Their ranks thinned by battle and disease by mid-November 1863, the worn-out veterans of the 5th and 6th Maine infantry regiments wanted to come home, if only for a few months.
So did their officers.
Col. Clark Edwards of the 5th Maine pled his case in a Thursday, Nov. 12 letter written to Gov. Abner Coburn from a “Camp in the Field.” Like the 6th Maine, Clark’s regiment had just survived the successful nighttime attack on a Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, Va.
“Through the severity of battles and active campaigning during the past two and [a] half years, this regiment has been greatly reduced in numbers,” Edwards wrote. Numbering almost 1,050 men in late June 1861, the 5th Maine was “scarcely able to furnish at this time 225 men for a fight.”
The muster rolls currently carried 491 soldiers, of whom “183 are absent on detached service, many of the latter I know to have been discharged or have died,” he informed Coburn.
The 5th Maine survivors were exhausted. “We have just been engaged in one of the most glorious actions of the war (and our 15th battle)[,] the late affair at Rappahannock Station,” Edwards wrote.
He then requested “that the influence of your excellency may be exerted with the Sect’y of War that this regiment may be ordered home to Maine for the purpose of recruiting its ranks.
“There is no doubt but such a measure would receive the hearty approbation of the division — corps —and any commander, assurances having even been given to such an effect,” Edwards wrote. “The influence [that] the presence of my regiment would exert in Maine this winter, would, I think, act strongly and favorably in filling, not only our own decimated ranks — but those of other Maine regiments.”
“At the special request of Col. Edwards,” 6th Maine chaplain Moses Kelly also penned a similar request to Coburn on Nov. 12. His letter encompassed “the return of these two regiments, the 5th and 6th, to Maine, for the purpose of recruiting.”
Kelly confidently wrote that Clark “has ascertained the sentiments of Brigade, Division & Corps Commanders, as well as those of Gen. Meade” in supporting the two regiments traveling to Maine for the winter. “Campaigning must soon be over & then the best campaign we can make will be, to fill up our ranks as fast as possible.”
On Monday, Nov. 23, “we, the undersigned Officers of the 6th Regt Maine Vols, remaining in the field,” asked Coburn if “this regiment may be called home to Maine for the purpose of recruiting its thinned ranks.
“An application from Your Excellency to the War Department at Washington for this purpose, would, we think meet with ready approval,” the officers indicated.
At Rappahannock Station the 6th Maine’s 342 officers and men had charged unsupported the two redoubts held by the 8th and 9th Louisiana infantry regiments. Other Union regiments followed the 6th Maine, which suffered 139 casualties (41 percent of the men who launched the charge).
Now “as we look upon our depleted ranks, once so full and strong, now, alas! reduced by well fought battles,” the letter’s signers “cannot but sincerely wish, that they could be filled up by the strong arms of liberty loving volunteers from the dear old pine tree state, whose Sons have ever been found in the front rank of our Armies.
“That this can be done more promptly by the Regt being in Maine, cannot be doubted,” the letter continued. “Our hearts assure us, that the rallying cry of the old 6th, would bring hundreds of brave hearts flocking around our standard …”
Like Edwards, the 6th Maine officers presented the numerical facts to Coburn. Only 300 men were “present, and of that number only two hundred and twenty, can be called into action.” That number could “safely be spared from the Army” for “a few short months of winter.”
The officers who signed this letter were not cowards seeking escape from combat; excluding the chaplain, the quartermaster, and the surgeon and assistant surgeon, these men had charged up and over the redoubt parapets at Rappahannock Station.
That same day — and perhaps in a coordinated effort with the 6th Maine officers — 52 Machias men appended their signatures to a similar letter to Coburn. “Having reason to believe that the War Department would cheerfully comply with a request from you,” the signers asked Coburn “to allow the ‘Sixth Regiment of Maine Volunteers’ to come home, and recruit their decimated ranks.
“Believing that a visit from the surviving heroes of that noble Regiment, would cause fresh enthusiasm for enlistments among their friends in Eastern Maine, [we] respectfully request you to make such application,” the letter indicated.
Despite the military and civilian appeals, the War Department refused to release the two Maine regiments. Too many other state regiments had gone home after their members completed obligatory terms of service.
The 5th and 6th Maine must remain in Virginia for the coming winter.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.