The Long March

After the Army of Northern Virginia disappeared from its central Virginia fortifications in early June 1863, Union troops soon started an epic series of marches north. Across the Piedmont went almost the entire Army of the Potomac, including the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment. Exemplifying the Federal soldiers who hurried to meet Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, these re-enactors march out to fight during the 150th anniversary Battle of Antietam in Maryland. (Brian Swartz Photo)

“Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching” in late June 1863 as Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac chased the Pennsylvania-bound Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Somewhere on the wretched Piedmont roads tramped the men belonging to the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment, mustered into federal service at Portland two years earlier. In the ranks was 1st Lt. George Waters Bicknell, a Topsham native who had joined Co. H as a private.

A Westbrook Seminary graduate, Bicknell had displayed considerable leadership and organizational skills early in the war. Now a first lieutenant, he served as the regimental adjutant in spring 1863.

In his 1871-published “History of the Fifth Maine Regiment Volunteers,” Bicknell recalled that weeks-long tramp from the Rappahannock River to Plum Creek, a massive maneuver that should have gone down into history as the Long March.

According to Bicknell, the 5th Maine completed “a tour of picket duty” on Saturday, June 6, and the weary soldiers returned to their month-old camp “near White Oak Church” in Virginia. The boys had welcomed the picket duty; “quietly [had] the days rolled by,” and for the bored soldiers, nothing “could scarcely be more tedious than laying idly in camp,” he recalled.

Simultaneously with the 5th Maine’s arrival in camp “came the order to strike tents and pack up preparatory to another forward movement,” Bicknell noted. On Sunday “the line of march was taken up”; soldiers quickly realized they were returning to Fredericksburg.

There, with “the pontoon bridges being in readiness, the regiment crossed [the Rappahannock River] at the same old place, this time unmolested, though not unnoticed,” he recalled.

Confederate troops deployed along the Fredericksburg heights had strenuously resisted previous Union crossings. After sunrise on Monday, June 8, “though the enemy could be plainly seen upon the surrounding heights, holding with quite a force their former entrenchments and fortifications,” Maine soldiers “spent the entire day” unmolested while “throwing up breastworks, digging rifle pits, and putting several guns into position,” Bicknell noticed.

Upon the heights, Confederate troops gathered individually or collectively to watch the Federals work with pick and shovel. “The mystery of their silence no one could seem to understand,” Bicknell commented. The Johnnies watched, but they did not shoot.

“Why they let our men quietly entrench themselves, when it lay within their power to put them to a great deal of inconvenience, seemed strange at the time,” Bicknell mused.

But not for long. The Confederates watching the Yankees watching them had orders not to pick a fight. Robert E. Lee had already started the Army of Northern Virginia on its epic march across the Blue Ridge to the Shenandoah Valley. To deceive Hooker and the Army of the Potomac, Lee left strong — and highly visible — contingents along the Rappahannock “to hold our corps there in order to prevent its interference with any rebel plans or movements,” Bicknell later realized.

The 5th Maine boys found life “all quiet on the Rappahannock” on Tuesday and Wednesday, he recalled. Then tension suddenly swept the Union fortifications on Thursday; “orders were received to march at short notice,” Bicknell said.

By now, and many miles to the north and west, probing Union cavalry patrols had detected Lee’s large-scale movement. The Confederates had come out of their entrenchments to carry the fight to Hooker, but where did Lee intend to strike?

Not at Fredericksburg.

After dark on Saturday, June 13, “definite orders came, and the march commenced,” according to Bicknell.

For the next 2½ weeks, the 5th Maine Infantry and many other Maine outfits — artillery, infantry, and the vaunted 1st Maine Cavalry — would participate in the Long March, a tri-state pursuit of the Confederate legions maneuvering to invade Pennsylvania. This march became legend even as tired, footsore boys in blue angled ever northward to try and catch Lee before his men captured Harrisburg or Philadelphia.

Union soldiers chomped at the bit. “The men were very impatient. Go anywhere, get anywhere, rather than stay upon that [Rappahannock] plain,” Bicknell explained.

Sheltered by darkness so that they “might not be discovered by the watchful though evidently lazy rebs,” the Union troops recrossed the river and marched “all night long,” he said.

So began the Long March, actually “a long series of hard marches” that would “test the endurance of the men,” Bicknell recalled.

On Monday morning the 5th Maine boys reached Strafford Court House and halted there only two hours before resuming the march. “The weather was now very hot,” and “the men were … suffering with sore and blistered feet,” Bicknell reported. “Some received sun-strokes which incapacitated them for service for considerable time.”

Onward the 5th Maine marched, reaching Fairfax Court House on Tuesday, June 16, to enjoy a day’s respite. Rousted from slumber before dawn on Thursday, Bicknell and his companions headed to Chantilly to camp “in a beautiful grove” and “enjoy a little peace and quiet” for several days.

