiana could “look across the hilltops that meet the southern sky,” where “long moving lines of rising dust your vision may descry.”
Those dust clouds were kicked up by the reinforcements coming to help the veterans of Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Murfreesboro — and these reinforcements meant business.
From the Louisiana bayous to the Sea Islands of the Southeastern coast to the Virginia Piedmont, former slaves were joining newly authorized black regiments. And these slaves-turned-warriors intended to give their former masters “the cold steel” of the Army’s standard-issue 17-inch bayonet.
Although black officers capably led the earliest regiments formed in Louisiana, the inbred attitude of white supremacy — prevalent among whites North and South— swiftly mandated that only white officers lead black regiments. So many such regiments would form that Maine men applied in droves for commissions in them.
“Lawson G. Ireland was 2nd Lieut. Of Co. E, 11th Maine Regt when I was in command of said regt,” Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell wrote from “Headquarters Caldwell’s Brigade” at Falmouth, Va. on Monday, Feb. 23, 1863. The letter likely went to Maine Gov. Abner Coburn.
Born in Vermont, Caldwell had relocated to Maine in the mid-1850s. He served as the principal or “headmaster” at Washington Academy in East Machias, but the war called. Caldwell commanded the 11th Maine Infantry when that regiment mustered at Augusta in November 1861. Although a brigade commander by February 1863, he had not forgotten his men who demonstrated leadership qualities.
Ireland “was always prompt & faithful in the performance of his duties,” Caldwell wrote “and I take great pleasure in recommending him for the position of captain in one of the Regts of Blacks to be raised by the Government.”
Bangor grocer F.M. Sabine concurred in a March 12 addendum to Caldwell’s letter. “I have known Lieut Ireland ten or twelve years, and believing him to be a capable and patriotic man, I would earnestly recommend him for the position he desires,” Sabine wrote.
Caldwell also lobbied for another former comrade on Feb. 23. “Alphonso Patten was 1st Sergt of Co. K, 11th Maine Regt when I was in command of said Regt,” Caldwell penned a familiar passage. “He was prompt & efficient & of great courage & efficiency.
“I think him abundantly qualified for the position of Capt. in one of the Regts of Blacks to be raised by the Government,” Caldwell concluded.
Taking his cue from Caldwell, Patten wrote Coburn on Tuesday, March 3. “Being well acquainted with the infantry drill, as well as the Bayonet-exercise, having served in the capasity [sic] of Orderly Sergt. for nearly a year in the 11th ME.,” Patten described his military experience.
“I take the liberty of asking a commission either as Capt? or Lieut? in some one of the colored Regts,” he wrote. “Enclosed you will find a letter from Genl Caldwell, formaly [sic] Col. of the 11th.”
Writing to Coburn from St. Helena Island, S.C. on Tuesday, Feb. 24, Maine surgeon Nathan F. Blunt reported “that Maj. W[inslow]. P. Spofford of [the] 11th Regt. is desirous of getting the command of a Regt. of Blacks.
In Blunt’s “opinion, after an acquaintance [with Spofford] in camp and field, of several months, he is well qualified for the position which he seeks both as a man, and an officer,” Blunt wrote. “And while I should regret to lose his influence for good in this Regt, perhaps the good of the service would be better promoted by giving him full command of a new regiment as he wishes.”
Meanwhile, a 12th Maine Infantry officer had already evaluated fledgling black regiments, as “the following extract of a letter to Mr. Samuel Dickey (Dicker) of Orono from his son” revealed in the Monday, Dec. 15, 1862 Bangor Daily Whig and Courier.
Writing from Camp Parapet in Louisiana on Thursday, Nov. 13, 1862, Corp. John A. Dicker reported that “the [black] 1st Louisiana regiment is … now away on the expedition. Sergeant Hill and Corporal (Marcena C.) Gray, from our company, have lieutenants’ commissions in that regiment.
“The [black] 2nd Louisiana regiment is in this brigade,” he wrote. “It is a good-looking regiment, with full ranks. Two full companies of cavalry have been mustered … and from twelve to fifteen hundred [black soldiers] have enlisted in our Northern regiments.”
Dicker had studied the new recruits’ military potential. “These black regiments are composed of smart men, and I believe just as good men to fight as we have” in the 12th Maine and other state regiments, he told his father. “They learn quick, and take pride in doing their duty well. They are as brave as any white men.
“Indeed, the only trouble with these regiments will be, they will show the rebels no quarter if they get [them] into their hands,” Dicker explained. “They understand their position well, and know that, if they be taken, instant death would be their fate.”
Responding to the outrage and fear of facing escaped slaves in combat, Southern leaders ordered that captured black soldiers be enslaved immediately. Many local military leaders claimed their men would execute white officers captured while leading black troops. Such atrocities did occur; Ireland, Patten, and Spofford knew the possible death sentences awaiting them if they transferred to a black regiment.
Discussing the black Louisiana soldiers, Dicker informed his father that “they have taken up arms to free themselves, and it is freedom or death with them now.
“Will not such men fight?” he asked. “We shall see.”
Fight the black troops would, beginning at Port Hudson, La. on Wednesday, May 27, 1863. Union regiments gallantly, but uselessly charged Confederate entrenchments. Still led by black officers, the black soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards charged three times and lost almost 200 men.
The Union’s newest soldiers did not break the Confederate defenses that day, but neither did the attacking white regiments.
And “across the hilltops that meet the northern sky,” Union veterans could descry more “long moving lines of rising dust” as winter passed into spring 1863. Black Northerners were joining the fight, too, including black Mainers from the Midcoast.
The cavalry was on the way, “coming [for] our union to restore.”