A war of words erupted in a Bangor newspaper in spring 1863 after an Army chaplain allegedly insulted the 26th Maine Infantry Regiment.
For the use of one word in a letter written to the Daily Whig & Courier, the Rev. John K. Lincoln earned righteous indignation from a Castine resident.
A Bangor Theological Seminary graduate, Lincoln served as chaplain to the fledgling 22nd Maine Infantry Regiment. Not needed in Virginia after mustering into service in October 1862, the regiment soon shipped to Louisiana.
There the 22nd Maine boys — along with comrades in the 12th Maine and 26th Maine — chased a Confederate army led by Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor. Union troops traipsed across south Louisiana and finally trapped their quarry at Franklin — or so believed their commander, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks.
Assigned to a division commanded by Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover, the three Maine regiments went ashore on Grand Lake near Franklin on Monday, April 13. The Union troops soon reached Franklin, where Chaplain Lincoln picked up the story in a letter written on April 22 to the Daily Whig & Courier.
The paper published his lengthy treatise on Friday, May 8.
The 22nd Maine belonged to the First Brigade. After landing near Franklin, the brigade pushed south toward the town as other Union troops slowly disembarked from their transports. Confederate soldiers lightly contested the advance; “here for the first time we heard the ‘whistling of bullets’ and the ‘screeching of shells’” fired from two Confederate cannons, according to Lincoln.
He described the gunfire as “music with which we became quite familiar the rest of the day.”
With his division finally ashore, Grover pushed his men south to Bayou Teche, where they seized a bridge before Confederates could burn it. Most regiments crossed the bridge and camped that night on the Teche’s west bank.
The next morning, Grover planned to follow a road downstream along Bayou Teche and occupy Franklin. Doing so would hopefully trap Taylor’s army between that town and Fort Bisland to the southeast; there Taylor had skillfully held off two divisions led by Banks on Monday afternoon.
Aware that Grover had landed behind him, Taylor bandoned Fort Bisland Monday night and pushed his men northwest to confront Grover.
Tuesday “was the memorable day … ushered in by a gunboat fight” on Grand Lake, Lincoln said. Two months earlier, Confederate troops had captured the USS Queen of the West on the Red River; now “the [CSS] Queen of the West and a transport loaded with troops came down” Grand Lake “to attack our rear,” he reported.
The USS Arizona, USS Calhoun, and USS Estrella attacked the Confederate ships, and “a well-directed shell from the Estrella (commanded by Captain Tinker of Ellsworth, Me.), entered a small magazine on the [Queen’s] gun-deck, and blew off her upper works and set on fire,” Lincoln wrote.
Meanwhile, Grover’s Third Brigade led the advance toward Franklin. Perhaps a mile north of the town, the brigade faced south while starting started across “an open corn and cane field,” according to Lincoln. He described the brigade’s disposition as “the 13th Connecticut on the left side of the road, between it and the bayou; the 26th Maine on the right hand side, on the right of which was the 159th New York,” then an artillery battery. “On the extreme right was the 25th Connecticut.”
Spread out behind the Third Brigade was the First Brigade, to which belonged the 1st Louisiana, the 22nd Maine, and three New York regiments: the 6th, 91st, and 131st.
Commanded by Taylor, Confederate troops waited in Nerson’s Woods just beyond the cane field left muddy by recent rains. Coordinating his actions with the CSS Diana, a gunboat now trapped on Bayou Teche, Taylor ordered his men to attack. The CSS Diana shelled the Union troops.
Screaming the Rebel yell, Louisiana and Texas infantry struck the Third Brigade. The 159th New York boys fought bravely, but briefly, before breaking. Other regiments — including the 26th Maine — hastily pulled back.
“Not until our right [flank] was turned by a charge of the Texans on the 25th Connecticut, was the 1st Brigade ordered into the field,” Linoln wrote afterwards. “The 91st New York, supported by the 22nd Maine, drove back the Texans with a single volley.”
Across the road the 13th Connecticut captured “two pieces of artillery and a beautiful silk flag which was presented to them by the ladies of Franklin,” Lincoln noted. Confederate troops swiftly withdrew; with CSS Diana shells whizzing overhead, Grover delayed his advance for a while.
Taylor and his men got away. Crewmen aboard the CSS Diana burned their gunboat and fled.
With the battle over, “our loss in killed and wounded was less than three hundred” (actually about 350), according to Lincoln. Among the latter was the 26th Maine’s Lt. Col. Philo Hersey, badly wounded in his right shoulder. Including Hersey, the regiment suffered 68 casualties.
“The killed were all decently buried. The ten killed from the 26th Maine were all buried side by side in one grave,” Lincoln wrote. He then poignantly described how “brother soldiers from various regiments gathered around the grave while Chaplain Brookes offered a most impressive prayer.”
Lincoln proudly reported that “no troops behaved better under fire than our Maine boys. “The 26th, though routed and their ranks broken, retired a short distance, when ordered to do so, in the most cool and even mulish (stubborn) manner.
“They would not run,” he stressed.
On Friday, May 15, the Daily Whig & Courier published a letter to Editor William H. Wheeler from an unidentified 26th Maine aficionado. The writer took strong issue with Lincoln’s assessment of the regiment’s performance at Irish Bend.
Quoting Lincoln’s two sentences referring to the regiment, the writer stressed that “there are those who feel an especial interest in the 26th regiment. The writer parsed the meaning of “rout” and used Lincoln’s words to explained that “certainly, this was very far from a rout.
“No account which I have read refers to any rout of the troops,” the letter writer sniffed. Quoting correspondents from the Boston Journal and the New Orleans Era, he — the letter reeks of masculine indignation — claimed that maneuvers conducted at Irish Bend by Union regiments could have been “mistaken for a rout” and that “in all this there is nothing like a rout of the 26th.”
Seeking to out-eyewitness Lincoln, the letter writer quoted two letters from “the Rev. S. Bowker, Chaplain of the 26th,” to defend the sullied name of the 26th Maine. Published separately by the Ellsworth American and the Whig & Courier, the letters stressed that the Maine boys “stood their ground” and fought “most heroically.”
“Is this being routed?” the letter writer asked. “Let it be remembered that Mr. Bowker was on the [battle] ground.”
Take that, Rev. Lincoln: Were you shot at, too?
Then the writer quoted “the testimony of one who was in the thickest of the fight, who was more than a looker on … whose right hand and left hand man was severely wounded.” This unidentified soldier belonged to Co. E, 26th Maine; describing the Battle of Irish Bend in several sentences, he portrayed a heroic fight by his regiment.
“These men who are represented by the Boston [Journal] correspondent as firing so rapidly that their hands were burned and blistered by the heat of their guns, not one quailing, would be greatly surprised to find themselves reported as having been routed,” the writer concluded.
The Whig & Courier listed his municipality of abode as Castine.
Meanwhile, Gen. Nathaniel Banks filed a report about the Battle of Irish Bend. Although not “a looker on,” he relied on reports from Grover and his brigade and regimental commanders to ascertain that “in their retreat,” fleeing soldiers from the 159th New York “swept over the position of the 26th Maine and the 25th Connecticut and carried these already shaken regiments with them, in some natural disorder.”
Banks denigrated the same 26th Maine boys praised effusively by Lincoln — and Lincoln caught Castine criticism for doing so.
Such was life on the Bangor printed page in May 1863.