Mangled by a Confederate cannonball in 1862, Jonathan Prince Cilley settled into a cushy War Department desk job in Washington, D.C. in early winter 1863.
Other physically intact officers desired such an assignment far from combat’s fickle fortunes. No desk jockey caught an enemy bullet, much less a cannonball like the solid shot that had shattered Cilley’s right shoulder at Middletown, Va.
Now a major in the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment, Cilley preferred to sit out the war in the saddle, not in a bureaucrat’s rickety chair. He liked the idea of serving with the 1st Maine Cav, which had recently fought at Brandy Station and Aldie in Virginia.
The latter battle had killed Col. Calvin Douty, the regiment’s commanding officer. Writing from Washington on Saturday, June 20, Cilley cited Douty’s death as a good reason for Maine Gov. Abner Coburn to restore Cilley to combat duty.
“In filling this [Douty’s] vacancy I earnestly and sincerely, Governor, ask your attention to my claims for promotion” that Cilley had filed with any Maine official who might help him, including Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.
At a previous meeting with Coburn, Cilley had “proposed this question to you: If after my return to active service I should act as bravely and efficiently as Lt. Col. [Charles] Smith (the 1st Maine’s temporary commander), so that there should be no preference on that score, and a vacancy should occur in the Colonelcy, whether I should have under the circumstances any claim to promotion?”
Cilley then reminded Coburn that “you with proper caution replied you should have to wait the actual occurrence of such an event, before you could rightly give a decision.
“The sudden death of Col. Douty, before my return to field service precludes my claiming the position of Colonel, but I do think I have a claim to the position of Lieut. Colonel,” Cilley wrote.
Then he laid bare his soul. Despite his terrible wound and the Army’s subsequent decision to involuntarily retire him for medical disability, Cilley had lobbied for reinstatement with the 1st Maine Cavalry. That request granted, he soon realized that Army brass viewed him as a cripple not worth promoting.
That insight stung.
“Is it fair, right, or just that a wound received in the line of my duty, and in the service of my country, should be the means of my disgrace, a bar to any means of promotion?” he asked Coburn.
The “Government … has take careful care of; promoted, and heaped honor upon her wounded soldiers,” Cilley pointed out. “Why should there be an exception made in my case, and my wound bar me from advancement, and send up any [and] all hopes of honor and usefulness.
“I know my wound has been a severe one, but should that fact be the means of bringing more disgrace upon me, of laying me on the shelf in the springtime of my youth (he was 28) and health, and the very time a man would wish to live that desires to serve his country,” Cilley wrote.
“Governor, please make my case your own,” he begged Coburn.
Then Cilley explained why he wanted to rejoin the right.
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” Cilley figuratively wrote, referring to a quote attributed to God in Romans 12:19.
Twenty-five years earlier first-term Maine Congressman Jonathan Prince Cilley — now a proud “Senior” since the birth of his namesake son — had on the floor of the House publicly excoriated James Webb, a New York-based newspaper editor. Among the representatives serving in Congress that year was Kentuckian William Graves, a Webb ally and friend.
Angered by the speech, Graves challenged Cilley to a duel. Cilley could have declined, but he, Graves, and their seconds dutifully trekked to the Bladensburg (Md.) Dueling Grounds, site of some 50 duels over the years.
The duel took place on Saturday, Feb. 24, 1838. Armed with dueling pistols, Cilley and Graves fired twice at each other and missed. On the third attempt, Graves wounded Cilley in the leg; he bled to death.
His young son, only 3 in 1838, heard the tale repeatedly while growing up in Thomaston. Perhaps his mother instilled in the young Jonathan Prince a desire to avenge his father’s murder; now was the time to do so, he told Coburn.
“Your father has been killed at the very entrance of public life,” Cilley wrote, referring to family history. “Years after, just as you are attaining the full powers of manhood, the same influence that slew your father seeks to destroy the life of your Country.
“You joyfully rush to its aid, glad of the opportunity to avenge the death of your father, and to serve your native land, you are wounded: laid on the shelf; passed by, others passed over you, and your high hopes of usefulness and renown destroyed,” Cilley related his wartime service.
“Is such a just reward for those who peril their lives that their country may live?” he asked Coburn. “My character as an Officer and a man, is I think, high and honorable.
“I beg, Governor, a careful and friendly consideration of my claim to the Lieut. Colonelcy of the Regiment,” Cilley concluded.
Coburn did not grant that request, but if Jonathan Prince Cilley sought return to combat status, to the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment in the field he would go.
And his vengeance he would have. The Confederacy would hear from him repeatedly by April 9, 1865.