Except for listening to a distant cavalry fight, the 5th Maine boys relaxed. But “on the evening of” Thursday, June 25, “down came the tents, knapsacks were packed, and amid a severe rain-storm, the regiment marched to Fairfax Station,” Bicknell remembered.

The troops had deployed to meet an expected Confederate attack. When that did not occur, “and after waiting as patiently as men hungry, tired, sleepy, and wet could do,” the Maine boys “resumed their march back to the former camp-ground, amid the darkness, rain, and mud,” he said.

The exhausted soldiers had “scarcely … got into a position in which to rest, before orders were issued” to resume the pursuit of Lee. “A hasty meal was taken,” and at 3 a.m., Friday, June 26, “the troops were again on the tramp,” Bicknell recalled.

Although the Fifth Maine Infantry Regiment did not arrive at Gettysburg until 4 p.m., Thursday, July 2, 1863, the unit’s survivors ensured in the 1880s that a large monument was erected at the site of the regiment’s camp between Cemetery Ridge to the north and Little Round Top to the south. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The Long March resumed with a vengeance. “Now followed a series of forced marches, which have never been excelled, even if they have ever been equalled (sic) in the history of American campaigning,” Bicknell later wrote.

“All the [Friday] morning, all day long the rain poured and the men tramped, tramped, marching that day 25 miles, and this following a sleepless night,” he said. “The men were very, very tired.”

And they stayed tired as the 5th Maine formed into “line at three o’clock in the morning” on June 27 “and marched fifteen miles” before” crossing the Potomac river on pontoon bridges,” according to Bicknell.

On Sunday “a march of twenty miles was made … and at night the regiment went into camp near Hyattsville,” Md., he recalled. At 2:30 a.m., Monday, June 29, “the command was again aroused, and without any delay, proceeded at once upon the road.”

That day the 5th Maine boys tramped 17 miles, took a break while “a hasty breakfast was prepared,” and marched another eight miles to camp that night deeper in Maryland.

“The country round about was most beautiful,” and “the farm houses and everything around them, indicated thrift and prosperity,” Bicknell noticed. “A sight met the eye here, which did the hearts of the Maine boys much good.

“It was a modern school-house. So seldom had one of those New England institutions been seen since the regiment left home, that the appearance of this one excited considerable comment and remark,” he remembered.

On Tuesday, June 30, “the regiment was again upon the move,” Bicknell said. Cheered and fed by adoring civilians, the Maine boys tramped 25 miles, passing through Westminster before setting up camp near Manchester, Md.

Not yet over, the Long March had taken its toll on the 5th Maine. “Feet were blistered. Frames were sore and weary,” Bicknell recalled. The regiment spent Wednesday, July 1 in the camp, “until about nine o’clock in the evening, when orders came to march at once for Gettysburg.”

Their tummies full from a good supper, most of the Maine boys “had lain down for a good night’s rest,” but when ordered to strike the tents and prepare to march, “they seemed ready for the work.” While “the air was hot and sultry,” the 5th Maine soldiers knew “that the enemy had invaded northern soil.

“They had contaminated with their presence, the pure atmosphere of freedom,” Bicknell said.

So at 9 p.m., the 5th Maine stepped out on the last leg of the Long March. Bungled orders sent the entire Sixth Corps on the wrong road, an error soon corrected; while “this night’s march was one of the most severe of the campaign,” Bicknell and his comrades tramped …

… and tramped and tramped and tramped. They marched 40 miles in 19 hours without a halt “long enough to make a drop of coffee,” Bicknell recalled. Munching on hard tack, the Union troops staggered through the hot Wednesday night and past dawn on Thursday, July 2. Many men actually fell asleep while marching.

“The day following the night found the boys still marching,” Bicknell said. Suddenly they heard “the distant roar of cannon” supposedly “in the vicinity of Gettysburg.

“Now a thrill of interest sweeps through their frames,” he remembered. “One, two, three o’clock in the afternoon, and still the corps was moving on toward Gettysburg. The conflict seemed nearer. New strength seemed imparted to the men.”

Finally the Maine boys completed the Long March. “Four o’clock, and the Sixth Corps led by the Fifth Maine Regiment, arrived at Gettysburg,” Bicknell reported.

He looked back along the dust-covered infantrymen, back along their “continuous march of nearly forty miles in nineteen hours, and all this after the forced marches of nearly a week.

“The Fifth Maine was still in the advance. As our lines came up, the news spread like wildfire throughout the army, and cheer after cheer ran along the lines,” Bicknell proudly reported. “The men seemed wild with excitement. “Drums beat, colors were flying — it was a season of rejoicing. The long weary miles were all forgotten.”

The Long March was over.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.